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

10 Comments:

At 5:27 PM , Blogger Ms. Anne said...

Often I have a similar belief that there are so few acceptable men available that my chances are terribly thin at best. I'm not so sure that I'm concerned with the scarcity as much as my deepest fears seem to stem from a deep, silent concern of unworthiness or my own lacking quality - somewhere deep in my mind believing that I have poor quality as a woman to even begin to attract a worthy man. Childhood demons or just adult aging fear?

 
At 5:53 PM , Blogger Mr. PDNA said...

It is easy to get lonely. It depends on parenting as well. But it is also a matter of opportunity. 'Friends' these days, it seems trickier to invite them to get together, and people who don't have all the latest consoles may feel not as good to invite their friends over.

People 'live in their own little worlds'. I know a friend who I tell useful information, and yet I am sure that they have useful information and just don't bother. People just have so many friends that they fail to see who are their real friends. It is as bad as loneliness or being antisocial, to be so foolish.

 
At 11:53 PM , Blogger sonal said...

Ironic, but true. It is human tendency to make negative conclusions solely because we are unable to fulfill our desires. Maybe we should try to a little harder as it is never too late. In the case of this friend, the beliefe that good men are vanishing has resulted in refusal to see any other guy who is actually standing right next to her. More often than not, the solutions to our problems are so obvious that we overlook them. Maybe this should resolve your problem Ms Anne. Have a wonderful time!!!!

 
At 12:05 AM , Blogger maydb_7 said...

According to statistics, there are actually less men. In some studies, there is an almost 2 to 1 ratio of males to females sorted by age, ethnic and cultural aspects. Medically, there are more male infants but less survive, there are more male sperm but less reach the egg to fertilize it. There is still a higher population of males in prisons and less men than women that attend college and more men in the military. There are more homosexual men now than ever before. This means that there are less men that meet the standards of these over self-critical, therapist-addicted women who have been told the problem is that they 'think' wrong. Actually, they don't. There are less men, statistically speaking and it is wrong to use psycho-babble to convence them they are wrong when they are basically right.

 
At 2:39 AM , Blogger tony said...

This post has been removed by the author.

 
At 2:41 AM , Blogger tony said...

Wow. I've never heard of the value hueristic before, but it really is interesting. It reminds me of when I'm sitting on the couch hungry, and the first thing that pops into my head is that there isn't anyting to eat when the fridge is actually full of food, and I'm just to lazy to get of the couch and eat it.

And to kind of tie this into economics, this must have something to do with the diamond industry. I've always wanted a diamond, and I've always perceived it as scarce (which I later learned is not the case, but that's besides the point.) These two statements must reaffirm eachother in a loop of circular reasoning.

-I want a diamond because it's scarce.
-The diamond must be scarce because I want it: the value hueristic.

False logic is a beautiful thing.

 
At 7:55 PM , Blogger Anittah N. Patrick said...

Fantastic write-up of a very interesting study. I'm going to do my best to not use the findings and play mind games with those for whom I hold affections :)

 
At 2:11 AM , Blogger PhD in Yogurtry said...

Enjoyed re-learning about heuristic value, so thanks to the author for summarizing the study. I agree, in part, with maydb's point. There likely are "fewer good men." The disproportionately higher rate of male sex offenders, is another example rightfully feeding the belief. My female friends and informants so frequently complain about men who deceive about their intentions as a means of "getting laid." I wonder if there is data indicating that males are disproproportionately dishonest, say, or less interested in compromise for the sake of a harmonious relationship. And if attributes such as honesty, committment, and compromise are genuinely harder to find in males. Now on the other hand, I do hear divorced males worry out loud that there are no good women left. But they tend to be married about a year later.

 
At 1:49 PM , Blogger Randy Zeitman said...

>> I have a friend who really wants a life partner.

(What is the difference between a life partner and a boyfriend? Living together? Marriage?)

>> someone intelligent, kind, decent looking.

(Do you not think this is automatically a problem? What percentage of men does she think is good looking? If she truly wants emotional validation then why are looks even a top-10 criteria? Maybe she actually just wants something more casual because when a person says "good looks" I question whether they really want a "partner"!)


>> 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.

(She may not actually believe that but just express it like that in frustration...what she might actually believe (as I do with women) is that the quality people are not in her region or social class.)

>> She has concluded that good men are so vanishingly rare that there is no point in looking anymore.

(Well, how do you know she's wrong? Is it her criteria or is she objective?)


>> She’s throwing in the towel.

She shouldn't...she should change her method.

>> That’s really a probability question, and she just doesn’t have enough information to answer it.

Fine...why not help her? I think most folks don't quite get that courtship/mating problems are actually MARKETING problems and that if you look at marketing you will see that 'cold mailing' results in about a 0.5%-1% return while a warm campaign can give more like 2%.

A person selling themselves to others is not at all different. What she doesn't understand is that she may have to converse with 100 guys before she hits a real prospect.

Perhaps her problem is the same as most startup business owners who think that 10% of folks who see their product will buy it! (nope!)

You have to figure out your target!..You have to look in the right places to increase your chances and then accept that it's going to take longer than you think!...maybe 10x longer! Accept that!

>> What’s going on in her brain?

(Simple...she collected evidence. Normal.)

>> The psychologists think my friend is unwittingly subbing something clear and simple—her yearning—for a complicated and unknowable statistic.


It's not unknowable...reason it out and make a good estimate.

 
At 1:56 PM , Blogger Randy Zeitman said...

>>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.

HUMANS ARE NOT GOOD AT RATIONAL THINKING WHEN UNDER STRESS! (To want is to suffer...that's stress.)

There was an article in Psychology Today about this...people who choose 'with their gut' are more often WRONG while the thinking (less emotional) people turned out to make better guesses.

(But instead of knowing that through common sense we have to call it “value heuristic" in order to cast it as something new in order to get funding and fame for reinventing something already known.

 

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