Base Camp is where visitors go to relax, unwind, and get familiar with an anthology of earlier material.

CompacTED: The Dynamics Of Decision-Making

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 guided by factors that we’re not aware of.

He starts off by revealing certain optical illusions, through which our brain is tricked in seeing things that aren’t 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 tend to go for the least complex one, especially when they have no strong opinion on the matter. Go simple, in other words, is the answer, especially in a world inundated with information.

Going simple also works when people are well-versed in a topic. Doctors faced with a variety of choices statistically tend to choose the simplest available.

Then there’s the choice that no one wants, the third choice, which helps people make up their minds. In basic terms, when faced with three options, one of which makes no sense compared to the other two, people are likely to make a different choice than when faced with two reasonable options only. 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 enlightening, albeit disconcerting. It reveals how we’re not in control of our choices as much as we think. We’re subject to numerous factors, too many for comfort. The variables we’re 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 gets complicated when considering has control. Who controls the variables? Taking out randomness and substituting it with calculated intention turns the tables:

The form at the DMV, for example, isn’t randomly put together. Someone writes it up, arranges and formats it.

The shelves at the store are arranged intentionally.

The wording in medication ads…

The design of malls and casinos…

Covert influence tactics, all of them designed to elicit a specific response from customers/visitors/consumers.

Like it or not, the spice is no longer a condiment we add to our daily diet. It’s a fixed but hidden ingredient that 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 – it would defeat the purpose of getting to the bottom of things. Our aim is to examine the idea behind an action and see whether there’s merit in it or not, and if there is, how to qualify it.

Damon Horowitz, teacher of philosophy in the Prison University Project, brings college-level classes to inmates of San Quentin State Prison. In his 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, and the choice becomes not only apparent but also inevitable.

Mind The Minders

Bottom line, design is everything. How one sets up a situation affects how people deal with it. Physical or cognitive, structures have a way of influencing us. Put a man in jail and tell him he’s been up to no good and he may just believe it. Offer him a second or third option, on the other hand, through which he begins to question his actions, and he may yet change, and for the better.

It’s the same for every man, woman and child across the globe, in all walks of life. We’re in a prison of some kind, battling with ourselves, our loved ones, our demons and priorities. Having an extra option does 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’s pay homage to the designers. They provide us with the ability to choose i.e. the notion of free will, helping us feel good about ourselves.

Let’s also be mindful of the manipulators whose intention is to extract behavior for their own selfish ends. Being aware of our choices makes their task a lot harder, and our lives richer.