Life’s shortcuts

While cooking a batch of pasta, amateur cooks often add some oil to keep it from sticking to the pan. Alas, this is a mistake. Italian cooks everywhere will tell you how adding oil to the pasta prevents it from integrating well with the sauce.

Learning how to cook pasta doesn’t require us to make the same mistake. Somebody has already done that before and it is quicker to learn from their mistake. We use this principle of surrogation (learning from other people’s experience) each time we follow a recipe. We could do more to harness this principle outside the kitchen.

It is a human tendency to underestimate the power of surrogation, especially with our life’s most important decisions. In an experiment, a sample of women were asked to predict how much they would enjoy a speed date with a particular man. Some women decided based on looking at his personal profile and a photograph. Others knew nothing about him other than asking another woman (a stranger) how much she had enjoyed her speed date with him. The second group predicted their levels of enjoyment far better than the first. But both groups had expected the opposite to be true, and strange as it may sound, both groups opted to have the photograph and profile for their next date despite knowing these results.

Surrogation doesn’t come naturally to us. It might feel more authentic to learn from our own experience, but it is efficient to learn from somebody else’s.

Only a fool learn’s from his own mistakes. A wise man learns from other people’s mistakes. – Otto von Bismark


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