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Dan ArielyBack to OpinionDan Ariely

The Miata scenario, or justifying what we desire

Quite a few years ago (when I was 30), I decided that I needed to trade in my motorcycle and get a car. There are of course many cars on the market and I was trying to figure out which one was the right one for me. The Internet was just starting to boom with decision aids and to my delight I found a website that was providing car purchasing advice. The website was based on an interview procedure that started by asking me a lot of questions that ranged from my preferences for everything from price to safety, lighting, braking distance, and so forth and so on.

Photo: Flickr/Gordon Tarpley

I answered all the questions, which took about 20 minutes, and at the end of the process I was eager to see my personalized recommendation. After each page of answers I could see the progress bar indicating that I was inching closer and closer to my ideal car. The last screen of questions was filled with my answers and all I had to do was press the submit button. I pressed the button and in just a few seconds I got the answer – according to this smart and intensive website, the right car for me was…  a Ford Taurus. Now, I may not know much about cars — in fact, I know very little about cars — but I knew that I did not want a Ford Taurus (nothing against the Ford Taurus, which I am sure is just a fine car).

What would you do in such a situation? I did what every creative person would do and went back into the guts of the program, changing my answers to all kinds of questions ranging from my preference of price to the importance of safety, braking distance, and turning angle. Once in a while I would check how different answers translated into different car recommendations. I continued with this for a while until the program was kind enough to recommend the Mazda Miata. The moment I saw that the software’s recommendation was a small convertible, I realized this was a fantastic and wise program whose advice I should follow. And so I became the proud owner of a Mazda Miata, which served me loyally for many years.

What I learned from this experience is that sometimes (perhaps even very often) we don’t make choices based on our internal preferences. Instead we have a gut feeling about what we want, and we go through a process of mental gymnastics and rationalization to manipulate our choices so that at the end we can get what we really want but at the same time keep the appearance (to ourselves and to others) that we are acting according to our preferences.

This process, where we make a guttural decision first and then recruit our cognitive skills to justify our desires, is not restricted to software — and it is something we do often and with both small and large decisions.  If we accept that this is often how we make decisions, there is one way to make this process more efficient and less time consuming. Imagine you’re considering two digital cameras: one superior in mechanics like zoom and battery, and the other with a snazzier shape. You’re conflicted and not sure which one to get. If you realize that the source of your confusion comes from knowing that one camera is technically better but that the other will make you happier, you can try the “coin toss method.” Here is how it works. You assign one camera to heads and one camera to tails and you toss the coin in the air.  When it lands, you see your decision. If you got the camera that you wanted, good for you — go and buy it. But if you’re not happy with the outcome, continue tossing the coin again and again until you get the desired result. Now you not only get the camera that you really wanted but you also can justify your decision because you were simply following the advice of the coin.

Perhaps this was really the function of that software — not to get us to make better decisions, but to allow us to justify what we really wanted, and at the same time feel confident and good about it. If this is the case, then I think the software was a great hit, and we should develop similar products for many areas of life.

Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke professor of behavioral economics at Duke University. His latest book, “The Upside of Irrationality,” was released in 2010. This essay originally appeared on his blog.