Have you ever wondered how a news story triggers a wave of public discussion of a topic that led to more stories and discussions on the topic in a way that eventually culminates in a call for legislation in order to deal with the topic at hand? Let’s find out how…
People are more likely to believe information that is readily available to them, as a certain stance becomes widely discussed people become more likely to accept it and spread it to others, which in turn makes it even more available, thus leading to a large-scale, self-perpetuating cycle that shapes public opinions. This is simply the concept of the Availability Cascade.
In fact, the availability cascade occurs as a result of a composite process that consists of two other types of cascades:
- Informational cascades: occurs when people who lack information about a certain topic base their stance on opinions that are presented by others and then express those opinions too, under the assumption that other people are more knowledgeable on the topic than they are.
- Reputational cascades: occurs when people spread a certain prevailing belief regardless of whether they believe it or not because they want to earn social approval from others and avoid receiving disapproval.
In other words, it’s a type of a positive-feedback system, since the more people discuss a topic and the more frequently they do so, the more likely other people are to do the same. Specifically, once the rising popularity of a certain belief allows it to reach a certain critical mass and pass the necessary threshold, it receives enough prominence to set off a chain reaction, which causes it to become more and more prominent.
Availability cascades have influenced public opinion thought history in many domains, with regard to topics such as the regulation of recreational drugs, the use of genetically modified organisms, the adoption of new technologies, the creation of new financial regulations, and the formation of attitudes toward climate change.
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes the availability cascade in his book as a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action.
Let’s say a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement.
This cycle is then sped along deliberately by a group of individuals or organizations, who understand the dynamics of availability cascades and use this knowledge in order to promote it with the goal of supporting a certain agenda. Of course, the danger of a worrying news story is exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines.
On the other hand, scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile: anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a “heinous cover-up”.
Since availability cascades generally occur on a large social scale, it becomes politically important as it is on everyone’s mind and as the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset society’s priorities.
Finally, even though there are many potential issues with availability cascades, it’s important to remember that they are not inherently negative; there are many situations such as in case of climate change where they can prompt positive, large-scale changes in societies, by pressuring those societies and their leaders to overcome the natural inertia which sometimes sustains a problematic status-quo.
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