Understanding Availability Bias in Active Assailant Events

It is interesting how we view the world. How we assess threats and estimate the likelihood of something happening to us. If I were to ask you which kills more people each year, car accidents or doctor error, many people would say car accidents. In reality, medical malpractice kills thousands more each year.

The reason that many people hold this mistaken belief is because car accidents are more visible. We hear about fatal car accidents frequently on the news. We get stuck for hours in traffic because of serious car accidents. We see highway signs that list the number of people killed in accidents this year and implore us to drive carefully.

Basically, we estimate the odds of us being killed in a traffic accident as greater than the odds of being killed by doctors’ error because traffic deaths more easily come to mind. This is called Availability Bias.

People estimate the odds of something occurring based on the ease that examples come to mind. By the same token, we can underestimate the odds if a recent example does not easily come to mind.

Availability Heuristics and Active Threat Events

The FBI reports that from 2000 to 2018 there were 277 active assailant events in the United States. Looking at the graph of annual incidents, you can see how the number of events has steadily increased over the years.

Even though they were not occurring weekly, facility managers and private companies realized that they needed to have a plan to prevent and respond to acts of workplace violence/active assailant events:

graph explaining rates of active shooters in USA 2000-2018

Covid 19 & Availability Bias in Active Threat Incidents

Because of Covid-19 in 2020, the rates of occurrence declined sharply. Since you can’t easily think of a recent event (availability bias), you might believe that this is not something you have to prepare for anymore.

Sadly, this belief is mistaken. As the economy begins to open back up, we have seen an uptick in the number of incidents. We believe as people continue to return to work, we will see rates of incidence return to what we saw in the late 2010’s.

Serious workplace violence/active assailant attacks are the definition of low frequency — high risk events. There are things that your facility and company can do that will help prevent these events from happening and respond in a manner that will minimize the loss of life. Don’t let availability bias caused by the low number of incidents in 2020 lull you into a false sense of security.

If you’ve been considering your approach to workplace safety and would like a consultation about active assailant response and workplace violence training, send us an email.