The Decision Machine



“I’ve come to really like frozen yoghurt. There's something so human about taking something great and ruining it a little so you can have more of it.” Michael (The Good Place, S1, E6)

One of my favourite Netflix series of late is the excellent, and very funny “The Good Place”. It’s about an idyllic neighbourhood in the afterlife, where the very best people from Earth go to enjoy the next stage of their existence after they die. Michael, played by Ted Danson, is the angel-like architect who designed the Good Place. He is constantly perplexed by by the human condition, and due to demand, has filled the neighbourhood with frozen yoghurt outlets.

It’s a series that plays with the brilliant flaws and idiosyncrasies of human nature.

If humans were entirely rational we would always make decisions that were in our best interests. Given an array of options, and with limitless capacity for making detailed comparisons, rational humans would take out pensions at the first opportunity, save money where the interest rates gave the best returns, only buy things they needed to use, switch energy suppliers regularly to get the best deals and complete college assignments early.

In the world of behavioural economics, such fictional people are sometimes referred to as “econs”. Econs are robotic people with computers for brains and absolutely no capacity for emotions and instincts to interfere with their lives. They have perfect memory and know the value of time and money.

Not that long ago, this was how economists considered humans to behave, and even today, most services appear to be built with this kind of customer in mind.

REAL humans, on the other hand are sub-optimal decision-makers. Especially decisions that are complex, involving many factors and where the outcome of that decision is a long time off. We don’t have the mental capacity to think our way logically through every option and outcome, so our subconscious minds apply super-fast rules of thumb, heuristics and biases, which makes life much easier, but can leave us a little error-prone. We would barely admit to how we figure stuff out, if we even knew how we did it.

Imagine someone built a supercomputer that can tell you every decision and every action you need to take to lead the longest, healthiest, wealthiest life (or whatever you think success looks like).

All you would need to do is put your goal into the machine and it will calculate the optimal path for you… what to eat for lunch, which course to enrol on, which street to rent your house in, what time to go to bed, who to marry, what to wear…

Did you have an allergic reaction to the paragraph above? It’s likely such a computer almost exists. If you could get one, would you use it? If you used it, would you act on what it said, or would you argue back?

Or do you prefer to stumble your way heart-first through life like every other human?