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Like many who aren’t born fashionistas, I found myself needing advice on how to not dress like a schlub (or in my case, schlubbette). Trolling the interwebs several years ago, I ran across GoFugYourself.com, a website devoted to demonstrating that making others’ eyes bleed with your attire is not the unique domain of the fat and poor, but that Hollywood’s richest and fittest can do it, too. It gave great lessons in what not to do. But the Fug Girls also have a category for fashion explosions so spectacular that they transcend all ugliness to create their own kind of beauty: “secretly awesome!”. This, along with Bernie Sanders’s recent meditation on deodorant – got me thinking about all those activities in life that are secretly rational. Meaning, they look irrational to outsiders, but from the perspective of the one doing the activity, they are at least as rational as, say a tree is when “deciding” where to put its leaves:
For example, consider the trendy idea of The Framing Effect – the observation that people respond differently to the same situation if it’s simply framed differently. In The Why Axis, a spirited journey into the exciting realm of economic fieldwork, authors Gneezy and List experimentally verified that giving children money before an exam, then taking it away if they score badly, improves exam scores more than promising them money if they score well.* They call this an example of loss-framing, and framing is supposed to be a “cognitive bias” – one of those things humans do that’s not quite rational. But as any child might know – and as researchers discovered when they revisited the marshmallow test – a reward promised at some point in the future really is worth less than the same reward now, because there’s less chance you’ll actually receive it. These children aren’t responding differently to the same situation depending on how it’s framed: they’re responding to genuinely different situations. And quite rationally, too! – especially considering these particular children’s impoverished, chaotic environment, where adult inability to make good on promises to children may be quite common.
As the authors also observe,** when adults reward children repeatedly and consistently, the difference between gain-framing and loss-framing the rewards disappears. They offer no explanation for this, but I do: once adults earn these children’s trust by rewarding them consistently, the children have more reason to believe they’ll receive what they’re promised. Kids are more secretly rational than we suspect.
Similarly, the paradox of choice sounds cool, and might sound like a fun explanation for why collectively having 23 brands of spray-on deodorant in our country is, in fact, uneconomical. But merchants already take human analysis-paralysis – and its cure, rational ignorance – into account when deciding how to stock their stores. Chains like Trader Joe’s and elite department stores gain their reputation by offering fewer product choices than their competitors, but vetting them carefully, so that customers don’t have to waste their precious time and psychological stamina squinting at rank on rank of bagged lettuce or tube socks in order to pick just one item. The trade-off, of course, is that the service rendered – saving the consumer from analysis paralysis – is reflected in the price: fine department stores and Trader Joe’s are thought of as Stuff White People Like for a reason.
That said, even discount stores like Aldi offer a similar service – there’s only one brand of everything – though in this case, the trade-off is that many items (but not all – there are some fantastic deals at an Aldi’s) are of poor quality. In between the deep-discount stores offering only one of everything, and the elite stores that do the same thing, there are many stores that offer a dazzling mishmash of stuff – it sometimes seems like hundreds of choices in cucumbers or cotton socks – where customers so inclined can browse to their heart’s content to find that one super-cheap item that exactly fits their needs. This is how I shop for clothes – in part because I find it an unpleasant way to shop for clothes. And in making this choice, I, too, am being secretly rational: if I began to enjoy clothes shopping, I know I’d do way too much of it; it’s better for all concerned if I stick to a mode of upholstering myself that I don’t find too pleasant.
Those of you already know about the Kuznets Curve might be wondering at this point whether it applies to shopping habits, too, as well as pollution and income inequality. If it did, we’d expect to see the amount of comparison-shopping consumers are required to do rise as they begin to become wealthier, then taper off again as they become wealthy enough to pay for others (merchants at fine stores, personal shoppers, ratings agencies, etc) to do their comparison-shopping for them.
Whether theKuznets-Curve analogy applies or not, the free market doesn’t just create the “problem” of abundant choice, it also solves it by providing an abundance of sorting services, tailored to individuals’ budgets and preferences, many run by those evil pirates, middlemen. Despite their eye-patches, middlemen are, in secret, the brave souls who endure analysis-paralysis for us so that we don’t have to. Of course, their service comes at a price and – as in all things – it’s easier to pay if you’re richer than poorer. And yes, when an abundance of brands explode overnight, it might take middlemen a while to catch up on the sorting. But on the whole, this system works pretty well without government stepping in to correct human “irrationality.” It’s a system much more secretly rational than it lets on.
For something so weak and secretive, human rationality is nonetheless capable of amazing – and sometimes amusing – feats of turning weakness into strength.
I have a childhood friend diagnosed with ADD. If anyone struggles with overcoming analysis-paralysis, it’s her. She’s also a very healthy eater. You might not think these two things would be related, but they are: her brain, being poorer than most brains at filtering out extraneous signals, gets overwhelmed in the middle aisles of the grocery store, where all the processed, prepackaged food is. She can only function as a shopper by sticking to the edges of the grocery store, where food is predominantly fresh, and packaged to reveal itself, not the advertising with its loud colors and jarring designs, which she describes as screaming at her brain like a roomful of toddlers with megaphones.
In other words, she remains rationally ignorant of middle aisles. That’s her story of secret rationality.
* Ch 4 sec 8: “Reframing Achievement”
** end of Ch 4 sec 8