When it comes to shopping for clothes, there is a dilemma. Not only do we want an item that fits just right, we also want something to get us noticed, but not too much. After all, compliments are nice, but you don’t want to stand out like John Daly amongst a foursome of golfers.
So how does our emotional brain communicate with us to make the correct sartorial selection? Most of the communication comes in the form of a heuristic or as science writer Wray Herbert describes: “…cognitive rules of thumb, hard-wired mental shortcuts.” (Herbert, 2010)
The most common heuristic is familiarity. Basically, it is an internal loop where a decision is catalogued to be available for another time. For example, the takeout at A1 Hunan is good for it always has been; it is safe to buy another thousand shares of Good Great Equity for the company has made money before.
Same = safe = same.
From grades 1-12 I always had a seat assignment. I noticed by college, even without direction, all the students still picked a seat and kept that seat for the duration of the term. Even at work I will always go to my desk and not grab a coworker’s even if it’s closer to the break room. Never once will I start off the day by playing musical cubes.
PETE: Why are you at my desk?
ME: Why don’t you ask human resources?
PETE: Why would I ask human resources?
ME: Because someone in the department screwed up if your keycard still got you on the floor.
Practical jokes aside, I think we all crave familiarity and become unmoored by deviation. The familiarity heuristic keeps decisions simple. But even though it helps save time, sometimes it will get us into trouble.
Ian McCammon, a mechanical engineer, was so perplexed by the accidental death of a friend and fellow back-country skier he studied over 700 avalanches between 1972 and 2003 to see if he could find any answers. One surprising bit of data he uncovered: when it came to the 1,355 avalanche deaths most of the victims knew the locale. “Paradoxically, their expertise may have hurt them,” explains Herbert.
You would think that experience would help in precarious situations, but the skiers may have been bringing past (safer) experiences when surveying the terrain and not fully seeing what was really there.
McCammon also found riskier decisions were made if the skiing party had six or more people. Without even knowing it, they had fallen into the heuristic known as mimicry or as Herbert explains: “… it is basically the strong tendency to make choices that we believe that will get us noticed – and more importantly, approved by others.”
Go along. Get along. It’s tough to steer when you are part of a herd. Which brings us back to clothes. One Thanksgiving, as I sat around a long table with my parents, siblings and their families, I couldn’t help notice how we all wore some form of grey sweaters, as if we were bound by not only by blood but by fall fashion as well.
I personally hate shopping for clothes. I believe the best decision is the one I never have to make. Instead, the article of clothing will just appear like my first bike. Once, I came across a pair of perfectly fitting hiking shoes at a tent sale for 75% off. Bonus! Another time I saw a messenger bag in a miscellaneous bin at an outlet store. Unfortunately, it was in the hands of a teenage girl.
TEEN 1: What do you think?
TEEN 2: It’s nice, but not really you.
Teen 2 was right. The bag was handsome, not cute. With green canvas and dark leather binding, it really didn’t fit her persona unless she also planned to don a tweed jacket and go by the name Seamus.
TEEN 1: I really like it, though.
TEEN 2: Maybe your dad might want it?
TEEN 1: For Father’s Day?
Then the interlude…
I hovered close, pretending to look at colognes. Actually, I don’t even know what was near me for I never took my eyes off the bag. The ironic part is I didn’t go into the store looking for a messenger bag. Waking up that morning, I didn’t even know I needed a messenger bag. But when I saw it…
My God, didn’t Teen 1 know this? Why was she taking so long to make a decision? What would I do if she headed to the cash register? Would I resort to some form of mall banditry?
Seeing that messenger bag was like finding a pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow with a bonus TV and shrimp bar. Why was Teen 1 throwing up a roadblock in front of this bounty? Roadblocks should never impede the way we dress, the way we live or how we get to work…