Saving the Best for Last

Date: February 21, 2012 | Shawn Herbig | News | Comments Off on Saving the Best for Last

We all know that old saying, “Save the best for last.”  Perhaps for the majority of us, we say it in passing with sarcasm attached to it.  But what does it really mean?  Is there any evidence behind the concept that the last is actually the best?

Let’s think about this for a minute.  Can we really assume that just because something comes last in a series of options that it is indeed better than all other options we take into consideration?  Or is it more likely that our memory about these options is being biased in some way that we are not fully aware of at the time?  Some pretty intriguing research has been conducted in this area to better understand the psychology surrounding this particular aspect of decision making.  Why is that last jellybean, for instance, the best?  Or why, if you are the HR manager at your company, is the last candidate you consider typically the best or worst of all the other candidates you have considered for the job?

Of course, we all have our own understanding of why we choose and comprehend in this particular fashion, but underlying cognitive processes may be more complex than what we actually think.  Well, complex and simple; complex in the sense that we are usually unaware of the psychology of choice, but simple in that this process is actually quite primitive in its logic.

Take the “jellybean” study for instance.  A group of researchers wanted to identify what actually determines our decision making behaviors.  Best options, as they discover, are often reliant on our own memory of these options.  So in essence, what may be the best choice by our own terms may simply be a function of remembrance rather than a complex series of cost-benefit analyses that we consciously and subconsciously perform about the options presented to us.

Specifically, participants in the study were presented with two types of jellybeans, one type with good characteristics (fruit, sweet flavors) and other type with bad characteristics (dirt, earwax, and grass flavors).  What the researchers found was that those who tasted the good jellybeans considered the last one they ate the best (47% preferred the last jellybean).    Those who ate the bad jellybeans considered the first and second jellybeans as the more desirable ones (only 30% preferred the last jellybean).    The researchers also repeated this experiment across a variety of different items, such as paintings, song clips, and faces – all with similar results.

In short, when we do not have the ability to evaluate all the options before us simultaneously, then biases begin to emerge in our decision making, particularly in terms of how recent the options are placed before us.  When we have a variety of options before us that have been presented over a period of time, then we are more likely to choose the last option if indeed that option is a desirable one.  For undesirable options, we tend to choose the first or second rather than the last.  This is because the last options presented to us are clearest in our minds, and therefore trumps some of the features, desirable or undesirable, of past options.

So, what does this research mean for the average person?  Firstly, it sheds light on the choices we make and why those options presented to us in recent memory play so heavily on our ability to make informed decisions.  Secondly, because of this, we can come to realize the importance of weighing all options before making a decision.   It is important to understand that the last option is not always the most appealing.  If you are in a position of making significant decisions, then it will prove beneficial to weigh all options presented to you in an unbiased manner by revisiting past options against more recent ones.  The best option is not always saved for last; it just sometimes may appear that way.

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The Affect Heuristic – How we can use data to overcome our own bias in our decision-making

Date: September 16, 2011 | Shawn Herbig | News | Comments Off on The Affect Heuristic – How we can use data to overcome our own bias in our decision-making

Oftentimes, our current situation of progress and success blind us to what is approaching on the horizon.  It is very hard to avoid this, considering partly what makes us human is this ability to become comfortable in a present state, even if that present state will become harmful to us in the future.  This is known as the Affect Heuristic, a way in which human beings show bias in making a decision, taking action that may be contrary to logic and objective thought.

Look at the financial crisis of 2008, where our lavish expenditures and comfort led to our own demise in many respects – a perfect example of how our society was blinded by the comfort we had come to inhabit.

We have seen the effects of what can happen when we let our guard down – when we start ignoring the signs that may be staring us in the face.  Instead of letting the data or trends tell us what to expect and how to prepare for what may be approaching, we continue on our path of neglect and foolishly act surprised when the situation hits us hard.

Let’s take a look at a specific example from the recent past – the decline of sales in the U.S. auto market.  The 1990s was a time of great economic success and excess.  People had more money to spend, and they spent it on lavishly large vehicles such as SUVs, which the auto market in America was providing plenty of.  One could argue that the events of the past decade were not foreseeable by the U.S. auto industry, and thus their inability to react was excusable and understandable – hence the bailouts.  However, it was less than 30 years ago that the industry suffered much of the same declines as they did in the past decade.

A report released in 1980 by Natural Resources and Commerce Division of the Congressional Budget Office indicated that the auto industry in America was suffering unprecedented decline.  The reasons cited for this decline may sound very familiar:

  • Jump in gasoline prices
  • Rise in interest rates and enactment of credit controls
  • Economic recession

The impact that followed may also sound familiar – consumers switching to compact cars that met their needs which were more readily available by foreign automakers.  The suggestions and predictions of the CBO stated that in order for the U.S. industry to become viable and competitive again, they would have to produce more compact cars.  Perhaps it is just me, but I think there is not a clearer example of “history repeating itself” than this.

You may ask yourself how this affects you and your own situation.  The U.S. automakers failed to listen to the data that was undoubtedly available to them.  Are you in tune with what the data are telling you?  Are you listening to it to make decisions for the future?  Or are you blinded by perhaps recent success and letting that bias your decisions and direction for the future.

This isn’t a situation where ignorant people made foolish decisions.  More so, it is simply a lack of understanding of how valuable data can be.  Decisions can’t simply be made on gut instinct; and while we should all listen to our gut, using it as a sole means of direction can be misleading and dangerous to our own condition.

If history tells us anything, it says that it will visit us again – and the only way to overcome those reenactments is if you stay in tune with what has happened.  A good consumer of research has the ability to take in is happening and be proactive in addressing it.  Use the data to recycle what has succeeded and reevaluate what has failed.  In short, don’t fall victim to your own comfort bias – but be objective and deliberate in your approach.

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