What Monkeys Can Teach Lawmakers

Question: What are the implications of your work for \r\npoliticians and people outside of the sciences?

Laurie Santos: Some of our monkey economics work \r\nsuggests that the biases we see in humans—in particular the fact that we\r\n think about economic questions from a relative rather than an absolute \r\nstandpoint—those kinds of biases are deeply engrained in us, probably \r\nevolutionarily old, and hard to overcome.  What this means is we got to \r\nstart taking these biases seriously and the policy implication, or even \r\njust the implication for the lay people try to make economic decisions \r\nis to realize that these factors are at work.  So, one thing we’ve \r\nlearned is that monkeys actually pay a lot of attention to reference \r\npoints.  So, arbitrary information that just sets a price for you. And \r\nyou care about whether, you know, the actual price you’re going to pay \r\nis less or more than that.  You know, so advertisers do this to us all \r\nthe time.  You can’t walk into a grocery store or department store \r\nwithout seeing, you know, “Was $300, Now Only $199.”  Right?  We’re \r\naffected by these things even though we’d really like to think that we \r\naren’t.  And if you think about other things are evolved.  Other evolved\r\n biases we have, like our passion for cheesecake and our hatred of scary\r\n things and so on, we’re really going to have a hard time overcoming \r\nthose sorts of biases. 
And so the policy implications are \r\nfirst just that, should we allow these kinds of thing out there.  \r\nProbably we’re never going to overcome that.  Probably these kinds of \r\nthings are gong to be there, but as a decision maker, you should really \r\nrealize that they’re there and understand that your choices are really \r\nbeing affected by these pieces of information.

\r\nThere are a set of folks who are really pushing that we need to take \r\nthese biases seriously so folks like Dick Thaler and Cass Sunstein who \r\nwrote this recent book "Nudge" that thankfully is having a big effect, \r\nsaying that, "Look we need to take these kinds of things seriously \r\nbecause pretending that we don’t have these biases means that we set up \r\nthese choice structures—they call them choice architectures—that are \r\ninfluencing people’s behavior even though we don’t think they do." So, \r\nthey have a case of... consider a lunch line when you have different \r\nfoods and different orders. And let’s say that we could figure out for \r\nsure that the first piece of food is going to effect what you buy.  \r\nWhich piece of food should we put first? 
Well, we could be \r\npaternalistic and put the broccoli first, you know, we could say, "No, \r\nwe’re going to ignore that and put the cheesecake first," and so on.  \r\nBut one of the foods has to go first, or we have to decide to be random \r\nevery day and switch it up.  You know, when we set up policies, we set \r\nup these structures that have to have a default option, that have to \r\nsway choices somehow.  And so the question is, "How do we want to sway \r\nthem?"  And realizing how these biases work and that because of our work\r\n with the monkeys, they may be hard to override, I think, suggests that \r\nin fact, we need to take these kinds of policy suggestions really \r\nseriously and deal with the question of, you know, we have to set these \r\npolicies up somehow and we know that how we set them up is going to \r\neffect choices, you know, what should we really decide to do?

Recorded May 21, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont

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

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