Availability bias

The price of gas is dropping like a rock. Some people say that it goes up faster than it comes down. That is not the experience of the past few days. The price has been dropping as I have been driving. Of course, I try to get gas at the cheapest places, so my pictures are biased.

All day today the sun and the clouds fought for dominance of the sky. When the clouds came in, it poured rain and then the sun came out, only to be followed again by clouds and rain.

It was also an interesting study in availability bias. I describe the sun-cloud-rain sequence, but I have pictures of the sun because it was too hard and uncomfortable to take pictures in the rain. Given time, the sunny-day/cheap gas narrative would come to dominate, since pictures seem more authentic than words.

This bias is often used offensively by manipulative media. You tell the story accurately, but show the picture of one part of the story.

I first recall this during the Reagan years, when economic news was good you would get a factual report that included lots of people still suffering. The pictures you remembered.

There is an informative case of this working the other way. Leslie Stahl wanted to do a hit piece on Reagan, contrasting his positive upbeat style with the suffering that remained. The words were negative, but the story was illustrated with a positive, smiling Ronald Reagan. Reagan praised the piece, which annoyed Stahl. He pointed out to her that nobody really heard her words, but they did see his pictures.

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