What Monkeys Can Teach Lawmakers

Cognitive science reveals that policymakers should better understand how deeply our decisions are influenced by the presentation of choices.
  • Transcript


Question: What are the implications of your work for politicians and people outside of the sciences?

Laurie Santos: Some of our monkey economics work suggests that the biases we see in humans—in particular the fact that we think about economic questions from a relative rather than an absolute standpoint—those kinds of biases are deeply engrained in us, probably evolutionarily old, and hard to overcome.  What this means is we got to start taking these biases seriously and the policy implication, or even just the implication for the lay people try to make economic decisions is to realize that these factors are at work.  So, one thing we’ve learned is that monkeys actually pay a lot of attention to reference points.  So, arbitrary information that just sets a price for you. And you care about whether, you know, the actual price you’re going to pay is less or more than that.  You know, so advertisers do this to us all the time.  You can’t walk into a grocery store or department store without seeing, you know, “Was $300, Now Only $199.”  Right?  We’re affected by these things even though we’d really like to think that we aren’t.  And if you think about other things are evolved.  Other evolved biases we have, like our passion for cheesecake and our hatred of scary things and so on, we’re really going to have a hard time overcoming those sorts of biases. 
And so the policy implications are first just that, should we allow these kinds of thing out there.  Probably we’re never going to overcome that.  Probably these kinds of things are gong to be there, but as a decision maker, you should really realize that they’re there and understand that your choices are really being affected by these pieces of information.

There are a set of folks who are really pushing that we need to take these biases seriously so folks like Dick Thaler and Cass Sunstein who wrote this recent book "Nudge" that thankfully is having a big effect, saying that, "Look we need to take these kinds of things seriously because pretending that we don’t have these biases means that we set up these choice structures—they call them choice architectures—that are influencing people’s behavior even though we don’t think they do." So, they have a case of... consider a lunch line when you have different foods and different orders. And let’s say that we could figure out for sure that the first piece of food is going to effect what you buy.  Which piece of food should we put first? 
Well, we could be paternalistic and put the broccoli first, you know, we could say, "No, we’re going to ignore that and put the cheesecake first," and so on.  But one of the foods has to go first, or we have to decide to be random every day and switch it up.  You know, when we set up policies, we set up these structures that have to have a default option, that have to sway choices somehow.  And so the question is, "How do we want to sway them?"  And realizing how these biases work and that because of our work with the monkeys, they may be hard to override, I think, suggests that in fact, we need to take these kinds of policy suggestions really seriously and deal with the question of, you know, we have to set these policies up somehow and we know that how we set them up is going to effect choices, you know, what should we really decide to do?

Recorded May 21, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont