Another principle I discuss is check your reference points. This principle involves carefully considering the motives that are driving our decisions, and examine whether they are driven by the bitter feelings resulting from where we stand in comparisons to others. It is a principle that helps us counteract another force that often sidetracks us: social comparisons. On a wide range of dimensions, from how trustworthy we are to how good looking others find us to be, we often compare ourselves to our peers to evaluate where we stand. These types of social comparisons can lead to irrational behaviors. For instance, we may accept a job offer paying a lower salary than another that pays more but where other people like us make more money than we would. Or we may vote against hiring a new colleague who excels on dimensions we feel we also excel at (such as leadership) because we find him or her threatening.
The forces that derail people’s decisions are predictable: they systematically sway their actions. Yet, they are also unexpected: people generally do not realize that these forces are at work in their lives. By understanding what gets us off track and by applying the principles I suggest, I think everyone can reach outcomes they’ll be happy with.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.