Horizon: How You Really Make Decisions

Watched another brilliantly eye opening Horizon tonight: How You Really Make Decisions (on iPlayer for another 16 hours at time of writing).

I’ve heard, watched or discussed variations of most of the ideas in the programme, as will have anyone that’s keen on TED, Radiolab or BBC science programmes, but they’re so nicely put together here that it got me plotting and thinking again about cognitive biases.

We are so ruled by them it’s scary, and if the programme is correct, they are flaws that evolved in us millions of years ago and so something we are utterly unable to avoid in our everyday lives.

There’s a great list of them on Wikipedia and another on the Rationalwiki if you’re in a multiple sources mood.

Classics are the optimism bias and the seemingly obvious loss aversion effect but I’m also a fan of the planning fallacy and the IKEA effect, which caught my eye while scanning the list!

There’s an great piece on the Guardian on the man most credited with discovering and developing the ideas of cognitive bias: Daniel Kahneman changed the way we think about thinking. But what do other thinkers think of him?

The plotting that all this stirred in me again is the possibility of deliberately design into these biases. Rather than thinking of a nice idea or product (that itself is probably manifest from our own biases), could we pick one or more, and consciously leveraging the tendency in others?

The denomination effect for example. Perhaps there’s an even more effective version of the pound shop that could encourage the spending of coppers and loose change, if that’s what we’re inclined to spend more freely (my Mum used to ‘say take care of the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves’, so maybe she knows it works)?

Or perhaps hoping that people will be nice and leave positive reviews on review sites is just fighting the negativity bias and so an outright negative review service could be more successful in that sector. Bait grumpy trolls and people that really like to moan, then extrapolate good things as the ones that don’t get reviewed. “We have zero ratings on moanr.com”.

This idea is horrid, obviously. To consciously identify weaknesses in humanity and then design into them with intent to extort, but once you see the list, it’s hard not to see the exploits and at least consider how you yourself can or have been had.

Our optimism and confirmation biases for example make us susceptible to break-ins I think: The confidence that the negative act won’t happen to us, combined with the fact that we’ve left our windows open before without being burgled. When our open window is ‘broken’ into, we’re surprised and pissed off, but more likely susceptible to the overconfidence effect and the idea that it won’t happen again now it’s happened once (there’s a bias on misunderstanding odds as well but I can’t remember which).

In writing this I remembered something a good friend once said, while feeling a bit down about themselves and struggling to write an online dating profile: “I’m just a collection of traits”. Which is totally right! We all are. Collections of traits and biases that make us all act in certain and predictable, if uncontrolable ways. Not a great definition, sure, but better than ugly giant bags of mostly water!