Are you easily fooled? Recently I went to a price comparison site before I renewed some insurance. And – way ahead of competitors – was a company offering the lowest rate. Not being easily fooled, I Googled the company, and I was delighted to see, from the plaudits received, the warmth with which its customers viewed it. Clearly this was a company which acted promptly and professionally. Its customers regarded it with affection, and reported having built up personal relationships with members of staff. I was ready to buy.
Having a few minutes to spare, I idly tried another site. Goodness! This was full of dire complaints about the very same company. There was example after example of poor service, including big charges for minor changes, documents being sent late, or not at all, and a general approach which treated the unfortunate punter as someone to be milked and abandoned.
Now, what was I to make of this? Do you think it possible that the first site was an invention by the company concerned? How cynical! There have been stories around of writers posting laudatory reviews of their books on the internet and minor celebrities ready to doctor their own biographies. So I am back to my own insurance company. It’s not the cheapest, but at least it works.
Of course, we are all capable of fooling ourselves. About the age of 10 I used to read an American magazine called Popular Mechanics. A group of smokers claimed that they always chose a particular brand; they would have none other. So they were asked to smoke a number of different brands while blindfolded. When they identified their favourite it usually happened to be the one cigarette in the group which was unlit. Nowadays, I look out for studies of, say, expert wine-tasters, and I rejoice when I read that supermarket plonk is often chosen ahead of a classic vintage.
Such outcomes are not necessarily as damning as one might suppose. It seems that when we taste something which is identified as our favourite brand it may actually taste better, through some alchemy of the brain. But how about my own capacity for discrimination? I’d rather not test that.
An interesting example occurred last year in the vexing matter of teachers giving too many C grades when marking external coursework. They were very upset when Ofqual pointed this out and understandably annoyed when they could get little chapter and verse. But, of course, they couldn’t expect that. Teachers rightly have to use some discretion but, however conscientiously they do so, they will tend to mark in the student’s favour. And this simply shows up as a statistical spike just on the right side of the sacred C grade. You can’t trace the actual teachers, but the bias stares you in the face. The same phenomenon can also appear in scientific studies, where there is a statistical spike just over the level at which a result is technically considered significant. No one cheats, it’s just self-indulgent human nature.
Scarcity has a value. I remember when the first Mini Coopers came on to the market in the 1960s. They were out of my league at the whopping price of some £700. Not that it mattered: there were very few around. And then I saw a garage in north London offering one – just one. I was up there, deposit paid, before the day ended. Why are so many offers just about to come to an end? Of course we know why: we are not fooled even as the barbed hook reels us in. Ironically, Which? magazine tells us of airfares which can be actually cheaper after the offer has ended. And beware the salespeople who tell you that, if you buy right away, you will get some extra benefit. Aren’t they generous?
Scarcity is effective because it addresses our fear of loss. It’s interesting that significantly few people will take a chance on a coin toss which will lose them £100 or win them £200. The loss of the first is more frightening than the attraction of the second – although a gambling man would leap at the chance of such odds.
But there is one area where we can be confident that people are not fooled. I speak of judges and magistrates. These guardians of our liberty are trained to vet evidence and to make wise decisions. Which leaves us with an awkward question: how is it that a 2011 study of judicial decisions related to parole matters showed clearly that the clemency of the judges was directly affected by the length of time since their last meal or snack break?
Decisions in favour of the prisoners, initially in 65 per cent of cases, dropped steadily over time down to zero, but leapt back to 65 per cent immediately after the next break. It is unsettling to realise that your freedom under the law depends more on the comfort of your judge’s stomach than it does on the evidence. And that leaves aside all the issues like the judge’s temperament, the row they had with their spouse that morning and whether you, the plaintiff, are an attractive person with an educated accent.
Such examples might lead us to be suspicious of everyone we encounter, and, even if that is justified, it is rather depressing. We might be better served by gazing inwards and looking for better ways in which we lessen our own biases. Since rationality is identified as one of the major ways in which we are created in the image of God, increasing our own rationality is a worthwhile objective.
We might consider our biases, our prejudices, our lacks of discrimination, and the occasions when we allow our emotions to contaminate our reason. There are those who acknowledge that we are all susceptible and so are on their guard, and those who don’t – and so continue to make the same mistakes