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Cultural Ecology And Decision Making

Can You Have Too Many Choices?

... Research in the wake of Kahneman and Tversky has unearthed a number of conundrums around choice. For one thing, choice can be ?de-motivating.? In a study conducted several years ago, shoppers who were offered free samples of six different jams were more likely to buy one than shoppers who were offered free samples of twenty-four.

... A central problem of choice is what Wilson and Gilbert call ?miswanting.? Wanting, in their definition, is ?a prediction of liking.? Predictions are often biased, and predictions of one?s feelings are more biased than most. Current preferences ?contaminate? future plans?so that, on weekly trips to the supermarket, customers who have just eaten tend to buy too little food, and hungry ones too much. You might try to draw on experience to help you choose, but your memories aren?t to be trusted. As Kahneman has shown, our minds focus on the peak and the final moments of a past experience while crowding out memories of its duration.

... What about the other approach?trying to choose less? In some measure, we all do this, using a strategy that the Columbia social theorist Jon Elster calls "self-binding." Like Ulysses lashing himself to the mast of his ship in order to prevent himself from succumbing to the Sirens? song, people make the choice of limiting their choices.

via Diotima

One important strain of human-environment geography in the middle of the last century was what my advisor calls "cultural ecology 2." Focusing on traditional third-world subsistence systems, CE2 researchers took a behavioralistic or decision-making approach. Their goal was to show how decisions by farmers, such as to practice slash-and-burn agriculture instead of building irrigation canals, were not due to a backward culture (as popularly believed), or due to a lack of knowledge of modern options (as argued by earlier social scientists), or dictated by the functional requirements of the human ecosystem (as suggested by cultural ecology 1). Instead, they were rational responses to conditions such as population pressure and the drudgery of labor. While the utility-maximizing assumptions of neoclassical economics don't hold for peasant societies, the general theme that rationality is paramount did.

Most CE2 research focused more on showing that the final decisions made by farmers conformed to the outcomes that would be dictated by a fully rational decision process than on explicating the actual reasoning used by the farmers. Undoubtedly the farmers would present their decision in a rational way. But does that mean that they actually carried out a proper decision procedure, fairly weighing all the options? The article quoted above suggests a modified viewpoint.

The role of tradition may be to preserve rational outcomes without requiring an unfeasibly rational decision process. Unlike self-binding, which is rationally chosen by an individual worried about her own ability to keep up her rationality, tradition is not deliberately chosen and operates at a social level. Traditional culture codifies certain outcomes as appropriate to certain circumstances, and provides a rationale for the decision maker to affirm. It tells you where to go and how to justify it, leaving you satisfied with your decision.

The problem is that tradition need not be fully rational to work. It can codify a suboptimal strategy so long as that strategy is not suicidal. In such a case, the acceptance of the traditional justification acts as a barrier to rationality, cutting off decision anxiety that would actually be useful in motivating a reconsideration of the chosen alternative.


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