"We're blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We're not designed to know how little we know."
It's cold and snowy outside. I'm 14 years old walking over to my friend's place to watch a movie. Luckily I only have to go to the next apartment building, but I should have worn a jacket! Once we're there I learn that his mom rented three movies. My friend is happy with either one and asks me which one I prefer. One is a comedy, one is an action movie, and one is a scary movie. This is a pretty easy choice. I'm not really a fan of horror movies. I really like comedies, but I'm kind of in the mood for action. Action movie it is!
It's five years later and I drive to the movie rental store. There are hundreds of choices. There's a whole section for comedy movies. There's another whole section just for action movies. Plus, there are about 15 other sections. It's hard to decide, but I finally find a comedy that I'm interested in, but it took a half-hour.
20 years later I turn on my TV. I have thousands of movies I can watch on Netflix. I have thousands of movies I can watch on Prime Video. I can't decide amongst all these choices, so I punt. I watch one of my favorite movies that I've already seen several times.
Making decisions is hard; there's too much data and too many choices. We have to rely on shortcuts. In other words, we're lazy.
There is a lot of data in the world. If we had to sit down and sort through all the information we needed, we would never be able to make a decision. We have to take shortcuts. These shortcuts are called heuristics, and they save us a lot of time but introduce errors into our decision-making.
So if I define being lazy as taking shortcuts, we're hardwired to be lazy.
It's not just that we have too much information to deal with. Often we have too many choices. This is counterintuitive. It's tempting to think that we would be happier with more choices. I should be happier with thousands of movie choices. But, it was actually easier to make a decision at the video store when there were only one hundred choices - most of which were already rented out. And, we were happier because we didn't have the choice paralysis. It actually gets better than this. It's even easier to make a choice when someone asks you if you want to see movie A or movie B with them. Two choices. Simple. Make a decision and move on.
When there are too many choices we end up in the weeds. The fear of regret enters our minds. If we choose option 1, we think, would be have been happier with option 2? But what about option 3? It's a fine line.
Our minds were designed to be lazy. We can't sort out too much information and we struggle with too many choices. So what does that mean? We rely on default choices. Some of these default choices have names, including anchoring bias and status quo bias.
Anchoring happens when an idea gets thrown out at us. It could be a number, like the sticker price of a car, but it could also be an option, like where to go for dinner. Once we have an anchor dropped, it's hard for us to deviate from the anchor - it's an easy choice. We might think we're negotiating or getting a good price, but anchors matter. If you've ever purchased something because it was 40% off and you focused on the amount you saved rather than the amount you had to pay, anchoring was in play.
Status quo bias is the idea that we don't like change. We prefer to stay the same (aka prefer the status quo). This is like a jacked-up version of anchoring because the status quo is a heavy anchor. Even if the change would be good, our primitive minds prefer consistency. Even if it's bad, we know the rules. If you know someone who smokes cigarettes and wants to quit but is struggling, status quo bias is part of the reason for the struggle.
Default choices are given to us in other ways, too. Those responsible for form design are giving us default choices. If the default option at your job is to enroll in the 401(k) contributing 3% unless you opt-out or make a change, then most people will contribute at 3%. If, on the other hand, your company makes you opt-in to the 401(k) plan, many people won't open one.
You see the same thing with organ donation. If the default is that you are an organ donor unless you opt-out, most people are donors. If you have to opt-in to be a donor, most people won't.
We would be very uncomfortable in a world where everyone else was making our decisions for us. So our brains effectively trick us into thinking we made a good decision, even if the decision was made for us.
If you were persuaded to buy an item for $60, you justify the purchase because you saved 40%. If you continue smoking even though you want to quit, you'll tell yourself it's because it's not as bad as you think or that it's not the right time. If you have a 401(k) at work it's because you're responsible and want to take control of your future - unless you had to opt-in, in which case you don't want your money tied up until you're 60 or you can't afford it right now. If the default option is to be an organ donor, you'll tell others that organ donation saves lives and you want to be a part of the cause. If you had to opt-in to being a donor and you're asked why you aren't, it's because you are worried about organ harvesting and pulling the plug on people too soon.
Our primitive brain makes most of our decisions, and our conscious brain justifies it.
Solution to the Laziness Problem
Understanding how we make decisions helps us have a little more clarity around our choices. There isn't a solution in the traditional sense. It's not necessarily a bad thing that our minds take short cuts. If it didn't, we would never get anything done.
The trick is to simply understand what's happening. Becoming aware of the natural tendencies we have helps us catch some of our biases and errors.
Increasing awareness of our decision-making capacity helps us understand that biases and errors are not only possible, but common, and that knowledge can help us make better choices in the future.
You only have one life. Live intentionally.
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Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences
Dan Ariely: Predictably Irrational
Dan Ariely, Jeff Kreisler: Dollars and Sense
Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow
Michael Pompian: Behavioral Finance and Wealth Management
Jason Zweig: Your Money and Your Brain
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at or thought about while writing this article. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced my thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.
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