Take a simple study on pens led by Avni Shah and George Wolford, psychologist at Duke University and Dartmouth College, respectively. The scientists found twenty different pen options, all of which cost between $1.89 and $2.39 and contained black ink. The subjects were told that the pens cost about $2, but that they could purchase any of them for a special discounted rate of $1.
Here’s where things get interesting. At first glance, offering people more pens might seem like a good thing, since they can find the pen that best suits their needs. Some people like ballpoint pens, others prefer roller-balls, or just care about the texture of the grip. Sure enough, offering people more pens led to a higher percentage of people buying pens, at least at first. When only two pens were offered, 40 percent of students bought one. However, when there were ten pens to consider, 90 percent of people found one they liked enough to buy.
But now comes the inverted U-curve—when more than ten pens were offered, people became much less willing to choose any pen at all. The drop-off was steep: when there were sixteen different pens to choose from, only 30 percent of subjects bought one.
My favorite example of this gap between the behavioral self and the aspirational self has nothing to do with reading, but usefully extends the foodie metaphor beyond doughnuts. In the early to mid-2000s, McDonald’s got more aggressive about promoting healthy options like salad and fruit on its menus. But its revenue growth in those years was due entirely to people eating more greasy fare, like cheeseburgers and fried chicken. New healthy options seemed to lure wannabe dieters into the restaurant, where they would order fast-food basics. In 2010, a group of wordsmithing Duke University researchers called this phenomenon “vicarious goal fulfillment.” Merely considering something that’s “good for you” satisfies a goal and grants license to indulge. People say they want hard news in their social media feeds, but mostly click on funny photos. People say they want to eat greens, but mostly order greasy sandwiches at salad-serving restaurants. People aren’t lying— they do want to be the sort of person who reads news! They do want to see salad options!—but mere proximity to good behavior satisfies their interest in behaving well.
Fundamental attribution error was conducted in 1967 by Edward Jones and Victor Harris at Duke University. They had students read speech transcripts of debaters both in support of and in opposition to the political ideologies of Fidel Castro. (Today they might have used Osama bin Laden.) The students correctly attributed the speechwriter’s ideas as influenced by the speechwriter’s internal feelings when told the person who gave the speech had chosen his own position. If, for instance, the debaters said they disagreed with Castro, the students said they believed them. When the students were told the debater had no choice in the matter and was assigned the position as either pro- or anti-Castro, the students didn’t buy it. If the debater was assigned a pro-Castro position and then gave a pro-Castro speech, the students reading that speech told the researchers they thought the debater really believed what he or she was saying. The situation’s influence didn’t play into their assumptions; instead they saw all the debaters’ words as springing from their character.