Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Choice Architects, Autonomy, and Responsibility

One of my favorite writers is Cass Sunstein. A brilliant man and a great writer, he's been on a roll the last few years with questions I've been thinking about as well: how do we mesh facts from social psychology -- facts that show how our choices are affected by social pressures, context, and sensory stimulation -- with our notions of rationality and morality that we inherit from the Enlightenment that paint us as intellectual atoms capable of autonomy and objectivity?

I heard an interview with Professor Sunstein and Richard Thaler his co-author and a Prof of Economics and Behavioral Sciences at University of Chicago concerning their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness In the book, they wrestle with the fact that small things, like the order of names on a ballot, for example, will have an effect on the outcome of an election. As such, we need to be cognizant of "choice architects," the people who set up the way our choices are made and especially those who design the defaults for not making a choice.

This is especially important because social scientists show a strong bias for the status quo, even if that state is harmful. We are wired to be conservative in the sense that the threshold for change is higher than it would be if we were purely rational beings. Human beings are unbelievably plastic entities; we can get used to anything, no matter how irrational, how harmful, or how inconvenient. And we will then defend nearly to the death the old faulty system. It brings to mind the old John Maynard Keynes quip -- when asked how his revolution in macro-economics was coming along, he replied, "We make progress one funeral at a time."

I've marveled at this. Progress in Northern Ireland, for example, was at a standstill until the horrible bombing at Omaugh killed innocent children. Only then were people willing to step back from terribly irrational and harmful stances and adopt a stance of openness and reconciliation. It seems as if the status quo must be knocked from our hands by tragedy if we are to progress at all.

But this reluctance is also contextual. Insecurity often causes us to cling to that we know is wrong when we are afraid of losing our identities, our places, or that which is familiar. There are many stock examples of harmful cultural practices that were being culled from societies until colonizers tried to impose a new way of life. The risk of losing identity caused a resurgence in even the problematic aspects of the culture.

It seems then that social psychology does not, as some post-modernists might argue, show us that rationality ceases to exist, but that contrary to the naive Enlightenment view, it is not necessarily our natural state. Rationality can occur when the factors undermining it are controlled for. But then this requires not only an ability to make decisions well, but also an understanding of those biasing factors and how they affect us.

Given that most people will never be able to acquire such information, then, can we really hold people responsible for irrational choices? Do the choice architects, those people who designed the system, bear responsibility for choices they did not make?