The mind is flat: The illusion of depth in human behaviour

Archived Article • 31 January 2011 • Opinion

When we choose a car, vote, or make a moral choice, we imagine ourselves driven by deep motivations and desires. But one of the insights of modern behavioural science is that this feeling is almost entirely an illusion. Rather than consulting our 'inner selves', we are, rather desperately, attempting to figure out, there and then, what we should do and feel. Rather than drilling down into some stable bedrock, we cook up a credible-sounding story about our behaviour, on the spot.

The brainLet's take an example. Suppose I ask how much TV you watch each night. I might give you options such as (a) 0-15 mins, (b) 15-30 mins, (c) 30-45 mins, (d) 45-60 mins, (e) more than 60 mins. Suppose you consult your 'inner statistician' and select (c).

Now, I might, though, have asked you whether the answer was (a) 0-1h, (b) 1h-2h, (c) 2h-3h, (d) 3h, (e) more than 3h. Your inner statistician should, of course, look deep within your experience, and select (a). But there is no inner statistician, peering into your mental depths - indeed, there are no mental depths to peer into! Instead, with either set of options, you actually think-"Help, I've no idea! I suppose I watch a bit less TV than the average person; and these options probably cover the population at large. So perhaps I'm a (c)." And you do this both times. Even though the answers are wildly inconsistent.

This phenomenon, prospect relativity (Stewart, et al., 2003), is ubiquitous. Perhaps it doesn't matter much whether I know how much TV I watch. But the same problem arises everywhere. We can be induced, by similar trickery, to favour wildly risky investments (if the others are even riskier) or stodgily safe ones; to favour fuel efficiency over performance in a new car, or the reverse; to focus on quality, or price, when in the supermarket. There is no point trying to figure out what I really want, and providing it - I don't know what I want myself.

There are limits to our flexibility and confusion. As I mentioned, one way we cook up stories about what we want is by considering what we normally do. If I usually buy quality audio equipment, I have some evidence that this matters to me - so I'd better do when next in the store. I'm like an author flicking back in my manuscript to remember a character's hair colour; to be consistent, I have to check what I like and feel, and stick with it.

Experiments on choice blindness by my collaborator Petter Johansson show this process in operation very neatly (Johansson et al. 2005). Petter asks people to choose which of two faces they think is most attractive; and then by a conjuring trick, presents the person with the face they didn't choose saying "Tell me why you chose that one." This shocking thing is: (i) people don't notice the switch; (ii) they are perfectly happy to provide an explanation for choosing face B, a few seconds after actually choosing face A.

What does this mean for running a corporation? Don't try to look deep inside your customers, or your employees, or yourself. Do focus on the moment-by-moment processes of buying, working or living that people find rewarding, and create more of them.

Johansson, Petter; Lars Hall, Sverker Sikström, A. Olsson (2005). Failure to Detect Mismatches Between Intention and Outcome in a Simple Decision Task. Science, 310, 116-119.
Stewart, N., Chater, N., Stott, H. P., & Reimers, S. (2003). Prospect relativity: How choice options influence decision under risk. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 132, 23-46.

Photo credit: Andrew Mason

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