#22 Projection Bias: Why shopping whilst hungry is a terrible idea

We all know that empathy is in short supply, but we often don’t realise how hard it is to be empathetic towards our future selves. In this episode, Mel and Dan look at what happens when we try to make decisions for tomorrow based on how we feel today.

Mel: (00:20)
Hi. Welcome to Bad Decisions.

Dan: (00:22)
The podcast that helps us understand why we choose what we choose.

Mel: (00:24)
Why we think what we think.

Dan: (00:25)
And how to exploit this stuff for fun and commercial gain.

Mel: (00:28)
I'm Dr. Mel Weinberg. I'm a performance psychologist.

Dan: (00:30)
I'm Dan Monheit, co-founder of Hardhat.

Mel: (00:40)
So Dan.

Dan: (00:41)
Yes, Mel?

Mel: (00:41)
So a lot of the time I found in our episodes gone by, that we talk a lot about your heroes. And it's fine, because you have crushes And that's fine. Everybody has crushes.

Dan: (00:54)
They're all called Dan. Did you notice that?

Mel: (00:56)

Dan: (00:56)
Dan Ariely, Dan Kahneman, Dan Gilbert.

Mel: (00:59)
Yup. Yeah, wow. It's like it was meant to be.

Dan: (01:02)

Mel: (01:03)
So today we're going to start by talking about one of my heroes.

Dan: (01:07)
Someone called Dan. Is it Dan Monheit?

Mel: (01:10)
No, it is not you.

Dan: (01:10)
Because it's going to be awkward, I can leave the room if you like.

Mel: (01:12)
It is not you. But he does have a lot to do with ego.

Dan: (01:16)
That's awkward. I don't see what the two have to do with each other, but let's roll with the punches.

Mel: (01:20)
So we're going to talk about Freud.

Dan: (01:22)
Freud, Dan Freud?

Mel: (01:23)
No, no. Sigmund Freud, good old Sigmund Freud, grandfather of psychology, really and-

Dan: (01:31)
Sorry, in 2019, he would just be a pervy old man, let's be honest.

Mel: (01:34)
Look, currently you might think of him like that. However, when you actually go deep, reading deep into Freud, I wasn't going to say go deep into Freud.

Mel: (01:45)
You read deep into Freud and when you read deep into psychology, what you figure is that Freud had something to say about absolutely every phenomenon in psychology before anybody else said it.

Dan: (01:55)
I think he had the same thing to say about every phenomenon, which is it's all sexuality. He's basically Charlie Sheen before his time.

Mel: (01:59)
That's what happens when you don't read deep into Freud.

Dan: (02:04)
Okay, all right, I'll go deeper ... anyway, shortcut me, tell me what I need to know.

Mel: (02:05)
So I'm going to tell you something else about Freud. Freud did some really good work, you know who did some even greater work?

Dan: (02:09)

Mel: (02:10)
Freud's daughter, Anna. Yeah, Freud's daughter Anna because men start off stuff and then it takes their daughters to really clarify their thoughts and write things down in ways that make sense. Shout out to my dad.

Dan: (02:23)
Definitely no unresolved childhood issues here. Let's keep rolling for the people at home. What's so good about Freud?

Mel: (02:28)
Freud, Sigmund and Anna talked a lot about defence mechanisms, things that we do to protect our ego, and one in particular is the concept of projection. The idea that sometimes we will have feelings or thoughts or motives that are so unacceptable to us that we can't actually handle them ourselves. And so we externalise them onto other people.

Reporter Clip: (02:50)
"Well, that's because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States."

D. Trump Clip: (02:53)
"No puppet, no puppet."

Reporter Clip: (02:55)
"It's pretty clear."

D. Trump Clip: (02:55)
"You're the puppet."

Mel: (02:56)
So a classic example of this would be a person who thinks that everybody is judging them. And thinks that there's something in the environment that is threatening to them. Everybody's judging them, they don't feel safe doing something. And actually nobody's really thinking about them at all. And we've talked about this with regard to another heuristic. That actually, nobody's thinking about them at all and it's rather a projection of their own internal lack of confidence.

Dan: (03:22)
They think they're shit so they think everybody else thinks they're shit.

Mel: (03:25)
That's right. And another way that we can think of projection is into ... if you look at an example from couples.

Mel: (03:40)
For example, you've got a couple and you've got the man, because it's always the man, who is considering being unfaithful. And has had some thoughts that perhaps they're going to be unfaithful. That makes them feel really guilty. They don't like it at all. So sometimes what happens is they'll project that onto their partner and what they'll do is they'll start acting in ways that suggest that they are suspicious or somehow distrusting of their partner. Their poor partner is left going, "Wait, I haven't done anything. I don't know what you're talking about." It causes a lot of conflict and it's all coming from the one member or the one partner who's actually feeling like they might do something bad.

Dan: (04:21)
"I'm not cheating. You're cheating."

Mel: (04:22)
Exactly. So we project things onto other people. It's part of our basic defence and it's an external projection.

Mel: (04:29)
Something that I thought might be relevant for discussion today is actually that we tend to project intrapersonally as well as interpersonally. Intrapersonal, within ourselves. And what I mean by that is that we actually project our current self onto our future self. And this is the idea that's referred to in the field of behavioural economics as the Projection Bias.

Mel: (04:57)
It took me a while to get there. But I got us there, didn't I?

Dan: (05:01)
Yeah, yeah, I'm here now. Projection Bias. So hang on. For those playing along at home, this is a thing that, classical psychology, we talk about projecting our feelings onto others and kind of maybe lacking the empathy that not everybody would think the way we think or feel the way we feel. I'd say one of the people we have a lot of trouble empathising with is actually our future selves. Like thinking that future Dan would actually have a different set of preferences than current Dan.

Mel: (05:24)
I guess one of the people who was really a pivotal in this space was Loewenstein. Loewenstein's done a lot of work in this space. And in 1996, he termed this, the 'intrapersonal empathy gap'.

Dan: (05:35)
All right, well, I'll tell you what, I just had some firsthand experience with the intrapersonal empathy gap, not knowing that's what it was called at the time. But I was back at my parent's place over the weekend and you know how you just kind of rummage through your old stuff. And yeah, really struck me in the face that at some point in my life, probably as 15 year old Dan, I just could not imagine a time my life where I would not think Green Day was the greatest band of all time. I had all of their music and I used to listen to them religiously and I spent all this extra money on these limited-edition things and T-shirts thinking that I'm always going to like these guys. It didn't take long for me to not like them so much anymore.

Mel: (06:14)
No. Past Dan who was current Dan at the time, couldn't actually project that future Dan might think differently. Sad when it comes to preferences for Green Day.

Dan: (06:25)
Are they still around, Green Day? If you're out listening to the show, hit us up.

Mel: (06:29)
Longtime fan.

Dan: (06:29)
Yeah, love you guys, love the work you do. Hope you had the time of your life and the early stuff, Dookie that.

Dan: (06:34)
Anyway, the thing that got me thinking though is back when I was a boy, you know, in the late nineties, yeah, late nineties still most of them-

Mel: (06:43)
Eighties? What sort of a boy?

Dan: (06:45)
We're talking about high school. When you're at an age where you actually can make terrible decisions that ignore what your future self is going to be like. I did absolutely make some terrible decisions. I listened to some shit music. I bought some terrible clothes, like I had yellow pants that I was really proud, like baggy yellow pants I thought were really cool and couldn't understand why I'd get knocked back from night clubs in them.

Dan: (07:03)
I had some really bad haircuts.

Mel: (07:04)
Yeah, I've seen pictures. It's true.

Dan: (07:06)
Yeah. I had some good haircuts. If we had show notes, we'd put them in there but we don't so we won't. And I got some piercings, that was the thing to do late nineties, early 2000s-

Mel: (07:14)
Dare I ask where?

Dan: (07:15)
Eyebrow, tongue ... we'll probably leave it at that. But the thing is all of these were basically temporary so that even though I didn't realise at the time that future Dan is not going to want to always wear yellow pants or have an eyebrow piercing, like it's fine. It was all pretty forgiving. And one of the things that got me wondering about is like the youth, youth of today-

Mel: (07:35)
Oh, young kids today.

Dan: (07:36)
Yeah. I mean, a lot of the decisions these guys are making are not that temporary. Your older self might not want their neck tattooed. And it's like if I had just permanently tattooed yellow pants on and was living with that now as a 38 year old going to client presentations, I think it'd be difficult. So anyway, I understand. I empathise.

Mel: (07:54)
And that feeds right into the Projection Bias, which is the tendency to project our current preferences into the future, as if our future tastes and preferences will match our current ones. So yes, of course we would want that neck tattoo in the future because future self is just me plus neck tattoo.

Dan: (08:07)
Exactly, and I'm already happy now, so imagine how much happier I'm going to be then!

Mel: (08:10)
Exactly. I guess the sort of key research in this space, because I love to talk about research.

Dan: (08:15)
Yep, love the research.

Mel: (08:22)
It's Loewenstein again, Loewenstein and his buddies in 2003, they were the ones who coined the term, Projection Bias. The paper is quite economical, but-

Dan: (08:31)
As in it's printed on very cheap paper?

Mel: (08:34)
No. They look at it from a perspective of ... from an economical perspective in the sense that they have formula to try to predict people's behaviour based on the Projection Bias. That's what I mean. They draw on a piece of research from Read and van Leeuwen in 1998 that had to do-

Dan: (08:51)
Big year for Green Day. That was, actually.

Mel: (08:52)
I'm sure it was. That had to do with predicting hunger. Because hunger's one of the things that is ... we're really vulnerable to the Projection Bias when it comes to hunger. They ask people to predict in one week whether you would like to receive some fruit or some junk food, healthy or unhealthy option.

Mel: (09:13)
Okay? And what they found was that people's preferences were entirely dependent on their current state. Which means if you are hungry now, you'd really love some junk food in a week's time, because you're projecting your current hunger onto your future self and saying, "Future self don't want fruit, future self is going to be starving. Give me some cake."

Dan: (09:31)
Yeah, because I'm starving now, can't imagine not being starving, what would that even feel like? Who knows?

Mel: (09:36)
Exactly. Exactly. So isn't it interesting though, how we make a lot of these decisions about what we want in our future based on how we feel right now? And we've talked about this in the context of some of the other heuristics that's come into play in temporal discounting, the planning fallacy, the focusing illusion, right? It's all part of that. But this is all about how we project our current state onto our future self and how we're so bad at predicting what future self wants and needs. Because current self totally dominates our awareness.

Dan: (10:06)
So wait, just to tie up that piece of research and make sure I understand it. So what we're saying is people have to decide, in a week you're going to get a snack. It's either going to be fruit or chocolate. If I'm hungry now, I want chocolate now, so I'm going to just assume I want chocolate in a week. If I'm not hungry now, I'm probably going to make the better health choice and pick fruit now and I can't imagine being starving in a week and actually preferring chocolate. So I'm going to pick the fruit.

Mel: (10:23)
Yeah. And this is all very much being related to the concept of affective forecasting, which our boy Kahneman had a lot to say about. And we really can't go an episode without mentioning one of your heroes that-

Dan: (10:32)

Mel: (10:35)
... this idea that we imagine when we project into the future, that our future self is just the same as our current self, but they have that extra thing that we desire. And what we do is we fail to account for the fact that our future self is actually different to our current self. Our future self might have different beliefs. Our future self has had different experiences that might lead them to have different attitudes, different values, different feelings about things.

Dan: (10:57)
Yeah, people change.

Mel: (10:58)
We don't take any of that into account. And there are some instances, I guess, in which we are more likely to totally ignore that. And it depends on the thing that we're, or I guess, the need that we're looking for at the moment. So if it's a more primal need like hunger, then our desire for food in the moment is going to completely outweigh anything else.

Dan: (11:17)
So you were talking about infidelity before. I guess it's kind of the same thing, right? It's like ... we're going to get into weird territory here. It's like I really want to indulge in that experience right now and I can't imagine a time that I wouldn't want risk my whole life and livelihood to indulge in that experience.

Mel: (11:33)
I think of it the other way, if we're going to talk about it in terms of relationships, I think about it in terms of what happens when people have a breakup, right? You know that instant feeling of disconnection and detachment and feeling completely alone and it's a miserable feeling to go through a breakup. A lot of people are familiar with that and in those times, it's so difficult for you to imagine a future self that could be happier.

Dan: (11:54)
"I will never love again!" It could be guys and girls saying that.

Mel: (11:58)
Yeah. But we get so caught up in that and because that need for connection and closeness with another person is so primal, it heavily dominates our perception of future self. So it's just too hard to think of a time in the future where this could not be a problem for us because it is such a big problem for us right now.

Dan: (12:13)
Yeah. I mean I know you looked at some research, which is great. I also looked at some research. I don't know if ... Kops do I have different research music?

Dan: (12:21)
And that is what I call research music. I can't imagine ever not loving that research music. Anyway.

Dan: (12:51)
It's interesting to look at purchase decisions that people make today, for things that they are going to have or use for a long period of time. And it's interesting you think that sales of convertible cars would tend to be more in summer than they would be in winter, but they also spike on days where it's kind of wintery but you get a short burst of hot weather. And the same thing happens with sales of houses with pools as well, where you get one beautiful, perfect day where it would be amazing to drive around in a convertible. Even though it's kind of in the middle of winter.

Mel: (13:22)
Yeah. And all of a sudden, everybody wants a convertible then.

Dan: (13:24)
Yeah. And even though your rational self knows it's not going to be like this every day, there's still clearly a part of a lot of people that just says, "Yeah, this is a great day to buy a convertible because I'm always going to want to do this, it is always going to be like this." I think same thing happens in the world of apparel where if you're selling seasonal goods, so if you're selling hats and scarves and things like that, a whole week of kind of chilly weather is not going to be as good for you as-

Mel: (13:48)
As one freezing cold day.

Dan: (13:49)
... one or two freezing cold days, where people are like, "Holy crap, I need gloves and mittens and scarves and hats and everything." Even though the forecast says it's not going to be like this in three days. "I just can't imagine it ever not. I can't ever imagine not feeling this cold again."

Mel: (14:02)
Yeah. I guess, from a brand perspective, how can you take advantage, not that we want to take advantage of people, but how can you leverage the Projection Bias in your marketing?

Dan: (14:13)
Yeah, like we're certainly not here to take advantage of people. We're just here to read the play and make the appropriate move. So I think there's a couple of things here. I mean, one as as a quick hitter is that conditions are not always perfect for selling whatever we sell. And so this is probably more of like a media recommendation, where it's like being able to be really agile and so that if you are selling scarves and it is a day where it is unseasonally cold, how hard can you go? How much of your marketing concentration can you focus on times when people are most likely to buy and people are most likely to buy when they're projecting that the future is going to be much like today and today's the perfect time to buy the thing that you're selling. So that's one thought.

Dan: (14:54)
The other thought is this idea of taking people's motivation, that is often a short-term, shortlived thing, knowing that they think they're going to be motivated like that for a long period of time and wrapping something around it. And where we see this quite prevalently is people turning product purchases or one-off purchases into subscription purchases. So you might imagine at some point in time, not that long ago, going to the gym was probably a thing that you would turn up and you would pay five bucks and you would go and have a workout-

Mel: (15:20)
Pay as you go.

Dan: (15:21)
Exactly and then leave. And what gyms very quickly realised was that hey, you're here and at six o'clock in the morning, you must be feeling pretty motivated and your Projection Bias is probably telling you you are always going to be this motivated.

Mel: (15:31)
You can't even imagine a time in the future when you're not this motivated.

Dan: (15:35)
Exactly. "Gym's great! Here I am." We're going to just leverage that into a 12-month membership. Because why wouldn't we? Because clearly you're always going to want to do this.

Dan: (15:44)
And so gyms are quite a common example. But I think what we've started to see through the explosion of e-commerce and especially direct-to-consumer businesses, lots of things that were just bought once as products are now bought as services. So you think, okay, it's a Wednesday, I've got a few people coming around this weekend, I'd like to buy a bottle ... some mixed wines, six bottles of wine. I can go and do that once, or, people are going to try and sell me on a subscription service where I get six bottles of wine delivered every month and because I'm in a hot state now and think that would be a great thing, I can't imagine who would not want a mysterious box of goodies, be it wine or chocolates or anything else to turn up every month?

Mel: (16:18)
Yeah, it'd be wonderful, isn't it? Because we are the same person, month to month to month.

Dan: (16:22)
I always want wine and chocolates.

Mel: (16:23)
Says Projection Bias.

Dan: (16:24)
Yeah. Here's my credit card. That's the one thing that doesn't change, my credit card details. You just keep running that until it don't work no more.

Mel: (16:30)
Yeah. And look, the Projection Bias, like all the other biases and heuristics that we discussed can lead people to make, well maybe decisions that are not in their best interests, but your job I guess, as a brand or as a marketer is to convince them that actually it is in their best interests.

Dan: (16:45)
Well, sometimes buying things on a longer-term basis is in people's best interest. One of the biggest issues in our industry, in the ad industry at the moment is how much work has moved onto project-by-project basis. And I think what, as an industry, we're not doing a very good job of is taking all of that excitement that a client has about engaging an agency and saying, "You are going to want this often." You do not just want this for six weeks while we deliver this one thing for you and then desperately wait for the phone to ring again. You want the benefits of this all the time and that is not just beneficial for agencies. It's actually beneficial for clients to have people in agencies thinking about them all the time, not just for that short window that they've been set on a project for.

Mel: (17:21)
Yup, that makes sense.

Dan: (17:22)
That's what I think.

Mel: (17:23)
Have you got any other examples?

Dan: (17:26)
No. That was not enough examples for you?

Mel: (17:27)
No, I'm hungry for more.

Dan: (17:29)
To be honest, when I wrote these examples down, I just thought my future self would only want two or three.

Mel: (17:34)

Dan: (17:34)
Here I am, enjoying them. Wishing that I packed some more.

Mel: (17:37)
Well-played, so what do we do about this? We know what brands do about it. What do people do about it?

Dan: (17:41)
Why are you asking me?

Mel: (17:44)
Well I'm not, I'm just sort of putting it out there as a rhetorical question. And here we go, I will answer it.

Dan: (17:47)
Because I'm going to struggle to answer. I don't know, Mel, what should we do about this?

Mel: (17:51)
Well, I mean, one thing is to maybe have a bit more empathy for future self, right? Because this is all based on us not having or having an empathy gap. And maybe taking into consideration that if we have this empathy gap, maybe making a decision in the long-term is not in our best interest, is it or isn't it? What's going to change, what's likely to change? What are some ... almost like we talked about in the planning fallacy, playing devil's advocate to our own future selves and going "future self wants this. Wait, does future self really want that? Is this tattoo really a good idea?" Just second guessing.

Dan: (18:26)
Tattoos are cool if you have one on your neck. That's great. I just hope you still like it when you're old.

Mel: (18:30)
Yup. So another time that we see this, another time that we can actually do something about it is the old trip to the supermarket. You know everybody says, "Don't go to the supermarket when you're hungry." Why not?

Dan: (18:40)
This is because Projection Bias.

Mel: (18:42)
Because current self is hungry. We go to the supermarket, we buy all sorts of things. We think we're going to make dinner for the next four nights in a row and turns out we have a couple of bites and yeah, we're not that hungry anymore. So if we understand that future self is actually not going to be as hungry as current self is right in this moment, once I've had a couple of bites, then we can sort of slow down, probably save a lot of money.

Dan: (19:05)
So you're advocating stealing grapes in the supermarket as you walk around. Just to take the edge off the hunger and make better decisions.

Mel: (19:11)
I've never done that.

Dan: (19:13)
Melissa Weinberg this is scandalous!

Mel: (19:16)
No, but it is. It can be a good idea. Have a snack as you go through the supermarket ... no, no, you pay for it! You know what you do? You go to the nuts section. And you fill the bag up with some of those nuts. You print it based on weight and you pay for it, but you eat them on the way.

Dan: (19:30)
Life advice, life advice, guys.

Mel: (19:30)
So by the time you've got to the register the bag's empty. But the price tag, you're still paying for it.

Dan: (19:36)
Of course you are.

Mel: (19:36)
It's not stealing. No. It's just having a snack as you go through to counteract the Projection Bias.

Dan: (19:40)
You know what? I feel like we were really wrapping up this episode, but we've just gone down a whole different rabbit hole.

Mel: (19:46)
So don't go to the supermarket when you're hungry. The other thing is when it comes to supersizing meals. You know how you're often asked, "Oh, would you like to up-size or would you like the regular or the large?" And me, because I'm somebody who loves to eat with my eyes. I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm starving. I want the large." I never need the large. Never, never need it.

Dan: (20:03)
So what's your advice? Don't order the large. That's profound.

Mel: (20:07)
Don't always get the large.

Dan: (20:08)
We've really gone deep on this episode.

Mel: (20:10)
I mean if it's, look, if it's a marginal ... if it's a dollar difference and you can afford it, go the large, but really you don't need it. Future self is not that hungry. Future self has actually eaten.

Dan: (20:22)
Future self can come back and buy dessert later, if you're still hungry. Get a medium and see how you go.

Mel: (20:25)
That's it.

Dan: (20:25)
All right.

Mel: (20:26)
But current self is not probably the best person to make decisions for future self, especially when it comes to food.

Dan: (20:31)
Let future self decide for future self?

Mel: (20:32)
Let future self be his or her own person. Let her evolve and let her be a person who has the right to make her own decisions about what she wants.

Mel: (20:41)
The last piece of advice. That when we're not, it doesn't have to be in the supermarket, but remembering that Projection Bias is going to occur in the current moment. Let's just slow down a moment. Sometimes we don't always have to make decisions right here and now. Sometimes there are decisions that we can wait a little while and so that's like what we were saying before that if future self is a little bit in the future, a little bit further in the future, let future self make that decision.

Dan: (21:02)
That's where future self tends to be.

Mel: (21:04)
Yeah, we have worries, and I talk about this with clients all the time in practice that sometimes there are worries for now, and sometimes there are worries that belong to you, and sometimes there are worries that belong to future you, and let future you have those worries because future you is actually going to be okay and future you can handle those worries.

Dan: (21:19)
Oh, that's an optimistic way to end. All right, so let's put a wrapper on all of this. So Projection Bias, inability to empathise with our future selves and therefore making decisions today on the assumption that we will always feel like we do right now.

Mel: (21:34)
It's a bias. Yeah. And it'll work out.

Dan: (21:36)
Things we can do if we're selling stuff are to go hard when the conditions are right or look for ways to convert a one-off purchase into an ongoing subscription-type service. Because people will think that they're always going to want that thing. And as individuals we need to slow down. Leave future decisions for future self.

Mel: (21:53)

Dan: (21:54)
And buy the nuts.

Mel: (21:55)
Don't go to the supermarket hungry.

Dan: (21:55)
Don't go to the supermarket hungry. Good. That's a wrap. All right. Thank you so much. Seeya.