Multiple selves theory

Decision making is a cognitive process. We do not do not necessarily apply our emotions in a way that we would choose with a greater reflection. Human being make errors because of motivational and emotional influences.

We make decisions that are inconsistent with our long-term interests because of temporary emotional and motivational impulse to pursue some tempting alternative. For example: addiction, hunger, sexual arousal or some transitory passion.

Footbridge dilemma

This could be illustrated by Footbridge Dilemma. Generally, there are two philosophical approaches to ethical decision making: utilitarian and deontological view.

Utilitarianism is defined as doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Adding costs and benefits, one should choose the option that yields best balance.

Deontological approach is concerned with moral judgement on an action based on the action’s adherence to rules or duties. Decision is determined by consideration of human rights and duties in the society. It is also linked to negative emotional response. Usually, emotions win the debate asking “what is ethically acceptable”.

Multiple selves

We face internal conflicts between what we want and what we think we should do. For example: compulsive gamblers want to go to casinos but should avoid this. It is difficult for them to stop. Consumers face dilemma if to purchase a product they want or should they choose something healthier, more environmentally friendly or more budget-friendly.

Emotional response is defined as a disagreement with the decision that an individual would make after thoughtful reasoning. Essentially, human beings always face “should” and “want” categories.

One of our “selves” is in favour of a decision that provides us with immediate gratification rather than alternative that would provide greater future rewards. Some example of common consumer errors include dysfunctional behaviour such as alcohol abuse.

Cognitive neuroscience identifies multiple selves in different brain regions. Separate brain regions are activated when we consider either immediate rewards (want-selves) or larger delayed rewards (should-selves).

Different brain regions are named as following: System 1 (automatic) and System 2 (deliberate). People with damage in prefrontal cortex may have trouble weighting immediate and long-term benefits and encoding information related to emotions. Individuals who suffered injuries to emotional regions are more conscious decision makers. They are more likely to select options with higher expected value and are less frightened by potential losses.

Economic consequences

This can be observed in several economic areas. For instance: there are industries supporting both smoking products and treatments to help quit smoking. Furthermore, some firms produce meals that cause obesity and people write diet books.

How to deal with each side?

If emotional appeal is stronger than “should” self, we should evaluate options one at a time. A single option helps us to evaluate if we really “want” this.

If a more reasoned self is stronger – we should confront options at the same time and weight them against each other. Comparison clarifies differences between alternatives and promote more rational decision making.

To sum up, emotional brain areas impel us towards desires that are not in our long-term interest. In contrast, higher brain areas can override these desires and selection options with higher expected utility.

When “want” self option seems more appealing, always remember that short-term rewards usually have long-term costs. Human beings should, instead, rely on reasoned self because it empowers our ability to compare relative value of each action.

Advice from economists

How should we deal with internal inconsistencies? Economists advice to create means of controlling the destructive impulses of the short-term decision making. “ Should” self should be a planner – developing advanced schemes to corral, co-opt and control the “want” self. Structure is a way that makes your “want” self to act in “should” self’s best interest. Plan to control the impulses of the “want” self.

If one is concerned with diet, find an enjoyable form of physical exercise and make sure healthy food is available when the “want” self feels hungry. Anticipate situations in which passion tends to overcome reason and avoid those situations entirely. Inflexible pre-commitments can increase effectiveness of such rules. Furthermore, if an alcohol abuser aims to receive help, they should be choose one of the following. For instance: they could use drug Antabuse that produces nausea if they consumer alcohol. Outside parties such as parents, employers or government can also help.

Advice from decision theorists

Raiffa (1968) suggests to question yourself to find out which self is making the error. For instance: “should” self can confront “want” self with its limited perspective e.g. what is the long term implication of this decision? “Want” self can elucidate for the “should” self some of the more elusive feelings that have been neglected by its formal analysis. Communication should take place until reconciliation occurs.

This gives voice, opportunity and input to the emotional and visceral needs of “want” self. Lowenstein (1996) suggests “want” self can provide valuable inputs. It sends hunger signals that are needed for nutritional input. For instance: sending a signal of pain in potentially harmful environments. Emotions help us to interpret prioritise function, as well as energise for action.

Advice from negotiation researchers

Two parts of self can negotiate a settlement to their differences, given mutual dependence on each other. This modification suggests to develop a rational negotiation strategy for dealing with the “want” self.

“Want” self should be given more autonomy and stronger voice in decision making and negotiation process. One should treat “want” self as a negotiator, giving power to declare an impasse. This aims to bypass both: domination of the “should” self in the decision making stage and the “want” self in the implementation stage.

Negotiation criteria includes three parts

  1. This requires two sides to reach an agreement. An ongoing conflict would lead “should” self to continue to make variety of decisions that the “want” self sabotages.
  2. Agreement should be Pareto efficient. This means no other agreement that the “want” self and the “should” self both prefer over the created agreement. Decision should be reached through discussions and compromises. For instance: if the “want” self wants an ice cream, the “should” self should exercise. By agreeing to reasonable times and limits, the “want” self will likely to be more willing to follow the agreement.
  3. “Should” self must not push for an agreement that is outside the bargaining zone. Terms must not be unacceptable to the “want” self, either currently or in the future. “Should” self must remember that the “want” self can void the contract at any time.

Adapted from

Bazerman, M.H. and Moore, D.A., 1994. Judgment in managerial decision making (p. 226). New York: Wiley.

Multiple selves theory

Decision making is a cognitive process. Humans make errors because of motivational and emotional influences. Learn more about multiple selves here.

Hyperbolic discounting definition

Economic concept of discounting states that any choice that involves a trade off between current and future benefits should discount the future.

Self-interest bias definition

Perceptions and expectations are biased in self-serving manner. When presented with identical information, we perceive situation in different ways.

How emotions affect decision making?

Specific emotions influence our decision making. This is an effect of positive and negative moods. Good or bad mood results in more biased judgements.

Three main types of overconfidence

Overconfidence effects are some of the most potent, pervasive and pernicious of any biases. It is blamed for wars, stock market bubbles, strikes, lawsuits, bankruptcy, failure of merges and acquisitions,…

Overprecision causes and consequences

Tendency to be sure judgements and decisions are accurate, uninterested in testing assumptions and dismissive evidence that suggests we might be wrong.

Overestimation meaning

Tendency to think that we are better, smarter, faster, more capable, more attractive, more popular (and so on) than we actually are.

Overplacement bias

Tendency to think we rank higher than others on certain dimensions, particularly in competitive contexts.

Emotionally drained relationship

These relationships can be very destructive. They slowly drain off our energy, frustrate us, and generally make for an unhealthy negative environment.

Healthy relationships

They contribute to your overall well-being and sense of feeling valued. Here, people genuinely like and admire many of the qualities the other has.

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