Democracy’s feet of clay

Do people make good choices when they vote? *Can* they?

Koen Smets

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How come most of us, most of the time, don’t do crazy things? We make hundreds of decisions every day — lots of small ones, and once in a while some more momentous ones. With each one, we have the opportunity to do something really stupid, and yet we don’t. That is pretty remarkable.

Imagine you’re trundling along, lost in thought, and you start crossing the road without paying due attention to the traffic. Suddenly you hear the blast of a horn. You don’t stop to look where it comes from and try to identify what it might be. No, you unceremoniously jump back onto the pavement. That’s your thinking System 1 at work, quick and impulsive, capable of making a decision and instructing your muscles to carry it out in a split second.

But if you are buying a house, you would not take a decision at such speed. On the contrary, you would probably take days or weeks to mull over the pluses and minuses of several possible purchases. Are there bus stops and maybe schools nearby? Is it on a busy road or in a quiet backwater, and is it close to the local amenities? That would be your System 2: slow and thorough, analytical and reasoned, capable of weighing up multiple facets different options.

The right upper hand

Of course you might, immediately after nearly having been run over, be a bit embarrassed and self-conscious about that inelegant jump back onto the pavement. But that consideration comes afterwards. It’s your System 1 that has the upper hand when life and limb might be at risk, unencumbered by worries about looking foolish. On the other hand, you might have felt an immediate attraction for one of the houses you’re considering, but even that will eventually be just one factor in the much more analytical decision making of your System 2 when determining on which house you will spend (and borrow) several years’ income.

Economics Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman popularized the concept of System 1 and System 2 thought (first coined by psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West). In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he illustrates how, sometimes, we do make impulsive decisions that had better be more reasoned. Anyone who has ever eaten a whole family bag…

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Koen Smets

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