I love stories of talking animals. These are the kinds of stories the old and wise tell to the young and foolish. The elders don’t hit you in the head with commands but guide you to discover the story’s application. You learn the concept and apply it to your own situation.
The Fox and the Cat is an ancient fable about expectations. The cat and fox are talking, as animals are want to do, about what they would do in case of an emergency. In fables, the emergencies typically are humans: hunters in particular.
The fox, being very smart, has many ways of escape. He is very clever, which he is quick to point out. The cat is impressed by the number and variety of options the fox has. Sadly, the cat has only one method: climb a tree. The fox scoffs but is interrupted by the arrival of the hunters. The cat climbs a tree. The fox is still pondering his options when he is captured.
The practical conclusion is that it’s better to have one safe exit than a hundred that don’t work. The original moral was probably to not boast about being clever. For our purposes let me suggest that the moral is about how expectations impact decision making.
Expectations are predictions. The cat expected (predicted) it would get caught but knew exactly what to do in case of emergency (run up a tree). The fox expected he’d get away, easily. He had many routes to choose from. As it turns out, thinking takes time and energy. We think fast but deciding between multiple alternatives is slower. Every channel you surf takes a little bit more time. In cognitive science terms, the fox got caught because it takes time to process options.
Deciding also takes energy. Making decisions is tiring. Making many decisions is very tiring. It depletes your mental energy. One reason it is hard to decide what to eat for dinner is depletion. After a long day of making decisions, your decider circuit is tired. Decision fatigue shows up as physical fatigue.
Decision fatigue can lead us to not making decisions. Rather than make another decision, you want to just avoid deciding altogether. Iyengar & Lepper found that the more choices you have, the less you want to decide anything. Facing six options is better than facing 26. You feel outnumbered when there are too many options. It’s a choice-war.
Additionally, your satisfaction decreases when you have too many options. You calculate the odds of happiness based on the number of options. The more options, the less likely you are to have selected the correct one. Then after making a choice, all you can think of is the that correct choice is probably one of the options.
Since having too many options also decreases our satisfaction with whatever we choose, how many is the right number? No one really knows. But here are some of the ways we handle decision making when we are fatigued.
First, we select the status quo. We go with whatever the current setting is. If the TV is on, we leave it on. If it is off, we leave it off. When we are wiped out, we try hard not to decide. We expel no effort.
Second, we choose the default setting. We may turn the TV on but leave it on whatever channel pops up. We expel limited effort.
Third, we use event substitution. This happens a lot in companies. We get everyone in a conference room to handle an issue. Then, instead of solving the marketing-manufacturing problem, we fight about what to have for lunch. We substitute a small fight in place of the larger war.
Fourth, on a smaller scale, we substitute components. This is also called reasoning by simplification. Instead of wrestling with a complex problem with many variables, we work on a simpler and less complex problem. Cognitive psychologists Kahneman & Frederick call this attribute substitution. We make analogies. “The parking problem is a lot like pizza delivery.” “Hunting for a new CEO is a lot like finding a new dry cleaner.” Some analogies are better than others but all serve the purpose of simplification.
Fifth, we substitute real issues with simple rules: heuristics. In contrast to a formula or algorithm which will always work (even if it is not the fastest method), a heuristic is a mental shortcut. It is fast and usually works.
The underlying meaning of heuristic is to find or discover a solution. They ease the cognitive burden of decision making. These “rules of thumb” are practical methods. They don’t guarantee success but they are derived from experience with similar problems. And they are readily accessible.
Obviously, the most fundamental heuristic is trial and error. But it is the least satisfying. Trial and error is what we do after we’ve tried everything else.
George Pólya proposed several heuristics in his book “How To Solve It.” Written in 1945, these suggestions have been around a long time. Pólya suggests drawing a picture of the problem situation and working the problem backwards. These ideas are related to the general suggestion of switching from abstract to concrete or concrete to abstract. They are suggestions on perspective.
You may be less familiar with the Inventor’s Paradox. It says that the more ambitious your plan, the more chances you have of succeeding. This might be a good spot to point out that heuristics aren’t always true. Your mileage may vary.
Herbert Simon offers two thoughts on heuristics in problem solving. He uses the terms “bounded rationality” and “satisficing.” Bounded rationality means that there are always limits to our decision making process. We often lack information (what our competitor will do), can’t track the entire process (we tend to think and think but then jump), and don’t have enough time to think things through (the traffic light is changing; right, left or straight?). We also are limited by our cognitive and computational abilities. There are limits to what we can do.
Simon’s second term, satisficing, is what we do when we run out of time and resources. We find a satisfactory solution which requires sacrificing perfection. When we can’t get optimal, we go for good enough.
German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer says we should embrace satisficing. He calls this approach “fast and frugal.” He maintains that we get more accurate decisions if we don’t weigh all the options. We should ignore part of the information. It helps focus our attention and clarify our priorities.
The general principle is called the focusing effect. It is our tendency to put too much importance on one aspect of an event. We focus on the past experience of others (all these people became zillionaires) and not on our likelihood for success. If you ask “how much happier are tall people than short people,” the wording assumes a difference that doesn’t exist. But we go with it.
In Tversky & Kahneman’s study of human decision making, they note that we tend to rely too heavily on the first bit of information we receive. We make it an anchor, and make all of our calculations based on that pin. Once the anchor is set, our mental boat doesn’t drift very far. Manufacturer-suggested or list prices are there to make subsequent prices seem more reasonable. Saving 50% off of an inflated price sounds better to us than paying full price for a lower initial offer.
Dan Ariely likes to ask an audience to recall the last two digits of their social security number. These are chance numbers with no actual power or significance. He asks if they would pay that amount for several items (wine, computer, chocolates, etc.). Then he has them bid for the items. People with higher ending digits bid higher. Once we have an anchor, even if it is by chance, we tend to stay with it.
Anchoring is hard to avoid. It seems quite built in. If you were asked if Thomas Jefferson died before or after age 9 (or before-after age 120), it seems unlikely that this anchor would affect you but it often does. Students given similar options, guessed closer to their anchor, whichever one they received.
Julian Rotter proposes a more general expectation theory that has two major components: the size of the reward and the likelihood of receiving it. He says we balance both parts of the equation. We go for risky propositions if the reward is high but stay with predictability when the rewards are low.