Do People Make the Best Choices?

My wife works with families with children with disabilities and for several years I worked in the healthcare space. A common idea between our two worlds was that the people being assisted are the experts on their own lives, and they know what is best for them. Parents are the experts for their children and patients are the experts in their health. Even if parents to don’t know all the intervention strategies to help a child with disabilities, and even if patients don’t have an MD from Stanford, they are still the expert in their own lives and what they and their families need.

 

But is this really true? In recent years there has been a bit of a customer service pushback in the world of business, more of a recognition that the customer isn’t always right. Additionally, research from the field of cognitive psychology, like much of the research from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow that I wrote about, demonstrates that people can have huge blind spots in their own lives. People cannot always think rationally, in part because their brains are limited in their capacity to handle lots of information and because their brains can be tempted to take easy shortcuts in decision-making that don’t always take into account the true nature of reality. Add to Kahneman’s research the ideas put forth by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in The Elephant in the Brain, where the authors argue that our minds intentionally hide information from ourselves for political and personal advantage, and we can see that individual’s can’t be trusted to always make the best decisions.

 

So while no one else may know a child as well as the child’s parents, and while no one knows your body and health as well as you do, your status as the expert of who you are doesn’t necessarily mean you are in the best position to always make choices and decisions that are in your own best interest. Biases, cognitive errors, and simple self-deception can lead you astray.

 

If you accept that you as an individual, and everyone else individually, cannot be trusted to always make the best choices, then it is reasonable to think that someone else can step in to help improve your decision-making in certain predictable instances where cognitive errors and biases can be anticipated. This is a key idea in the book Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. In defending their ideas for libertarian paternalism, the authors write, “The false assumption is that almost all people, almost all of the time, make choices that are in their best interest or at the very least are better than the choices that would be made by someone else. We claim that this assumption is false – indeed, obviously false.”

 

In many ways, our country prefers to operate with markets shaping the main decisions and factors of our lives. We like to believe that we make the best choices for our lives, and that aggregating our choices into markets will allow us to minimize the costs of individual errors. The idea is that we will collectively make the right choices, driving society in the right direction and revealing the best option and decision for each individual without deliberate tinkering in the process. However, we have seen that markets don’t encourage us to save as much as we should and markets can be susceptible to the same cognitive errors and biases that we as individuals all share.  Markets, in other words, can be wrong just like us as individuals.

 

Libertarian paternalism helps overcome the errors of markets by providing nudges to help people make better decisions. Setting up systems and structures that make saving for retirement easier helps correct a market failure. Outsourcing investment strategies, rather than each of us individually making stock trades, helps ensure that shared biases and panics don’t overwhelm the entire stock exchange. The reality is that we as individuals are not rational, but we can develop systems and structures that provide us with nudges to help us act more rationally, overcoming the reality that we don’t always make the choices that are in our best interest.

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