Restating the Question (Again)

March 3, 2008

Given my neat little framework, the question I am asking when I ask whether smokers or anyone else are making rational decisions is whether stage II (calculating costs and benefits) is dominant, or whether some factor in stages III (making a decision) and IV (taking action) determines people’s actions.

My initial defense of smokers’ behavior was that they estimate the effects of smoking rationally, but they discount the future effects of smoking at a much higher rate than non-smokers, meaning that they value the short-term pleasure more.

Thomas suggests that the real crux of the issue is in stage IV. That is, there are people who have properly weighed the benefits and costs of smoking, decided that not smoking is a better decision for them than smoking, and yet are unable to act on this decision. This claim is not the same as my position that addiction is just another cost to be considered in stage II. Basically, I’m saying that yes, if you didn’t enjoy smoking so much, you wouldn’t suffer as much from not doing it, but that fact is not unique to smoking. Thomas says that the act of smoking is not the result of some kind of on-the-fly update of the true cost of not smoking, but rather is irrational. Unfortunately, at present, no solution to this disagreement occurs to me. What kind of evidence might be used to distinguish stage II from stage IV problems?

The smoking study I cited earlier today implies that there is a problem at stage III, a possibility which had not occurred to me. The claim of the scientists who conducted the experiment was that the “smoker” test subjects understood the costs of their choices just as well as the non-smokers, but simply didn’t use that information when it came to making a decision. The result strikes me as just plain weird, so I’ll have to give that one thought as well.

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One Response to “Restating the Question (Again)”


  1. […] While taking a break from all the RORing, I picked up a book by behavioral economist Dan Ariely entitled, “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions”. Why would a book like that warrant any level of excitement? Because it’s perfect fodder for blogging my debate with Bill! […]


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