Are we really in control of our own decisions?

Below is an article written by King’s College Year 11 student Martin Luk which was published in the student magazine “The King’s Echo”. He makes some excellent points in this exciting area of Behavioural Economics – thanks Martin.
This may sound like a stupid question. Are you in control of your own decisions? Of course, you say. How can you not be?

Well, in reality, we only think we are in control of our own decisions. We think we are intelligent enough to pick the best option. However, in one of his TED talks, behavioral economist Dan Ariely turns this belief on its head. He talks about real-life experiments that show: We aren’t in control of our own decisions. How can that be?

1) The way some questionnaires are laid out can heavily influence our decision (Johnson and Goldstein)

The graph shows the percentage of people in each country that were interested in donating their organs. The bizarre thing is, is that there is a clear division between countries where the vast majority are willing to donate, and those where the vast majority aren’t. And if you look even closer, you can see that countries of very similar culture (Germany and Austria, Denmark and Sweden) can be on different sides of that division. What could be going on?

Organ donors

The countries in white (low participation) have a survey form which looks like this:
☐ – Check the box if you want to donate your organs.

The countries in grey (high participation) have a survey form which looks like this:
☐ – Check the box if you don’t want to donate your organs.

The people in the white countries don’t tick the box, and they don’t donate. The people in the grey countries also don’t tick the box, but this time, they end up donating. That’s it. What this shows, is that decisions like these don’t actually reside fully in us. While it appears like we have the freedom to choose the best option, the person designing the form pretty much decides what we choose. This fact that we are just under the illusion of making a decision might be hard to believe, as we have such a strong feeling that we are in control. However, the simple reasoning is that the decision is so complex that we don’t know what to do. As a result, we don’t really care about it, and just pick the default: what was already chosen for us.

2) The importance of pointless options

This was an advertisement from The Economist a few years ago. At first glance, the second option seems pointless. Why would anyone choose only to have the print subscription, when you could have the print & web subscription at the same price?

Economist SubsAriely gave this to 100 MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) students, and surely enough, most people chose option 3, the combo deal. Obviously, nobody chose option 2. However, if nobody chose option 2, then it should be taken off, right? Once Ariely had done this, more people opted for option 1 than option 3. If he were The Economist, he would have lost money.

Why? The “useless” option in the middle was actually far from useless, as it made the third option looked like a really good deal. As a consequence, people chose the third option. Again, this is an example of a scenario where we don’t actually know our preferences that well, and we are susceptible to all these influences.

3) Who you should take when on a date

It is a common belief that when we see someone, we can immediately tell whether we are physically attracted to them or not. However, an experiment done with real people (although graphic images and fake names are used here) proves otherwise.

Tom JerrySome people were shown a picture of Tom, and a picture of Jerry, and were asked, “Who do you want to date? Tom or Jerry?” However, half of the people were also shown an uglier (photoshopped) version of Jerry, and the other half were shown an uglier version of Tom. Did ugly Jerry and ugly Tom help their more attractive brothers? Oh yes. When ugly Jerry was around, Jerry was popular. When ugly Tom was around, Tom was popular.

So next time when you’re going on a date, you want to take a slightly uglier version of yourself. Similar, but slightly uglier. And you know how other people think about you if they ask you to tag along.

I’m only joking.

On a broader level, what these three experiments show is that, us humans have some cognitive limitations when it comes to decision-making. We may believe that we are fully in control of our own decisions, but as you have clearly seen, we might have less control than we think. If this isn’t shocking enough, consider how this changes our notion of freedom. How are we meant to be free if we aren’t even in control of what we choose? Can we ever overcome these limitations? Can we ever become truly “free”?

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