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Symposium 2013

Proposal - First Proposed Solution for Beyond Individualism to Social Responsibilities

The Challenge

The world is in trouble. On many fronts – from climate change to resource depletion, from banking crises to sovereign debt crises, from deficient education to poverty in the midst of plenty, from en ...

The world is in trouble. On many fronts – from climate change to resource depletion, from banking crises to sovereign debt crises, from deficient education to poverty in the midst of plenty, from energy security to food security, from fragile states to weapons proliferation, and more – we are not successfully engaging with the challenges of the 21st century. Our economies are not overcoming the scourge of poverty, the inadequate provision of collective goods (such as public education, environmental services, fish stocks and rain forests), our societies are increasingly fragmented, and our governance structures are inadequate to the problems we face.

Regulation of important consumer decisions or the provision of economic incentives (subsidies or taxes) can be costly, either politically or fiscally. Choice architecture offers a “cheaper” and oftentimes more effective way to achieve the same objective. Choice architecture works by creating on-line or physical decision settings and contexts for consequential decisions that either (a) maximize the likelihood that the decision maker’s social and environmental values and goals will be active and used by appropriate decision processes (e.g., by using group settings for such decisions that prime social values and responsibility), or (b) make selection of socially and environmentally responsible choice options the path of least resistance (e.g., by making socially responsible choice options the default option, from which decision makers are free to deviate, but typically do not).

Background social science facts for this solution

People hold multiple and oftentimes conflicting goals. Few want to destroy planet earth, trigger catastrophic climate change or cause species depletion, but other, more personal goals often motivate actions that collectively and over time do just that. Given that goals often conflict, tradeoffs between different objectives need to be made, though people generally dislike tradeoffs (we "want it all" and dislike being reminded that this might be impossible.) When it comes to tradeoffs or to the ways in which people disguise those tradeoffs by attending to different goals/objectives selectively or hierarchically, it matters which goals are currently activated, since only active goals drive decisions. This provides entry point for the design of choice environments ("choice architecture") that increase activation of social/collective goals. One way to do that is by encouraging different modes of making decisions, e.g., using rules of conduct that follow from social roles (as a Christian with the responsibility of "stewardship of the earth", as a grandparent with responsibility for future generations) rather than calculation-based decisions, which tend to focus more on personal and short-term objectives. Group settings (e.g., a community forum), even for personal decisions (e.g., a decision about green vs. brown providers of electricity), are another way of priming social goals, as the group setting reminds people of the fact that their decisions impact others.

The use of judicious default options (the option that will be in place if no active choice is made) is a very powerful way of increasing the frequency of such choices (e.g., organ donation decisions in different European countries). People tend to stay with the default choice option for multiple reasons, and rather than fighting this tendency as a “status-quo bias,” it can be put to use by policy makers to design socially-responsible choice architectures, as a form of psychological jiu-jitsu (i.e., redirecting a potentially negative form of energy to a positive purpose).

Such “choice architecture” interventions have sometimes be criticized as paternalism or, even worse, attempts at “tricking” or “brainwashing” decision makers because decision makers are typically unaware of the effect of the default option or other features of the decision context. There are two arguments against such criticisms. First, there no “neutral” choice architecture, i.e., ANY way in which choice options are presented to decision makers (e.g., green vs. brown electricity providers) implicitly favors one or the other choice option. Second, choice architecture interventions do not need to operate outside of decision makers’ awareness. Policy makers/choice architects can put their cards on the table, explaining to decision makers why they are presenting choice options in the way they are, and decision makers can decide which presentation format best corresponds to their values and beliefs. The use of choice defaults is far less paternalistic than regulation, which typically removes choice options (e.g., incandescent light bulbs) from people’s choice set, leading to hoarding and other resistance.

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