Two of the most important choices in life are where to live and what job to take. Both choosing a house and choosing a job have a huge impact on the rest of our lives. Getting it right can mean years of happiness, but recent psychological research on the ‘distinction bias’ suggests we may often get it wrong, which could mean years of misery.
How can you actually quantify an interesting versus a boring job?Choosing the option that maximises our happiness is all about how we psychologically balance up options. For example, cheaper houses are usually in worse locations, highly paid jobs are sometimes more stressful. Unfortunately, when it comes to balancing up the pros and cons, there are reliable biases in the way we make comparisons that mean we don’t always choose what maximises our future happiness.
Imagine this: you are offered two jobs. The first is an interesting job that pays $60,000 a year. The second is a boring job that pays $70,000 a year. For the sake of argument, imagine that everything else is equal – which do you choose?
Here’s another common example: imagine you have to choose between two houses that will cost the same amount. One of them is 3,000 square-feet and you can walk to work, the other is 4,000 square-feet but it will mean you have to drive for an hour to get to work. Again, for the sake of argument, imagine that all else is equal – which one do you choose and how do you make your choice?
When we try to choose between the $60,000 and $70,000 job, we probably make some kind of assessment of costs and benefits. On one side we try to work out how much extra happiness the additional $10,000 will bring us. On the other side we try to compare the interesting job with the boring job. This turns out to be harder: how can you actually quantify an interesting versus a boring job?
According to psychologists Professor Christopher K. Hsee and Jiao Zhang from the University of Chicago, this is exactly where we hit choppy waters in our decision-making (Hsee & Zhang, 2004). They argue that when we make quantitative comparisons, i.e. those involving clearly comparable numbers such as amounts of money, we are much more likely to overestimate the impact on our happiness.
In comparison, qualitative differences – like the difference between a boring job and an interesting job – are much more difficult for us to evaluate. As a result we are considerably less likely to overestimate their impact.
This difference in the way we evaluate qualitative versus quantitative differences comes down to a gap between our powers of prediction and the vagaries of actual experience:
- Prediction: When we are trying to predict how we will feel we usually assume there is a linear relationship between more of something and us feeling better or receiving more benefit. For example we imagine that $70,000 will make us feel exactly one-sixth better than $60,000, or that 4,000 square-foot house is one-third better than a 3,000 square-foot house.
- Actual experience: When we actually experience something we generally tend not to directly compare the $60,000 with having $70,000 or the 3,000 square-foot house with the 4,000 square-foot house. As a result, on average, we don’t actually feel one-sixth better having the extra money or one-third better having the extra space.
So, when we are making quantitative comparisons we are likely to predict that we will experience more pleasure than, in reality, we do. This is what Hsee and Zhang call the distinction bias: when it operates we make an inflated prediction about the future utility of a choice because of how we distinguish between them.
Compare this with how we make predictions about qualitative differences, like choosing between the interesting and the boring job, or the house that’s close to work or far away. It’s obvious the interesting job is better than the boring job, but because there is no clear scale we are much less likely to over-predict the advantage of the job being interesting when compared to how we actually experience it.
To back up their theory, Hsee and Zhang carried out three experiments in which people were invited to make predictions about qualitative and quantitative differences. In each of these three experiments the researchers found that people did indeed over-predict their future pleasure when making a quantitative comparison but didn’t make this mistake for qualitative comparisons.
How to avoid the distinction bias
The distinction bias is rooted in the fact that predictions about our future pleasure involving quantitative comparisons are the easiest to make, and the easiest to get wrong. These tend to occur when we evaluate one thing next to another: e.g. when trying to choose between the interesting job and the boring job it’s easy to compare the two salaries. The exact salary, however, often turns out later to make less difference to our pleasure in life than we might imagine.
The trick is to avoid comparing two jobs, or houses, directly.Hsee and Zhang argue that the trick is to avoid comparing two jobs, or houses, directly. It is better to consider each job, or house, individually. Try to make an overall assessment of each one on its own, and then compare your assessments. This way you are much more likely to make a choice that accurately predicts your future experience.
There is, though, one important caveat to this technique. In some cases the amount of pleasure you get from a choice in the future is closely related to how it compares to other choices. In other words: sometimes direct comparisons are accurate predictors of future pleasure. For example, if you are choosing a pair of shoes to wear to a wedding it is advisable to consider what other people will be wearing. Buying sneakers is not likely to make you feel good.
But while there are some exceptions, the distinction bias is often a serious problem for us in trying to predict our future happiness. Whether it’s choosing a job, a car or a house, we are likely to overestimate the quantitative aspects of our choice (often, but not always, money) to the detriment of the qualitative aspects. Consequently we can end up making a choice that doesn’t maximise our happiness. Combating this bias means focussing just on the pros and cons of each scenario individually rather than making comparisons.
Hsee, C., & Zhang, J. (2004). Distinction Bias: Misprediction and Mischoice Due to Joint Evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(5), 680-695.
→ This post is part of a series on cognitive biases:
- The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Why The Incompetent Don’t Know They’re Incompetent
- The Worse-Than-Average Effect: When You’re Better Than You Think
- Why You’re a Sucker for the Impact Bias
- The Hindsight Bias: I Knew It All Along!
- How to Overcome the Egocentric Bias
- See How Easily You Can Avoid The Memory Bias
- Why Your Future Self is an Emotional Mystery: The Projection Bias
- How To Avoid Choosing the Wrong Job or House: Fight the Distinction Bias
- 4 Belief Biases That Can Reduce Pleasure
- Does Delaying Decisions Lead to Better Outcomes?
- The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion
- Why Society Doesn’t Change: The System Justification Bias
- The Availability Bias: Why People Buy Lottery Tickets
- The Illusion of Transparency
- The Illusion of Control: Are There Benefits to Being Self-Deluded?
- The Endowment Effect: Why It’s Easy to Overvalue Your Stuff
- Illusory Correlations: When The Mind Makes Connections That Don’t Exist
- Anchoring Effect: How The Mind is Biased by First Impressions
- The Confirmation Bias: Why It’s Hard to Change Your Mind
- The Well-Travelled Road Effect: Why Familiar Routes Fly By
- How a Psychological Bias Makes Groups Feel Good About Themselves And Discredit Others
- The Sobering Up Effect: Why People Get More Pessimistic As The Moment of Truth Gets Closer