We're Only Human; April/May 2008; Scientific American Mind; by Wray Herbert; 2 Page(s)
One of Alfred Hitchcock's most enduring bits of cinematic comedy is the auction scene in the espionage thriller North by Northwest. Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a businessman who has been mistaken for a CIA agent by the ruthless Phillip Vandamm. At a critical juncture, Thornhill is cornered by his enemies inside a Chicago auction house, and the only way he can escape is by drawing attention to himself. When the bidding on an antique reaches $2,250, Thornhill yells out, "Fifteen hundred!" When the auctioneer gently chides him, he loudly changes his bid: "Twelve hundred!" When the bidding on a Louis XIV chaise longue reaches $1,200, Thornhill blurts outs, "Thirteen dollars!" The genteel crowd is outraged, but Thornhill gets precisely what he wants: the auctioneer summons the police, who "escort" him past Vandamm's henchmen to safety.
Clever thinking and good comedy. It is funny for a lot of reasons, and one is that Thornhill violates every psychological "rule" for how we negotiate price and value with one another. So much of life involves "auctions," whether it is buying a used car or making health care choices or even choosing a mate. But, unlike Roger Thornhill, most of us are motivated by the desire for a fair deal, and we employ some sophisticated cognitive tools to weigh offers, fashion responses, and so forth--all the to-and-fro in getting to an agreement.