Saturday, May 21, 2011

What's in a Number?

By Jordan Tam

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The size of that first step might matter a great deal if psychological research is any indicator.

As I write, Parks Canada is currently trying to protect Canada’s oceans through its National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) initiative. We should celebrate this effort, but it’s worth asking if we’re jumping off the starting block with enough strength.

The southern islands of the majestic Haida Gwaii archipelago off the North coast of BC have recently come under NMCA protection. Only 3% of this conservation area, called Gwaii Haanas, has been designated as fully protected from commercial extractive use (e.g., commercial fishing). In last week’s Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society report, scientists recommended that 30% of all habitats – not just NMCAs—be protected.

Three percent might not sound like a lot, and that’s the point. A small first step might make it harder for us to get where we need to go.

If you’ve ever negotiated your salary and felt like you were being low-balled by an employer, you’ve likely experienced the well-known psychological bias of getting ‘stuck’ around this first number. This bias is known as ‘anchoring and adjustment’ and was first theorized by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974).

Just how powerful is this bias? Consider a fantastic experiment by behavioural economist Dan Ariely and colleagues (Ariely, Loewenstein & Prelec, 2006) in which individuals supplied the last two digits of their social security number. People were then asked whether they would be willing to pay the number of dollars equal to these two digits for a bottle of fine wine and to indicate the most they would actually pay. What they found was shocking: people who had social security numbers with the last two digits in between the range of 00 to 19 bid on average $8.64 while those with digits in the range of 80 to 99 bid an average of $27.91.

In other words, even arbitrary numbers can completely skew our judgment, usually without our awareness.

Three (percent) isn’t just a number. Like salary negotiations, negotiating for greater protection in Gwaii Haanas and other developing NMCAs may be slowed or stymied by setting the initial bar so low. We may get to 30% eventually, but having three percent ‘imprinted’ in our psyche, as Ariely puts it, may make take our journey the long way around. Focusing on the greater protection afforded the oceans through California’s network of marine protected areas and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef protection should be the standard to which we measure our progress.

Ariely, D., Loewenstein, G., & Prelec, D. (2006). Tom Sawyer and the construction of value. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 60(1), 1-10. doi: 10.1016/j.jebo.2004.10.003

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, 185(4157), 1124-1131. doi: 10.1126/science.185.4157.1124

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