Stuck in the slow lane: A cosmic conspiracy

Stuck in the slow lane: A cosmic conspiracy
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First Published: Mon, Apr 23 2007. 03 25 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Apr 23 2007. 03 25 AM IST
Have you been to a mall store where there were several check-out counters, and you wanted to pick one with the fastest-moving queue so that you could be out of the store in the least possible time? But just as you pick a lane, you discover that practically every other lane is moving faster than yours! No matter what strategy you use to pick your lane, you just cannot pick the right one. How come you have this uncanny ability to always get stuck in the slowest-moving lane?
Or consider another situation: On your way from home to work, don’t you feel that you get more than your fair share of traffic red lights? It is almost as if the traffic light on an intersection has to turn red just before you get to the intersection! Why does it feel like the gods of chance are working overtime to insert these little inconveniences in your life?
The explanation behind these experiences is quite simple. Of all the situations we experience in our daily lives, those that cause aggravation stand out in our memory. These instances become more available for recall, thereby causing what is known as the availability bias.
This bias results from people thinking that instances that are more “available” to them (easier to recall) happen with a greater frequency than others that are less available. In other words, the frequency of an occurrence is often estimated on the basis of how easy it is to recall the event, instead of on the basis of it actually taking place. This bias is universal and nearly everyone feels that queues slow down after they join them, or that they get stuck at every traffic light, whereas others seem to cruise by. While a careful empirical analysis of every queue you have joined will show that you are not a victim of a vast natural conspiracy, you naturally remember all those instances where the queue slowed down after you joined it. Since you expect queues to be reasonably fast-moving and painless, you don’t remember all those instances where the queue you joined went faster than others or was just as fast as others. Your memory is filled with every instance where you seethed in frustration as the person in the front of the queue had an unusual problem that took much longer to resolve than usual. As a result, over time, you come to believe that you have this almost spiritual ability to pick the queue that is most likely to slow down.
Another manifestation of the availability bias occurs when people overestimate the probability of a specific event compared with that of a more generic event of which the specific event is a subset. This happens because the specific event is easi
er to imagine or recall compared with the more generic event. For example, say, you work in Delhi and have to attend a corporate meeting in Mumbai the next morning at 9am. Estimate the probability of your being late for the meeting. Now, let’s make this event more specific. What are the chances that because of a mechanical problem, your flight takes off two hours late, thereby delaying your arrival for the meeting? Research has shown that people tend to assign a greater probability to the second, more specific scenario, even though it is a subset of the first scenario (in addition to the flight being late, there can be dozens of other reasons for your delay—the alarm didn’t work, you got stuck in a traffic jam, your luggage got stolen, your spouse announced her intent to divorce you just as you were stepping out of the house…you get the idea).
Here’s another simple test to see how this bias works. In the next 60 seconds, come up with as many seven-letter words in the English language with “n” as the sixth letter (_ _ _ _ _ n _), as you can. We suggest you actually take a minute and write down these words before reading further. Now, write down all the seven-letter words in the English language ending with “ing” (_ _ _ _ ing). Even though the second group of letters is a subset of the first, people can come up with more words fitting the latter pattern than the former. In your little experiment, chances are that you came up with a much longer list for the second set!
As consumers, we become victims of the availability bias every time we place more importance on vivid information. You can probably think of instances when a friend’s vivid description of problems he had with a brand of TV convinced you not to buy that brand despite reports that the brand was among the most reliable in the market.
So, how do you protect yourself from this bias? Any time you start feeling that a particular event is happening with a frequency greater than warranted by mere chance, make a conscious effort to recognize instances when the event did not occur despite a probability of occurrence. This can help provide a counterbalance in your “portfolio” of events from which you recall specific outcomes. In management decision making, knowledge of this bias may help you to compare the vivid information before you to more objective information that may be obtainable with a little effort.
Next time when you are standing in a queue that’s moving fast, make a mental note of it so that you can later savour this pleasant experience while inevitably waiting in the slow lane in the future!
(Praveen Aggarwal is an associate professor of marketing at the Labovitz School of Business & Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Rajiv Vaidyanathan is a professor of marketing and director of MBA programmes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.)
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First Published: Mon, Apr 23 2007. 03 25 AM IST
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