Artwork: Zdzislaw Beksinski
When author David Foster Wallace made a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, he talked about the dangers of operating on what he termed: “our natural default setting”.
Wallace argued that through conscious choice, people have the power to interpret and respond to the frustrating, mundane realities of everyday life in a manner that is healthy and satisfying. This title of the speech: ‘This is Water’, refers to an allegory about fish not being conscious that the water around them is, actually, water.
By ‘natural default setting’, Wallace is referring to the unconscious; evolution’s way of filtering the huge amount of sensory information we are exposed to each and every day. But the unconscious has its drawbacks. Decades of psychological research have uncovered from it a number of cognitive biases that affect the way we think and behave.
Let’s dive in and look at five of these biases…
You’re not as smart as you think
Also known as the ‘delusion of competence’, the Dunning-Kruger Effect refers to the tendency for beginners to overestimate their knowledge in any given field. David Dunning and Justin Kruger observed the effect after being inspired by the escapades of McArthur Wheeler. Wheeler, who learnt about the use of lemon juice as invisible ink, covered his face in lemon juice in the hope that it would render his face invisible on surveillance cameras. He then attempted to rob two banks, and you can probably guess how that went.
Although Wheeler was correct in knowing that lemon juice is a substitute for invisible ink, he misapplied the knowledge in a stunning display of incompetence. From this example, the Dunning-Kruger Effect can be boiled down to a simple statement: ‘knowledge does not equal understanding’. When Dunning and Kruger tested this in the lab in 1999 (and subsequently in 2015), this one statement held true for beginners who thought themselves proficient in humour, grammar, and logic.
Thinking that we know more than we actually do is a dangerous trap to fall into. Overestimating our own competency can lull us into a false sense of security in which we resist any new information that comes our way.
So how do we avoid this handicap? Keeping an open mind is the best strategy to make the descent from ‘Mt. Stupid’. Seeking information from a wide variety of sources and listening to all sides of a story improves our ability to reason and think critically. This has countless applications: from academic studies to managing finances to social confidence and even romantic relationships.
When it comes to understanding, Socrates said it best. “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”
You hate giving up what you already have
Finding fifty dollars on the side of the road would put a smile on anyone’s face, but opening your wallet to find your own fifty dollar note missing may well ruin your entire day. This is what Nobel Prize winner Dan Kahneman, along with Amos Tversky, demonstrated in 1984; and it has held up ever since. First proposed an as explanation of the endowment effect, loss aversion describes the tendency for people to avoid losing something over gaining something of equal value.
Over decades of study, Kahneman and Tversky have observed that we ‘feel’ losses about 2.5x more than we do equivalent gains. When faced with a risky choice, we’re much more likely to choose to hold onto what we already have, rather than to gain something new instead. This finding has been used extensively in price marketing to reframe how sales offers are communicated. Getting a ten-dollar discount is good, but avoiding a ten-dollar surcharge is even better.
So why is loss aversion a pitfall for branding? Simply put: we see what we already own as more valuable than what we don’t. In fact, ownership is such a strong bias that it can distort our measure of value permanently. Being too loss averse can lead to becoming over-materialistic, or selfish, or vain, or narcissistic- but recognising that what you have is just as valuable as what the next guy has can lead to cooperation, understanding, and empathy.
Detaching ourselves from what we don’t really need can free up our cognitive load to focus on the things that matter. Here’s a test. The next time you find yourself attached to a material object, stop and think about the value you ascribe to it, and whether that value makes logical or sentimental sense or is simply a product of ownership.
You probably follow the herd
Humans are, evolutionarily, social creatures. We adapted to bond with one another in order to survive in numbers, and part of this survival depended on mimicking those who were successful, be it in hunting or building or mating and so forth. This mimicry may seem like primitive behaviour, but it is the foundation of social proof, and can be observed in any social environment.
Social proof as a concept has been around a long time. It was first described in the mid-1930s by Muzafer Sherif , who pioneered the field of modern social psychology. It was made popular, however, by Robert Cialdini, who described it as one of the six elements of persuasion in his highly successful book ‘Influence: Science and Practice‘. The mantra of social proof is this: when we don’t know what to do, we do what everybody else is doing.
Marketers have been using social proof for decades to nudge people toward certain actions. Charities and environmental campaigns in particular benefit from it: such as the hotel chain that used clever language to persuade people into reusing towels, or the highly influential ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’. Ghost followers are another example. These are accounts-for-hire that follow influential people in the hundreds to thousands in order to make them look more popular. Popularity is one of the main influencers of social proof. If someone popular is doing something that looks right, then it’s obviously the right thing to do, right?
Not necessarily. The handicap of social proof is following the wrong leader, or jumping on the bandwagon when we’re not really sure what the bandwagon is. Trends such as language, fashion choices, and pop culture references are most often harmless, but social proof can have a dark side. Cults masquerading as mass religious movements use social proof to indoctrinate members, with the most chilling result being the Jonestown mass suicide that claimed 918 lives.
This is an extreme example, but the dark side of social proof exists in our daily lives as well. Manipulative advertising, social peer pressure, and sponsored journalism are just a few examples of negative social proof in everyday life. Resisting it is having the boldness to stand up and say “no” in the face of what may appear to be a majority opinion. It’s the power to not jump on a half-baked social cause simply because everybody else is. (I’m looking at you, ‘Kony 2012’).
You like to brag about your goodwill
Social media is built around sharing, so it isn’t any surprise that more and more people are using it as a platform to share acts of goodwill to friends, family, and the rest of the world. Joseph Bulbulia first described this behaviour as ‘charismatic signalling’ in 2010, primarily in the context of the prosocial exchange demonstrated by religious collectives. It wasn’t until around 2015 that the term virtue signalling was used.
Although acting virtuously and selflessly is a good thing, showing the whole world how much of a good person we are can condition us to believe that virtuosity exists purely for the approval of others. One example is the numerous ‘acts of good faith’ videos staged by YouTube celebrities. It is arguably a trend to film oneself giving fifty dollars or a haircut to a homeless person to rake in the views (and YouTube revenue), but it can also be argued that as long as an action is charitable, the motivation behind such an action is irrelevant.
Many believe that there is no such thing as a selfless good deed because of the self-affirming feeling we get when doing something good for another person. Virtue signalling takes this belief to the extreme. When virtuous acts become solely about the self, and not about the people it should be benefitting, all the empathy is removed. Instead, ‘doing good’ becomes a form of narcissistic character building; a way to reassure ourselves that we’re decent people without necessarily being so.
Marketers figured this out long ago, and now a wealth of insincere marketing encourages us to act virtuously to make ourselves look good, without worrying so much about actually helping people. By recognising virtue signalling, we can make more holistic consumer choices and avoid falling into the ego-building trap. We can behave selflessly not for the approval of others, but for those less fortunate than ourselves.
You find choosing a path difficult and frustrating
Choice is everywhere. The Internet gives us access to an almost-infinite amount. Studies have shown that the number of brands on any given supermarket shelf have increased twenty-fold in the last two decades, and that ‘phantom brands’ direct our attentional resources towards certain products. All this choice should be a good thing, but as Barry Schwartz describes in his book: ‘The Paradox of Choice‘, too much can cloud our judgment and ‘freeze us up’. Since then, uncertainty in the face of too much choice has been known as analysis paralysis.
The first study to examine this was simply about jam. Psychologist Dr. Sheena Iyengar observed people buying jam from displays of either six or twenty-four different types. When asked how confident they were in their final choice, those who had only six jams to choose from were significantly more confident than those who had twenty-four options. Furthermore, actual buying metrics showed that almost 10x more jams were bought from the smaller display. From this, Iyengar concluded that limiting options almost consistently leads to better and surer choices.
Although there is no consensus yet as to why we are less satisfied with more options, a leading theory suggests that post-choice regret may be a factor. The more there is to choose from, the more we’re able to see what we don’t have; and we become less certain.
Ownership bias could even come into play as a defence mechanism. To protect against uncertainty in the face of abundant choice, we may try harder to convince ourselves that what we ended up choosing was the best possible option. Rationalising poor decisions may come as a consequence of this.
So should we avoid situations with too much choice? The research suggests that it might be beneficial. At the very least, it can help us to make more sensible financial decisions and avoid the disappointment that crops up when pining for what we don’t have. In today’s world, choice overload is a very real concern, and one that is exploited regularly. It does good to remember that, often, “less is more”.
But What Does it All Mean?
Every day the environment around us subtly influences the choices we make. How we decide on a particular action depends on a number of factors such as how accessible it is, how it is marketed, whether it is socially normative, whether others are choosing it, and many more. All these factors are exacerbated when we operate on our ‘natural default setting’.
The five patterns and biases we explored are just a narrow slice of what can occur when we approach ordinary, mundane, everyday situations on ‘autopilot’. The goal of being aware of these patterns is not necessarily to become a more ethical consumer or even more enlightened, but to take conscious control of how you choose to respond to stressors and unexpected changes in your environment.