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Searching too hard for the “best choice” has the opposite effect:
The trap that Japanese society tends to fall into

Kazuhisa Takemura
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

We all have to make choices, from choosing a personal career to making big decisions at important moments, such as setting a governmental policy. Thinking of the practical steps in our lives, we can see that “decision-making” is a vital concept. If the so-called Abenomics in present-day Japan succeed, consumer confidence will stimulate spending and consumption will expand. In such a scenario, consumers will have increasing opportunities to make choices. The onward march of globalization is also providing greater freedom of choice and increasing chances for decision-making.

In these circumstances, the desire to understand how to make the best choices is growing. This is expressed within trends such as the emphasis on cost performance or the search for the “best choice” or “best partner,” for instance. Even in traditional utility theory and social choice theory in economics, making the best selection is an essential requirement for decision makers. I would like to say that although it is perfectly natural to want to be able to make the best choice, searching too hard for it has an adverse social effect. The main reason for this is that people pursuing the best choice can be forced to make a decision based only on a single attribute (or condition) such as money or formal protocol, thereby putting the cart before the horse. The aspiration for the best that has accompanied globalization will, I feel, not increase social diversity but rather lead to a simplification of the dimension of value and prevent appropriate decision-making in its original sense.

Most decision-making situations involve thinking about not only price but also numerous other attributes such as product value and design. In previous theoretical studies, regarding decision-making with two or more attributes, even where a number of plausible assumptions about those attributes are introduced such as their multidimensionality or Pareto characteristic, decision-making is clearly impossible except for such cases as a single dimension choice that conflicts with the assumption of multiattribute (Takemura, 2011). This closely resembles the consequences of the economist Kenneth Arrow’s General Possibility Theorem (Arrow, K., 1951), which proved that assumptions of democracy and rational social choice are contradictory, and that accepting a dictatorship enables the best choice.

Choices made from a single attribute may be able to guide decision-making in a rational form but, as with a dictatorship, there are dangerous aspects. Thinking about reconstruction policies since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, for instance, determining policy only from the perspective of economic efficiency cannot necessarily be called a “good” decision. It is in fact easier for most people to draw conclusions on extremely big decisions from the perspective of a single attribute, although there are many risks attached to this. Immediately after the actual earthquake disaster, many economists and politicians had a certain influence on society as, with little regard for human life, they resisted the issuance of government bonds for recovery. Even now, many members of organizations make choices about their organization’s performance based solely on the rationality of formal protocols (such as accountability or compliance). For example, they attach importance to the rationality of administrative procedures and so things happen that prevent the saving of lives or the development of science and technology. This trend is likely to increase as society globalizes further. While this tendency also exists outside Japan, the Japanese often tend to consider things relatively seriously, so when they pursue the best choice as a society, there is an inevitable move toward one-dimensional value.

Fig.1 Analysis of eyeball movement in multi-attribute decision-making (EyeLink 1000 Remote, made by SR Research)

Why are people prone to making choices based on one-dimensional attributes? Evaluating things one-dimensionally makes it easier to make an optimum choice that satisfies rational conditions, which makes sense psychologically. That is to say, people distort their objective awareness and make up their minds without considering other attribute information. Behind this phenomenon is, I believe, the psychological behavior of attentional focus. Attentional focus means the concentration of one’s attention on particular attributes according to linguistic messages, visual representations, or the like, making a choice easier based on the evaluation of those attributes. Our findings to date from studying decision-making processes show clearly that people’s decisions actually tend to be based only on some attributes, and that this tendency becomes more marked as people are given more options or become more emotional. This way of deciding has been observed often by the eyeball movement measuring device (Fig.1) that we use to analyze people’s information acquisition process, and by verbal protocol analysis of how people describe their mindset during such decision-making (Takemura, 2014).

Searching for the best choice brings about the above problem of simplification of value, but does not lead to a sense of well-being in people, and the results of some research show conversely that it even lowers people’s sense of well-being. Searching for the best choice also encourages doing things by the book or making formalistic decisions, and we have even obtained survey results of cases in which decisions were made that failed to save lives. From these things, I have a strong sense of danger in ideas of social design such as the search for the best choice or the need for formal rationality. People’s decisions in their social lives should, I believe, primarily consider multidimensionality and multiple objectives rather than formal rationality.

Literature

Arrow, K.J. (1951). Social choice and individual values. Wiley.
Takemura, K. (2014). Behavioral decision theory: Psychological and mathematical descriptions of human choice behavior. Springer Verlag.
Takemura, K. (2011) “Psychological model of multi-attribute decision-making and ‘good decision-making’ [Tazokusei Ishikettei no Shinri Moderu to “Yoi Ishikettei”],” Operations and Research 56 (10), 583-590.

Kazuhisa Takemura
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

[Profile]
Professor Takemura was born in 1960. He is a professor on the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University; director of the Institute for Decision Research, Waseda University; researcher at the Waseda Research Institute for Science and Engineering; researcher at the Research Center of Consumer Behavior, Waseda University; Executive Board member of the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study; Executive Board member of the Research Institute for Socionetwork Strategies, Kansai University. He has a doctorate in science from Tokyo Institute of Technology and a doctorate in medicine from Kitasato University. He was a lecturer at Kyoto Koka Women’s College from 1989, lecturer on the Division of Policy and Planning Sciences (currently the Graduate School of Systems and Information Engineering), University of Tsukuba from 1992, assistant professor at the same faculty from 1995, and Senior Fulbright Scholar at the Department of Social and Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University from 1999 to 2000 before taking up his current post in 2002. His research includes psychological testing, investigation, and modelization of people’s judgment and decision-making according to social circumstances. He was awarded the Behaviormetric Society of Japan’s 2002 Chikio Hayashi Prize, the Japan Society of Kansei Engineering’s 2003 Academic Paper Prize, and the Japanese Society of Social Psychology’s 2010 Book of the Year Award. He holds the positions of director of the Behaviormetric Society of Japan; director and editorial board member of the Japan Association for Consumer Studies; editorial board member of the Japanese Psychological Association; councilor and editorial board member of the Japan Society of Kansei Engineering; editorial board member of the Association of Behavioral Economics and Finance.