The Decisions They Are-A-Changin’

Bob Dylan sang in his iconic The Times They Are-A-Changin’:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

The Waters Have Grown

We are on the verge of a sea-change in our thinking about decision making. Rather than the universal and utilitarian approach of rational choice and subjective rankings, we are coming to recognize that our every-day decisions, the ones that drench us to the bone, that sink or change us, come in the moment. Our choices are driven by often poorly articulated but deeply held values, linked to the meanings culture give us, and shaped by the unequal circumstances of our lives.

Let me take the last to start this section. Drake Bennett in his Boston Globe article, The Sting of Poverty, writes:

Compared with the middle class or the wealthy, the poor are disproportionately likely to drop out of school, to have children while in their teens, to abuse drugs, to commit crimes, to not save when extra money comes their way, to not work.
  To an economist, this is irrational behavior. It might make sense for a wealthy person to quit his job, or to eschew education or develop a costly drug habit. But a poor person, having little money, would seem to have the strongest incentive to subscribe to the Puritan work ethic, since each dollar earned would be worth more to him than to someone higher on the income scale. Social conservatives have tended to argue that poor people lack the smarts or willpower to make the right choices. Social liberals have countered by blaming racial prejudice and the crippling conditions of the ghetto for denying the poor any choice in their fate. Neoconservatives have argued that antipoverty programs themselves are to blame for essentially bribing people to stay poor.
  Karelis, a professor at George Washington University, has a simpler but far more radical argument to make: traditional economics just doesn’t apply to the poor. When we’re poor, Karelis argues, our economic worldview is shaped by deprivation, and we see the world around us not in terms of goods to be consumed but as problems to be alleviated. This is where the bee stings come in: A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems

Time Worth Savin’

Dan Simon and colleagues have an article, The Transience of Constructed Decisions, with the following abstract:

A large body of research suggests that preferences are constructed rather than merely accessed in the course of making decisions. The current research examines the stability of constructed preferences over time. Preferences for various factors relevant to a job choice were measured prior to presentation of the job choice task, at the point of decision, and again following a delay. It was found that relative to baseline pre-decision levels, preferences shifted to provide stronger support for the emerging decision. Preference changes proved to be transient, receding to baseline after one week (Ex. 1), and even within fifteen minutes (Ex. 2). These findings… suggest that preferences are constructed to serve the decision at hand, without constraining the decision maker in future decisions

So rather than the “central tenet of theories of rational choice” that “people harbor a stable, well-defined and discernable order of preferences,” Dan Simon’s research shows that decision making occurs in the moment. As an earlier paper shows, “over the course of making the decision, the attributes of the option that was eventually chosen came to be perceived as superior to the subjects’ own initial evaluations, while the attributes of the rejected option came to be perceived as inferior… The shifts were also found to precede the point of decision.”

Indeed, there is a whole edited volume, The Construction of Preference, which argues “This book shows not only the historical roots of preference construction but also that… Decision making is now understood to be a highly contingent form of information processing, sensitive to task complexity, time pressure, response mode, framing, reference points, and other contextual factors.”

The Chance Won’t Come Again

Decision making is not solely about information processing. Imagination, regret, and changing goals—counterfactual thinking shows another world is alive and well. Ask yourself: Why is just missing a plane worse than missing a plane by an hour…

Our lives are filled with musings on what might have been and reflections on what might be. And culture and inequality fill in these musings. Neal Roese is one of the leaders in the psychology of counterfactual thinking, and has even written a popular book, If Only:

Who hasn’t dwelled at some point on what they could have done differently? Such regrets can be demoralizing, but Roese suggests that we engage in this kind of counterfactual thinking all the time, and that it can be not only good for us but an essential component of how we act. Negative emotions like regret keep us from repeating mistakes and motivate us to improve. Roese, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, has plenty of studies at hand, but the most convincing passages are those that personalize the issues, like a look at the difference between silver medalists frustrated by their near-miss and bronze medalists who are happy to have a prize at all

Is it any surprise that, in a review article, Roese and Summerville found that “people’s biggest regrets are a reflection of where in life they see their largest opportunities; that is, where they see tangible prospects for change, growth and renewal.” And this sort of thinking can vary between cultures, as other research by Roese demonstrates.

However, in many people’s lives it’s not what could have been, it’s what simply cannot be. As Bill Dressler argues, cultural consonance is “the degree to which individuals, in their own beliefs and behaviors, approximate widely shared cultural models.” In Dressler’s research, a person’s sense of his or her ability to match cultural ideals has been linked to stress, depression, and high blood pressure. Imagining what is possible, knowing you cannot reach it—here the chance won’t ever come again for many people.

The Loser Now Later to Win

In their PLOS article “When the Choice Is Ours: Context and Agency Modulate the Neural Bases of Decision-Making,” Birte Forstmann and colleagues recently argued the following:

The option to choose between several courses of action is often associated with the feeling of being in control. Yet, in certain situations, one may prefer to decline such agency and instead leave the choice to others. In the present functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we provide evidence that the neural processes involved in decision-making are modulated not only by who controls our choice options (agency), but also by whether we have a say in who is in control (context). The fMRI results are noteworthy in that they reveal specific contributions of the anterior frontomedian cortex (viz. BA 10) and the rostral cingulate zone (RCZ) in decision-making processes. The RCZ is engaged when conditions clearly present us with the most choice options. BA 10 is engaged in particular when the choice is completely ours, as well as when it is completely up to others to choose for us which in turn gives rise to an attribution of control to oneself or someone else, respectively. After all, it does not only matter whether we have any options to choose from, but also who decides on that

The introduction to their article deserves quoting as well:

We employ the term agency to refer to the capacity of human beings to make choices and to enact those choices in the world. By the term context, in contrast, we refer to the circumstances under which agency is assigned in a decision process. That is, in some situations we might be inclined to give up agency and leave the choice to others (e.g., out of politeness, or when we are too tired to choose, or when the consequences of the choice options are complex or unknown). In other situations, we might be told by someone else whether or not to take up agency in a decision process (e.g., when our partner asks us to choose a pattern for the new bathroom tiles, or when the manager tells us that we will not have a say in the decision about the new office location). Hence, the context under which decisions are made can be differentiated into a free context, where we can choose to take up or decline agency in the decision process, and a determined context, where it is up to others to assign agency. Agency in a decision process can in turn be differentiated into self-agency, where we choose from different alternatives ourselves, and external agency, where someone else chooses for us

What is particularly striking about this work is that the same area, the anterior frontomedian cortex, lights up when decisions are “completely ours” or “completely up to others.” A very challenging result to people who want to subscribe common sense theories, such as individual self control, to specific parts or even modules in the brain.

In sum, we can say that “rational decision making” is not a built-in feature of the brain, and certainly don’t apply to the things that shape our everyday lives—cultural ideals, status, memory, missed opportunities, and all the other things we dwell and decide on. The times, they are a-changin’.

2 thoughts on “The Decisions They Are-A-Changin’

  1. That’s a good writeup, but is it really all that new enough to be a sea-change? It seems to me that it’s largely non-anthropologists starting to jump on the “cultural framework” boat. Am I missing something?

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