Archive for October, 2013

Marcia: “It’s unethical to pay people so little money to clean your house.”

Jan: “They need the money. They believe they are better off with this job than without it. I am paying them something. You are paying them nothing and calling me unethical.”

Marcia: “But they should not be in a position where a low paying house cleaning job is their best option.”

This is an example of a fallacy that I will call ‘appeal to a priori counterfactual worlds [1].’ Marcia’s argument that Jan is being unethical is that the world should be different than it is. However, Marcia’s counterfactual world (where everyone has good employment options) is not something that Jan can create. Jan did not choose a world of exploitation over a world of equality. Jan lives in a world where some people do have very few options and made an arrangement that both parties believe is mutually beneficial [2].


[1] I will briefly describe what I mean by a priori counterfactual, in case it is not clear. Suppose I have to make a decision between option A and option B. Before I make the decision, we can imagine that there are two potential outcomes — how the world will be if I choose option A and how the world will be if I choose option B. Once I make the decision, one world becomes factual and the other becomes counterfactual. But both of these worlds were possible a priori (before I made the decision). Jan could choose to hire someone to clean her house, or should could choose something else. At the time she was making the decision about whether or not to hire someone, there was no potential outcome that would involve a world where everyone could get enjoyable, high paying jobs. So this world that Marcia envisions, however appealing you might find it, was a priori counterfactual.

[2] I’m not saying whether Jan is being ethical or not. I’m just saying that Marcia’s argument against Jan is flawed.

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Suppose there is a professional career available to a small percentage of people who have some unique talent. This career lasts for about 20 years, pays extremely well, and brings with it fame and status. However, after the career is over, the person lives in pain and misery. 100% of people who chose this career are glad they chose it while they are doing it. 100% of people who did it regret it after they retire.

What should be done about this? Anything? Should we protect the future version of the person from their younger self?

If we knew that the pain after retirement greatly outweighed the pleasure during the career. Should we ban the profession? If so, how could we know if one outweighs the other?

The problem with regret

In this case, regret occurs after all of the fun has ended. However, we should not trust the judgment of people who are finished with the good results of a decision. Picture a 20 year career of bliss followed by 20 years of pain. It’s not surprising that during the final 20 years of pain the person experiences regret. Imagine instead that there were 40 years, with one day of pain followed by one day of pleasure. Would the person in that situation regret the career choice? Is that the crucial thing to know?

The key point here is that often regret is not invariant to the temporal ordering of cost and benefit. I suspect that if pain comes before pleasure, people won’t regret the decision as much as if pleasure comes before the pain. I wonder if judgment about decisions should be done in a way that *is* invariant to the ordering.


Related post

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Rumsfeld expanded

A. “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.”

A.1 There are known knowns that we call known unknowns or unknown unknowns; there are things we know that we pretend we don’t in order to avoid taking responsibility for not acting in a way that someone with that knowledge would be expected to act by people whose opinion matter to us at a given moment.

B. “There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.”

B.1. There are known knowing-would-be-a-luxury unknowns; that is to say, there are things we don’t know that we know we don’t know that we wouldn’t be expected to know and knowing wouldn’t be beneficial outside of our own satisfaction with that knowledge.

B.2. There are known should-have-known unknowns; that is to say, there are things we don’t know that we know we should know.

B.2.a. There are known should-have-known unknowns that we call unknown unknowns; that is to say, there are things we don’t know that we know we should know, but pretend we don’t know that we don’t know it.

C. “But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

C.1. There are unknown unknowns that we call known unknowns; there are things we didn’t know we didn’t know, but find this more embarrassing than it would be if we knew we didn’t know it, and so pretend it was a known unknown.

C.2. There are unknown unknowns that should have been known knowns; there are things we didn’t know we didn’t know that we should have known based on the fact that many people in less influential positions in that area knew it.

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Suppose you are playing Hearts. The first trick (the one where the 2 was lead) is finished. Now someone lead diamonds. It is your turn. Suppose you do not have Q; nor do you know where it is. Suppose your only diamonds are 2 and an A. Suppose also that your hand is such that you will not be able to take all of the points. You therefore want to avoid the Q.

Consider two strategies:

1. Play the A. Your reasoning: “since this is the first time diamonds have been played, and since I only have two of them, the other two players probably have a diamond. Therefore, it’s pretty unlikely I will take the Q.”

2. Play the two of diamonds. Your reasoning: “the person with the queen of diamonds might be short-suited in diamonds. If I play the ace now, I will definitely take the Q. But if I don’t, diamonds might not be lead again until after the queen has already been played.”

Which decision is best isn’t important right now (and would likely depend on other factors). This argument is simply going to be about the emotional response to the decision-outcome link.

Suppose you go with strategy one. Maybe you end up safely playing the A. Maybe this happens the next time you are in that situation as well. But eventually you will get the Q. And it will sting. You will have taken the queen on a trick when you didn’t have to. You will be aware that you could have played the 2. More importantly, the effect of your decision was immediate.

On the other hand, if you go with strategy two and later take the Q with the A, you might not even remember that you possibly could have avoided it by playing the A earlier. The earlier decision is more distant from the outcome, and other stuff happened in between.

I suspect in situations like this (where with one decision a bad outcome is immediate and with the other decision the bad outcome is delayed), people weigh the bad outcome in the first case too heavily. That is, the strategy that could have an immediate bad outcome would have to be a lot better than a strategy that could have a delayed bad outcome, in order for (most) people to consistently choose it. If we take the Q, we would rather it feel like it was out of our control (even if it wasn’t).

There is probably a name for this type of bias, and I suspect it is pervasive in all types of decision making.

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