Moving beyond abstracted dichotomies in sociological treatments of decision making

Back when I planned to do a PhD in political philosophy, I was extremely interested in Michael Sandel’s critique of John Rawls. Particularly his attack on what he claimed was Rawl’s notion of an ‘unencumbered self’:

Now the unencumbered self describes first of all the way we stand toward the things we have, or want, or seek. It means there is always a distinction between the values I have and the person I am. To identify any characteristics as my aims, ambitions, or desires, and so on, is always to imply some subject ‘me’ standing behind them, and the shape of this ‘me’ must be given prior to any of the aims or attributes I bear.

I had a vague idea that my thesis could be a historical study of the rise and fall of this view of the self. It almost certainly wouldn’t have held my interest for 3 years but it’s been an ongoing thread at the back of my mind. It’s been on my mind recently because a few conversations have left me struck by the sense in which many sociologists seem to see Margaret Archer’s work on internal conversation as postulating precisely such a self. In her work on the subject, our inner speech is seen to be the mechanism through which we exercise our capacity for reflexivity: “the mental ability, shared by all normal people, to consider themselves in relation to their social contexts and vice versa”. Our decision making operates through such internal conversations, constituting a ‘back and forth’ between objective and subject (our situation & our concerns) rather than something which can be construed in ‘flat’ terms.

Epistemic contraints operate at both levels – the individual’s knowledge of their selves and their circumstances is profoundly fallible, both in terms of the capacity to be mistaken and also sheer limits to possible knowledge. Likewise the internal conversation always takes place under their own descriptions i.e. our framing of a situation in the terms we use to describe it  shapes what we know and how we can act, in a manner which is partly explicable by looking at the path-dependent cultural history of the individual concerned.

Now this all sounds abstract. But my interest in it comes from what I’d argue is it power to gain explanatory purchase on how actual individuals actually make the decisions which shape their lives (and I’m obviously not suggesting they voluntaristically ‘shape their lives’ – in fact the whole point is that a notion of ‘shaping a life’ which doesn’t take account of structural contraints and enablements would be meaningless!). The empirical question of degrees of fallibility are bracketed in order to make the higher level discussion possible. Because the answers to these questions are empirically quite complex. But their are, nonetheless, reliable answers. It seems profoundly hubristic to deny this, symptomatic of a disciplinary imperialism driven by insecurity rather than triumphalism. But I digress. As Thaler and Sunstein point out,

Hundreds of studies confirm that human forecasts are flawed and biased. Human decision making is not so great either. Again to take just one example, consider what is called the ‘status quo bias,’ a fancy name for inertia. For a host of reasons, which we shall explore, people have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option.

However it would be a mistake to move to the opposite extreme, inverting homo economicus by affirming a view of human decision making as irredeemably erroneous. Instead we need to recognise the empirical nature of the question at two levels: the underlying cognitive capacities that are deployed in decision making and the contextual variability in how these capacities are actualised within concrete action situations.

How well people choose is an empirical question, one whose answer is likely to vary across domains. It seems reasonable to say that people make good choices in contexts in which they have experience, good information, and prompt feedback – say, choosing among ice cream flavors. People know whether they like chocolate, vanilla, coffee, licorice, or something else. They do less well in contexts in which they are inexperienced and poorly informed, and in which feedback is slow or infrequent

The latter level strikes me as one which sociology is uniquely well suited to addressing. Not least of all because it can encompass structural questions within its purview, in a manner which I imagine social psychology would tend to struggle with: how structures shape the concrete action situations individuals confront and how ensuing actions contribute, both aggregatively and emergently, towards the transformation or reproduction of those structures. However doing this adequately necessitates getting over hangups about the findings of behavioural science and cognition + agency more broadly.

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