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(featured image credit: Henry Burrows CC BY)

Don’t be defensive (be surprised)

We should be pleased when what we observe contradicts what we believe to be true: wisdom arises when the unexpected happens

We people are simple at heart. We are of course incredibly complex machines — just think about the elements of your anatomy that allow you to read these paragraphs: the muscles, tendons and bones in your hands and fingers, your eyeballs that can turn left, right, up and down, with their diaphragms that can adjust to the light level, the nervous system that connects the lot together, and the brain with its billions of neurons to control it all and make sense of what you see. Yet we like the world to be simple… too simple perhaps.

A possible reason for this desire for simplicity is that we tend to prefer certainty over uncertainty. The dependable straight lines of the exclamation mark in ‘That’s the way it is!’ are so much more comfortable than the circuitous bends of the question mark in ‘What on earth is going on?’ We like our world to be predictable.

It’s the law!

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The law of nice Dutch beer: there is no such thing as nice Dutch beer. Or is there?

And what do we do when we are confronted with facts that violate one of these laws? We have plenty of ways to eliminate the cognitive dissonance that we would otherwise experience. We can ignore it, or dismiss it as an anomaly that doesn’t count. “A nice Dutch beer? Ah, you mean La Trappe? But that’s a Trappist beer, which is a Belgian beer really!” We can question the validity of the facts, or of the person who raised them. (“Who mentioned a nice Dutch beer? Oh, Fred? But he knows nothing about beer!”) We can declare them to be outside our scope. (“Hertog Jan? Yeah, very nice, but they call it a barley wine, and I was talking about lagers!”)

What would happen if we didn’t immediately pull up the defences, but actually engaged with the apparent conflict between new facts and our beliefs? A few weeks ago, I came across a captivating discussion on Twitter, which featured a clip from a nature documentary. In it, a young female leopard that has just killed a baboon discovers that her prey was carrying a new-born young. Remarkably, rather than eating it, she proceeds to protects it from a bunch of hungry hyenas, taking it up into a tree, and keeps looking after it.

Some people may dismiss this film as fantasy, staged by the makers, in defence of the belief that leopards inevitably will kill and eat helpless little baboons. But if you trust it to be truthful and suspend that belief, an interesting question arises: what might be behind the behaviour of the young female? Clearly, she did not lack the instinct to feed herself, having just killed (and not even eaten yet, so she was still hungry) the baby baboon’s mother. Are we witnessing a stand-off between two instincts — one for survival, and one for maternal care?

It’s hard to tell. But what is obvious is that the primary instinct we associate with hungry predators is not the only driver for their behaviour. Even if we don’t suddenly see young leopardesses routinely starting to fostering orphan baboons, this single unusual, unexpected, frankly surprising event tells us something: it can happen. The belief that a hungry leopard will always kill and eat any prey animal, and never safeguard it, has been dented.

Progressive insight

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Jam today, tomorrow, and all year, really. But is it too much? (image: Joanna Poe CC BY)

Iyengar and Lepper’s experiments in themselves would be a good example of unusual, unexpected behaviour, which challenges a prior belief (“more choice is better”), and which gives rise to new insights. But it is just the beginning of the story: a lot of choice is not always too much choice. As Rory Sutherland once said, “if you’ve driven 27 miles around the North Circular (a notoriously unpleasant London road) to visit a place called World of Jam, you’re probably not going to walk in and go ‘Oh Jesus! There’s just too much jam.’” Context matters.

But does choice overload really exist? A meta-analysis, conducted by Benjamin Scheibehenne at Basel University and colleagues, cast doubt over its very existence, finding a mean effect size of virtually zero (albeit with wide variation). At the very least, the researchers concluded, it is complicated: not just the number of options available but also the structure, and the decision processes matter. And this finding too was not the last word. A further meta-analysis, by Alexander Chernev, a psychologist at Northwestern University, and colleagues, identified four factors (choice set complexity, decision task difficulty, preference uncertainty, and decision goal) that have a reliable and significant impact on choice overload.

Sheena Iyengar’s remarks in the Freakonomics podcast clarify what might be happening here. We don’t necessarily just shop when we go to a store. For instance, even if most of the time we routinely put the same products in our trolley, week in, week out, we will still to some extent be on the lookout for new. In addition to replenishing supplies, we are then looking to update our knowledge on the available options, deliberately seeking variety and novelty. If one of our goals is to discover new options, then more options will be benefiting us. In contrast, when we go into your habitual coffee shop in the morning, we are not in updating mode at all: just give us exactly what we’re having every day, and leave out the choices.

Assumptions, better than beliefs?

If we are truly concerned with understanding the world better, whether it is in academia, trying to replicate social science experiments, or more generally, in our manifold interactions with our fellow humans, assumptions are more useful than beliefs. When beliefs are contradicted, we feel a strong need to defend them.

Assumptions, on the other hand, allow us to keep our mind open for the unusual, the unexpected, and the surprising. To paraphrase Paul Saffo’s ‘strong opinions, weakly held’ mantra, it is thanks to strong assumptions, weakly held that we learn that not all Dutch beers are bland, not all BMW-drivers are inconsiderate maniacs, and we can be doing more than just replenishing our pantry when we go shopping.

That is how we learn.

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on December 14, 2018.

Read all the way to here? Great, thanks! I hope you enjoyed this post. If you did, let me (and others) know by clapping for it (check the 👏-like icon nearby), that would be much appreciated. Also, please share it, using the Twitter or Facebook icons on your left or below this paragraph, by clicking here to post it on LinkedIn, or by simply copying and pasting this link. If you want to read more short essays on looking at the world through behavioural economics lenses, check out my other posts here, published pretty much every Friday. Thank you!

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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