Let’s do a little experiment to see if you have the distinction bias. Choose between these two options:
Option 1: You will receive a chocolate bar if you think about a particularly successful moment in your life.
Option 2: You will receive three chocolate bars if you think of a moment in your life when you experienced personal failure.
What would you choose?
If you’re like two-thirds of the people, you’ve likely chosen the second option, as a study conducted at the University of Chicago revealed. Most people are convinced that it is the best alternative because they believe that having more chocolates will make them happier.
However, the researchers found that those who chose to activate a negative memory to receive more chocolate were actually significantly more unhappy than those who chose the positive memory.
This failure to make decisions is not exceptional. We commit it continuously, even when we must make important decisions in life. And it is due to the distinction bias.
What is distinction bias?
Traditionally, it has been thought that people know their preferences and that they choose what is best for them based on the information they have at the time. But it’s not like that. There is often a huge gap between our prediction of happiness and what actually makes us happy, which leads to poor decisions.
Distinction bias refers to the thought process we use to make those decisions. It is the tendency to overestimate small quantitative differences when we must compare different options. In practice, we simplify the pros and cons by focusing too much on details that are not so important, which prevents us from seeing the big picture.
Comparison mode versus experience mode
The trap that causes us to fall into the distinction bias is that our brain works differently when it comes to comparing options than when we experience them. When we have to choose, our brain automatically goes into “comparison mode.” That makes it more sensitive to the small differences that exist between the different options.
However, when we live our decisions, the brain broadens its horizon and works in “experience mode”. It understands that it is not necessary to compare the experience that a choice can provide but only to experience it in its uniqueness. In that case, we take more factors into account and can focus more on our happiness and level of satisfaction.
In fact, psychologists from Bowling Green State University found that “People differentiate more between options when they consider them simultaneously than when they see them separately.” When we analyze each alternative individually we are able to see it in a more holistic way.
For example, when we go to a store and see two televisions next to each other, the difference in quality can seem important, although both models have quite similar characteristics. As a result, we are likely to be more willing to pay a higher price for a higher quality television, although in reality that difference in quality is almost imperceptible if we look at each television separately.
The consequences of distinction bias
Not being aware of the distinction bias can lead us to make very bad decisions in life. It can make us believe, for example, that we will be happier if we buy a 400 square feet house than a 200 square feet house.
The problem is that when we analyze two options simultaneously, we look for a common factor that serves as a standard for comparison. The distinction bias appears when we take into account a single variable and this is not even that important for later experience.
Imagine, for example, that we must choose between a monotonous job in which we will earn 80,000 $ a year or a more challenging position in which we will earn 60,000 $. With an eye on our happiness, we can focus on analyzing all the things that we could buy with those 20,000 $ more and that would make us happier.
However, we overlook the fact that spending 8 hours each day in a monotonous job could create such boredom and frustration that it is not offset by the little happiness that the extra money can bring.
The distinction bias also sets us another trap: it leads us to always want more. But that, far from being rewarding or making us happy, can generate more stress.
If we believe that we will be happier in a larger house, with a higher quality television or a more modern mobile, we will have to work harder to achieve it, which could lead us to sacrifice our happiness in the here and now, in pursuit of an option that really it is neither more satisfying nor more rewarding.
3 keys to avoid the distinction bias
1. Determine your “must-haves” before comparing
Many times, people who try selling us something use the distinction bias to convince us to choose the most expensive option, even if we don’t need it or make us happier. Therefore, before choosing, it is convenient that you are clear about your needs and the essential characteristics that you are looking for.
Start from the hedonistic adaptation concept, according to which, you will end up getting used to things relatively quickly, so that what makes you very happy today will not make you happy forever. With that in mind, it is likely that a cheaper or modest option that involves less stress can perfectly meet your requirements and provide you with the same happiness or even more than more expensive or difficult options.
2. Analyze each option individually
When we enter “comparison mode” we spend a large part of our cognitive resources looking for the difference between the options. Then we can end up in a dead end in which we give too much weight to inconsequential quantitative differences.
To avoid that bias, you should simply avoid comparing the options simultaneously. Instead, look at each alternative individually. If it is about choosing a house, for example, you should not compare different properties but rather focus on what you like about each of them, so that you can imagine the experience when you live in it.
3. Establish benchmarks
Our brain is a great energy saver. It tends to prefer the easier paths, so we will tend to focus on the more obvious things. Also, once we hit that road, we have a hard time going back.
Therefore, when analyzing the different options, it is convenient to broaden the horizon and take into account as many factors as possible. In the case of the house, for example, do not only consider the price or the dimension, take also into account its location, the sensations that the property transmits, the characteristics of the neighborhood and the lifestyle that it could offer you.
If you take into account these 3 keys, you can analyze each option in a more holistic way and choose the one that can really make you happier in the short and long term.
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