Exploring the Quirks of Human Nature

A photo of a triangle of blue cheese

FuturU’s Head of Learning Innovation, Mark Story, takes us on a fascinating journey into the world of human behaviour and decision-making and what we can learn from this. This article forms part of our “Always Learning” series, which is one of our core values at FuturU. As an organisation, we place a lot of value on the journey of discovery, while being open to new perspectives.

Spoiler alert: our ability to make accurate, impartial, effective, reasoned and objective decisions and judgments isn’t as good as we think it is. In fact, it’s influenced by a whole range of different factors, and knowing this can ensure that we don’t succumb to these biases. In this piece, I’m going to introduce you to four different quirks of human nature, the ways in which our decision-making and judgement can be interrupted, and what this teaches us about ourselves.

The Great Cheese Experiment: Expectation Shapes Experience

Fifteen years ago, during a workshop for the Welsh Assembly, my colleague and I conducted an unusual experiment involving cheese and body odour.

In the middle of the room where we were holding the experiment was a covered jar. Half of the delegates were told the jar contained a small piece of premium vintage Stilton. We asked them to open the jar, smell the contents and rate the pleasantness of that smell out of 10. For the other half, we told them that the jar contained a cloth soaked in body sweat. We also asked them to smell the contents of the jar, and rank the pleasantness out of 10. 

So my question is: do you think the rating of the pleasantness of the smell changed, depending on what people thought they were smelling? Well, the answer is yes. Those who believed they were smelling cheese rated it higher (8/10) than those who thought it was body odour (5/10), despite the fact that they were smelling the same thing. 

This phenomenon highlights how our expectations can profoundly influence our experiences, affecting everything from relationships to decision-making. In other words, if we’re responding to something and we expect it to be bad, we’re going to be looking for bad things. Meanwhile if we expect something to be good, we’ll be looking for good things. 

The Line Length Conundrum: The Power of Conformity

Solomon Asch Conformity Line Experiment Study

Next is the line length experiment by Solomon Asch in the 1950s, which exposes the power of social conformity, or what we might refer to as groupthink.

As part of the experiment, he put eight people into a room, seven of whom were ‘in’ on the experiment and one person who was the subject. He asked the question: which line (A, B or C) is the same length as the target line? Now, this isn’t an optical illusion and is pretty straightforward and obvious. But what he got all the actors to do before the subject made their choice was to give an incorrect answer. He wanted to see whether everybody else choosing an incorrect answer would influence the answer that the subject gave. 

The results found that if you were asked that question randomly, you would get the answer right 99.3% of the time. But interestingly, if seven people in the group gave the wrong answer, then the subject would only get the answer right two thirds of the time. Which means that a third of the time they’d be so compelled to conform with the group decision, that they would actually give the wrong answer.

This demonstrates the powerful sway of social conformity and the tendency to align with the majority, even if it contradicts our own perception. This has strong implications in the workplace when we’re collaborating with others. For example, are we trying to arrive at some kind of collaborative group decision? How do we ensure that everybody gets heard, free from the expectation to conform? And to what extent is a position of authority influencing people’s decisions in the workplace? 

Money and Happiness: The Illusion of Wealth

Does money buy happiness? An experiment involving lottery winners and victims of paralysing accidents set out to gauge their levels of happiness, six months after their life changing event. 

The question I want to ask is: do you think the lottery winners felt happier than they were before the win, less happy, or the same? 

The correct answer is ‘the same’. What the experiment found was that lottery winners were not happier than non-lottery winners, and six months after a lottery win, people stabilised back to a preset level of happiness. Meanwhile, paralysed accident victims were also not less happy than people who could walk. Six months after their life changing event, they too had stabilised to a preset level of happiness. 

This is a quirk of human nature called hedonic adaptation, which is the human tendency to return to a stable level of happiness despite a major life changing event. So if we want to change our default level of happiness, focusing on our overall wellbeing is more effective than striving for one-off events like winning the lottery. 

When it comes to providing clear development and progression paths, some care providers do this really well and have it mapped out, but others have nothing. I am hopeful the Skills for Care people plan will address this.

Anchoring Bias: Genghis Khan and Beyond

Our final stop takes us to the realm of anchoring bias, where arbitrary reference points sway our decisions. I’m going to start by talking about Genghis Khan, a Mongol leader who rose from humble beginnings, established the largest land empire in history, united some nomadic tribes and conquered huge chunks of Asia and China. 

My first question is: did these events happen before or after AD 151? My next question is: what year do you think Genghis Khan died? Was it before AD 200 or after AD 500? The correct answer, in both cases, is after. In fact, he died in 1227. However, these questions are structured in a way that anchors us to a certain number and a certain date. By doing that, we are less inclined to think that he might have existed in the 13th century.

There’s another way of doing this experiment, which involves getting people to write down the last three digits of their phone number, and then writing down what year they thought Genghis Khan died. Generally, people will gravitate towards the last three digits of their phone number, as opposed to the actual date. 

By anchoring participants to specific numbers, researchers observed how this influenced their responses, even in unrelated contexts. From negotiations to sales tactics, anchoring bias pervades various aspects of our lives, shaping our perceptions and influencing our choices.

 

In summary, our journey through these experiments underscores the intricate interplay between perception, expectation, and social influence in shaping human behaviour. By understanding these quirks of human nature, we can make more informed and rational decisions, free from the subtle biases that often cloud our judgement. So, let’s embrace the journey of self-awareness and continue to unravel the mysteries of the human mind.

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