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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Wine, Wars (and Rumors of Wars), and Why (Unlike Indiana Jones) We Often Choose Unwisely

Cognitive psychologists and behavioral economists have found that behind every choice, there are a set of heuristics (i.e., rules of thumb, strategies) that guide our decisions. One, for example, is priming, which is where our subsequent actions are affected by prior cues. For example, test subjects were asked to read a series of words that were associated either with being elderly (e.g., “forgetful,” “Florida,” “wrinkle”), and when they were then asked to walk to a room down the hall, those who read the "elderly" words walked more slowly than those who had not.

Another is anchoring. It turns we make our judgments in comparison to alternatives. For example, a $25 bottle of wine seems expensive next to $5 bottles but relatively cheap next to $150 bottles. There's a story told about a pool-table store that one week began showing customers the cheapest tables first before then moving on to the more expensive ones and the next week began with the most expensive tables before working on to the cheaper ones. In the week that the store began by showing the expensive tables first, the average sale was almost twice as much!

Then there is the availability heuristic. This is the tendency to make judgements about the frequency of an event based on how easy it is to recall similar instances. In other words, how easily something can be called to mind is related to perceptions about how often this event occurs. As Steven Pinker notes people overestimate the probability of the types of accidents that typically garner headlines, such as plane crashes, shark attacks, and terrorist bombings but underestimate the likelihood of events that don't such as drownings, falls, and electrocutions (Pinker, "The Better Angels Of Our Nature," p. 193).
In a survey of historical memory, I asked a hundred Internet users to write down as many wars as they could remember in five minutes. The responses were heavily weighted toward the world wars fought by the United States, and wars closest to the present. Though the earlier centuries, as we shall see, had far more wars, people remembered more wars from recent centuries (Pinker, p. 194).
This helps explain why most people think that Roman Catholic priests are far more likely to sexually abuse minors than Protestant pastors, but as I've pointed out several times in this blog ("Celibacy and the Pastoral Abuse of Minors," "Not to Beat a Dead Horse, But," "USA Swimming Child-Abuse Scandal"), that simply isn't so. The percentage of Roman Catholic priests that abuse minors (4%) is no higher than the male population at large, but because reports about abuse by Catholic priests have tended to attract headlines, while those of male teachers, coaches, and Protestant pastors typically have not (this, thankfully, has begun to change), people overestimate the rate of abuse Catholic priests relative to others. This is not to excuse away Church officials who attempted to cover up the abuse and/or didn't defrock the guilty priests (or at least place them in settings where they could do no more harm), but it does help explain why the public's perception is so skewed.

Priming, anchoring, and the availability heuristic are not the only rules of thumb that we use to make decisions. Excellent discussions about these and other heuristics can be found in Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow," David Brooks's "The Social Animal," and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's "Nudge." The bottom line: We don't think through a lot of the choices we make as thoroughly as we should.

P.S. If you're like most people, you think that you're the exception, that heuristics don't guide your decisions. You are, of course, wrong because, well, you're like most people.

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