How to pull ? – According to a behavioural scientist …

I’ve previously blogged on how it is a bad assumption to assume that everyone is rationale. In fact Professor Dan Ariely argues in his book “Predictably Irrational” that it is a far better assumption to ‘veer off’ for certain known biases in the way we approach things as human beings. We might like to think we are very rationale or Spock-like; but actually we are much more like Homer Simpson when it comes to taking decisions.

I recently did a radio show on Radio Hartley Wintney on this topic. I tempted the listeners that I might cover “how to pull, according to a behavioural scientist“. However, unfortunately I ran out of time. (Time seems to flow at a different speed inside that radio studio). So I decided to blog about it instead. If you felt like you missed out, it’s well with watching Dan Ariely on TED, a regular contributor to Wired magazine, cover this topic.

A few of the key points that we can learn:

1) Firstly, you should share your night out with a few mates, but not too many of them.

Three is an ideal number to give the prospective partner a choice but not too big a choice to confuse. There’s evidence from scientific studies of the optimum number of jams to display in the supermarket that too much choice can actually confuse the decision-maker to such a degree that it becomes “all-too-complicated” to buy jam at all and instead sales are actually reduced when there is too much choice. So much for the Western dogma, that consumerism is all about providing choices. (And, yes, isn’t it incredible that there are ‘scientific studies’ on the selection of jam !).

2) Providing a third decoy choice to tip the balance in your favour

There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that a carefully selected set of three people could be an ideal number, if you’re hoping to get lucky with the opposite sex. However, you do have to pick the other two very carefully. Let’s assume that you want to “load the dice” to improve your chances of getting lucky. One set of scientific studies show that you want to set things up so that there is a difficult choice between two out of the three people out that night – let’s call them A and B. Perhaps, A is fun to be with, whereas B is more classically good-looking. We’ll set this up such that there are two attributes that are typically difficult to choose between and tend to be more a case of personal choice. You might think that it is just a matter of luck, as to whether you find the right girl who is more predisposed to one of these two qualities. Wrong !

In this case study, let’s assume that you are person A and you want to be be selected. According to the study, the best way to subtlely engineer things is to add a third choice, who I call the “decoy choice”: choice C. Weirdly, the absence or inclusion of this third choice makes a significant difference to the percentage of people who select either A or B, even if no-one actually selects C. How strange is that ?

Let’s imagine that things are set up “fairly” and an even proportion of the female population select A or B, when there are just two choices i.e. when you go on the pull with just one other mate. The way to engineer the situation is that the decoy choice, option C, should be engineered to be very similar to yourself; but have a clearly obvious “defect”. Hence, option C might be better described as “Option A minus”. I know, at first sight, it appears irrational; but the existence of the third option can significantly effect the proportion of people who select option A over and above Option B.

So the question in this hypothetic example is: Do you have a slightly uglier brother? Taking him along on your expedition could seriously increase your chances of pulling. It is, as if, the brain shies away from the relatively difficult choice of A or B, which might tax the brain and force it to do some difficult kind of analysis. Instead, the brain focuses on the easier part of the challenge and identifies that “A” is better than “A minus” and does less thinking about the harder question of whether B is prefererable to A (or A minus). It appears as if the mind has already been made up that A must be better, because it is better than A minus.

If you like: the evidence suggests that our brains work much more like Homer Simpson than Spock.

Tests show that the percentage of people favouring A over B (which we previously set at 50-50%) now swing over in favour of A. Perhaps sub-consciously and instinctively we are first voting for “A minus” but then realise that we can “upgrade” from an “A-minus” to an “A”. There is no strong evidence for this particular explanation, but the numbers do eerily seem to suggest it might be true.

Perhaps, even wierder than the fact that social scientists do experiments on our selection of jam in the supermarket shelves is the fact that they also do experiments on our selection of partners in a night-club ! Perhaps, I picked the wrong discipline to study ?


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