(First published on Urban Times on 04th Sep 2012)
In this installment of CompacTED, we will explore the nature of options, decision-making and initiative.
Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and author of Predictably Irrational, explains how our decisions are often guided by factors that we are not aware of. He starts off by revealing certain optical illusions, through which our brain is tricked in seeing things that are not there. Then he expands on the subject by applying the illusion to other parts of life, including financial, professional and romantic decisions.
In a nutshell, Ariely shows that whatever we do is influenced by the way the situation is set up. When faced with a choice, for example, people will often opt for the least complex one, especially when they have no strong opinion on the matter. Go simple, in other words, seems to be the answer, especially in a world inundated with information.
Going simple seems to also work when people are well-versed in a topic. Doctors faced with a variety of choices statistically tend to choose the simplest one available.
Then there’s the choice that no one wants, the third choice, which helps people make up their minds. In simple terms, when faced with three options, one of which makes no sense compared to the other two, people tend to choose differently than when faced with only two reasonable options. The reason is that the ugly duckling of the three options brings out the beauty in the remaining two, making one of them the obvious choice.
Choice Is The Spice of Life (Caution: Extremely Hot! Handle With Care.)
Ariely’s talk is extremely enlightening, albeit disconcerting at times. It reveals how we are not in control of our choices as much as we think. We are in fact subject to numerous factors, too many for comfort. The variables we are continually faced with in everyday life are too influential and deterministic. The choice to do something may seem ours, but the impulse behind it is driven by the setup.
The choice to do something may seem ours, but the impulse behind it is driven by the setup.
Some may call this a fascinating rather than a disconcerting insight. The spice of life. I mean, wouldn’t our existence be droll without an element of variation edging us on, forcing us to act and react differently to seemingly similar circumstances?
The issue becomes more complicated when someone has control over said variables. Taking out randomness and substituting it with calculated intention turns the tables. From the way the form at the DMV is written up to the way the shelves at the store have been arranged, to the wording in medication ads and the design of malls and casinos, covert influence tactics are being employed across the board by numerous people and organizations in order to elicit specific responses from individuals. The spice is no longer a condiment one adds to one’s daily diet. It’s a fixed but hidden ingredient, which burns uncomfortably.
“Our Enemy Is Thoughtlessness”
At the end of the day, we have to put some effort into figuring things out. It can’t be done for us by others, because it would then defeat the purpose of getting to the bottom of things. Our aim is to examine the idea behind an action and see whether there is merit in it or not, and if there is, how to qualify it.
Damon Horowitz, teacher of philosophy through the Prison University Project, brings college-level classes to inmates of San Quentin State Prison. In this powerful short talk, he tells the story of an encounter with right and wrong that quickly gets personal.
“Let’s do this!” A simple but profound decision. All one has to do is set the stage properly and the choice becomes not only apparent but also inevitable.
Mind The Minders
Bottom line is, design is everything. How one sets a situation up affects how it is dealt with. Physical or cognitive, our structures have a way of influencing. Put a man in jail and tell him he has been up to no good and he may just believe it. Offer him a second or third option though, through which he may begin to question his actions, and he may make some changes for the better.
It is the same for every man, woman and child across the globe, in all walks of life. We are all in a prison of some kind, battling with our selves, our loved ones, our demons and priorities. Having an extra option can do wonders for us, if set up properly.
Let the designers be mindful of their power and put their craft to good use. Our well-being depends on it.
Let us thus pay homage to them, because they provide us with the ability to choose, all the while helping us feel good about ourselves.
Let us also be mindful of the manipulators, whose intention is to extract behavior for their own selfish ends. Being aware of our choices will make their task a lot harder and our lives much richer.