Why do we buy lottery tickets every week when we all know the odds of winning the lottery jackpot are 14 million to one? Statistically, there’s more chance of being eaten by a shark.
The answer is because it cleverly exploits a simple weakness in the way the human mind works. Called the ‘availability bias’, it’s the tendency that we have to judge probabilities on the basis of how easily examples come to mind. So it doesn’t matter that the odds of winning the lottery are very long – every week we hear about yet another lucky jackpot winner. Hence, we assume that we’re much more likely to win than we really are.
There’s a well-known brand of cat food that eight out of ten owners say their cat prefers. That sounds like 80% of cats prefer it. But, of course, it just means that 80% of the 100 or so cat owners who took part in the survey think their cats prefer it. In other words, less than 0.01% of all cat owners say that their cats prefer it. Not as impressive when the stats are presented this way, is it?
When I speak at conferences and ask delegates to guess the percentage of UK households consisting of a husband, wife and two children – a boy and a girl as per the photo – they always overestimate wildly. This is because they are so used to seeing the ‘typical’ nuclear family in TV dramas and in advertising they think it’s more common than it really is. The actual figure is less than 4%.
So how can you exploit the ‘availability bias’ to influence the behaviour of others? Well, you can start by reminding them how common it is to benefit from what you want them to do. For example: ‘Join the thousands whose eyesight has already been restored with laser eye surgery’ might be your slogan if you’re a laser eye surgeon.
I very deliberately only do one public seminar each year in the UK (with Gavin Ingham). And it’s sold out (166 tickets) every year for five years. And we make great play of the fact that it sells out.
It positions both of us as top experts in our field. We are well known for always selling out. So we must be good…………
Blog written by Phil Hesketh. To read more on Phil click here
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