November 7, 2007


Pick The Red One

I read this article yesterday in the NYT (John Tierney, the science writer, is awesome. Check out Tierney Lab when you have some time), and the accompanying graphic shows a monkey trying choose between a red M&M and a blue one. As Jackson walked past, he asked what the story was about.
"Cognitive dissonance," I told him. He got that scared look in his eye that his mother was about to explain something to him. He was right. He tried to run. I insisted on trying to explain it to him. He is fast, but I am strong.

Don't run. It's pretty cool. I was aware of the concept, sort of, but only in that loose-shutter-banging-in-the-wind kind of way. I forget about it unless it's banging, and I ignore it if it is.

Anyway...it's about how we make decisions. We think we're so sophisticated in our problem solving techniques, but it turns out that capuchin monkeys do the same thing we do. And so do 4-year-olds. We're not that sophisticated after all.

Cognitive dissonance explains how we can do really stupid things, and yet make it all seem so smart in our own tiny heads. We can make the lamest decisions and talk ourselves into it - it's called rationalizing. And if you've lived with a rationalizer, you know that every day is like walking through snow drifts up to your neck. Bad decision after bad decision, each one *brilliant* according to the rationalizer.

When faced with options, we assess the attractiveness of those options. When forced to ultimately choose one, we immediately downgrade the attractiveness of the option we didn't choose. Even though just a second ago it was equal to the one we did choose. By dumping on the loser choice, we rationalize that the one we selected was the wise decision.

This all reminds me of multiple choice tests in school. I've told my kids the time honoured strategy for these things: 4 choices - one automatically dead wrong, one with tricky wording to trip you up, and two that both seem pausible. You then shut your eyes and pick one with your pencil tip, and go on to the next question.

According to the scientific research in this article, adults, monkeys and preschoolers all have no problem with this. They sleep well that night having made their choice.

So where's the lab for those of us who agonize over those decisions? I'd gladly trade a cup of cognitive dissonance for my tea right about now...must be nice to think you've always made the right decision. Sigh.

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