Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Stockard, irrational human behavior, and me

So. Then. This has been a doozy of a last few days, only I just realized it today. For those who don't know this about me (uh--is there anyone?), I like to think about things. And I also like to think about myself and how I relate to things. This would explain why figuring out what to do with my life is for me more of a hobby than any sort of finite goal. Anyway, in reading for my Negotiation Seminar today (I love that class) I was confronted with a clear demonstration of the sort of eternal puzzle that is human interaction.

First, the weekend. Well, specifically Sunday: Jenn, Brian, and I attended a Broadway show, Pal Joey, starring Stockard Channing and Martha Plimpton. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought they were both amazing, as was the star Matthew Risch, who played Joey. He was an understudy, who took over during previews when the star was injured! How amazing for him! Anyway, fyi, Martha Plimpton can SING. And Stockard Channing, well, she is just fantastic all the time and I was so excited after we got seriously cheap theater tickets to find out I'd be seeing her show.

Probably the most famous song from Pal Joey is "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," although I hereby confess I did not even know it was from this musical, or any musical. It made so much more sense to us in context. In the playbill profile of Stockard Channing she talks about what it was like to sing this famous song that everybody knows as "just a song," whether sung by Doris Day or Rosemary Clooney or whoever, and she talks about approaching it as her character, Vera's, monologue, and that the audience should be following her every line and seeing the conflict in her. Boy, does she pull it off. She is in bed with this man and she knows, she knows, that he is no good and she mustn't fall for him, and even going in with eyes wide open, as it were, she still falls for him and, specifically, mistakenly, lets him get to her.

Good drama. Back to Negotiation: we study in this seminar the ways in which people bargain, get what they want, and try to resolve conflict. I have a million interesting stories from the readings in there, but I'll stick to just one today. In a study people were presented with the question of an impending disease outbreak, let's say an Asian bird flu type of thing, that is expected to kill 600 people. Which of these two alternative programs would you favor? If Program A is adopted, 200 will be saved. If Program B is adopted, there's a one-third probability all will be saved and a two-thirds probability none will be saved.

Well, 76% chose Program A, and 24% chose Program B. In other words, saving 200 lives for certain was more highly valued than taking a risk, even though the risk has the same "expected value" (I often loathe those economics terms, but meaning that the value of a 1/3 chance of saving all = 1/3 of all = 200 out of 600, that is, the same as the definite # in A. The subjects of the study did not want to take a risk.

But here's the good part! Ready? They also asked a group of subjects the same premise, with the following two options: If Program A is adopted, 400 people will die. If Program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability no one will die and a two-thirds probability all will die. And this time, only 13% chose A and 87% chose B! These subjects chose the risk-taking alternative.

Why? Objectively they are the same. But when it is framed differently, in terms of lives saved (gains) or lives lost (losses), it was enough to shift the majority of the people from risk-averse to risk-taking. Why?

So then I thought about this in terms of myself. Negotiation professor is always encouraging us to look at the negotiations in our lives that happen every day, from "Where are we going for dinner?" to hiring someone to do the flowers at your wedding. Today when I read that story, I thought about myself, my rational/irrational behavior, and whether I take risks. When I read the choices the first time around, I -- unlike apparently 76% of people -- was inclined to choose Program B, and take the risk. Does that make me risk-seeking? Irrational? Is there any difference for me between my willingness to risk when there are losses and not gains at stake?

Personalizing, let's say my student loan is running out, Brian is unemployed, and we've got to do amazing feats of budgeting in order to be able to pay rent for the rest of the semester. Meanwhile, my spring break is coming up and I really want to be able to go on a trip for my last spring break of law school, and I want Brian to come with me. It upsets me greatly to have to cover more than my share of the rent, but I am perfectly OK with paying for Brian's "share" of a spring break trip so that we can go.

Is this irrational? I didn't think it was, and I said as much: my wanting Brian to come on the trip is selfish, not just paying "for" him. I want us to go a-traveling. So, even the economists should be pleased: it's my rational self-interest. But who "wants" to pay the rent, any share of it? Except to avoid the alternative: not having a place to live.

So today while I read, I tried to fit my behavior into this risk-averse/risk-taking analysis. Is it because I am in the minority? That I'll gamble on something and spend big when I see there's something to gain, no problem, but when it's something to lose (i.e. our abode) I kick and scream and fight against it?

And what would Stockard Channing-as-Vera say...

I'm wild again
Beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered am I...

But then at the end of the show, in the reprise, after she has seen the light or come to her senses or stopped this irrational affair, she sings:

Burned a lot
But learned a lot
And now you are broke though you earned a lot
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered no more

Interesting. And I can't even tell you how interesting I find it every week when we talk about so-called rational human behavior in our Negotiation Seminar. One is supposed to stop behaving like that simpering, whimpering child. And yet, in order to please the economists, who like to describe rational behavior, one is supposed to act in one's self-interest. Economists hate it when people don't act in their own rational self-interest. But I propose that it's all the same, and it doesn't have to be pegged as rational or irrational: we are trying to get what we want.

Or maybe I just like how my Girls put it best:

But now you feel that you've got nothing left.
If there's nothing to lose babe,
Ah babe, don't you know by now?
Then there's nothing to gain.

--indigo girls, 'walk away'

1 comment:

Kim Diaz said...

Love me some Stockard Channing!