Ask a Behavioral Scientist: Cass Sunstein on Picking vs. Choosing

This is the second post in our “Ask a Behavioral Scientist” series, where we give readers the opportunity to pose a question to leading behavioral scientists. (Read the first post from Barry Schwartz). Have a question? Ask it here.

Q: What finding outside of behavioral economics has had the biggest influence on your work?

I was much influenced by a brilliant, pathbreaking paper, “Picking and Choosing,” by Edna Ullmann-Margalit and Sidney Morgenbesser. The authors are philosophers, and they make a highly original and deceptively simple claim about rationality.

Sometimes we choose, which means that we decide on the basis of reasons: “We speak of choosing among alternatives when the act of taking (doing) one of them is determined by the differences in one’s preferences over them.” But sometimes we just pick, in the sense that we don’t decide on the basis of reasons at all. We are indifferent with regard to the alternatives, and our preferences are symmetrical. At grocery store, or online, or even in the voting booth, you might end up picking—a lot. In fact, life is pervaded by picking.

The paper makes a clean and crisp point, and in a way it’s straightforward, but it’s also profound. It has implications for how people (and institutions) act, and also for how they should act. In government, it sometimes makes sense for officials to pick. In life, picking has big advantages over choosing, because it’s easier and simpler. My work on behavioral science and public policy was deeply influenced by this paper. (I chose that.) And every time I go back to the paper, I learn more. It has a lot of unexplored ideas and implications. It’s also written with zip and (I think) a fair bit of delight—and that’s contagious.

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Further Reading & Resources

  • Ullmann-Margalit, E., & Morgenbesser, S. (1977). Picking and choosing. Social Research, 757-785. (Link)