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As always with projects of this magnitude, an enormous number of individuals had input in one way or another.

My supervisors, Steve Marglin and Richard Zeckhauser, have displayed unusual patience with a thesis topic that is more than a little out of the ordinary in economics. Their advice was always timely and their continued insistence on pushing my thinking further has vastly improved the quality of the end product. Thomas Schelling and Amartya Sen have also kindly taken the time to read the thesis and are responsible for some key revisions.

My colleagues in graduate school – Jack Donahue, Howard Frant, and Steve Johnson should be particularly cited – were instrumental in this work, both with their substantive comments and with helping create the camaraderie that is so essential to survival in graduate school.

A very special thanks is also owed to Jennifer Buitendag – her tireless editing helped to mask my mediocre writing and to tighten the overall argument. Michael Bryans has been an especially comforting source of encouragement for almost five years, and for this I am deeply grateful.

Finally, my wife Sarah has allowed many pressing life steps to be put on hold while I completed this work and has never wavered in her unconditional support of my efforts.


This thesis examines sensible ways to describe human decision making and its starting point is the framework economists use to explore decision making. By carefully examining the conditions under which human decision-makers actually choose, we can develop a more comprehensive view of how we can appropriately model human choice and rationality.

Choice, it must be said, is an extremely difficult and treacherous topic. It has been given a great deal of thought by a great many thinkers since the beginning of the Western philosophic tradition. Choice can also be examined from a multitude of perspectives: philosophical, anthropological, psychological, sociological, and economic, as well as historically versus cross-culturally.

No single treatment (and certainly not this one) can do justice to this topic from all these angles. Unfortunately for the investigator, the target also moves. Despite the assertions of some thinkers from various disciplines, there is no overarching explanation of human choice applicable to all periods and all societies. The constructs of consciousness, language, and rationality that form the foundation of decision making are not an immutable part of human nature. There is no single set of human drives which can explain human action analogous to the well-understood physical process underlying the natural sciences.

Investigating human choice, then, is not an exercise that slowly converges toward the true model of human decision making through successive approximations. Progress instead is measured best by insight -a rather vague term, but a term that expresses the notion that a useful perspective on human decision making and choice is one that sheds additional light on the subject. This does not mean that these insights cannot be proved or disproved through empirical work. The implication is simply that experimental work, in the sense typically understood in science, cannot be the sole source of this insight about human decision making. Purely theoretical debate, which always risks becoming a useless linguistic and conceptual game, is necessary nonetheless to advance our understanding.

For these reasons, although this thesis is a critique, 1* I am not claiming that the tack economists have taken for describing choice is foolish or wasted. Nor do I want my discussion of utility theory to appear churlish or hypercritical. Without a doubt, the model of human choice developed by economists has dramatically added to our understanding of decision making – it has provided insight. And it has forced other social scientists to seriously address the requirements of human rationality and to avoid the most blatant ad hoc assumptions. Like any useful perspective on this most complex issue, the economists1 model has added another viewpoint, partially right and elegantly parsimonious. However, this model should not and cannot be the end of the debate. *

In this essay, I hope to contribute to our understanding of decision making by examining the implications for a theory of choice following from the self-evident observation that we are self-conscious beings choosing in an uncertain stream of time and contrasting them with the economists’ model. The distinguishing aspect of human decision making (as opposed to the way in which animals choose) is a certain sort of depth. This depth takes two forms. The first I will call temporal depth -individuals take decisions and live their lives through a time possessing a past and moving toward an uncertain future. The second is self-conscious depth -individuals are not simply agents who make choices; they also possess self-awareness and thus know they are making choices.

Therefore, at the outset the reader should note I am interested in the conceptual issue of choice -the underpinnings of a coherent model of human decision making. I am not going to discuss the type of empirical critique of the utility framework that many authors2 have painstakingly undertaken. Even though such work is important -and more of it should be performed -my concern is uncovering the decision-making structure of self-conscious, goal-directed agents who live and act in a material world through time. Even before any explicit empirical work, these attributes necessarily constrain the way in which we can meaningfully discuss choice theory.

The conclusion that I reach in this thesis is that there is a conflict between the utility approach and the structure of decision making compatible with conscious, experiencing beings having the distinguishing aspect of depth. Since we cannot deny the immediate nature of our experience, it is the utility approach that must yield some ground in such a conflict. Moreover, it is precisely those choices that substantially affect the quality of our lives where the results of this depth are the most acutely felt. Utility theory may be the most useful description of how we choose between a beer or a brandy before dinner -it is less convincing when we are deciding who to marry or how to make our life significant.

I should add that this essay will not eliminate the deep paradoxes and tensions in theories of choice. Indeed, one of the utility framework’s grave drawbacks is its lack of structure to express these paradoxes. Any description of choice must attempt to insert itself into the narrow, perhaps vanishing, gap that exists between an explanation that is either (i) vacuous (in that it tells us nothing, such as a completely subjective theory of probability); (ii) wrong (such as the claim that people can generally pick out the maximal element in the choice set); or (iii) trivial (as in the claim that people generally try to do the best they can). No theory will enlarge this gap.

Finally, a further aim of this essay is to argue, using a term popularized by Hirschman [30], “against parsimony.” The project of using one overarching concept -that of the rational utility maximizer – to explain all of human behavior seems to me to be fundamentally misguided, as critical distinctions and disparate phenomena are leveled into the same category. An example of this is the type of illegitimate expansion of the concepts “utility” and “maximizing” into all areas of decision making. One of the goals of this essay, then, is to re-introduce a measure of complexity into our consideration of the problem of choice -to show that a single model of choice cannot do all the work that needs to be done. As a first step toward achieving this goal, T will carefully outline the approach to choice adopted by economists.


1. All disciplines, as a matter of course, should have their foundations critically examined. Not doing so may allow understanding of these foundations to ossify in the minds of the discipline’s practitioners. Even if the economists’ choice model is the best theory we can construct, the doctrine must be occasionally examined to preserve the vitality of the ideas. Mill [46:38] raises this danger in the general case:

If, however, the mischievous operation of the absence of free discussion, when the received opinions are true, were confined to leaving men ignorant of the grounds of those opinions, it might be thought that this, if an intellectual, is no moral evil and does not affect the worth of the opinions . . . The fact, however, is that not only the grounds of the opinion are forgotten in the absence of discussion, but too often the meaning of the opinion itself. The words which convey it cease to suggest ideas . . . Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief, there remain only a few phrases retained by rote . . .

To avoid this “rote,” debate is essential.

2. For example, [29], [33], [34], and [87].