Here is a puzzle from the field of economics.
Imagine that there is a particular concert that you want to go to with a friend of yours. The concert is expected to be very popular, and concert goers can only purchase tickets at a particular location. So, you go to that location with enough money to buy the tickets, only to discover that the line is already extremely long. Still, you get in line. When the ticket stand opens, the line starts to move, and, before you get to the ticket stand, they hang a “Sold Out” sign on the window and close up the stand.
Your next option is to go onto the computer and see who is selling tickets. You see that the tickets are being offered for $1000 each on-line. That’s $2000 for you and your friend. That’s too expensive, you decide, and you decline to buy the tickets.
Then, you pass somebody on the street who is visibly upset. Perhaps he had just had a fight with his girlfriend or something. He puts two concert tickets in your hand and says, “Do whatever you want with them,” and walks off.
Do you then go to the concert?
Most people answer, “Yes.”
However, traditional decision theory suggests that this is the wrong answer.
When you went online to buy the tickets and saw what they were selling for, you decided that $2000 was worth more to you than 2 tickets. Given a decision between keeping $2000 and exchanging it for two tickets, you selected to keep the $2000.
Here, again, you are put in a position where you can decide between having two tickets to the concert and having $2000. You know that you could go online and put the tickets up for sale and get $2000 for them. Yet, most people choose the tickets (and going to the concert) over the $2000 they could otherwise get.
These are the very same people who, earlier, choose to have $2000 rather than the tickets.
What is going on here?
If you take the model that I have been defending in this blog – that people always choose that which fulfills the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs – then this type of decision making is a problem. Why is it that the state that “I have $2000” the one that fulfills the most and strongest desires in the first case, but the state, “I have 2 tickets to the concert” the state that fulfills the most and strongest desires in the second?
Do these types of examples disprove the type of action theory I have been defending?
Inertia in Decision Making
What these types of situations argue for is that our decision making has a certain type of inertia – and that it takes a extra energy, in a sense – an extra benefit - to overcome that inertia and to get us to move along a different course than the one we are on.
In the first case, where a person has the option of buying tickets online for $1000 each, the agent would have to spend $2000 that the agent did not plan to spend. Inertia says to keep the money where it is and forego the concert.
In the second case, where one is suddenly given the tickets, inertia says to go to the concert. This is what the agent had already planned – before the “sold out” sign put a roadblock across those plans. When suddenly given a pair of tickets, those plans become viable again, so the agent goes to the concert.
What this tells us more generally is that people make plans and they have some sort of inclination or tendency to follow those plans to their completion. These plans create barriers to anything that would result in a change of course, that would result in changing those plans.
Furthermore, I suspect that observations would show that people have different degrees of reluctance to changing their plans. Some will scrap a plan the instant they see a benefit in doing so, while others will knowingly follow a plan to its painful end even when they fully see the disaster that waits for them. For these people, the costs of leaving the channel that is their plan is greater than the cost of the cost of the disaster, at least in present terms.
The Belief-Desire Model
We can actually incorporate this phenomena into the belief-desire model that I generally defend in this blog. We can incorporate it by saying that people have an aversion to altering a plan. This aversion is stronger in some people and weaker in others. It is probably malleable (subject to social forces), meaning that it makes sense for us to argue, “To what degree should people be averse to altering a plan?”
There is a moral argument to be made to promoting some aversion to changing plans at the last minute. People who stick to their plans are easier to predict. Because they are easier to predict, this makes it easier for others to make their plans. I create a number of plans every day that depend on what other people do. It is far easier for me to create successful plans when I am able to reliably predict the actions of others.
On the other hand, too much devotion to a plan generates the type of problems I wrote about above. It means that the agent will not change course even when the current course is heading towards a disaster. The aversion that we have to those disastrous states argues for promoting in people some disposition to consider where they are going, and to change course.
This concept of inertia in decision making is relevant to a great many of our social policies.
The problem with global warming is that a great many of our plans carry with them a certain amount of inertia. This inertia tells us to keep to our old habits with respect to driving, heating our homes, and our use of electricity. It takes more than the fact that there are benefits to be captured by altering the way we live. Those benefits have to be so much greater that they can overcome inertia – that they can overcome the aversion to changing plans.
Bigotry and prejudice are also subject to inertia. The difficulty in getting institutions to give up on slavery, segregation, or ‘traditional marriage’, on rituals involving pledges to ‘under God’, all rest with the fact that those ‘traditions had inertia, and inertia favors the preservation of traditions.
In fact, we can easily fit the social concept of a ‘tradition’ into this discussion of the existence of and the value of inertia in decision making. I argued above that there are certain benefits to having people stuck in a plan, to a certain extent; this makes it easier for people to make plans. One way to promote this virtue of sticking with a plan is to attach the term ‘tradition’ to certain plans, and to promote a desire to preserve tradition (or an aversion to violating traditions).
The value . . . the virtue . . . of tradition (as captured in some conservative values) does have some merit. The value . . . the virtue . . . of change also has merit where tradition and keeping to a path is destructive of the self and others. It is permissible to argue to preserve tradition for tradition’s sake as long as the cost of doing so is not so great. However, the value of preserving tradition – in the minds of a good person – should be weaker than the aversion to causing great harm to others. When these values come into conflict, the desire to preserve tradition should give way to the desire to avoid doing harm.
In general, our decisions are grounded at least somewhat on the preservation of plans – the preservation of traditions. To the degree that we can promote in others an aversion to changing plans or shunning tradition, to that degree they become more predictable, and we can better fulfill our own goals (including our own aversions to violating certain traditions). The liberal is wrong to dismiss too easily the value of tradition.
At the same time, the conservative is wrong to attach too much value to tradition. The value of tradition is that it adds certain efficiencies to our daily decision making. It is not some sacred, inviolable law that must always be followed regardless of the consequences (the harm done to others).
There is a balance here to be maintained, and it will often be difficult to know where that balance should be struck. These, then, are circumstances where different people can disagree without mocking or denigrating others who they disagree with, within certain limits.