poles optical illusions

All kinds of choices require weighing the potential reward and punishment. In the best cases, this weighing may lead to good rational decisions. Many people feel that their consciousness is a key player in such free rational choices that controls most, if not all, of their lives.

Take a look at the above picture. Are the two horizontal lines equal or not? Most of the people on the first try say they are not equal. Upon further inspection, you can see that they are actually of the same length. Vision is the sensory system that takes up the most space in the human brain, and probably the one that has contributed most to the survival of our species, as it allows us to avoid danger by detecting threats at a distance. Even though our vision plays tricks on us and creates all kinds of illusions, they can be easily detected and corrected. All you have to do is measure the two horizontal lines in the picture and conclude that they are of equal length.

It is much harder to detect cognitive illusions for two reasons: 1) Making rational choices isn’t as essential to our survival as vision from a evolutional stand point of view and therefore it isn’t something we are very good at; 2) We humans stubbornly believe in our conscious self-insight, which in itself can be an illusion.

Psychological research has shown that, in stark contrast to trying to gather even most of the relevant information, people rarely take much notice at all of the available information. Evolution has configured our brains such that even when we are not under the influence of drugs, fatigue, or strong emotions, our decisions are often deeply irrational. Even more of a concern is the scientific data concluding that we are making up the reasons for our actions as we go along, which could mean that actions spring from nonconscious processing that is only consciously interpreted after the fact*.

Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University conducted an interesting experiment with his students. The students were asked to choose one out of the following three options:
1) Buy product A for $59
2) Buy product B for $125
3) Buy Product A & B for $125

84% of the group chose option 3 and 16% chose 1. Since option 2 appeared to be an inferior choice and nobody wanted it, Ariely took it off the list and asked another group of students to choose between 1 and 3. Now 68% picked 1, the less favorable option in the first round, and 32% picked 3. Option 2 was useless in the sense that it was unwanted, but it was useful in helping people reach their decisions. As you can see, the outcome changed completely with and without the presence of option 2.

The company I work for has call centers across the nation (now in India too) to reach existing or potential customers. Federal law stipulates that telemarketers can’t contact those who opt not to be called. In other words, companies have to get permission to market to customers via the phone. Depending how you designs the survey form, the results can be drastically different. ‘Check the following box if you want to be contacted’ could potentially put telemarketers out of business. In contrast, ‘Check the box if you don’t want to be contacted’ allows companies to be compliant with the law and conduct business as usual. People just can’t be bothered to mail back the form with the check mark. So the default answer becomes their choice.

As the choices become more complex, people tend to become more irrational. Ariely described a group of physicians in a study who decided to send a 65-year-old farmer for hip replacement. When they were made aware that Ibuprofen hadn’t been tried, most physicians were willing to put the surgery on hold until the effect of Ibuprofen could be determined. However, if they were told that they had forgotten to try another medication in addition to Ibuprofen, most of the group chose to allow the patient to continue on the path of hip replacement. The second missed medication added more complexity to the decision process, which made it harder to change course.

We don’t really know our preferences that well and therefore can be easily manipulated or influenced by the outside forces. We are certainly more aware of our physical limitations than our cognitive limitations. When we build things, we take our physical restrictions into consideration and find ways to compensate for them. But our unwillingness to see and accept the cognitive restrictions has led to a ridiculously polarized political system at the top of the society, short-sighted and profit-hungry CEOs in the middle, and rigid or absent parents at the bottom.

Changes take time especially since we are born blindsided. But as parents we ought to think carefully about how to present choices to our children when they are very young. As their verbal skill advances, it’s wise to encourage them to verbalize their preferences, to explain what they want and why they want it, and provide parental guidance when necessary. At the end of the day, we want to raise critical thinkers and change initiators. I believe if we don’t let our mental illusion get in the way, most of us desire essentially the same thing, and it takes collaboration and determination to reach the common goals.

*The Pleasure Center by Morten L. Kringelbach