Imagine this: You’re heading for the cashier at your local bookstore when you pass a display selling coffee mugs for $5. There’s only one left, sporting an image of your favorite celebrity, but you’re not willing to spend five bucks on it. Then you notice the clearance sign marking it down to $2.50. You pick up the mug and pay for it with your other merchandise.
As you walk out to the parking lot, the customer exiting right behind you says, “Gee, I was going to buy that mug, but you grabbed it before I got to it. I’ll buy it from you for the full price of $5. What do you say?”
“No,” you reply immediately, “I wouldn’t sell it for less than $7.50.”
What just happened? Are you an opportunist or a savvy entrepreneur?
Quite possibly, you are neither. Rather, you may have fallen victim to a natural agency of the human brain. And although deals in the resale mug market may not add up to a hill of coffee beans, when it comes to more serious decisions in business or in life, this same mental quirk can set us up for catastrophic failure.
To have and to hold
In a decades-old study, researchers asked subjects to list the reasons for and against buying a VCR. (If you don’t know what that is, ask someone over 40.) Some were instructed to write the list of pros first, others to first compose the list of cons.
Weeks after the exercise, subjects reported that their attitudes were still tilted toward the list they composed first. The initial investment of thought implanted itself within their subconscious minds and showed little willingness to leave.
Psychologists refer to this phenomenon by a number of different names: the endowment effect, loss aversion, the principle of ownership, and status quo bias. Regardless of what we call it, the idea boils down to this: What we have is more valuable to us than what we don’t have. If we own the mug, the mug is worth more money. If someone else owns the mug, the mug is not worth as much.
This leads to the natural give-and-take of business negotiation. But it applies in a more insidious way to our attitudes and opinions.
You are what you think . . . first
When you propose an idea or advance a point of view, you invest yourself in that position. The more time, thought, and effort you put into developing it, the more invested you become. This is a natural effect of the human ego.
But even if the idea comes from someone else, the moment you buy into an idea by accepting it as sound, you are now invested. That means you’re naturally going to resist uprooting that idea, even after its merits are clearly refuted.
Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, cautions that it’s devilishly difficult to overcome the effects of endowment or ownership, even when we’re fully aware of the phenomenon. Does that mean we are helpless against the predispositional bias of our subconscious minds?
Here are a few mind tricks you can use to offset that bias:
- Don’t make a list of pros and then a list of cons (or vice versa). Instead, think up a pro immediately after each con and a con immediately after each pro. This will guard you against becoming too invested in one position or the other.
- Introduce any proposal by saying out loud “Hypothetically speaking” or “This is just a rough idea.” These kinds of qualifiers can help nudge the subconscious mind into reserving judgment until you’ve had time to thoroughly evaluate the proposal.
- When a new idea is suggested, divide your team into two groups. Instruct one group to compose a list of pros and the other a list of cons. Individual members may end up investing in the side they defended, but the group as a whole will retain balance and greater objectivity.
- Allow the most junior member of the team to speak first. It’s easier to argue with juniors than with seniors, so this method promotes a wider range of opinions. But beware, this only works when those who are more senior discipline themselves not to show approval or disapproval, whether outwardly and inwardly.
The late rabbi Noah Weinberg observed that nothing is more irrelevant than the answer to a question that was never asked.
Unconscious, immediate investment in ideas can turn the wisest of us into fools by killing our curiosity, making us deaf to objections, and shutting down further discussion. The folly of committing ourselves to flawed plans of action might easily be exposed if we give ourselves permission to fully weigh both sides of the matter.
By recognizing the inclinations of our subconscious minds and developing strategies to restore balanced thinking, we can rein in our impulse to pursue illusory visions of success. Disciplining ourselves to take a good look through the clear lens of honest evaluation will help us avoid pitfalls that we can easily miss even when they’re right before our eyes.
Yonason Goldson works with leaders to create a culture of ethics that builds trust, sparks initiative, and drives productivity. His sixth book is Grappling with the Gray: An Ethical Handbook for Personal Success and Business Prosperity.