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Andrew Mayne on social biases in studies of the psychology of choice

Guest post by Andrew Mayne


Too much choice can be a bad thing-not just for the individual, but for society.”

Pop quiz, was the above statement made by?

A. Vladimir Lenin

B. Scientists in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science

Before I tell you the answer, I must warn you that according to either A or B, the mere act of presenting you with these choices may have made you a worse person. For that I apologize. I limited the choices to two so that I could minimize your negative impact on society.

I’m sure Lenin wished he’d said it, but the statement actually comes from the first line of a press release for an upcoming paper in the journal of Psychological Science “The Unanticipated Interpersonal and Societal Consequences of Choice: Victim-Blaming and Reduced Support for the Public Good”.

Continuing on from the theme of Barry SchwartzSheena Iyengar and others, that too much choice can be stressful and impair our ability to make decisions in our own best interests, the scientists have looked at the impact the mere presence of choice has on the decisions we make that effect others.

Their goal was to find out if choice impairment was not only bad on a personal level, but had negative consequences on society.

That all sounds well in good, until we get to the part where we see what their ideas of pro-social choices are. This is where what might very well be good science turns into sketchy political science theory (hopefully when the paper is released it can make a better case for how the examples were used). From the press release:

Simply thinking about ‘choice’ made people less likely to support policies promoting greater equality and benefits for society, such as affirmative action, a tax on fuel-inefficient cars, or banning violent video games.

So, according to the paper the baseline examples for pro public good behavior were support for:

1. Affirmative action

2. Taxing fuel inefficient cars

3. Banning violent video games

We go from an issue where we can all agree that at least the intent is mutually beneficial, to an issue that’s the center of much debate and end up on one that suggests that free speech is a bad idea – at least some of the time.

When this experiment was being planned, did not one of the researchers or advisors raise their hand and ask if these values were really beneficial?

While it’s easy to understand a group of academics being blind to the more complex discussions about a third-rail issue like affirmative action, you’d like to think they might be at least semi-aware of the unintended consequences of taxing people who don’t have the luxury of consuming in a politically correct way and can’t afford a Toyota Prius.

More disturbing is that as people in the Middle East are dying in the streets for democracy and freedom of expression, a group of scientists takes for granted the idea that the government is right to restrict certain kinds of speech if they think it’s in society’s best interest. Which is also how tyrants think.

But these people aren’t tyrants (at least as far as we know). They’re moral, socially conscious people trying to understand how a real phenomenon (choice anxiety) can affect that rest of humanity. The problem is that their apparent grasp of these issues is so narrow, some could argue that making the ‘wrong’ choice in most of those issues (letting people spend their money in the marketplace and not to an inefficient bureaucracy or deciding that any restriction on speech is an assault on all forms of speech) is the choice that actually brings the greater good.

Their well-intentioned ‘public good’ examples illustrate the problem of the ‘science gap’ between academics and the general public. Scientists often suffer from expert bias and assume their expertise in their own field also gives them a proficiency in totally unrelated areas like economics and political science. Add in group reinforcement from their peers and you have a group of politically and religiously homogenized people who have very different ideas from you and I on what exactly ‘the public good’ means.

Market theory, evolutionary psychology and neuroeconomics have reinforced what Adam Smith already told us, that the best measure of what brings about the public good isn’t found in measuring just one choice, it’s the cumulative effect of all the different choices that we make as a society. Choice causes anxiety, but its an important part of being a human and not a member of an ant colony.

If a group of academics really could sit around and figure out what all the right choices were that would lead to a better public good, the 20th Century would have been a lot less bloody. Sadly, they couldn’t and the biggest cost of life was the unintended consequences of a small group of ill-informed people making choices for the rest of us.

Side note: The paper also deals with how in the presence of choice we assign greater agency to others in the bad actions that happen to ourselves. according to the press release, contemplating any kind of choice makes us want to blame others. This is certainly an interesting concept and hopefully suggests the value of the paper isn’t just as an example of the cognitive bias of the researchers.

too much choice…


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist