27 November 2012

Would you pay 1000 Euros for a Kebab? – Visceral influences

I know. Your answer is a definite “NO”. You are neither stupid nor crazy to pay 1000 Euros for something that costs usually around 5 Euros. Moreover, you are now baffled by the idiotic idea of paying 1000 Euros for a lousy piece of Turkish (junk) food. Probably now you are thinking that this guy that writes the “Decision Designer & Behavior Builder” Blog has gone coo-coo.  

Yes, I’m talking to you… and do you know how I know what you’re thinking about my outrageous question? It’s simple. I know that you have eaten in the last 24 hours at least one meal. Since you are not starving (by the way, people who are hungry while reading this would pay more for a kebab than people who are not hungry), it is reasonable to think that 1000 Euros is a crazy price for some bread, meat and a few vegetables. At the same time if you would have not eaten for the last 10 days, trust me that 1000 Euros (if you would have them) is a reasonable price for a Kebab, especially if it is the only food item that you can get your hands on.

Extreme hunger is one of multiple visceral factors that influence people’s decision making and subsequent behavior. Other visceral factors are extreme fatigue, sexual arousal, severe pain, severe thirst, fear, anger and craving.

As you can see all these factors are related to physical and emotional aspects of a human. Another interesting thing about them is that almost all of them are somehow related to evolutionary based functions. For example hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain and fear are all related to survival. In order for an organism to survive it needs metabolic resources such as food, water and rest. None of these sensations and feelings is pleasant. By their very nature they are unpleasant and there is a good reason for this, namely that when these nasty sensations occur, we need to alleviate them resulting in ensuring survival.

A person might eat in order to escape the nasty sensation of hunger, but by doing so she will also acquire metabolic resources such as proteins, carbohydrates and fats which are essential for survival. In a similar line of thinking, a person might run away from a threat, thus alleviating fear and at the same time ensure her survival from something that might have killed her.

Sexual arousal is not about survival, but about something much more important from an evolutionary perspective. If an organism survives, but does not reproduce, the genes of the organism will disappear with the organism’s death and be forever removed from the evolution process. Sexual arousal is about reproduction and sending the genes into the next generation of organisms. Having sexual intercourse might be performed because instinctual forces are at play or, as in the case of humans, simply because “It feels good”. At the same time, having sex leads to having offspring… or at least in principle it does…

The visceral influences are also called “Hot states” of thinking or of behavior. The absence of the visceral influences is called a “Cold state”. In essence whenever a person is satiated, not experiencing a very strong emotion and not being sexually aroused we say that the person is in a “Cold State”. The opposite is valid for “Hot states”.

Most of decision making theory has focused on people being in “Cold States”. “Hot states” have been virtually ignored till about 20-25 years ago. Moreover, the beloved field of normative economics has simply dismissed these states as “people not thinking strait”. The truth is that when in a “hot state” a person is not “thinking strait” but she is still thinking. Let’s take a short trip in the land of thinking in “Hot states”.

As George Loewenstein states, when in a “hot state” an individual narrows his attention (focus) on three dimensions. The first narrowing of focus is on the means that can alleviate the visceral factor that is present. For example when a person is starving, alleviating the hunger (eating and food) is all that he can think about.  Similarly, a person who is in severe pain will do anything to ease it.

The second narrowing of focus is a temporal one, namely that the present becomes so important that the future is virtually disregarded. As in the earlier Kebab question, a starving person would pay 1000 euros for a kebab, even if this means not having money to buy any more food in the future (Tomorrow). However, this temporal narrowing of focus should refer only to means related to the visceral influence. For example a hungry person might pay more for food now but would not pay more for TV sets.

The third narrowing of focus is on the social dimension. In brief, a person under strong visceral influences will become egoistic. A severely hungry or extremely sexually aroused person will simply not care about other people, including (with some variations) significant others such as parents, friends, loved ones etc.

A very nice study by George Loewenstein and Dan Ariely (presented in Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational) investigated attitudes under sexual arousal (“hot state”) as compared to a “cold state”. The results are at least surprising. People (men – the study was done only on men) that were sexually aroused were more willing to have sex with very fat women, older women, they were more willing to have unprotected sex with a complete stranger and would insist (try more) to have sex with someone even after she said “no”.

What is most important about “hot” and “cold” states is that many decisions and behaviors are made and occur in one type of state and the consequences are in the opposite type of state. People who are in a “hot” state will make decision and exhibit behaviors that will impact them while in a “cold” state. Using the results of the above mentioned study, one might be willing to have sex with a very fat woman while in a “hot” state, but when he will come back to the “cold” state, the consequences (making breakfast) will occur.

But, let’s come back to the 1000 Euros kebab. You as a sane person say that you would not pay 1000 Euros for a kebab. This is perfectly normal, but at the same time it is inaccurate. You are now in a “cold” state – not hungry (or at least not starving for 10 days). The fact that you are in a “cold” state makes you blind to how you would act in a “hot” state. Humans are horrible at predicting how decisions and behavior will be influenced by visceral factors. Usually these factors are simply ignored altogether.

Let’s take the same 1000 Euros kebab example from another perspective. Let’s assume that you hear from a friend – Jane - that another friend – Bob – has paid 1000 Euros for a kebab. Most likely you will think that your mutual friend (Bob) has gone crazy and that he should seek psychiatric help. What you fail to take into account is how hungry was Bob at the time of purchasing the obscenely expensive kebab. In brief, when judging someone else’s actions we discard completely the influences of visceral factors.

Now, let’s go to another angle and see the 1000 Euros kebab issue from another perspective. Assume that you have paid 1000 Euros for a Kebab 3 years ago. Of course you were in a very difficult situation at the time and you were starving for the last 10 days and some heartless person sold you the hyper-expensive Turkish sandwich. Most likely, today, you will not even remember ever buying the kebab. People tend to forget instances when they were under visceral influences. If the full memory is not “erased”, then you might remember buying the 1000 Euros Kebab, but you will have forgotten the 10 days of starvation and you will try to make some sense of your own (weird) actions.

In brief, even if we don’t lose memory about the entire episode that has happened when we were in a “hot” state and we remember some of our actions, we will forget about the “hot” state, namely the influence of the visceral factors.

For example if a (handsome) man has sex with a very fat woman because he was severely sexually aroused (and a bit drunk), one year from this episode he might not remember anything or he might remember having sex with the very fat woman and forget about the sexual arousal and the effect of alcohol. In the second situation he will try to make sense of why he had sex with that fat woman and he will be vexed and think that “Why?!? Why have I done that?? What was I thinking???”.

Usually decision and actions made in “hot” states are sources of (experienced) regret when the person comes back into a “cold” state.

To sum up, being under the influence of visceral factors makes people become focused on alleviating the unpleasantness (e.g. hunger, pain), makes them focus on the present and discard future consequences and become more self-centered (egoistic).

People are very bad predictors of the influence of a visceral factor when not under its influence. When judging other people’s actions and behaviors we tend to ignore the visceral influences under which a person is. We forget about the past visceral influences and if we remember our own (weird) behavior, we are surprised by “what we did”.

You might think that there can be “cures” for the effects of visceral factors. Self-control is one of them. Some people can behave quite normally when under severe pain (including emotional pain), while being hungry etc. There are some instances of people not giving in even when tortured for days in a row. At the same time, people with huge amounts of self-control are very few. Moreover, we know that self-control is limited within given resources and if we use it while being in a “hot” state we might exhaust all of it very fast.

In conclusion, I’d like to bring to your attention the futility of the “Drink responsibly” and “Don’t drink and drive” campaigns. The upside of these campaigns is that they say what people should do, or what the social norm is. At the same time most of these messages are received while in a “cold” state and they are supposed to have effects while people are in a “Hot” state.

Some ideas are: print the phone number of a taxi company on the label/can of alcoholic drinks. Make cans and bottles (of beer) numbered (in a six-pack from 1 to 6) and make some frown faces on the higher numbers (e.g. 6). Make spirit bottles with clear markings of optimal doses… 

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