Monday, July 30, 2012

The Grass Is Always ... Browner?

As you can probably tell, the title of this post is based off the common saying "The Grass Is Always Greener On The Other Side." I've always been amazed by this saying, because while we can find countless cases of it being true, we can also find countless cases of it being completely and utterly false. Take smart-phones for instance. People are quite dogmatic about which they choose, and they believe that the grass is definitely not greener. This is something that's bothered me for a while. But yesterday, I think I've made a cognitive leap towards understanding why it works for some things and not others...

The Surface

On the surface, the saying is speaking literally about grass on your lawn (if you're lucky enough to have one). That your neighbors grass will always appear greener than your own. Or speaking more generally, that which you don't have will always seem more appealing than that which you do have. It's applicable in a large number of situations. For example, if you're having problems at your job with management, sometimes it's worth reminding yourself that the grass is always greener, and you'd likely have a similar (or different) problem somewhere else...

But if we dig into the saying a bit more, can we gain any insight? The saying is literally talking about maintaining a lawn. Something that takes a lot of effort and skill to do well. Something that takes a lot of hard work to do well. At a more basic level, we can say that it's difficult to achieve. But just saying that it's difficult is not enough. It's a cognizant form of difficult. It's not just manually difficult, but also mentally difficult, because making the decision on not only what to do, but how to do it is quite challenging. That's why everyone's lawn is different. Because it takes mental effort to achieve.

The Reverse

In the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (which is an excellent read), he introduces almost the exact opposite behavior, and proves that it happens through several experiments. Stated simply, we humans tend to over-value things that are already ours. We see it all the time in action in certain reality TV shows such as Pawn Stars. When someone brings an item in to sell, even if it has no emotional value, people usually think that it's worth more than the open market would agree with. In fact, that usually makes for good entertainment.

We also see it every day. When someone buys a new car, they don't all of a sudden wish they had a different one (assuming the same value). They feel good about their purchase, and become biased towards believing that it's worth more than it may really be. So much so, that they might even look down on other cars that friends purchase (again, assuming similar value), because they "should have made the same choice". Additionally, the choice of religion tends to fall into this category. Where we tend to overvalue our current religion, and undervalue any alternative one.

The Dilemma

So we appear to have two contradictory theories. One says that people want different situations more than their own, and the other says that they value their situation more than other situations. In fact, there's experimental and anecdotal evidence showing that both of these processes exist. At first, these two appear to contradict each other. So which is wrong? The answer that I've come up with is: neither.

The Cost Factor

The reason that I think these two opposing forces can exist in the same room, is that it depends on the relative cost of either situation which judgement rules are applied. In the situations that the grass is greener approach applies, the cost is usually high. Not cost in the sense of money, but the cost in risk, effort and mental difficulty. Finding a new place to live, switching jobs and advancing a career are all examples of situations where the grass is definitely greener and the relative cost of switching is very high. Therefore, we tend to undervalue our current position, and overvalue the position of others.

On the other side of the field, we have situations like material possessions and political allegiances. These situations are typically governed by the opposite rules. These types of situations are usually low cost. We can easily change back and forth with reasonably low risk, effort or mental difficulty (in the sense of deciding to change has a reasonably small ripple effect). Even though the cost of switching is comparatively low, we still tend to overvalue our own position and undervalue the position of others.

Now, there are plenty of examples at either end of the spectrum that disprove this theory. For things that have such a low cost that it's barely on the radar (like brand of pencils), we tend not to value the position at all, and hence don't have the disconnect of overvaluing our own position. On the other hand, for things of such a high cost that we couldn't reasonably switch (such as the physical features of one's body), we can't draw a comparison with others, so we can't undervalue our own position (and indeed get into other weird behaviors).

The Middle

Where we see this effect is most prominent is in the middle ground. Where the cost is high enough to care about, but also low enough that we still can reasonably switch. Depending on our perception of the cost of switching, we then overvalue or undervalue our current position. The closer we are to that mental divide between the two alternatives, the more we will likely overvalue or undervalue our choice. 

Applying The Theory

We can now use this hypothesis to explain the fanboi phenomena. The true fanboi is one that greatly overvalues their own position, and greatly undervalues any competing alternative. The reason then (based again on this hypothesis) is because they tend to believe that their position is easily switched from (that it has a low cost). Therefore, they will tend to overvalue their beliefs.

We can also apply the theory to try to explain why some people can't stand PHP (or Ruby on Rails, or Django, or Python, or ASP.NET, or any technology choice). If we follow from the theory, those people believe that there is a cost to switching technology, but that the cost is fairly low. Therefore, they overvalue their decision, and undervalue other's positions. They transition that undervaluing to a blanket (often blind) hatred towards competing technologies.

This has a very interesting implication if it's true. Basically, it indicates that people tend to believe that the choice of technology is a largely cheap one to make. While it does take a lot of time to master the technology, to switch to a new one and be proficient in it is actually fairly inexpensive. There's risk there, but in terms of effort, even a long weekend is likely enough to get the feel and understand the new technology. So we tend to believe that it's a largely arbitrary choice which technology to go with. We then are forced to cognitively justify the decision by overvaluing our current position.

Now, not all people agree that competing technologies are bad. There are some people out there that act in an apparent rational form and indicate that the technology is just an implementation detail. They are basically reversing the effect seen above. According to the theory, they would tend to believe that mastering a different technology is actually quite expensive, and therefor tend to undervalue their current position. But they don't switch because they believe that it's an expensive switch and hence likely not worth it.

Why This Matters

This matters because it allows us to self-reflect on our decisions. Do we really feel that another technology is really inferior to ours? If so, that's an indication that we're overvaluing our current position, and we should try to understand the other position better. If we don't feel that way, it's a sign that we may be undervaluing our current position, and may want to explore the current choice deeper.

The point here is that either way we sit, we're biased by our choices. The bias can be positive or negative, but it definitely exists. Once we realize (and admit) that we are biased, we can move on to solving problems that matter. We can move on to making decisions rationally rather than emotionally.


I have not tested this theory at all. It was something that just "clicked" yesterday. I could be totally wrong. But it felt compelling enough to share...

What do you think? Respond in a comment, on Twitter or on your own blog!