Deal or no deal and rational choice theory

As my students are aware, I have been under the weather since the beginning of January and am finally feeling somewhat like a human being again. During my down time, I took some rest and had time to do some non-school-related activities, one of which was trying out the Deal or No Deal app on my smartphone. You do remember the TV show hosted by Howie Mandel, right?

Deal or No Deal and Rational Choice Theory

Deal or No Deal and Rational Choice Theory

Anyway, the basic idea of the show is this:

  • There are 26 suitcases on state, each with a card containing a dollar amount between $1 and $1 Million.
  • The game begins when the contestant chooses one of the 26 suitcases as “their” suitcase. If the contestant keeps the suitcase until the end of play, they win the dollar amount written on the card inside the suitcase.
  • The contestant must begin opening a certain amount of suitcases during each round of play–5 the first round, 4 the next, etc.
  • After each round, the game pauses and the contestant receives an offer from the mysterious banker via telephone with Howie as the intermediary.
  • The contestant is then asked whether there is a “deal, or no deal.” The contestant may accept the banker’s offer or continue. [There is where the drama gets ramped up to 11!]
  • If you have watched the show, you’ll notice that the banker’s offer depends upon which dollar amounts have been revealed. If the contestant reveals many high-value suitcases, it becomes like likely (probable) that the suitcase s/he chose at the beginning is a high-value suitcase.

The smartphone version is slightly different from the TV show in that the suitcases do not have dollar amounts attached but point multiples (that is, you win 1X, 2X, 3x, etc. 1000X the pot).

Take a look at the images above screenshot (is that the past participle?) from my smartphone. What do you notice about the banker’s offer? What’s of importance here is the red boxes in each picture. These are two separate games, btw.

These are two separate games. In the top game, there are only two suitcases left–one of them is the 20X and the 200X, Therefore, I have either the 20X or the 200X. That’s quite a big difference in winnings–ten times. So, what would you do? What would a rational choice theorist say you should do? Are the bankers offers rational in each case? Why or why not?

Are Homebuyers Rational Decision-Makers?

According to rational choice theorists, how do individuals make decisions?  Put simply, they act so as to maximize their expected utility, given their a priori preferences and some general idea of the nature of the world (by this, they mean that individuals have some idea of the probability of certain actions leading to specific outcomes).  While rational choice theory was first developed in academic disciplines such as economics, political scientists have adopted the technique and it’s use has proliferated in that discipline.  One of the criticisms of using rational choice theory to explain political phenomena is that often individuals have difficulty ordering preferences adequately.  This is because there is no single “currency” of utility in political science.  The same, however, can not be said for economics as it is much easier to order preferences when there are dollar values attached.  But what happens when time, leisure, etc., have to be taken into account.  Well, it turns out that individuals make many “mistakes” that diverge from that expected of instrumentally rational decision-makers.

Jonah Lehrer informs his readers of a fascinating series of studies done by Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands.  One of these studies looks at decisions related to real estate purchases.  The studies:

look at how people shop for “complex products,” like cars, apartments, homes, etc. and how they often fall victim to what he calls a “weighting mistake”. Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion in the suburbs, with a forty-five minute commute. “People will think about this trade-off for a long time,” Dijksterhuis writes. “And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad.” What’s interesting is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They’ll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that will turn the suburban house into an absolute necessity. The lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when compared to the allure of an extra bathroom.

But, as Dijksterhuis points out, that reasoning process is exactly backwards: “The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while.” For instance, a recent study found that, when a person travels more than one hour in each direction, they have to make forty per cent more money in order to be as “satisfied with life” as someone with a short commute. Another study, led by Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger, surveyed nine hundred working women in Texas and found that commuting was, by far, the least pleasurable part of their day. And yet, despite these gloomy statistics, nearly 20 percent of American workers commute more than forty-five minutes each way. (More than 3.5 million Americans spend more than three hours each day traveling to and from work: they’re currently the fastest growing category of commuter. For more on commuter culture, check out this awesome New Yorker article.) According to Dijksterhuis, these people are making themselves miserable because they failed to properly “weigh” the relevant variables when they were choosing where to live. Because these deliberative homeowners tended to fixate on details like square footage or the number of bathrooms, they assumed that a bigger house in the suburbs would make them happy, even if it meant spending an extra hour in the car everyday. But they were wrong.: