The prize trap
Prizes make us humans lose our minds.
We are so easily seduced by the possibility of winning things—no matter how trivial—that we momentarily forget how to value our time, energy, and hard-earned money.
If you want to see this in action, just spend a few minutes inside a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant (to be clear I don’t recommend you ever actually do this).
You will see kids (and many adults) frantically forking over money to play games in order to win tickets which can be exchanged for trinkets at the prize counter that are of less value than the money spent to play the games. I once watched my son have a nuclear meltdown at a similar establishment because, after spending $40 playing arcade games, he was a few tickets shy of winning a jar of slime that was worth less than a dollar.
When something is framed as a prize, we want it—and we will do more than makes sense to get it. And while it may seem like childish behavior, adults are just as susceptible.
I was browsing Airbnb recently when I was struck by an ominous message at the top of my screen:
Your dates are popular—87% of homes are booked.
Upon seeing this I was no longer just doing research for our upcoming family vacation, I was competing with countless others for a prize. Feeling desperate, I clicked on the first reasonable home I saw and was met with another message:
This is a rare find. Ellie’s place is usually booked!
The price was quite a bit more than I wanted to spend and I didn’t even like the home, but it still took everything in my power to close the browser and move on with my search.
The prize trap can be especially dangerous when searching for a new job.
By the time you hit the interview stage you’ve probably already jumped through a lot of hoops. Your stress level is high and adrenaline will be pumping. In this state it can be easy to fall into the trap of trying to win the “prize” of a job offer—without spending a single second of the interview trying to figure out if you even want the job.
Once you aware of prize traps you see them everywhere:
Airlines claiming there are “only two seats left at this price.” Lines around the building to get the new iPhone. The attention of that rude person that always ignores you.
When you feel your focus narrowing and obtaining the prize is all you can think about, it's a sign that you need to pause and ask yourself if this is something you even want. Prizes aren’t inherently bad and sometimes it will be a thing you truly care about, but blindly chasing anything is never good.
And while I’m not advocating you set traps for anyone, the more you understand the prizing dynamic, the more you can flip it in your favor.
Consider a job interview again.
By taking a performative posture you not only fail to learn anything about the job, you also make it that much harder to get the job. In other words, it smacks of desperation.
If you ask meaningful questions instead and seriously vet the opportunity, you instantly shift the dynamic and you become the prize.
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