Every decision we make feels right. We believe we are rational creatures, always making the correct choices and decisions. The book “Predictably Irrational” author Dan Ariely presents numerous experiments that prove otherwise. His findings show we are more likely to make irrational decisions in almost every set of circumstances, especially economic decisions. We’ve proven that we have very erratic thinking patterns. Because of this, it seems understanding logic – and how to detect when we are being illogical – should be one of our top priorities.
This book was fascinating for a few reasons. First, I’m amazed by the lack of concrete knowledge we have about our brain. With all the technological advancement over the past few decades, it’s stunning how much remains a mystery when it comes to how our brains work. I’m also intrigued by human fallacies. I try to catch myself when I am being driven by biases. If not, I tend to struggle with misguided thoughts. We must accept how biases impact our decision–making, and work diligently to ensure it doesn’t engulf us.
One concept described in the book is relativity – the tendency to make decisions based on what we see around us. The website Rolling Alpha has a great example of this:
When I go out to eat, I usually forget to buy a bottle of wine before I head out. So I ask for the wine list. Here are my unspoken rules:
-The most expensive wine is too expensive;
-The cheapest wine is a bad one, and I don’t want to appear cheap; so
-Let’s go with middle of the range.
My choice now has nothing to do with the wine in question, or the actual price itself. My choice is thoroughly defined by the price boundaries set by the restaurant owner. And I find myself buying a bottle of wine for $25 that I WOULD NEVER BUY NORMALLY because it costs $6 at the bottle store. But in the restaurant, it seems like a good deal.
And that irrationality is not just a one-off, it predictably happens every time I buy wine in a restaurant.
Restaurant owners know this.
It’s why you have cheap and expensive dishes and wines on the menu. The ones that the restauranteur want to sell – the ones with the thick profit margins – are always priced to be middle of the range.
When making decisions, we use comparisons to guide us in the right direction, especially when observing others. We can’t help but notice what we have compared to other people. Jealousy and envy rear their ugly head. These ancient emotions are sometimes unavoidable, but must be identified immediately before they poison our minds and leave us feeling depressed about our lives. As Ariely says in the book, “the more we have, the more we want.” You could also say, “the more others have, the more we want.”
Here is my example of a social instance of relativity, involving weddings. As we know by now, people often spend more than they can afford when getting married. Why? Because they feel the need to compete with others, especially those couples who have recently been married (extra motivation if they attend your wedding as well). How can you let your best friend have a better wedding than you, right? Not to be outdone, you believe you must go above and beyond, even if it means incurring unnecessary and costly expenses. You end up spending money you shouldn’t because you are overcome by insecurity and irrationality.
By understanding the pitfalls of relativity, you realize that your wedding should be planned to please you, and that it’s unhealthy to compare it to other weddings. However, we are programmed to always compare, so we’ll never escape relativity entirely. But we certainly can be aware of its existence and constant pull on our decision-making. We can catch ourselves when we feel like we’re being irrational and question the decisions we make while in this state of mind.
Ariely also describes another fascinating concept called imprinting – a critical moment when we attach ourselves to a concept or decision – often our first impressions. The ramifications of imprinting are HUGE.
A decision today will affect multiple decisions down the road because we almost always stick with our first choice, even if it’s not rational. How many times have you defended a point or opinion, even after being proven wrong? We aggressively anchor ourselves to first decisions and dig in even more when challenged on them. This way of thinking is especially prevalent with purchasing decisions. Once we buy something, we are anchored to that price, accepting it as the new normal. We justify spending that amount again and again. In the book, Ariely uses an example of buying Starbucks coffee over the cheaper alternatives widely available.
Ariely offers a warning when it comes to imprinting and first decisions:
We should also pay particular attention to the first decision we make in what is going to be a long stream of decisions (about clothing, food, etc.). When we face such a decision, it might seem to us that this is just one decision, without larger consequences; but in fact the power of the first decision can have such a long-lasting effect that it will percolate into our future decisions for years to come.
What can we do to guard against such irrationality?
According to Ariely:
We can start by becoming aware of our vulnerabilities… Perhaps it’s time to inventory the imprint and anchors in our own life. Even if they were once completely reasonable, are they still reasonable? Once the old choices are considered, we can open ourselves up to new decisions -and the new opportunities of a new day.
One trick I use to guard against this is to remind myself that I know much less than I think. As Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” I also analyze my thought processes, asking “Does this still make sense? Am I being logical?”
It’s easy to think we have the answers to everything but we don’t. Our beliefs are often flawed and we hate being wrong. We will defend a bad idea because it’s our idea. It’s painful to realize that our first impression was wrong and that we made a mistake. It means accepting ourselves as imperfect. Be humble and understand that you will make mistakes in judgement. Always question your beliefs and make sure they still make rational sense.
Procrastination & Long-Term Gratification
It’s the age old dilemma – indulge in today’s pleasures or abstain to reap long-term rewards? Most of us succumb to the former. We love instant gratification. We want things right away and hate to wait AT ALL. But instant gratification can hurt us in some cases, as Neil Patel describes in this article for Entrepreneur:
Instant gratification is expected in many contexts. We gain instant feedback from our devices, because we’re constantly plugged in and turned on. Social media gives us the instant ability to upload videos, photos and status updates. We receive instant feedback from our social followers. We respond in near real time to emails and tweets. We have the ability to make things happen without having to wait.
Because our devices are ubiquitous, our connectedness is constant. There’s very little patience required.
We even expect business growth — a phenomenon long considered to be gradual — to happen overnight. Like the viral explosion of a YouTube video, we want to hack business growth for viral expansion. The pursuit is admirable, even if the results aren’t always what we desire.
Technology has forever changed us – we want it all today. Gone are the days of choosing the strenuous life. The irony is that we still procrastinate more than ever. We tell ourselves a lot of things when we are in a calm, positive state of mind. However, once put in the moment, all rationality goes out the window and we begin to make excuses, get lazy, and seek instant pleasure.
Our self-control is our biggest weakness. But we need to also understand our habits. It takes extreme self-discipline to overcome a bad habit, and most people give up before they even really try. Ariely recommends a trick:
If a particular desired behavior results in an immediate negative outcome (punishment), this behavior will be very difficult to promote, even if the ultimate outcome is highly desirable.
In order to overcome many types of human fallibility, I believe it’s useful to look for tricks that match immediate, powerful, and positive reinforcements with the not-so-pleasant steps we have to take towards our long-term objectives.
Here is an example of someone who procrastinates while writing:
Let’s say you hate to write. You dread sitting at the computer waiting for thoughts that never seem to come. You’d rather watch a new show on Netflix. Try this mental trick: treat the Netflix show as a reward for writing. Tell yourself that you can watch it only if you write for 15 minutes. This pairs the urge for instant gratification, the Netflix show, with the not-so-pleasant task of writing.
With habits, you must replace the bad behavior with a similar reinforcement that is positive. The reward must be enticing enough for you to forego the bad habit. An example is chewing a piece of gum every time you have the urge to bite your nails. Over time, your brain will begin to resonate with the replaced, more desirable behavior, and overcome the bad habit.
Our brains play tricks on us causing irrational behavior and thoughts. It’s not our fault, but we must work diligently to make sure we aren’t constantly making poor decisions. The book “Predictably Irrational” touches many of the traps we fall into, but I only focused on three distinct areas:
- Relativity: The tendency to compare ourselves or what we have to what is around us.
- Imprinting & anchoring: We latch on to our first decisions or thoughts and struggle to let them go, even when proven wrong.
- Instant vs. Delayed Gratification: In today’s fast-paced world, delaying pleasure and rewards is harder than ever.
This should serve as a good primer on illogical behavior. It’s nearly impossible to act rationally always, but it is possible to take stock of our behavior and avoid a series of poor decisions. Over time, you will begin to recognize your mental flaws and begin to alter your ways of thinking.
P.S. If you enjoyed this article, grab a copy of Predictably Irrational.
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