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Ease of retrieval

Author: Dr Simon Moss


People are more inclined to like a person after they are asked to specify five or more, compared to two, favorable attributes of that individual (Haddock, 2002). This tendency and many related observations are ascribed to the ease of retrieval heuristic. Specifically, individuals derive many judgments from the ease with which they can retrieve relevant information.


The ease of retrieval heuristic, which is related to the availability bias, is an implicit rule that individuals apply to estimate the frequency or likelihood of some event. In particular, individuals derive judgments of frequency or likelihood from the ease with which they can retrieve relevant information (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973).

To illustrate, in a study conducted by Schwarz et al. (1991), participants were asked to recall either six or twelve instances in which they acted assertively. Participants reported higher levels of assertiveness if they were asked to describe six, rather than twelve, examples of assertive behavior. Arguably, six examples of assertive behavior can be readily retrieved and, therefore, are regarded as representative. Twelve examples of assertive behavior cannot be readily retrieved, and participants assume this difficulty implies they are not assertive. Furthermore, in this study, participants perceived themselves as more assertive if they were asked to present twelve, rather than six, examples of unassertive behavior (Schwarz et al., 1991).

Phenomena that ease of retrieval could explain

Evaluations of oneself

Pahl and Eiser (2007) showed that ease of retrieval can be applied to curb the inclination of individuals to overestimate their character, competence, and contributions relatives to peers-a tendency they refer to as comparative self-positivity. In particular, after participants were instructed to describe two behaviors they have enacted that could have harmed an ecosystem, their tendency to perceive themselves as more concerned with the environment than a typical person diminishes. In contrast, if instructed to describe eight behaviors they have enacted that could have harmed an ecosystem, this tendency is amplified. Eight behaviors are difficult to retrieve and, as a consequence, individuals assume they seldom harm ecosystems.

Evaluations of other individuals

In addition to biasing self evaluations, the ease of retrieval heuristic can shape perceptions and assessments of other individuals. People are more inclined to like a person after they are asked to specify five, compared to two, favorable attributes of that individual. In a study conducted by Haddock (2002), for example, participants were more inclined to like Tony Blair if instructed to specify two, rather than five, desirable qualities of this politician. This effect persisted regardless of whether or not participants were keen on politics.

Overestimation of contributions: Ease of retrieval

The ease of retrieval heuristic could, at least partly, explain the tendency of individuals to overestimate their contributions to some task or project. That is, Ross and Sicoly (1979) first discovered the inclination of participants to overestimate their own contributions to tasks in which several individuals assisted. To illustrate, married couples were asked to estimate the percentage of household tasks, such as cleaning dishes, they-instead of their spouse-completed. On average, individuals maintained their contribution exceeded 50%. This inclination to overestimate personal contributions has been replicated in diverse domains (see Burger & Rodman, 1983& Gilovich, Medvec, & Savitsky, 2000& Savitsky, Van Boven, Epley, & Wight, 2005& Thompson & Kelley, 1981).

This overestimation of personal contributions is more pronounced, but not restricted to, positive or constructive outcomes (Ross & Sicoly, 1979). That is, individuals do also overestimate their contributions to destructive outcomes, such as conflicts. Hence, the motivation of individuals to conceptualize themselves positively could not be the sole source of this bias.

Instead, according to Ross and Sicoly (1979), this tendency of individuals to overestimate their contributions can be ascribed to the availability bias or ease of retrieval. To demonstrate, when individuals attempt to assess the relative contributions of themselves and their spouse towards, for example, moving the garbage bin, they attempt to recall previous instances of these acts. That is, they will strive to remember occasions in which they or their partner moved the bin.

Personal contributions, however, can more readily retrieved or remembered. Because their own contributions can be more readily retrieved, individuals assume their personal involvement must be more frequent. That is, the perceived accessibility of some event is assumed to reflect the relative frequency of these episodes (e.g., Schwarz, Bless, Strack, Klumpp, Rittenauer-Schatka, & Simons, 1991).

Overestimation of contributions: Alternative to ease of retrieval

Kruger and Savitsky (2009), however, offered a similar, but alternative, explanation, which instead emphasizes egocentric biases rather than ease of retrieval. According to their account, individuals primarily focus their attention on their own contributions when they estimate the relative involvement of each person.

As a consequence, if some activity is undertaken regularly-or if some project entailed many distinct actions-individuals, because of their undue focus on their own behaviors, will tend to assume they have contributed extensively and even disproportionately. They do not consider the possibility that other individuals have also contributed extensively.

This account generates an alternative hypothesis in the context of infrequent activities. If some activity is undertaken sporadically, because of their egocentric bias, individuals conclude recognize their contributions have been limited. They overlook the possibility that nobody else has contributed appreciably either. Indeed, individuals might even underestimate their contributions in these situations (Kruger & Savitsky, 2009).

Consistent with this alternative account, individuals are especially likely to overestimate their contributions, at least relative to their partner, if the event is frequent, such as preparing dinner. They were less likely to overestimate their contributions to infrequent events, such as preparing breakfast in bed for their spouse (Kruger & Savitsky, 2009). Similarly, they overestimated their contributions to a trivia game, but especially when the questions were easy and, thus, when many answers were offered.

This pattern of findings cannot be ascribed to ease of retrieval alone. An account that alludes to ease of retrieval would predict that individuals would overestimate their contributions in all instances, regardless of the frequency or prevalence of these events.

Furthermore, when participants were asked to estimate the contribution of the other person, relative to themselves-a minor shift in the focus of this question-the bias diminished (Kruger & Savitsky, 2009).. Again, this pattern of findings accords with an egocentric bias. That is, if the focus is directed towards another person, participants become more likely to consider the activities that were undertaken by this individual, which counters the egocentric perspective.

Indeed, egocentric biases have been observed in many other domains. Windschitl, Kruger, and Nus Simms (2003), for example, showed that individuals often incorrectly predict they will outperform other individuals on simple but not difficult tasks. In particular, they believe they will answer more general knowledge questions than other individuals if the topic is simple. In contrast, they believe they will answer fewer general knowledge questions than other individuals if the topic is difficult. Accordingly, individuals primarily consider how factors that influence difficulty, such as the topic, will affect their own performance, reflecting an egocentric bias (see also Klar & Giladi, 1998& Kruger, 1999).

Similar egocentric biases arise when individuals estimate the likelihood they will experience some event, such living past 100. The extent to which they feel they are more or less likely to experience some event than someone else primarily depends on the probability they will experience this event-disregarding the probability that someone else will experience this event as well. Hence, they feel they are more inclined than is an average person to experience common events, such as living past 70, than infrequent events, such as living past 100 (e.g., Chambers, Windschitl, & Suls, 2004& Kruger & Burrus, 2004).

The benefits of repeated simulation

After people repeatedly imagine or simulate an emotional interpersonal experience that might unfold in the future, this image seems increasingly plausible over time. For example, in one study, conducted by Szpunar and Schacter (2013), participants first identified 110 familiar people, 110 familiar locations, and 110 familiar objects. Next, participants were asked to generate 30 positive, 30 negative, and 30 neutral interpersonal experiences that could unfold in the future. To generate each experience, one person, one location, and one object was randomly chosen, and participants needed to describe an experience that combines these three features. One day later, participants were asked to imagine half the experiences again four times and the other experiences again once. During the last time that participants simulated each experience, they rated the degree to which the event seemed plausible, detailed, arousing, positive, and easy to simulate.

The images that were simulated four times, rather than one time, were more likely to be perceived as plausible. This pattern of results, however, was restricted to the positive and negative interpersonal experiences. Furthermore, these plausible experiences were also easier to simulate as well as arousing and detailed.

Presumably, when individuals repeatedly imagine an emotional event, the details are also more likely to be remembered. Additional details will spontaneously be evoked as well. Therefore, the images will seem increasingly rich. These rich details prime one another, increasing the ease with which the experience is evoked. Experiences that are evoked easily seem more plausible.

Moderators and boundary conditions

Ease of retrieval is less likely to affect judgments of frequency or likelihood when individuals are motivated to consider the issue carefully. In a study conducted by Rothman and Schwartz (1998), for example, participants were asked to specify either two or eight factors that could increase the likelihood they might endure heart disease-perhaps obesity, blood sugar, stress, family history, and so forth. Participants were usually more likely to perceive themselves as vulnerable to heart disease if they identified two, rather than eight, factors. Two factors were easy to retrieve, implying they might be exposed to many other risks.

This pattern of observations, however, did not apply to participants with a personal history of heart disease. These participants were more likely to perceive themselves as vulnerable to heart disease if they identified eight factors. Presumably, these participants were more motivated to reflect upon the estimate carefully, reducing their susceptibility to ease of retrieval biases, but increasing their focus on the number of risk factors they identified.

Other studies also indicate that motivation to deliberate carefully could nullify the ease of retrieval effects. In a study conducted by Ruder and Herbert (2003), for example, individuals expressed more favorable attitudes towards some proposal-a reduction in the number of school years from 13 to 12-if asked to write two, rather than six, arguments that support this initiative. Importantly, this effect was especially pronounced if participants were feeling happy rather than sad.

These findings imply that ease of retrieval does not impinge on judgments when individuals devote effort to the decision. According to the mood-as-input hypotheses, propounded by Martin, Ward, Achee, and Wyer (1993), negative mood states imply that goals have not been fulfilled, augmenting the effort that individuals dedicate to their pursuit. Negative moods, therefore, seem to promote effort and curb the reliance on ease of retrieval.

Practical implications


Individuals often need to persuade someone else of the merits and benefits of their proposal. First, these individuals should identify the primary benefits of their proposal. Perhaps their proposal will reduce the number of hours that individuals will need to work. Second, they should encourage these individuals to imagine the consequences of this proposal. For example, they could state, "I know you're skeptical. But, for one moment, imagine your life if you worked fewer hours". Finally, they should encourage these individuals to consider two of the problems that would arise if this proposal is rejected. They could express a statement such as, "I won't patronize you by specifying the problems that could arise if this proposal is not accepted. But, I'm sure you could imagine two or three of these problems".

Fulfilling goals

Sanna and Schwarz (2004) showed the ease of retrieval bias can be exploited to curb the planning fallacy-the tendency to underestimate the time that is needed to complete some task. Specifically, individuals were less inclined to demonstrate this fallacy if they first identified three, rather than twelve, factors that could impede their progress.

Accordingly, when individuals plan tasks, they should first identify three obstacles or impediments that could obstruct their progress, such as incompetent colleagues. Second, they should identify twelve skills or resources that could facilitate their performance, such as a comprehensive manual. Third, they should identify which of these skills or resources they will utilize to overcome each impediment. This process ensures they will allocate enough time to their task.

Disintegration of relationships

When relationships dissolve, individuals often feel especially upset, frequently ruminating over their partner. This distress is especially prominent in individuals who experience anxious attachment--an inclination to seek dependence and to feel concerned they might be abandoned.

Interestingly, a recent study, reported by Spielmann, MacDonald, and Wilson (2009), showed that ease of retrieval could be applied to curb this distress. In their study, some individuals were instructed to identify ten individuals in their social network with whom they could form a romantic relationship. Other individuals were instructed to identify two individuals in their social network with whom they could establish a romantic relationship.

If individuals were instructed to identify ten potential partners, anxious attachment was positively associated with distress over the previous dissolution of a relationship. If individuals were instructed to identify two potential partners, however, this association diminished. Anxious attachment was not associated with ruminations over previous partners.

Presumably, after they were instructed to identify two potential partners, these participants could readily complete this task. Hence, they felt they could readily establish another relationship. Individuals with an anxious attachment experience a strong need to maintain stability with one or two key figures in their life. The prospect of a relationship was sufficient to fulfil this need and thus to alleviate their distress.

Moderation of biases

Ease of retrieval has also been used to encourage more extensive contemplation and, ultimately, to curb some cognitive biases. To illustrate, as Hirt, Kardes, and Markman (2004) showed, individuals sometimes demonstrate a bias called the explanation effect. In particular, if individuals are asked why some event might unfold, they are more likely to assume this event is indeed likely. To illustrate, after individuals consider why England might win the World Cup, they become more likely to assume this event is likely to unfold. Specifically, after people contemplate these explanations, potential causes or precursors of this event are particularly accessible and vivid. Hence, the event seems almost inevitable.

Nevertheless, ease of retrieval can temper this bias. To illustrate, suppose individuals are asked a simple question, like "Specify three TV sitcoms". Because this question is easy to answer, individuals feel that many other responses are possible. They recognize they have not exhausted all of the possible answers. This mindset then encourages individuals to consider subsequent issues more carefully. They do not merely derive their judgments expediently. They deliberate over questions more exhaustively. Indeed, as Hirt, Kardes, and Markman (2004) demonstrated, after individuals answer simple questions, the explanation effect subsequently dissipates.


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Last Update: 6/27/2016