top of page

Availability Cascade and The Power of Others Ideas

This might surprise some of my readers, but I don't digest the news very much. Wait, what do you mean? I mean, I don't tune into news stations on any regular to semi regular basis or subscribe to any news source. Most of the news I hear about comes from word of mouth or media storms so big I can't ignore them. Yes, this leaves me ignorant of many things that occur in the world around me, but I have found that this hasn't impacted my life to any significant degree. Yes, I don't have current news items to discuss around the office watering hole, but as I said, it hasn't impacted my life to any significant degree.

Since college, information overload is something I have taken seriously. I apply the brain attic idea to my day to day life. In A Study In Scarlet, Watson is surprised by how ignorant Holmes is about things that primary school students would understand. Holmes gives him his idea about the matter,

“I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” - A Study In Scarlet

Of course, the brain doesn't really work this way. The storage capacity of the brain is virtually limitless. As long as you bring yourself back to the things that are important, you don't really have to worry about having "too much" exposure to information. But, I have found it beneficial to take a step back from things that I don't use daily. The biggest benefit I have experienced involves the realization that more of my ideas and thinking originate from a place of deeper consideration and analysis. That is, many of my ideas now feel like they almost originate from me. I'm not arrogant enough to actually believe that I am an original thinker or that I somehow have a better approach for processing things than others. However, I do feel that when we are fed information consistently, we are more prone to believe it and comment on it. And that information can clutter our minds and leave us grasping at what's really important. Is there anything wrong with that?


Availability Cascade - The Challenge Of Taking In Information

Let's take a recent news story that has swept the news media worldwide. The Coronavirus has been an alarming news story for many people. This virus is unique because it has variations that cause symptoms ranging from a running nose to shortness of breath. Under certain circumstances it can result in death, which is why there is so much concern swirling around this news story. Despite the danger it presents, there are plenty of other things that kill more people than this virus has. For example, CDC reports the following information about the flu, "so far this season there have been at least 26 million flu illnesses, 250,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths from flu." Click Here for a link to their report. Compare that against the 1,357 deaths and over 60,000 confirmed cases. Click Here for a link to the story.

But with more reports about the virus and its impact throughout the earth, the more information gets spread about it. This of course feeds the media with more reasons to trend the story. This gives rise to more conversations about the matter and more time and energy devoted to the topic. More, more, more... Of course any virus that is slowly becoming a pandemic is of concern and I am in no way making light of how many lives have been lost to this outbreak. So what's my point?

I have observed something that happens a lot with major news stories like this one. The concept I am referring to is called ''availability cascade". Availability cascade occurs when someone shares their view with others and due to previous ignorance on the topic those that hear that view, adopt it as their own, then spread that new viewpoint.

Going back to the Coronavirus, the news coverage has been pretty big. I haven't encountered any scare tactics or overreach from any newsource covering this topic, which is a great thing. But the prevalence of reporting can sometimes serve to overstimulate audiences, leaving them with the impression that this story is the most important thing happening in the world. But often times, exposure to a topic can leave us feeling that we have insight about it. In turn, we share the ideas we have heard as though we came up with them or they are our own.

Personally, I feel very ignorant about how this virus actually works. I am no pathophysiologist and I am no epidemiologist, yet after hearing all the reports about it, I seem to know a lot about the subject. I can tell you how it spreads, why its called Coronavirus, and how to protect yourself from it. I find myself spouting facts that I have simply heard. Now this doesn't mean the things I am sharing are incorrect. Nor does it mean the news media is getting the story wrong. But I can say with certainty that I am telling people information that I am presuming to be correct.

People are like sponges. We tend to absorb information readily while simultaneously leaking it out. Of course taking a break from digesting news isn't the only way to come to a realization that we should be aware of how we are forming our viewpoints, why we are sharing certain pieces of information, and why our brains may be filled with data that doesn't really change our day to day lives. Here are some questions that I have found helpful in being careful with what information I allow myself to take in.

Will this information help me in my day to day life or is it information that is superfluous to my main goals and objectives?

When I hear a new piece of information, do I question its source and validity?

How much do I currently know about this topic aside from what I just heard?

Am I simply regurgitating things I have read or heard about without during further research on the topic?

Whether you choose to limit your news intake or not is not the important thing here. I am in no way advocating that people stop consuming news. The important thing is to be considerate to the views and ideas that you make your own. It's far too easy to take ideas that we have heard in passing, and adopt them as though they are our own. There is no harm in asking yourself why you believe something. Additionally, it's a sign of maturity and humility to question the world around us.