Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The lesser of two evils: Explaining a bad choice by revealing the choice set

Andras Molnar & Shereen J. Chaudhry
Last edited 4 Feb 20


Making the right choice does not always lead to a good outcome—sometimes there are only bad outcomes to choose from. Situations like this are likely to lead others to misunderstand the decision maker’s intentions. However, simply revealing the choice set could set the record straight. Are decision-makers intrinsically driven to fix this misjudgment? If so, why, and what is the effect on the audience? Previous studies could not examine this desire to be understood because the research designs used did not isolate the decision to reveal information from the original choice. In two experiments (N=448 pairs), we address this gap in the literature and show that people are willing to pay ex post to reveal their choice set to the person who was negatively affected by their decision (the recipient), even after a one-shot anonymous interaction with no reputational consequences, and in some cases even when doing so reveals their selfish intentions. We find that this revealing behavior is effective at improving recipients’ rating of their outcome when it signals generous intentions, but not when it signals selfish intentions. It follows that the choice to reveal is driven by concern for the thoughts and feelings of strangers, but only when revealing signals generous intentions; those who reveal a choice that appears selfish report doing so out of a desire to be and/or appear honest. Individual differences in the drive to reveal cannot be explained by selection effects or mistakes in predicting the observer’s reaction. Thus, we find that people are intrinsically (i.e., even in one-shot anonymous settings) driven to correct a misunderstanding of their intentions, but they may do so for a variety of reasons, not all of which are self-enhancing. And though some people leave a misunderstanding in place when it is self-enhancing to do so, almost no one is willing to create a misunderstanding (by hiding the other option), even when it could conceal selfish behavior.

The research is here.