Rarely can you avoid the situational, group, proximal and distal influences that shape our behaviour: Our world is a spaghetti-mess of behavioural influences and cognitive illusions unknown, unrecognised, and unchallenged.

As true as that is, don’t try and tell anyone.

Oh really. Try me.

Fine. In San Marcos, California, Shultz and Cialdini placed door hangers on 1200 households with messages about reducing energy consumption. Only the message that described what others were doing made any difference (your neighbours are reducing their . . . ). Even so, the team reports that (PDF) ‘participants rate normative messages [the ‘what your neighbours are doing’ thing] as the least effective and believe that they are not influenced by their perceptions of others.’

They simply didn’t accept that normative messages had any effect.

It wouldn’t work on me.

Shultz and Cialdini say ‘our data show otherwise’.

They can shut it.

That’s not very nice.

I haven’t even been to San Marcos.

It’s not San Marcos that’s important.

Seriously – this stuff doesn’t work on me.

Your superiority will see you end up in hospital.

Are you threatening me?

No, not at all. You drive, right? Then you suffer from illusory superiority: not only do you think others around you do not influence you, you think you’re better then them, too. In fact, more than half of us think our driving skills are better than average, yet mathematically this cannot be the case. Illusory superiority, coined by Van Yperen and Buunkin 1991, is sometimes called the ‘Lake Wobegon effect‘, after a fictional town in the U.S. state of Minnesota where ‘all the children are above average’.

I thought you didn’t like those cutesy ‘Wobegon’ names for psychological effects?

I don’t.

Tough crowd.

You’re not taking me seriously.

I’m listening, but you’re talking about drivers who’ve never had an accident. Once they’ve had a prang, they’ll be more circumspect – get your data right.

Unbelievable as it may seem, my data is right. Caroline Preston and Stanley Harris discovered in their study of the psychology of drivers who had been in traffic accidents (from 1965), about which Dan Lovallo and Olivier Sibony, writing for the McKinsey Quarterly, paraphrase: ‘…drivers laid up in hospitals for traffic accidents they themselves caused overestimate their driving abilities just as much as the rest of us do.’.

If that’s not illusory superiority I don’t know what is.

I’m going for a drink.

That’s another one.

Another what? The drink won’t be illusory, that’s for sure.

Not illusory drinks, or illusory superiority; going for a drink is another action that ‘borrows’ behaviour. One of P. Wesley Schultz’s doctoral students – Tania Rendón – looked at alcohol consumption in the USA, Germany, Mexico, and Japan. Heavy drinkers were told how their boozing compared to their peers’. They said they would be influenced in different ways by this comparison: the Germans and Americans seemed proudly independent and said they would not be swayed; the Mexicans and Japanese typically value consensus and said they were happy to say they would be swayed. However, despite what any said – or thought, believed, wished – all the above-average boozers reduced their drinking in line with average levels. They were all influenced by their peers.

I’m walking away now. Don’t follow me.

Across the road?

What difference does that make?

Pedestrian crossings are known placebo-button users. “‘The city [of New York] deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals . . . … Any benefit from them [pedestrian buttons] is only imagined…’, says the New York Times. Over 75% of the 3,000+ pedestrian ‘walk’ buttons in the city function as placebos. Even in elevators this is true. Nick Paumgarten of the New Yorker said‘In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.)’

That makes me feel better.

Ha! Good joke.

What do you mean?

Placebo effect. The crosswalk and elevator buttons – they are placebo buttons. You said they ‘made you feel better’; it’s a joke.

You’re doing that face.

I’m going far, far away. To live in a cave.

With chimpanzees?

Yep. Monkeys in cars that buy energy supplies while drinking and pressing buttons.

I’m ignoring that. In tests, chimps were fed and watered and free-tested for their preference towards peanut butter and frozen juice. About 60% preferred the peanut butter, except when they were encouraged to swap it for juice. Then, 80% preferred it. Ownership affected evaluation. This is consistent with the endowment effect in humans.

You will not avoid behavioural quirks even in the Animal Kingdom. (Of course, we all are in the Animal Kingdom.)

I wish you’d never told me about any of this.

Ignorance is bliss?


It is, actually. Before we commit to a choice we prefer precise information. Our goal is to make the correct choice. But with more precision it’s more likely the choice will meet expectations only, rather than exceed them – the best we can get is what we expect. Ultimately, we are more likely to be disappointed. However, once committed to a choice, we don’t want more information, we want a desirable outcome. Indeed, we are driven to promote a desirable outcome irrespective of how much (or how little) information we have. And those who made a choice with vague information are more likely to be able to ‘find’ reasons why the choice is now good. We are more likely to be happy with our choice the less information we have about it.

Ignorance really is bliss.

You do realise you’ve followed me all the way across the street into this bar, don’t you?

Yeah. It’s nice in here.

Fancy a drink?


You’re doing that face.

This menu – the presentation of choice. Huber and Puto did some
experiments on . . . Oh, forget it.

Finally, something I want to hear.

And need to hear, no doubt. I’ll shut up now.






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