The Situationist

Archive for July 10th, 2008

Predictably Irrational

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 10, 2008

Predictably Irrational Dan Ariely, Professor of Economics at Duke University, has an article in the UK publication “The Independant,” in which he details some of the scenarios his team studied that show how people can behave irrationally in various situations. Part of the article is excerpted below.

* * *


Next time you hit the town in search of a date, take a friend who looks similar to you, but is slightly less attractive. We presented participants with two portraits – Mike and John – and asked them to choose whom they’d rather date. For half the participants we distorted the picture of Mike and added it to the set, so they had John, Mike and an ugly version of Mike to choose from. For the other half of the students, we distorted John, so they had Mike, John and an ugly John.

When the ugly version of Mike was presented, the attractive version of Mike became the most desirable date. And when the ugly version of John was presented, John’s attractive version became the most desirable.

It is very hard for us to evaluate things in absolute terms. So, we evaluate products and people in relative terms, which makes us vulnerable to this kind of trap, called the asymmetric dominance effect.

Spending power

We asked a group of MBA students to write down the last two digits of their Social Security number next to the descriptions of a few products. We then asked them if they would pay the amount of money indicated by these numbers (79 became $79 and so on) for each of the products.

We then asked them to bid on the items in an auction. It turned out that people with higher Social Security numbers were willing to pay more.

What was going on? It’s not that people with high Social Security numbers are willing to pay more for everything in general. Instead, it is what’s known as the power of first decision. Once people start thinking of something as having a specific value, they do so not just once, but repeatedly.


Dan Ariely’s book is called Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. Below is an excerpt from the book.

* * *

So we live in two worlds: one characterized by social exchanges and the other characterized by market exchanges. And we apply different norms to these two kinds of relationships. Moreover, introducing market norms into social exchanges, as we have seen, violates the social norms and hurts the relationships. Once this type of mistake has been committed, recovering a social relationship is difficult. Once you’ve offered to pay for the delightful Thanksgiving dinner, your mother-in-law will remember the incident for years to come. And if you’ve ever offered a potential romantic partner the chance to cut to the chase, split the cost of the courting process, and simply go to bed, the odds are that you will have wrecked the romance forever.

My good friends Uri Gneezy (a professor at the University of California at San Diego) and Aldo Rustichini (a professor at the University of Minnesota) provided a very clever test of the long-term effects of a switch from social to market norms. A few years ago, they studied a day care center in Israel to determine whether imposing a fine on parents who arrived late to pick up their children was a useful deterrent. Uri and Aldo concluded that the fine didn’t work well, and in fact it had long-term negative effects. Why? Before the fine was introduced, the teachers and parents had a social contract, with social norms about being late. Thus, if parents were late — as they occasionally were — they felt guilty about it — and their guilt compelled them to be more prompt in picking up their kids in the future. (In Israel, guilt seems to be an effective way to get compliance.) But once the fine was imposed, the day care center had inadvertently replaced the social norms with market norms. Now that the parents were paying for their tardiness, they interpreted the situation in terms of market norms. In other words, since they were being fined, they could decide for themselves whether to be late or not, and they frequently chose to be late. Needless to say, this was not what the day care center intended.

But the real story only started here. The most interesting part occurred a few weeks later, when the day care center removed the fine. Now the center was back to the social norm. Would the parents also return to the social norm? Would their guilt return as well? Not at all. Once the fine was removed, the behavior of the parents didn’t change. They continued to pick up their kids late. In fact, when the fine was removed, there was a slight increase in the number of tardy pickups (after all, both the social norms and the fine had been removed).

This experiment illustrates an unfortunate fact: when a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time. In other words, social relationships are not easy to reestablish. Once the bloom is off the rose — once a social norm is trumped by a market norm — it will rarely return.

* * *

To listen to an interesting, nine-minute All Things Considered interview of Dan Ariely, click here. In addition, a podcast with an interview of Professor Ariely and describing more of his research can be found at Open Source, while an interview with him from ABC Radio National can be heard by clicking here. Image from Harper Collins. We’ll have another post on Ariely’s book later this week.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Book, Podcasts | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

The Situation of Fear

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 10, 2008

This post was actually a comment written today in response to our post from last week, “The ‘Turban Effect.’” We thought many of our readers might find the comment interesting, so here it is. (Thanks Jeffrey.)

* * *

Lately, some scholars have been looking at reasons behind and implication of manipulating fear. Princeton University’s John F. Wilson explains why: The obsession with managing evil comes from “a concern, often exaggerated, to achieve control over those aspects of life experienced as uncertain.” From the Puritans to the present, people bent on controlling their lives have been haunted by the inescapable fear that they might lose that very control.

Sensational cases startle the public into accepting a new understanding by opening gateways to the publics fears and frustrations, and igniting processes that illuminate the boundaries of a community, notes Indiana Professor Steven Chermak, author of “Searching for a Demon,” adding: “The media defines these events, relying primarily on representatives from institutions typically used in the construction of news.”

According to Professor Chermark: “The legitimacy of a threat depends only on the perception that the target is extremely dangerous to the security and stability of society. Thus a threat is successful when it produces fear. Fear is a vitally important cultural commodity that helps to justify the demonization of individuals and groups by people in power. The news media contributes directly to this demonization by sustaining and feeding off of the publics fears. The news media will intensify its coverage when a threat is thought to be significant, but in doing so, it promotes and aggravates the corresponding fear.” In an article, Marketing Fear: Representing Terrorism After September 11 in the Journal for Crime, Conflict and the Media (here), Chermak notes that by framing specific or unspecified opponents, clear or ambiguous opponents as threatening helped to dehumanize these targets, and validate any planned responses by social control agencies and justify the need for additional resources to respond to them.

But such tendency can reach a level where some sensationalists aspire to see their audience to live in what Jeanne Jordan, author of The Panic diaries, calls “a world of perpetual ‘duck and cover’, a world of terror alerts scrolling across the bottom of our television screens. A world where evening news feeds our fear.” Many of us are beginning to get weary of the pushier sort of experts, declare Christopher Booker and Richard North. In their book, Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming they point out: Gone is the sense of proportion, the admission of scientific doubt, the ability to weigh risks against benefits. Taking seriously a year’s worth of their health warnings would give anyone an eating disorder. This tendency makes Anne Applebaum, author of ‘Finding Things to Fear’ remark: Now that we’ve eliminated most of the things that the human race once feared, we’ve just invented new ones to replace them.

The discourses of state agencies locate Islam and Muslim communities not simply as “problem communities” but as security concerns, notes Defence Studies scholar Katherine Brown. There is a need to watch out if certain contributors to this debate about minority communities wish to steer it from discussing ‘politics of difference’ to stirring up the ‘politics of fear’.

* * *

To download a pdf of Steven Chermak’s “Marketing Fear,” click here. For a related Situationist post, see “Law and Situation of Military Propaganda.” For other Situationist articles on the War in Iraq, click here; for one on on how ideology may influence vulnerability to propaganda, click here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

%d bloggers like this: