Post No.: 0497
Primes and whatever we happen to be currently thinking about affect our decisions, while anything we fail to currently consider or recall won’t. This should be obvious e.g. if we’re vegan and we’ve momentarily forgotten that chewing gum contains lanolin then we might take some. We often say, “I didn’t think about it” when neglecting something – well if we don’t think about or cannot remember something at the juncture when we need to remember it then it’s practically as useful as never having known it at all e.g. if we slam the brakes during an oversteer skid!
‘What you see is all there is’, as it were. What’s not currently on our minds might as well not exist there at all regarding how it affects our current feelings/decisions, whereas information or thoughts that are being currently recalled, primed or planted in our minds will have a significant influence on our current feelings/decisions. Exploiting this feature (some argue the ‘flatness’ of our minds, as in the only things that matter are what’s on our minds here and now thus ‘mental depth’ or the sense that we’re being guided by ‘deep and resolutely steadfast attitudes and preferences’ is, at least in most part, an illusion) is essentially the basis of mindfulness meditation – when we’re thinking of only what’s in the present and immediately around us, our minds aren’t ruminating about a traumatic past or uncertain future.
Meditation is where this feature can be used to our benefit, but in other contexts it can lead to irrationally inconsistent decisions or thoughts e.g. the justifications we give to the decisions we make are affected by the present situational factors around us at the time hence we might give different reasons at different times and/or places for the same actions or choices we make.
We might give different answers to questions that are worded or presented slightly differently but logically mean the same thing e.g. presented with a binary choice, when a question asks us which we’d ‘prefer’, we might pick a logically contradictory answer compared to if the question asked us which we’d ‘reject’, because the former will conjure up reasons to accept, and the latter will conjure up reasons to reject, an option. When unsure, options presented as the default are also more popular.
How we interpret ambiguous information in the environment depends on our current physiological state/emotions, and vice-versa regarding how we interpret our current physiological state/emotions depending on the external cues we’re exposed to e.g. when we’re either given a real shot of adrenaline or a placebo – if we’re told that we were given a real shot then we’ll more likely interpret an irritating/funny person as less irritating/funny because we’ll rationalise that part of our response as being down to the effects of the adrenaline.
Whenever we use language like something is ‘quite likely’ to happen – whether this means, say, a 51% or 90% chance depends on the current context and what we think ‘not likely’ means.
Even our political or moral views are somewhat malleable depending on the current context we’re in or the presentation of a choice set. This means that even if we had total freedom of choice in a totally free society, it’d be illusory because others or the environment we’re currently in can easily manipulate what we’ll prefer and choose. We may also hold contradicting beliefs we’re not aware of unless they’re directly brought together to our attention. Which freedom we’d wish to prioritise can be inconsistent from one situation to the next.
But if there’s neither a deep internal moral compass nor an ‘Archimedean point’ (a hypothetical standpoint from which one can make truly objective judgements) and everything is merely contextually relative, then are morals relative too? Is the goodness/wickedness of an act merely dependent on what or whom we’re comparing it to e.g. a person who drives a small hybrid car (which still burns petrol) is ‘environmentally friendly’ in a society where others mostly drive large gas-guzzling vehicles? However, just because moral relativism might be the way we operate – it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s how we should operate. We probably need to at least try to think more absolutely rather than rely on our raw judgements because e.g. if we’re careful about recycling but frequently fly abroad and think that balances out then we’re just fooling ourselves.
We might question how our own individual personalities fit into all this? Personalities seem reasonably consistent and don’t these affect our decisions too? Surely it’s the combination of our personality and the current environment/situation we’re in that influences our choices and behaviours? Personalities are in large part genetically influenced according to twin studies – wouldn’t this give our minds some ‘depth’ and consistency? Don’t we have long-term memories? Don’t our previous furry education and experiences count for anything? What about when we can remember that we’ve forgotten something although we can’t recall what that something was? If we have long-term plans then how are these made and kept as we move from one context to another? Aren’t there unconscious processes that exist and influence us too? Our minds therefore mightn’t be completely ‘flat’?
Nevertheless, many of us think ‘somewhere deep inside of us’ we know our true desires/preferences and that it’s only a matter of somehow bringing these into our conscious awareness – but really, we’re mostly making answers or choices up as we presently go along. And that’s why they can be logically inconsistent with themselves over time. Seldom will we feel stumped or admit that we don’t know how we came to the decisions we did, but we’re conjuring ourselves the illusion of understanding lots of things because we’re good at inventing or guessing answers on the fly that sound plausible, coherent and rational. Or we’re good at rationalising things after the facts are revealed, which then makes these answers appear ‘obvious’ and we ‘knew them all along’. Information that came later becomes incorporated into the reasons why we gave one answer over another e.g. if a risk pays off then we’re more likely to reason that we knew it was going to succeed, or if that same risk fails then we’re more likely to reason that we knew it was too big a risk to take. This is the ‘hindsight bias’ – but we’re either liars about having known something ahead of time, or foolish for failing to act on what we apparently ‘knew’(!)
Another example is the ‘endowment effect’ – whatever we currently have, we can start to rationalise why we like it more than the alternatives we didn’t take. This can happen even if we mightn’t have actually chosen that option because it was fur-tively forced upon us e.g. in lab experiments – between faces A and B, if we chose face A but, after a while has passed, the experimenter sneakily presents and asks why we liked face B, many of us will still be able to provide reasons for making this ‘choice’. This can occur with political views too. And after we’ve justified a position, we’re more likely to listen to our own arguments too.
There were indeed reasons why you chose one option over another – otherwise you’d not have made a choice at all – but the reasons claimed can change over time as new information arises because we come up with or update our reasons at the present time rather than always stick to those reasons we had in the past. Part of it might be fooling ourselves or lying to preserve our public reputations, but the main part will be not knowing how our own minds work and how we really make the decisions we do, for we’re being influenced by current information and our current emotions more than we think. That’s how we can easily resist temptations… unless they’re right in front of us!
Things in our present environment – that we’re not always consciously aware of – are influencing us at every single present moment, and so when we try to explain our decisions, we can fail to give the true reasons. So we probably won’t say it was the music in the shop that swayed us towards purchasing a particular country’s wine, even though, in experiments, we can see that shoppers would’ve more often bought different wines if there were different or no music playing instead. We’re often unaware of how our decisions arise, and it’s made worse because we think we know e.g. we think it was because we heard from someone earlier that a particular wine was good and that’s why we chose it. If we’re trying to ‘listen to our gut’ for some ‘deep’ insight then it could actually be being manipulated by current and ‘shallow’ factors.
If we’re to guess the weight of an animal but have no clue what it could be, but can see what other people have guessed – we’ll likely become anchored towards their guesses. So if they guessed high then we’ll likely modify our own guess to be slightly higher than it was, or vice-versa. Most of all, we’ll tend to think that our own answer wasn’t influenced by what other people guessed because we like to believe that we’re totally independent-minded.
This all means that market research where respondents self-report the reasons for their choices can be highly unreliable e.g. lots of people saying that animal welfare concerns are a key factor but this isn’t reflected in their actual purchasing decisions, or saying they don’t trust social media as a news source yet more and more people are getting their news from social media(!) It’s not always due to intentional response biases, such as people concealing their true feelings in opinion polls.
We have to try to anticipate needs, but we’re poor at imagining what we might want or need in the future. We frequently don’t know what we want until we see it. As a consumer yourself – do you know what’ll be the new product you ‘must have’ in 5 years time? Yet business bosses tend to assume they understand themselves thus tend to assume consumers understand themselves too.
We need to therefore understand the minds of consumers rather than listen to their voices. This is where experimentation e.g. product release trials, or econometric data e.g. how buying patterns change when the weather changes, is more reliable. People, when interviewed in focus groups, might claim that telling them how taxes will be spent will encourage them to more promptly pay their taxes, whilst social norm pressures won’t make a difference – but according to experiments conducted in the real world, we find that disclosing more information about how taxes are spent makes no difference, whereas telling people that most other people in their area have paid their taxes increases the number who’ll promptly pay!
This also highlights that CEOs and politicians have far less influence on people’s behaviours than designers of products, leaflets, letters, forms and choice sets!
The goal of ‘nudging’ (see Post No.: 0414) is to change the presentation of the options (which options exist remain the same as before) such that it influences people’s decisions. A merely different presentation of a choice set shouldn’t make such a disproportional difference to what people choose if people were rational and consistent, but it can do. The unhealthy lunch option being merely one extra metre away or one extra click of a button away shouldn’t make people choose it less, but it can. Placing the toilets in a private space but the sinks in a public space encourages more people to wash their hands because of the fear of being watched and judged for not doing so. People still have the freedom to not wash them if they want but far fewer won’t.
Woof. So rather than having lots of deep and persistent internal preferences – we’re being influenced by what we’re currently being presented with and by our current emotions more than we think.