59 - The Forbidden Fruit Theory for org decision-making



Anyone who has had to hire someone will know this. You’ve a shortlist of candidates for a position. You’re undecided. Until you receive word from one of the candidates (let’s call him Dilbert) that he has received another offer. Suddenly, Dilbert’s value shoots up. Why?

The more scarce things are, the more we tend to value them. You correlate the competing demand for Dilbert as a sign of his quality (compared to the other shortlisted candidates).

This is right. It’s also the obvious conclusion. There’s another thing at work. I call it the forbidden fruit theory.

I see this in my toddler. She’s not interested in thing A until thing A is off limits for her. Thing A could be a lamp, a ceramic bowl, dog food, anything. The moment she’s reigned in she recognizes it as a restriction of her freedom and fights tooth and nail. Prior to any intervention, she is just curious about thing A. But following it, there’s nothing she wants more. Thing A becomes the forbidden fruit.

The forbidden fruit effect is not restricted to toddlers or teenagers. It shows up in adults too. For years I had the habit of coming up with loopholes in a majority-preferred strategy as my first arguments. I’m not a particularly vocal contrarian but the prospect of my freedom to choose any strategy being curtailed made me edgy. Credit to my bosses and peers to have entertained me because it was some time before I spotted this in myself.

Back to Dilbert, your hire. It is natural to sit up in the face of the new information (job offer) to suddenly value Dilbert in spades. What may happen is that you find yourself wanting Dilbert more than ever (because he’s the forbidden fruit) and you justify this desire by ascribing positive qualities to him (‘Even though he has less experience than the others, the quality of it is better.’)

A first defensive step in this situation is to acknowledge the emotional rush to make Dilbert a competing offer. Acknowledging is pausing your reflexive responses. Great, but how should you act now?

Sometimes, the value of owning something scarce could be just in how it is perceived by others. That’s how art collectors make a living. But if you plan to use something you buy, make sure it’s fit for use. _Go with the utility value, not with the perceived value. _

Dilbert’s value to you remains the same whether he has another offer or not. You’ve got to ask: Do I believe he’s the best candidate?

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