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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.