Why Am I Interested in Decision Theory?

Some people have asked me why I am fascinated by decision theory. I suppose the immediate answer is that I prefer to make the right decisions, but that is obviously not the whole answer.

Perhaps some of the attraction is learning how to organize thoughts to make better decisions. This desire comes from the obvious conclusion of studying history: most people make the wrong decisions most of the time — if they make deliberate decisions at all. From that point of view, understanding the mechanism of making decisions, whether you study the theory or not, is an important tool in the progress of culture.

Counter-examples are so common that I have difficulty selecting one to use. Perhaps the exotic case of Easter Islanders is a good one. Think of Easter Island and you can picture those giant statues. Naively you can admire the cleverness of perseverance of the natives who used primitive tools to create these magnificent works of art. That is an essential mistake. We might credit some unknown artist with creativity in coming up with the first statue, but the others are copies showing no originality or further development. They are almost identical. That is, once the decision had been made that such statues were needed, that decision was not questioned. Further problems arose because the statues were moved on roads constructed of logs. That is, they were until the entire island was deforested. No one apparently thought to ask if cutting down the last tree to make another road for another statue was a good decision.

Similar blind following of custom is characteristic of many religions. Can you name a common religion that does not deprive women of rights enjoyed by men? Can women be Roman Catholic priests? Why can Moslem men have many wives and Moslem women not have many husbands? Why do Jews separate men and women in synagogue? The answers to these questions depends strongly on whether you are a follower of that particular religion. Followers are generally actively discouraged from asking penetrating questions about their own faith (even valuing faith above reason) and simultaneously attacking competitive faiths with well-thought out rationality and no sense that this is ironic. (Note: Women in America only got the right to vote 100 years ago — pretty serious discrimination.)

By way of full disclosure, I assume such biases are unjustified based my life experience and the fact that I see no reason to deprive anyone of rights based on gender — unless one relies on faith and not rationality. If you can prove me wrong without resorting to revealed writings, I would be most grateful.

Not questioning customs is to avoid decision making. Following customs is a way of not making a decision. That is how stable, static societies thrive — they discourage decision making and its associated creativity. That is how we end up with an island cluttered with identical, uncreative statues and not very many happy, well-fed people.

It is unlikely that anyone reading what I write will decide to become an expert in decision theory, but if even one person reading these posts begins to question how decisions are made and how likely they are to be the right decisions, then I will feel justified. Even realizing that established customs can be questioned is important. After all, things have not always been as they are now, and they will not always be like they are now in the future. How and when things change can depend on the decisions you make.