Benefitting from FEWER options?
Conversations during first dates are insipid; each party is so obsessed with image management that nothing interesting gets said. Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, quotes the film Best in Show regarding the results of these conversations:
“We have so much in common. We both love soup. And snow peas. We love the outdoors. And talking. And not talking. We could not talk or talk forever and still find things to not talk about.”
So Ariely conducted an experiment on an on-line dating site. He required the first message sent from any person to any other person to be one from a finite set of probing, slightly-beyond-the-bounds-of-propriety questions: How many romantic partners did you have? When was your last breakup? Do you have any STDs? Have you ever broken someone’s heart? How do you feel about abortion?
And later he asked the parties how they liked this arrangement. They liked it; they even preferred it. How can it be that constraining people’s choices makes them better off?
I see two dynamics as play here. The first is pretty mundane: Ariely’s system constrained people’s choices in the same way that contracts constrain people’s choices. That is, people bind themselves (limiting their choices) in order to secure a reciprocal concession from someone else. A member of a couple was willing to surrender her defenses in return for the other member of the couple surrendering his. No conceptual mystery here.
The second dynamic is more interesting: Sometimes people may feel constrained from doing what they’d like out of concern for reputation. People then look for opportunities to act without bearing responsibility for their actions.
“OMG, I was so embarrassed to ask you that. But what could I say? The other questions were even worse!”
“Ok, sure, I came onto your girlfriend last night. What can I say? I was drunk!”
“Mom? Hey, I’m not going to be able to be home by curfew. What can I say? The car won’t start.”
“Look, guys, I’m not any happier than you are to have to serve those Negros at my lunch counter. But what can I say? It’s the law.”
“Yes, you know and I know that crumbling crackers into your soup is a lowbrow thing to do. But President Truman did it right on national television! You don’t want us to make the president look like a boor, do you?”
“No, rabbi, I didn’t want to eat that hot dog, honest! But what can I say? That’s what they were serving. You say I should treat others as I would want to be treated, and if I were a host I wouldn’t want to have to cater to an ungrateful guest…. ”
“I admit I slaughtered those Tutis. But what can I say? But if I hadn’t, my fellow soldiers would have killed me!”
This dynamic is NOT reciprocal. The actor really wants to act in a certain way that violates some people’s values. The fact that many might also join in the action is merely a useful cover; the actor would look for opportunities to act according to his preferences even if no one else were allowed to do so.
As such, this dynamic suggests a kind of opportunity to achieve a social benefit. To the extent that an authority figure can break through a social norm that people would like to abandon anyway, the majority may find themselves better off. (Conversely, to the extent that an authority figure can normalize the practice of shirking a duty owed to others, the majority may find itself benefiting by transferring wealth from those owed a duty to those having the duty. Whether that results in a net social benefit is doubtful.)