Are We in Control of Our Own Decisions?

Most of us think we make choices because of who we are.

We wake up in the morning and open the closet; we feel we decide what to wear. We open the refrigerator; we feel we decide what to eat.

This seems sensible, but what “feels” right is not necessarily the truth.

We are social creatures, and oftentimes context (rather than personality) plays a big role in our decisions.

Subtle factors around us shape our behavior, but we fail to recognize those influences.

“Incidental stimuli”

In Mindwaresocial scientist Richard Nisbett lists a few of such what psychologists call “incidental stimuli” — hidden situational ingredients — that secretly shape our behavior:

  • Want to get people to put a donation for coffee in the honest box? On a shelf above the coffee urn, place a coconut in a certain orientation.
  • Want to persuade someone to believe something by giving them an editorial to read? Make sure the font type is clear and attractive. Messy-looking messages are much less persuasive regardless of the message itself.
  • That’s not world-shocking, but if the person reads the editorial in a seafood store or on a wharf, its argument may be rejected — if the person is from a culture that uses the expression “fishy” to mean “dubious,” that is.
  • Want to be paroled from prison? Try to get a hearing right after lunch. Investigators found that if Isreali judges had just finished a meal, there was a 66 percent chance they would vote for parole.
  • Want someone you’re just about to meet to find you to be warm and cuddly? Hand them a hot cup of coffee to hold. And don’t by any means make that an iced coffee.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Social psychology these days is all about designing funny experiments to uncover shrouded predictors of judgments and actions (in isolated contexts and on questionnaires, that is).

Like it or not, it seems stimuli we hardly take conscious note of can have marked effects on us.

Which worries me:

Are we in control of our own decisions?

Who presses the buttons?

Some psychologists answer: hardly.

Many experiments (done on Northern-American undergrads) show how modifications of contextual details cause predictable changes in behavior without subjects realizing these factors affected them at all.

We mistakenly explain our own choices by citing something ‘internal’. We think we make decisions because of who we are.

But if I can (a) foretell and (b) regulate what you will likely do by tweaking the situational design, then, really, where did the choice originate? Who’s in charge?

Context matters

To get a better feel for this issue, let’s look at the most well-known incidental-stimuli finding.

A warning: it’s not about psychology undergrads, and it’s more serious. Still — keep this in mind — it’s completely about “behavior” on forms.

That said, take a look at this graph. It shows the percentage of people who indicated they would be interested in donating their organs in different European countries in 2003:

Effective consent rates, by country. The four leftmost bars are explicit consent (opt-in), and the seven rightmost bars are presumed consent (opt-out). From “Medicine: Do Defaults Save Lives?” by E. J. Johnson and D. Goldstein, November 21, 2003, Science, 302, p. 1338. Copyright 2003 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

We see two types of nations here. Countries on the right, that give plenty, and those on the left that do so much less. The question is: why do some donate a lot and others don’t?

People from the countries on the left are EVIL!!!

Nope, that’s not it.

How to make people donate their organs

The secret is in the ‘choice architecture’ of the form itself.

The countries on the left ask for permission (‘opt-in’) and phrase the question like this:

Check the box below if you [do] want to participate in the organ donor program.

And what happens? People don’t check, go with the default, and they don’t donate.

The countries that give a lot, on the other hand, have a slightly different form. They don’t ask for your organs, but assume consent (‘opt-out’):

Check the box below if you don’t want to participate in the organ donor program.

Now what do people do? Interestingly enough, when people get this, they again don’t check (go with the default), but now they donate.

“We often have the illusion of a decision…”

In his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, best-selling author and psychologist Dan Ariely concludes:

When you walk into the DMV, the person who designed the form will have a huge influence on what you’ll end up doing! We often have the illusion of making a decision, rather than an actual decision.

Why does Ariely infer the decision was an illusion, not real?

The idea seems to be this: if the way in which a choice is presented makes such a huge difference on how likely people are to select option A or option B — to donate or not to donate — , and I can predict what the subject will ‘choose’ based on how the situation is framed, then the outcome of the person’s ‘decision process’ is solely due to these contextual factors. There’s hardly any agency here.

Says Ariely in his TED Talk:

“We just pick whatever was chosen for us.”

Why these experiments are disturbing

Next to being eerily rife, the effect of incidental stimuli can be disturbingly huge as well.

The result of the organ-donation study is, if you ask me, surprisingly strong. The two distributions have no overlap, and nearly 60 percentage points separate the two groups. The finding of the Israeli judges’ lunchtime-leniency, too, has something creepy.

The most obvious implication of all this is that you want to rig environments so that they include stimuli that will make people behave as you please.

This is exactly what is being tried more and more these days, and what’s worrying more and more people.

I picked up The Happiness Industryby philosopher William Davies over the summer. This line stuck with me, I thought I’d share it:

Either we can have theories and interpretations of human activity, and the possibility of some form of self-government; or we can have hard facts of behavior, and reconstruct society as a laboratory. But we can’t have both.

Like Davies, I feel uneasy about attempts to “reconstruct society as a laboratory,” that is, about efforts to model and control the human decision-making process.

Why we don’t know

The cocktail of how (i) we don’t always know why we make the choices we do and how (ii) these choices can be nudged’in this or that direction without us knowing either, is unnerving and, frankly, a bit bizarre.

Before we start asking what to do about it, it’s useful to recollect how we got here.

This disaster started with an eye-brow-raising list of so-called incidental stimuli. When they are around — and when are they not? — we misidentifywhat is really going on in our heads. We can be confident we have not been influenced by something that did in fact influence us, and we can be equally confident that something that did not influence us did have an effect.

And such contextual-factors-we’re-not-aware-of, furthermore, can have consequences far beyond what seems plausible.

Hence, we are vulnerable to manipulation.

Why we remain vulnerable

At this point, too, it’s worth asking why we can’t simply educate ourself out of this by becoming more aware of our own decision-making process. Why does this ignorance persist?

The problem is: we don’t have access to mental processes generating decisions and behavior.

We can’t see what’s going on in our heads when we vote for parole, don’t check a box, and so on. We can’t monitor what makes us act ad we do. There is no window on the processes underlying our judgments and behavior.

As a result, we can’t “look inward” and discover that our deeds conform to some [input: stimuli] → [output: behavior] formula in which things like fishy smells are apparently relevant for the input-side of the equation. That is, we can’t see which ‘input’ (the design of the form, or our virtuous personality) did the work in generating the ‘output’ (we decide to become an organ donor).

No access to the black box

Here’s an analogy to make this clearer.

Our eyes are constantly assaulted by a never-ending stream of data. Without some way to filter and organize all this information, it would be impossible for us to do anything at all. Luckily, our brains take care of this. Yet, we don’t have any awareness of how our grey cells pull off this feat. We know this process is completely beyond our ken. We’re only conscious of the end result, not of its assembly. Perfectly adequate processes producing perception take place without awareness. Why should cognitive processes be any different?

The assessment

Okay, so we’ve taken a look at how it seems that (a) underneath the myth of individual autonomy, every choice is victim to external, in principle predictable and manipulatable influences, and (b) we’re not aware of the processes that underlie our judgments and behaviors in which these forces figure. Hence (c) our behavior can be intentionally shaped by extraneous powers without us realizing it.

A scary combination, but there are two reasons for hope.

What you can’t see, you can figure out


Hidden does not mean unknowable.

Ask yourself: what follows from my lack of access to the mental processes producing my judgments and behavior?

There’s no window on these processes. That only means that we’re forced to rely on theories about what’s going on behind the scenes — not that we’re necessarily doomed to be forever in the dark about the workings of our own minds. It leaves open the possibility that we can infer what the causes of our judgments and behaviors were.

Despite the common use of terms like “rationalization” or “confabulation” to characterize people’s efforts to identify the stimulus-response principles to which their judgments and behaviors conform, it is a mistake to suppose that such efforts are always unsuccessful. Often they succeed in uncovering the hidden principles that actually describe the patterns of our deeds and choices.

I know that I swerved the car to avoid hitting the squirrel. I know that the main reason I gave at the office was because everyone else was making a donation. I know that I am anxious about the exam because I didn’t study very much.

Usually, I can say with justified confidence what the most important stimuli I was attending to were, and why I behaved as I did.

Don’t be fooled

Onto the second point, and this is where it gets personal because it’s why I left psychology.

Sure, it’s very hard to intuit that something like the design of a form influences choices. Granted: ‘choice architecture’ plays a vital role in how people “behave” on questionnaires. Our theories might very well be wrong about that.

So what?

This kind of methodology chops humans up into these really small areas, rather than studying the whole organism in its context. It creates settings devoid of all the things people encounter in everyday life. Most acts lose meaning if isolated like that. Hence there’s no reason to believe these findings from artificial scenes, lacking an orientation to real-world phenomena, generalize to real-life behavior.

You simply can’t make sweeping claims about real-world persons when all you do is develop hypotheses about how a fishy smell can affect opinions or how framing influences whether people (don’t) tick some box on a form. This has little to do with the social world and prematurely pulls people away from the real world. Because of this problem with the induction base, these experiments have very low external validity.

That’s statistical lingo for saying they hardly lead to insight about how people behave (i) outside the lab and (ii) not on questionnaires.

Therefore, I refuse to believe my real-life self-knowledge is so nihil as some psychologists sometimes suggest.

Making amends: A reason for healthy skepticism

Okay, so I’ve argued that (a) experiments on psychology undergrads or other data about how people fill out forms shouldn’t lead us to doubt that we generally know why we act as we do.

Moreover, (b) to say that there’s no direct awareness of mental processes is not to say that we’re wrong about what’s going on behind the scenes.

On the other hand, the lack of access to cognitive access is not without implications. It means that in order to be right about what drives my judgments and behavior, I have to have a correct theory about this process.

And, we now know, I have no theory that says I’m less likely to cheat if there’s a picture of a coconut hanging over the honest box. Or that hunger is making me unsympathetic to the parole applicant. Or that fishy smell makes me doubt what I’m reading. Or that holding a hot coffee cup makes me think you’re a warm person. And so on.

In such situations, I fabricate partly illusory ‘explanations’ of my own behavior as I don’t know I have been influenced by these things.

That is an important lesson for how we should function in daily life. It means you can’t assume you know why you think what you think or do what you do.

But you can probably figure it out 😉.

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