How to choose wisely

There is a better way to make a choice, and it is suitable both for choosing institutions with Yelp, and for choosing a partner for a date.

Water with or without gas? Organic or regular avocado? [ Organic food is a marketing term promising that synthetic pesticides, synthetic mineral fertilizers, and the like were not used to grow these agricultural products. - approx. trans. ] Four-star hotel or hotel 3.5? The modern world throws out a wagon of choices in the consumer market, and the Internet not only expands our consumer capabilities - giving us access to almost all world music through a smartphone application - but also offers many chances to learn about new tastes and bad taste chosen by others.

For several years before publishing my book “You might also like: taste in an era of endless choice” in 2016 [You May Also Like: Taste of Endless Choice], I plunged into the study of consumer behavior with the help of social sciences, psychology and neurobiology. To help you navigate the tangled labyrinth of endless choices, to choose smarter, more effective, and using self-analysis, I made excerpts from this study in the form of a column with tips. I added questions to it based on the real questions that arose during the study and which I heard from friends and readers.

Last night I tried to find a hotel in Florence via TripAdvisor. I spent many hours reading the reviews and after that I became even less confident in my choice than before. Can “crowd wisdom” be trusted in places like TripAdvisor and Yelp?

First, let's expand this statement. Author James Surovietsky expressed in his 2004 book “The Wisdom of the Crowds” [The Wisdom of Crowds] an opinion which is often neglected: “a group of people are much more likely to come to a good decision if the people in the group are not dependent on each other”. In other words, the crowd is more likely to be wise if people from it do not have access to "the same old data with which everyone is already familiar." On the sites Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon and other hives, consisting of ratings and reviews from users, people are not alone. The review they write will be seen by other people, and prior to writing their own review, the opinion of many other people will already affect the person.

Reading about other people's feelings is not the worst way to predict your feelings. Psychologist Timothy D. Wilson and his colleagues at the University of Virginia noted that the surrogation process (substitution, learning from someone else's experience) can lead to "more accurate predictions about the pleasure that a person will receive in the future than a simple description of the sensations obtained." In particular, this happens because we can not take into account our prejudice about how much we might like such a thing as a hotel, and also because we can be inclined to believe that our personal experience is more unique, what it really is.

But the opinions of others may give rise to their own prejudices. Sinan Aral, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his colleagues found in their experiments that, through the process of “socially biased prejudices,” the presence of positive feedback could lead to the following positive reviews. Analysis of reviews from Amazon showed that later book reviews tend to differ from earlier ones; the problem is that previous reviews affect readers' expectations, and people start to review other reviews. And those who write reviews have the strongest motivation - they had either the best or the worst feelings. This may explain the famous J-shaped distribution: most reviews are positive, but the graphics have a sharp negative “tail” and a deflection in the middle. The bias of choice comes, of course, before people write a review; prejudice purchases suggests that people who are likely to like something, are among those who first bought it.

There are other dirty tricks. A hotel may turn out to be popular on TripAdvisor due to the fact that it is cheap, or due to the large number of reviews - and not necessarily due to the fact that it is the “best” place to spend the night. As shown in The Journal of Consumer Research's consumer preferences study, which was conducted when comparing reviews of various categories of products on Amazon, the products that received the best reviews rarely coincide with products that were the best in the magazine’s test results.

If your couple does not like modern art, take it to the exhibition of unforgettable works by Lucien Freud

Finally, because of the effects of ordering, we may simply not find things that could be our favorites. On a recent trip to a coastal Mexican city, one person advised me to an unremarkable seafood restaurant on the beach. Dinner in him was the best for the whole trip. But after searching it on review sites, I found that he stood dozens of places from the “best” restaurants.

So what to do? Use TripAdvisor and similar sites superficially. Pay attention to the overall rating and the number of reviews, but do not go deep into their undergrowth - you will quickly be confused by the conflict of expectations and feelings of different people. Ignore reviews with one or five asterisks, focus on what happens between them - there people more adequately describe their feelings. Look more at photos added by users than on reviews to draw your own conclusions. Explore other sources. The wisdom of the crowds does not always help to look for less popular places.

Once in the restaurant, I always spend a lot of time trying to decide what to order, and this annoys my friends terribly. How can I make a choice that I will be satisfied with, and in general, how to get the most pleasure from dinner?

You will be helped by several heuristic rules. Economist Tyler Cowen suggests ordering the least appetizing dish from the menu - if it sounds so bad, it probably is not in vain on the list. Psychologist Paul Rozin offers the following advice: if you want to have more fun before eating, order what you have already eaten; you can use your memory of the pleasure. But if you want to create new memories - more fun in the future - order something new. And do not need to think too much about food in advance. Studies have shown that even the very thoughts about a certain food can cause a “sensory-stimulated saturation” effect, because of which our enjoyment of food begins to decrease as soon as we begin to eat it.

“Choose wisely,” advised Goethe. “Your choice is brief and endless at the same time.” And it's easier to do when you have lunch alone. Choosing a meal in a group, as psychologists Dan Arayley and Jonathan Livav discovered, can provide less satisfaction, as we often order not what we want because it was ordered by someone else at our table. Studies conducted in a French restaurant, found that when about 85% of people from a group begin to choose their own food, the rest begin to consider various options.

No need to worry too much about this choice. This is just a choice of food - and we make about 200 such choices per day, according to a food researcher, Brian Vansinku. Your regret will last no more than before the next meal. Ignore what your friend ordered, ignore the waiter’s advice about what worked out especially well today, ignore the memory of what you ate last time - follow what your gut advises.

Sometimes I stumble upon some thing I bought and think: “What am I just thinking about?” How can I be sure that my own choices will make me happy?

Imagine that you are in a store, looking for a new sweater. Sweaters of various colors are laid out on the table. Your look seems to have fallen on a certain shade - this is not what you usually take, but you decide to try. But before you understand what made you make such a choice, it is necessary to think about what attracted your view to this particular sweater. As Roger Carpenter, a professor of physiology and neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, noted, most often during the day we make a simple decision - where to look at the next moment.

But these eye movements, or saccades , do not occur as quickly and predictably as one could imagine. As Carpenter notes, “we need a lot more time to respond to a sensory stimulus than it is meaningful purely physiologically.” In other words, something happens outside the net reflex, as if the brain is thinking about how it wants to perform this, at first glance, unconscious, action. This is only one element in support of Carpenter’s theory of the existence of a “nerve mechanism” in the brain that helps generate random behavior. "The brain's neurons encode probabilities in themselves," he writes, "and compete with each other for the right to make decisions." So in the case of sweaters, your choice of sweaters, even if it’s not the type of sweater that you thought you would like more, could be the result of neuro-racing.

But just because you saw it before everyone else does not mean that you will definitely buy it. However, this raises the following question: if we cannot fully answer for what, how, and why our eyes pay attention, how can we trust our choice of colors? Carpenter believes that this process is random, and this is necessary so that each time we do not choose the same mechanically, this is the process of evolutionary adaptation. He recommends imagining sexual reproduction: “And not only in the choice of a partner, which, obviously, is already quite random, but of course, in the random crossing of cells and in the random result of the race of spermatozoa to the egg”. This “free accident” also gives us a convenient mechanism for targeting a large number of choices in the world. Give your neurons the opportunity to choose.

And so, you have chosen what you consider your preferred option. Or does the selection process itself help create preferences? This theory has a long history in psychology, and a recent study by Tali Sharot [Tali Sharot] with colleagues showed how strong this effect can be. In the experiment, about which the subjects were told that he was associated with “subconscious decision-making,” they were shown what they thought were two options for vacations - and they saw these options for only two milliseconds, this is faster than work consciousness. In fact, they were shown meaningless sequences of characters. Then they were asked to indicate which of the places they liked more, and give him an estimate. They liked the fact that they “chose” more, despite the fact that they chose blindly.

It turns out that we like not only to know what we like, but also to think that we know what we like. And choosing the right sweater is almost a fait accompli - exactly what you chose it for and makes it right for you. If he does not make you happy, you can blame the biological accident that worked wrong.

A person sitting in the same booth with me at work has developed a strange habit to gradually imitate what I am doing. He began to dress in a similar way to me (exactly the same J.Crew shirt), always goes to those films that I watched, tells other employees about the new cool cafe that “he” liked - and he told me about him. Why is it so annoying and what to do about it?

Apparently, you have come to grips with the "optimal distinctiveness" curve. According to the theory put forward by Marilyn Brewer, people are torn by two opposing impulses: the desire to belong to something and the desire to be different.

In this case, you already belong to a social group - the company in which you work - so you no longer need further affiliation. Now you need to declare your individuality within the group (with the choice of clothes, preferences in coffee, other types of cultural capital). Your colleague, adapting to you, reduces your sense of distinctiveness. The optimality, of course, may experience fluctuations: if you only come to the company, you can try to join the team; if the company conducts massive layoffs, you will want to stand out from the crowd.

A study by sociologist Hazel Rose Markus and her colleagues at Stanford University showed that the tendency to use choices to demonstrate social distinction is more pronounced among the middle class (to which you probably belong). In a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they told about people from two groups - firefighters and MBA students - whom they asked to imagine that their friend bought the exact same car as theirs. Then they were asked to describe their feelings about it. Positive answers (“Cool, let's organize a car club!”) Were often given by firefighters, and negative ones (“I feel betrayed”) were usually given by MBA students.

Researchers have suggested that among representatives of the working class the choice is a chance to express similarities, while for the average a similar choice is regarded as a “threat of exclusivity”. But do not worry, you can always order a distinguished license plate for a car. And what to do with an annoying colleague? Instead of treating it as a threat, see it as a sign of your importance. Or, for more cunning, you can start feeding him with unrealistic recommendations — overpriced restaurants, unpleasant movies — and watch with perverted satisfaction as he tries to use your rotten cultural capital.

I meet with a man who does not share my interest in modern art. He may gaze at the works of old masters for hours, but does not want to study works that appeared much later than the beginning of the 20th century. How can I help him overcome his disgust with modern art?

The first step is to take him to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After seeing the work of the old masters, take him to the second floor to look at the neon sculpture of Maurizio Nanucci , which says: "ALL ART WAS MODERN." This is a reminder that any negative emotions in relation to modern art - excitement about mystery, doubts about its quality, controversial forms and techniques - the same feelings may have experienced (and then got rid of them or forgotten) in relation to many valuable "Classic" works that seem so inspiring.

It can even be assumed that the very works that most confused people in the past are more likely to be recognized today. Why? According to the “fluent processing” theory, the stimuli that are easier to process are most likely to be liked - because we like the feeling of continuity, fluent perception, and we transfer this feeling to the thing itself (and even such things seem more familiar, but we like what we know). But this medal also has a reverse side, which was revealed by studies that checked how people remember the information given in a not very legible font: what is easier to process is easier to forget. There are many pleasant works of art that seem beautiful to us and that we easily forget (and it is harder to forget Lucien Freud).

But there are other methods of influence on your man. Some tricks drawn from experimental psychology can help you. For example, before going to the gallery of modern art, ask him how he sees himself a year later. According to a study on the psychology of aesthetics, creativity, and art, thinking about the future encourages people to abstract thinking - and they are likely to become more susceptible to non-representative art.

But do not try to get him to think too far. One group of psychologists found that thinking about death makes a person less susceptible to art, whose meaning is difficult to understand. They suggest that this is a consequence of the fact that “maintaining the basic perception of the world is a critical component of giving people life with meaning and importance that elevate it above death”.

You can also go with him to a popular exhibition - and not only because all this life can distract from thoughts of death. Thanks to the “imitative desire”, subjects in one study preferred those pictures that someone had already looked at from people turned away (although some participants, on the contrary, noted that the latter fact influenced their preferences). It turns out that the more people look at the work, the greater the chance that they will like it.

You also need to remember that in a study conducted using fMRI, it turned out that sympathies and antipathies can coexist in similar areas of neural activation. Sometimes apparent antipathy is an indicator of too vivid reaction, which we misinterpret (remember the classic trail from the teenage films of the 1980s, in which the girl openly hates the boy, but in fact cannot but be interested in him, and by the end of the film they fall in love with each other ). But just do not throw your man right down to the depth - go to the exhibition, which everyone is talking about, or show works that have changed your life. It may not change his life, but may initiate changes in his views on things.


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