1st and Ten: The Weekly Tendown, June 6-12 2010

Sunday, June 13, 2010

 Dear Internet:

Do you know the bystander effect?

Excellent.  Here's Tendown 30.

First:  The Circle K Fallacy

Okay, so the bystander effect is the sociological phenomenon which says that we get our behavioral cues from those around us - and because of that, in situations which require fairly quick action, we are less likely to do anything at all the more we are surrounded by others.  Like this - I've seen these experiments; students are in an enclosed room filling out applications when smoke begins to come from underneath the door; not so much smoke that it's the end of the world, but enough that it's noticeable.  When a student is by himself, he leaves the room to go get help.  But when there are a group of students, they just sit there, frozen, because they're all waiting for someone else to act.  If you ever need help, like you're being attacked or you've got chicken lodged in your windpipe, you're better off having it happen in front of one person than in front of 20. 

I've added a corollary to that - the Circle K Fallacy.

The Circle K fallacy is that we overestimate the correlation between popularity and merit to such an extent that it inhibits our ability to make qualitative decisions.

Like this.

There's a Circle K near my house, it has one gasoline pump out front.  No one is ever there.  Literally, I've never once seen anyone pumping gas there who wasn't me.

It's next to a gas station and across the street from a gas station.  Larger, dozens of pumps, full on gas stations that are almost always completely full.  I live in an urban, high traffic area. 

The price of the gas is always almost to the penny the same.  The Circle K, at the very most, might be a penny or two more.  At the most.

But no one goes there.  People are more inclined to wait for a pump at the station next to it then go to the Circle K.

I did that myself, once, maybe twice.  One day as I was pumping gas and looking at the empty Circle K, I thought how odd my own decision making was - and I realized that it wasn't that I had coolly reflected upon the various merits of the gas stations and made a critical decision to choose the Chevron - it was instead that something about the Circle K just struck me wrong, wrong in a fleeting but still real way, and in a split second "do I turn here or here" choice, a choice made almost preconsciously - I went with the Chevron.

And in getting to that thought, it wasn't long before it became evident that why the Circle K seemed "off" is because there was no one there.  And my brain clearly processed "no one at that gas station is weird, given the circumstance, therefore, there must be something wrong with that gas station."

How many people, do you suppose, went through that same decision making process?  Choosing the gas station where all the people were, even if there was no reason to believe the popular gas station was any better.  Over and over it repeats.  One business succeeds, one fails.  It's like how tip jars are never empty (or shouldn't be) - they put some money in a tip jar so the customers will get the cue that the right thing to do is to tip.  Hey, other people are tipping, says the subconscious mind, I can tip too. 

The only reason I wasn't going to the Circle K was because no one else was going there. 

And now I go to the Circle K.  I'm always the only guy at the pump.

So, having had that thought - I asked if there were places (other than the tipping thing) where the fallacy was replicated.

Men - let me ask you a question.

Have you had this experience - the time when you are clearly of most interest to women is when you are already in a relationship.

Circle K fallacy.

If there's a guy without a girlfriend, who isn't dating, women are likely to think "well, something must be wrong with him - if he was valuable, he'd have someone."  Even if that thought isn't fully formed - it's there - 'cause there's a vacant pump, no reason to think it's defective, but they'd rather wait in line at the Chevron.

But the second you get a girlfriend, are in a relationship, are openly and notoriously in a relationship - suddenly women are driving up and asking for 20 dollars of premium unleaded. 

I'm almost 40 years old, I've been dating for almost a quarter of a century - and it's been my life without fail; long stretches of singleness during which there was barely a date to be found - and then, as soon as I coupled up - women who previously showed no interest are hitting on me brazenly.

(Note - this will seem like it's just cover because I'm trying to avoid the following conversation from my Lady Type Friend "who is she, who is this person you were writing about, I have lots of other options myself, Mister, don't think I can't get on Facebook in eleven seconds and have a swarm of gas stations who will stay open all night just for me" but this is entirely past tense in my life; when you hit middle age and work 7 days a week, there's not a lot of women pressing their phone numbers into your palm; I'm sure there are guys my age who can carry on affairs, but Jesus, who has the energy?)

I'd assume that, to an extent, it works in the opposite way - you know that trope where there's the sort of plain girl next door with the glasses and the frumpy clothes who is totally in love with the guy and who the guy obviously should be with why can't he just see how perfect she really is for him?  If she gets a boyfriend, then he'll notice.  Why?  Circle K fallacy. 

No one goes to that restaurant, it must not be any good.  Someone else is paying a hundred grand for a wedding, that must be the right amount.  None of the major politicians supports a dramatic increase in the top marginal tax rate in order to raise revenue, therefore, it must not be an idea worth discussing. 

Circle K fallacy.

We take our social cues from others.  Not only during crisis, but at the marketplace.  The marketplace of goods, the marketplace of people, the marketplace of ideas.  If no one else is there, there must be a good reason.

After the jump, the rest of the Tendown

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