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Why Do You Confuse Your Wants & Needs?

Your brain plays these biases when you decide.

Photo by Pickawood on Unsplash

A person with impulsive traits, working in retail, spells “disaster”. I worked a couple of years in retail sales and was that person who came home with a new purchase every week.

I opened credit cards — for those cashback offers, Amex points, and a pair of shoes were irresistible. Why, I felt much better making at least a bit of money back from my spending. Until I found myself trying to catch up on payments.

Nothing says ‘adult’ like being in debt, right?

I remember feeling horrible about having to pay off that pair of shoes 4 weeks later. Luckily I never allowed myself to have a late payment, and I never want to go there. I have to thank my mother for instilling this level of discipline into me at a young age.

I was unaware of all the biases affecting my choice to make my poor bank account bleed for a short high. Why, 70% off was actually me saving money, even though it still cost a silly amount.

You wonder why bread and milk are at opposite ends of the supermarket? Why you see fast food ads on TV around 6:30pm? Why you feel better buying the last of something in your size?

Are you sure about that?

Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of Ogilvy UK, has an admirable take on how behaviour links to economics and marketing. We can never be 100% logical in our decision-making and problem-solving. If we were, we would have already found the answer.

Why would they put a meerkat on ads for, a price comparison website? How does price comparison relate to meerkats? Does it get people remembering them because of the furry mascots? Most definitely. And that’s how they’ve become so well known.

You’re exposed to so many terribly clever or terribly dumb techniques daily. Your brain will take a mental shortcut to reduce your effort in making a choice. Someone or something else will think or make the decision for you. Think of a personal stylist.

The first comment on this video sums this up perfectly: “He has a British accent, so I believe he’s smart and knows what he’s talking about.”

Take a listen.

If you’re conflating your needs and wants, these biases are playing with your brain.

Scarcity bias

Limited edition stuff. I’ve been trying to book a table at a high-demand degustation restaurant for months. They have two sessions per day, at 5:30pm or 8:30pm. They only seat 10 people each time. They have no menu, and the chef dishes out whatever the hell they feel like that week. Pun intended.

On the first day of this month, they released seats for September. September!! And I finally nabbed a seat for my partner and I. And I’m damn excited to go.

What this restaurant does always pings my brain with the word ‘genius’. By having limited seating and the absence of a menu, they’ve cultivated a community that longs to dine there one day. And they’ve created months of revenue for their own business because of it.

We’re often under an impression that if something is rare, it must be good. Luxury goods or deals that expire in a certain period encourage us to tap our cards.

Time is often spun as the most precious resource, one of the most effective ways to get you to save or regain it by purchasing something.

There is abundance if we are simply open to it. — Bonnie Bakhtiari

Projection bias

You’re hungry, and you come into the supermarket for milk and bread, only to end up with a full trolley of groceries by the end of it. The loud, colourful half-price special on chips jump into your trolley. You will need them later, you just don’t know when.

In the void of the supermarket, you somehow pick up another four tea towels, set of forks, and three mugs to join the kitchen.

We rationalise our current wants by projecting our perceived need for them in the future. That dress on sale might be good for an event in the future. It’s also the last in your size. Nab it just in case.

That’s also why I rarely take trips to IKEA. The store’s racetrack design not only gets you lost and starry-eyed. Combined with the effort to drive, then walk through the store for at least 1 hour means you’re obligated to bring sixteen souvenirs home to compensate for the travel.

Takeaway: Don’t shop when you’re hungry. Or hangry.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Authority bias

Why are we wired to listen to instructions when we’re born? Is the advice of an expert always the best advice for you?

Hierarchies are normal in human nature. Though some modern workplaces are flattening this ‘structure’ for a more approachable work culture. We’re ingrained to follow the leader or an expert. Because Oral-B is “the brand that more dentists use”, we know a dentist is an expert, so we trust their choice.

Monkey see monkey do. We’re inclined to follow similar choices to them, expecting that our lives to turn out for the better.

This tactic only goes so far in marketing. Can you still trust them if they collaborate with a brand that hurts their credibility? How does Old Spice know the one scent men should smell like?

Reciprocity bias

I always wondered why every big family outing concluded with someone fighting to pay the bill. I dislike and feel guilty when receiving acts of kindness. A strange, unknown force cloaks me, and now I have to return the favour, even if the person doing the kind act expects nothing in return.

Your ‘good karma’ debt increases and the onus is on you to ‘pay it forward’ at your next opportunity.

Think of a kind Samaritan paying for your fuel, or receiving a freebie. The more personalised this is, the stronger its effect.

David Strohmetz and his team conducted a study in 2006 in New York City, finding ways to increase tips paid to staff. Some patrons were given the bill and a piece of chocolate. Those given the chocolate tipped 20 percent more than those with the bill alone. If the waiters walked around the table and offered each person to pick a chocolate they wanted, tips increased by 16 percent.

Confirmation bias

We see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear by default. It’s almost time for dinner, and you haven’t figured out what to cook. An ad for KFC’s family bucket plays on TV. You’re getting hangry, and it’s only a 5-minute drive down the road. The decision is made.

Our brains will automatically ignore what doesn’t fit with what we already believe to be true. Why we notice ‘everyone’ is suddenly breaking up with their partners and dying their hair red, or why you’re seeing your car model everywhere.

On a deeper level exists two levels of confirmation bias.

Biased search

You hop onto Google, Facebook and YouTube. Depending on your search, what you click on, the algorithm will collect and adjust your feed to what you want to see.

Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma distills all these nuances into a brilliant hour or so. Go watch it if you haven’t already.

Biased interpretation

It’s interpreting hard evidence in a way that favours your own beliefs.

Research conducted by Lord et al. in 1979 studied the effects of this. Students were given two papers on capital punishment. One seemingly confirming and one seemingly disconfirming their beliefs. Those against capital punishment interpreted both papers that would still reassure their beliefs. They searched for gaps in logic that didn’t suit their beliefs. This is also political marketing 101.

Rather than entertain a new idea, you would rather search for new information that assigns greater value to what matches your beliefs. It’s what’s worked for you in the past, and there’s hardly ever a good reason to change your mind.

Choice is everywhere

The decision-making loophole is messy. Debris of opinions and facts will never stop, and it’s why we trust the person carrying around the clipboard.

By the end, clever decisions begin with asking the right questions.

  • How will this benefit me?
  • Why?
  • Why?
  • Why?
  • Why?
  • So what?



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