Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works makes reference to some interesting research with public policy implications. P.E. Tetlock and others published a study entitled “The psychology of the unthinkable: Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals” in a 2000 issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Among other experiments, they presented subjects with a story about a hospital administrator deciding whether or not to spend $1 million to save the life of one child. They found that the experimental subjects disapproved of the administrator, regardless of which choice they made.
This seems to mesh well with the inappropriate rage in the United States about health care ‘rationing.’ As Peter Singer very effectively explained, rationing is inevitable in health care, as well as in all other areas of government spending where demand is potentially unlimited. What varies is the mechanism by which the rationing occurs: by severity of illness, by the wealth of sick people, etc.
Does the knowledge that people dislike the makers of tough decisions have any other social or political relevance? Perhaps. Tough choices certainly abound when it comes to environmental issues. Where a fishery is being exploited at an unsustainale rate, do we limit it to protect access to fish in the future, at the cost of a lot of fishing jobs today? Do we force people to pay for expensive wind, solar, or nuclear power so as to reduce the effects of climate change in the future? To what extent can the general public mitigate their intuitive disapproval, in recognition of the fact that politics requires hard choices? Also, to what extent should such cognitive biases reduce the extent to which public opinion is a valid source of guidance in policy-making?