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Psychology of the river or designing your life to hit the best rapids

Author: Kristen Berman, co-founder of Irrational Labs

How do we avoid the feeling of complacency? How could we hack marriages to be happier? How can we be the change-maker at work? While a river may not have all of the answers, it does reveal some insights.

This month, I along with 15 other friends, went on an 11-day rafting trip down the Colorado River – a 270 mile river that flows through the Grand Canyon. Permits to raft the river are only obtained by winning a lottery. People wait years to win.

Like most rivers, the Colorado has small rapids and large rapids. The large rapids have the power to flip 18- foot rafts, aggressively tossing everyone and everything into the cold water.

To avoid this fate, there is a tradition of “scoping” a rapid.  Right before entering a large rapid, the oarsman pulls over, gets out, and climbs up to a high vantage point.  He, with the input from others, decides what route to take down the rapid.  Should we enter from the left, right or center? This is a critical decision.

An oarsman usually considers only two things: 1) What is my potential for flipping?  2) How much fun do we want to have?

What determines the oarsman’s decision to take a certain rapid line?

To understand this decision, let’s pose a hypothetical question:

Will a boat that is only on the river for ONE day make more or less riskier decisions about the rapid line than a boat that is on the river for an 11 day trip down the Colorado?

One way to think about this is to look at how we behave in financial markets. We determine how risky we should be by the length of time we expect to be in the market.  The longer you’re in, the riskier you should be. This would suggest 11 day rafters are riskier.

Another way to think about this is to say that the one-day rafters don’t want to wake up tomorrow and think to themselves they missed their chance.  We can imagine them thinking:  “I only have one day. I better make it good.  There’s no tomorrow.”

Research suggests that this latter approach is the one that most humans take. One day rafters are riskier.

Why? There is a difference in our behavior when we are in ‘one-period’ and ‘multi-period’ situations. In one-period situations, we don’t think about the long term consequences. Today is what matters. In multi- period games, people behave more conservatively.  They know there are always more rapids to hit.  Taking the safe route on one rapid today is fine, because you will have tomorrow to go for it again.

What actually happened on our long river trip?

Early on, we were in fact less risky. As the research predicted, our oarsman contemplated his or her lines with high diligence. The people in the boat held on very tight and agreed they should avoid the dangerous routes.

But as the trip progressed, we became MORE risky.  By the end of the trip, rapids were taken with little more than a quick discussion. More people chose to go in the tiny boat – the one that flips the most.

Why? The opportunity cost of decisions become clear as the trip was winding down.  No one wanted to look back at the trip and think they missed the chance at hitting the rapid. Like the one-day rafters, the 11-day river rafters are now saying to themselves: “I only have one day left.  I better make it good. There is no tomorrow.”

So what does this mean for life?

In life we are more like the 11-day rafters vs the one-day rafters.

We take the safe route today because we know that there will always be a tomorrow.

But, unlike the 11 day rafters, we have no finite end date. The river keeps going. Without an end date, there is nothing pushing us to take risks, as it’s incredibly difficult to forecast the counterfactual of what we’re missing out.

False end dates

One radical approach is to put yourself in a near death situation. This near death experience will obviously make the ‘end date’ of your trip much more salient. Of course, this is fairly risky and could have terrible (lethal) outcomes.

In lieu of this drastic approach, we could create “false” end-dates for ourselves. A false end-date takes an arbitrary period of time and creates a finite end to an experience.

You could imagine this is a new way to think about careers.  Imagine a company says that, as a rule, you can ONLY be in this position for 1 year. No longer. How would we behave differently if we had only 1 year to make an impact? Likely we would take more risks, bigger leaps. We’d go for it.

We could also apply false end-dates to marriage.  Imagine 5 year renewable contracts. After 5 years, couples have to re-up to continue their marriage. How would your marriage change today if you know your spouse has the very real option to leave on a certain future date?

Obviously this idea has downsides. With a shorter term outlook, we may not pay attention to the long term outcomes as much as we should.

However, the alternative may be even scarier. We may continue on the same river without knowing what we’re missing… taking the safe path up the corporate ladder, staying with a significant other, or just generally floating at the safest speed.

So the psychology of the river? Get off the river.

Thanks to Francesca Barber, Wendy Del Rosa and Rohini Venkatraman for early reads.
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