You scan the aisles of a packed supermarket in search of one item: toothpaste. You shuffle through the hordes of people, working your way towards the hygiene section. The smell of bleach from the recently mopped gray tile floor stings your nostrils as you pass aisles filled with people and shelves packed floor-to-ceiling with every product you could ever think of. “Who could possibly need all of this stuff?” you say to yourself.
As you reach the hygiene section, you find yourself staring at shelves upon shelves of options: Colgate, Crest, Pronamel, Arm & Hammer, Toms––toothpastes for sensitive teeth, enamel health, whitening, extra whitening, cavity protection, even plaque fighting! The words seem to swirl around you. Everywhere you look there are more options. At this moment you’re probably not aware that as you stand in this crowded store, desperately trying to make a choice, you are entering the very place where philosophy, economics, and psychology collide. Good luck!
In order to navigate this complex intersection, one must look at what choice means in each field and the implications of those meanings. While some philosophers assert that choice is the manifestation of free will, or whether that is possible, some economists argue that choice is driven by utility. On the other hand, some psychologists assert that choices may be made before we are conscious of them and are driven by our basic needs as human beings. These three disciplines are integral to our discussion, as they are the most fundamental studies that aim to understand human choice. Philosophy helps us define what choices are, economics studies how choices are made in the world, and psychology teaches us the science behind how the mind and reason influences our choices. Understanding choice from different fields of study will in turn help us to understand our own human nature when making choices, and ultimately help us better understand ourselves and connect with people around us.
To begin to discuss the philosophical implications of choice, one must start by understanding the assumptions philosophers make to understand what it actually means to choose. Generally speaking, philosophers commonly agree that in order to choose, one must have two key elements: free will and options. Where they disagree, however, is whether humans have free will or if the universe is a predetermined place. Therefore, philosophy is broken into two groups: those who believe in free will, and those who believe in determinism.
Some who believe in free will assert that there is no higher power controlling human actions, implying that people have the full capacity for choice. Under this assumption, we see the other key factor, options, emerge. Intuitively speaking, an individual can only make a choice if they are presented with options to do so. For example, if a student is given the choice whether to take art or biology next semester, they are able to choose one option over the other. But say that student was told they were only able to take art next semester. They are not given a choice at all, regardless of whether they are content with the outcome. A more intellectual application of this point is demonstrated by Augustine, a Christian philosopher who believed in free will, the idea that we can choose our own actions apart from the natural order of the universe. Augustine did not believe that human sin could be attributed to God. Therefore, he advocated for free will, essentially arguing that “free will enables human beings to make their own choices, and hence is tied to the possibility of evil as well as the possibility of good” (King). In other words, if the world was predetermined, then God would be responsible for all the bad things that humans do like robbery or murder. In Augustine’s eyes, this was not possible and, therefore, he concluded that humans must have free will and choose to sin or not.
While free will asserts that humans are capable of making decisions, determinism is “the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature,” like a universal driving force or in some cases a higher power (Hoefer). What this means is that determinism asserts that all decisions made by humans are not their own, but rather they are predetermined by a greater force in the universe, out of human control. This greater force could be religious, such as a god or deity, or secular, like the laws of natural sciences (Hoefer). Regardless, in the determinist view, the greater force is the fundamental cause of what is happening in our lives. It is easy to understand determinism in a religious sense in which the god or deity makes all decisions and has planned out the lives of humans. However, in a secular sense, determinism relies on the natural laws of the universe.
One determinist, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, believed that the world around him adhered to secular, natural laws out of human control. Humans did not have the ability to make their own choices at all and were subject to the world around them (O’Connor). Instead, Epictetus believed that the only thing humans could control was how they reacted to and felt about the world around them. This is a strictly determinist point of view, as Epictetus is arguing that humans have no control over their lives. The natural order of the world has already determined what is going to happen and there is no free will, therefore no choices.
Philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Augustine laid the groundwork for our modern-day concept of choice. As simple as it sounds, they developed the criteria for what a choice is, when it can be made, and how it can be made, stating that in order to choose, an individual must have both free will and options (O’Connor). However, if an individual does not have one of these criteria, they ultimately lack the ability to make a decision by themselves and cannot be held responsible for a choice at all. On a larger scale in philosophical arguments, the implications of this are that we live in a world where we are free to choose our own actions because of our free will and the presence of options, or that we live in a deterministic world where the natural order of things has already determined what is next going to happen to us.
Although philosophy identifies clear criteria in order for someone to have the ability to make a choice, the actual capacity for choice and free will is a hotly debated topic. Philosophers each take different stances on whether or not the world is predetermined, making it hard to draw a conclusion as to what the overwhelming opinion is. Regardless, choice in philosophy is a well-defined concept, allowing other disciplines such as economics and psychology to make assumptions based on arguments from philosophers like Epictetus and Augustine.
Unlike philosophy, economics assumes that humans do have free will and use it to maximize scarce resources. Economics is the study of how one allocates limited resources; in other words, it describes the choices economic agents—either companies or people—make in order to distribute the resources they have (Mankiw). The primary method of economic decision-making is the rational choice theory, which states that people are rational beings and make choices that logically benefit them the most. This is evaluated under the assumption that rational people make decisions at the margin. Essentially, this means that people make decisions based on the utility that the next choice will provide (Mankiw). Economists want to make the decision that logically and mathematically makes the most sense at that given time. Therefore, they must try and see which choice will serve them the best, or in other words have the most utility.
Let’s take a look at Todd, an average Joe who is absolutely dying to sink his teeth into a delicious, cheesy pizza pie. Todd buys a whole pie for himself to satisfy his extreme hunger. After devouring seven of the eight slices, Todd begins to feel his stomach fill up. If Todd were to eat another slice, he would surely explode (or at least become sick to his stomach for the rest of the afternoon). Knowing this, Todd decides not to eat the last slice of pizza. This is thinking at the margin. Todd opts not to eat the last slice because he knows it will make him sick. He does not consider the money he is wasting by not eating the slice, because that is already in the past. Economists believe that rational people think about their next course of action; therefore, Todd, when choosing whether to eat the last slice, does not consider the money he spent already, but rather the utility the next slice will provide.
These decisions are made to maximize value to a given person. For Todd, the value of not being sick was far greater than that of the monetary cost of that last slice of pizza. Therefore, he was thinking at the margin by comparing the options in the short run to see which was more beneficial to him. In other words, Todd was comparing the value of his two options. In order to make choices based on the value of something, economists use a numerical calculation called opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is what a person gives up in order to make another decision (Mankiw). What this means is that when considering what decision to make, economists look at their options and try to see what they are giving up by making that decision.
Our friend Todd can help us understand this economic concept as well. While Todd was ordering his pizza, he had to decide what to order. He knew he could either eat an entire cheese pizza or half of a chicken parmesan pizza, but not both. This 2:1 ratio is then used to calculate the opportunity cost. Economists would argue that the opportunity cost of Todd choosing to eat the cheese pizza is about one half a chicken parmesan pizza. But the opportunity cost of Todd choosing the chicken parmesan pizza is two cheese pizzas. Therefore, it is more logical for Todd to choose the option that has the lower opportunity cost as he is giving up less. So according to the economic assessment Todd made, he will choose the cheese pizza because he is giving up less chicken parmesan pizza.
Simply put, economics is the study of rational and logical decision making. The major assumption that sets the economical viewpoint of choice apart from the philosophical one is the assumption of rational thought. While the philosophical view argues whether or not humans even have the capacity to make choices, the economical viewpoint of choice is based on the assumption that choices are always made logically and at the margin. In other words, utility is the basic force driving people’s decisions. Choices are made solely to maximize value for their maker.
While the study of economics acts under the assumption that choices are made based on logic and reason, psychology takes another approach, arguing that choices are made in order to fulfill the needs of a person. Unlike economics and philosophy, which argue that choice is driven by one’s mentality, psychology accounts for many motivators, as it does not settle on one definitive theory for how choices are made. Instead, it provides many different theories.
William Glasser, a widely known psychologist from the University of California in Los Angeles, developed a concept known as Choice Theory. What Choice Theory states is that “all we do is behave. . . almost all behavior is chosen” (Glasser). Human decisions are ultimately driven by five basic needs:
- Love and belonging
What this means is that people choose to act in order to fulfill these basic needs. This implies that choice is necessary to everyday life (Glasser). People are motivated by their needs to make decisions. The application of Choice Theory can be helpful in identifying the rationale behind motives that most might find confusing at first glance, such as theft and burglary.
Why would someone steal something small like a loaf of bread? At face value, this seems rather ridiculous. Why would someone risk their public reputation and their freedom for a simple loaf of bread? However, Choice Theory provides us with many possible, and logical, explanations. Maybe the person who stole is starving and needs the loaf to satiate their hunger. Maybe they enjoy the rush of doing something looked down on by society, such as stealing. Choice Theory is relatively comprehensive in that it considers many motivators to explain why people make the decisions that they do.
Another psychological concept behind choice is cognitive bias. Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon suggests that although humans strive to make rational decisions, they are often limited by the amount of time they are given to make the decision, thereby leading them to default to heuristics, or general frames, that they can apply to the situation in order to make quick decisions (Lim). Heuristics are often cognitive biases based on prejudices people have about the world around them. People unconsciously access them when they are trying to make a quick choice, often leading to irrational decisions as they rush to a conclusion.
Humans unconsciously sort through heuristics to find the best one to act upon. This implies that choice is not completely a conscious action. Numerous studies, as detailed by National Geographic, have suggested that “by the time we become consciously aware of a decision . . . our choices have already been influenced for several seconds by the actions of the frontopolar cortex” (Yong). In simpler terms, our brains have already determined what choice we will make prior to us being consciously aware of our finalized decision. The implications of this finding are widespread as it potentially could lead psychologists to reject the concept of free will in decision-making.
One particular study conducted by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s has led many scientists to agree that humans do not have free will at all. Libet discovered that the subjects’ brains had already sent signals to move their hand not only before they physically moved it, but before they even consciously decided to move it (Cave). What this means is that the brain had made a decision before the person has consciously been aware of the decision about to be made, illustrating how psychological discourse calls into question the notion of free will. Essentially, psychology tells us that choices are not completely conscious, begging the question of the role of free will in decision-making.
The various theories of choice in psychology are somewhat conflicting and cannot be proved entirely. Psychologists argue that choices are made to fulfill the basic needs of a person. They generally agree that the application of heuristics serves as a tactic for the brain to make choices. However, the ongoing debate regarding the consciousness of choice has not been resolved yet.
The concept of choice is rather complicated as there are many disciplines that take drastically different approaches to the subject. Philosophers argue over theories of free will or determinism regarding the choices we make. Economists state that logical people make rational, utilitarian decisions through opportunity cost analysis. They argue that decisions are made by thinking about what is next and the best way to maximize utility. Psychologists argue that choices are made to fulfill the basic needs of a person but differ regarding if this is a conscious effort or not. The concept of choice spans many disciplines and continues to be a relevant topic not only in the world of academia, but also in everyday life.
Again, you find yourself staring again at the vast selection of toothpastes. You stare at the store’s obvious attempt to fit as many options as possible on the rack. The boxes are packed so tightly you can hardly grab one without the rest falling out as well. Your feet squeak on the white tile floor as you reach for a box.
It is clear that you have many options and therefore can make a decision. Should you consider which toothpaste is on sale? It is the end of the month and you do not get paid until next week so this choice would provide the most utility to you. Or perhaps you should choose the one with extra whitening power because you want to impress the other parents at your son’s private school and satisfy your basic need for belonging.
Whichever way you decide to see it, the concept of choice will remain a mystery to us all, since no one can truly know if we have the ability to freely choose or, if we do, how we make decisions in the first place. The fields of philosophy, economics, and psychology give us theories as to how we make decisions, but they are truly just theories. The concept of choice remains one of the enduring mysteries that we may never have the answer to in our lifetime. I suppose you can choose how you see it. Or can you?
Cave, Stephen. “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will.” The Atlantic, 10 June 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/480750.
“Choice Theory.” William Glasser Institute, http://wglasser.com/our-approach/choice-theory/.
Hoefer, Carl. “Causal Determinism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 21 Jan. 2016, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/.
King, Peter. Augustine: On the Free Choice of the Will, On Grace and Free Choice, and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Lim, Alane. “Understanding Heuristics: The Psychology of Mental Shortcuts.” ThoughtCo, 9 Nov. 2018, www.thoughtco.com/heuristics-psychology-4171769.
Mankiw, N. Gregory. “Chapter 1: Ten Principles of Economics.” In Principles of Macroeconomics, 3–171. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning, 2018.
“Margins and Thinking at the Margin.” Econlib, www.econlib.org/library/Topics/College/margins.html.
O’Connor, Timothy, and Christopher Franklin. “Free Will.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 21 Aug. 2018, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/.
Yong, Ed. “Unconscious Brain Activity Shapes Our Decisions.” National Geographic, 13 Apr. 2008, www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2008/04/13/unconscious-brain-activity-shapes-our-decisions/.