We Sweat Big Stuff Badly

Don’t sweat the small stuff; and its all small stuff.

Compared to unimportant decisions, for moderately important decisions we tend to do more thorough practical decision analyses. This is mainly because we try harder. Yet when we get to our most important decisions, our decision analyses tend to be less explicit, thorough, or practical. This is in part because we tend to see such issues as more symbolic, and more sacred.

For example, we think more carefully about if and how to repair a car, compared to a broken pencil. Yet when it comes to thinking about repairing our bodies, our thinking tends to get less thorough and analytic. We would rather just trust our prestigious doctor, and those who conferred prestige on them, and not think about the subject. It seems that we mainly use medicine as a way to show that we care, instead of as a way to get well. And as a result, people who we randomly induce to get more medicine are not on average substantially healthier. That’s a pretty big fail.

We handle small conflicts all the time, and we put more effort into handling moderately important conflicts. Yet our biggest conflicts get handed over to a quite dysfunctional legal system. (A system few are willing to think of redesigning.) We each assume it works well until we personally have to deal with it. Then we try to just trust our prestigious lawyer. We show little interest in lawyer track records or incentive contracts; we just don’t want to think about the topic.

We are eager to connect with each other socially, and in a low key informal contexts where the same people regularly come into contact with each other, people will in fact chat, socialize, and get to know each other. In in those processes, they will successfully tend to get more contact with people they like better. But even the loneliest people are quite reluctant to directly approach strangers. We’d rather stay lonely than to risk a clear public rejection.

At home, we are generally capable of doing modest chores, and of learning the skills needed to do them. And we put more effort into learning the chores that matter more. But at school and on jobs, we often self-sabotage and put in low effort on the biggest choices, in order to make failure less of a signal of what we could accomplish if only we’d try harder. I’ve done this many times in my life. Often I was most productive when I’d play hokey from one “should do” project to work on another “not supposed to be doing” project.

Our disfunction re big work choices seems especially dramatic in the case of people who choose hobbies and video games with tasks, and related performance feedback, are quite similar to those on real jobs. They say they’d rather not work for money because they hate the prospect of being criticized or looked down on for poor job performance.

Yes many, perhaps even most, people slowly “mature” over time into becoming better able to “own” and practically consider big decisions. But even so, most of us still aren’t very good at this. So as a lot rides on such big decisions, how can we get people to better sweat the big stuff?

One approach is to pair people with incentivized expert advisors who can push particular decisions, more or less gently. These advisors can be more calculating and dispassionate, as such decisions don’t loom as large for them personally. And less individual more communal societies often do pair people with associates who advise them, though it is often unclear how expert or well-incentivized is such advice. Fans of regulation also suggest that regulators would do well in this advisor role, though critics of regulation have doubts.

This issue is one of the reasons I’m so interested in designing and testing better personal agents. Like tax career agents, life maintenance organizations, or legal liability vouchers. Such agents can arguably be both expert and well-incentivized to advise well. Making us more comfortable with encouraging ordinary folks to rely more on their advice, instead of on their own broken decision-making.

Added 18Dec: Thought some claim that standard decision theory is inadequate for big decisions, I’m not at all persuaded of that.

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