Daniel McFadden is an economist. But his new paper, “The New Science of Pleasure,” shows the many ways economics fails to explain how we make decisions — and what it can learn from psychology, anthropology, biology, and neurology.
The old economic theory of consumers says that “people should relish choice.” And we do. Shopping can be fun, democracy is better than its alternatives, and a diverse and fully stocked grocery store ice cream freezer is quite nearly the closest thing to heaven on earth. But other fields of science tell a more complicated story. First, making a choice is physically exhausting, literally, so that somebody forced to make a number of decisions in a row is likely to get lazy and dumb. (That’s one reason why stores place candy near the check-out aisle: They suspect your brain is too zonked to resist.) Second, having too many choices can make us less likely to come to a conclusion. In a famous study of the so-called “paradox of choice”, psychologists Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar found that customers presented with six jam varieties were more likely to buy one than customers offered a choice of 24.
If you’ve read the work of Dan Ariely or Daniel Kahneman, you know exactly how far from perfectly rational we are when faced with a decision. Many of our mistakes stem from a central “availability bias.” Our brains are computers, and we like to access recently opened files, even though many decisions require a deep body of information that might require some searching. Cheap example: We remember the first, last, and peak moments of certain experiences. So when we make a choice about how to spend a certain amount of time — say, by going to Six Flags — we forget that most of the time at an amusement park is spent waiting around doing nothing. Instead, we remember the thrill of the roller coaster. (This has been previously used to explain why people sometimes go back to disappointing old romantic partners, but that might be for another article.)
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