TAG | distinction bias
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?)