It has yet to snow in Galati this year. Well, we did see a few flakes, but nothing stuck. On the warm winter days, I’ve been able to go for jogs and spend more time outside. All over the northern world, I’ve heard people rejoicing in the blessing of a 60 degree January.
Now, most of us are also aware of the negative effects of warm winters: diminishing glaciers, rising sea-level, endangering species, among others. But I was struck last week by the comments of Gregory.
Gregory is a bearded, middle-aged man that I’ve known for years. He often sits near a marketplace near my home, displaying and trying to sell trinkets, nuts and bolts, and other items he’s found mostly by rummaging through the trash. Gregory has mental problems that make it difficult to speak and to interact with others. But he doesn’t have any inhibitions when it comes to dogs. Usually, Gregory is surrounded by a pack of street dogs that he cares for.
During the holiday season, Gregory looked better kept than usual. He decorated his frayed stocking cap by tying Christmas tree decorations to the bob. I was happy to see both his creativity and his awareness of the festivities.
Walking past Gregory, I observed a group of kids that were following him, mimicking him, and calling him “crazy.” But Gregory didn’t seem to notice the kids’ mockery. He continued to direct cars into the parking spots as they pulled in and out of the narrow street, hoping that the drivers would give him some small change for his service.
As I was finishing up my shopping, Gregory came into the store to buy some food with his freshly earned coins. The sales clerks obviously knew him, helped him with his purchase, and tried to usher him quickly back outside. Before he left the store, Gregory blessed everyone in the store with his “Happy New Year!” This surprised me as I had never seen him so communicative, especially in public. He was obviously struggling to be coherent, but he continued with a prayer: “May God give us snow in the new year!” Again, I was taken aback. I assumed that Gregory, like others that I know who live on the streets, would be happy with a warmer and drier winter, but here he was praying for snow. Gregory went on: “I have some debts that I can pay off by sweeping the snow off of your walkways.”
After I received my change and picked up my grocery bags, I exited the store to find Gregory giving some of his food to each of the dogs surrounding him. On my way home, I smiled as I thought of Gregory’s smile and his words. Although I am strongly against the street dog population, Gregory has made them his friends. Although I often hear people accuse the poor of being lazy, Gregory was finding ways to serve and work for his daily bread. Although I find myself secretly hoping for a warm winter, Gregory is praying for a “normal” winter with snow. His kindness, gentleness, industriousness and generosity provoked me. I found myself asking, “Really, who is acting sane and who is acting insane?”
I just finished Dan Ariely’s interesting book Predictably Irrational. Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics. The book is about certain, often unconscious, factors influence our decision-making, even if they are illogical. Here’s a summary:
We buy and make decisions in a context of comparison.
In our act of situating decisions in context, we apply arbitrary coherence to our choices. One choice becomes the anchor price (the price we consider paying for something) by which we compare other options. (See the TedTalk below.)
We choose something that is “free” even if it is not the most economical deal because we believe that we have nothing to lose by taking the “free.”
We differentiate in our behavior between social norms and market norms. For example, when we pay for something (market norm), we legitimize our consumption (even if it is extreme or immoral); when we receive something freely, we self-moderate our consumption (because the good is seen as social).
By attaching monetary value to work, we detach work from social norms.
When the primal part of our brain that is related to survival (fight-flight, hunger, thirst, sex, etc.) is aroused, we make decisions that we otherwise think we should not make.
Even though it is not in our best interest, we predictably procrastinate and struggle with self-control (primarily because there is no immediate gratification attached to undesired tasks).
We estimate the value of our own possessions to be much higher than what others estimate them to be.
Choices drive our curiosity, and curiosity, generally, has negative repercussions on decision-making.
We perceive reality through what we expect or desire reality to portray.
Paying a higher price makes us feel like we are getting a higher quality product, even when the product is a placebo.
Trust – a crucial component of the economy and society – is easily degraded (causing a reflex of mistrust towards marketers and politicians).
We tend to lie/cheat a little – even if it does long-term harm to ourselves (like diminishing public trust) – except when we are conscious of moral commitments (like the Ten Commandments) at the time of the temptation. (I would like to see Ariely’s experiment in this chapter using W.W.J.D? My hunch is that it would be less effective than the 10 Commandments because it is vague (W.W.J.D? is determined by the questioner).
We rationalize dishonesty, but less so when we deal personally in cash transactions.
Our economic behavior is sometimes determined not by acquiring that which pleases us but rather by that which makes us look good or unique in the eyes of others.
I’ll let you read the book to better understand how these behaviors influence our irrational decision-making.