How to benefit most from your fellow man

This is a self-helping guide to getting people to do what you want. Bottom line is that people are lazy, altruistic and often confused. So whether you want to squeeze money from ignorant boneheads or shamelessly exploit the dregs of society, look no further, here are some pointers:
1. People are lazy, take advantage of this!
Although we might think that we are rational beings capable of making good and informed decisions that best suit our individual preference, it is not all that clear that we actually have the cognitive ability, the knowledge and even the motivation to do this. Nobel prize winners Tversky and Kahneman describe some heuristics and biases that reduce complex tasks of assessing probabilities and predicting values to a simpler judgmental operation. It turns out, for example, that people are willing to pay more money for the same desirable object when beforehand they are given a high arbitrary anchor compared to a low anchor. I will give several examples of this phenomenon. When people are asked to make an estimate (within five seconds) of the following sequence: 8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1 the median estimate will be around 2250. In contrast, when people are asked to make an estimate of 1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8, which has of course the exact same solution, the median estimate was 512 (while the correct answer is 40320). The reason is that people base their answer on the result of an incomplete computation. The descending sequence gets difficult to calculate pretty fast, while the ascending sequence seems more easy and thus regarded as four times as small. Another example: the best way for a hotel to contribute to saving the environment by stimulating people to re-use their towels, is to report the days that the previous guest used their towel. It turns out that, to a certain degree of course (I rather not imagine anyone using the same towel for a month) no matter what anchor you set, people will pretty much approximate this number. Basically the same goes for the decision of being an organ donor, it depends heavily on the anchor you set: organ donor rates in Belgium are almost 100% while in Holland it is only around 30%. Now obviously this is not caused by major differences in the morals or cultures of both countries, but by the policy of donation. In an opt-out policy, even when you make it very easy to say no, many people apparently don’t take the effort to think about what they personally prefer, but go with the standard of the majority. They are thus heavily influenced by framing effects and social expectations.
2. People don’t know what they desire, take advantage of this!
Talking about not-being rational, have you ever been to a casino and played roulette? Imagine that you are there and the ball hits black five times in a row. What color would you bet on in the next round? Most people think that a red number is bound to come up and place their bets on red, although obviously the chance is still 50-50. Also, image that you play a slot machine. When are you more likely to throw in another coin, when you have apple-banana-pear, or when you have pear-bar-bar? You automatically think “I am so close now, let’s try one more”, even though you know perfectly well the does not enhance your chance to win.
When people are given 1000 euro to choose between a vacation and a laptop, the ones that choose the vacation are on average more happy afterwards. If given a computer mouse or a cd, both of the same economic value, and a day later they are offered money to exchange their gift, the people who got the cd would, on average, want more money in return. Thus, people might think that a new tv would make them really happy, in reality, this sentiment is only of a very short duration after which they are equally happy as with their old tv. Experiences, like vacations or listening to a cd, by contrast do make you happier than before. This might be because you are more prone to remember the good times of an experience than the bad ones.
Another example that really gets to me is a study were the happiness of people winning the lottery was measured and compared to the happiness of people that got an accident and, as a result, were disabled. Of course people would choose winning the lottery over the dramatic and undesirable option of not walking and most people actually think the lottery would make them really happy. However this is only true for the short term. After a year people who are disabled are equally or more happy than people who won the lottery. Now this might sound very unlikely and you could argue how to adequately measure this, but this is respectable research in the field of psychology. Whatever may underlie this counterintuitive result, I think it is fair to say that people are very good in adapting to circumstances but they are very bad at predicting this adaptation. To be more specific, people really think that they know what they want, but in reality they do not have a clue.
3. People are empathic, take advantage of this!
I actually was approached several times by a charity that I support for a couple of bucks a week, which is not easy being a self-supporting student, with a tearjerking story about poor children needing help. I was asked whether “I would not want to pay some more to help people in need”. Trust me, it is very difficult to say no and it feels horrible to have to do this. I fully support an altruistic society and I think many people do, even though we are all aware that not all help is effective. But despite this, we still feel the need to give charity, even if it is considered a selfish act in the sense that it feels good to give. So if you want to get people to do something, inducing an emotional response proves very effective.
Another example is the work that homecare has to do nowadays. Some homecare employees are actually paid even less than before, not because they do their work any differently, but because officially they are employed as cleaning personnel. So authorities can basically fire the homecare personnel, hire the same people as cleaning personnel and send them off to the physical or mentally disabled while paying five euros less. Homecare takes care of people who really depend on the help or really need surveillance, somebody to check on them every day to make sure they take their medication. In practice, a trained homecare cleaning lady is not going to do this surveillance any less thoroughly and won’t ignore a patient in need just because it is no longer her job description.
To conclude, we have established that people are very much influenced by their environment and in theory it is easy to manipulate their cognitive and emotional states.
Of course I would want you to do the exact opposite of what my dramatic title and introduction instructs you to do. The heuristics and biases I told you about do not just happen to the ignorant, but also to psychologists and even to me! I realized it last month when I was at the AH wanting to buy a bottle of soda. I found myself preferring a deal where I would get the second bottle for halve the price (that sounds cheap!), over a 25% discount on one bottle. I realized my mistake when I came home with two bottles of Coca Cola I did not really need and shook my head in despair. Trust me, we are exposed to similar manipulations in our economic behaviour and in our decision making in general. Maybe they are in many situations less obvious and may also be unconsciously projected, but they are there.

I hope patients and doctors are aware of this when they interact, because surely heuristics and biases play a role in healthcare too, especially because strong emotions often get the best of people. Think about discussing a therapy choice with a patient for example. So many factors are at play here that you can imagine objectivity will turn out to be relative. A study where a choice between radiation for cancer was framed as having a 10% immediate mortality rate and the option of surgery was framed as having a 90% short-term survival rate, the latter yielded a substantially higher preference!
When getting ill, a patient has to make many decisions and can hopefully do this without regretting the choice later. I think in all instances, the best way to come to a good decision is to stay as rational as possible and take you time to really think about what you want and desire and try not to be influenced by others, who might not always have your best interest at heart. I request that you join me in an empowered protest against all biases and heuristics so that we won’t be fooled any longer!


A blog by Anke Murillo Oosterwijk