Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Celery sticks, yoga classes and all time best movies

One of my "favourite" heuristics (rules of thumb) that normal people use is the "availability heuristic".  This explains that people will use whatever is available, whether that's physically available or mentally.

Sometimes I call this the "coffee book" or "bump into" effect. If you put something on a coffee table, like a newspaper, a magazine, or brochures for yoga classes, it's highly likely that you will pick it up and have a look.

If you want celery sticks, don't leave out the chocolate

The same happens if you put a bowl of M&Ms on the kitchen bench, or a plate of celery sticks.  If it's there, you'll most probably eat it.

Having just left the Christmas season behind us, I'm sure you can recognise the lure of the little bowls of peanuts/potato chips/jelly beans etc. If your Christmas is anything like ours, there weren't any plates of celery sticks! They were hidden away in the fridge, inside the vegetable crisper requiring the average person to 1. go to the fridge 2. open the fridge, 3. open the crisper 4. take the celery out of the bag. That's a lot of steps compared to grabbing a handful of sweets as you walk past.

Likewise, if you want to read a book or a magazine article, leave it out on the bench. Yes, I know it might be a challenge for clean freaks, but you don't read what isn't available. Think of how many times you will pick something up, just because it's there.

So, if you want to sign up for yoga, leave the brochure lying around. This is also an effective way to influence others in your house.  Just leaving material lying around sharply increases the chance that it will be read, and therefore acted upon.

The best movies are the ones you can remember

Have you ever tried to compile your list of the best movies, best songs, or best footballers. Typically, the experts, such as the American Film Institute, will compile a list that covers many decades and treats each movie with an equal chance of being selected. In fact, the AFI's 2005 list doesn't have one movie in its top 10 that is less than 10 years old. (

In contrast, take a few lists compiled by a popular vote by non experts. The Empire poll has 20% of its top 20 from the last 10 years ( and 35% of the Lifehack list by a populist writer were in the past 20 years (

Of course, these stats aren't at the level of statistical purity that we can be sure they prove the point, but then again, they are consistent with what we know about availability, and they help to illustrate the principle. If a movie is old, like Citizen Kane, which is no. 1 on the AFI list, it is often left off the other "all time" lists because of a lack of mental availability.  In contrast, the number of dubious modern selections on all of these "all time" lists makes the principle of the availability heuristic easy to identify!

Caddyshack, really, in the top 20 films of all time??

Watch the chocolates and the lists

If you don't pay attention to what is available to you, physically and mentally, you aren't taking notice of the effects of the availability heuristic.  Put the things you want to attend to front and centre. If you want to eat chocolates, make them accessible. If you don't, then hide them away AND replace them with celery sticks.

If you want to compile a list, be aware that the lazy system of your brain will grab the most recent items it can remember and convince you that is the list. It almost certainly isn't, so put in strategies to work around that bias.

...and my top movie, The Usual Suspects.
OK, so it isn't really, but American Hustle reminded me of it (availability) and Keyzer Soze is sooo much better a character than anyone in this year's Golden Globe winner!!

Let me know what you think

Mark S

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