Thursday, November 08, 2012

Self-identity credit

Great example of the self-identity credit fallacy on one of my absolute favorite shows – Burn Notice (OK, I was watching a repeat of an August episode).  The spies offered a bribe to an arms dealer’s COO.  He was offended that they would even ask!!  For the next day or so, he felt very self-righteous and proud of himself for being such as honorable person.  He built up his self-identity for being honest and loyal.  Now, he had some self-identity credit to burn, which allowed him to accept the bribe the next day. 

This might sound hypocritical, but it is common.  Researchers have demonstrated this at restaurants.  The more salads that are on the menu, the more likely people are to order something less healthful (I think it was French fries in the study).  By imagining themselves ordering all of these healthy salads, they built up their self-identity for being healthy, allowing them to spend the credit ordering the French fries.  Note that this did not actually require ordering the salad, just imaging themselves ordering it.

Another study found this with smoking.  Just telling people that you plan to quit gives you self-identity credit for trying to quit.  So you don’t have to try as hard to actually quit. 

I find myself doing this all the time.  If I need to do something hard or unpleasant, I tell everyone how dedicated I am to doing it.  Then, after I have built up sufficient self-identity credit for my dedication, I can avoid it altogether and still feel good about myself.  Of course, nothing ever gets done this way.  But that is why it is “predictably irrational” (HT to Dan Ariely for the great appellation).