At the end of last week I had the pleasure of attending the CIPD Wales conference. 450 HR professionals getting together to learn and talk about the future. I also had two fried breakfasts in a hotel.
On the first day I came down for breakfast and, following a reasonably late night, was badly in need of some really bad food. I loaded several fuller than full English breakfasts onto my plate and sat down. I then needed ketchup and went up to where they had a selection of bottles. I sleepily picked up a bottle then returned to my seat to find it was nearly empty. You may wonder why I couldn’t tell – and the answer is that we are good at telling relative weights but not absolute. We have the ability to compare two bottles and work out which one lighter – but picking up and object and accurately guessing weight or capacity is tough. It’s the same with price, something called coherent arbitrariness. William Poundstone’s book is a really interesting read on value and the associated discipline of psychophysics (although I guess if you called it neuropsychophysics it would be more popular these days…).
On the second day I came down and filled my plate with almost as much nutritional badness. I went to the bottles and I lifted them up until the sixth bottle I found of the ten available felt demonstrably heavier. I then watched other diners go and pick up the emptier bottles and then get visibly irritated when they found the bottles to be empty or just shrug it off.
It strikes me that my experience on day 1 left the others diners at a disadvantage on day 2. Not only was I aware of a problem that they weren’t, but I was able to cherry pick possibly the only good option. Leaving all other diners to choose from poorer options.
1. Within those poorer options there would have been a slightly more full bottle that someone else will have picked up and seen as a triumph if they compared the other bottles -but of course they wouldn’t have checked the other options
2. If they didn’t know the other bottles were empty then they will may well have reasonably assumed that every other person didn’t have a problem getting ketchup. If sauce isn’t a problem for me then it shouldn’t be for you.
3. They might have tried one bottle, got lucky on their second pick and assumed it just takes minimal effort to get a better result
This is how inequality works
1. Some people have had less good options before and are able to take steps to rectify it
2. Some people get lucky and assume everyone else had the same opportunity or that it is the norm
3. Some people only ever, through no fault of their own, know an empty bottle
Interestingly there were no full bottles. Apparently I arrived a generation too late for that.
(PS, this probably needs work but I think there is something there)