Most working days I go for a walk round the block after I’ve eaten my dinner. As I leave our office I’ve got two primary choices: lift or stairs. I say primary because there’s obviously many things I could do at that point (although I have promised my wife that naked star jumps will not feature in my daily exercise regimen … again). In any case I go for the stairs.
At the bottom of the stairs I have two more choices: left or right. Each takes me to a different exit from the building but both open onto the circuit that I stroll round, and if I leave by one of them I will naturally arrive back at the other so there’s (again, to the level of granularity that I care about) no significant difference between them.
I can’t go straight on at the bottom of the stairs because the lift is there and a u-turn sends me back into work so every day I am forced to make the choice – left or right. And every day until recently I’ve been making that choice without any conscious thought.
But when I realised I was doing it, I started looking for patterns. Philosophical aspects of the observer effect to one side I discovered that, over the period I watched, I tended to choose left and right roughly equally and that (ignoring extraneous circumstances such as deliveries being in the way) I have a tendency to go in the direction closest to the side of the stairs I happen to be on.
For instance, if I’ve moved left to let someone else up on my right, I’ll tend to go left at the bottom. If I’ve swung round the corner between flights a bit faster than normal and ended up on the right hand side, I’ll naturally hang a right when I get to the ground floor too.
On my walk I listen to podcasts. A couple of weeks ago, while I was stair-spotting, Invisibilia told the story of how an experimenter’s attitude towards their subjects can influence the performance of the subjects. In one landmark study, when an experimenter was told that a set of lab rats were smart, the rats performed better and when told they were stupid, the rats performed worse.
The study concluded that the experimenter behaviour was unconsciously changed by their expectation of the animals. When told the rat was clever they might hold it more gently, talk to it more and so on. This in turn made the rat more comfortable and in a better mood to run around the maze or whatever.
Unconscious action can lead to unexpected but, crucially, predictable consequences.
I don’t think about which way I’d go from the bottom of the stairs but I can discern a pattern to the behaviour when I look. We’re all making decisions all day every day – both in trivial matters like which way to leave a building and in more serious stuff like which way we’ll test something or how we’ll speak to our colleagues.
I’m never short of questions, but now I have some new ones: Why did I choose that way? Did I notice there were options? Did I know I was choosing? How did that influence my behaviour? How can I know the effects of that?