The Art of Decision Making

This is going to annoy or excite you, likely depending on your one-free-cup-of-misanthropy card and how many holes it’s punched with.

NYT magazine yesterday has a long piece contextualizing the disconnect between believing the planet is in imminent peril and the willingness to do anything about it. Academic research behind the science of decision-making is explored in depth; I don’t believe any animals were permanently harmed in the gathering of data points for this article, but toward the end there was some heinous screeching. Maybe that was me:

Over the past few years, it has become fashionable to describe this kind of focused communication as having the proper frame. In our haste to mix jargon into everyday conversation, frames have sometimes been confused with nudges, a term made popular in a recent book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness,” written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein when they were academics at the University of Chicago. (Sunstein later moved to Harvard Law School and has since been nominated as the head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.) Frames and nudges are not precisely the same; frames are just one way to nudge people by using sophisticated messages, mined from decision-science research, that resonate with particular audiences or that take advantage of our cognitive biases (like informing us that an urgent operation has an 80 percent survival rate). Nudges, more broadly, structure choices so that our natural cognitive shortcomings don’t make us err. Ideally, nudges direct us, gently, toward actions that are in our long-term interest, like an automated retirement savings plan that circumvents our typical inertia. Thaler and Sunstein explain in their book that nudges can take advantage of technology like home meters, which have been shown to reduce electricity usage by making constant feedback available. These appeal to our desire for short-term satisfaction and being rewarded for improvement. Or a nudge might be as simple as a sensor installed in our home by a utility that automatically turns off all unnecessary power once we leave for the day — a technology, in effect, that doesn’t even require us to use our brains. “I think the potential there is huge,” Thaler told me recently, when I asked him about environmental nudges. “And I think we can use a whole bag of tricks.”

Ouch. This is the con behind the con, something I’ve touched on many times, on which this site is more than nominally based. Having the subject laid bare academically could make you see that we’re still merely in the marketing phase of project self-preservation. We’re testing the waters – pondering survival, if you can call it that. Perhaps we could speed things up if we go ahead and ask whether life would be worth living without the ability to consume and waste vast amounts of resources, without the freedom of our corporate sponsors to find new ways to poison us and indebt us. As nothing quite solid has panned out yet, we’ll continue feeling around for just that perfect thing (‘nudge’) that will convince us to do something about what we know. The preference for a ‘Pearl Harbor’ climate incident to galvanize attention is noted. And stupid.

That this perfectly childish scenario is somehow normal, because we have a non-trivial percentage of our citizens and leaders who believe that a warming planet won’t be their problem and so shouldn’t merit their worry, is merely accepted as one among a workable array of factors and an insult to children everywhere. The contrived pull and yaw of doing/not doing anything can continue indefinitely.

So in terms of policy, it may not be the actual tax mechanism that some people object to; it’s the way a “trivial semantic difference,” as Hardisty put it, can lead a group to muster powerful negative associations before they have a chance to consider any benefits. Baruch Fischhoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and a kind of elder statesman among decision scientists, told me he’s fairly convinced a carbon tax could be made superior to cap and trade in terms of human palatability. “I think there’s an attractive version of the carbon tax if somebody thought about its design,” Fischhoff told me, adding that it’s a fundamental principle of decision research that if you’re going to get people to pay a cost, it’s better to do it in a simple manner (like a tax) than a complex one (like in cap and trade). Fischoff sketched out for me a possible research endeavor — the careful design of a tax instrument and the sophisticated collection of behavioral responses to it — that he thought would be necessary for a tax proposal to gather support. “But I don’t think the politicians are that informed about the realm of the possible,” he added. “Opinion polls are not all that one needs.”

Careful we don’t do anything to confuse or depress or worry people into changing the way we live. You wouldn’t want to cause a stampeed among so fragile a population… better to slip it in a like a suggestive value menu item.

I know there’s a chicken-and-egg quality to the way we follow leaders who think so little of us, but it’s not a closed loop. As this useful article makes implicit, there are plenty of ways of  breaking the spell, even if we must get psychological about it. We would proably relax if we could be sure that the next steps would merely be dangerous. And interesting.