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DUMB OBSTINACY

[The following article by Steve Wilson appeared in The Arizona Republic of March 13, 1996:]

Taking obstinacy to new levels in finding a car at airport

How's this for dumb:
I flew into Sky Harbor Airport on Sunday and walked to the Terminal 4 parking garage to get my car. I knew exactly where it was parked -- Level 5, Space 247. Unlike those scatterbrained types who need to write down their location when they leave their cars at the airport, my superior memory makes this task unnecessary.

When I reached Space 247, I found a different car parked in my space.

This was not possible.

I retraced my path. I had entered the west side of the garage on Friday and spiraled up the ramp. A sign at the first exit, Level 4, said there was no room and to continue to the next level.

I complied and pulled into Space 247.

Someone stole my car, I imagined. What else could explain this Jeep in my parking space?

Before reporting it stolen, I thought I ought to look around. There's an infinitesimal chance -- roughly the same as Bob Dole being elected president this year -- that I had parked in a different space. The next half hour was spent checking out all 779 spaces on Level 5.

No car.

Even though I was positive I hadn't entered Level 4, I went down and checked Space 247 on that floor. No car.

Then I walked up to Level 6, even though I was certain I hadn't been up that high.

There, in Space 247, sat my car.

My mistake, I learned later, was in presuming that I had entered on Level 5. The way the garage is set up, the west side ramp feeds cars into Levels 4 or 6 only. On the east side, cars enter on Levels 5 or 7 only.

Not knowing where I had parked was bad enough, but what really struck me as I drove home was how unwilling I'd been to admit to myself that I'd made a mistake.

Marilyn vos Savant wouldn't be surprised.

She's the woman listed in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the world's highest IQ, which is 228.

She knows how reluctant people are to admit they're wrong or change their minds once a decision has been made.

In a just-published book, The Power of Logical Thinking, she writes about our irrational stubbornness in connection with a famous brainteaser, the "Monte Hall Dilemma." The name is taken from Hall's long-running TV program, Let's Make a Deal.

The problem goes like this:
Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car, behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what's behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He asks, "Do you want to pick door Number 2?" Is it to your advantage to switch your choice of doors?

The answer seems simple and obvious to most people. They see no advantage to switching and stick with door No. 1.

The correct answer, however, is to switch. This contradicts most people's intuition that the odds on each of the two unopened doors must be one-half. They aren't.

When you chose Door No. 1, the odds of getting the car were one-third. You had a one-third chance of being right to begin with, and you still do. Since the odds on Door No. 1 remain at one-third, and opening door No. 3 leaves only one other door where the car could be, the odds on door No. 2 must now be two-thirds.

Computer trials confirm that switching doors leads to winning the car 66.7 percent of the time.

Most people get it wrong for two reasons:
First, they miscalculate the probabilities of sticking and switching. That's nothing to feel inferior about. After this problem appeared in her Parade magazine column in 1990, vos Savant received nearly 10,000 critical letters, including hundreds from people with Ph.Ds.

But even if the true probability of winning by sticking were .50, as most people presume, there's still no rational basis to prefer standing pat. So why don't more people switch?

Vos Savant sees psychological mechanisms such as belief perseverance and cognitive dissonance coming into play.

Both make it hard for us to change a belief, or in this case, a choice, after it's been expressed. Once we make a decision, it gets tied up with ego and we can become irrationally committed to it. We anticipate feeling worse if we switch and lose than if we stick and lose.

Our brains are wired in such a way that encourages us to stay with our choices, no matter how poorly informed or insignificant they are. We'd rather feel right than reconsider.

Even when the odds are that the car is parked behind a different door.

Or on another floor.


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