Research Cases

When Is It Important To Make Choices

By October, 2015 No Comments

CASS R. SUNSTEIN, Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard University; Founder and Director, Behavioral Economics and Public Policy Program, Harvard Law School


When should people make choices? When is it unnecessary, or undesirable, for them to do so? This is a pervasive question in human life, and to date, we lack much data with which to answer it. For both individuals and policymakers, the idea of active choosing has a great deal of appeal, not least because it avoids the charge of paternalism. In many contexts, however, an insistence on active choosing is a form of paternalism, not an alternative to it. The reason is that people might choose not to choose. People are often aware that when the area is complex, difficult, and unfamiliar, active choosing may impose high costs on choosers, who might ultimately err and thus suffer serious harm. In such cases, there is a strong argument for a default rule rather than for active choosing. But if the area is one that choosers understand well, if people’s situations are diverse, and if policymakers lack the information that would enable them to devise accurate defaults, then active choosing would be best. A simple framework, based on the costs of decisions and the costs of errors, can provide solutions in a wide range of situations in which policymakers are deciding between active choosing and default rules. To date, there has been no reliable means of quantifying in a rigorous, scientific manner, the many complex situations—and those situations’ constituent variables—that people face every day. The Human Project is the first opportunity to capture this information with its interdisciplinary and cross-temporal database and provide policymakers the opportunity to learn when and why people make active choices or not in order to help improve public policy.