Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.
—Alfred North Whitehead
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
—Leonardo da Vinci
This book presents numerous research results that at first appear baffling but can be explained through an understanding of natural human tendencies. A while ago, I encountered such a finding when I read a study that gave volunteers an energy drink designed to increase mental abilities. Some volunteers were charged the retail price of the drink ($1.89); others were told, because the researcher had made a bulk purchase, they’d have to pay only $0.89. Both groups were then asked to solve as many mental puzzles as they could in thirty minutes. I expected the second group, feeling good about the price break, would have tried harder and solved more problems. Wrong, the opposite occurred.1
The outcome put me in mind of a phone call I had received years earlier. The call came from a friend who had opened a Native Indian jewelry store in Arizona. She was giddy with a curious piece of news. Something fascinating had just happened, and she thought, as a psychologist, I might be able to explain it. The story involved a certain allotment of turquoise jewelry she had been having trouble selling. It was the peak of the tourist season, the store was unusually full of customers, and the turquoise pieces were of good quality for the prices she was asking; yet they had not sold. My friend had attempted a couple of standard sales tricks to get them moving. She tried calling attention to them by shifting their location to a more central display area, with no luck. She even told her sales staff to “push” the items, again without success.
Finally, the night before leaving on an out-of-town buying trip, she scribbled an exasperated note to her head saleswoman: “Everything in this display case, price x ½,” hoping just to be rid of the offending pieces, even if at a loss. When she returned a few days later, she was not surprised to find that every article had been sold. She was shocked, though, to discover that because the employee had read the “½” in her scrawled message as a “2,” the entire allotment had sold at twice the original price.
That’s when she called me. I thought I knew what had happened but told her that if I were to explain things properly, she would have to listen to a story of mine. Actually, it isn’t my story; it’s about mother turkeys, and it belongs to the science of ethology—the study of animals in their natural settings. Turkey mothers are good mothers—loving, watchful, and protective. They spend much of their time tending, warming, cleaning, and huddling their young beneath them; but there is something odd about their method. Virtually all of their mothering is triggered by one thing, the “cheep-cheep” sound of young turkey chicks. Other identifying features of the chicks, such as smell, touch, or appearance, seem to play minor roles in the mothering process. If a chick makes the cheep-cheep noise, its mother will care for it; if not, the mother will ignore or sometimes kill it.
The extreme reliance of maternal turkeys on this one sound was dramatically illustrated in an experiment involving a mother turkey and a stuffed polecat. For a mother turkey, a polecat is a natural predator whose approach is to be greeted with squawking, pecking, clawing rage. Indeed, the experiment found even a stuffed model of a polecat, when drawn by a string to a mother turkey, received an immediate and furious attack. However, when the same stuffed replica carried inside it a small recorder that played the cheep-cheep sound of baby turkeys, the mother not only accepted the oncoming enemy but gathered it underneath her. When the machine was turned off, the polecat model again drew a vicious attack.
How ridiculous a mother turkey seems under these circumstances: She will embrace a natural adversary just because it goes cheep-cheep, and she will mistreat or murder one of her chicks just because it doesn’t. She acts like an automaton whose maternal instincts are under the control of that single sound. The ethologists tell us that this sort of thing is far from unique to the turkey. They have identified regular, blindly mechanical patterns of action in a wide variety of species.
Called fixed-action patterns, they can involve intricate sequences of behavior, such as entire courtship or mating rituals. A fundamental characteristic of these patterns is that the behaviors composing them occur in virtually the same fashion and in the same order every time. It is almost as if the patterns were installed as programs within the animals. When a situation calls for courtship, the courtship program is run; when a situation calls for mothering, the maternal-behavior program is run. Click, and the appropriate program is activated; run, and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviors.
The most interesting aspect of all this is the way the programs are activated. When an animal acts to defend its territory, for instance, it is the intrusion of another animal of the same species that cues the territorial-defense program of rigid vigilance, threat, and, if need be, combat; however, there is a quirk in the system. It is not the rival as a whole that’s the trigger; it is, rather, some specific feature: the trigger feature. Often the trigger feature will
be one tiny aspect of the totality that is the approaching intruder. Sometimes a shade of color is the key. The experiments of ethologists have shown, for instance, that a male robin, acting as if a rival robin had entered its territory, will vigorously attack nothing more than a clump of robin redbreast feathers placed there. At the same time, it will ignore a perfect stuffed replica of a male robin without redbreast feathers. Similar results have been found in another bird, the bluethroat, where the trigger for territorial defense is a specific shade of bluebreast feathers.2
Before we enjoy too smugly the ease with which trigger features trick lower animals into reacting in ways wholly inappropriate to the situation, we should realize two things. First, the automatic, fixed-action patterns of these animals work well most of the time. Because only normal, healthy turkey chicks make the peculiar sound of baby turkeys, it makes sense for mother turkeys to respond maternally to that single cheep-cheep noise. By reacting to just that one stimulus, the average mother turkey will nearly always behave correctly. It takes a trickster like a scientist to make her automatic response seem silly. The second important thing to understand is that we, too, have our preset programs, and although they usually work to our advantage, the trigger features that activate them can dupe us into running the right programs at the wrong times.
This parallel form of human automaticity is aptly demonstrated in an experiment by social psychologist Ellen Langer and her coworkers. A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor, we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do. Langer demonstrated this unsurprising fact by asking a small favor of people waiting in line to use a library’s copying machine: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” The effectiveness of this request-plus-reason was nearly total: 94 percent of people let her skip ahead of them in line. Compare this success rate to the results when she made the request only: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Under those circumstances, only 60 percent complied. At first glance, it appears the crucial difference between the two requests was the additional information provided by the words because I’m in a rush.
However, a third type of request showed this was not the case. It seems it was not the whole series of words but the first one, because
, that made the difference. Instead of including a real reason for compliance, Langer’s third type of request used the word because
and then, adding nothing new, merely restated the obvious: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” The result was once again nearly all (93 percent) agreed, even though no real reason, no new information was added to justify their compliance. Just as the cheep-cheep sound of turkey chicks triggered an automatic mothering response from mother turkeys, even when it emanated from a stuffed polecat, so the word because
triggered an automatic compliance response from Langer’s subjects, even when they were given no subsequent reason to comply. Click
Although some of Langer’s additional findings show that there are many situations in which human behavior does not work in a mechanical, click-activated way, she and many other researchers are convinced that most of the time it does, For instance, consider the strange behavior of those jewelry-store customers who swooped down on an allotment of turquoise pieces only after the items had been mistakenly offered at double their original price. I can make no sense of their behavior unless it is viewed in click, run terms.
The customers, mostly well-to-do vacationers with little knowledge of turquoise, were using a simplifying principle—a stereotype—to guide their buying: expensive = good. Research shows that people who are unsure of an item’s quality often use this stereotype. Thus the vacationers, who wanted “good” jewelry, saw the turquoise pieces as decidedly more valuable and desirable when nothing about them was enhanced but the price. Price alone had become a trigger feature for quality, and a dramatic increase in price alone had led to a dramatic increase in sales among the quality-hungry buyers.
READER’S REPORT 1.1
From a doctoral student in business management
A man who owns an antique jewelry store in my town tells a story of how he learned the expensive = good lesson of social influence. A friend of his wanted a special birthday present for his fiancée. So, the jeweler picked out a necklace that would have sold in his store for $500 but that he was willing to let his friend have for $250. As soon as he saw it, the friend was enthusiastic about the piece. But when the jeweler quoted the $250 price, the man’s face fell, and he began backing away from the deal because he wanted something “really nice” for his intended bride.
When a day later it dawned on the jeweler what had happened, he called his friend and asked him to come back to the store because he had another necklace to show him. This time, he introduced the new piece at its regular $500 price. His friend liked it enough to buy it on the spot. But before any money was exchanged, the jeweler told him that, as a wedding gift, he would drop the price to $250. The man was thrilled. Now, rather than finding the $250 sales price offensive, he was overjoyed—and grateful—to have it.
Author’s note: Notice, as in the case of the turquoise-jewelry buyers, it was someone who wanted to be assured of good merchandise who disdained the low-priced item. I’m confident that besides the expensive = good rule, there’s a flip side, an inexpensive = bad rule that applies to our thinking as well. After all, in English, the word cheap doesn’t just mean inexpensive; it has also come to mean inferior.
Simplifying by Betting the Shortcut Odds
It is easy to fault the tourists for their foolish purchase decisions, but a close look offers a kinder view. These were people who had been brought up on the rule “You get what you pay for” and had seen the rule borne out over and over in their lives. Before long, they had translated it to mean expensive = good. The expensive = good stereotype had worked well for them in the past because normally the price of an item increases along with its worth; a higher price typically reflects higher quality. So when they found themselves in the position of wanting good turquoise jewelry but not having much knowledge of turquoise, they understandably relied on the old standby feature of cost to determine the jewelry’s merits.
Although they probably didn’t realize it, by reacting solely to price, they were playing a shortcut version of betting the odds. Instead of stacking all the odds in their favor by trying painstakingly to master each feature signifying the worth of turquoise jewelry, they simplified things by counting on just one—the one they expected to reveal the quality of any item. They bet price alone would tell them all they needed to know. This time because someone mistook a “1/2” for a “2,” they bet wrong. But in the long run, over all the past and future situations of their lives, betting those shortcut odds represents the most rational approach.
We’re now in a position to explain the puzzling result of the chapter’s opening study—the one showing that people given a drink said to boost problem-solving ability solved more problems when they paid more for the drink. The researchers traced the finding to the expensive = good stereotype: people reported expecting the drink to work better when it cost $1.89 versus $0.89; and, remarkably, the mere expectation fulfilled itself. A similar pheno...