An availability cascade or the truth effect is a self-reinforcing cycle in which information is perceived to be plausible and correct due to its increasing repetition in the public domain.
The effect was first named as the result of a study in 1977 in which participants were given a list of 60 factoids which were believable, but people wouldn’t necessarily know. It included statements such as “Large migration of Chinese railroad workers begin in the 1880s” and “The first air force base was launched in New Mexico.” Participants had to rate their belief that a statement was true for each statement on a scale from one to seven.
The exercise was repeated on three occasions with two weeks apart. A third of the statements remained constant throughout and the rest of them were new. Analysis of the exercise showed that the grading of the repeated statements rose from 4.2 in the first session to 4.6 in the second session and 4.7 in the final session. The rating of the remaining statements showed no noticeable pattern.
What triggers an availability cascade?
Availability cascades occur due to information being circulated and discussed in the public domain by traditional media (e.g. newspapers and TV) and/or across social networks (e.g. word-of-mouth and social media). In The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell suggests that there are three types of agents involved.
Connectors – These are people with a natural ability to form and maintain long-term relationships with a wide range of individuals. They have an instinct that helps them relate to people and see possibilities that others don’t notice.
Mavens – These are people who are passionate about collecting and sharing specialist knowledge. They are prepared to research topics of interest in great detail and are socially adept at passing the information onto other individuals they interact with.
Salesmen – This is someone who very expressive and is good at persuading people around to their way of thinking. However, this is often not just about what salesmen say. Gladwell’s research suggests that non-verbal cues are just as important and sometimes more important than verbal cues. Salesmen tend to be very good at expressing emotions and feelings and as a result they are much more emotionally contagious than the rest of us.
Kuran and Sunstein focus on the importance of availability entrepreneurs. These are people who are prepared to commit resources into communicating a belief for some personal gain. Whatever we call these agents the evidence suggests that multiple types of actors need to be engaged for an availability cascade to occur.
For marketers the benefit of an availability cascade can be huge as they can trigger new trends and dramatic changes in demand for products and services. Social media is often cited as a means to generate a social buzz around a brand. Certainly brands can use social media to allow people to share content or experiences with ease.
However, off-line word-of-mouth and other peer-to-peer influence (e.g. non-verbal behaviour, traditions and social norms) are also very important ways of trying to trigger an availability cascade. Reciprocation can be a useful way of beginning this process as if you offer something for free or at a discounted price people often feel obliged to return the favour.
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