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Seeking Mediocrity: Humans are Hardwired to Avoid the Worst, not to Seek the Best Outcome

April 4, 2016

Probably the most established particularity of human judgment is "loss aversion" - people dislike losses more than they enjoy equivalent gains.


Incurring a loss of $100 hurts roughly twice as much as gaining $100 brings pleasure.


We know that all humans are loss averse, to a greater or lesser extent. Naturally, the question of why is this the case? arises. 


Living on the edge


One very elegant explanation comes from evolutionary psychology. Our evolutionary ancestors lived in environments with relatively scarce resources. Simply put, the resources available in a certain area allowed for survival and successful reproduction, but not for much more.


In this living on the edge setting, it is only natural to develop an adaptation that says: not losing what resources you have is far more important than acquiring new additional resources.


When one has barely enough resources to survive and successfully reproduce, not losing current resources is much more important than acquiring new resources.


Loss aversion is, probably, the most prominent element of an adaptation with much wider effects in judgment and decision-making which I will call a preference for mediocrity.


Economic theory sees people as maximizers – trying to make the best possible decision, trying to get as much benefit (utility) out of their actions and transactions. This is not exactly senseless. After all, who would want to get less when she can get more?


Yet, research in experimental economics and behavioral science found that people are not exactly "maximizers"; rather they are "satisfiers". In plain language:


People don’t necessarily go for The Best, rather, most people settle for Good Enough.    


This preference for mediocrity (something that is good enough) makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective.


Imagine our evolutionary ancestors in the African Savannah looking for berries. There are three types of berries:

(1) OK taste and OK nutritional value,

(2) Delicious with very high nutritional value and

(3) Poisonous berries.


When picking berries, from an evolutionary perspective, the most relevant goal is to not pick (and eat) the poisonous ones. Sure, getting more of the delicious ones is very nice, but the difference in benefit between getting OK berries and Delicious ones is smaller than the benefit difference between getting poisonous berries and getting OK berries.


The same broad pattern applies to mating, as well. While both men and women would love to find the best possible partner (in terms of gene quality and parenting quality) to have children with, the reality is that the most important decision goal is to avoid having children with the worst (say, bottom 10%) potential partner.


Let your imagination take you back to the African Savannah when our evolutionary ancestors lived. Every female would have loved to attract and mate with the healthiest, most handsome, most effective hunter and bravest warrior.  At the same time, settling for the OK-ish guy to have children with would be considerably better than having children with the least reliable male in the tribe.


For our ancestral grandmothers, it was more important to avoid getting knocked-up by a deceiving male who would take the fruits and nuts she foraged and leave her alone to take care of their children, who, very likely, inherited some of his defects.


This preference for mediocrity was, most likely, shaped by evolutionary forces throughout millions of years. Not surprisingly, our judgments and decisions are influenced – guided by it even in the XXIst century.


Buying a used car