Take advantage of your irrational mind!

What was she thinking?
By National Photo Company Library of Congress npcc.06771

We may think we are rational, but behavioral science says otherwise. We are strongly influenced by emotions, identity, and our social environment. A member of the medical profession confesses to paying more attention to drugs and practices his colleagues prescribe than to well researched medical literature.1

Our choices even depend on how options are presented to us. You are about to undergo elective surgery. You are told a) you have an 80% chance of successful surgery and gaining a pain free life or b) you have a 20% chance of no change, becoming worse off, or even death. The first description makes most people feel good about going forward while the second gives pause.

Perhaps the difference is a consequence of the curious fact of behavioral science: that we are more motivated to stave off a loss than we are to make an equivalent gain. Studies show that people feel twice as bad at losing $100 as winning $100 feels good. Professional golfers are more likely to make a putt to avoid a bogie than they are to make a birdie.

When given a choice, people are overwhelmingly likely to stick with default options. This is hugely important to governance for a better society. In countries where you are an assumed organ donor unless you opt out, over 90% are organ donors compared to 4% to 27% in opt-in countries. In California, a program designed to promote use of renewable energy by allowing communities to purchase electricity for their citizens was specifically designed to be opt-out. As an environmental activist I fought a bill designed to kill the program by changing it to opt-in.

I recognize myself in the discovery that people are less likely to buy if there are dozens of options rather than a few.  I’ve walked into a department store and been overwhelmed by too much merchandise. It took years to buy my first computer. When I did, I ordered the same system as a techie friend.

People prefer instant gratification even when the rewards are greater for waiting. One free coffee now or two free coffees later?

OK, how can we use this information to better lives? Individually, we can avoid succumbing to our emotional brain and promise to pay a friend if we don’t keep a resolution. As parents we can influence our children’s behavior. Our institutions can employ positive default practices. The motivating article for this blog discusses employing paying patients for healthy behavior with the proviso of returning  the money for non-compliance. I was surprised by how many patients fail to take their meds (with 125,000 resultant annual deaths) , not surprised at the difficult of losing weight, exercising, and quitting smoking.


  1. Dr. Dhruv Khullar, author of article below.

How  Behavioral Science can lead to better health care 



4 thoughts on “Take advantage of your irrational mind!

  1. I resonate with the comment about decision-making being affected by the way the choices are presented. A friend who did day-care clued me in on that gem when she said she never asked a child to put on shoes, but rather would the child prefer to put the left shoe or the right shoe on first.

    Liked by 1 person

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