Are you tired? Is that really the question?

“When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.”

Daniel Kahneman

We probably do this a lot more than we think. Consider how many decisions we face in a day, how many are automatic, and how many switches go unnoticed.

It happens to everyone. In a recent post, Scott Alexander writes about an individual randomized control trial for a sleep supplement. Alexander wanted to know if the supplement helped him sleep better, or if it was a placebo effect.

Placebos are powerful and cheap. If they get the job done, all the better it seems. But Alexander is serious, smart, and curious—so he tested this idea.

A friend disguised the supplements and sugar pills in oversized capsules, flipped a coin to determine the order, and placed the camouflaged pills in a monthly pill planner. To test the effectiveness, Alexander recorded hours of sleep and subjective ratings on how he felt. The results shocked him.

But not for the reason he expected.

I think the active ingredient here was not letting myself look at the clock. Without external cues to tell me how tired I should feel, I was forced to rely on how tired I actually felt, which in many cases was “not tired at all”. 

Scott Alexander

In removing the alarm clock, Alexander removed the easier question. If it was before nine, it was too early. Obviously. Or not.

These kinds of tendencies work great for a lot of things, but occasionally work too much and we get interesting results like this.

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