Revealed preference: Does the fact that I did it mean I preferred it?

Post 312 Oct 27 JDN 2458784

One of the most basic axioms of neoclassical economics is revealed preference: Because we cannot observe preferences directly, we infer them from actions. Whatever you chose must be what you preferred.

Stated so badly, this is obviously not true: We often make decisions that we later come to regret. We may choose under duress, or confusion; we may lack necessary information. We change our minds.

And there really do seem to be economists who use it in this bald way: From the fact that a particular outcome occurred in a free market, they will infer that it must be optimally efficient. (“Freshwater” economists who are dubious of any intervention into markets seem to be most guilty of this.) In the most extreme form, this account would have us believe that people who trip and fall do so on purpose.

I doubt anyone believes that particular version—but there do seem to be people who believe that unemployment is the result of people voluntarily choosing not to work, and revealed preference has also led economists down some strange paths when trying to explain what sure looks like irrational behavior—such as “rational addiction” theory, positing that someone can absolutely become addicted to alcohol or heroin and end up ruining their life all based on completely rational, forward-thinking decision planning.

The theory can be adapted to deal with these issues, by specifying that it’s only choices made with full information and all of our faculties intact that count as revealing our preferences.

But when are we ever in such circumstances? When do we ever really have all the information we need in order to make a rational decision? Just what constitutes intact faculties? No one is perfectly rational—so how rational must we be in order for our decisions to count as revealing our preferences?

Revealed preference theory also quickly becomes tautologous: Why do we choose to do things? Because we prefer them. What do we prefer? What we choose to do. Without some independent account of what our preferences are, we can’t really predict behavior this way.

A standard counter-argument to this is that revealed preference theory imposes certain constraints of consistency and transitivity, so it is not utterly vacuous. The problem with this answer is that human beings don’t obey those constraints. The Allais Paradox, the Ellsberg Paradox, the sunk cost fallacy. It’s even possible to use these inconsistencies to create “money pumps” that will cause people to systematically give you money; this has been done in experiments. While real-world violations seem to be small, they’re definitely present. So insofar as your theory is testable, it’s false.

The good news is that we really don’t need revealed preference theory. We already have ways of telling what human beings prefer that are considerably richer than simply observing what they choose in various scenarios. One very simple but surprisingly powerful method is to ask. In general, if you ask people what they want and they have no reason to distrust you, they will in fact tell you what they want.

We also have our own introspection, as well as our knowledge about millions of years of evolutionary history that shaped our brains. We don’t expect a lot of people to prefer suffering, for instance (even masochists, who might be said to ‘prefer pain’, seem to be experiencing that pain rather differently than the rest of us would). We generally expect that people will prefer to stay alive rather than die. Some may prefer chocolate, others vanilla; but few prefer motor oil. Our preferences may vary, but they do follow consistent patterns; they are not utterly arbitrary and inscrutable.

There is a deeper problem that any account of human desires must face, however: Sometimes we are actually wrong about our own desires. Affective forecasting, the prediction of our own future mental states, is astonishingly unreliable. People often wildly overestimate the emotional effects of both positive and negative outcomes. (Interestingly, people with depression tend not to do this—those with severe depression often underestimate the emotional effects of positive outcomes, while those with mild depression seem to be some of the most accurate forecasters, an example of the depressive realism effect.)

There may be no simple solution to this problem. Human existence is complicated; we spend large portions of our lives trying to figure out what it is we really want.
This means that we should not simply trust that whatever it is happens is what everyone—or even necessarily anyone—wants to happen. People make mistakes, even large, systematic, repeated mistakes. Sometimes what happens is just bad, and we should be trying to change it. Indeed, sometimes people need to be protected from their own bad decisions.

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