Clause for Santa – A Look at Bounded Rationality:

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It is Christmas time in 2016. My kids, ages 6 and 9, believe in Santa Claus. It bothers me that they believe in Santa Claus; mainly because it is not logical to believe in a magical being bringing materialistic presents and also because we, their parents, do not get credit for the presents they receive.

From my children’s perspective though, Santa does make sense. Think of it as a black box; they write what they want in a list, believe in Santa, and on Christmas day they find their toys under the Christmas tree. The output matches the input, repeatedly over the years. This passes the scientific evidence based sniff tests’ criteria. They also find additional evidence in the form of stories, movies, songs etc. of Santa Clause and his magical flying reindeers. From their standpoint, they have empirical evidence for making a decision to believe in Santa.

This line of thinking led me to reflect on “Bounded Rationality”. Bounded Rationality is a concept that was created by the great American thinker Herbert Simon. Herbert Simon won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978 for his contributions.

According to the famous German Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, in the 1950s and 60s, the enlightenment notion of reasonableness reemerged in the form of the concept of “rationality”. Rationality refers to the optimization of some function. The optimization can be maximization or minimization. Simon determined that there is a limit to the “rationality” of humans, and his views were against the ideas of a fully rational man in neoclassical economics. Simon believed that we cannot be fully rational while making decisions, and that our rationality is bounded by our mental capabilities and mental models. In his words;

Bounded rationality refers to the individual collective rational choice that takes into account “the limits of human capability to calculate, the severe deficiencies of human knowledge about the consequences of choice, and the limits of human ability to adjudicate among multiple goals”.

 Bounded rationality does not, therefore, argue that decisions and the people taking them are inherently irrational, but that there are realistic limits on the ability of people to weigh complex options in a fully logical and objective way. Bounded rationality therefore concerns itself with the interaction between the human mind (with its prior knowledge, competing value systems and finite cognitive resources) and the social environment – the processes by which decisions are made and how these processes are shaped by the individual and their wider circumstances.

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Thus, we do not make the best choices because; we do not have all the information, we do not understand the consequences of all the options or because we do not take time to evaluate all the alternatives. Furthermore we do not always understand that our decision was based on an imperfect model. This leads to the next idea that Herb Simon created – “satisficing”. Satisficing is a word created from two words – satisfy and suffice. In other words, satisficing is the tendency for us to latch on to “good enough for now” solutions. Simon introduced a “stop rule” as part of satisficing criterion: “Stop searching as soon as you have found an alternative that meets your aspiration level.” He later modified it to be a dynamical rule such that the aspiration level or the current criterion is raised or lowered based on previous failures or successes. Gerd Gigerenzer strongly reminds us that Bounded Rationality does not mean optimizing under constraints (finding the best option under the constraints set by the situation) or irrationality (total absence of reasonableness).

In the 2001 book, “Bounded Rationality – The Adaptive Toolbox; edited by Gerd Gigerenzer and Reinhard Selten, there is a chapter dedicated to the role of culture in bounded rationality. This chapter discusses how sociocultural processes produce bounded rational algorithms. Both ethnographic data and computer modeling suggest that innate, individually adaptive processes, such as prestige-biased transmission and conformist transmission, will accumulate and stabilize cultural-evolutionary products that act as effective decision-making algorithms, without the individual participants understanding how or why the particular system works. Systems of divination provide interesting examples of how culture provides adaptive solutions.

One of the examples they cite is the complex system of bird omens amongst the Kantu of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) swidden farmers. Swidden agriculture is a technique of rotational farming. Each Kantu farmer relies on the type of bird and the type of call that the bird makes to choose the agricultural site. This creates a random distribution of the agricultural sites and ultimately helps the Kantu farmers, thus keeping their tradition alive. As a quick and thrifty heuristic, this cultural system suppresses errors that farmers make in judging the chances of a flood, and substitutes an operationally simple means for individuals to randomize their garden site selection. In addition, by randomizing each farmer’s decision independently, this belief system also reduces the chance of catastrophic failures across the entire group — it decreases the probability that many farmers will fail at the same time. All this only works because the Kantu believe that birds actually supply supernatural information that foretells the future and that they would be punished for not listening to it. How many of these cultural traditions do we still carry on in our work lives?

I found this quite interesting and maybe because it is Christmas time I could not help but draw comparisons to how we try to keep the idea of Santa alive for our kids. I thought I would dig into this deeper with my kids. I wanted to push my kids to go beyond their biases and heuristics and try to give them an opportunity to look for more information with regard to their belief in Santa. I started asking them questions in the hope that it would make them reevaluate their current decision to believe in Santa. With enough probing questions, surely they should be able to reevaluate their thinking.

I first asked them “Why do you believe in Santa?”

My youngest responded, “Believing in Santa makes him real”.

My middle child responded, “We saw him at the shopping mall parking lot loading presents in his car.”

My oldest responded with the following facts, “We get presents every year from him. We put out cookies and milk, and they are gone by Christmas day.”

Not giving up, I pushed, “If Santa gives presents to all the kids in the world, I never got any presents when I was a kid in India. Why is that?”

“You were a naughty child”, my youngest responded giggling.

“It takes a long time to get to India”, my middle child also gave her reasoning.

I thought I would give some stats with my questions, “There are about 1.9 billion kids in the world. How can Santa have toys for all of them?”

“That’s easy. Santa is super rich and can buy all the toys he wants” was the response.

“OK. How can he go around world giving toys to all the kids?”, I asked.

“He has magical reindeers” was the response.

Finally, I gave up. My attempts to crack their belief in Santa were failing. I then realized that perhaps it is not bad after all, and that my kids being kids is the most important thing of all. And it makes Christmas more magical for them.

There is always next year to try again!

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping in Systems?

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