Different biases

Travelling by car between London and home in France requires navigating through the jumbled ring roads surrounding Paris. As I like gadgets, I have a couple of GPS route planners (one in the car and one on my phone) and to date, not once have the devices agreed on the same route. To be fair, both are intelligent devices, aware of roadworks, traffic jams, accidents, etc – but it is still curious they cannot advise on the same route using the same data, due to different biases in the software.

And this is also how it feels when reading about nutrition. One day, fat is bad, next day, fat is good. Carbohydrates are great for health, but a week later carbs are slow killers. Dairy keeps your bones strong, but statistics indicate that high-dairy consumption results in more osteoporosis. And so on.

I can probably suggest some sensible dietary choices – but even so, people should take my views under advisement. I am (slightly) overweight, drink too much and am too fond of fine dining. But it could be worse – at least my System 2 thinking works most of the time to curb my excesses.

How we think we think

Some of you may be aware that humans have two fundamentally different ways of thinking – they are called simply System 1 (S1) and System 2 (S2) and they complement each other quite well MOST of the time. S1 comes into play when you like someone’s face or reply to questions like “What is 2+2?” – it is an automatic, unconscious and fast way to make decisions. S1 is derived from human evolution. In pre-historic times, people had to quickly make life-or-death choices based on very simple or imperfect information to escape dangers, acquire food, choose alliances, etc – and even now human brains are still wired this way.

S1 is also what makes you expect the taste of meat with burgers and sausages, even though you know animals do not come in round shapes or tubes – therefore automatic associations are also part of S1 thinking. In general, S1 thinking involves very little effort before arriving at a decision. And that is why S1 is very prone to all kinds of errors, because it relies almost solely on prejudices/biases. Regret-tably, there are now many professionals who specialise in exploiting these errors in human S1 thinking processes.

By contrast, S2 thinking is slower, cumbersome and arduous, though the effort usually results in more reliable decisions than S1. Experimentation and/or careful recall of memories may be involved. Examples are “What is 16 + 17 x 13?” or figuring out why jumpers bobble up in the washing machine. One reason S2 requires more effort is the need to decompose problems down to multiple individual solvable steps before arriving at a solution.

So you will arrive at 237 as the answer for the equation (multiply 17 x 13 first then adding 16 to the result), and eventually I realised the open metal zips on jeans were ripping the surfaces of jumpers – therefore now zip up and turn jeans inside out before using the washing machine.

Both modes of thinking can end up killing you – or more usually, save your life. Thinking about a complex problem (an S2 activity) while crossing a road can be dangerous, especially for me when I was younger, having narrowly avoided getting run over several times. Liking (or despising) the wrong person “instinctively” (an S1 decision) has caused people pain (or worse) since history began and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Although S2 thinking can result in better decisions, it is often hijacked by S1 – an instinctive purchase is rationalised/justified afterwards by mental excuses so that an irrational decision becomes a rational choice, even though it may cause problems, for example, costing more than what is affordable. But you will feel better about it. A more serious example is the Malaysian man who surrounded himself with buns, sweetcorn and rice in a large wok and steamed himself to death in an effort to “cleanse” his soul. Alternatively, rational S2 ideas such as deliberately leaving the smartphone at home to enjoy a peaceful dinner out can invoke deep S1 angst – so much so that many people probably cannot actually leave the phone alone.

The point is that even though S1 results in many quick choices or “gut feelings”, they are nevertheless firm decisions and as such, can result in long-lasting consequences. Buying an expensive house or car on a whim can mean years of onerous payments and other sacrifices. Decisions are decisions, whether they are processed irrationally (and quickly) by S1 or more rationally (and slowly) by S2.

Flawed thinking and food

How all this relates to food is because many eating choices are defined by flawed thinking – this means that people are often conditioned/coerced into consuming items which are not necessarily suitable or even beneficial. Mostly S1 is involved (due to its overwhelming reliance on prejudices), but even the more rational S2 can be used/hijacked to reinforce S1 choices. An example is friendly staff at restaurants tempting diners into choosing more expensive dishes or calorific desserts. After choosing, most diners would rationalise a dish selection with “It sounded interesting”, “It’s only once a while”, or some such weak excuse.

It is not just friendly faces that work – there are many, many ploys. By now, most people would associate fast food with red (or red/white) boxes due to the ubiquitous use of such packaging by food chains. Supermarket food shelves also use visually attractive packaging for premium items – only economy foods would have plain, simpler packaging with (usually) boring blue print.

People are often conditioned/coerced into consuming items which are not necessarily suitable or even beneficial.

Another tactic is reference points. An analogy is a couple where Jack and Jill have a combined wealth of $10mil; however Jack has $1mil, while Jill has $9mil. If an option was offered to share $10mil between them equally, it would be highly attractive to Jack but wholly unappealing to Jill, even though $5mil each would easily be comfortable for the rest of their lives. Jack’s reference point is $1mil and the option is happily worth an additional $4mil to him – while Jill would hate to lose $4mil of what she already has because her reference point is $9mil.

Reference points make one feel good or bad about a choice – this is how special offers and shop sales deals work, but in reverse – people are convinced they have the option to buy things BELOW prices they expected to pay. Sellers estimate reference prices for goods they want to sell and discount sale items to just below these prices. The underlying cost of goods has little bearing on the sale prices – and reference prices would have been established by previous sales of the same or analogous products.

And this is how fixed menus at restaurants also work. A fixed menu often contains dishes from the a la carte menu but the fixed menu would usually work out cheaper and so most people would chose the fixed menu – and eat the dessert course even if they did not want it originally.

Slowing the choice

Colour-coded packaging and reference points are basically only two out of extremely numerous (and sophisticated) ways to invoke S1; once the S1 choice is made, S2 is often used to rationalise the decision – rarely does S2 override a S1 verdict.

This highlights how much prejudices influence our life choices. Therefore if a change is needed (eg. better dietary choices), the best way is usually to introduce a new set of prejudices/biases towards the changes needed – and do not expect help if you are going against trends set by your peers or large corporations.

Changing innate biases is not easy, though it can be helped by providing time for S2 to participate in decisions normally controlled by S1. Try reading aloud the ingredients label carefully, or wait and count to 10 before making a food choice. Slowing things down introduces a deliberate S2 step into the decision-making process.

Another strategy is changing associations. If red-and-white buckets invoke thoughts of tasty fried chicken, think instead of “cheapest-quality meat denatured in a chemical hot-bath of free radicals”. It should make one pause, especially as it is not improbable. For more on this, read “A fat lot of good ­– Part 4”.

Other influences

It is curious that human minds which can conceive of profoundly S2, complex theories like General Relativity can remain susceptible to S1 whims. Sensory inputs and emotions are also significant factors in S1 decisions – this is why we impulsively walk into lovely-smelling or prettily-decorated shops or feel attracted when someone nice smiles at you.

Senses can therefore also be used to manage biases. An example (which works for me) is to have a full meal before shopping for food – invariably, I end up making better choices and buying less food at the supermarket because hunger would not be affecting my decisions. One can (and should) think of personally effective ways to manage S1 prejudices if one is considering dietary or other lifestyle changes.