Secretly Rational

 

shutterstock_230756299Like 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.

What’s yours?

__________________________________
* Ch 4 sec 8: “Reframing Achievement”
** end of Ch 4 sec 8 

There are 46 comments.

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  1. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    I’m in the midst of actualizing it now, I think…Great post, Midge!

    • #1
  2. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    I know a counselor who sells simple mats maybe 6-ft long with the numbers 1 and 10 printed on the ends. She has found in practice with her clients that they have a much easier time showing where they are on a psychological challenge by standing somewhere beside this mat than by simply stating a number.

    Identifying why something works can help to isolate or augment a thing’s value. In the meantime, not knowing why is no great burden.

    • #2
  3. Asquared Inactive
    Asquared
    @ASquared

    On nationwide road trip, I foolishly left my shampoo somewhere, so we stopped somewhere to buy some. The number of shampoos was overwhelming, and I spent about 5 minutes looking at the various types, got frustrated, grabbed something and left. The next day, my traveling companion showered first and asked to borrow my newly purchased shampoo. After returning, he pointed out that I had, in fact, bought conditioner, not shampoo, but his hair was silky smooth now. I became less enamored with overwhelming choice.

    A few years later I moved to Kazakhstan where the state-run kiosk on the corner sold exactly one brand of everything (and let’s just the say the toilet paper sold there was for emergencies only). This actually accrued to my benefit as burgeoning Russian speaker since everything was behind the counter anyway, so additional choices would have just complicated the language required to buy something.

    Also, in what was effectively an alley, I noticed what looked like a military water trailer was parked out front of the kiosk every morning. My wife (who was the Russian speaker) finally asked someone about it discovered that this trailer actually contained milk and people would pour the milk from the tap into their container and presumably pay for in the kiosk.

    Let’s just say, my perspective on the consequences of choice (and, candidly, capitalism) changed greatly over my time in Kazakhstan.

    • #3
  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Asquared:Let’s just say, my perspective on the consequences of choice (and, candidly, capitalism) changed greatly over my time in Kazakhstan.

    Tell me more!

    Me, I can’t be bothered to fuss about toothpaste. Used to do it and learned my lesson: it’s just not worth it for me.

    • #4
  5. Asquared Inactive
    Asquared
    @ASquared

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Asquared:Let’s just say, my perspective on the consequences of choice (and, candidly, capitalism) changed greatly over my time in Kazakhstan.

    Tell me more.

    Have you seen the movie Borat. Living in Kazakhstan was a lot like the first 5 minutes of that movie (BTW, that scene was filmed in Romania for reasons of accessibility and ethnic similarity to Sascha Baron-Cohen).

    Maybe someday I will post the missives I wrote for my friends from my time there.  I considered them humorous and at least one person said they laughed once.  Someone later asked me why I stopped writing them, I could only respond, “After a while, living here stopped being funny and just became depressing.”

    • #5
  6. 1967mustangman Inactive
    1967mustangman
    @1967mustangman

    There was an interesting case described (I think on Radiolab) about a guy who lost the emotional centers of his brain (due I think to a tumor).  The psychologist he was working in thought it would an interesting to study how his choices were affected by this change and it turned out that he essentially lost his ability to choose.  Like Midge’s freind he went into full-bore paralysis by analysis.  He said he would look at a blue pen and black pen and spend 15 minutes trying to decide which one to use.  He had no “gut feelings” anymore and he couldn’t make a choice.  Much like the husband told by his wife to “just get whatever looks good”  he would stand in aisle trying to figure out what item to pick sometimes for hours because he couldn’t make a choice.  I thought it was fascinating.

    • #6
  7. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Behavioral economics has come up with some interesting results, but as with most frontier fields there’s some sloppy thinking too. Another example of secret rationality that comes to mind is stereotypes. As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out (can’t find the reference right now), stereotypes are often based on real patterns. Yet any inquiry into the validity of stereotypes is forbidden in social science research since it is taken as a given that stereotypes are bad.

    As an aside, I was surprised that you implied that Trader Joe’s was expensive. It’s arguably SWPL, but I always thought of it as cheap. They have their own store brand items and they sell two-buck chuck, after all.

    • #7
  8. 1967mustangman Inactive
    1967mustangman
    @1967mustangman

    drlorentz:Behavioral economics has come up with some interesting results, but as with most frontier fields there’s some sloppy thinking too. Another example of secret rationality that comes to mind is stereotypes. As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out (can’t find the reference right now), stereotypes are often based on real patterns. Yet any inquiry into the validity of stereotypes is forbidden in social science research since it is taken as a given that stereotypes are bad.

    As an aside, I was surprised that you implied that Trader Joe’s was expensive. It’s arguably SWPL, but I always thought of it as cheap. They have their own store brand items and they sell two-buck chuck, after all.

    Its on the spendier side, but like Midge says is guaranteed quality.  Somethings there are great, but their meat and produce are spendy.

    • #8
  9. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    drlorentz:Behavioral economics has come up with some interesting results, but as with most frontier fields there’s some sloppy thinking too. Another example of secret rationality that comes to mind is stereotypes…

    There’s a hilarious chapter in The Why Axis on stereotyping – namely on stereotyping people by the universities that accepted them, and “discriminating” (in the bad, modern sense), accordingly.

    But as everyone around here is so fond of pointing out, the institution that accepted you is just shorthand for your having been qualified enough to get into that institution in the first place. College prestige is just another pre-sorting mechanism… And really, I thought after Sowell published Knowledge and Decisions, even the economists who couldn’t intuitively see that would realize it’s not a new discovery :-)

    As an aside, I was surprised that you implied that Trader Joe’s was expensive. It’s arguably SWPL, but I always thought of it as cheap. They have their own store brand items and they sell two-buck chuck, after all.

    Trader Joe’s is a great bargain: it has many great deals on high-quality, luxury food-items. But around where we live (are we more down-market than I thought?) it’s still considered luxury shopping. We find we can shop cheaper than TJ’s pretty easily – of course we sacrifice some quality, but that can be worth doing.

    • #9
  10. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:That’s her story of secret rationality.

    What’s yours?

    Ignoring snail mail.

    I’m not exaggerating. There are at least two piles of physical mail my wife has lovingly gathered, banded, put a charming little school-blackboard clip on with “Paul” written in her lovely, flowery script, in chalk, for verisimilitude. Both stacks are months and months old.

    The truth is: the bills are taken care of 90% automagically, and the same wife (I know, right?) handles the remaining 10% manually. I make good money doing my job, writing software, from home—a blessing, but one that demands a lot of time and, more importantly, concentration. When I’m not doing that, I’m working on a side project we hope to launch and sell later. When I’m not doing that, I’m working on a workshop for a conference in September (my last public speaking gig, cf. side project we hope to launch and sell later). When I’m not doing that, I’m playing a game (if wife is still working) or watching “Orphan Black” with her to relax.

    Sorting mail, opening mail, discarding mail, reacting to “important” mail is, with zero exceptions, a distracting, stressful, annoying, boring waste of my time.

    So I don’t.

    • #10
  11. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @JudgeMental

    Gödel’s Ghost

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:That’s her story of secret rationality.

    What’s yours?

    Ignoring snail mail.

    I thought that was just me.

    • #11
  12. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    drlorentz:Another example of secret rationality that comes to mind is stereotypes. As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out (can’t find the reference right now), stereotypes are often based on real patterns. Yet any inquiry into the validity of stereotypes is forbidden in social science research since it is taken as a given that stereotypes are bad.

    Seriously, you can generalize this to “all of probability is secret rationality.”

    “Not all Muslims are terrorists!” No, but a truly shocking number of terrorists are Muslims, and there is an actual equation for turning the probability that Q follows from P into the probability that P follows from Q plus other information you have, e.g. “these Muslims are boarding a US airliner with expired visas on the anniversary of September 11, 1683.”

    • #12
  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Creepy Lurker:

    Gödel’s Ghost

    What’s yours?

    Ignoring snail mail.

    I thought that was just me.

    I thought it was just my husband…

    OK, and I hate checking mail, too, but, hating it less (or rather, my worrying about the consequences of not checking more) means that quite, um, rationally, that chore has tended to fall to me.

    • #13
  14. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    my worrying about the consequences of not checking more

    That’s exactly the dynamic. Being a good husband, I don’t point out to my wife that the sky has not fallen on the piles of mail. :-)

    Generalizing again: a secret rationality is not taking my wife’s harmless irrationalities on board (I knew she was the actress daughter of a comedienne when I married her 20 years ago).

    • #14
  15. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    I never do mail. I have a wife.

    • #15
  16. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Gödel’s Ghost

    Seriously, you can generalize this to “all of probability is secret rationality.”

    “Not all Muslims are terrorists!” No, but a truly shocking number of terrorists are Muslims, and there is an actual equation for turning the probability that Q follows from P into the probability that P follows from Q plus other information you have, e.g. “these Muslims are boarding a US airliner with expired visas on the anniversary of September 11, 1683.”

    Humans are often good at Bayesian probability and pattern recognition. Stereotypes are a piece of that. The popular (among the SJWs) Project Implicit equates stereotypes with prejudice and discrimination. I see this as an attempt to undermine both logical thinking and our own humanity.

    • #16
  17. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    You guys! Using us for mail slaves! Mail slaves, I tell you!!!

    This is the next thing in feminism :-)

    • #17
  18. user_385039 Inactive
    user_385039
    @donaldtodd

    What happens when, if you are like me, you don’t look good in anything?

    Dress down?

    Wear a mask?

    My wife shops at Aldi’s and Trader Joes (same ownership) for the savings.  She doesn’t take me because nothing looks good on me and we’d both rather avoid the hassle.

    • #18
  19. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    The consensus appears to be that we men don’t read our mail.

    • #19
  20. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Asquared:Let’s just say, my perspective on the consequences of choice (and, candidly, capitalism) changed greatly over my time in Kazakhstan.

    Tell me more!

    Me, I can’t be bothered to fuss about toothpaste. Used to do it and learned my lesson: it’s just not worth it for me.

    I don’t understand why anyone buys anything other than total care for any toothpaste brand.  “No, No… Don’t want any of that Tartar Control in my toothpaste!”

    • #20
  21. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Frank Soto:The consensus appears to be that we men don’t read our mail.

    I’m not attracted to other mails.

    • #21
  22. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Son of Spengler:

    Frank Soto:The consensus appears to be that we men don’t read our mail.

    I’m not attracted to other mails.

    You lie! You’re attracted to e-mail. That’s why snail-mail leaves you frigid. Fess up, now…

    That said, please let’s not get deep in the weeds on SSM here.
    (Sorting Snail-Mail)

    • #22
  23. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Son of Spengler:

    Frank Soto:The consensus appears to be that we men don’t read our mail.

    I’m not attracted to other mails.

    You lie! You’re attracted to e-mail. That’s why snail-mail leaves you frigid. Fess up, now…

    That said, please let’s not get deep in the weeds on SSM here. (Sorting Snail-Mail)

    Actually, I’m much worse about unopened email. Snail mail is a physical object that gets in the way and eventually must be dealt with. Email can always wait. And who needs to sort it when search algorithms are so good?

    • #23
  24. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    Son of Spengler:

    Frank Soto:The consensus appears to be that we men don’t read our mail.

    I’m not attracted to other mails.

    There’s nothing like getting a big package.

    • #24
  25. Yeah...ok. Inactive
    Yeah...ok.
    @Yeahok

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:You guys! Using us for mail slaves! Mail slaves, I tell you!!!

    This is the next thing in feminism :-)

    Wasn’t “Male Man” one of the village people?

    • #25
  26. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @MattBalzer

    Yeah…ok.:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:You guys! Using us for mail slaves! Mail slaves, I tell you!!!

    This is the next thing in feminism :-)

    Wasn’t “Male Man” one of the village people?

    I don’t know about that, but Man-Man is like twice as much man as usual.

    • #26
  27. user_385039 Inactive
    user_385039
    @donaldtodd

    Son of Spengler:

    Frank Soto:The consensus appears to be that we men don’t read our mail.

    “I’m not attracted to other mails.”

    Great quip.  dt

    • #27
  28. user_129539 Member
    user_129539
    @BrianClendinen

    drlorentz:Behavioral economics has come up with some interesting results, but as with most frontier fields there’s some sloppy thinking too. Another example of secret rationality that comes to mind is stereotypes. As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out (can’t find the reference right now), stereotypes are often based on real patterns. Yet any inquiry into the validity of stereotypes is forbidden in social science research since it is taken as a given that stereotypes are bad.

    As an aside, I was surprised that you implied that Trader Joe’s was expensive. It’s arguably SWPL, but I always thought of it as cheap. They have their own store brand items and they sell two-buck chuck, after all.

    I purposely stereotype all the time. It just make life a lot easier and way more productive. I just make sure the more I get to know someone or something, I don’t let the stereotypes cloud my judgment of them so I can learn were their exceptions to the stereotype are.

    • #28
  29. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    I have a lot of mom friends who are relentless about both comparison shopping and refusing to pay for conveniences (pre-sliced cheese, individually packaged whatever). I explain to them whenever they proselytize this lifestyle: totally rational for you, but not always for me. Beyond the obvious fact that time is money (clearly the case for a freelance writer) there’s also the point that brain power can be money too. Energy devoted to aggressive comparison shopping is mental energy I can’t devote to something else. Of course we all have to find a rational balance. But there’s another point too: for some of these people, saving money through smart shopping is also a source of pride and accomplishment (good household management). Perfectly rational reward! But not necessarily a good enough motive for everyone.

    • #29
  30. captainpower Member
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    Lots of great points.

    Glad to see the marshmallow test analysis again.

    Interesting thoughts on the middleman. I’m surprised how much crap middlemen catch because they “add nothing of value” but I don’t hear the same critics speak up about gambling.

    As far as secretly rational, I speed to the red light. I am in a hurry to stop. Why? Because when I am at the front of the line I can sometimes get through a light that I would miss otherwise.

    • #30

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