Satisficing

Satisficing

Satisficing gets a bad wrap, but it isn’t actually that bad of a way to make decisions and it realistically accommodates the constraints and challenges that decision-makers in the real world face. None of us would like admit when we are satisficing, but the reality is that we are happy to satisfice all the time, and we are often happy with the results.

 

In Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer recommends satisficing when trying to chose what to order at a restaurant. Regarding this strategy for ordering, he writes:

 

“Satisficing: This … means to choose the first option that is satisfactory; that is, good enough. You need the menu for this rule. First, you pick a category (say, fish). Then you read the first item in this category, and decide whether it is good enough. If yes, you close the menu and order that dish without reading any further.”

 

Satisficing works because we often have more possibilities than we have time to carefully weigh and consider. If you have never been to the Cheesecake Factory, reading each option on the menu for the first time would probably take you close to 30 minutes. If you are eating on your own and don’t have any time constraints, then sure, read the whole menu, but the staff will probably be annoyed with you. If you are out with friends or on a date, you probably don’t want to take 30 minutes to order, and you will feel pressured to make a choice relatively quickly without having full knowledge and information regarding all your options. Satisficing helps you make a selection that you can be relatively confident you will be happy with given some constraints on your decision-making.

 

The term satisficing was coined by the Nobel Prize winning political scientist and economist Herbert Simon, and I remember hearing a story from a professor of mine about his decision to remain at Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh. When asked why he hadn’t taken a position at Harvard or a more prestigious Ivy League School, Simon replied that his wife was happy in Pittsburgh and while Carnegie Melon wasn’t as renown as Harvard it was still a good school and still offered him enough of what he wanted to remain. In other words, Carnegie Melon satisfied his basic needs and satisfied criteria in enough areas to make him happy, even though a school like Harvard would have maximized his prestige and influence. Simon was satisficing.

 

Without always recognizing it, we turn to satisficing for many of our decisions. We often can’t buy the perfect home (because of timing, price, and other bidders), so we satisfice and buy the first home we can get a good offer on that meets enough of our desires (but doesn’t fit all our desires perfectly). The same goes for jobs, cars, where we are going to get take-out, what movie we want to rent, what new clothes to buy, and more. Carefully analyzing every potential decision we have to make can be frustrating and exhausting. We will constantly doubt whether we made the best choice, and we may be too paralyzed to even make a decision in the first place. If we satisfice, however, we accept that we are not making the best choice but are instead making an adequate choice that satisfies the greatest number of our needs while simplifying the choice we have to make. We can live with what we get and move on without the constant doubt and loss of time that we might otherwise experience. Satisficing, while getting a bad rep from those who favor rationality in all instances, is actually a pretty good decision-making heuristic.
Asymmetric Paternalism

Asymmetric Paternalism

While writing about the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, I have primarily focused on an idea that the authors call Libertarian Paternalism. The idea is to structure choices and use nudges (slight incentives and structural approaches) to guide people toward making the best possible decision as judged by themselves. Maintaining free choice and the option to investigate or chose alternatives is an important piece of the concept, as is the belief that we will influence people’s decisions no matter what, so we should use that influence in a responsible way to help foster good decision-making.

 

But the authors also ask if it is reasonable to go a step beyond Libertarian Paternalism. Is it reasonable for choice architects, governments, and employers to go further than gentle nudges in decision situations? Are there situations where decision-making is too important to be left to the people, where paternalistic decision-making is actually best? Sunstein and Thaler present an introduction to Asymmetric Paternalism as one possible step beyond Libertarian Paternalism.

 

“A good approach to thinking about these problems has been proposed by a collection of behavioral economists and lawyers under the rubric of Asymmetric Paternalism. Their guiding principle is that we should design policies that help the least sophisticated people in society while imposing the smallest possible costs on the most sophisticated.”

 

This approach is appealing in many ways, but also walks the line between elitism, the marginalization of entire segments of society, and maximizing good decision-making. I hate having to make lots of decisions regarding appropriate tax filings, I don’t want to have to make decisions on lots of household appliances, and I don’t really want to have to spend too much time figuring out exactly what maintenance schedule is the best for all of my cars. However, I do want to get into the weeds of my healthcare plan, I want to micromanage my exercise routine, and I want to select all the raw ingredients that go into the dinners and lunches that I cook. On some decisions that I make, I want to outsource my decision-making and I would often be happy with having someone else make a decision so that I don’t have to. But in other areas, I feel very sophisticated in my decision-making approach, and I want to have maximum choice and freedom. Asymmetric Paternalism seems like a good system for those of us who care deeply about some issues, are experts in some areas, and want to maintain full decision-making in the areas we care about, while exporting decision-making in other areas to other people.

 

Of course, prejudices, biases, and people’s self-interest can ruin this approach. What would happen if we allowed ourselves to deem entire groups of people as unworthy of making decisions for themselves by default? Could they ever recover and be able to exercise their freedom to chose in important areas like housing, retirement, and investment spaces? Would we be able to operate for long periods of time under a system of Asymmetric Paternalism without the system devolving due to our biases and prejudices? These are real fears, and while we might like to selectively trade off decision-making when it is convenient for us, we also have to fear that someone else will be making decisions for us that are self-serving for someone other than ourselves.

 

The point, according to Sunstein and Thaler, would be to maintain the freedom of decision-making for everyone, but to structure choices in a way where those with less interest and less ability to make the best decisions are guided more strongly toward what is likely the best option for them. However, we can see how this system of asymmetric paternalism would get out of control. How do we decide where the appropriate level is to draw the line between strong guidance and outright choosing for people? Would people voluntarily give up their ability to chose and overtime hand over too many decisions without an ability to get their decision authority back? Transparency in the process may help, but it might not be enough to make sure the system works.
Open Default Nudges

Open Defaults

Our society has a lot of defaults, and for many of us, we only opt out of the default in a narrow set of circumstances. Whether it is our mode of travel, how we pay for goods, or the type of health insurance plan we are enrolled in, the default option makes a big difference in our lives. Actors within our political and economic systems know this, and the choice of default can matter a lot to individual actors, political groups, and companies. Consequentially, what default is selected, and what story we tell about the default, is a constant point of argument and debate in our country.

 

In their book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler discuss the importance of nudges and the ways that responsible choice architects should think about them. Choice architects may face pressure to select a default option that in one way or another benefits them personally or benefits the group or ideology they identify with. A state government may favor a default Medicaid option that is confusing and hard for individuals to use, meaning that fewer people will access services, and the state won’t have to pay as much for medical services for low income individuals. A corporate HR representative might feel pressured from a boss to have the default retirement savings rate for employees set at 2%, knowing that the company will spend less through retirement savings matching if the rate is lower.

 

But these types of defaults are not in the best interest of individuals. A health plan that is easy to use and facilitates access to necessary medical care is clearly in the best interest of the individual, but it may cost more for the government agency or corporation sponsoring the plan. A retirement plan that helps save above the rate of inflation is also clearly in the best interest of the individual, but might be more costly to a company’s bottom line.

 

As a guide for setting defaults, following with previous advice of ensuring that deliberate nudges employed by governments or corporations can survive open transparency, Sunstein and Thaler write, “The same conclusion holds for legal default rules. If government alters such rules – to encourage organ donation or reduce discrimination – it should not be secretive about what it is doing.”

 

The defaults we chose, and the reasons we select defaults should be open and transparent. If a choice architect cannot defend a default choice, then they should set an alternative default that can be defended in the open. Defaults that clearly benefit the choice architect or their interests at the expense of the individual making (or failing to make) a choice should be excluded. It is important to note that this means that choice architects have to actively make a decision with the default. Setting the default for a retirement savings plan if an individual never makes a selection to 0 is not in the best interest of the individual. An argument could be made that the choice architect attempted to remove themselves from the choice setting as much as possible by not providing a default, but that is still a choice, and will leave some people worse off than if the choice architect had selected a more defensible choice. Choosing not to set a default can be as indefensible as selecting a self-serving default.
Acknowledging Nudges

Acknowledging Nudges

In the book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler argue that it is impossible to avoid and eliminate nudges. Whenever people have a choice to be made, someone else has a hand in shaping how that choice is presented and structured. Even if a choice architect were to strive to maximize choice and decision-making autonomy in the chooser, subtle factors will influence the chooser and nudge them in particular directions. Striving to eliminate nudges is likely to lead to worse potential outcomes and choices than acknowledging nudges and trying to employ them in ways that help people make good choices.

 

But how does a choice architect judge when a nudge is appropriate versus when a nudge goes too far? Again, Sunstein and Thaler recommend that first a choice architect acknowledge their nudge, and then ask themselves whether they could discuss the way they use nudges in public. The authors reference an idea from John Rawls called the publicity principle. If a choice architect feels comfortable with publicly acknowledging nudges and their choice to employ a given nudge, then their nudge is probably going in an appropriate direction. If however, the discovery of their nudges would lead people to shame them or if they would be embarrassed about their actions, then they have overstepped the bounds of an acceptable nudge.

 

Sunstein and Thaler write, “The government should respect the people whom it governs, and if it adopts policies that it could not defend in public, it fails to manifest that respect. Instead, it treats its citizens as tools for its own manipulation.”

 

Nudges are effective tools because we can understand how human psychology works and we can predict situations in which people are likely to make biased judgements or judgements based on cognitive errors. Appropriate nudges seek to improve decision-making by helping people overcome these biases and errors. Manipulative nudges are those which seek to exploit such biases. Governments are expected to be transparent, and more laws exist for transparency in the public rather than the private sector, meaning that government officials must be more considerate about their explicit nudges. If oversight bodies, reporters, or the general public were to learn of a practice that made an agency or official look good while failing to actually benefit the public, then it would be clear that an abuse of power took place. Choice architects who wish to serve the public rather than manipulate it should always consider acknowledging nudges, and whether they can safely do so publicly.
Public vs Private Choice Architects - Joe Abittan

Who to Fear: Public vs Private Choice Architects

A question that Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler raise in their book Nudge is whether we should worry more about public or private sector choice architects. A choice architect is anyone who influences the decision space of another individual or group. Your office’s HR person in charge of health benefits is a choice architect. The people at Twitter who decided to increase the character length of tweets are choice architects. The government bureaucrat who designs the form you use to register to vote is also a choice architect. The decisions that each individual or team makes around the choice structure for other people’s decisions will influence the decisions and behaviors of people in those choice settings.

 

In the United States, we often see a split between public and private that is feels more concrete than the divide truly is. Often, we fall dramatically on one side of the imagined divide, either believing everything needs to be handled by businesses, or thinking that businesses are corrupt and self-interested and that government needs to step in to monitor almost all business actions. The reality is that businesses and government agencies overlap and intersect in many complex ways, and that choice architects in both influence the public and each other in complex ways. Regardless of what you believe and what side you fall on, both choice architects need to be taken seriously.

 

“On the face of it, it is odd to say that the public architects are always more dangerous than the private ones. After all, managers in the public sector have to answer to voters, and managers in the private sector have as their mandate the job of maximizing profits and share prices, not consumer welfare.”

 

Sunstein and Thaler suggest that we should be concerned about private sector choice architects because they are ultimately responsible to company growth and shareholder value, rather than what is in the best interest of individuals. When conflicts arise between what is best for people and what is best for a company’s bottom line, there could be pressure on the choice architect to use nudges to help the bottom line rather than to help people make the best decisions possible.

 

However, the public sector is not free from perverse incentives simply by being elected, being accountable to the public, or being free from profit motives. Sunstein and Thaler continue, “we agree that government officials, elected or otherwise, are often captured by private-sector interests whose representatives are seeking to nudge people in directions that will specifically promote their selfish goals.” The complex interplay of government and private companies means that even the public sector is not a space purely dedicated to public welfare. The general public doesn’t have the time, attention, energy, or financial resources to influence public sector choice architects in the ways that the private sector does. And if private sector influences shape choice structures via public elected officials, they can create a sense of legitimacy for ultimately selfish decisions. Of course, public sector choice architects could be more interested in keeping their job or winning reelection, and may promote their own selfish goals for self-preservation reasons as well.

 

We can’t think of public sector or private sector actors as being more trustworthy or responsible than the other. Often times, they overlap and influence each other, shifting the incentives and opinions of the public and the actors within public and private sectors simultaneously. Sunstein and Thaler suggest that this is a reason for maintaining the maximal choice freedom possible. The more people have their own ability to make choices, even if they are nudged, the more we can limit the impact of self-serving choice architects, whether they are in the public or private sectors.
Selfish Choice Architects

Selfish Choice Architects

“So lets go on record,” write Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge, “as saying that choice architects in all walks of life have incentives to nudge people in directions that benefit the architects (or their employers) rather than the users.”

 

Choice architects are those who design, organize, or provide decision situations to individuals. Whether it is the person who determines the order for food on the buffet line, the human resources manager responsible for selecting health insurance plans for the company, or a bureaucrat who designs an enrollment form, anyone who influences a situation where a person makes a decision or a choice is architecting that choice. Their decisions will influence the way that people understand their choice and the choices that they actually make.

 

As the quote above notes, there can always be pressure for a choice architect to design the decision space in a way that advances their own desires or needs as opposed to advancing the best interest of the individual making a given choice. Grocery stores adjust their layouts with the hopes that displays, sales, or conveniently located candy will get customers to purchase things they otherwise wouldn’t purchase. A company could skimp on health benefits and present confusing plans to employees with hurdles preventing them from utilizing their benefits, saving the company money while still appearing to have generous benefits. A public agency could design a program that meets a political objective and makes the agency head look good, even if it gives up actual effectiveness in the process and doesn’t serve citizens well.

 

Nudges are useful, but they have the capacity to be nefarious. A buffet manager might want patrons to fill up on cheap salad, eating less steak, meaning that the buffet does better on the margins. Placing multiple cheap salads at the front of the line, and not allowing people to jump right to steak, is a way to nudge people to eating cheaper food. Sunstein and Thaler acknowledge the dark side of nudges in their book, and encourage anyone who is a choice architect to strive to avoid the dark side of nudges. Doing so, they warn, risks leading to cynicism and in the long run is likely to create problems when employee, customer, or citizen trust and buy in is needed.
Too Many Options - Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler - Joe Abittan

Too Many Options

Writing specifically about new employee enrollment in retirement savings plans, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge write, “One study finds that the more options in the plan, the lower the participation rates. This finding should not be surprising. With more options, the process becomes more confusing and difficult, and some people will refuse to chose at all.” The important lesson that Thaler and Sunstein present with this quote is that getting people to do things that they want to do and know is in their best interests is challenging, even when it shouldn’t be. Additionally, people have ideas of what they should be doing and have goals for where they want to be, but don’t often have a great sense of the best way to get there. When that is the case, such as saving enough for retirement, making the path simple is more important than ensuring that the path leads to the most optimal choice or maximizes the individual’s choices.

 

One size fits all approaches and solutions usually are not great. They typically get the job done, but usually don’t lead to the best outcomes for most people. This is true with health insurance plans, retirement savings accounts, and special event t-shirts. One size fits all health plans cover general health needs, but might not work well for someone who needs expensive asthma medicine. Generalized retirement savings accounts help people get started on the path to saving for retirement and ensure that people at least have something banked when they get to 65, but they often fall short and have minimal risk taking approaches that prevent losses, but limit growth. And unisex t-shirts fit everyone, but aren’t the most comfortable and certainly are not form fitting to match current fashion trends. However, despite their inadequacies, these examples are often good first steps in helping people make a decision and get started with a plan.

 

It would be great if every person could pick the perfect healthcare plan, could find the optimal investment strategy for retirement, and have perfectly tailored clothes for every special occasion, but it isn’t realistic everyone to make great choices in all of these situations. No one knows exactly what their healthcare demands will be for the upcoming year. Our risk tolerance and savings needs and abilities will change throughout our lifetime, and no one can mass produce special event t-shirts that are tailored to every participant. Information is lacking, preferences don’t stay the same, and resources are constrained.

 

Getting people (or products) started is the first step toward ensuring healthcare coverage, retirement savings, and having race-day t-shirts for a charity run. Given the constraints I mentioned above, the initial choices need to be simple. Presenting an individual with 20 healthcare plans is going to be confusing and frustrating. The same is true for retirement options, and people looking to coordinate clothing for a special event can’t spend the too much time arguing between thousands of combinatorial options for their shirts. Rather than making a selection, people risk dropping out if they face too many choices. When there are too many options, people become frustrated, and if they don’t walk away, might select the first option they see, making suboptimal choices.

 

A solution is to take a one size fits all approach that can be adjusted and customized at a later point. Getting people started with something simple and generalized can avoid the frustrating paralysis that presenting too many options can create. Helping people understand how to make changes and learn between selections will help people improve their decisions over time and better identify healthcare plans, retirement savings plans, and custom t-shirt options that match their needs, preferences, and constraints. It is possible to present people with a few options initially, and allow them to explore additional options later on if the initial options are not a good fit or if the individual wants to explore more nuanced and complex options.
Default Choices

More On Default Choices

In many decision situation there is a default choice. Many online forms already have a bubble selected as you scroll through, there are many opt-out clauses in hospital disclosures, and when you go to sign-up for a social media platform there are pre-set security and information sharing agreements and settings. These defaults can matter a lot, and sometimes they matter much more to someone other than the recipient of the default. As Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write in Nudge, “note that not all defaults are selected to make the chooser’s life easier or better.”

 

Default selections are nudges because they shape the easiest choice path, what Sunstein and Thaler refer to as the path of least resistance. When a default has already been selected, the chooser doesn’t have to make a decision. Their non-decision still results in a choice being selected. The default is often the most popular option, even if it isn’t the best choice for anyone, because there is some cost to switching away. The cost is usually only time and effort, and normally a minimal amount of time and effort, but still, it is a cost that people won’t pay.

 

“If, for a given choice,” write Sunstein and Thaler, “there is a default option – an option that will obtain if the chooser does nothing – then we can expect a large number of people to end up with that option, whether or not it is good for them.”

 

Most of us probably agree that it isn’t in our best interest to allow Facebook to gather massive amounts of information about us to be sold to advertisers and political campaigns. However, the default settings for Facebook require us to opt-out of having our data sold. The process for finding the settings and opting out of targeted advertisements and having our data sold is hard to find, and the exact spot in the settings menu changes periodically. We lose time trying to find the right spots to check to get out of the default, and we can become frustrated if we can’t find the settings we are looking for. As a result, many people never change away from the data sharing default.

 

The Facebook example is a fairly nefarious use of defaults, but using defaults as nudges can be positive for individuals and societies as well. In 2019 the state I live in, Nevada, approved a new law which allows people to register to vote when completing anything they need at the DMV. By default, individuals over 18 who are eligible to vote are asked if they would like to register or update their registration. People don’t have to ask to update their voter registration, they don’t have to track down a website to update voter information, and they don’t have to hope someone approaches them in a parking lot with voter registration forms, it is a default option while doing regular paperwork at the DMV. Many states have a similar process with becoming an organ donor, where registering as an organ donor is the default option when applying for a state issued identification, requiring people to opt out of organ donor programs rather than opt in. States and countries with such systems have far more organ donors than states that don’t include people by default.

 

The path of least resistance created by nudges is important to consider. It can be a helpful way to encourage people to make decisions that are good for them and for society. At the same time, defaults can take advantage of laziness or forgetfulness. When we are not directly informed of the defaults that are being applied to us, we can end up in situations like the Facebook data sharing example above. As a result, questions about the default choice are often contentious, especially when a company’s business model requires a default that is not in the best interest of most people, or when a selected default can have political or moral dimensions.
A Limitation on Nudges

A Limitation on Nudges

“Rare, difficult choices are good candidates for nudges,” write Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Throughout their book Nudge, Sunstein and Thaler try to encourage limitations on nudges. They acknowledge that anytime people are in a position to influence decision-making by determining how choices are designed and structured, they will be providing people with nudges, regardless as to whether their nudges are deliberate or inadvertent. However, the authors don’t encourage people to step beyond nudges and truly limit people’s choices or prevent them from making decisions, even if those decisions are ones the individual would deem bad for themselves.

 

Nudges are helpful in rare and difficult choices because we are likely to make mistakes in those areas. We don’t make large investment decisions on a regular basis, we only enroll in healthcare plans once a year (and usually we just let ourselves roll into the same plan as last year), and we hopefully never have to make major life altering medical decisions. When we don’t get immediate feedback on a decision, when we don’t have an opportunity to practice and improve decision making in certain contexts, then we are likely to make mistakes. We won’t use appropriate discount rates, we will be influenced by irrelevant factors, and we will not consider all of the necessary information when making our selection. Nudges can help overcome all of these factors.

 

But we don’t necessarily need direct nudges in every decision situation, and we don’t need people to go beyond nudges and actually limit choices in most of our decisions. Buffets can nudge us by placing salad at the front of the line, so that we load our empty plate with more salad and have less room to pile on the tri-tip at the end of the line. This can be a useful strategy for buffets to save money by encouraging people to eat cheap fillers and could be a useful strategy for school cafeterias to encourage more healthy eating. But placing tri-tip under a cover that requires that we press a lever with one hand and open the lid with a second hand is beyond a reasonable nudge. Sunstein and Thaler believe that nudges should be easy to avoid or bypass for those determined to make their own choices, even if it isn’t what is generally understood to be in their best interest. A limitation on nudges, in the authors view, is a good thing, and helps protect nudges for situations where they are truly helpful and meaningful.
Nudges Are Unavoidable - Joe Abittan

Nudges Are Unavoidable

American capitalism makes a mistake in assuming that people have all the information they need to make a rational choice. As anyone who has ever purchased a car knows, consumers do not always have all the valuable information they need to make a good decision in an exchange, and often, one party has far more information than another. We can become experts at selecting avocados pretty easily, but it is fairly unlikely that we will become experts at selecting the best used car. We become avocado experts because we can buy them weekly and get reliable and immediate feedback when we get home and cut into them. A used car, however, is not something we buy on a regular basis, and we might make it months or years before we have a catastrophic break down.

 

Because we are not experts in everything and because there are some decisions we have to make where we don’t get reliable and timely feedback and can’t practice enough to truly know what to look for, we are subject to forces large and small that influence our decision-making. Buying a used car because you like the sales person, because the price feels right, and because of brand loyalty are examples of cognitive errors or biases where subtle nudges by the dealership or brand can influence us. Whether a salesman intends it or not, there are many factors that nudge our behavior, and they can’t be eliminated.

 

In Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “In many situations, some organization or agent must make a choice that will affect the behavior of some other people. There is, in those situations, no way of avoiding nudging in some direction, and whether intended or not, these nudges will affect what people chose.”

 

The car dealership example is a somewhat nefarious and depressing view of nudges. However, the reality of Sunstein and Thaler’s quote can also be a powerful force to help improve people’s lives and not just overcharge them for a lemon. Carfax is a company that helps nudge people in the right direction, by getting them to consider the vehicle’s collision history before making a decision based on how shiny the car looks. Other nudges can be helpful for people, and if we accept that nudges are unavoidable, then we can actively step in to help design decision situations in a way that will allow people to make good decisions. An example I can think of would be visual aids to help people understand how much they can afford for a monthly car payment, mortgage, or rent. Most housing agencies suggest that people shouldn’t spend more than 33% of their monthly income on rent/mortgage. A calculator tool with a green smiley face, and a red frown face could help nudge people away from mortgages or rents that they really can’t afford, helping people make difficult and more reasonable housing decisions. Small actions can help people better understand their decisions and can serve as guides that help people do what is actually in their best interest as they themselves would understand it.