Psychology and hard choices

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?

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Psychology and hard choices”

  1. Very thought-provoking. The link you make to ecological dilemmas is apposite and illuminating.

    Public opinion ought almost never be given a decisive role in decision-making, especially in areas requiring expertise (which is almost everywhere). Members of a parliament are not there merely to mirror the opinions of their constituents, but to represent them using their faculties of judgement and wisdom to make the best decisions in light of the best evidence towards the best goals. That’s how it ought to work; I know the reality is usually depressingly different.

  2. I agree with Byron that this entry is very thought provoking. I question whether public opinion should almost never be given a decisive role in decision making, I believe that often transient public opinion is given too large a role. Long-standing public opinions deserves an important role. We are in a democracy. The public pays the taxes which fund public services.

    A problem we face is when public opinion is not well-informed. I think the media contributes to this problem. The media looks for the sensational. Therefore if a criminal with a criminal history which is reprehensible is to b e released on day parole elements of the media may broadcast this widely. There is then public outrage. The politicians to gain favour respond by then restricting a parole system which is working for its function of integrating prisoners into society.

    In the health care area we will have many occasion in the future to consider rationing. In British Columbia, I believe the health care budget is approximately 43% of the total budget. Left as it is, within a decade it would be 50%. Those tough choices which hospital administrators or health authorities face will become more important and necessary.

    Final thought as someone who has been away from this blog for a bit, I realize how thought provoking and interesting the entires and the comments are.

  3. In fact, if a cabal of evil psychologists had gathered in a secret undersea base to concoct a crisis humanity would be hopelessly ill-equipped to address, they couldn’t have done better than climate change. We’ve evolved to respond more vigorously to threats that are immediate and easy to picture mentally, rather than those that are distant and abstract; we’re more sensitive to intentional threats from specific humans, rather than unintentional ones resulting from collective action; we’re terrible at making small sacrifices in the present to avoid vast ones in future; our attention is seized by phenomena that change daily, rather than those that ratchet up gradually over years.

    And should it dawn on us that our behaviours don’t match our beliefs – that we’re not doing our bit to save the planet, even though we think we should – we find it far easier to adjust the belief (downgrading the importance of climate change) than the behaviour (flying less, having fewer children).

  4. Typically, when you think about yourself, a region of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, powers up. When you think about other people, it powers down. And if you feel like you don’t have anything in common with the people you’re thinking about? The MPFC activates even less.

    More than 100 brain-imaging studies have reported this effect. (Here’s a helpful meta-analysis—while some fMRI studies have been called into question recently for statistical errors and false positives, this particular finding is robust.) But there’s one major exception to this rule: The further out in time you try to imagine your own life, the less activation you show in the MPFC. In other words, your brain acts as if your future self is someone you don’t know very well and, frankly, someone you don’t care about.

    This glitchy brain behavior may make it harder for us to take actions that benefit our future selves both as individuals and as a society. Studies show that the more your brain treats your future self like a stranger, the less self-control you exhibit today, and the less likely you are to make pro-social choices, choices that will probably help the world in the long run. You’re less able to resist temptations, you procrastinate more, you exercise less, you put away less money for your retirement, you give up sooner in the face of frustration or temporary pain, and you’re less likely to care about or try to prevent long-term challenges like climate change.

    This makes sense. As UCLA researcher Hal Hirschfield put it: “Why would you save money for your future self when, to your brain, it feels like you’re just handing away your money to a complete stranger?”

    Our current political climate in the United States reflects this same cognitive bias against the future. Recently, President Trump signed a sweeping executive order undoing a vast array of regulations designed to mitigate long-term climate change in favor of policies that provide much shorter-term economic benefits. And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently made headlines when he said publicly that he is “not worried at all” about the possibility automation could eliminate millions or even tens of millions of American jobs in the future. “It’s not even on our radar screen,” he said, adding that it won’t happen for “50 to 100 years or more.” But, as Daniel Gross wrote in Slate, he’s wrong. It probably will not take five decades or more for robots and artificial intelligence to significantly reduce the number of jobs available to Americans. Recent economic research from MIT suggests that 670,000 industrial jobs have already been lost to automation in the U.S.

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