Is the World Going to Hell in a Hand-Basket?
The Availability Heuristic refers to a common mistake that our brains make by assuming that the examples that come to mind easily are also the most important or prevalent things.
For example, research by Steven Pinker at Harvard University has shown that we are currently living in the least violent time in history. There are more people living in peace right now than ever before. The rates of homicide, rape, sexual assault, and child abuse are all falling.
I know what you're thinking, "If this is the most peaceful time in history, why are there so many wars going on right now? Why do I hear about rape and murder and crime every day? Why is everyone talking about so many acts of terrorism and natural disasters?"
Enter, the availability heuristic.
The answer is that we are not only living in the most peaceful time in history, but also the best reported time in history. Information on any disaster or crime is more widely available than ever before. A quick search on the Internet will pull up more information about the most recent terrorist attack than any newspaper could have ever delivered 100 years ago.
The overall percentage of dangerous events is decreasing, but the likelihood that you hear about one of them (or many of them) is increasing. And because these events are readily available in our mind, our brains assume that they happen with greater frequency than they actually do.
Here's two examples. Are you currently thinking that construction cranes are toppling over and catching fire like never before? February 2nd, a crane collapse in New York, a crane fire in St. Kilda this week, and the crane collapse that bought Melbourne's roads to gridlock late last year. Perhaps even the crane collapse in Hornsby, Sydney, Australia, that has occurred whilst I was actually writing this article. If you have no interest in cranes, then maybe it appears to you that high vehicles are crashing into bridges at a rate like never before. See this, this, or this, or even this.
We overvalue and overestimate the impact of things that we can remember and we undervalue and underestimate the prevalence of the events we hear nothing about. So remember that statistics can sometimes refute what appears to us to be completely obvious, simply because of our skewed perspective courtesy of our modern 24/7 news cycle.