Why do you want to go to Wendy’s instead of Burger King? Why did you buy Tylenol instead of Advil? I have realized that a lot of people lack the introspective prowess to understand why they like something. Especially when asked why they prefer one thing to another that is substitutable or just very similar.
When you ask people these questions it seems as if their choice was made before making their justification for their choice. They hesitate for a while before giving their reason as if they have never really thought about it. Their subconscious mind makes the choice before their conscious mind understands why that choice was made.
Sometimes our subconscious identifies some sensual input that cues for a certain decision to be made. For example: John is strolling through downtown looking for a place to eat and finds one restaurant to be particularly intriguing. It may not seem apparent to John, at the time, why he made his choice. If I asked him for what reason he made his choice, he might pause and think up a justification on the spot. What he didn’t realize was that his decision had nothing to do with his elaborate justification. He really made his choice because he saw people that looked like him dining at the restaurant. His subconscious took this visual cue as validation for his decision.
This automatic decision-making algorithm we possess helped me make sense of the following social paradox: People say they like to go places where there are a lot of other people; however, when they get to those places they rarely interact with people other than their own group.
People say they like to go to the movies and restaurants versus renting a movie or ordering take-in, but why? Why bother going to these places if you expect to never once interact with others? For the same reason John didn’t know why he chose his restaurant, we don’t know why we want to be surrounded by people. Our mind makes our decision for us and we naively and incorrectly justify the decision after the fact.
What is really going on is social proof: a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior (Wikipedia). Obviously, if you are unsure of which restaurant to choose, you go to the one with more people because that might mean it is better; the social proof that occurs goes beyond this. The mass of people you never interact with actually improve your movie/restaurant experience.
Watching people have fun, laugh, eat, chat, etc. makes you more confident in doing the same; it makes you feel like you’re doing the right thing for the moment. Not only do others‘ actions tell you what feelings are appropriate to have, they are also contagious. Watching positive behaviors makes your group feel the same way. This effectively creates the right atmosphere for a good time.
If, instead, you see others bonding with their families, you’ll feel it is appropriate to do the same. The list goes on; other people influence your mood no matter what they do. We often mistakenly associate our people-induced mood with the place we are in and not the people we are surrounded by. I like to call this mistake The Olive Garden Phenomenon.
There is no way Olive Garden would still be around today without their family-style atmosphere (and no bread sticks). Without the laughing, up-beat people and the Italian style décor, Olive Garden’s food would be exposed for the true quality of their food.
But there is nothing wrong with judging a restaurant, or any other place, by its atmosphere. In my opinion, however, we should be more careful when judging something out of its context. It is impossible to know whether we truly like something or whether we are just backwards rationalizing a decision our sub-conscious has already made for us.
LIOR GOTESMAN hopes you read this column while surrounded by a lot of happy people. Then give him your opinion on it at email@example.com.