Has the Quality of Decision Making Improved?

The question posed above, or some form of it anyway, occurred to me towards the end of last year while I was – well, I wish I could remember what I was doing when I thought of it; probably I was reading The Economist in a bar. That’s when I do some of my best thinking. Its genesis aside, the question remains: do we make better decisions now than we did, say, 100 or 1,000 years ago?

Obviously there are a number of different ways to frame the answer; for example, you could consider decisions at the individual level, and assess their quality by measuring outcomes like life expectancy, reported happiness, or quality of life.* On this basis it seems we probably do make better decisions now – far fewer people decide to smoke and doctors don’t choose to use leeches, to pick two at random, and people live longer than they used to.** But there are unavoidable problems with this approach, the main one being that it’s next to impossible to tease out the various component parts which together amount to, for example, an individual’s choice not to smoke. Perhaps she would choose to smoke, but cigarette taxes make doing so prohibitively expensive? Then the quality of her decision seems unimproved. Or perhaps the same person in question would happily smoke if cultural norms encouraged it, but happily abstains since they do not.*** The same logic holds for something like auto safety, too – now that wearing a seat belt is legally mandated (those weirdos in New Hampshire excepted), are we really actively making better decisions about wearing them? All of this is to say that, in the realm of personal decisions, it’s not at all clear that we have become better day-to-day decision makers than we were decades or centuries ago, though we do seem to be operating within far more salutary parameters. To put it another way: the tangible consequences of being a terrible decision-maker have been been minimized enormously, but there’s no reason to think people are in the aggregate any better at making decisions.

In some ways the exact reverse could be said for decision making in the realm of policy (and this was the question that first occurred to me – basically, are 21st century presidents making better decisions than ancient kings?). For every decision President Obama makes he has available to him a much wider array of information and analyses than perhaps any other prior leader, so even access to some basic cartography alone means he ought to be doing better than the 19th century Russians, who found themselves in the now-obviously-preposterous position of attempting to establish a riverine connection between India and the Caspian. While the modern policymaker’s decision-making capacity remains unbounded in a way that the modern citizen’s isn’t, the modern policymaker is at the same time making his decisions on the basis (one hopes) of information and analysis not typically informing the modern citizen’s choices.****

So there’s almost certainly a minimum level of policy idiocy (like trying to establish a river-based trade route between India and the Caspian Sea) that we now avoid thanks to knowing more about the world but there’s also, like, Iraq – the unbounded nature of policy decisions means that the parameters of the results of a bad one today are much the same as they were 1,000 years ago – a bad decision to go to war still leads to death and destruction – but we’re probably not making quite as many bad ones because we quite literally know better.*****

A final question worth considering is the quality of the decision-making process itself. Probably President Obama did not consult the entrails of a slaughtered animal before deciding to launch the raid that killed bin Laden, so in that sense he is already one up on the ancient kings. But it would be interesting to know if the apparatus(es?) of the modern state has evolved to facilitate better decisions than its predecessors. That is, if you recreated, say, the court of Louis the Sun King in today’s world and with modern knowledge of it, would you get better foreign policy choices from them or the Quai d’Orsay? Conversely, would the French Foreign Ministry produce better results than the king’s court if it possessed only a 17th-century understanding of the world? Or could it be that over a long enough time frame the policy-making apparatus evolves to best suit the information available to it? Something to ponder the next time I belly up to the bar with a magazine in hand.

*I guess you could just ask people, too. “Do you feel happy with the decisions you make?” And then do the same survey again in fifty years
**It would be interesting (to say the least) to know if the average person today would self-report more, less, or the same levels of happiness as a citizen of ancient Rome. On the face of it you’d think people today would be happier than people in ancient Rome, but insofar as happiness is relative, perhaps not?
***A whole other can of worms not worth opening here is whether or not it is actually a “bad” decision to smoke if, fully aware of the damage one is doing to oneself (and assuming, however implausibly, no negative externalities), one nevertheless puffs away since the act of smoking itself is felt to be pleasurable
****You can force people to make better decisions about 401ks by legislatively reframing which decisions they’re actually making (e.g. opt-out vs. opt-in); you can’t really do the same for, say, going to war. At the same time, deciding to go to war is likely subject to the type of rigorous analysis not typically associated with choosing an index fund
*****And even this is not strictly true; royally screwing up in Iraq didn’t (or hasn’t yet led) lead to the kind of near-civilizational collapse experienced by Athens after the failure of the Sicilian Expedition