Peel the Onion: Why We Answer the Wrong Question

Peeling back the onion, the substitution effect

By Angela Noel

April 5, 2018

Questions without easy answers abound. But we humans hate that. Our brains like certainty. Tough, complex problems without clear solutions make us very unhappy indeed. In these situations, particularly where public pressure exists to find a fast and clean answer, we’re susceptible to a type of brain elf, Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls substitution. He writes, “If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 (our fast-thinking brain) will find a related question that is easier and will answer it.”

Since being sure of something is our preferred condition, our brains tend to do a lot to help us feel that way. I wrote about our search for certainty before, and how hard we fight to preserve our version of events even when we know it’s wrong. But, this time we’re talking about certainty from another angle. This time, we’re talking about onions.

The Onion Story

In 1955 an onion farmer and commodities trader named Vince Kosuga saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He and his business partner, Sam Siegel, secretly bought up almost all of the onions in the U.S. But they didn’t stop at buying the onions already harvested, they wanted ALL of them–including the little baby onions still germinating in the ground. They made deals with farmers, a common practice then and now, to buy the farmer’s crops at a fixed price sometime in the future. This is called a “futures contract.” These two dudes now owned virtually all of the onions in the U.S. And it wasn’t because they loved the crunchy tang of beer-battered onion rings.

The psychology of the substitution bias
Onions just like these floated down the river when Vince and Sam busted the market. Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

Because the men owned 98% of the onions, they used that power to both drive prices up, because they’d bet on higher prices, and then crash the market, because they’d bet on lower ones. It got so bad at one point, the cost of a bag filled with onions was actually less than the price of the empty twenty cent bag itself.

Normally, futures contracts help farmers by allowing them to sell their expected crops at a predictable price. But when Vince and Sam stepped in, the two men made millions, while lots of devastated farmers and others went out of business, some committing suicide. A congressman named Gerald Ford (yep, the future President) decided to act.  He introduced the Onion Futures Act banning the sale of futures contracts on onions. The Act was signed into law by President Eisenhower in the summer of 1958.

To this day, sixty years later, onions are the only banned commodity in the futures market. The Act intended to stabilize the price of onions and address the concerns of the farmers hurt by Vince and Sam’s schemes. But volatility remains even now. In fact, agricultural economists say the act hurts consumers and producers, never really meeting it’s primary goal to insulate the market from manipulation and stabilize prices.

But the real onion market isn’t the only onion we should peel back.

My Own Onion
the psychology of the substitution bias
“He knew locking the door was a no-no. Removing the lock sent a message he needed to hear.” That was my original caption. And I think it’s still true. But, the problem isn’t and never was, a locked door.

Once, I got so mad and scared, because my son had locked himself in his room, that I took the handle off the door. No more locked doors in my house. No more fits of eight-year-old pique to make his mama worry. Solved that problem didn’t I?

Oh wait.

Taking the door handle off took away a SINGLE problem. It didn’t forever solve the fact that sometimes kids do things they’ve been warned not to do. No, that’s a much more complicated issue. One a screwdriver can never fix.

You see, I can’t solve the problem of a child’s anger or frustration with one action. I have to spend time and brain effort to figure out what went wrong and why. Then, most importantly, what I need to do next. And I have to do this each time something happens. I can’t just go around removing door handles for the rest of Jackson’s life. I’ve got to face the fact that being a parent requires comfort with uncertainty. It requires a willingness to engage and challenge the easy, simple answers that mysteriously appear when the complex problems just seem so gosh darned hard.

Back to the Other Onions: The Psychology of the Substitution Bias

Despite the fact that extreme volatility in the price of onions continues, the ineffective Act persists. Could it be that the complex question, “How do we stop an unscrupulous and greedy few from ruining the opportunity for the many?” is just too hard? And because it’s so hard, and we want so badly to have the answer, is that why we create a world of binary all-or-nothing solutions?

For the record, we replaced the door handle in Jackson’s room. But we bought one without a locking mechanism. After all, the issue was never opening and closing the door. When the time comes, when we’ve got a longer track record of good-decision making in the face of anger and frustration, the kid can have a door that locks. Because that’s what that whole thing was about in the first place: trust.

Building a relationship built on trust with a child isn’t easy. Nor is it easy to accept that sometimes people do bad things for selfish reasons. But, they do. And when they do, we must not substitute the easy for the hard.  Because when we do that, we lose the trust we so desperately need to build relationships and communities. Let’s peel back that onion.

We can stop to think, question our certainty, and right the wrongs created by the hasty decision-making of the past. And when we do, we sign a contract with our future selves that serves us all a little better in the end.

Your turn: Can you think of issues or problems in your own life or in the world around you where the substitution bias is in effect?

The You are Awesome Blog has been nominated as the Most Inspirational Blog for the Annual Bloggers Bash Awards! If you can spare a second and feel inspired by this blog, please consider voting for me. It’s an easy one click here.

Featured Photo by Tobias Macha on Unsplash

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Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

31 thoughts on “Peel the Onion: Why We Answer the Wrong Question”

    1. Hi, Lisa! I’m so glad. It is such a challenge to be fully present and spend the energy on raising kids. I’m glad staying home was the right choice for you!

  1. Reactionary decisions can go either way. Sometimes your instinct comes up with the right decision, BUT goodness knows the wrong decision is made in the heat of the moment or like you say when you’re desperately searching for answers. Similar, to Lisa I made the decision to quit my career and stay at home with Bessie in an evening after a miserable day at work. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. However, during arguements or irrational behaviour from my child, I’ve clutched straws and made ill thought out decision. It’s only human I guess, but as you rightly say, we could all do with stopping for a moment and looking at things more deeply. Great post Angela.

    1. You’re so right. When instinct kicks in and that sense of just “knowing” the right thing to do happens we have to trust it. I think the key is thinking through what’s motivating the decision–what’s really behind it all? In the onion case, I think the politicians truly wanted to do something good, but maybe they also wanted to be SEEN doing something good. When that sneaks in, that’s where I think bad things happen. It’s that secondary motivation that we don’t always want to acknowledge that can cause the mischief. At least that’s what I observe in myself.
      You’re awesome.

  2. Oh goodness, yes! I’m pretty sure the substitution bias comes into play almost daily in some way or another. I think of my woodworking projects right away. The process of building the item, sanding, staining, and varnishing takes so much time – especially when varnishing takes 3 coats and staining takes 2-3 coats. I’ve already spent weeks building the barn doors for our downstairs. It’s easy to take the quicker, easier way, but the outcome is not ideal. As you have described – it works the same way with relationships.

    I once had a family member who chose substitution bias because it was easier for that person (and it gave this person what they wanted) – the trust was broken. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully trust this person again because it was done on such a huge scale. I hope the trust will build again.

    I love your lesson, Angela. Your posts always require much though, which I appreciate.

    1. The process in the project can be daunting but it does make the outcome better if we do it right the first time. As you note, time is what is necessary for positive outcomes, especially in relationships. It’s easier to refinish a project than it is to repair a relationship. Thank you for sharing.

    2. I hadn’t thought of the way shortcuts or “simple” substitutions for the complex could manifest in projects too! Great insight, and very true.
      It’s a shame about your family member. It takes a lifetime to build trust and only one unscrupulous act to cause it all to come crashing down. On the one hand, I worry that I’ll someday perpetrate this kind of egregious breach. But I console myself that I’ll always have the ability to make amends if I’m willing to accept responsibility for my actions. Relationships are both so fragile and so resilient at the same time. And there definitely isn’t a one-size-fits all approach to rebuilding trust. I hope, if it’s meant to be, it will be for you.
      I am glad the posts make you think–but more glad that you share your excellent thoughts with me (and us) too.

  3. Substitution bias is so true! Trouble is now that my brain is slowing down, the new normal of “hard” questions is met with, “That’s an interesting problem. I need to think about it.” And that is only if I think before I speak. Otherwise is just a plain, “I don’t know.” And that’s okay, because sometimes those onions are just to hard to peel. And they make me cry.

    1. Ha! So true. Sometimes, I don’t know is a perfect answer. Whoever said we had to solve every problem!
      I know I often try and “swallow the world”. Which is both arrogant, in that I would think I can solve such sticky issue, and hopeful that I could at least give it a try. As I grow older, I see that there are some complex hairballs that have my name on it. But I’m one of many, not THE ONE that will contribute to the solution. I find that thought very comforting. It’s together that we’ll tackle the challenges. And it’s when we’re doing more listening than talking that we’ll get the most done.

  4. ‘On the one hand, I worry that I’ll someday perpetrate this kind of egregious breach. But I console myself that I’ll always have the ability to make amends if I’m willing to accept responsibility for my actions. Relationships are both so fragile and so resilient at the same time.’
    This especially rings true as a step-parent, Angela. The parent-child bond is so strong that it is practically self-repairing. That is not to say that you can or should get away with anything, but the drive to love is so strong that mistakes are easily forgiven. Not so with step-parenting, especially if there are negative forces at work. We have to work really hard to teach the message that relationships take work and communication, and that conflict and misunderstanding is all part of being a family.

    1. Yes, absolutely. Though I’m not a step-parent, I’m married to one. And the importance of sending that message-that relationships must bend and flex and require energy (but are worth it) is so important. Thank you so much for adding that thought–you’re right and it comes at this question from a new angle.

  5. This is an interesting post. Reading it makes me wonder about your background and profession. Based on previous writings, I’ve assumed you’e in the psychology field. Now I don’t know. Will you spill?

    1. Hi, Jeff! I’m not in the psychology field, just a “citizen scientist” if you will–not an expert. But, I’ll keep you guessing on my actual job. Though I’ll tell you I don’t work in the futures market! Glad you found the post interesting. 🙂

  6. Oh man…we actually took the whole DOOR off when our sons kept messing with their lock. No, the door only stayed off a few hours, but seeing that we could do that DID make an impact on wee little brains. That said–yes. It was a very, very short-term solution for a single problem about anger and pushing buttons. So we keep trying, and trying, to find the logic that sticks with five-year-old minds. 🙂

    1. It’s such a challenge! It’s like standing on the deck of a ship in a storm. We parents can probably keep standing upright, but it takes constant attention! Thank you for sharing your story–it’s excellent.

  7. The first thing that pops into my head is every single political discussion on social media. Complex ideas are debated with memes and one word sentences. Everyone feels justified to jump to conclusions based upon one word or action. It’s doing nothing but creating confusion about vitally important government policies and procedures and division among voters.

    1. I agree. I just heard a great story on the radio about kids doing a model UN project. “Winning” is reaching an appropriate compromise after substantive and respectful debate. We need more of that, methinks.

  8. Congratulations on the well deserved nomination xx 🥀🌹
    As for your topic, it strikes a chord. I can relate it very well to.a past event- one that still baffles me as to how I could have handled it better. Some situations have strange resolutions.

    1. So true–and it could be that is just no “good” option but a “least worst.” I hate that of course. But that’s life. Wonderfully complex but not always perfect.

  9. Great post and discussion in the comments. A nod from me while reading was what is motivating my behavior (or someone else) – stopping and progressing before moving on. Short term or long term solutions.

    1. Great point. It’s so easy to assume rather than to pause. I know my first impressions are not always correct and they’re formed by a whole bunch of partial pieces of information. We can’t always pause–like when a tiger is trying to eat us. But when we have the luxury of time we should use it.

  10. Ok first, I never knew that about the onion! Seriously? Wow! I’m just glad we still have onions b/c despite how they make my breath smell, I put them on everything. This was a DEEP post that got me thinking. I’m not racking my brain where I’ve done the same thing, try to eliminate the opportunity for my sons to do something bad again. Here’s one that comes to mind: I kept the electrical plugs closed for years, especially after Parker decided to put the metal part of the fake Christmas tree in the hole. Had we not screamed at him to stop, he would have been a fried toddler. That made me paranoid for years.

    1. That would freak me out too! Your boys sound like adventurous lads. But, you illustrate a great point. It’s like inertia. We stay in place (or leave the plugs in place, or keep an Act in place) because its a steady state. We are protected by sameness and if its not hurting anything (too much) why change? I know I can be crazy lazy about stuff. Like, we’re only just now painting my son’s room after living here almost two years. Lavender isn’t his favorite color, but it wasn’t bad enough to change. Until it is, right?

  11. Congratulations on the nomination! It is really deserved and I think you have a really good chance of winning. 🙂

    This is another really thought provoking post! Those blooming brain elves! It just shows we do have to work hard to keep our brains open to new (and difficult) ideas!

  12. Onions, hmm. It always amazes me the extent greedy men will go to gain even more. But I love the reflection on the solution and how it doesn’t really solve the intended problem. Then I laughed at the lock story because in the house I grew up, the locks were two way. I could lock my door and feel like I had autonomy over my realm. But, a flat head screw driver was all that was needed to unlock the door from the other side. There was a specific hole built into the door handle for that very reason. Since my father built the house, I’m sure he knew what he was getting.

    1. I wish we had some of those two way locks! How smart of your dad to build design those!

      I have sympathy for people who must find those solutions for the worlds most challenging problems. It can’t be easy to try and make progress with such complications. Still no excuse. Because when we discover the error, we have to adjust. And that seems to be one of the hardest things.
      Thank you for reading and sharing your story about your dad–it made me smile for sure.

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