Management Papers

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Elements of Reason: Cognition, Choice, and the Bounds of Rationality

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A thoughtful reader of the psychological literature on judgment and choice might easily walk away with the impression that people are flat-out incapable of reasoning their way through value trade-offs (Kahneman, Slovic, and Tversky 1982). Trade-offs are just too cognitively complex, emotionally stressful, and socially awkward for people to manage them effectively, to avoid entanglement in Tverskian paradoxes, such as intransitivities within choice tasks and preference reversals across choice tasks. But what looks impossible from certain psychological points of view looks utterly unproblematic from a microeconomic perspective. Of course, people can engage in trade-off reasoning. They do it all the time – every time they stroll down the aisle of the supermarket or cast a vote or opt in or out of a marriage (Becker 1981). We expect competent, self-supporting citizens of free market societies to know that they can't always get what they want and to make appropriate adjustments. Trade-off reasoning should be so pervasive and so well rehearsed as to be virtually automatic for the vast majority of the non-institutionalized population.

We could just leave it there in a post-positivist spirit of live-and-let-live pluralism. The disciplinary divergence provides just another illustration of how competing theoretical discourses construct reality in their own image. This “resolution” is, however, less than helpful to political scientists who borrow from cognitive psychology or microeconomics in crafting theories of political reasoning. The theoretical choice reduces to a matter of taste, in effect, an unconditional surrender to solipsism.

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This material has been published in Elements of Reason: Cognition, Choice, and the Bounds of Rationality edited by Arthur Lupia, Mathew D. McCubbins & Samuel L. Popkin. This version is free to view and download for personal use only. Not for re-distribution, re-sale or use in derivative works. © Cambridge University Press.



Date Posted: 19 February 2018

This document has been peer reviewed.