Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More on choices and rationality

I think my response to Jarrett and Michael D about the "fundamental attribution error" was a little too scattered and ranty. While I was gratified to see that several of the commenters were "with the Cap'n on this," I was disappointed that Michael's response, particularly, and also the comment of one Michael J, simply acted like I didn't understand the concept.

Let me set the record straight, then. I do understand it quite well by this point. The idea is that people have a tendency to think that others are making choices based on "disposition," when in fact they are making them based on "situation." Both Michael D and Michael J argue that this isn't about irrationality, but when one person says that another chooses to drive based on their disposition, they are essentially saying that if the other were making a rational decision based on their situation, they would take transit. But they don't, so they must be irrational.

Jarrett clearly highlights Michael's post to warn people against assuming that others are irrational: "The point is to critique the widespread assumption that 'my' decisions are totally rational while 'their' decisions are cultural." The root of the question is whether transit advocates should assume that car advocates are behaving irrationally.

From my point of view, it doesn't actually matter what you assume, but as a general rule the polite thing to do is assume that everyone else is acting rationally. What I think is important is not to stick too closely to that assumption. As I wrote in my previous post, everyone has a mix of rationality and irrationality in them, and in fact every single decision is probably based on both rational and irrational factors. So sure, go ahead and assume that they're acting rationally, but be prepared to deal with the possibility that they're not.

Let me give an example of irrationality in this regard: parking minima in Flushing. There is a new residential development planned for the site of an ugly municipal parking lot in downtown Flushing. It would include an underground garage with more parking than is currently provided by the lot, but that's not enough for local business leaders. "There should be at least a parking spot per family or per unit," Terence Park, president of the Our Flushing Political Coalition, told the Times Ledger. "Mathematically we need more than 2,000 spaces ... people who live in Flushing want cars." There is this entrenched belief that people will own cars whether or not there is space for them, and that if the space is not provided they will park in other places. It has been well demonstrated that providing parking encourages people to own and use cars, but this is largely ignored by these business and community leaders. This line of thinking is not completely rational or completely irrational; it is somewhere in between.

So let's move on to a third Michael, the famous M1EK, who wrote in the comments to Jarrett's post:
Cap'n, I think it may be more helpful to view the choices in aggregate - each individual may have some irrational inputs into their decision, but those largely cancel each other out in the aggregate (just like they do in economics - the market itself is, while not completely rational, pretty much more rational than we give it credit for; so is the "transit market").

That thought did occur to me too. But it's still a little surprising to hear "the market" described as rational in 2010! Sometimes it does all wash out in the long run, but in the meantime you're stuck with 2000 shares of worthless stock in Pets.com - or your metro region is stuck with the FDR Drive. Sometimes it doesn't wash out in the long run; I encourage you all to read Jared Diamond's Collapse for examples of aggregate irrationality that brought down whole societies.

Finally, Jarrett points to the notion of "car culture" as an example of the "fundamental attribution error": "When we say that Americans drive because they're a car culture, we imply that that the choice of most Americans to drive isn't a rational one, in light of each person's situation, and therefore requires a cultural explanation."

I can't speak for others, but I personally am not saying this when I refer to "car culture." I'm referring to a complex pattern of things: literature, art and advertising that glamorize and romanticize driving; the tendency to choose to drive instead of take transit in situations where both are equally convenient; the widespread assumption that "everyone" drives; the preference for "roads and bridges" projects that encourage driving at the expense of transit, walking and other modes of transportation; the consequent restriction of choice that guides people to drive; and the generations who grow up not even conceiving of walking as a transportation option, let alone transit, which in turn leads to glamorization, the tendency to choose to drive, etc.

In other words, as I wrote before, the situations that make driving the rational choice are often the result of irrational choices. It's a cycle, a feedback loop. You can't talk about the egg without talking about the chicken, and also about laying and hatching.


Jarrett at HumanTransit.org said...

Thanks, Cap'n. I don't disagree with any of this.

The whole point of my foray into this mire is to clarify that it's easier to change people's situation than to change their culture. Situation includes the results of the negative cycles that you describe.

Many Americans drive because the house they could afford with the schools they needed were in a car-dependent place, and so was their employer's business park. The need to drive follows from that situation, and needs no cultural explanation.

Their decision to drive may also express the influence of advertising and popular culture references. I watch current music videos on the treadmill at the gym and note that almost half of them feature cars, usually as an expression of the star's coolness. I can hold those video producers and stars responsible for the cultural consequences of their work, which clearly does have an impact.

But almost nobody will admit to being influenced by those things. It's tempting to believe that "we" as media-savvy people see the influence of advertising. But here, the phenomenon of attribution error warns us to err in the other direction. Even though we see how cultural signals operate, we will do better work if we focus on changing people's situations, based on the assumption that given a different situation (including information about options) the rational choice will be different.

Jarrett Walker, www.humantransit.org

JN said...

I'm not sure whose "side" this comment is on, but I don't think that equating cultural explanations with irrationality is necessarily sound. I've been told several times that, if I ever hoped to climb the career ladder, I would need to buy and use a car appropriate for my status. (Fortunately for me, I'm an academic, and about a quarter of my department, including the chair, are bike commuters.) There are practical considerations that feed in to the "car culture"- things like the ability to attract a spouse, the ability to impress clients and co-workers, the ability to signal your status to others, the esteem of your peers. While intangible, all of these things are important (to one degree or another) to people, and people can make a rational decision to value these things over others. The "car culture" has told them that an automobile is critical to doing any of the above, so for them it may be both cultural and rational to drive.

M1EK said...

"The "car culture" has told them that an automobile is critical to doing any of the above"

I think it goes beyond "telling"; the car culture practically mandates the car - i.e. it's self-limiting not to have one in most urban areas in this country. Using words like "telling" makes it sound like, again, people are just being irrational.

Alon Levy said...

This car-as-coolness thing doesn't really penetrate those urban areas where transit is good enough to make it reasonable for upper middle class people to live car-free. In New York, if you want to impress someone with your wealth, you'll probably do so by showing him your large Manhattan condo, not a car. This despite the fact that the cultural signals one gets in New York are the same as anywhere else in the US. Transportation sections at bookstores are 90% car magazines and television ads feature cars, just like anywhere else.

Cap'n Transit said...

I think you're right in general, Alon, but just look at the streets of the Upper West Side any evening, and you'll find a large number of people who don't feel like their expensive condos are impressive enough, and have bought cars to supplement them. They may be a small minority of residents, but they're there.

James said...

And Alon, also bear in mind that the degree to which car ownership is a status symbol is not uniform throughout the city. There are huge swaths of New York City where car ownership is deemed essential for the appearance of having "arrived", so to speak, socially and financially. This is especially the case among immigrant communities. Think of somewhere like Washington Heights or Inwood, or parts of the Bronx. To use transit is considered to be slumming it, while those who have a nice set of wheels, so to speak, have attained higher social status. All it takes is one stroll down Dyckman Street to see this in action.