Saturday, August 4, 2007

WWDNGH 1: Rationality of personal decisions

(Why We Do Not Get Happier)

There is some rationality in the way people decide things in their life.
People do try to make themselves better off, ubt it is not easy.

Advice givers think that there are simple ways to make life better. Are there?
not always. what seems to be an easy improvement, is many times a trap, not easy not improvement, or unrealistic.

Most advice we think is smart is practically foolish. There are so many circumstantial differences. So many othjer things people have to care for. So many taste differences.

On balance, many decisions people make are more rational than they seem to be. Many things that we (and grandma) think

I am very much of an advice giver free of charte. I love to throw good hearteed ideas into people how to improve their lives.
Slowly but surely, I learbed how much people can be smarter than they look.
How many things I thought are easy and simple to do, are much harder and not worth the trouble.

Poeple are already trying to make themselves better off. Any "better" advice should be viewed with suspicsion.

Not that people are always rational or that irratinality is a rare exception. Just that people are more rational that it seems, at times. And many seemingly smart advice is realistically useless and even irrational to follow.

More discussion in the comments of this post.

Next post will give some examples how decisions can be smart contrary to initial impression. Then, we will go on to other reasons for WWDNGH (Why We Do Not Get Happier)


i.c. said...

what you probably mean is something like a kind of equilibrium (which is what several psychological schools assume - all one does is "somehow" beneficial: in the given personal context / situation)
I wouldn't call that "rational": there are always ways to "rationalize" anything (what is rationality), but if you mean something like optimizing I believe that humans at most do some "local optimization" with constraints, means, goals given by social norms, history or just randomly -> there's probably most to gain (also in terms of happiness) if one looks at that "frame": but that is difficult and needs quite sophisticated actions: reflexion, time + resources, a method to observe oneself (something like observing the observer), ... -> thus it is probably only possible if you are in a good situation (but then you probably enjoy: that would also link to your short vs. long term problems)

Yechezkel Zilber said...

I much agree with your comment. people do not do very sophisticated optimization, and have constraints etc. etc.

My point is that what theory and introspection would suggest to be better choice may well be incorrect. There are hidden variables. There are non-monotone slopes (like more choice = less satisfaction. e.g. "the paradox of choice" Barry Schwartz). Counter-intuitive utility psychological and practical factors are rampant.

All this leads to weaken the grandma's (or "smart people"'s) assumption that you should only follow her advice and life will be better.

I assume that there may not be much we can do to make our lives better. (unless you have some very sophisticated tools, a topic for a different piece).

Yechezkel Zilber said...

In a sense these are two different questions:

1) There is a huge theoretical space of possible choices, there is probably always better sets of choices than these people actually take. I am not denying that. No ultimate optimality, for sure.

2) We feel that some choices are "irrational" because some "possible" choices look in our eyes better than the actual choices people make. Here we take an active opinion. we *know* a better choice. Here I am skeptical. Many of the "better" choices we think people could have made are illusionary.

Thanks for your comment anyway, it forces me to rethink.

i.c. said...

hello yechezkel:
I agree that most theoretical "advices" or "recipes" should be treated with suspicion (but for me theory could be very helpful in showing and changing the framing of individual decisions).
Thus I also believe that - in the end - the decision and the responsibility is and should be with the individual.
However, the other side of the form is that there are no isolated individuals (thus we also have to take into account "society": and especially with happiness research this is completely lacking and casts into doubt its usefulness beyond showing up correlations) and we can observe "others". And though I know that I cannot look into anyone I feel quite sure that some people could improve their live "easily" (quite - any change is much easier proposed from outside)

Yechezkel Zilber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yechezkel Zilber said...

1) Not everything is rational: People are very irrational at times. The post was not about dinying this. I was just sayting that there may be less irraitonality than it seems for the technical analyzer of human conduct.

2) definitions problems of ratinality Now I am realizing that at the edge (i.e. with reductio de absurdum), if one says he is rational but has limits, there will be no use for the term rationality.

Example: on the reason-passion axis. Saying "the guy has strong passion which hings on his ability to be rational, but given his passions as constraints he is rational" is kind of making fun of the very saying "he is rational". Everything will be rational that way.

Intuitively, however, one can draw a line somewhere and maybe perserve some meaning for "rational". So that there is a decision maker that has rationality and limits, and tries nevertheless to achieve his goals. Not sure whether I make sense or just babbling.

3) soceity One can see soceity as kind of constraint. The very existent of various things hings of one's ability to understand the world and to act for his benefit. Soceity is one of therse things. A feature of soceity's effect is that it affects the very preferences of people not jsut their actions. But many things affect preferences to some extent.

4) I agree that it seems that people can improve things in life.
Practically, it is much less so.
This is my feeling both from experince (teaching + lots of advice giving), and something from the literature also.

Blogger 2.0 said...


Can you go deeper into what you have i mind when thinking of the terms "rationality" and "irrationality"?


Yechezkel Zilber said...

Rstionality the right thing according to yiur wishes ad simle logic. Nothing about stupid forms of extreme and technical rationality.

You have a joke on your mind, you wanna tell it, yet you think it will annoy everybody in the room making them your enemies. If you want their friendship, then telling the joke is irrational.

Chad said...

Let's stay I still want to be friends. However, what if the highest value in my ethical system is "courage"? Especially, the courage to say what is on one's mind.

Is it then rational for me to tell the joke simply because I want to tell it? And irrational not to tell it? Or am I fooling myself with my ethical system (i.e. it is irrational)?

Jazi Zilber said...


Tationality is very intuitive for me. Following what reason saiys ismritl not much definitions etc.