Techniques for a Wiser Life

Wise Thinking #1: Peanuts to Shortcuts

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Guess (no cheating!) how many M&M® chocolate candies can fit into a 12-ounce jar?

Did you know skateboarding while chewing gum increases the chances of choking 163%? If you’re nowhere near a trashcan, what do you do with your gum?









A really fun site for kids, Wonderopolis answers random questions such as, “How many peanuts are there in a jar of peanut butter?” Apparently, there are around 540 peanuts in a 12-ounce jar. How many M&M’S® do you think would fit in the same jar?

If you raised your number the second time you guessed, you may have been using a process called Anchoring. Anchoring is a mental short-cut which often causes us to use a completely unrelated point of reference when making a guess.

Was your first guess between 150 and 200? Your number may be related to the statistic about chewing gum while skateboarding—a number I totally made up, by the way. Was your second guess closer to 540? Remember, there’s a lot of air between whole M&M® candies, unlike that jar of peanut butter. Because of their odd shape, they only occupy around 68% of the space. Fewer than 380 plain M&M’S® would fit in a 12-ounce jar.

If you’ve ever paid more than you’d intended for a car, or bought something just because it was on sale, Anchoring may have been the culprit. Marketers know suggestion has power. Take macaroni and cheese as an example. I pay less than $1 for the single-serving bowl my husband eats. At a local diner, where fried chicken is $7, the macaroni and cheese costs $3. At Mercer Kitchen in New York, Huffington Post’s top choice for the yellow stuff, it’s $11. The ingredients differ slightly, but unrelated items set the anchor. The $30 Slowly Baked Salmon with mashed potatoes and black truffle vinaigrette puts my tastebuds on bended knee. By the time I arrive at the bottom of the menu and see the mac, $11 seems reasonable for the stuff I covered in ketchup as a kid. If you look at the luscious pictures on their menu long enough, you’ll be buying a plane ticket. I’m not against businesses setting their own prices. My purpose today is to help you understand how our decisions are influenced by Anchoring. Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at how we think and identify times our inner autopilot steers us wrong.

Heuristics such as Anchoring are mental short-cuts which help us learn and make decisions quickly. When you’re late and everyone has ordered, picking the first thing to make your mouth water is useful. Fussing about prices is undignified. When you’re making more important decisions, it’s worth slowing down to be sure you’re looking at relevant facts. Our ability to choose quickly is a survival instinct, programmed into us at the dawn of time. It’s the 21st century now, and we’re aiming to be wiser than  Captain Caveman.

Anchoring gives us a place to begin, when we’re in unknown territory. For example, if you’re embarking on a new career, Glassdoor will show you the average salary in that field. Be careful, though. Once you see a number, your instincts latch on and use it even when it doesn’t apply. Let’s say you get the job and earn $40,000 a year in Alabama. That number becomes your anchor. If you move to San Francisco, you’ll have a hard time renting a trash can at that salary. You recognize that and ask for more, but what feels like more to you is connected to the $40,000. If you don’t notice you’re anchoring, you might ask for $60,000 and think it’s a lot. You’ll starve. It’s better to research the cost of rent, transportation, groceries and other expenses. Then look at the local salaries in your field and list the unique qualities you’re bringing to the job. Liz Ryan’s article on salary negotiation will help you strap that S to your chest before your interview.

What about decisions that aren’t based on dollar figures? Since high school, my friend Kyle (not his real name) never failed to choose abusive mates. A relationship would begin, and Kyle would be all-in for this new angel who smiled upon him. “She’s different,” he’d say. Yep, in the way the beginning differs from the end. He was comparing each new girl to the last. Once the initial romance faded, the new girls were just as manipulative and hateful as the previous ones.  Finally, Kyle hoisted his anchor and spent a few years single. He hung out with a married couple who made him feel like part of the family. They got him to join a cell group focused on healthy thinking. The cell group felt strange at first; Kyle said they didn’t seem real. They weren’t the kind of people he was used to, but that was a good thing. When he met Maddie, I totally didn’t think she was his type. Three years later, I can’t believe I didn’t see how perfect they’d be together. Kyle’s had to unlearn some bad habits, but Maddie knows how to communicate and makes him feel like he is king of the world.

Let’s go deeper. How often are your feelings of worth based on your perception of others?

I haven’t had as much to drink as him; I’m not as overweight as her; I don’t complain as much as my coworker; I’m okay. I’m not as pretty as his ex; I’m not as creative as Ty’s mom; I’ll never make as much as my brother; I could never wear that; I’m such a loser.

Maybe the comparison is silent, but you’re irritable around that successful brother or negative around that creative mom. You’re depressed when you dress to go somewhere the prettier girl will be. You find yourself eating or drinking or complaining more than you’d like. To what is your value anchored? Are you judging yourself in relation to someone with completely different physical features and drives, someone with a different life path than yours? That’s as unproductive as comparing M&M’S® to peanuts. Instead, why not accept yourself and that other person so each of you can shine? Acceptance might even breed collaboration, which is way more productive. Think Peanut M&M’S®.

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