A good look at the irrational decisions we make every day. Knowing when we get things wrong is helpful in a wide range of areas: knowing how to market a product, how to be a more conscious consumer, how to ask people for help, how to make a diet successful, and how to enjoy food and wine more.
Some good quotes:
Humans rarely choose things in absolute terms. We don’t have an internal value meter that tells us how much things are worth. Rather, we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another, and estimate value accordingly. (For instance, we don’t know how much a six-cylinder car is worth, but we can assume it’s more expensive than the four-cylinder model.)
One thing Rapp has learned is that high-priced entrées on the menu boost revenue for the restaurant—even if no one buys them. Why? Because even though people generally won’t buy the most expensive dish on the menu, they will order the second most expensive dish. Thus, by creating an expensive dish, a restaurateur can lure customers into ordering the second most expensive choice (which can be cleverly engineered to deliver a higher profit margin).
We not only tend to compare things with one another but also tend to focus on comparing things that are easily comparable—and avoid comparing things that cannot be compared easily.
This, then, is what we call arbitrary coherence. Initial prices are largely “arbitrary” and can be influenced by responses to random questions; but once those prices are established in our minds, they shape not only what we are willing to pay for an item, but also how much we are willing to pay for related products (this makes them coherent).
You’re walking past a restaurant, and you see two people standing in line, waiting to get in. “This must be a good restaurant,” you think to yourself. “People are standing in line.” So you stand behind these people. Another person walks by. He sees three people standing in line and thinks, “This must be a fantastic restaurant,” and joins the line. Others join. We call this type of behavior herding. It happens when we assume that something is good (or bad) on the basis of other people’s previous behavior, and our own actions follow suit.
If we can’t rely on the market forces of supply and demand to set optimal market prices, and we can’t count on free-market mechanisms to help us maximize our utility, then we may need to look elsewhere. This is especially the case with society’s essentials, such as health care, medicine, water, electricity, education, and other critical resources. If you accept the premise that market forces and free markets will not always regulate the market for the best, then you may find yourself among those who believe that the government (we hope a reasonable and thoughtful government) must play a larger role in regulating some market activities, even if this limits free enterprise. Yes, a free market based on supply, demand, and no friction would be the ideal if we were truly rational. Yet when we are not rational but irrational, policies should take this important factor into account
Zero is not just another discount. Zero is a different place. The difference between two cents and one cent is small. But the difference between one cent and zero is huge! If you are in business, and understand that, you can do some marvelous things. Want to draw a crowd? Make something FREE! Want to sell more products? Make part of the purchase FREE!
As Margaret Clark, Judson Mills, and Alan Fiske suggested a long time ago, the answer is that we live simultaneously in two different worlds—one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rules.
As we learned in our experiments, cash will take you only so far—social norms are the forces that can make a difference in the long run. Instead of focusing the attention of the teachers, parents, and kids on test scores, salaries, and competition, it might be better to instill in all of us a sense of purpose, mission, and pride in education.
It may be that our models of human behavior need to be rethought. Perhaps there is no such thing as a fully integrated human being. We may, in fact, be an agglomeration of multiple selves. Although there is nothing much we can do to get our Dr. Jekyll to fully appreciate the strength of our Mr. Hyde, perhaps just being aware that we are prone to making the wrong decisions when gripped by intense emotion may help us, in some way, to apply our knowledge of our “Hyde” selves to our daily activities.
Much of our life story can be told by describing the ebb and flow of our particular possessions—what we get and what we give up. We buy clothes and food, automobiles and homes, for instance. And we sell things as well—homes and cars, and in the course of our careers, our time.
Our propensity to overvalue what we own is a basic human bias, and it reflects a more general tendency to fall in love with, and be overly optimistic about, anything that has to do with ourselves. Think about it—don’t you feel that you are a better-than-average driver, are more likely to be able to afford retirement, and are less likely to suffer from high cholesterol, get a divorce, or get a parking ticket if you overstay your meter by a few minutes? This positivity bias, as psychologists call it, has another name: “The Lake Wobegone Effect,” named after the fictional town in Garrison Keillor’s popular radio series A Prairie Home Companion. In Lake Wobegone, according to Keillor, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
Some years ago, two very perspicacious researchers, Marian Friestad and Peter Wright, suggested that people in general are starting to understand that the offers companies put before us are in their best interest and not ours. As a consequence, we’ve become more distrustful—not only of those who are trying to swindle us but of everyone.