Decades ago, Pepsi launched an advertising campaign that had people drink Pepsi and Coke from two different cups that were label-less and had them decide which drink they preferred. The results showed that Pepsi was preferred to Coke. This prompted Coke to launch a campaign that slightly altered its age old recipe but failed miserably. A scientist, however, finally uncovered something fascinating that Coke would have liked to have known. Because of years of marketing and positive feelings such as community, Christmas, and family that people have typically associated with Coke, people would find Coke tastier than Pepsi if they knew that they were drinking Coke. Indeed, it is what the neurologist was able to uncover. This story is covered in depth in the book “Buyology”, by Martin Linstrom. The suggestion here is quite fascinating. Our perception of a product can change our taste of it. There are, of course, several other examples of this. One other instance I can recall is in Dan Ariely’s book, “Predictably Irrational”, where he gets college students to drink beer with vinegar in an experiment. The findings suggested that once the students were told that the beer they were drinking contained vinegar, they rated it much lower than when they tasted the same drink without knowing that vinegar was added to it. This relates to the Placebo concept, of course. What we believe can affect our senses. The problem with this concept is it’s difficult to use it to benefit oneself. It’s quite easy to use it to manipulate people, and it’s what most, if not all of what the marketing world are constantly trying to achieve. The reason why it can’t be self-beneficiary is because the attempt of trying to convince yourself something is real undermines the ability to genuinely believe it. I cannot make myself believe that eating a strawberry will cure me of my headache because I know that I don’t have any good reason to believe that strawberries cure headaches. Going back to the Coke vs Pepsi example, what this finding underscores, and quite worryingly, is that marketing is extremely effective, and companies should and will invest as much money as they can to find innovative ways of trying to manipulate people. It is, however, unreasonable to condemn corporations, as they are only responding to the incentives created by people’s responsiveness. Many people are often insulted at the thought of other human beings trying to control their minds, but isn’t that a natural part of human behavior? Whenever we lie, exaggerate, compliment, flirt, joke with other people, are we not trying to provoke some kind of response? And we do so without ever asking for their permission. When you lie to compliment someone to seem more likable, you surely must know that they never explicitly expressed their desire to like you. You are, in effect, manipulating them. There is no difference between large multibillion dollar companies trying to manipulate our minds by using subliminal messages in their advertising campaigns and our attempts in trying to get a person to like us by flirting with them. The reason, I think, why the former is considered a moral abomination while the latter is not is because these companies are making quite ridiculous profits by their efficient use of mind manipulating techniques, whereas the most anyone can get out of flirting with a random stranger is a private relationship with that person. And in both cases, the exchange is bilateral. In other words, when it comes to flirting, both parties (usually) get something out of it. And when it comes to corporate advertising, you are ultimately getting a product for the trouble of letting your mind become manipulated by its subliminal or in-your-face messages. Of course, the obvious drawback is that we sometimes get tricked into buying products we don’t really want or need. But then again, don’t people end up going out on dates with people they never really wanted to go out with in the first place all the time because of a good first impression? It’s precisely the art of first impressions that marketers often spend their lifetimes trying to perfect. Trying to grab a person’s attention from the few seconds that they get to see their ads is the ultimate challenge, and whoever does it the best is the world’s greatest flirt.
In a world of large scale production, mass consumerism, and high market competitiveness, the amount of choices we have keep on increasing, but our satisfaction, paradoxically, doesn’t. Typically, the more choice we have, the happier we are because we feel we have more freedom to make a decision that perfectly matches our tastes and preferences.
There are a couple of points I’d like to make about choices, and in particular, food choices. Before I discuss how we can manage choices more efficiently, according to research from the field of Behavioral Economics.
First, imagine you were reincarnated as Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway, and were stranded on an island. After getting over the shock of what had just happened, you begin to instinctively find ways of sustaining your health. You look for water, food, and shelter. With time, you begin to innovate new ways of creating ways of doing those things more efficiently. You might design a clever way of collecting water from leaves after rain fall, you might design and learn to use new weapons to hunt for food or develop better techniques for collecting fruits and vegetables.
You may then look for ways to protect yourself from nature, or sheltering yourself. You may find new ways of creating clothes or building a house (Or live in a cave). You’ve already prioritized what really matters, everything else is irrelevant. Self-preservation is all that matters.
Food choices are the least of your concerns. All you care about is finding anything with nutritional value that would help you survive. The only criteria that you’re using is functionality. It’s how we once lived for a very long time, and now are living in a very different world from the cavemen who we consider our ancestors. At one point, we didn’t care about what kind of food we ate.
We now care what kind of food we’re getting, if it looks fresh enough, how good it tastes, how well it’s packaged, what brand it is, and which store we’re getting it from, and how much we’re going to pay for it, whether it’s good value for money, and how long it will last, how many calories it contains, and how much saturated fat, unsaturated fat, sodium, and sugar it has. Of course, I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing in itself, and that we should go back to eating coconuts and fish, and talk to a volleyball. But too much choice is overwhelming, it’s mentally draining, frustrating, and can make us supremely inefficient.
The criteria mentioned above include only some of the things our brains need to calculate, and in reality, we couldn’t possibly calculate with any reasonable accuracy what the most ideal choice would be. Often times, we are so overwhelmed by all this data that we sometimes make no choice at all for fear of making the wrong choice. We always have that dreadful fear of thinking back a few days later, and wishing we had gotten that other one.
This problem of choice can, of course, be extended to several different areas of life, food is only one of them and I think deserves particular attention as I feel it ought to be the least complicated choice we make, but is quite the opposite. In restaurants, menus often have 7, 8, or 9 categories of food, and every category has about 8 or 9 choices of its own. That’s a range of 49 to 81 choices on what you’re going to consume, for a very short amount of time. Sometimes, people spend more time choosing what they want to eat than time actually eating. This isn’t because people are indecisive, it’s because there’s simply too much choice. There’s too much data to process to make a confident decision about what you want to eat.
Choosing food should not have to take so much of our time. The simple reason is opportunity cost. The amount of time and energy that we spend on simply choosing what to eat could be effectively used for something much more worthwhile and satisfying.
There are many people who are aware of this, and have devised clever ways of dealing with the problem of choice. Think of how much time you spend choosing what to wear, every single day. Imagine that time were used differently, and that energy was put into other activities. An interesting solution is one used by the president of the U.S. Obama himself has admitted to wearing only grey or blue suits. “You need to focus your decision-making energy,” he told Vanity Fair. “You need to routinize yourself.”
As for buying or ordering food, a smart way of dealing with all this choice chaos is simply by making choices before looking at the menu. Decide if you want meat, chicken or fish, whether you’d like it with vegetables, or without, with cheese or without etc.. Grocery shopping, Clothes shopping, Electronics shopping, or any kind of shopping work the same way.
Once you’ve identified what you want beforehand, you’ve already removed choices you would have had to make in the future. This narrows down your options, and in this case, it’s exactly what you need, that is of course, if what you need is to use your time and energy more efficiently towards other things.
“The Paradox of Choice”, Barry Schwartz
Decision points are smartly engineered scenarios that force you to stop and think about what you’re doing. I learned the term from Behavioral Economics and really think it’s fascinating, and extremely helpful. The idea, put simply, is that your mind basically has two systems. The first is responsible for your intuition and instinct. It’s automatic and fast, and operates by using heuristics. Your behavior is molded and improved upon through practice. When you play sports, dance, or drive a car well enough, it takes over and is responsible for the extraordinary calculations that you’re able to make in a very short amount of time.
The second system, as described by the brilliant Psychologist Kahneman in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, is the deliberate system. It’s what’s responsible for conscious thought, and is characterized as being slow and careful. It would be responsible for doing things like studying for an exam, or making a to-do list.
Decision points then interrupt your system 1, and force your system 2 into action. Why would you want that happen? Consider this example. You’re sitting at home one day, watching your favorite TV series, and munching on your favorite snack, let’s say it’s a giant bag of Doritos. While watching the show, the process of eating becomes automatic as in you aren’t consciously aware of every chip that you’re eating. Because your System 1 is in charge, you don’t have to worry about the chips and can focus your attention instead on whether or not Walter White is finally going to get what’s coming for him.
What usually happens in this scenario, and many other similar scenarios, is you would tend to overeat according to your own standards. What I mean by that, is if I asked you beforehand whether or not you think you should eat a whole bag of Doritos, you’d probably say no. These are you own standards, and automatic processes do a good job of disrupting it.
You would surpass the point of eating until you are full because your thoughts aren’t focused on how hungry you are, or aren’t. It’s not surprising that a lot of dietary advice out there would suggest you eat without watching television. It keeps you more aware of how much you’re eating, and that’s good. But I think there’s a better solution, and I also think you’ll agree with me.
Eating while watching TV is a pleasure in life, and it should never be substituted for anything. This is where decision points come in. The first thing you would need to do is instead of grabbing the entire bag of chips, pour a bit of it into a bowl. Alternatively, eat a smaller bag. The reason this helps is that studies have shown that we are less likely to eat 5 bags of something, than eat 1, even if the 1 bag has the exact same quantity as the 5 bags combined.
This, I think, is truly amazing. What’s happening here is that every time you finish from 1 bag, you’re forcing yourself to make a decision point, “Should I open the next bag or have I had enough?” The reason I think this is so insightful is because it can be applied to so many different areas of life that have to do with discipline and control. Here are some from the top of my mind.
Say you’re trying to cut down on drinking, you can apply the same principle. To force yourself into a decision point, think about making your cups smaller. Maybe you’re a heavy smoker, and you want to cut down on smoking? Use more boxes with less cigarettes in each box, or smoke smaller cigarettes. Say you were watching too much TV and needed to force yourself to focus more? Set an alarm that would go off at the end of each episode. What all of these situations do is that they force your System 2 into an action. And as it turns out, that brief moment of intervention can go a long way to helping you stay disciplined.
Telling ourselves we need to something is easy, but forcing ourselves to do it is usually not. Oftentimes, we find ourselves really motivated at the start but see that motivation wane off as time progresses and routines kick in. It’s easy to stay focused and disciplined in the short run, but the challenge is to to maintain it, otherwise, there’s no point in trying in the first place.
I think decision points are a very powerful tool, if used correctly, and cleverly to be that extra push that you need to stay focused, motivated, and disciplined.
Human beings are innately irrational. We tend to overeat when we shouldn’t, we don’t stick to fitness plans, we miss appointments, we forget we put our keys, we are easily manipulated by media, we smoke, we do harm to ourselves, we don’t get enough sleep, we overpay, we trust people we shouldn’t trust, we make snap judgments about people without really knowing anything about them, we lose track of our spending, we procrastinate. But is irrationality truly damaging to our well-being, is it really harmful?
Being human entails being irrational, at least to some extent. A lot of the arguments that would be given for irrationality being harmful center on our failure to achieve goals we put forth for ourselves. That doesn’t really damage us. It prevents us from achieving certain goals in the short run, sure, but I think that’s necessary for our well-being.
There are thousands of different occupations in life, there are so many different paths, and choices we can make, and this explains why, wherever you go, you will find that people are so different. Now imagine for a second, that we were all perfectly rational beings. And to be clear, when I say perfectly rational, I mean we are not subject to any mental heuristics or shortcuts, every single decision we make is precise, mathematical, and well thought out.
In this world society, what I suspect we would have is a convergence of behavior to an alarming degree. Since some decisions are more rational than others, and since we are all rational human beings in the made up world, we would all choose the most rational decision. We would choose the same food, we would choose the same clothing, and there probably wouldn’t be any music, since it’s irrational to make music for people who are so rational that they have successfully devoted their lives to maximizing their productivity, and things like art, music, poetry, and theater would really have no meaning.
It wouldn’t really be a world that’s attractive to live in. Now, I’m not saying we need to be completely irrational, but some level of irrationality is welcome. It keeps us wanting to continually struggle against our nature, and that’s exactly what motivates us to improve. We need to be imperfect to have any kind of meaning in life. We need to fail at achieving our goals, so that when we do achieve our goals, they become all the more meaningful. If people didn’t have to endure hardships towards achieving what they want, then it would greatly reduce the meaning of trying to pursue that goal in the first place.
It takes hard work and tremendous effort to be able to identify our points of irrationality and then address them properly, but by having this balance, by consciously implementing rationality to fight irrationality, we become constantly motivated to strive for improvement.
Imagine human beings were perfectly rational beings who never made any mistakes, that all our thinking processes were perfectly valid and consistent. It would make for quite a boring existence, and that I feel, that would be quite damaging. Being completely rational is clearly not as harmful as being completely irrational (You’re more likely to survive if you’re completely rational), but the point here is that a little bit of irrationality is not really damaging us.
The more we learn about our irrationality, and the more we are able to adopt novel ways of becoming more rational, the more effective we will become at accomplishing our goals, and reaching a higher level of satisfaction, and the more we will be able to understand why human beings act the way they do, and that in itself is fascinating. Too much irrationality can obviously be harmful. We would make the wrong choices too often, and in a world where rationality exists, being too irrational can be a cause of social exile. Having said that, the level of irrationality that most people possess isn’t harmful at all.