social sciences

Psychological tricks of the mind #1: recalling information

Unfortunately, we can’t objectively experience our environment. You’ll quickly notice this when talking to several people who went through the same thing, everyone filters the world around them differently. We also remember things differently. But we’re all susceptible to the same fallacies. Some of these fallacies shape the way we think about thinks. This can make us see and believe supernatural things or make us fall for superstitions. This is because we tend to recall things according to the availability heuristic.

We’re constantly filtering all the information we receive: sounds, words, visuals, images, etc. For instance, when we look at a skyline for awhile, most of us can’t perfectly recreate the image by drawing. You’ll probably end up with the most ‘important’ features, such as the outlines of the buildings. Each clouds’ positions or the small windows you won’t be able to remember. This is because the brain wants to be efficient in its information storing. It’s imperative, from an evolutionary standpoint, that we remember all the important stimuli. Often these are negative things. Negative things, such as losing money or getting insulted hurt us more than the joy we experience from getting the opposite. This is because we want to avoid negative outcomes as much as possible.

We tend to remember information that we think is important to us. But this doesn’t always give us an accurate representation what is happening in our lives. The selective way we recall and remember things are explained by the availability bias or heuristic. This is easily demonstrated by an example of visiting a medium. A medium can say a hundred things and half of them might be wrong. But the other half that is sort of applicable to use we remember. We quickly disregard everything that isn’t applicable. We might leave the medium feeling like they knew exactly what they were talking about, even if their hit rate was only 50%.

This bias shapes our lives in a lot of other different ways. It influences what we’re afraid of. The media can show us a lot of shocking imagery of events that are quite rare. But because we think it’s shocking and such events are so extensively covered we assume it’s very common. Thus the available information stored in our memories is filled with scary imagery of all the dangers that can happen to us. Think about a number of people that die in a fire every year. Almost every day we’re confronted with news of buildings catching fire and people dying as a result. But it turns out 0.55 out of 100,000 people died in a fire according to the mortality rates of 2002. People are more likely to die because of diseases like measles. Slowly, people are also starting to realize that you’re more likely to die as a result of being in a car crash as opposed to dying in a plane crash. But the imagery of planes crashing are more shocking and therefore are much easier to remember,

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive psychology5(2), 207-232.