What Can Psychology Tell Us About Where Dwight Howard Will End Up?
Lakers center Dwight Howard faces the agonizing decision over whom he will grant the honor of paying him more than $85 million to play basketball. Howard’s situation is unique because it’s rare for a young superstar to leave the mega-franchise he seemed destined to stay with forever, but Howard appeared to go through an emotional roller coaster last season, and now he’s seriously considering signing with Houston or Dallas. The decisions of LeBron and possibly Peyton Manning are the only recent free agencies that surpass the intrigue of Howard’s situation.
The situation has left reporters doing everything they can to pump their sources for any morsel of information that might suggest a particular preference. I don’t have an actual source per-se, but I’ve got the next best thing: Psychology literature.
Howard’s decision is complex enough that there’s no single perspective or theory that can fully predict his decision. We can’t know Howard’s exact feelings about the teams, or the broader goal structure in his life. But while there’s no useful answer to the question, “What does Dwight Howard want?”, there are enough broad decision making biases that it’s possible to identify a few marginal influences.
The most conspicuous of these influences is the similarity effect – when adding a third option can lower your opinion of the existing option that’s most similar to it. Or as Christopher Shallow describes it in a paper (pdf) that shows its influence on moral decisions: “Adding a non-dominated option close to one of the alternatives tends to increase the relative share of its competitor.”
For example, imagine you’re deciding between going to a concert, which is fun but expensive, or watching a movie, which is less fun but free. You’re leaning toward the concert, but then a friend calls and asks if you want to go to a football game, another option that’s more fun but also more expensive. Even if you still prefer the concert, the similarity between the concert and the game (both are high cost, high fun) will increase the attractiveness of watching the movie. The new similarity between the concert and the game emphasizes the unique positive characteristic of the movie (it’s cheap) while making the unique positive characteristic of the concert less impressive (there are a lot of high-fun things, which is best?)
Shallow’s experiment used a modified trolley problem in which a train was going to run over and kill five people. Participants could choose to flip a switch and send the train to a track with one person (thereby saving four people but actively killing one), or they could do nothing and let the train kill the five people (letting four more people die, but not actually “doing” any killing.) In addition, two groups of participants were presented with different third options. One group could divert the train to a track with two people, an option similar to diverting the train and killing one person. The other group could redirect the train to a track with four people, an option similar to doing nothing because nearly five people would still die.
Shallow and his team found that the addition of the third option made people rate the dissimilar option in more positive manner. The option of having two people die increased the relative attractiveness of having five people die (compared to having one person die), while the option of having four people die increased the relative attractiveness of having only one person die (compared to having five people die.) Thus, the similarity effect was pronounced even when the choices were about life and death (albeit in a hypothetical situation in a lab.)
How does this relate to Howard’s situation?
The Lakers are his current team. They’re the known quantity. The incumbent. Because of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, they can also offer Howard more money (>$100 million). The media market and personal demands of playing in Los Angeles are unparalleled among his other suitors. Meanwhile, both Houston and Dallas, the other main suitors (sorry Golden State), are teams in Texas, a state with no income tax. Both teams can pay Howard about $88 million. Both represent relatively low-key, low-pressure options where Howard can start over (or have “anustart,” to use the parlance of our times.) Both Dallas and Houston also have reputations as modern, cutting-edge organizations in a way that the Lakers do not.
These similarities weaken the cases of both Dallas and Houston. If every other factor had literally left Howard indifferent, they could sway the decision. In reality, that’s unlikely to happen, but both Dallas and Houston should know that the emergence of their in-state rivals as a suitor may have hurt their chances.
Shallow, C., Iliev, R., & Medin, D. (2013). Trolley problems in context Judgment and Decision Making
Tversky, A. (1972). Elimination by aspects: A theory of choice. Psychological Review DOI: 10.1037/h0032955