Graeme Newell

Unit Bias

Unit Bias is a brain distortion that compels us to complete things, even if finishing up is not in our best interest. The problem is that our brain tends to see the world in SINGLE UNITS. We have an unfortunate tendency to skip over the size of those units.

Research shows that one of the most effective ways to eat less is to throw away your current tableware and start eating from smaller plates. Our misguided brain sees little difference between a big plate of food and a small plate of food. We don’t see 12 ounces of food, we see ONE DINNER.

In a perfect world, we would open up a soda can, drink until we were no longer thirsty, then leave the rest behind. But that’s not how we do it. We almost always drink the whole can.

And the same is true for a lot of other things in our lives.

We don’t object to paying the same ticket price for a short movie vs a long movie. That’s because we don’t see it as 120 individual minutes of entertainment. We see it as ONE MOVIE, no matter its length.

When a plumber comes to our house, we tend to pay him ONE PRICE for ONE VISIT, whether he stays five minutes or two hours.

So how can you avoid unit bias and our brain’s obsessive tendency to seek closure? The key is to break single items into smaller component parts.

-Don’t have a bowl of ice cream. Have four ounces of ice cream.
-Don’t commit to “clean the house.” Instead, commit to 85 minutes of cleaning.
-Don’t commit to “working on my todo list.” You’ll most likely complete only the easy tasks. Instead, commit to “checking off the first ten items within 30 minutes.”

When we use a more precise metric to measure the things in our lives, we’re more likely to avoid unit bias.