Decisions, decisions

The other day, some research was published which showed that mice, faced with choosing between two identical (tasty) rewards, took longer to start eating than where there was only one such reward. It took them time to decide. Who’d have thought it? In fact, we all know that it's difficult to make decisions of this sort. To choose between chocolate cake or lemon meringue pie is not an easy thing for me.  The equality of desire makes the choice very difficult and time-consuming, even when the outcome of the choice is not, at least to an outsider, very important. 

But if there are in fact things in life which are more important than dessert then, surely, we would make choices about them based on a rational consideration of the benefits and disadvantages for our lives?  Well maybe not.  For example, we are aware that our decisions may be influenced by advertising.  We know that advertising is far from designed to present the truth and the whole truth in its representation of goods and services.  You would think then that, if we were conscious of this, that we would be able to negate its effect.  The immense amount of money paid to advertising agencies, however, is in itself evidence that we choose not do so or, more likely, can’t be bothered to do so.  It looks as though enough of us are beguiled by the message to warrant the money spent. We are hypnotised into deciding at some emotional level that we do actually want whatever is being sold to us.

So what about the decisions which do not have anything to do with advertising? Are they based on reason? For many years there was the idea that the Market, the unseen hand, was a perfect example of reason used in pursuit of the wish to gain as much as possible.  We have seen though that the perfect market (i.e. the rational market) beloved of economists is an illusion.  Stockbrokers will talk about the movement in share prices as changes in 'sentiment'.  This is an obvious clue.  The explanation for this sentiment is that it is group-think, which means in turn that the market cannot be rational. Of course this is not really an explanation of why it happens, but only a description of what actually happens.  We would have to delve deeper into our psychology to find out why we want to behave as others do by making similar choices to them.  It may well be fear that they know something which we don’t or it may just be laziness on our part – following the crowd. 

Indeed, in a different sense there may be some rationality in this way of doing business. For instance, it has been known for quite a while that star stock-pickers, who charge high fees for their skill, only have success for a limited period, before fading.  For this reason, it is more cost-effective to buy stocks on the basis of what the market as a whole is doing – index tracking stocks - rather than hoping that any given individual has the inside track on how the market will move.  They don’t.  Their transient star-rating comes from chance. Rather like monkeys, type-writers and Shakespeare, given enough stockbrokers one or two will get lucky - for a while. The trouble is that, by definition, we don’t know which ones it will be.

But what about the decisions we make about normal life?  To ascertain all the facts necessary to rationally justify a decision is not easy.  And for the more complex decisions we sometimes have to make, it is almost impossible to have all the facts necessary to make a truly rational decision. And so we largely have to depend on our instincts – often based on past experience, whether or not that experience is really relevant now.

Recently we have seen that scientists are beginning to take this lack of rationality in our decision-making more seriously. There are now scientific studies that seek to explain how it is that our decisions derive to a significant extent from our evolution and not by reason pure and simple.  The idea that researchers are examining is that, throughout our lives, we have both genetic predispositions to make particular decisions and we also learn through experience how to make decisions in a pragmatic way, a way which reflects our experience and that of others from whom we learn. They propose that this experiential learning is just like the increasingly ‘intelligent’ algorithms: we weigh things up unconsciously for the most part.  To do this, we have heuristics, rules of thumb, that we apply and of which we are not really conscious.  According to the researchers, this is an advantage because to have to think in detail about each and every decision would not be practical. We do not have the time, as it seems we make between 2,500 and 10,000 decisions every day -  although quite how they’ve arrived at these figures, I don’t know.

Now, it is obvious that there are very useful basic instinctive reactions - disgust protects us from many diseases; fear in the presence of strange noises, especially when it is dark, may save our lives. There may also be a survival benefit from anger - it will motivate us as a society to punish a wrongdoer and therefore maintain social cohesion. Empathy too, it is increasingly realised, is there for the same purpose and is one of the main explanations for our moral codes.  But there are two heuristics which are not connected directly to strong emotions, but which, it seems, we use every day.  There is the heuristic of 'recognition' which will direct you towards taking a familiar option where there is very little information to enable you to make a rational choice - maybe going to Waitrose or John Lewis to buy something out of the ordinary, because we trust them to provide something of good quality. And then there is the heuristic 'enough', that tells you to choose the first option that meets or exceeds your expectations, when to delay a choice would harm your interests or that of the species. For example, marriage. As the Australian comedian Tim Minchin sang so romantically, in a song dedicated to his girlfriend -

     "If it hadn't been you it would have been somebody-else".

But I do not want to accept that my decisions are all made in the darkness of my subconscious. And despite what the experts suggest, it seems to me that there is still a place for a conscious decision, one subject to my reason, such as it is.  Even if my subconscious pushes me towards a particular decision, this is where we distinguish ourselves from those organisms without significant self-consciousness. I see the subterranean 'decision' based on my genetics as only a suggestion offered to the conscious me.  I can still decide whether it makes sense in the broader context of my life. I am not forced to accept it - providing that I am willing to challenge things. 

After all, I know that my subconscious is by no means perfect. It does not, for example, understand the world of probability very well and thus, at the level of instinct, we can make really bad decisions.  Fortunately, however, I can pause and check to see if I am in danger of doing something stupid.  I may also pause and reflect if I want to change the direction of my life.  I can decide instead to look around for other possibilities, other solutions.  And it is this which makes me human.

Paul Buckingham

October 7th, 2019

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