Published online by Cambridge University Press: 06 July 2009
Social scientists of all stripes – and for these purposes I award lawyers their hard-earned stripes – face a peculiar personal challenge. How do they reconcile the way they think with the way they live? On the one hand, everyday observation suggests that in the course of a given day, people from all walks of life, social scientists included, make thousands of decisions both large and small, and routinely seem to experience little anxiety before and no regret after the process. Indeed, a moment's reflection indicates how hard it would be to live a happy and productive life if faced with constant torment over these nonstop routine matters. The results of these commonplace actions are, of course, not uniform. For small repetitive events, most people do pretty well, most of the time.
The basic picture is not always so cheery. When the choices become larger and the need for fresh and full information more insistent, two things happen. Most ordinary people will reflexively invest more to get information before making decisions, only to discover in retrospect that the decisions they make frequently turn out less well than they had hoped. But these reversals, as the expression goes, “have to be taken in stride,” because there is no decision protocol or magic potion that relieves people from the burdens of risk and uncertainty, either on an individual or on the collective level. People try to learn from their mistakes, and they sometimes do.