Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Decision-Making and Agency

I’m about to give a talk at a Law School class about a couple of my papers on “adaptive preference,” discrimination and women’s choices

One of the issues I discovered, re-reading them, is the question of how people make choices and the extent to which they believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have agency. Advising students about majors and future careers it’s always struck me how wildly optimistic they were and the extent to which they imagine that they have control over the way their lives would go. They seem to believe that the best predictors of how their futures will turn out are their choices and the efforts they make to achieve their goals. They’re highly privileged by world standards and even by American standards and have been propagandized from birth with the Great American Myth of self-effort and personal achievement. What is especially striking to me is that they never seem to assess their future prospects by considering the way in which the lives of people who are similarly situated go and judging the odds that they will have lives of a certain kind be reference to others like them.

I would bet that this is not the way most rational choosers operate. Most of us look at people who are, in relevant respects, like us—other women or men, other members of social group, others with similar academic records, SAT scores or credentials—and calculate the odds that our lives will go one way or the other by reference to how their lives go. We make our choices by playing the odds and don’t risk pursuing goals that we recognize are unlikely because others like us haven’t achieved them.

Nowadays about half of law school students are women. When I was growing up it was very different. I remember discussing career options with my mother once. That was when I learnt, to my dismay, that women couldn’t be vets. Women could be doctors, my mother said—they just couldn’t be surgeons. And women could be lawyers. There were in fact a few women lawyers and they were called “Portias” but they were rare.

So, as a rational but misinformed chooser, I wrote off veterinary medicine, which I would have liked to pursue, and law. It wasn’t that I doubted that I, or other women, could do these jobs, but the assumption that individual ability and choice simply don’t play much of a role in how our lives go. This, I think, is the way in which most people operate. First, we assume that there are a whole host of arbitrary, non-negotiable rules that are no more open to challenge than the laws of nature. Women couldn’t be surgeons or vets: that was just the way it was and their was no point thinking about it any further. Secondly, there were jobs that weren’t against the rules for women but which were highly unlikely—like law. It wasn’t worth trying because the odds were so low—not because of any individual characteristics one had, but because the odds were determined by how things went for others who were similarly situated. There were very few women lawyers so the odds of being a lawyer were low.

The fundamental assumption that I and. I think, most other rational choosers make is that individual characteristics like ability and effort simply do not play much of a role in determining the sort of lives we’ll live. We assume that we’re likely to live the same kind of lives as others who are demographically similar to us and that our choices are essentially choices to enter into lotteries. As rational choosers we choose amongst the lotteries where the odds are best, generally the least worst of a relatively narrow range of options.

This cuts both ways. Even though I assumed it wasn’t worth entering the law lottery, I also assumed that there were things that would just happen for me without any real effort on my part. I assumed I’d go to college because everyone I knew did. I assumed I’d play the piano because when I was growing up pianos were one of the normal pieces of living room furniture, like couches, and every adult woman could play—at least a little. So I ended up going to college and playing the piano—a little: it was inevitable.

Now when I teach applied ethics classes or read papers on “adaptive preference” and related issues, and when I argue with students or colleagues of a conservative bent, it’s clear to me that one our disagreements is a consequence of their failure to understand that this is the way in which most people make choices, in particular, about whether to invest in education or training and which job options to pursue. And unlike me, most of them are correct: they have little control over the way in which their lives will go and their efforts will not make much of a difference so the best they can do is choose lotteries where the odds are reasonably favorable. Women apply for pink-collar jobs because they recognize that their odds of getting them are good. They don’t apply for better-paying “men’s jobs” because they know that in most cases the rules are against it and that even where there are a few women in an occupation their odds of getting in are very low. It isn’t a matter of doubting their own abilities but simply a matter of playing the odds—they recognize that ability simply doesn’t matter: most jobs can be done equally well by almost anyone and most hiring decisions are arbitrary.

“Consciousness-raising” and programs to programs to build self-esteem are a waste—or a cruel joke. Most people aren’t short on self-esteem: they simply recognize that their efforts, abilities and personal worth are largely irrelevant to their life-prospects. The poor women in the global south who Martha Nussbaum imagines are victims of “preference-deformation” and put up with bad conditions because they do not believe that they are worthy of better lives or think they have rights don’t prefer the lives they live: they believe, with justification, that they can’t do any better. There are 1000 arbitrary rules that constrain them and, they know that the odds that their lives will be any different from the lives of other poor women are very low indeed. Living on the edge, they can’t afford to assume risk and even investing in a lottery ticket for a better life is a cost they can’t afford given the odds.


MikeS said...

Two quick points:
Are you a rational chooser or a reasonable chooser? If you have any time for Quine and coherentism then the two are vastly different.
Is not the Murcan UG's confidence evidence of a sad failure to demonstrate the compelling, if not convincing, arguments for determinism?
Supplementary.. isn't an understanding of the limits of free will and fallibilism necessary to liberate us from unreasonable expectations? Answers on a postcard please to...

MikeS said...

1000 apologies, I did not read your last paragraph. I defend my distinction between reasonable and rational, but I see that the thrust of your article is about the disadvantaged as reasonable choosers, and you are absolutely right. Our UK Chavs are thus because there are only certain social stereotypes available. Perhaps we might discuss the applicability of Erving Goffman's theories?

H. E. said...

Dunno about Goffman--I did read him long ago. But there's a piece by John Kenneth Galbraith somewhere, which I can't find, called something like "Why The Poor Are Like That." The gist of it was that poor people, living on the edge, can't afford to assume risk. Even if, looking at it from the outside, we think there are opportunities to better themselves that they don't take, from their point of view these are high-risk options that they can't afford to take so that investing is unlikely to pay off. They see that people like them don't get ahead and infer that nothing they do is likely to make any difference.

It's especially pathetic in the US where we have a very forgiving educational system (my husband went through in the UK when they made the 11 plus cut between grammar school and eating shit). Here in California, we've got a system of 2-year "community colleges" where the fees are nominal, everyone can go even if they haven't finished high school, and two years guarantees students admission to the superb University of California system. Even apart from that, they also offer vocational training. But most students don't go, and those that do ass around taking a few courses on and off and eventually just dropping out.

There's currently a big bruhaha about why this system isn't working. I've taken courses at our local community college and can guarantee that the teaching is excellent and the whole place is rigged up to simulate a "real" college--with a pretty campus, student organizations, sports teams, etc. and lots of encouragement and help by academic advisors. One of my kids, who messed up in high school like me, went though this system and is now getting acceptances from "real colleges" in the UC system.

But the students from poor families to which this system is geared don't get through and I'm convinced it's because it's they're playing the odds, assuming on the basis of what they see others like them doing, that it won't make any difference. Part of it is that the expectation is that they'll get full-time jobs as soon as they finish high school, if not sooner. School is an extra and one that they think isn't likely to pay off--a way of killing time until they can get full-time jobs, or get pregnant. They simply don't take anything else seriously: my life will be like the lives of everyone else I know. None of this can make any difference.

Are they reasonable? Sure. Given the information they have and their assessment of the odds of their doing better.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now. Keep it up!
And according to this article, I totally agree with your opinion, but only this time! :)