Missing Feedback

I generally think we are overconfident in our opinions. We should all be more skeptical that we are right, that we have made the best possible decisions, and that we truly understand how the world operates. Our worldviews can only be informed by our experiences and by the information we take in about events, phenomena, and stories in the world. We will always be limited because we can’t take in all the information the world has to offer. Additionally, beyond simply not being able to hold all the information possible, we are unable to get the appropriate feedback we need in all situations for comprehensive learning. Some feedback is hazy and some feedback is impossible to receive at all. This means that we cannot be sure that we have made the best choices in our lives, even if things are going well and we are making our best efforts to study the world.


In Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “When feedback does not work, we may benefit from a nudge.” When we can’t get immediate feedback on our choices and decisions, or when we get feedback that is unclear, we can’t adjust appropriately for future decisions. We can’t learn, we can’t improve, and we can’t make the best choices when we return to a decision-situation. However, we can observe where situations of poor feedback exist, and we can help design those decision-spaces to provide subtle nudges to help people make better decisions in the absence of feedback. Visual aids showing how much money people need for retirement and how much they can expect to have based on current savings rates is a helpful nudge in a situation where we don’t get feedback for how well we are saving money. There are devices that glow red or green based on your home’s current energy usage and efficiency, providing a subtle nudge to remind people not to use appliances at peak demand times and giving people feedback on energy usage that they normally wouldn’t receive. Nudges such as these can provide feedback, or can provide helpful information in the absence of feedback.


Sunstein and Thaler also write, “many of life’s choices are like practicing putting without being able to see where the balls end up, and for one simple reason: the situation is not structured to provide good feedback. For example, we usually get feedback only on the options we select, not the ones we reject.” Missing feedback is an important consideration because the lack of feedback influences how we understand the world and how we make decisions. The fact that we cannot get feedback on options we never chose should be nearly paralyzing. We can’t say how the world works if we never experiment and try something different. We can settle into a decent rhythm and routine, but we may be missing out on better lifestyles, happier lives, or better societies if we made different choices. However, we can never receive feedback on these non-choices. I don’t know that this means we should necessarily try to constantly experiment at the cost of settling in with the feedback we can receive, but I do think it means we should discount our own confidence and accept that we don’t know all there is. I also think it means we should look to increase nudges, use more visual aids, and structure our choices and decisions in ways that help maximize useful feedback to improve learning for future decision-making.

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