“Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.” – Marcus Aurelius
In The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely talks about a concept called self herding.
Herding refers to the tendency to act based on the behavior of other people whom we don’t know well. Self herding is when rather than doing what a bunch of other people in a public place are doing, we refer to our actions in the past for subconscious guidance.
In a chapter titled, The Long Term Effects of Short Term Emotions, Ariely provides the following example:
“Imagine that something happens that makes you feel happy and generous – say, your favorite team wins the World Series. That night you are having dinner at your mother-in-law’s and, while in this great mood, impulsively decide to buy her flowers. A month later, the emotion of the big win has faded away and so has the cash in your wallet. It is time for another visit to your mother-in-law. You think about how a good son-in-law should act. You consult your memory, and you remember your wonderful flower-buying act from your last visit, so you repeat it. You then repeat the ritual over and over until it becomes a habit (and in general this is not a bad habit to fall into). Even though the underlying reason for your initial action (excitement over the game) is no longer present, you take your past actions as an indication of what you should do next and the kind of son-in-law you are (the kind who buys his mother-in-law flowers). That way, the effects of the initial emotion end up influencing a long string of decisions.”
The Emotional Cascade
Ariely and his colleague Eduardo Andrade refer to this tendency for transient emotions to affect long term decision making as the emotional cascade.
It’s unsettling to consider how many of our inalterable past decisions were likely affected by passing emotions. Even more disturbing is to consider how many of our current and future choices are influenced by feelings we don’t even remember.
Andrade and Ariely wanted to test the potential for the emotional cascade to induce self herding behavior.
The Ultimatum Game
To do this, they used a game known as The Ultimatum Game. In this game, two individuals are paired up and a fixed amount of money, say twenty dollars, is given to them to be shared. The catch is that the money is given to the first person who gets to decide how it will be split. The second person chooses whether the deal is acceptable and either accepts the amount shared by the first person or decides that they both get nothing.
Rationally, the second person is getting free money no matter how much the first person keeps, so it would make economic sense for him to accept any offer presented rather than walk away empty handed just to punish the first person for being selfish. Humans have an inherent sense of fairness though, and it’s been found that most people given twenty dollars will keep about twelve and give the remaining eight to the person receiving the money. If the sender keeps more than that, it becomes increasingly likely that the receiver will choose for them to both get nothing.
Irritated or Happy?
In order to determine the effects of emotional state on this decision making process, the subjects were split into two groups. The first group was made to watch a short clip from the movie Life as a House in which a man is unfairly fired from his twenty year job as an architect by his asshole boss. The man is incensed and uses a bat to smash a series of intricate model homes he had built for his former company.
After watching this video, the subjects were asked to write several paragraphs about a time in their lives in which they had felt similarly.
The second group watched a clip from the sitcom Friends in which a group of cheerful cohorts comically solve a variety of interpersonal dilemmas and everything works out nicely.
In this version of the game, the subjects were to split ten dollars. Unbeknownst to them, the person deciding the amount to be shared, the sender, was one of the researchers and he always chose to keep $7.50 and give the subjects $2.50.
Predictably, the subjects who had watched the Life as a House clip and been asked to recall an emotionally vengeful state were much more likely to reject the offer than those who had been primed for happiness and goodwill.
Next, the subjects were given sufficient time for their emotions to return to baseline, tested to confirm this, and asked to play the game again.
Despite the absence of an emotional component, the subjects continued making choices in line with what they had done previously under the influence of either hostile or happy feelings. The group that had been irritated by the Life as a House clip was substantially more likely to continue turning down unfair offers.
General vs. Specific Herding
Self herding can manifest in either general or specific manners.
Specific herding is when a past decision is referenced when repeating a near-identical scenario, such as being the same player in an ultimatum game.
General herding is when past behavior is used as a reference for a wider range of circumstances. The example that Ariely gives is, “I gave money to a beggar on the street, so I must be a caring guy; I should start volunteering in a soup kitchen.”
In order to determine if a small emotional trigger was enough to also influence general herding behavior, the experiment was continued with some changes. This time, the subjects were asked to play the game in the role of the sender; the person who decides how much money is offered to the second person.
If the emotional cascade here were limited to specific herding, then this new situation would be unaffected by past emotional states because the subjects were in unfamiliar roles. They would be unable to just do what they did previously, because there was no precedent.
If general herding were in play though, the individuals would be more likely to recall their emotionally driven decision and base their division of the money on that basis.
For example, the irritated group of people would recall that they were likely to reject low offers and assume that someone else in their position would do the same. The people in the agreeableFriends-watching group would recall that they had amicably accepted low offers and assume that other people would follow similar patterns.
As it turned, this held true. The people who had been irritated in the past experiment made offers substantially more fair than those who had been in the happy group. The people in the happy group had misattributed their past responses to the nature of the offer instead of the affect of their emotions and had flawed expectations of others who were now in their position. They ended up getting most of their offers unexpectedly rejected.
This series of experiments illustrates that general self herding is most likely playing a significant role in our lives. The decisions we make not only affect us in the moment, they can also have far-reaching consequences on our behavior in the future.
In SOF selection we used to have a saying: “Finish out today and quit tomorrow.”
Selection is essentially a period of months or weeks in which a large group of people are tormented until most of them quit and what remains is a much smaller group of people with an inordinately high tolerance for being f**ked with.
It was incredibly tempting to tell yourself that the run was too far, the water was too cold or you just couldn’t do another pushup. Many days you would want nothing more than to make it stop. One of the ways we coped with this was to promise ourselves and each other that we would never quit in the middle of an evolution. If we did, it would be at the end of the day once it was all over and the intensity of the moment had passed.
What happened for most guys is that they would look back on the evolution that made them want to quit, realize that it wasn’t really that bad and be damn glad that they had waited to make a permanent decision.
Did you just start eating paleo and give up pasta, bread and cookies? Here’s some news: It’s going to suck, and there is nothing you can really do about that until your body adapts.
You’re going to have moments of weakness in which you want nothing more than to eat a bagel slathered in cream cheese. Doing this once over the course of your first month won’t really set you back too much and your mind is remarkably adept at coming up with reasons to justify any action. Maybe you had a bad day at work, you’re in too much of a hurry to cook anything or it’s a special occasion.
We know, however, that this one decision will not stand on its own. Each one is laying neural groundwork that will bias future decisions and eventually you are the summary of your habits.
My advice for when you want to give up and crack for just this one meal? Quit tomorrow. Eat what you know you need to today and if you’re still craving a pop tart tomorrow you can have it then.
Most likely tomorrow will come, you’ll feel just a little bit healthier, a little less dependent on sugar and you’ll have strengthened your self herding tendency towards good decisions, making the next temptation just a little less imposing. You may still kind of want that bowl of chocolate frosted sugar bombs, but you can always eat it tomorrow.
Same thing in the gym. In the middle of a horrible set of high rep squats, you’re going to want to come up with any reason to stop early. Don’t. You can quit the entire workout once that set is over, but finish that one set. Once it’s over, you’ll probably find that you have it in you to finish another.
With conscious control, you can affect your actions today and establish the habits which you’ll rely on in the future.