Monday, March 24, 2014

The Snowball effect on behavior



I’ve read about the snowball effect on behavior, but I was wondering if there was a grand unified theory of it somewhere. 

Here is my personal example from last night.  I bought a six-pack of Lagunitas IPA.  This goes against at least five heuristics I usually use when purchasing.

  1.  I like IPAs a lot.  But I am a price-optimizing beer drinker.  I generally stick to IPAs when I am out and all beers are expensive.  At the liquor store, I go with something inexpensive. If I go with an IPA, it would probably be a less expensive brand.  
  2. There other IPAs that I know I like. Since I drink beer for the taste, sticking to brands that I know I like makes sense.  Buying an unfamiliar brand only makes sense when it is the only one available of it is less expensive and activates heuristic number one.  
  3. Lagunitas sponsors “This American Life”, an NPR show that I listen to on the weekends.  I generally don’t let sponsorships impact my purchasing – seeing this as information that has nothing to do with the quality of the product.  Therefore, being influenced by a sponsorship makes you a sucker.  In fact I often overcompensate for my anti-sponsorship self-identity by intentionally avoiding products that I see using sponsorships for their marketing.  
  4. Lagunitas has a funny slogan for their “This American Life” sponsorship – “Putting the pub back in public radio.  Similar to my anti-sponsorship self-identity, I also have an anti-slogan self-identity because this is another marketing gimmick that has nothing to do with the quality of the product.  Again, it makes you a sucker.  And again, I overcompensate by avoiding brands with funny slogans.
  5. Lagunitas is currently a trendy brand.  Although trends can get started because of legitimate quality-based features of a product, they often are not. And when they do, it is often a characteristic of the product that I am not interested in.  So I also avoid trendy brands.

I tend to be a very meta-cognitively aware person.  So when I purchased the Lagunitas yesterday, I could feel myself breaking each and every one of these heuristics. But it didn’t feel like breaking five.  Once I broke the first one, it made it really easy to break the other four.  “In for a dime, in for a dollar.”

I see examples of this all around me.  “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” really means that when you are there you can break all of your personal values.  When your diet gives you a “binge” day, you don’t just eat one rich food item, you go all in.  When people cheat on something, they don’t go back to their honest self immediately after, they take on a new norm and/or start down the proverbial slippery slope. 

So I call this generalization the snowball effect because in each case, breaking one rule/ethic/heuristic or whatever gives you the allowance to break all related ones.  At least in that scenario at that time.  You don’t throw in the towel and become a new person, but at least for that one activity you can ignore all of your typical constraints as easily as you can ignore one.

My research on neuroscience explains this to some extent.  It is like transferring control from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala.  You can’t just have them distribute the constraints where the PFC takes a few and the amygdala takes a few.  It is a discrete process – all or nothing.

Thoughts?  Counterexamples?  Counter-theories?

2 comments:

Michael Webster said...

I see a couple of things going on.

1. I don't think your five rules are that distinct, so it would be hard to break only one.

2. It is also hard to tell the brain: don't buy trendy beer.

The brain just hears the concept "buy trendy beer".

Alan Fish said...

Is your "pre-frontal cortex" vs "amygadala" distinction the same as Kahneman's "System 1" vs "System 2"? He would associate the suspension of System 2 with attentional fatigue (ego depletion) or simply lack of time. Did either of these apply when you were buying your beer?