Until recently, I’d never given much thought to the fact that whenever I buy my lunch at the deli behind my office building, I always get the same sandwich (chicken, avocado, cheese, tomato and lettuce on multi-grain, in case you were wondering). Then I started reading Dan Ariely‘s book Predictably Irrational and realised that I’d been “self-herding”.
You’re walking past a restaurant, and you see two people standing in line, waiting to get in. “This must be a good restaurant,” you think to yourself. “People are standing in line.” So you stand behind these people. Another person walks by and thinks, “This must be a fantastic restaurant,” and joins the line. Others join. We call this type of behavior herding. It happens when we assume that something is good (or bad) on the basis of other people’s behavior and our actions follow suit.
But there’s also another kind of herding, one that we call self-herding. This happens when we believe something is good (or bad) on the basis of our own previous behavior. Essentially, once we become the first person in line at the restaurant, we begin to line up behind ourself in subsequent experiences.
Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational (HarperCollins)
So the first time I bought my chicken sandwich, it was probably a bit of a random choice, but since then I have been continually reinforcing my own behaviour: if it was right sandwich to buy on all those previous occasions, it really must be the best sandwich! Having had scientific and mathematical training, I have always prided myself on being rational and so I was a little bit disturbed to be exhibiting a behaviour described in a book on irrationality! And the sandwich was just the start, I started to see all sorts of ways in which I have been self-herding. Just about everywhere I eat regularly, there’s a standard meal I order (the Milanese at Cafe Corto, the pork and prawns at BBQ King and so on), I always set my mat down in the same spot at yoga and I always read the same sections of the newspaper in the same order.
Predictably Irrational is all about “behavioural economics”. Part economics, part psychology, behavioural economics aims to understand how people actually make decisions, rather than taking the traditional economics approach of assuming that people behave rationally, at least in aggregate. Researchers in the field take an experimental approach and Ariely’s book is filled with ingenious and entertaining examples, such as observing the difference between secretly leaving half a dozen cans of coke in shared dorm fridges (they quickly disappear) or leaving a saucer of dollar bills (they are untouched). This particular example is part of Ariely’s examination of our somewhat peculiar attitude to money: it is a store of value and yet we don’t relate to it in quite the same way as goods or services of an equivalent value.
Sadly, self-herding is far from the only irrational behaviour I recognised in myself as I read the book (and I don’t mean that I have a tendency to pinch cans of Coke). I can be fooled by products or services that are “free”, I am a serious procrastinator and I can certainly make poor judgements when my emotions run high. All of these behaviors and more are explored in the book and I might have to ponder some of these in future posts.
For anyone who read Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, you’ll find Predictably Irrational is the opposite side of the coin. Where Freakonomics explores the successful application of classical economics to rather bizarre situations, Predictably Irrational takes the most mundane situations in which the usual rules of economics fail to hold. It’s a fascinating read. Ariely’s website is also well worth a visit.