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Irrationally Jewish: How Hidden Forces Shape Judaism
We’re irrational in very predictable ways, which has consequences for Judaism and the Jewish People.
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Many of us assume that humans are fully informed, rational decision-makers. And we use this premise to form a lot of our theories and mental models.
But in many (most?) cases, we’re very irrational; we often make decisions that are not in our own best interest.
What’s more, we’re irrational in very predictable ways, because our irrationality happens again and again, thereby shaping our habits, thought loops, perceptions, actions, and behaviors.
As a result, this affects our lives and, for Jews, our Judaism.
It determines — on an individual level — how we see the Jewish world, where we see ourselves in it, who we consider Jewish archetypes and leaders, and why we approve and disapprove of certain types of Jews. On the macro level, it is already posing serious consequences for the Jewish future.
Let’s take a look at five fascinating examples:
1) The Decoy Effect
In marketing, the decoy effect is a phenomenon whereby consumers tend to have a specific change in preference between two options when presented with a third option that is asymmetrically dominant.
Choosing between a totally religious and totally secular lifestyle, for example, is hard in and of itself. If a third option — a secular lifestyle with religious rituals, or vice versa — is also included, many people will go for this third option.
Why? Because choosing a secular lifestyle with religious rituals, or a religious lifestyle with secular aspects, over a totally secular or totally religious lifestyle is an easier comparison than the choice between totally religious and totally secular.
Hence why many Jews in Israel are “traditional” — they live a rather secular life and incorporate religious rituals, such as Shabbat dinners, eating kosher-style (but not necessarily kosher food 100-percent of the time), observing Jewish holidays, fasting on Yom Kippur, and refraining from eating leavened bread during Passover.
The decoy effect also explains the rise of “modern Orthodox” Jews, both in Israel and around the world. And it could help us address some of our other pertinent issues. Perhaps if a third, less-extreme option was presented alongside one-state and two-state solutions, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict would make some interesting progress.
2) ‘Anchor Judaism’
In economics, an “anchor price” is the first price consumers see, which determines their subsequent price considerations. The same be said about many Jews: The first type of Judaism they’re presented with determines how they subsequently perceive and interact within the Jewish world.
To become more rational — and I would argue, more wholesome Jews who play a more meaningful role in the Jewish story and the Jewish future — we ought to create new anchors: more Jewish experiences that update our older Jewish habits, thought loops, perceptions, actions, and behaviors.
Some thought-starters for doing so include:
Engaging with a Jewish community that is unlike your own
Getting to know different parts of Israel (for non-Israelis) and getting to know different parts of Diaspora Jewry (for Israelis)
Learning about Jewish history that is not necessarily your Jewish history
3) The True Cost of Free
The price of “free” causes people to react irrationally. When something is free, or when people choose to not pay for something, they often forego better opportunities and experiences because they think “free” comes at no cost. At the same time, “free” is alluring because people are afraid of loss, even when “free” leads to increased opportunity costs.
For example, when offered a choice between a free $10 Amazon gift card and $20 gift certificate for $7, approximately 70-percent of people chose the free $10 Amazon gift card, even though $20 gift card for $7 is the better deal.1
Many Jews are of the same ilk: They think everything in the Jewish world should be free (or heavily discounted) — but there’s a significant opportunity cost to this way of thinking!
“Free” means we can’t provide the best Jewish experiences, which means we won’t produce the best Jewish outcomes (retention, engagement, transmission, et cetera). Free trips to Israel produce transactional relationships between Israel and Diaspora Jews, which could mean that Diaspora Jews will only visit Israel when the trip is free or heavily discounted, a clearly unsustainable expectation that could potentially result in a superficial or faulty relationship.
I’m not insinuating that we swing the pendulum from one end to the other by putting up a massive paywall in front of every Jewish experience. As with most things in life, a balanced and nuanced approach seems optimal.
4) Keeping Doors Open
The fear of losing makes people keep “doors” open even though, in the long-run, this works against them.
For example, many Jewish philanthropists keep propping up organizations that have shown a persistent track record of failing to impact enough people, or organizations that haven’t effectively adapted to changing times. And the people who run these organizations, equally fearful of the unknown, propagate this vicious cycle by providing philanthropists with vanity metrics and other quasi-KPIs, which create illusions of success.
Generally, people are afraid of ending relationships or choosing a different path because they’re hesitant to leave something behind, and these philanthropists and the people who run these organizations are no different. But this costs them dearly in time and money, and it handicaps the potential impact they could make if only they pivoted to other opportunities, strategies, et cetera.
By keeping these doors open, they also fail to see the doors that are closing, never to open again. All because they don’t want to experience the loss of things that don’t even provide real value to enough people anymore.
5) The Endowment Effect
In psychology and behavioral economics, the endowment effect suggests that people are more likely to retain an object they own than acquire that same object when they do not own it. This produces quirks like:
Falling in love with what we already have
Focusing on what we might lose rather than what we may gain
Making the assumption that other people will make the same value judgments as we do
Jews are no different: We fall in love with our types of Judaism; we focus on what we might lose from it rather than what we may gain from adopting other types of Judaism; and we make assumptions that other people value our type of Judaism just as much as we do.
If we accept Judeo-diversity — that people experience and interact with Judaism in many different ways, and that there is no one “right” way of being and doing Jewish — we can profoundly enhance the Jewish story and create a more promising Jewish future.
P.S. This essay was inspired by the book, Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely.
Ariely, Dan. “Predictably Irrational.” Harper Perennial. 2010.