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Choice blindness

Week 1 Block 3
Now, you might think– and indeed, a lot of psychologists do think– that the type of thing I’ve been telling you about is really just saying that looking inside your mental depths is a pretty tricky business. So there’s all this mental stuff in there. And when you try and peer at it, it’s pretty hard to measure. It’s a bit unstable. And that’s just telling you the introspection about your own mind and psychology generally is just hard. I think it’s worse than that– a lot worse. Let me give you a couple of examples why. The first example is by a team involving Petter Johannson and Lars Hall from Lund in Sweden.
So what they did is they did a series of very interesting experiments where you give people choices. So for example, they give you pairs of faces, and you say, which of these faces do you find most attractive? The participant points to one of the faces. This is done just across the table. And the experimenter then hands the face to the participant and they explain why they prefer that face. So far, so good. Now, on a small number of trials, a clever trick is performed– literally a magic trick. We’re using the techniques of close up magic. You get one face selected, and by literal trickery, you hand them the other face. So the participant says, I prefer A, not B.
And then they’re given B and asked to justify it. Now, you might think the immediate reaction of the participant would be to say, oh, sorry. There’s some mistake there. That’s the wrong one. That occasionally happens, but very, very rarely. So what about their justification? What can they say about why they chose B? Well, they didn’t choose B, so they shouldn’t be able to say anything. But in fact, they’re absolutely happy to justify their choice of B. Their justifications are just as rich, just as elaborate in every way as their justifications when they’re actually justifying the thing they really chose. What does that make you suspect? It makes you suspect that the justification is being completely made up on the spot.
They’re not reaching back into their mental world and saying, ah, let me just look back at the reasons I did this, the reasons I made this choice. There aren’t any reasons. If you tell them they made a difference choice from the one they did that, they’ll tell you a story about that just as well. They’re making it up as they go along. It turns out that this phenomenon works in an incredibly large range of examples. So you can give people the same trickery with jam flavours. So they say, yes, I prefer this jam. Then you give them the other jam, and say, now, why did you prefer that other jam? And they’ll tell you and they won’t demur.
And it also works with political opinions. And it works for moral dilemmas, too. Let me tell you a little bit about the political opinion case. So there– and indeed, this was done just before an election in Sweden. You give people a list of political viewpoints which correlate with being right or left wing. And in Sweden in this election, there was a left and a right party, as there so often is in many electoral systems. So you give a set of views which indicate roughly your left-right position on the spectrum.
And then you’re asked to review what you just chose, and again, by literal magic trickery, you’re represented with your own handwriting, with your own marks on the page, but with the questions switched. So some of the questions are now the opposite– they’ve got a not in them or whatever– to the question you thought you were asked. So now, when you look at the answers you gave, you find that you’ve answered in a slightly more right wing or a slightly more left wing way than you would normally. People are asked whether they want to make any changes, and they normally don’t. As with the faces, they think, no, no, that’s fine. I’m happy with those views. Now, that’s interesting in itself.
So I’m not too sure what I think about a lot of political issues. So if you tell me I said something different to what I actually said, I’m happy with that, too. But here’s the real shocker. Then you ask people what they’re going to vote. And it turns out that if you’ve made someone feel a bit more right wing by tricking them into thinking they have slightly more right wing views than they do, they think they’re going to vote for the right wing party slightly more, but very significantly more.
And if, on the other hand, you do the same trick in the leftwards direction– so you take someone’s views and you make them just a little bit more left wing by trickery– then they think they’re more likely to vote for the left wing party. So for something as basic as political affiliation, people are still quite malleable. So how are we to figure out, what am I going to vote? Oh, gosh, well, I’ve just said these reasonably right or reasonably left wing things. I guess I’m going to have to vote for the left or right wing party. Now, this isn’t going to be an overwhelming effect.
If you’re a left wing party activist or a right wing party activist or you’ve always voted the same way all your life, then of course you know which way you’re going to vote. That’s not because you’ve got some inner mental state which is somehow guiding your politics. It’s because you’re doing what you always do. And you know what you always do. I’m trying to cook up a story about what I’m going to do next. I think, well, I’ve always done this before or I’ve delivered leaflets for this party. Surely I’m going to vote for them. But you’re still cooking up a story.
And for the very, very many things where we don’t have a very clear story, you can push that story all over the place. The important thing is, again, you’re making it up as you’re going along. And here’s a final example, which was pioneered by Eldar Shafir at Princeton and his colleagues. Here, we just consider giving people two choices. Would you like to do A, or would you like to do B? If you had a clear sense of what you value, what you prefer, you just have to look inside your mind and find it. Then it should be pretty easy to decide this question. Of course, if A and B are almost equally valuable, it may be a tricky question.
But that’s the only reason. Now, let’s take this in a particular context. Suppose, to take a hypothetical example, I’m going to ask you whether or not you would prefer to have a holiday in somewhere exotic– let’s say Bali– but it is very expensive and you’ve really got to pay the real money. So it’s a tough one. You’d like to go, but it’s very expensive. On the other hand, I have a cheap option. Let’s say, if you’re in Britain at least, Bournemouth. Bournemouth is a coastal resort, perfectly pleasant, nice beaches, but not terribly exciting. But it’s a lot cheaper than Bali. So you’ve gotten a Bali Bournemouth trade off. What are you going to go for? Now, here’s an interesting thing.
If I ask people would you prefer to go to Bali or Bournemouth, say, 60% of them say Bali– totally made up data. If, on the other hand, I ask them, which would you like to rule out, which would you reject of these two, they tend to say Bali. But that’s crazy– with 60% probability. That’s crazy. How could it be that people both prefer to choose, to select, Bali, but also when asked which they’d like to reject, it’s the very same option. It can’t be that the very same thing is what you’d like but also what you’d like to rule out, surely.
Now, according to any view of the mind in which your preferences, your beliefs, your values, they’re all just sitting in there, fixed, to be consulted. Any view of that kind can’t really explain why rejection versus acceptance should have any influence on the choice you make. But here’s a view which can. And this is what Eldar Shafir calls decision making as reasoning– reason-based decision making. The idea is when you ask me whether I want to go to Bali or Bournemouth, I don’t know the answer. I have to cook up an answer. And how am I going to do this?
If you ask me which is better, which is preferable, which I’d like to choose, I think I must look for a really good reason about something positive. You’re telling me to focus on the positive because you ask me which I’m going to choose, so I think Bali– lots of positives about Bali, all sorts of exciting things. So I choose it. If, on the other hand, you say which would you like to reject, now you’re putting me in a negative frame. Now, I’m thinking, hm, yes, I’ve got to reject something. If I’m rejecting it, it must have some bad property. Now, what bad thing do we have about Bournemouth and Bali? Well, Bournemouth isn’t a bad place.
It may be less exciting than Bali– not bad. But Bali is way too expensive. That’s a really bad feature of Bali. I can’t afford that. So you reject it. So just in general, if I have two options and one has some extremely good features and some extremely bad features and the other is just more moderate, it tends to be the case that we have a desire to choose, to prefer, the extreme option with the extremely good and the extremely bad. But also, we tend to want to reject the extremely good option as well. And this is a very, very general phenomenon. It occurs in a wide range of cases, even things like simple gambles.
For a simple gamble with a high risk of a big prize, that seems exciting. So if I have a high risk of a big prize versus a smaller prize, but a more chance of winning, I tend to go for the big risk. But if you ask me which of those gambles I’d like to reject, I tend also to want to get rid, to reject, throw away the high risk, low probability gamble. In the accept case, I’m thinking, oh, I like that gamble, because I could win a big prize. Great, I’ll accept it. If you want me to reject one of the gambles, then I think, oh, well that gamble’s got hardly any chance of winning. I’ll reject it.
So the very same thing can be accepted and rejected. And that’s telling you that your decision is really being made up on the spur of moment. And whether I’m priming you, whether I’m encouraging you to think positively– by asking about acceptance and therefore think about positive attributes– or negatively can flip the choices you make. So you’re not consulting your inner mind. You’re not looking inside the deep recesses of your real desires when you’re deciding what to do for your holiday or any other decision. You’re making it up as you go along.

Using three examples of research into how people behave when they are offered a clear choice between two options, in this video I present further evidence to suggest that we are not looking into the deep recesses of our mind when we are making decisions – we are making it up as we go along.

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The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

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