Here’s a hypothetical situation: someone has offered you an amount of money to have one of your fingers surgically removed. Additional details: you get to choose the finger. The process and the recovery are both instantaneous and painless and involve no unexpected complications or side effects. You just pop into an office and pop back out with one finger missing.
Here’s your question: given the parameters above, what is the minimum amount of money you would accept in exchange for this?
I think these kinds of questions, silly and unrealistic as they are, often illuminate some deep, deep flaws in human reasoning.
First, an obvious truth: how much we’re willing to accept for something depends a lot on our current circumstances and next-best alternatives. You might be perfectly happy to accept $5,000 for an old trinket from your attic… unless you discover that it commonly goes for $20,000. Suddenly you won’t take five grand, even though the item was nothing more than clutter to you that you’d have been happy to be rid of. In this hypothetical, however, we can safely assume that this is the one and only offer you’ll ever get to remove your finger, so that doesn’t much matter. So it’s all about you.
Here is a very common answer that I immediately dismiss as unserious thinking: “I wouldn’t do it for any amount of money.”
Absurd. Completely absurd.
First off, it’s absolutely false. In a hypothetical scenario, it’s easy to act… well, hypothetically. But the reality is that if someone was actually making that offer and they had a duffel bag with millions of dollars in it, you would take that offer.
People can’t conceptualize millions of dollars actually being offered to them, so they think silly things like “I wouldn’t go through a painless and ultimately inconsequential procedure for any amount of money.”
Of course you would. Not only would you, but you should!
Let me ask a different question: imagine that someone made the same offer to you regarding your finger, but instead of money, offered to save some number of lives of children in underdeveloped nations that would otherwise die. You can save thousands of children in exchange for the finger. You’d feel pretty bad saying no now, wouldn’t you?
Well guess what, money saves lives. Pick five million dollars as your amount, donate 99% of it to effective charities, and keep a little something for yourself as a reward.
I mean heck, keep all of the money, never work again, and then use the newly-freed 40 hours per week you have to volunteer at causes of your choice. Feels like a pretty good deal for a finger, doesn’t it?
To give an example of what actually happens in the real world:
Ronnie Lott is a pro-football Hall of Famer who broke his pinky during a game. If the doctors put a pin in it and cast it to heal, he would have been out for the next eight weeks. If they cut the tip off, he could play immediately. He chose the latter. (He also later said he regretted it – but the 49ers didn’t win that year. Maybe if they had, he wouldn’t have.)
That’s a pretty rare example of this circumstance actually happening, but Lott took the deal for a lot less than five million dollars – he took it for a single game.
Choices look different when they’re actually in front of you. Anyone who denies that isn’t thinking seriously about the choice.