The other day, I tell colleagues that I’ll draw up a project plan in the next day or two and we can get started with implementation next week. Perhaps I can make the plan in a day and start with execution this week itself. Yet, reflexively, I say ‘next week’ — an example of fresh start effect. We’re motivated to pursue goals by new beginnings–birthdays, new job, new city, even new week. I did not pause to think why we couldn’t start on Friday itself. The idea of starting a new project on a Monday felt a lot better.
That evening, 31-year-old Billie Mckay finds herself in a hole in the grand finale of Masterchef Australia. She’s 5 points short with one brutal challenge to go–a five-and-a-quarter-hour cook set by Heston Blumenthal, a maverick chef whose creations include lickable wallpaper and an edible village. This time Billie has to re-create a 17th-century tart as Heston’s fine-dining equivalent.
305 minutes down and just 10 more to go, Billie is not happy with the crumble topping (one of several elements) in her dish. Her co-finalist has plated up. Plating up this dish can outlast your morning workout.
At that point, Billie makes what seems like her toughest decision all season. She decides to redo the crumble topping. She doesn’t want to serve the judges anything shy of perfect.
A few minutes later, after Billie has been crowned Masterchef Australia 2022, I tell my wife that it was Billie’s quest for perfection that led to her decision. It is a goosebump-y story. But is it true? Why did Billie risk everything? Would she have done had she been in the lead?
An alternative theory emerges. Billie had her back to the wall. She had to make up the gap, or be 220,000 dollars and a title poorer.
Billie is a perfectionist and she did whatever it took. That may be true. You know what’s also true? Had the circumstances been different, she would’ve played a percentage game.
Our search for causality is automatic. It can be unreasoned too. We tend to think causally when thinking probabilistically is more appropriate. Probabilistically, Billie had a better shot at a win if she redid the crumble topping (even if she ran the risk of not plating up her dish because there was no difference between her losing by one point or twenty). Causally, Billie appeared a hero with an uncompromising vision for her work.
Our affinity for fresh starts drives the success of Spotify’s Discover Weekly, a feed of 30 songs you’ve never heard before delivered–wait for it–on a Monday morning. Our tendency to see cause and effect is what caused Bloomberg to run this headline on the day of Saddam Hussein’s capture in Iraq: U.S. TREASURIES RISE; HUSSEIN CAPTURE MAY NOT CURB TERRORISM. After Saddam’s capture later that day, Bloomberg runs this: U.S. TREASURIES FALL; HUSSEIN CAPTURE BOOSTS ALLURE OF RISKY ASSETS. Turns out Bloomberg decided the capture could explain anything.
Don’t be seduced by your search for coherent stories. Pause and rethink.