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> The Restaurant Effect
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The Restaurant Effect

A couple of years ago, I noticed an interesting effect. If I'm going out to dinner and I know the restaurant in advance, I'll usually order the same old thing; but if I don't know the restaurant in advance, I'll often try something new … and that holds even if the underlying restaurant is the same!

It makes perfect sense, of course. If I know the restaurant in advance, I'll think about what I want to get, and, not having a menu handy, will come up with one of my old favorites. Then, once I'm at the restaurant, I'll already have the idea fixed in my head, and I won't want to change it … I can be stubborn that way sometimes.

Here are a few related thoughts.

  • I also won't want to change the restaurant at that point!
  • If I'm the one who picked the restaurant, I'll almost never try something new, because of the way I pick restaurants: first I think of what I'd like to eat, then I think of where I'd have to go to get it. So, I'm pretty much guaranteed to have a fixed idea already … and that's true even if I don't pick until the last minute.
  • I've discussed the effect with various people; it seems to apply to some and not to others. So, I don't claim it's a universal truth, but I thought it might still be worth talking about.

I'm sure there's some lesson in the above, some conclusion to be drawn about something, but I haven't been able to nail it down yet. Here are some guesses … maybe the right conclusion is one of these, or maybe the right conclusion is that some or all of these are same thing in disguise.

I'll start with my best guess, which has two parts. First, there are mental events that happen. An idea becomes fixed, a decision is made, a hypothesis becomes a belief … these are all just different names for the same thing. Furthermore, the events are tangible! Just the other day, in fact, I practically watched one happen. For months, off and on, I'd been wondering whether I should buy this particular book, and then all of a sudden I stopped wondering, and knew. I don't think it's possible to observe all such events (cf. Understand), but the events do happen, and it is possible to observe them some of the time.

Second, there are opposite events, when a fixed idea is broken, or destroyed, or forced to change; and the opposite events, unlike the originals, require a lot of mental activity, and cause internal sensations that range from mildly unpleasant to excruciating. The range is so great, the difference begins to look qualitative. At one end, there are trivial events, like the restaurant example; at the other, there are shattering events, like discovering infidelity, where the destroyed idea is one of the pillars of one's thought, and hundreds of other ideas come crashing down with it.

The idea of cognitive dissonance clearly fits in there somewhere. If you take a strict interpretation, cognitive dissonance is a special kind of opposite event, one in which an idea is destroyed as a result of being inconsistent with observed actions. Or, if you take a looser interpretation, as I tend to do, then “cognitive dissonance” is practically a synonym for “opposite event”.

What I said about expectations also fits. If you have an expectation, well, that's a fixed idea; and if reality fails to conform to the expectation, the fixed idea will have to change; and that will be unpleasant, and make you unhappy.

One conclusion that doesn't fit so well has to do with flexibility. In theory, if you were perfectly light and flexible in your thinking, you'd be able to avoid having any fixed ideas at all, and hence avoid the unpleasantness that comes from having them destroyed. In practice, I doubt anyone can be flexible about everything.

Not liking uncertainty is a force that encourages the creation of fixed ideas. If there's a similar force that encourages flexibility, I can't think of it; maybe that's part of why flexibility feels so fragile and unnatural.

Finally, leaving the world of abstraction and returning to the world of restaurants for a moment, let me rephrase some of what I said above. When I've been to a restaurant sufficiently often, I'll have some things there that are my favorites; and when I go there, I'll usually order one of them, even though there are other things I've never tried. In other words—words from Indecision—I'm using the strategy “take the first item that's acceptable” instead of the strategy “check all the items and take the best”, which is the one I use most of the time. I guess that makes the latter my favorite strategy?


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@ December (2005)