Making your mind up

17 November 2010

 Decisions 2 by cuellar, on Flickr
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Decisions 2 by cuellar, on Flickr

I stood in the lunch queue, a string of anxious people behind me, the server tapping impatiently on the counter with his spoon, clock ticking down, minutes to go before I had to be at Wellcome Collection for the latest Packed Lunch talk. Yet I still couldn’t decide… what did I want for lunch?

The irony was not lost on me. This Packed Lunch was on decision-making.

Would I have fared any better had the speaker, Peter Ayton of City University, been next to me in the queue? A Professor of Psychology, Ayton studies human judgement and decision-making, and he said one thing that might explain my lunchtime dilemma: our reaction to choice.

You’d think that the more options we have the better able we might be to pick the one most suited to us. But we humans need things simpler than that. Ayton described an experiment where shoppers in a department store were offered different samples of jam to try and buy.  When 24 jams were offered, many people tried them, yet few bought them. But when just 6 jams were on offer, many more people followed through and bought a jar. The theory goes that when you have more variables to contend with, it actually makes you less likely to make a decision.

And we’re worse when re-evaluating a decision we’ve already made. Ayton told us of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. According to this behaviour, we find it difficult to cease the pursuit of a goal even if a better option comes along later, because we’ve already invested so much in the current course of action.

And it seems to take hold relatively early in life. In an experiment, Ayton’s team of researchers asked children to imagine that they had to eat their least favourite breakfast cereal in order to save up tokens for a toy reward. They were then told that on the last day, a kind Uncle gifted them the money to buy the toy, so they wouldn’t have to eat that last box. Would they still eat it? Younger children of 4-5 years old wouldn’t eat the final packet of cereal. But older children would. It’s the Sunk Cost Fallacy at work.

The behaviour is, as Ayton discovered in 1998, remarkably similar to a theory zoologists refer to as the ‘Concorde fallacy’. Coined by Richard Dawkins, it refers to the British and French governments continued funding for the supersonic Concorde aircraft, even after they realised it would never be economically viable.

One of Ayton’s biggest achievements was uncovering this unlikely synergy between the two completely separate fields of psychology and zoology. And it’s been a fruitful discovery, as Ayton says, there is much we can learn about human behaviour from studying that of animals.  Animals, he says, are “exquisitely adapted to their environment” – they only take risks (e.g. going for a risky food source) when they absolutely have to. Animals don’t tend to commit the Sunk Cost Fallacy, but humans do, and that’s what’s interesting.

During the talk, Packed Lunch host Dan Glaser wondered if this deleterious effect was the result of our having evolved to be self conscious and socially aware. Is this the reason for our irrationality? Here, Ayton revealed that it wasn’t just humans that are irrational. Bees do it too. Studies have shown that when presented with different flowers to feed from, bees showed a distinct preference for flower A over flower B. and flower B over flower C. Yet they also chose flower C over flower A!

“Bees have been bees for longer than people have been people, so irrationality is something that has evolved in different species,” said Ayton.

The question on everybody’s lips was, as a Professor of human judgement, is Ayton any better at decision making himself?

Sadly, the answer is no.

“Many people get into this field because they recognise their flaws. But we’re no better at decision making than anyone else. When I think about a decision, I see not only the options but all the fallacies I might commit!”