People aren’t very good at making decisions
On Opposite Day, we do our best to argue in service of a position that, under normal circumstances, we argue against. Coke people might sing the praises of Pepsi, Cat people might talk about why Dogs make for superior pets, Political Types might put forward the position that is usually held by their opponents. After all, *ANYONE* can beat up a strawman. Here is the kickoff post for the symposium. Here is a list of all the posts so far.
Golden Boy with feet of clay
Let me help you on your way
A proper push will take you far –
But what a clumsy lad you are!
-Stephen R. Donaldson
I don’t even need to ask you to look at your own life to get you to agree to the title of this piece. Let alone ask you to look at your parents. We won’t even think about taking a look at the parents of your significant other. (We’re beyond “embarrassment of riches” territory. We’re somewhere around “mortification”.) Whether we’re talking about romantic decisions, life decisions, career decisions, existential decisions, and all the way down to such things as trivial decisions about such things as “should I get a sandwich on white bread or on whole grain bread”, the sheer number of people who routinely make the wrong decision is staggering.
This manifests itself most violently when it comes to politics: Let’s say that you found yourself with sewage backing up into your basement. Would you call a master plumber with 10 (or 15, or 20) years of experience (with, perhaps, an apprentice or journeyman plumber helping him) or would your eyes immediately be drawn to the guy who brags “I’ve never held so much as a plunger!”? Let’s say that you hope to finish a basement and put up some drywall. Would you want to have a conversation with a guy who had been a framer for a couple dozen years or would you prefer to talk to a guy who said “I’ve never done it before but how tough could it be?”
And yet when it comes to our politicians, our eyes are always drawn to the gentleman who says “I’m not from, of, in, about, or any preposition related to Washington.” When asked to choose between “I’ve been a Congressman for 24 years!” and “I slept in a Holiday Inn Express last night”, again and again, we find ourselves enamored with the newcomer. Thank goodness that the majority of choices we make have so little short-to-medium-term impact on our lives! Unfortunately, the number of people who are actually *GOOD* at making decisions is a very small one… but, lucky for all of us, it’s one that does, in fact, exist.
The solution to the problem is actually in the frame: when you have dozens, hundreds, *THOUSANDS* of choices before you, of *COURSE* you’re going to make a bad decision (seriously, papers have been written about this and it’s been given an official name and everything)… and that’s if you make a decision at all in the first place ( they have a name for that too ). If reducing blunders in society is one of our goals, then one of the things that will help as much or more than providing EVEN MORE information is limiting choices to a reasonable level (indeed, when information is given, it’s just as likely to be misinterpreted as ignored or interpreted properly… such as when fast food restaurants started making their calorie counts public, people responded not by choosing to make healthier choices, but as if they wanted the greatest number of calories for their dollar… more “bang for the buck”. That’s not why we wanted the calorie counts public, people!).
Given that people tend to make bad decisions (if they make a decision at all) when provided with the dozens, hundreds, *THOUSANDS* of choices we put before them, it seems like the best things that we, as a society, should do is to both limit the available decisions (seriously, how many different kinds of apple sauce or peanut butter do we really need to have on the shelves?) as well as change what the default for doing nothing is. By having the people who are actually good at making decisions be in charge of the decisions trees available to everyone else, society will pretty much only benefit. Now, I’m not talking about eliminating choice, not at all. That would be downright malicious. I’m just saying that if we can limit choices to A, B, C, or D where A, B, C, *AND* D are all good choices, people will find themselves making the right decision no matter what while still feeling like they chose. It’d be like asking them if they want apple slices, or a salad, or a healthy soup, or a healthy vegetable slaw with their meal instead of letting them just say “fries” as a default. They’ll get the benefits of eating healthy when they eat, and society will gain the benefit of healthier participants.
On the topic of public health, unwanted pregnancies are a cause of huge amounts of societal problems as well. Abortion, poverty, inter-class resentments… all of these could easily be avoided with setting the default for sex to “protected” rather than “unprotected” to protect from all kinds of infections that are easily transmitted through skin contact, while a drug like Norplant could provide five (or ten or fifteen) years of default safe sex. This isn’t going to say that people who don’t want to be part of the program should be *FORCED* to participate, mind. Of course people who want to have children should be able to! This is just asking the question “if we’re going to have a default, where do we want the default set to?” and “every child a wanted child” seems a much better default than “roll the bones” (which is certainly likely to result in yet another person unlikely to make good decisions)!
We’re all in this together: if we cannot train ourselves to make good decisions, we will be stuck making bad ones and that is bad for *ALL* of us.