Here is an excerpt from John Tierney discussing experiments described in Dan Ariely’s new book, Predictably Irrational.
In a series of experiments, hundreds of students could not bear to let their options vanish . . . .They played a computer game that paid real cash to look for money behind three doors on the screen. . . . After they opened a door by clicking on it, each subsequent click earned a little money, with the sum varying each time.As each player went through the 100 allotted clicks, he could switch rooms to search for higher payoffs, but each switch used up a click to open the new door. The best strategy was to quickly check out the three rooms and settle in the one with the highest rewards.Even after students got the hang of the game by practicing it, they were flummoxed when a new visual feature was introduced. If they stayed out of any room, its door would start shrinking and eventually disappear.They should have ignored those disappearing doors, but the students couldn’t. They wasted so many clicks rushing back to reopen doors that their earnings dropped 15 percent. Even when the penalties for switching grew stiffer — besides losing a click, the players had to pay a cash fee — the students kept losing money by frantically keeping all their doors open.Why were they so attached to those doors? The players . . . say they were just trying to keep future options open. But that’s not the real reason, according to Dr. Ariely and his collaborator in the experiments, Jiwoong Shin, an economist who is now at Yale.They plumbed the players’ motivations by introducing yet another twist. This time, even if a door vanished from the screen, players could make it reappear whenever they wanted. But even when they knew it would not cost anything to make the door reappear, they still kept frantically trying to prevent doors from vanishing.Apparently they did not care so much about maintaining flexibility in the future. What really motivated them was the desire to avoid the immediate pain of watching a door close.“Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss,” Dr. Ariely says.