Mind Tricks

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Things aren’t always as they seem.

But we may prefer it that way.

Sometimes we want to be deceived. The power of expectation helps us enjoy life more. Imagine this story as Daniel Ariely tells it in his book Predictably Irrational: 

A Hungry Traveler’s Tale

“Imagine walking into a truck stop off a deserted stretch of Interstate 95 at nine o’clock in the evening. You’ve been driving for six hours. You are tired and still have a long drive ahead of you. You need a bite to eat and want to be out of the car for a bit, so you walk into what appears to be a restaurant of sorts. It has the usual cracked-vinyl-covered booths and fluorescent lighting. The coffee-stained tabletops leave you a bit wary. Still, you think, “Fine, no one can screw up a hamburger that badly.”

You reach for the menu, conveniently stashed behind an empty napkin dispenser, only to discover this is no ordinary greasy spoon. Instead of hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, you’re astonished to see that the menu offers foie gras au torchon, truffle pâté with frisée and fennel marmalade, gougères with duck confit, quail à la crapaudine, and so on. Items like this would be no surprise in even a small Manhattan restaurant, of course. And it is possible that the chef got tired of Manhattan, moved to the middle of nowhere, and now cooks for whoever happens through. 

So is there a key difference between ordering gougères with duck confit in Manhattan and ordering it at an isolated truck stop on I-95? If you encountered such French delicacies at the truck stop, would you be brave enough to try them? Suppose the prices were not listed on the menu. What would you be willing to pay for an appetizer or an entrée? And if you ate it, would you enjoy it as much as you might if you were eating the same food in Manhattan? 

Ambience and expectations do add a great deal to our enjoyment. You would expect less in such an environment, and as a consequence you would enjoy the experience at the truck stop less, even if you had the identical foie gras au torchon in both places. Likewise, if you knew that pâté is largely made of run-of-the-mill goose liver and butter rather than super special ingredients, you would enjoy it much less.”  

(Ariely, Dan. Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (pp. 217-218). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)

Are Mind Tricks Wrong?

This is the same power of deceiving ourselves that make placebos work. Some people might be offended by “falseness in advertising” when they see how food pictures are taken; others might just enjoy the extra pleasure that comes from seeing mouth-watering pictures that fuel their imagination for a better tasting meal.

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