(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.

It’s the law!

Laws give us that certainty, which is why we are so fond of them. We expect moving objects to always obey Newton’s law, or we expect the economy to always follow the law of supply and demand. And where there are no such laws, we just construct our own. We form beliefs based on what we are taught or what we observe: BMW-drivers never use their indicators, or politicians are all crooks out to line their pockets. Pretty much we treat such beliefs as laws too.

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

Progressive insight

If this can happen with beliefs about animal behaviour, then we can expect the same with human behaviour. In a recent episode of the Freakonomics podcast, one of the guests was Sheena Iyengar, a psychologist renowned for her work on choice. Her research lies at the basis of the so-called paradox of choice. Early in her career, she and Mark Lepper investigated how children react when they can choose from a multitude of toys. They found that, instead of being elated and engaging in play, the children “would look at all these toys and stare outside the window”. This went against the prevailing scientific belief at the time: more choice produces more intrinsic motivation, higher satisfaction and a greater sense of control. Iyengar and Lepper also conducted the now famous jam study, in which shoppers at a prestigious supermarket were shown a choice of 6 types of jam in one condition, and 24 kinds in the other condition. 60% of people stopped to taste with the larger amount of jams on display, while only 40% did so when just 6 jams were presented. But of the people who saw the 24 jams only 3% actually made a purchase, while 30% of those who stopped for the smaller display went on to buy jam. It seems we enjoy choice because we value the multitude of opportunities, but we don’t like the cognitive load of actually having to choose between too many options, like the children or the shoppers confronted with 24 jams.

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

Assumptions, better than beliefs?

Assumptions are often reasonable as a first order approximation in most circumstances. Classical music is more likely to feature violins than accordions; most popular Dutch lagers are pretty bland; people prefer more choice over less choice. But if they are turning into beliefs, it is much harder to accept there may be nuances we are missing.

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