Ruler
Ruler
(featured image via Pixabay)

When we treat rules, however well-intentioned, as unconditional imperatives. we may end up doing more harm than good

When I was younger, so much younger than today, I joined the Institute of Advanced Motorists, a British organization that aims to increase road safety by improving driving standards. Now, like most people, I was convinced that I am a better driver than the mean driver, but at the time I was spending a lot of time in the car and wanted to regain the joy of driving, rather than experience it as a boring chore. …


A large red boxing glove, and a small blue one
A large red boxing glove, and a small blue one
(featured image: EliasSch via Pixabay)

Ethical concerns are an important factor in policymaking, and fairness often figures prominently in this respect. But are we really using it in the way we do?

In last week’s post, I referred to the challenges in setting policies for vaccinating people against COVID-19. If the aim is to protect the people who are the most at risk of the disease, then it makes sense to give priority to the elderly and those with underlying conditions, and to work your way down from there to the young and healthy, the people who are unlikely to develop serious symptoms, let alone require hospital admission.

There are clear instrumental motives for such an approach: the risk is not just to the individuals, but also to society as a whole…


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In a recent blogpost, economist Brank Milanovic riffs on a theme from the end of his book, Capitalism, Alone. Capitalism facilitates (and arguably even requires) the progressive commercialization of activities and relationships that, before, happened as part of general social interaction, e.g., within or between families, and between friends.

In this post, he focuses specifically on the arts. The advantage of capitalism, Branko says, is that you can only make a profit if you satisfy someone else’s need: this aligns, as if by an invisible hand, the profit goal of a producer with the personal needs of their customer. This…


A shutter with ‘cognitive dissonance’ spray painted on it
A shutter with ‘cognitive dissonance’ spray painted on it
featured image: KylaBorg/Flickr CC BY

Is there a way to manage cognitive dissonance that doesn’t involve changing what we do or believe, or fooling ourselves?

In music, two or more tones played together can sound pleasant, or unpleasant. The former is referred to as consonance , the latter as dissonance. Like other concepts from music such as harmony, tempo, and striking a chord, this term too is being used more generally as a metaphor in human behaviour and interaction. A specific case is that of cognitive dissonance, which describes the situation of holding beliefs and values that are in conflict with each other, that are contradicted by facts, or by the way we behave.

The theory around cognitive dissonance was developed by social psychologist Leon…


Screenshot of a consumer product test showing a single number test score
Screenshot of a consumer product test showing a single number test score

Numbers can misinform as well as inform — even if they are correct, because they do not (and cannot) carry sometimes crucial context

For many years, the product evaluations of consumer magazines like Which? in the UK, and countless equivalents in other countries, have been identifying “Best Buys”: the products that performed best in the tests. But such a binary distinction (a product either is, or is not, a Best Buy) is not necessarily very helpful.

One issue with it is that it doesn’t tell us whether a product that failed to receive the coveted badge only just failed to make the grade, or whether it was mediocre across the board. Another concern is that the boundary between Best and Not-Best is arbitrary…


Parking ticket behind windscreen wiper
Parking ticket behind windscreen wiper
(featured image: Paul Sableman/Flickr CC BY)

(featured image: Paul Sableman/Flickr CC BY)

We tend to be ambivalent towards preferential treatment — kind of OK when we benefit (or we grant it to others), but dislike it when it’s others who gain. Or is it not that simple?

We care more for ourselves than for others. This may sound a tad controversial, but it is in fact not surprising: perhaps our oldest and most profound imperative is to pass on our genes — and not those of strangers. So, when it comes to the crunch, we come first.

Of course, in our sophisticated societies, we don’t act this out blindly and in an extreme fashion. Paying a round in the pub (remember those?) to our mates, doing a colleague a favour, or making a donation to a good cause are not likely…


Fire alarm buttons surrounded by painting on the wall
Fire alarm buttons surrounded by painting on the wall
(featured image: raj/Flickr CC BY)

Drills and exercises can help prepare people and organizations for the unexpected, but the choices of how to do so may involve tough trade-offs with ethical concerns

I once had the misfortune of experiencing two fire alarms in the same day. The first one was in the middle of the afternoon, at the office of my then employer in West London. As so often when this happens, the rain was pouring down, and many of us got soaked hurrying from the emergency exit to the assembly point in the car park across the road. Later, I made my way to the Isle of Wight for a client meeting the next day. …


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(featured image: Jesper Sehested — PlusLexia/Flickr CC BY)

Motivation is what allows us to survive, prosper and reproduce — but it is also behind the worst of polarization and tribalism. We should use it with care, and engage critical thinking

How come we are here? A good few billion years ago, a bunch of chemicals in the primordial soup that sloshed around a young Earth combined to form what we would, much later, call ‘life’ — organisms that somehow possessed two key capacities. They were able to reproduce, and they could distinguish what was beneficial to them from what was detrimental. …


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Rules of all kinds help us make good decisions all day long, but how does that affect our responsibility for these decisions?

Decision-making is effortful. Even if we have only two options to choose from, they often both have numerous pluses and minuses that need to be weighed up. Thankfully, we can often rely on rules that act as shortcuts and take much of that hard work away.

Many such rules we develop and adopt ourselves. After using the toilet, we don’t every time consider the upsides and downsides of washing our hands — it is a habit we mindlessly carry out. Neither do we spend a lot of time, every week, working out whether we will do the shopping on Friday…


Two tomatoes
Two tomatoes
(Featured image: Yaffa Phillips)

Much of the niggling conflict that we encounter day in, day out, is of our own making: it is in our minds. What if we could tone it down a bit? Here is my New Year’s wish

We are all different — no two people are the same. Even “identical” twins are not actually genetically identical. That is a good thing from an evolutionary perspective, as a diverse species can better adapt to changes in the environment. It is also beneficial for us humans at a societal level: people with different skills and abilities can complement each other in effective collaboration, for example.

But we have a tendency to accentuate differences, and divide the world on that basis: me and others, us and them. Such differences can influence and even dominate our relationships. …

Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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