When grocery chain Tesco wanted to expand their market share in South Korea, they came up with a brilliant idea.
Because the people in South Korea work long hours they thought of an efficient way to sell their products. The Korean subsidiary Home Plus put up billboards in subway stations with their range of products, accompanied by QR, or Quick Response codes. All people had to do now is scan the QR codes with their cell phone and the groceries were delivered to their doorsteps.
Delving further into the realm of cognitive illusions and biases, over the next few blogs I shall be talking about many cognitive biases that hinder and help our daily choices. What decisions one makes throughout their life, from the trivial (which flat screen monitor should I buy?) to the heavily weighted ones (we have all been there) is ultimately what shapes the course of our existence, levels of happiness, success and fulfillment.
Perhaps by understanding what makes us act and decide in certain ways, we can on one hand learn to make more sound decisions, and on the other hand learn to influence and aid the decisions of others, with the aim to creating a planet where we are better decision makers! (Wouldn’t it be nice!)
The Fuzzy Realm of Memories and Emotions
Relying on one’s brain to give us the information needed to make sound decisions on a day to day basis is a tricky business indeed. The information we have stored up there asserts itself in ways that are often governed by fuzzy memories and the unreliable realm of emotions.
Two common human tendencies are anchoring and the choice supportive bias. Anchoring occurs when one specific snippet of information (generally, the information learned during the first encounter of the subject) is overly relied upon by a person while making a decision, and so the thought process is warped. New information encountered may be adjusted to be in line with what one already knows. Information obtained early in life affects any subsequent analysis, as newly encountered information may be adjusted to be in line with what one already knows. This is all well and good if your knowledge on a subject comes from a reliable source; someone who knows what they are talking about. But say your dad helped you choose your first car. Say Daddy dearest is a few sandwiches short of a picnic, and is adamant that the color of the car is the most important thing to consider. While automobile coloring may be something you want to take into consideration (appearance of cleanliness, night visibility to other motorists, how much of a chick magnet said car might be) it’s certainly not the be all and end all. Anyway, you listened to your father and got a car in a bright, Lamborghini yellow. Say this car never broke down, served you well for many happy years, and attracted many babes. Now you have a choice supportive bias. At the time, you were just listening to your father’s advice, now, you have retroactively ascribed a positive attribute to the option you selected, as in, yellow is the best color for a car, and now you shall only ever own yellow cars. (The Lamborghini is next!)
Memories of regret or satisfaction associated with our choices can be as important as the choice itself, and they do tend to be distorted. While you remember the yellow quality of the car and the happiness it brought upon your life, you may have completely blocked the memory of the passenger window not being able to be rolled down or the pathetic sounding horn. Biases stored as memories will influence your future decision making.
During memory retrieval the belief is that if I chose this option, it must have been the better option. Memory distortions may sometimes be in our best interests, i.e. there may be particular details of an event that cause us discomfort or emotional pain and so the positive illusion helps to reduce regret about past choices and promote well-being.
It is notable to mention that without the involvement of personal choice, ie. Options that are assigned by others (a boring job assignment from your boss, a vacation spot chosen by your uncultured brother) our memory attributions tend to favor the alternative option and our disappointment and regret can become emphasized.
Lists, Wagons and Farm Animals
A tool commonly used in decision making, I’m sure you are all familiar with, is the pros and cons list. This is an outwardly realized, legible version of the Distinction Bias. This is a concept of decision theory forwarded by Hsee and Zhang. There are varying modes of evaluation when making decisions. We can take something at face value, read the pamphlet, the specifications, and decide whether or not to take up the option. Or we can compare the option with one or more that are similar, and use the pros and cons list (or an internal version of it if you don’t have a notepad nearby). Simultaneous viewing of your options makes them seem far more dissimilar that viewing each possible choice in isolation. That there is a better and a worse version of everything, and the fact that we have a seemingly endless range of options to choose between (here’s looking at you, flat screen TVs) means we often form preferences and make decisions through distinction. The thing is, once chosen, options are experienced separately. So you bought the model that was $200 more, because it had an extra inch or two and a special matte black coating which is supposed to repel dust, but in reality the difference in quality of the less pricy TV would have been infinitesimal, probably imperceptible, especially once it’s on your sideboard and playing the part of the commanding presence of the living room whether it’s 40” or 42”.
Finally, and I believe this has a lot to do with the plethora of flat screen TVs on the market, is the herd mentality, aka the Bandwagon Effect; a phenomenon that is more equally inside and outside of one’s minds workings that the three previously mentioned cognitive illusions. Heavily documented in behavioural science, the Bandwagon Effect is when people do and believe things merely because everyone else is doing and believing these things, often regardless of reason and evidence to support said conduct or belief. Fads and trends spread among people, and gain momentum. You know, Lemmings. Leggings. Twitter. Actually with online social networks like Facebook and Twitter, the more users join, the more useful they become. I can’t say the same for leggings. And let’s admit it, Lemmings don’t really count because they aren’t people. Plus my primary knowledge of their behavior stems from a game I played on a very primitive computer in around 1993.
The way information circulates today, a fad can be born and be extinguished in a very short period of time. Viral YouTube hits are a great example of how jumping on the bandwagon has become such fast sport. It’s the quick or the dead.
This tendency to do as others do obviously occurs not just because we are all sheep who prefer to conform but also because of the way we derive information: from other people.
The lessons here are as such:
When decision making, we must remember that a) our first encounters with any subject will have provided us with information that may be affecting any new information we take in about said subject. b) our memories of emotions and levels of satisfaction from any previous decision may unknowingly sway us toward certain options. Be wary that negative emotions and experiences may have been blocked. c) When viewing similar options side by side the differences may seem great – but once the choice is made and the other options are not present, you probably won’t miss them. d) No matter what you are into someone else will be into it too. The way information travels today makes it all but impossible not to get caught up in fads. If being compared to farm animals upsets you, then just try to choose your bandwagons carefully. Ask yourself why, and try not to answer with
“Because everyone else is doing it!” (Yes, Mum, I would jump off a cliff if Jenny did. Happy?)
In social psychology, the illusion of control is grouped with two other concepts and termed as the ‘positive illusions’. Optimism bias and illusory superiority make up the trio. The latter being a self-bias that causes people to overestimate their qualities and abilities, and underestimate their downfalls (sound like anyone you know?) and the former being a demonstrated tendency for people to be overly optimistic about the outcome of their planned actions. The illusion of control relates to a person’s ability to correctly perceive the level of control they have over an outcome. Those suffering from the illusion of control have a tendency to overestimate their power and to feel as though they control outcomes that they actually have no influence over. It is an effect named by psychologist Ellen Langer. She found that there can be a confusion between skill and chance situations, so that even when an outcome can only be arrived at by chance, people will tend to base their judgments on “skill cues” – features of a situation that stem from familiarity, individual choice, and competitiveness.
These three effects can easily be seen to have a close relationship to one another. Someone whose mind is muddled by illusory superiority could swiftly develop the illusion of control and come out of it making decisions with an optimism bias. Scary territory indeed when you take into account that those most susceptible to the kind of power that could teeter them on the edge of this slippery slide are those who make the world’s most weighty decisions. Illusion of control can be strengthened by stressful situations such as financial trading. Optimism bias, the psychological effect at the tail end of this chain reaction, can lead to cost overruns, delays in expensive projects, economic bubbles and military conflicts. Megalomaniacs, anyone?
In terms more closely related to the general population, the illusion of control is thought to influence gambling behavior. Something as simple as choosing your own lottery numbers is a display of being under this illusion. Studies have shown that in the game of craps, people tend to throw the dice harder when they require high numbers and throw softer for low numbers. This relates back to Langer’s “skill cues” – this is a behavior they can physically alter to attempt to win at a game that is totally up to chance. If this works, the gambler may form an unrealistic belief that they are “skilled” at the game, and will continue to gamble into the night (or day). So while illusory beliefs of control may provoke goal-striving, they are not conducive to sound decision making!
At first these concepts, these “positive illusions”, seem to harness deep and problematic symptoms, especially if the person suffering the illusion is actually responsible for something, say, the running of a country. Can something positive actually stem from such an illusion?
Aside from the usually short-lived bliss of experiencing a glorious superiority about oneself, positive illusions can be motivating. If a person believes they have a level of control over their personal success they may work harder to achieve that. It has a role in self-esteem.
Heidi Grant Halvorson, writing for SmartBlog, talks of the “intrinsic motivation” that is created by self-chosen goals. This kind of motivation causes people to enjoy greater personal satisfaction. Heidi believes you can develop your employees by giving them the illusion of choice; by explaining the value of their assigned goal and allowing them to make decisions about how they will reach the goal and some peripheral aspects along the way. The perceived sense of control that the employee experiences will help them to persist in the face of difficulty and enjoy their work more deeply.
The illusion of control can also act as a coping mechanism. I know movies don’t really count as examples, but think of a hero in your favourite horror /disaster flick – the city/barn/planet is surrounded by deadly monsters/zombies/aliens and to quash a total lack of real control, our hero falsely attributes themselves control over the situation and convinces the trembling group of survivors with them that he/she has a plan. (An overly optimistic plan, but nonetheless…!)
Our hero may in turn give the trembling group themselves the illusion of control by manipulating the way information is presented or giving cues that imply skill has a role to play in this ordeal. This is like a cognitive version of an optical illusion, and is something to be wary of. While an optical illusion may be old news, a cognitive illusion is much trickier, affecting our reasoning apparatus. If the way information is presented to us is manipulated, we can be led to believe all kinds of things, and led to make decisions that are not based upon a full and fair display of the knowledge we require to make that decision properly. In an article by Ben Goldacre discussing a paper by the British Journal of Psychology that shows how we can create illusions of causality by manipulating the information we present, he writes that most “expert opinion” is ranked as the least helpful form of information in evidence based medicine (I instantly picture the white lab coat wearing makeup and skincare brand experts we see on TV ads).
In some of us this may breed skepticism in all information presented to us. I have often doubted the operability of the ‘close doors’ button in an elevator. Goldacre, through a link to this article by Nick Paumgarten for the NewYorker, has enlightened me to this little factoid:
“In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer. Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command.”
Admittedly, this kind of illusion of control is only vaguely positive; a fleeting comfort that doesn’t truly exist.
I’d like to finish with some words from Shannon Rupp; from a blog she posted about an instance where consumers ARE actually exercising control over corporations instead of the usual vice versa. (An incident of twitter-fuelled consumer outrage at the new Gap logo, resulting in the company reverting back to the old look.)
“If you scratch the surface of most inexplicable human behavior, you find that it’s comforting in some way. That’s why people believe in psychics and all sorts of magical thinking: it gives them an illusion of control, which they find reassuring.
So maybe shopping and exercising influence on brands makes’em feel like they have control in a chaotic world?
I wonder if they’ve heard the term Fool’s Paradise?