Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why Trade-Offs Matter

A respected friend recently gave me some push-back on this, asking: at the meta-level, what exactly is the value in reading a list of trade-offs? I offer three main reasons, in order of descending plausibility:

1) Interestingness: There are many systems used for classifying stories (e.g., here, here, and here). Now, the classical "decision" is not necessarily more "important" than the story. (And they are often intertwined, as we use our decisions to construct and shift the trajectory of our personal narratives). But still, we might consider a similar sort of interestingness as is found in classifying stories to be a lower bound on the value of a good trade-off classification system.

2) Awareness: Daniel Gilbert writes that "because resources are finite, every sensible thing we do is another sensible thing we don't. Alas, research shows that when human beings make decisions, they tend to focus on what they are getting and forget about what we are forgoing." And apparently teaching people about cost-benefit reasoning really can improve their ability and propensity to use it (see here).

3) Tactics: Reading one of the trade-offs might allow someone to recognize a systematic bias towards one side of that trade-off. In the future, when that person identifies a situation which can be classified into that trade-off, they could try to adjust for their tendency towards bias. This ability to treat individual situations as merely examples of broader trends is crucial for aligning short-term decisions with long-term preferences.