Dear Economist

First Choice

Dear Economist,
In restaurants my husband always picks something better than me. It’s boring to choose the same as him. What can I do?

Dear Sarah,

The behavioural economists Dan Ariely and Jonathan Levav speculated that we all tend, like you, to alter our choices to fit in with those around us – and they decided to put the theory to the test.

They came to an agreement with a local bar, dressed up as bar staff, and offered unsuspecting groups free samples from a choice of four tempting local beers. (One of the customers recognised Professor Ariely and assumed that his academic career had run aground.)

Sometimes the experimenters took the orders in conventional fashion; at other times, they made each person’s order confidential by asking them to write their desired beer on a piece of paper. After bringing the samples, Ariely and Levav noted how much the recipients had enjoyed their beers.

You will recognise your predicament in their results. First, when orders were called out publicly, people tended to avoid duplicating the choices of others. Second, that mattered: the people who chose first were significantly happier with their choices than those who felt obliged to choose whatever beer was left over. (This survey was done in the US. When transferred to Hong Kong, people instead tended to emulate the first choice. But, again, those who chose first were happier.)

The implication is obvious. You should make a mental note of what you wish to eat and not change your mind when your husband announces his selection. If that is too “boring’’, the solution is even simpler: order first.

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5th of January, 2008Dear Economist • Comments off