by Yonason Goldson
Imagine this: You’re heading for the cashier at your local bookstore when you pass a display selling coffee mugs for $5. There’s only one left, sporting an image of your favorite TV star, but you’re not willing to spend five bucks on it. Then you notice the clearance sign marking it down to $2.50. You pick up the mug and pay for it, along with your other merchandise.
As you walk out to the parking lot, the customer exiting right behind you says, “Gee, I was going to buy that mug, but you grabbed it before I got to it. I’ll buy it from you for the full price of $5. What do you say?”
“No,” you reply immediately. “I wouldn’t sell it for less than $7.50.”
What just happened? Are you an opportunist or a savvy entrepreneur?
Quite possibly, you are neither. Rather, you may have fallen victim to a natural tendency of the human brain. And although deals in the resale mug market may not add up to a hill of coffee beans, this same mental quirk can set us up for catastrophic failure when it comes to more serious decisions in business or life.
TO HAVE AND TO HOLD
In a decades-old study, researchers asked subjects to list the reasons for and against buying a video-cassette recorder. (If you don’t know what that is, ask someone over 40.) Some were instructed to write a list of pros first, while others were asked to begin with a list of cons.
Weeks after the exercise, subjects reported that their attitudes were still tilted toward the list that they composed first. The initial investment of thought implanted itself within their subconscious minds and showed little willingness to leave.
Psychologists refer to this phenomenon by different names: the endowment effect, loss aversion, the principle of ownership, and status quo bias. Regardless of what we call it, the idea boils down to this: What we have is more valuable to us than what we don’t have. If we own the mug, the mug is worth more money. If someone else owns the mug, the mug is worth less money.
This leads to the natural give and take of business negotiation. But it applies in a more insidious way to our attitudes and opinions.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU THINK … FIRST
When you propose an idea or advance a point of view, you invest yourself in that position. The more time, thought and effort you put into developing it, the more invested you become. This is a natural effect of human ego.
But even if the idea comes from someone else, the moment you buy into that idea by accepting it as sound, you are now invested. This means you’re naturally going to resist uprooting that idea, even after its merits are clearly refuted.
Here are a few mind tricks you can use to offset status quo bias:
1. Don’t make a list of pros and then a list of cons (or vice versa). Instead, think up a pro immediately after each con and a con immediately after each pro. Doing so will guard you against becoming too invested in one position or the other.
2. Introduce any proposal by saying out loud: “Hypothetically speaking …,” or “This is just a rough idea.” These kinds of qualifiers can help nudge the subconscious mind into reserving judgment until you’ve had time to thoroughly evaluate the proposal.
3. When a new idea is suggested, divide your team into two groups. Instruct one group to compose a list of pros and the other a list of cons. Individual members may end up invested in the side they defend, but the group overall will retain balance and greater objectivity.
4. Follow the advice of Jewish sages 2000 years ago and allow the most junior member of the team to speak first. It’s easier to argue with juniors than with seniors, so this method promotes a wider range of opinions. But beware: This approach only works when those who are more senior discipline themselves not to show approval or disapproval, whether outwardly and inwardly.
By recognizing the inclinations of our subconscious minds and developing strategies to restore balanced thinking, we can rein in our impulse to pursue illusory visions of success. Disciplining ourselves to take a good look through the clear lens of honest evaluation will help us to avoid pitfalls that we can easily miss, even when they’re right before our eyes.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics that earns trust, sparks loyalty, and limits liability. He’s host of the podcast “Grappling with the Gray,” and his column “The Ethical Lexicon” appears weekly in Fast Company.
Visit him at his new website, ethicsninja.com.