Monday, 1 August 2011


Last Sunday at 10pm, I made some pancakes. The experience was fascinating because, having been thinking about this sort of thing quite a lot for the past few weeks, I think I can describe in some detail what led to me making pancakes, why the pancakes didn't turn out as well as they could have, and why this didn't bother me in the slightest.

Why did I make pancakes at 10 o'clock at night? Well, earlier that day, I had been out with a couple of my housemates, and we had decided to buy chocolate peanut butter (incidentally, it turns out this is not a good substitute for Nutella on pancakes) and lemon juice. Come 10 o'clock, I didn't have any particular desire to eat pancakes, and the other people I'd been out with earlier that day also did not seem interested. However, not only had we decided that we were going to make pancakes, we had also gone to the effort of stopping at a supermarket and picking up relevant condiments. Clearly, I was the sort of person who was going to make pancakes on Sunday. Equally clearly, it would have been a waste of time to buy chocolate peanut butter and lemon juice if I didn't subsequently make pancakes.

So, I started the pancake-making process. I used a recipe from the internet, because I didn't trust myself to remember exactly the proportions in which the relevant ingredients should be added. The recipe was the top-rated recipe on a fairly large internet site, and presumably large numbers of people had successfully used it before. However, there was an individual comment in the comments section underneath the recipe which claimed that the instructions were in the wrong order. Failing to properly weight statistical evidence, and giving into my instincts to weight personal anecedotes too heavily, I decided to follow the instructions posted in the comment.

About 5 minutes into the process of making pancake batter, I realised that everything was coming out way more lumpy than I would have liked, and that I didn't have an electric whisk, or even a normal whisk. At this point, I realised that I had probably made a mistake by following the non-standard recipe, and considered the option of throwing away the batter I had made so far, and starting again. However, that would have meant that I had wasted all the time I had put into making pancakes so far. Also, that I had been wrong to trust the person who made the comment on the original recipe. I persevered.

About 20 minutes into the process of making pancake batter (due to my sub-optimal recipe choice, and my unwillingness to sink my sunk costs, the process of making the batter ended up taking about half an hour) I was washing up the sieve that I had used to get rid of some of the lumps in the batter (the recipe choice was seriously sub-optimal) when another of my housemates came into the kitchen and thanked me for doing the washing up. I'm not quite sure whether it was because of a consistency effect, or some form of reciprocity, but 10 minute later, I had washed all of the dishes in the kitchen, and was ready to continue with the pancake batter...

I actually noticed that my actions were probably being guided by consistency effects a few minutes into starting the process of making batter. However, my brain was very able to come up with a variety of reasons why continuing to make the pancake batter was a good idea (I had by now promised pancakes to another housemate, I was not doing anything else anyway...). Similarly, I managed to justify not throwing the batter away once I knew it was ruined, even after considering the fact that I was almost certainly considering the time, and eggs that I'd put into things so far as a cost.

As I said, I have spent the last two months thinking in a fair amount of detail about this sort of thing, and it seems to have gotten me as far as being able to catalogue the motivations for my actions after the fact. It is perhaps worth noting that I had no introspective access to any of these motivations. Rather than introspection, I used the technique of looking at what I was doing, and considering the question "what might have caused a person who had been through the same experiences as me recently to be doing this thing?". I'm not sure how far I'm ever likely to get in reducing the impact these sorts of biases and bad heuristics have on my cognition. I'm not sure if I should be trying to train myself out of them, or just learning to notice them so that I can harness them for achieving more strategic goals. However, I'm fairly sure that being able to spot them is a good first step, so I am getting somewhere...


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I'm glad you made those pancakes, they were delicious.

  3. I've been mulling the difference between the impulse to act and the impulse to regulate actions, and this might be a useful example.