Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Long Range: Does choice work?

OK, time to start dipping back into this series. For new readers, Long Range is my attempt to examine why some people are able to successfully think further into the future than others.

My first set of posts on this topic got slightly sidetracked when Billy and Mike both raised the reasonable point that people don't make the best decisions possible - that our judgments have biases and irrationalities built into them. So, as well as looking at some of my social psychology texts, there's also going to be some study of the following books in the near future:

Nudge
Stumbling on Happiness
Predictably Irrational

Nudge is an interesting book, because (as I understand it from listening to one podcast) it postulates that you can give people choices, but you get 'better' results when you constrain people to a 'choice architecture' that's been designed to guide people towards an optimal result.

Here's a local situation to illustrate the difference. The previous Labour-led government wanted to introduce legislation that eliminated conventional lightbulbs from the marketplace, replacing them with more efficient compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs.

Recently, the Electricity Commission announced the launch of rightlight.govt.nz, a website to provide tools and information to help families and businesses reduce their power bills and choose the right efficient light for the particular application.

State-imposed constraints versus freedom of choice. I am fascinated to see if the rightlight initiative has an noticeable impact, as (I believe) people will buy the cheapest thing. The lower prices of conventional bulbs will be more appealing to consumers than any projected long range benefits of buying CFLs.

So the question I think I'll be looking at (occasionally) over the next few months is 'Does choice work?'

5 comments:

Masada (aka: Curtis) said...

Choice is an interesting word. The question "Does choice work?" may be exactly the right question.

Lets say your brain is perfect and can evaluate all criteria with a perfect ability to choose outcomes. In this case what is choice? This scenario is more about powerful prediction than choice. Even with perfect clarity you could only select the paths presented.

On the extreme opposite edge, say your brain is hopeless flawed and can not accurately predict any outcome. You would still have all the same choices--just less ability to predict the outcome. You could accidentally make the same choices as your perfect brain.

I suggest here that the universe has something like "event momentum". It is in motion and will continue its direction until acted on by other forces (our choices).

We observe physical momentum essentially visually. But we do not have an obvious tool for observing "event momentum". Or do we? I would theorize that people who seem to have very good long range prediction have tapped in to another method of observation that allows them to see where the universe is heading.

A skilled trail guide may not be able to tell you about every rock on the path, but he/she will know there is a mountain ahead or a canyon. A gifted predictor might be able to see these unavoidable obstacles just as clearly.

Make Tea Not War said...

Nudge is interesting- but, if you've read some of Cass Sunstein's other stuff a bit repetitive in the second half. Maybe because he is at the University of Chicago surrounded (I imagine) by Chicago school libertarians he feels he's got to justify the state constraining choices whereas I feel that's all been said before.

Stumbling on Happiness is great- very accessible summary of existing empirical stuff. I think it's actually helped me a lot with personal decision making. We've got it to lend (I think) if you want to borrow. Mike can pass it on sometime.

hix said...

Thanks, A. It's actually your copy of Stumbling that I've been borrowing for WAAAY too long. I found it an excellent read, but I'm not entirely convinced that it demonstrated its thesis yet. I want to re-read it and blog about it.

I am totally unfamiliar with any of Cass Sunstein's other writing. A quick Wikipedia check confirms what I thought: he's working in the Obama administration now, where I believe he's described as the nudger-in-chief. Hmm, his books look very interesting indeed.

@Curtis: I'm still thinking about your comment. Hope to have a reply soon.

Make Tea Not War said...

I love Cass Sunstein. I've got "Behavioural Law and Economics" and "Why Societies Need Dissent" which are ok & you are welcome to borrow sometime- but the book that really changed my life/way of thinking was "Free markets and Social Justice"- it's probably a little dated now but it was a beacon of light and clarity in dark days of the 90s

hix said...

I shall put them in my list of books to read, and ask you about them soon.

Curtis, still thinking ...