Life Lessons from the Library: We Don’t Always Act in Our Own Best Interests

Today, Emily gave a workshop on basic technology skills that make a successful student. We knew that this was a helpful topic because these are skills we’re asked about everyday in the library and faculty complain about their lack all the time.

Two people showed up: one a computer science student who needed some extra credit and a woman who really needed the workshop. After it was over, Emily was glad that she was able to help the student but sad that more had not shown up. I tried to console her: “It would have been in their best interest to attend, but people don’t always act in their own best interest.”

This is a basic truth both inside and outside the classroom. Students know they can’t write a good research paper in a weekend (and if they don’t know, their instructors surely tell them), yet a goodly number procrastinate and end up doing just that. Most know that going to a party instead of studying for a chemistry test is not a great idea, but many still go to the party instead.

But if it ended with our student years, it might be okay. But it doesn’t. I’m always a little surprised when I read editorials that say that government retirement money should be put back in the people’s hands. “They know best how to use their money,” the pundits say. But do we? Research shows that most Americans have not saved enough money for retirement on their own. Many more are drowning in credit card debt.

But the funny thing is that the pundits aren’t really wrong. We DO know that saving money for retirement is a good idea. We ARE aware that our credit cards carry 20% interest rates. We just don’t act on that information. 

In many cases, it is a clear case of short-term versus long-term benefits. Yes, I know that it would be good not to have to eat cat food when I’m retired, but that’s years away. It would also be good to go out and spend $40,000 on a fancy car, and  I could have that nice car by this weekend. Sure, I’ll end up paying three times the iPod’s value if I put it on my credit card, but I can have it TODAY!

And this behavior seems to transcend education, status, or even age groups. In fact, economists are now taking this way of thinking into account. A good book on the subject is Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.   

The lesson here is that we have to put into place designs that make people have to work harder to do the wrong thing. For our library workshops, it would help students if they were mandatory unless they could show their instructors that they already know the skills. For retirement, workplaces could automatically take out a certain amount of money from paychecks unless workers opted out. And credit cards, well, maybe it should just be a whole lot harder for most of us to get them.

For those of us in the helping professions, we can’t take refusal personally. Not always working in our own best interest seems to be a basic flaw in our human design. Still, there’s hope: being aware of this may be the first step in the battle to overcome it.

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