The World Science Festival opened last night with “You and Your Irrational Brain: An Evening of Experimentation Under the Stars.” Co-sponsored by WNYC Radio and hosted by Radio Lab staples Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, the panel featured Dan Ariely, author of the best-selling Predictably Irrational, and Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist offering juicy tidbits on our species’ decision-making capabilities (and limitations).
As the sun set behind the Manhattan skyline, the panel kept the filled-to-capacity crowd engaged with a lively discussion of the rational versus emotional brain, and the constant battle at play in our heads over any choice from reaching for a chocolate bar to buying a car.
So how does our brain sift through the myriad choices in life, making sense of what to eat, buy, wear, do, think, etc.? The process, said Ariely and Lehrer, comes down to three elements: Anchoring to a fixed concept or object, the pull of “now” versus the logic of “later,” and the more-than-slightly tragic fact that human beings hate losing twice as much as we love winning.
The speakers demonstrated the “Anchoring Effect” by using the crowd to duplicate an experiment from Ariely’s book: Think of the last two digits of your social security number (a random number) and then contemplate an object—in this case, a wireless mouse—and decide the maximum amount you would pay for it. Those with lower SS numbers in their heads consistently picked a lower price, as demonstrated by a set of volunteers:
To illustrate the seductive allure of “taking what you can get now” versus the rational brain’s message of “waiting for more to come later,” the panelists asked a hungry audience member to choose between a single slice of pizza immediately, or a voucher for an entire pizza in a week. No surprise, she chose the slice.
And to show the pain of loss, the panel offered a taped man-on-the-street experiment in which participants were asked if they would bet on a coin toss in which they would owe $1 if they lost, but be paid $1.25, $1.50, or $2 if they won. The consensus? Unless it’s 2-to-1 odds, the pain of losing would win out. Too bad those odds are offered just about never—a somewhat depressing thought. Still, the free (and immediate) hot dogs and fries handed out by the food stand were enough to dull any lamentations from our rational brains.