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Thursday, 14 October 2010

Chicken or Fish?

(Chicken?) Vs (Chicken or Fish?)

The problem of choice, context and comparison in jobhunting, career, life and everything else….

While jobhunting last year I had a lot of time for websurfing and came across an interesting little TED talk by Prof Dan Ariely, behavioural economist at MIT.

A large part of his talk was devoted to explaining our innate inability to make absolute choices. Anyone with a young child will recognize this phenomenon : its almost impossible to get a response from a toddler to the question “Would you like an apple?”, parents have much better luck on the question “Would you like an apple or a banana?”. It’s a sort of choice that’s a non choice…you ARE gonna eat, it’s a question of what, not if. The decisional aspect has been taken away and it seems us mere humans are much better at choices than absolute decisions.

This made a lot of sense to me in the midst of last years interminable jobhunt. Companies, employers recruiters always need to view a smorgasbord of options in order to make a hiring decision even when they see a stellar candidate in the first interview. I tried to comfort myself that my weird work experience and less-then-stellar interview performance were at least benefiting my classmates during on-campus interviews: by providing a comparable but clearly less attractive option I was increasing their chances of looking good. Rather cold comfort though.

Ariely even shows that having a ‘dude’ or decoy, as he calls it, available we can influence the choice made by the decision maker in a predictable way (whether it’s a choice about a holiday destination, an employee or a sexual partner) due to our preference for making choices between comparable items over making outright decisions. In hiring terms this means that if there are 3 candidates for a job, where two have comparable experience but one of these is less attractive, call them A and -A and the third, B has quite a different background – then decision makers will always plump for candidate A, no matter how attractive B is. In effect B is not comparable, hence the A vs B decision is more complex so the unconsciously move it to a A vs –A decision, and B doesn’t get a look in! All of which is pretty bad news if your career track is not comparable to other candidates.

This human tendancy for comparision continues to haunt me not that I am employed. I now find . After our MBA we were all somehow comparable or at least should have been comparable, so looking at how others have done after school is a hard contrast. I know the theory is to just be happy where you are, but I am not sure that as humans we are particularly good at that. I know I’m not and in general the people who tell me I should be, are pretty successful by anyone’s standards. And so while my colluges rack up frequent flyer miles at the Hilton, I start to wonder if its really good for me to spend time with such friends. Its not their fault, of course, but the comparison makes me miserable.

Arialy’s work touches on this topic too, where he notes that most men’s sense of success was highly correalated to the level of his salary versus his wife’s sisters husbands salary for not other person than the comparison was relevant and easily available. Comparisons an drive us all mad, no wonder those who ‘drop-out’ seem happier with less – I think its probably less about spirituality or a rejection of convention so much as they have simply made themselves incomparable with their peers and are therefore more content.


Somewhow linked to this idea of choice and its function in recruiting is the notion of context. There was an experiment in NYC sometime in the last few years which had a virtuoso violinist busk at Grand Central station at rush hour. The purpose was to see if anyone would stop and listen, and the experiment had some goal related to recoginising beauty in the everyday. Almost no one stoped to listen despite tickets for the concert of this vioinest selling out at several humdred dollars per ticket.

Its possible that in NYC no one who goes to classical concerts or at least who can afford a ticket of 200$ needs to bother with public transport. But to my mind the more important take-away is that you can be brilliant at something or perhaps many things but if you come in the wrong door, your talent will never be recoginised. So much of success depends on your context, its often the only differeciator between a better than average busker and a sold out concert hall.

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