Sand dunes
(credit: Weekend wayfarers CC BY)

Like shifting sands

Our preferences are neither fixed, nor absolute — and that is a good thing, in times of crisis

Koen Smets
6 min readMar 20, 2020

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Some people prefer fried tomatoes to steamed broccoli, while for others it is the opposite. (I cannot imagine there are many such people, but as my grandson is living proof, I must concede there is clear evidence). Some like to go to the opera, others to football matches — at least when coronavirus measures are not in force. Some like fast cars with a prestigious badge; others consider their vehicle as a mere an instrument for transporting people and stuff from A to B. You get the picture: we all have different preferences.

Preferences are an important aspect of decision-making, and of great interest to (behavioural) economists. It is helpful to know what people want (or want to avoid), and how badly they want this. One way of measuring the strength of such preferences is to establish how much someone is willing to pay ( WTP) to acquire (or avoid) something, and how much they are willing to accept ( WTA) to give something up (or to be willing to live with it). This is often enlightening, but we must not forget that the amounts in question are no more than a proxy for an internal preference. Some preferences do not easily let themselves be captured in WTP or WTA. If you were asked what would be worst, losing a finger, or losing a leg, you might say that you’d rather lose a finger, even though you would probably not be able to express in money what it would be worth to you to avoid either of them being removed.

The same, but different

Not all preferences can be expressed through sums of money, but that does not make them any less real. Imagine your most favourite artist ever will give a concert in a nearby city and a friend manages to get tickets, inviting you along as a birthday treat. You are elated at the prospect, and get more excited as the day of the gig approaches. Then, three days before the performance, you fall seriously ill, and you are unable to attend the concert. That would really suck. Picture a Scale of Awfulness, with 0 being and 10 being a fate worse than death, and put a pretend marker on it, corresponding to how bad you would feel.

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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