We’ve all been in the position of having to advise a friend to leave that bad boy alone who just wont commit to her. Well, it turns out there’s a reason why it’s so hard to get over bad boys and give up hope that they will eventually change their evil ways: It’s our human psychology. Those in the field of behavioral economics study our behavior in part to help companies understand what makes us spend more money in a store than we had planned; a side benefit of their research is that is also explains nifty stuff like bad boys and why we keep that dress that we have no idea when (or if) we’ll ever have an occasion to wear it.
In the July 2011 issue of Wired Magazine in an article titled “Gamed,” author and professor Dan Ariely lays out some of the secrets of behavioral economics. For starters, we don’t know what we like; or, should I say, we claim to like one thing but actually we like something else. Our expressed preferences–what we tell other people we like–tend to be preferences that make us appear high-brow, more educated and classier than we really are. But deep down inside, we often like low-brow entertainment–we just don’t want our acquaintances to know that.
Ariely coauthored a paper with another researcher investigating the way that we value goods. According to Ariely, it turns out that the real reason you like that cheap Ikea bookcase is not because it’s Swedish, but because you have to assemble that bookcase yourself. Turns out that we overly value our own creations–you think that homemade meal is tastes delicious only because you slaved over it for hours–and that the more time and energy we invest in an activity or person, the less likely we are to write that activity or person off as a lost cause. The tendency to stay in a relationship long-past the time when it is clearly over is, in part, due to the sunk-cost fallacy. The sunk-cost fallacy is when we tabulate the worth of something based upon how much time we put into it, as opposed to when we tabulate the worth of that thing from this point going forward. How much you already spent on something should be irrelevant in your decision making process. Why? Because whatever you already spent is a sunk cost; it cannot be recouped so there is no point in considering it. So the next time a friend tells you that she can’t leave a relationship because she already put so much time into it, tell her that instead of thinking about the time that is already past, she should ask herself whether or not she would be happier in 6 months if she were not in her present relationship.
Those expensive designer jeans that you purchased but never returned to the store even though you had no event to wear them to ?…it’s called “post-purchase rationalization”. After you buy something and take it home you tend to rationalize your purchase, no matter how worthless the item.
Now lets get back to why some women find bad boys so appealing: It’s called random reinforcement. Psychologist B.F. Skinner and his colleague C.B. Forster designed some ingenious experiments using animals. One of the results of those experiment demonstrated that random reinforcement is better than regular reinforcement at getting an animal to modify its behavior. From the Wired article: ” If a pigeon gets food every 100th time it presses a button, it will usually keep pressing. But if the reward comes randomly–sometimes after 50 presses and sometimes after 150–the pigeon will press with much more vigor, even after the rewards are removed entirely.”
Remember guy that played hot-cold-hot-cold with you, one day he’s all into you and the next day he isn’t but you don’t know exactly what makes him change his behavior towards you? Now you know that he was actually using random reinforcement to get you to keep coming back for more, even after you knew–and he knew that you knew–he wasn’t that into you.
Who knew players were just armchair behavioral economists?