Monday 26 September 2011

Decision making (2): choosing a seat on the bus

I conducted an informal five-minute focus group on Friday afternoon with colleagues. The topic of discussion was: imagine you go to sit upstairs on the bus. Every double seat has one person sitting in it, so you have the choice of the whole top deck, but you'll have to sit next to someone. Who do you sit next to?

Instant reactions included "completely random", "somewhere near the front", "over the back wheel", "the hottest girl" and "not next to anybody fat or smelly". All fairly predictable stuff.

When pushed a little further, people started to realise the subtleties of the decision. Did they sit on the left or on the right? Next to men or women? What if there were several places that all looked as good as each other?

A couple of people stubbornly refused to believe their choice was random at first, but had to admit that they had to make a conscious choice to actually do the action of sitting down. The discussion was fascinating, with several key areas coming into play.

The most cited motivations for choice were "someone ordinary", alongside "convenience". Ordinary meant not fat or smelly, not taking up the whole seat with bags, and no loud music. Even the blokes who said "I go straight for the most attractive girl" managed to elaborate: when I asked "wouldn't it look a bit obvious going straight for the hottest girl when you've got the whole bus to choose from?" everyone agreed, amending their choice to "across the aisle", "the most obtainable girl" (!) or "in which case I'll go for the second most attractive". Feel privileged, ladies.

Then a thought occurred to me. With as deadpan a tone as I could muster, I asked if they tended to sit next to white or black people. Everyone initially insisted this didn't cross their minds, and I was careful not to push anyone to say anything indiscreet...but then one of the (white) girls admitted she probably sat next to white people more of the time, which led to one or two other people mumbling something similar.

When I asked why this was, she came up with a fascinating piece of insight: "I think I try to sit next to people who are similar to me." I was delighted and leapt on this; it tallied with the fact that she had already said she tended to sit next to women (and perhaps gave a little more insight into what people meant by ordinary). Another girl separately said that she would sit next to people "about my age or a bit older." This all tied in neatly with Thomas Schelling's theories about racial segregation: a very slight preference to be amongst people like ourselves can result in near-complete racial segregation which can sunder a whole city. I wonder what Rosa Parks would make of a theory that perhaps segregation on buses could be more naturally occurring than one might think?

According to Robert Cialdini, we subconsciously lean towards choices that remind us of ourselves (although I reserve the right to remain sceptical about nominative determinism, as explained by Wired this month). If this is true, what questions does this answer for people wanting to affect decisions? Is this why Dove's campaign for real beauty struck a chord because people saw themselves in the ads? Or is that going too far?

So there seemed to be rational motivations (I could suggest loads of others - from window/aisle to proximity to the emergency exit to wanting to pretend-drive the bus from the front seat) and less rational ones. But what else could be affecting our decisions? For example, let's amend the parameters slightly - this time a couple of people get on in front of you. Perhaps their choices affect yours (the Herd effect). If you are with friends, how would that affect your decision (and how would your presence affect theirs?) What about if you were on the phone and therefore slightly distracted? How does experience affect your decision - would someone who takes the bus every day make a different choice to someone who has never taken a bus in their life?

But here's a tester: would people choose the same seat again, given the same initial conditions? Asking people they thought "no" but then these were the same people who thought their choice was random in the first place. But do they have a point? Stochastic choice models would suggest that yes, there will be a "random" element involved to a certain extent. Thinking about this, my gut reaction was to think "well of course that makes sense, with 20 seats to choose from it's hardly likely that you'd choose the same one each time" - but surely the fact that the probability of choosing the same seat ten times running is a function of the number of possible outcomes suggests that there is, in fact, a chance that with only two choices you wouldn't go for the same one each time. In general, though, it seems that stochastic models for decision making are generally preferred among academics. Comparable to quantum mechanics, they imply that any input-output model for a decision can only give a probability that a certain decision will be taken, given a certain set of initial conditions.

You could extend this psychology of seats on buses. On an emptying bus, at what point does it become appropriate to move away from the person next to you into an empty seat? And at what point do you become irritated if your new-found companion insists on staying put, rather than moving into a free double seat? In addition, if you're sitting on your own, presumably you breathe a sigh of relief when people decide to choose someone else (according to what you've learned today, you need to look as little like that person as possible!) but do you get paranoid if you are the last person to be chosen? I certainly do! All this is very similar, of course, to the etiquette of choosing a urinal - every self-respecting bloke should know this, but if not, then have a go at this game...

We make odd choices and have odd motivations depending on our circumstances. For some reason I'm reminded of a time, years and years ago, when I was in the local organic/health food shop with my dad - you know, the sort of place with business cards advertising reiki and aura therapy. In the vegetable section there were two boxes next to each other: Carrots (Dirty) and Carrots (Washed). The Carrots (Dirty), which were covered in soil, were more expensive than Carrots (Washed)! Another example of creative pricing!

The bus discussion evolved somewhat with my girlfriend in the pub (the Black Lion on Kilburn High Road, which is a cracking place). A couple of days previously Rachel had picked up some beers in the supermarket. We did our best to deconstruct the process.

She started out by looking to see if they had any Peroni, because she knew I like Peroni (bless her). They didn't have any in multipacks, so she looked at what was on special offer. There were a few options. She only looked at bottles - not cans. Why? Not sure, she was in a rush, and tired. How did she choose the crate of bottles, then? Some were 6 for £5, others were 8 for £6 which she thought was a better bargain. Did she look at the volume of the bottles? No. Why not? She was in a rush, and tired [she was becoming increasingly irritable by this point in the discussion!] Did she consider standard "session" lagers (Carlsberg, Carling, Fosters), or just premium lagers (Heineken, Stella, San Miguel)? Just premium lagers. Even though her primary motivation appeared to be cost? No, just premium lagers. Would she still agree that price was her primary motivation? Rachel glanced at me, then meaningfully at her empty glass, then at the bar, and then at me again. I took the hint.

I've written much briefer post on decision making here and there's another half-written one in the pipeline - watch this space.

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