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What is Vividness Bias – Causes & Examples

Published by at August 17th, 2023 , Revised On October 5, 2023

In cognitive psychology, cognitive biases influence our thinking, feeling, and decision-making. Among these, one lesser-known but equally significant bias is the vividness bias.

Vividness Bias Example

Shark Attacks and Beach Vacations

Imagine you are planning a beach holiday. You have always enjoyed swimming in the ocean and have never thought twice about sharks. However, just a week before your planned trip, there is a sensational news story about a shark attack at a beach near your destination. The story is accompanied by dramatic images, interviews with horrified witnesses, and maybe even a heart-wrenching primary source account from the victim’s family.

Even though statistically, the chances of being attacked by a shark are extremely low (you are more likely to be struck by lightning, for instance), this vivid news story might make you reconsider swimming in the ocean during your holiday. You might even opt for poolside relaxation instead.

Although millions of people swim safely in the ocean every day and shark attacks are rare, one story’s emotional weight and vivid imagery can heavily influence your decision-making, illustrating the power of the vividness bias.

Let’s explore vividness bias in detail.

What is Vividness Bias?

Vividness bias refers to the tendency of individuals to be more influenced by vivid, emotionally-charged information or experiences compared to more mundane or less emotionally-stimulating information. This bias can lead people to weigh vivid information more heavily than other relevant but less striking information when making judgments or decisions.

What Causes Vividness Bias?

Vividness bias, the tendency to be convinced more by emotionally charged and graphic details over more mundane information, stems from a blend of cognitive processes, evolutionary support, and external influences. Here are some of the other causes of vividness bias. 

Evolutionary Adaptation

As a species, humans have evolved to respond to immediate and vivid stimuli, particularly if they represent potential threats or rewards. This bias for action rooted in our evolutionary history was especially vital when encountering vivid threats like predators. 

Consider our ancient ancestors: encountering a dangerous predator would have evoked strong emotional reactions. These reactions would ensure heightened attention, better memory retention of the encounter, and, consequently, more informed future actions. 

Such adaptive responses would have improved survival chances. Even though the nature of threats and rewards has changed, our brains are still wired to respond more acutely to striking stimuli.

Memory and Information Processing

Information that evokes stronger emotions or is presented vividly is more easily encoded and stored in memory. This is because the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in emotional processing, interacts with the hippocampus, a region vital for memory formation. 

These regions collaborate more actively when we encounter vivid stimuli, bolstering our recall. As a result, we’re more likely to remember emotionally charged information than bland data.

Attention Mechanisms

Vivid events or details capture our attention more effectively than dull ones. Due to this actor-observer bias, where one is more likely to notice external events than internal motivations, vivid stimuli dominate our cognitive resources. 

The Role of Media

Modern media thrives on sensationalism. When curating content, media often display an explicit bias towards sensational stories because they know that vivid, emotionally charged content gets more eyeballs. This consistent exposure to heightened stimuli can condition individuals to expect and, in turn, place more value on vivid information over nuanced, less sensational details.

Affect Heuristic

The affect heuristic is a mental shortcut wherein people make judgments based on their current emotions. This intertwines with affinity bias, where people are naturally inclined towards information or people they can relate to emotionally.

Social and Cultural Factors

Cultural narratives and societal norms can further amplify the impact of vividness. For instance, a scholarly source from a certain culture may prioritise personal stories over statistical data, making a vivid anecdote more impactful than extensive research.

Cognitive Laziness

Our brain often exhibits an explicit bias towards vivid narratives or images because they are easier to digest and remember. Due to this, people might favour vivid information due to inherent cognitive laziness.

Confirmation Bias

Vivid information that aligns with an individual’s pre-existing beliefs or biases is even more potent. When a piece of striking data or a vivid narrative confirms what someone already believes, it is more likely to be accepted and remembered, further reinforcing the existing viewpoint.

The Illusion of Truth Effect

Research suggests that information that’s easier to process or understand is more likely to be perceived as true. This Pygmalion effect, where expectations influence outcomes, implies that vivid, memorable, and easily recalled details can seem truer than they actually are.

Feedback Loops

Publication bias, where significant or vivid findings are more likely to be published, can feed into the vividness bias.  When an individual acts based on vivid information and sees immediate benefits (or avoids perceived threats), it reinforces the belief in the importance of such information. Over time, this can lead to an increased reliance on vivid stimuli for decision-making.

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Vividness Bias Examples

Here are the vividness bias examples for a clear understanding of the term.

Car Accidents and Air Travel

Imagine someone named Alex who understands statistically that air travel is one of the safest modes of transportation. However, Alex watches a news segment one evening detailing a tragic aeroplane crash.

The coverage is graphic, with vivid images of the crash site, heart-wrenching interviews with grieving family members, and discussions about the potential mechanical failure that led to the accident.

A few weeks later, Alex is planning a trip. Even though Alex knows statistically that flying is much safer than driving over long distances, the memories of that news segment are fresh and emotionally charged. Instead of booking a flight, Alex decides to drive to the destination, which statistically presents a higher risk of an accident.

In this scenario, Alex’s decision is influenced more by the vivid and emotional information (the aeroplane crash news segment) than by the statistical data indicating the relative safety of air travel. This is an illustration of the vividness bias.

The Vaccination Decision

Sarah has always been a believer in science. She knows the importance of vaccines and the vast amount of data proving their safety and efficacy. However, one day, Sarah comes across a video online.

The video features a mother tearfully sharing a story about her child, who she believes developed severe complications shortly after receiving a vaccine. The mother’s pain is palpable, and the images of the child in distress are heart-wrenching.

A few months later, it is time for Sarah’s child to receive a scheduled vaccination. Suddenly, the memories of that video resurface. The emotional and vivid imagery of the distressed child and the grieving mother feel more salient than the stacks of scientific papers and statistics she’s read about vaccine safety. Despite her previous beliefs, Sarah hesitates and considers delaying or even skipping the vaccine for her child.

In this example, even though Sarah has a robust background knowledge of the general safety of vaccines, the vivid personal story she encountered disproportionately influences her decision-making, showcasing the vividness bias.

How to Avoid Vividness Bias

Recognising the roots of vividness bias is the first step towards addressing it. To counteract its influence:

  • Encourage critical thinking, a robust source evaluation method, and the cultivation of healthy scepticism, especially when faced with emotionally charged information.
  • Seek secondary source information in addition to primary anecdotes and consider the ceiling effect, which denotes the maximum potential of a given data or source.
  • Educate yourself and others about cognitive biases, making it a routine to reflect on decisions to ensure vivid but potentially misleading details don’t unduly influence them.

Frequently Asked Questions

Vividness bias refers to the tendency to give disproportionate weight to vivid, emotionally-charged information over more objective or statistical data when making judgments or decisions. This bias can lead individuals to prioritise memorable, dramatic details, potentially overshadowing other relevant but less striking information.

After watching a dramatic news report about a shark attack, Jake refuses to swim in the ocean during his holiday, despite the statistical rarity of such incidents. The vivid imagery from the report outweighs the actual low risk, which illustrates the vividness bias in his decision to avoid the ocean.

In psychology, vividness refers to the intensity and richness of information or experiences that capture attention and are easily remembered. Vivid information, often characterised by emotional, sensory, or concrete details, tends to impact cognition and decision-making more than abstract or less emotionally-charged information.

Yes, the availability heuristic, which involves relying on immediate examples that come to mind, can explain vividness effects. Vivid events are more memorable and easily recalled, so they’re more “available” when making judgments or decisions, thereby influencing perceptions and beliefs disproportionately.

About Owen Ingram

Avatar for Owen IngramIngram is a dissertation specialist. He has a master's degree in data sciences. His research work aims to compare the various types of research methods used among academicians and researchers.