The Public, The Experts, and The Availability Cascade

Whose opinion is more valid on the issues that society faces? The public or the experts? Should lawmakers and politicians defer to the analysis of the experts or the outcry of the public? And why does this happen?

With the rise of social media, the public (in combination with the news media) has more power than ever to set the agenda. Lawmakers and politicians can be more reactive to what consumes the news feeds rather than proactively setting an agenda based on expert analysis. What issues are most important? What are we morally outraged about today?

For example, single-use plastic straws have been the source of much outcry in the past few years leading to their ban or phase-out by many cities, states, and corporations. Objectively, plastic straws pollute the ocean, end up in drinking water, and harm wildlife. On the flip side, plastic straws only make up less than 1% of the ocean’s pollution (Jordan, 2018). An expert may point out the statistics and suggest that we go after the bigger sources of pollution to have the greatest impact. However, the public sees images of sea turtles with plastic embedded, which strikes fear and emotion, resulting in a national movement. This illustrates how the public coupled with news media outlets can drive the political agenda. But is this a bad thing?

What is the Availability Cascade?
In Daniel Kahneman’s book titled, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, he explains the concept of the “availability cascade”. The availability cascade is a term used to describe the mechanism of how biases flow into policy. The availability cascade results when for example, a news media outlet reports on a minor incident, which strikes public fear or panic, and leads to government intervention. Items of higher importance fade to the background as the public focuses their attention on the issue that invokes an emotional response. Elected officials face pressure to react to the public concerns.

It can be argued that “availability” (or how frequently your brain recalls a particular event) is the most powerful bias. For example, if a person’s daily social media feed exposes them to the imagery of plastic straws killing marine animals, they may be more inclined to think that straws are a bigger issue than in reality, and insist that we need to do something NOW to regulate single-use plastic.

This scenario is just one example of how availability impacts public policy.

The Importance of Public Concern
As a nation we value democracy. And even if the public’s concerns are not as pressing of an issue in comparison to what the expert agendas are outlining, it does not discredit the concerns of the public. Fear in of itself is a real issue whether or not the fear is rational. So, if the public is fearful of the long-term impacts of straws on marine life, it is a legitimate problem that needs to be acknowledged by lawmakers and politicians.

Take domestic terrorism for instance. The likelihood of being a victim in a domestic terrorism event is small compared to the chances of being a victim in a vehicle accident. The chances of a person dying in a wreck are way higher than dying in a terrorist attack in the US. But, the fear of the public is legitimate and has real psychological effects on society. Fear itself is a threat on our society.

What About the Experts?
Experts tend to look at problems in terms of measurable results such as the amount of money saved or the amount of people effected by a problem. The solutions proposed by experts may not align with the values of the public. For example, in Vietnam, the experts reported that we were winning the war because there were more Vietnamese casualties than US casualties (1.1M N. Vietnamese compared to 58K Americans, Spector, 2020). However, the value that we as the public put on a human life is not measurable. The public doesn’t see numbers, they see sons and daughters, fathers and mothers.

Who Should We Listen To?
There is no perfect answer to the question of who lawmakers should defer to. They should listen to both. The expert’s calculations should be considered in tandem with the public’s concerns. However, if we want to decrease the occurrence of the “availability cascade” then we need to look at how media is regulated. Currently, algorithms of news sites and social media can have a significant increase on the availability bias. For example, the news that is shown to one person can be significantly different than the news that is reported to another. My news feed is cluttered with environmental impacts and inequity in society which reinforces my concern and outrage on these topics. But I have talked to people of the opposite party who are completely unaware of these issues because algorithms have decided that they are not interested in this news so therefore do not see them, and I have found that I’m unaware of issues that are important to them.

Is There Any Hope?
We are just now starting to see traction on the regulation of AI in Congress which may eventually help in reducing the biases that are fed to us. Recently, congress has proposed the first regulation on AI called the Algorithmic Accountability Act that would require big companies to audit their machine-learning systems for bias and discrimination and take corrective actions, especially in terms of the human resources field. This is just the first bill of a larger strategy to regulate AI and reduce the spread of misinformation and even “deep fakes”. Unfortunately, this technical topic is not widely understood among lawmakers and will take some time to gain the traction and the comprehension needed. (Hao, 2019)

For now, we are stuck with the availability heuristic and cascades. The only way to counteract the bias is to know that it exists within yourself and correct it internally.

Management Consultant in the Bay Area | BBA | MPA — University of San Francisco |

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