A Sense of Scarcity
Thursday, December 20, 2007
By Wray Herbert
I have a friend who really wants a life partner. She is divorced, and after some dreary years on the dating scene she has come to realize just how much she wants a mate again, someone intelligent, kind, decent looking. With each passing month, her longing has intensified, and as her longing gets stronger her prospects appear dimmer and dimmer. She now believes that there really are no quality men left out there.
That’s not hyperbole. She believes this in her heart. She has concluded that good men are so vanishingly rare that there is no point in looking anymore. She’s throwing in the towel.
Psychologists are very interested in this kind of thinking. The fact is my friend can’t really know for sure how many good men there are out there. How could she? That’s really a probability question, and she just doesn’t have enough information to answer it. Yet she has convinced herself that she knows the answer, and the answer is zero. What’s going on in her brain?
An international team of psychologists believes they may have at least part of the answer. Xianchi Dai, Klaus Wertenbroch and Miguel Brendl of INSEAD Europe Campus in France have been studying what they call the “value heuristic.” A heuristic is just scientific jargon for a cognitive short cut, a “rule of thumb” that we use when we can’t make a truly informed decision. The psychologists think my friend is unwittingly subbing something clear and simple—her yearning—for a complicated and unknowable statistic.
The connection between value and scarcity is something we all know. Gold is precious because there is not much of it to go around, not because you can use it to build skyscrapers. The psychologists reasoned that this link has become deep-wired into our neurons, so that we unconsciously call on it—and its inverse—for life decisions.
They decided to test this idea in the laboratory. The experiment was really quite simple. They had a group of young people look at about a hundred pictures, half of birds and half of flowers, in random order. Then they shuffled them up and showed them again, but this time they offered some of the participants money for each flower they had seen before. Others were paid for each bird they had seen before. Then they all were asked to estimate the total number of bird pictures and the total number of flower pictures.
The results were unambiguous. As described in the January issue of Psychological Science, people who were paid for spotting flower pictures thought there were fewer flowers than birds, and likewise those who were made to value birds were sure they were scarcer than flowers. Nobody knew that in fact there were exactly the same number of flowers and birds, so in effect their laboratory-induced “yearning” for something caused them to wrongly perceive scarcity.
To double-check their findings, the scientists ran another experiment, this one a little closer to my friend’s real-life dilemma. In this case, participants (both men and women) viewed portraits of both men and women, some attractive and some not. When questioned later, both men and women believed that there were fewer attractive people of the opposite sex than there were of the same sex. If the portraits were unattractive, they didn’t perceive a scarcity. So again, the participants were in effect substituting their emotional desire for calculation, and ended up believing that what they wanted was less likely to be found.
And again they were wrong. These cognitive tools likely evolved over eons and served an adaptive purpose long ago. Maybe it made mate seekers less picky. But making decisions under uncertain conditions may be trickier in the modern world, and mental short-cuts may be a shortcut to a solitary life.
For more insights into human nature, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.
posted by Wray Herbert @ 4:58 PM