Like shark attack and the lottery, unconscious bias influences cancer screening

What do shark attack, the lottery and ovarian cancer screening having in common? It turns out our judgments about these things are all influenced by unconscious bias.

Humans are prone to overestimating the likelihood of extreme events. Blame it on availability bias – the tendency to judge the frequency of an event by how easy it is to recall examples from memory. Because you’ve seen Jaws and have daydreamed about what you would do with the Powerball jackpot (sure, you’d give half of it to charity…), it’s easy to pull up vivid, emotional representations of these events. The availability of these events in your mind overshadows the much more common, much more mundane reality that you have 1-in-292,201,338 chance of winning Powerball, and even among beachgoers, the chance of being attacked by a shark is only about 1-in-11,500,000. Still, availability bias makes you overestimate the likelihood of each, keeping you out of the water and in the corner store buying tickets.

Now a study published in the Journal of Women’s Health shows that availability bias may thumb the scale of a doctor’s cancer screening recommendations, as well. Survey results from 497 primary care physicians show that doctors who have


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