Wedding planning behaviour: Part 1- Staus quo bias

The difference between planning a wedding and planning any other party is in the amount of cultural and emotional context that comes into play.  Suddenly your party has to be an expression of what you stand for, who you are as a person/couple, who you are as a woman, what are your family and cultural heritage. There is also  a strong element of judgement and being judged against criteria established by the social groups that you are part of. As a result, decisions are subject to behavioural biases even more than those taken in our daily lives.

I have been thinking a lot about how we are taking decisions related to our wedding. (Yes, I know it would be so much easier if I just did as my lovely mom suggested!) In this series of posts I will give you a few examples of bias that I have encountered in our own process of planning a wedding so far.

Status quo bias

Status quo bias is evident when people prefer things to stay the same by doing nothing (see also inertia) or by sticking with a decision made previously (Samuelson, & Zeckhauser, 1988). This may happen even when only small transition costs are involved and the importance of the decision is great. Samuelson and Zeckhauser note that status quo bias is consistent with loss aversion, and that it could be psychologically explained by previously made commitments and sunk cost thinking, cognitive dissonance, a need to feel in control and regret avoidance. The latter is based on Kahneman and Tversky’s observation that people feel greater regret for bad outcomes that result from new actions taken than for bad consequences that are the consequence of inaction (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). [source]

How do we know what a wedding is supposed to look like? It is handed down to us through culture, from examples in our communities to the representations of weddings in popular culture. In my case, popular culture is also heavily influenced by my Hungarian origins and Anglo-Saxon culture due to our cultural diet (tsk tsk, gotta get to that art cinema). In my culture and experience, these have the following elements:

  • Event takes place on a Saturday, in presence of many friends and families.
  • Families very closely involved. Guests include friends and acquaintances of the parents.
  • An occasion that has to be elegant, no expense should be spared.
  • An event on which attendees will pass judgement. It is important that this judgement not be negative.
  • Church/religious and civil ceremony.
  • This is the bride’s big day, who can be a princess for a day. The bride’s wishes and taste are more important than the groom’s.
  • The bride should wear a very elegant white dress unlike any dress she would wear in everyday life (“like a princess”), idem for hair and makeup. The dress however should not be too revealing (“slutty”) or too casual. She should carry a bunch of flowers. The groom should wear an elegant outfit, minimum a suit.
  • Guests should be treated to an elegant sit-down dinner.
  • Set of Hungarian wedding traditions (don’t even get me started).
  • etc.

The first result in my Google image search for “wedding” [source] It looks lovely, also because it conforms to our expectations.
I am not saying that status quo is “bad”. The act of getting married is in large part also part of the status quo, and traditions have an important place in reinforcing social bonds, etc. As a result, it is relatively easy to plan a wedding – we all know what is expected and wanted from us. This is the measure against which weddings are judged (where I am from. If you are from a different background, of course, different factors are at play).

The status quo is also the baseline for taking decisions that diverge from the tradition- no one starts with a blank slate. At the same time, if for some reason one decides to have a wedding that is different from the above, it disappoints the expectations of the social groups. As you see from the definition above, deviations from the norm tend to be perceived as “loss”, so generally in a negative light. Choices that deviate from the norm need to be justified.

Traditional Hungarian weddings have a somewhat different set of baseline expectations. I would love to swap the crowd at the two example weddings and hear their opinions! [source]
As a result of J&I coming from different backgrounds, having a limited budget and sharing some beliefs that differ from those of our communities of origin (being atheists and feminists), we had a strong incentive to discuss and negotiate all of these elements. Indeed, once we started questioning what our wedding should look like, it became a more interesting, but also more complicated gathering to plan.  In some cases we chose keep to the status quo: we will have guests and share a meal, I will wear a dress and we will have a ceremony. In others, we have decided to change things: for instance, we will not host a very elegant dinner or have a church wedding,  and I will likely not be a “princess for the day”.

Finally, in some cases we keep to tradition but try to add a tweak. In Hungarian weddings it is customary to “sell” the last dance of the bride as a maiden: guests donate money for a few seconds of dancing with the bride then hand her over to the next paying partner. We are thinking of making this a bit more feminist by both of us doing the dance and donating the proceeds to charity. Anyway, we are definitely aware of the fact that judgement will be passed on all elements of the day that deviate from guests’ expectations. This will be especially true as our international group of guests will each have their own baselines and expectations.



New things

The start of fall always brings me a spirit of new beginnings, along with a strong urge to stay inside and eat butter by the stick. I have been discovering a few new things too in the past few months. They are not big, life-changing shifts (not in the right place to leave the 9-to-5 grind and move to an organic farm just yet) but they have brought enough change to my routine to put a spring in my step.

Gave up coffee

This was the hardest! It was motivated by some stomach problems, so not really an independent choice. God I love coffee. And I still miss it, especially when I sip a glass of warm soymilk with my croissant in a coffee shop, which just does not have that bohemian vibe to it!  I am definitely also less jittery though, and the change had surprisingly little effect on my overall alertness levels.

Yes, that’s orzo in there. Also, I have never been to Buenos Aires.

Learning calligraphy

I have always been fascinated by calligraphy, but never quite realised it was a craft that you could learn. Turns out, it is not just that some people have superswirly elegant handwriting, but there are online tutorials for it! Doing calligraphy also feels like a pure luxury. It is not a useful craft (in the way that knitting gives you nice woolly sweaters), does not improve my health and it is not really creative. But it is fun, in an adult-coloring-book way.

Just what I practice while Netflixing

Biking to work

J got me a bike for my birthday and I love it! *rings bell*

Trying new workouts

Since watching Billy Elliot twice in a row, I have been slightly obsessed with dancing workouts! Also I have started on the long and arduous road towards my first pull-up. For now that means a lot of assisted pull-ups (we have installed a pull-up bar in our kitchen door, deposits be damned) and modified push-ups. I am weak! Finally, I have been trying out speed workouts – well, maybe I should say “speed” workouts given my pace – in my morning runs. I still love my yoga, and having all these different options makes it super easy to do something fun every day.

Working 4-day weeks

I am experimenting with working a 4-day full-time job (slightly longer days, an extra day off). This has a slew of benefits, and if everyone did it, it would be a much happier world! I love my job even more for this possibility! We came up with this schedule to help me with mental balance and resilience, and so far I have managed to get on top of all my tasks in the 4 workdays. I also really treasure the extra day, and try not to spend it running errands, but taking a real day off. Of course, #startuplife will always mean an occasional weekend worksession, but overall I am very excited about this change.

Have you been making any changes with the change of leaves?



3 struggles of #minimalism

After a year of slowly increasing attention on how I live, and about 3 months of really cranking it up with the minimalism, there are a few things that I find really hard. Here is a short list, feel free to add your own!

1 Shopping ban

The first step of the ban was of course accepting that I have a problem.  It’s not even that I was spending too much money- though I was -, but more my inability to not shop, along with the astonishing amount of time, self-identification, thinking and life that went into browsing and choosing things.  I have also started marathon training (yay!), which brings out a fierce Amazon, no wait an Amazon addict in me.  Thanks to “training shopping” in past years, I am the proud owner of a handheld water bottle I never use, a rain jacket that is not really waterproof, an ill-fitting sports bra and a pair of teal Nike leggings that show crotch sweat to an extent that I had never thought possible.

I wanted to see what it feels like to pull the plug on all of this bullshit, and haven’t bought anything in 8 weeks now, hooray! But here ‘s the catch: not shopping is HAAAAARD, you guys.

It feels super empowering to know that I am not not channelling all sorts of anxieties straight to H&M. I really enjoy opening my closet and only seeing 33 items. I have done so many things on weekends instead of browsing shops! But it is also spring and new seasons are linked in my brain with “refreshing my wardrobe”.  I also miss having the illusion of a pick-me-up when I feel tired and stressed.

Actively not buying this pantsuit from IMBY right now.

2 Capsule wardrobe

As a capsule newbie, I made some bad decisions when constructing it. Welcome to my life, jeans that I somehow never wore before (spoiler: there was a reason. There is always a reason!).

Luckily my twirly spring skirt made it into the capsule along with the Stupid Jeans That Only Go With 2% of Capsule.

3 No plastic

This is our challenge for April- objective zero plastic packaging. It is a fun way of raising our awareness of the impact of small daily actions, and maybe also a way to eat healthier (though Nutella comes in a package that contains wonderfully little plastic).

Here are the catches so far, from a week of #noplastic:

  • You still end up generating waste, only now there is a lot more glass waste as you have to buy things like milk, yoghurt and canned tomatoes in bottles.
  • It is expensive! The only place where you can buy bulk grains and pulses around here is the hippest biological supermarket, where you end up dropping  a ridiculous amount of cash for Belgian quinoa. This makes this whole noplastic thing feel very elitist.
  • I just had to give up consuming some foods as lactose-free dairy products all come in plastic, and so do vegetal milks.
  • Cats eat meat, and that means noplastic cat food requires one to work chicken legs and lamb kidneys in one’s blender.
Yummy breakfast for the entire household.

Have you ever tried any of these challenges? What do you struggle with? And what are your solutions? Quick, I need solutions!



Dealing with the aftermath

Two days ago, the city that has been home for me in the past 5 years, has suffered a terrorist attack.  Incredulous, shocked, sad and shaken, we watched the terror unfold through twitter, news sites and texts. We spent all day reassuring family, friends and friends of family that we were allright, and that we were staying in a safe place.

As the day ended, we entered a new time, that of dealing with the aftermath. People gathered in the center of Brussels and transformed the Bourse square in a memorial, but also in a safe space to mourn together. It made me think of all the strategies that people use to cope. some I have observed, and some have origins in psychological research.

Business as usual

Today, the city is making an extra effort to show that life goes on. Differently from the lockdown earlier this year, schools and offices are open and people encouraged to go to work. This may have the unintended effect of forcing people to take the public transportation that they may be too afraid to use otherwise, and reinforce the feeling of normalcy of travel.

Being together

In the center of Brussels, Bourse square is one giant memorial. Messages of peace in all languages, flowers and candles cover the ground and the buildings. Being in the center, it is a multicultural spot shared by all faiths and backgrounds, far from the upper-middle-class expat European quarter. The space sends the message to all, that it is OK to come here to mourn and to be together, for everyone.

Slowing down and finding a common wavelength

For those of us not direct victims of the attacks, there may be some value in slowing down in our reaction, acknowledging our feelings and listening to others in an empathetic way.

One quick glance at social media shows the extent to which fear and shock bring out violent, racist and xenophobic attitudes. It takes some conscious effort to understand the way many of us react out of fear, and perhaps express views that are inspired by this and not their values.However, it may also not be the best moment to attempt reasoning with the people making shockingly insensitive or violent statements. I have been trying to apply some of the learnings from my coaching course to this problem.

Thoughts and experiences stimulate neural networks either through a state called positive emotional attractors (PEA) or negative emotional attractors (NEA). These two activate different parts of the body. Basically, PEA triggers constructive cognitive and physiological responses that enhance an individual’s motivation, effort, optimism, flexibility, creative thinking, resilience etc. The negative emotional attractor (NEA) triggers another process by calling attention to current social and environmental stressors that may compromise an individual’s effectiveness, but also enhance focus on single tasks. THOSE social media users are definitely in an  NEA state, through their focus on threats and anger. As they are in the grip of emotions and a flight-or-fight rush, they are not receptive conversation partners for a discussion based in appeals to our higher nature (typical of PEA).

I find this really difficult, and tend to get up in endless fights about value-laden topics with people on a very different wavelength from mine. * learning point!*

Similarly, different mental settings often make it difficult to deal with negative emotions, even when we are feeling the same way about something. In our case, I have experienced a few instances where someone was upset and in need of empathy and reassurance, maybe just a hug. What some others do at times is instead attempt reassuring through a logical reasoning, such as “just remember that statistically you are still a hundred times more likely to be hit by falling furniture than by a terrorist attack”. True, but SO unhelpful! Also, yet another thing that I did just yesterday in a conversation with my mother.

Empathetic, attentive listening can help us avoid these two discrepancies. And I will definitely try to do it better, not only in dealing with the fallout from these attacks.

Talking to victims

The Belgian College of Psychology has also published some guidelines resonating with this impression, based on insights from clinical research. These can be very useful to keep in mind as many of us will meet acquaintances who were in the airport or the metro when the bombs went off.

Firstly, they have recommended for those who have been directly affected by the attacks to try avoiding re-living of the events. For those who are interacting with victims, this means avoiding asking for a detailed description of what happened. This recommendation comes from research that showed that trauma victims who were debriefed by a psychologist (basically, talking through their experience) after traumatic events, were more likely to develop PTSD in the aftermath than those who were not debriefed. Looks like reducing the retelling of the event allows more space for the mind to heal. It might be difficult or appear insensitive to not ask people about their experience, so I think I may stick to telling them to talk about it if they feel like it.

The second recommendation gives some tips for reacting to someone telling us about their experience with the attacks. Others can help the victims process their narrative of the event by supporting an interpretation of agency and empowerment in the situation. In this case, this should help the trauma victim interpret their experience as somewhere where they took action to preserve their lives and maybe help others. Therefore, to be a helpful conversation partner, one should focus on asking questions such as “What did you do to get out of it despite all?”This is definitely a good strategy for the times when you cannot avoid talking to people about their experience.

It also looks like not everyone should go to therapy as soon as possible after the attacks. The BCP recommend official psychological intervention if the victims still have difficulties in dealing with the event a few months afterwards. Apparently our minds have the kickass super power to haul themselves back from shocks?

Thinking about what matters

I have to say, I felt extremely shallow for thinking about my capsule wardrobe and decluttering on the morning of the attacks. Of course I could not have known, but events like this make it clear that just as there is more to life than mindless consumerism,  there is also more to life than a concentrated tweaking of my own little environment.

In the coming months, our lives will likely have many more conversations about the importance of freedom and tolerance in our societies, and what it takes to make a society a real community. One of the Dutch words for society is “samenleving”, or “living together”, which really captures the effing difficult task that is ahead of us.