Next time when you approach an ATM machine and find a queue in front of it, try this hack – tell the person in front of the queue “Excuse Me. May I go before you because I have to withdraw money?”
I am sure you haven’t tried this before, neither have I. But at first look it sounds like a lame idea. Why would they let you go ahead unless you have a genuine reason. Isn’t withdrawing money a redundant excuse? Isn’t it obvious that everybody in the queue is there to withdraw money?
But there might be some merit to above idea because in 1970s Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer conducted a similar experiment. She went into a library, where there was a long waiting queue in front of the photocopier, and approached the first person in the queue and asked, “Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” That would probably infuriate a lot of people because everybody was there to make copies. Naturally most people refused to oblige to Langer’s request.
In the second part of the experiment she gave a reason while making a request. “Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” This time most people gave in to her request and allowed her to go ahead. This is reasonable because if people are in a hurry, you would often let them cut into the front of the queue. But then came the interesting twist in the experiment.
In the final part of the experiment she tried another approach, this time saying, “Excuse me. I have five pages. May I go before you, because I have to make some copies?” Now that’s a lame excuse. Everybody in the queue has to make copies, but surprisingly the result in this approach was amazing. She was allowed to pass to the front of the queue in almost all cases.
It turns out when people justify their behaviour they face less resistance. Our need for making sense makes us even believe in nonsense. So for most people it seems to matter very little if the excuse is good or not. They aren’t really looking for a reason but just an answer, no matter how unreasonable the answer is.
In Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli writes –
It seems people are addicted to the word ‘because’ – so much so that we use it even when it’s not necessary. If you’re a leader, undoubtedly you have witnessed this. If you provide no rallying call, employee motivation dwindles. It simply doesn’t make the grade to say that the purpose of your shoe company is to manufacture footwear. No: today, higher purposes and the story behind the story is all-important; for example: ‘We want our shoes to revolutionalize the market’(whatever that means)..
Charlie Munger has termed this bias as Reason Respecting Tendency (RRT). In his famous lecture ‘Psychology of Human Misjudgement’, Charlie explains origin of this bias –
There is in man, particularly one in an advanced culture, a natural love of accurate cognition and a joy in its exercise. This accounts for the widespread popularity of crossword puzzles, other puzzles, and bridge and chess columns, as well as all games requiring mental skill.
This tendency has an obvious implication. It makes man especially prone to learn well when a would-be teacher gives correct reasons for what
is taught, instead of simply laying out the desired belief ex cathedra with no reasons given. Few practices, therefore, are wiser than not only thinking through reasons before giving orders but also communicating these reasons to the recipient of the order.
In general, learning is most easily assimilated and used when, lifelong, people consistently hang their experience, actual and vicarious, on a latticework of theory answering the question: Why?
Unfortunately, Reason Respecting Tendency is so strong that even a person’s giving of meaningless or incorrect reasons will increase compliance with his orders and requests…This sort of unfortunate byproduct of Reason-Respecting Tendency is a conditioned reflex, based on a widespread appreciation of the importance of reasons. And, naturally, the practice of laying out various claptrap reasons is much used by commercial and cult “compliance practitioners” to help them get what they don’t deserve.
Reason for RRT
There is a reason for reason respecting tendency. Peter Bevelin, in his book Seeking Wisdom, writes –
When people ask us for a favor we are more likely to comply if they give us a reason even if we don’t understand the reason or it is wrong. Often it isn’t the reason itself that is important, but the way the reason is phrased. Sometimes the word “because,” without a sensible reason, is all that matters. We want explanations and the word “because” imply an explanation.
Charlie Munger tells the story of Carl Braun, the creator of CF Braun Engineering Company –
His rule for all the Braun Company’s communications was called the five W’s – you had to tell who was going to do what, where, when and why. And if you wrote a letter or directive in the Braun Company telling somebody to do something, and you didn’t tell him why, you could get fired. In fact, you would get fired if you did it twice.
You might ask why that is so important? Well, again that’s a rule of psychology. Just as you think better if you array knowledge on a bunch of models that are basically answers to the question, why, why, why, if you always tell people why, they’ll understand it better, they’ll consider it more important, and they’ll be more likely to comply. Even if they don’t understand your reason, they’ll be more likely to comply.
So there’s an iron rule that just as you want to start getting worldly wisdom by asking why, why, why in communicating with other people about everything, you want to include why, why, why.
Stock Market Fell Because ..
Whenever there is a significant movement in stock prices, you’ll never find the talking heads on the financial news channels saying, “We don’t know what caused this rise/fall in the markets.”
If they did, who would listen to them? They know the human need for attaching a reason to every wiggle in the stock market. And there is never a dearth of twaddle when it comes to explaining the market movements.
Dobelli writes –
If the stock market rises or falls by half a percent, you will never hear the true cause from stock market commentators – that it is white noise, the culmination of an infinite number of market movements. No: people want a palpable reason and the commentator is happy to select one. Whatever explanation he utters will be meaningless – with frequent blame applied to the pronouncements of Federal Reserve bank presidents.
When I started investing in stock market, I understood that one needs to do a thorough analysis before investing in a stock. So I turned to the paid research reports. These reports had colorful fonts, impressive pie charts and graphs, detailed financials and numerous intelligent sounding reasons for buying the recommended stocks. I was convinced and started buying stocks based on their monthly recommendations.
But soon a pattern emerged in their stock reports. It seemed that they had a standard template for their stock reports which they filled with their opinions (not reasons) and copied the data from annual reports. Needless to say that I lost money in almost all those stock recommendations. I didn’t even get a refund for the money paid for those research reports.
It took me few years to realize the importance of independent thinking in investing. Every research report is just an opinion unless you agree with it based on your own sound reasoning and rational thinking.
The only way you can save yourself from RRT is by questioning the reasons provided by others. And not just others, develop the habit of questioning the reasons generated by your own mind because, as Richard Feynman says, the easiest person to fool is yourself.
Reason Respecting Tendency is where people want the answers to something but don’t care to know the background information or reasoning to gain a better understanding.
So next time when you find yourself standing at the end of a long queue, you know what to do to save time. And if somebody tries this trick with you, you can counter it by giving another random excuse.
Or you can tell him, “Do you think you’re the only one reading Latticework series?” 🙂
The purpose of learning the mental models is to enhance our abilities for making sense of the world around us. The better we understand the worldly affairs, sharper is our decision making.
Creating this latticework of mental models from multiple disciplines is about the ability of seeing patterns – how ideas and things relate and hang together. Knowledge that can be used in a variety of situations.
Aristotle said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” This means we need to practice what we have learnt in various situations.
So start implementing what you learn and the first step to implementing any kind of knowledge is to teach it someone else. So don’t just share the link with others, make efforts to explain the idea in your words, in your own unique way.
Take care and keep learning.