Nonprofiteers #3 – Pessimist Bias

Whenever I tell people where I live, everyone always asks if I’ve been to the Turf Club. Finally, I went, and it was magnificent.

Most nights, there’s a band or three playing and so they usually have a cover, but last Friday I was in no mood to let such things get in my way. Five dollars and a five block walk seemed worth it. I’d just gotten gotten paid from a freelance gig and felt compelled to celebrate.

Mason, miraculously, was free that night. Stranger still, he was watching TV and it wasn’t the news. He was on season two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and was eating a pint of vanilla ice cream. When he saw me he explained, “Someone told me it was therapeutic.”

“Is it working?” I asked.

“Yes, actually.”

“Want to go to a concert tonight?”

“Who’s playing?”

“No idea.”

“Sure.”

After we ordered our drinks and sat down at a rickety table as far from the stage as possible, the band got on the mic. They were called the Bad Bad Hats and they weren’t bad. Nor, as Mason pointed out, did they have hats.

“So?” I asked. “The Goo Goo Dolls and Barenaked Ladies don’t live up to their names.”

“But their name just screams, ‘Hipster Band Struggling to Find a More Unique, Convoluted Name.'”

“Hey, that wouldn’t be a bad band name.”

Mason sneered at me. “I’m just saying, pick a name that suits you.”

“Oh, I’m certain that there’s a great inside joke behind the Bad Bad Hats.”

I was scribbling in my notebook while we talked. Eventually, inevitably, Mason pointed and asked what I was doing.

“Got a new gig,” I said. “A nonprofit in Edina that prepares food for people surviving cancer. Supposed to give them ideas for materials for their upcoming campaign. I’m having some trouble.”

“Why?”

“They’re taking a pessimistic angle.”

He cocked an eyebrow and sipped his beer. “What do you mean?”

“It’s a tactic,” I explained. “Convince people that if they don’t give that the world will end. So, the message ends up like, ‘Donate, or a lot of people are going to starve and you’ll be a bad person,’ versus, ‘Donate a hundred dollars, and you’ll feed ten people for a week.'”

“I’m not following.”

“You play to the optimism bias. The gist of it is that people like to feel good about their actions, and you get a better response if you tell them their actions improve somebody else’s life instead of helping avert disaster. In one, you’re telling someone that their relatively easy action makes the world a better place. In the other, you’re telling them the same action prevents the world from getting worse – and you’re guilty by default if you don’t.”

Mason tapped his finger against the table. He wasn’t getting it.

I sighed. “Most people don’t like being superheroes.”

“Oh,” he said and looked up at the stage, clearly more confused than before. Finally, he nodded, as if he’d accepted the mystery, and said, “People are weird.”

“They are, indeed. Some are even weird enough to want to be heroes.”

Mason looked at me sharply and awkwardly covered the fumble. “Yeah, weird, like I said. Want another drink?”

“Sure!” I said. He wandered off to the bar. I’m going to have to remember that trick: if you want a vigilante to do something, the optimism bias is suspended.

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