Economists posit the existence of a rational "Economic Man" who makes logical decisons based on cost-benefit analysis. Behavioral conomics suggests that Economic Man is no more real than Superman. "When we turn to actual human beings, we find, instead of robot-like logic, all manner of irrational, self-sabotaging, and even altruistic behavior," according to Craig Lambert, writing in Harvard Magazine. He goes on to cite a 1979 study concluding "that the ways in which alternatives are framed — not simply their relative value — heavily influence the decisions people make." After a few years of study, we're beginning to understand even more about this framing of alternatives. In making comparisons, people will overly discount future alternatives when comparing them to the short term. This is because choices involve the brain's rational frontal cortex, but short term choices are also impacted by the limbic system - emotions. If you make a decision over a short vs long term alternative, it won't be as rational as a decision about two long-term alternatives. The best way to enact long term reforms, says Clark Williams-Derry, is to pre-commit, i.e. make a decision and put off the implementation, so that your thinking about it will be rational at the time. In the Harvard piece, the analogy is to Odysseus, who had his men lash him to a mast so that he won't heed the Sirens' call.
That's more or less what California's landmark greenhouse gas law does. It was passed this year, but the actual regulations (whatever they turn out to be) won't go into effect until 2012. There are practical reasons for delaying the regulations: they have to figure out what they're doing first. But perhaps because the program won't start for another half-decade, the legislation appealed to the analytical part of legislator's brains without kicking in their limbic systems. There was no fear of immediate economic effects or short-term electoral backlash....if there's a long-term issue that can't get past a short-term logjam, then maybe it's wise to take a lesson from the behavioral economists, and find a way to appeal to people's rational side without activating their fight-or-flight reflex.
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Anybody interested in this matter should have a look at the works of Jon Elster, who published his first book about it in 1979 and has produced several more since then.
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