Imagine that you are invited for a half-day colloquium. The event is scheduled to begin at 1 pm. When you reach the venue, you are handed the program schedule. The organisers are serving lunch before the event, but you just ate lunch right before leaving home (condition 1). What is the probability that you go for lunch in this condition?
This would be a silly question to ask if you were hungry, you would definitely go for lunch. But let us focus on the case of you not being hungry. What is the probability that you go for lunch if they are serving your favourite Italian spaghetti (condition 2)? What is the probability that you go for lunch if they are serving your favourite food, and a few of your acquaintances insist that you join them (condition 3)? I guess you may not go for the lunch in condition 1. I am not sure whether Italian spaghetti has the potential to lure you to the dining table, but condition 2 has a slightly higher probability of you going to lunch than condition 1. The probability that you join your acquaintances for lunch (condition 3) is again higher than your having lunch in condition 2.
Why is there a higher probability of you having lunch in conditions 2 and 3? In both conditions, there are influencing factors that create illusions in your brain. I prefer to call them ‘external illusions’. Marketing mavens are experts in creating such external illusions. Once, my wife Anu and I were foraging through a departmental store. We were in search of a bathing soap, our range was Rs 50. Anu noticed a scheme where three cakes of soaps were on sale for Rs 120. She quickly calculated, and said with an affable smile, “We will save 30 rupees if we go for this scheme”. I could not argue with Anu (I am sure no husband would dare). Later, I thought to myself, we intended to spend Rs 50, and ended up spending Rs 120. Such illusions subvert our decision making ability. Normally, we would have taken approximately six weeks to spend Rs 150, but due to the illusions created by advertisers, we spent Rs 120 at once.
In a research paper, J. Richard Eiser and few of his colleagues from University of Sheffield highlighted such illusions while interpreting risk. If you drink and drive for the first time and arrive home unharmed, you are likely to drink and drive the next time as well. You are creating illusions about your own driving ability (when such luck runs out, the repercussion may be fatal). Eiser and colleagues also talk about ‘rational choice theory’. Let’s assume that you are given two options: option A and option B. In option A, you are sure to win Rs 100. In option B you’ll have to draw a folded piece of paper out of 10 slips, on one of which is written that you win Rs 100. Which option will you choose? No doubt, you’ll go for option A, because this is more rational than option B. This theory of rational choice applies when you go shopping and stumble across some interesting offers of the likes of “buy two, get one free”. You end up buying three shirts, though you wanted to buy only one.
Let’s talk about another kind of illusion embedded in our mind, the cognitive illusion. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink has discussed at length the role of cognitive ability in taking decisions. He asks this question: ‘A car met with a fatal accident. Father dies on the spot, and the son is rescued to a hospital. The doctor arrives in the emergency room and is stunned. The doctor says, “He is my son.” Who is the doctor?’ I give you 5 seconds to think of the answer. In my presentations, I have asked many participants to answer this question, and received various answers. The answer is that the doctor is the mother of the patient. How many of you were able to come up with this answer (if you hadn’t encountered this question earlier)?
Similarly, if I had said that there was an accident due to cooking-gas explosion in the kitchen and a person was seriously injured, most of you would obviously think that the injured person is female. But it might not always be true. We arrive at these conclusions due to cognitive illusions that build through our social context. Like external illusions, they also undermine our decision making ability.
At a car accident, father dies and son is rescued. The doctor arrives and says “he is my son.” Who is the doctor?
I attended a national symposium on “Disaster Risk Reduction” back in October 2012. The motif of the symposium was to strengthen women and girls as a force in order to build disaster risk resilient communities. Most of the presenters exaggerated the vulnerability of women and girls during disasters, and explained why women and girls need special attention and measures to reduce their risks. I am not a gender expert and I apologize if I am unwittingly raising issues other than cognitive illusion. Are women and girls always vulnerable compared to men and boys? Or are we misguided by our cognitive illusion? Let me explain with an example from my visit to Baharaich in Uttar Pradesh of India. A community leader recounted an incident during a recent downpour when a man was about to drown in a swollen river. A woman was passing by and rescued the man, using her sari as a rope. In this case, who is more vulnerable? This is just a representative example. There are many.
Consider the possible influence of external illusions the next time you go to a departmental store and come across a “buy two, get one free” scheme. If you are designing a community project, analyse your cognitive illusions before coming up with project interventions. Illusions undermine our decision making ability, whether they are external or cognitive. For expedient decision-making, we must learn to recognize such illusions and act to minimise their infringement on our minds.
The author works at Practical Action in the field of Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation