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How Decision Making Influences Decision Making

November 24, 2009

My wife and I recently were offered the use of a car while we are here in Australia. This is very tempting. We hope to get out of the city as often as we can to explore our surroundings, go on camping trips, and just see as much of this country as we can during our year-long stay. And our apartment comes with a parking spot, so all signs point to yes.

But at least for now, I think we’ll pass. The reason? We want to establish a pattern of walking, biking and using public transportation while living in Melbourne. It’s good for us, good for the environment, and is in keeping with the kind of community we want to live in. In theory, we could take the car, only use it when we’re leaving the city, and stick to our original plan getting around locally without it. But having come from sprawling Phoenix, we know how easy it is to develop bad habits when there is an easier option.

So now we can still rent a car and get out, but it’s not just sitting there waiting for us. Now we can’t just hop in and drive to Victoria Market when we’re feeling too lazy to take the tram. In making this first order decision, we have deliberately set up our circumstances to influence the likely outcome of our daily (second order) decisions about transportation.

In thinking this through, I realized that this kind of first order choice underlies all sorts of second order decisions that we make about our personal lives. We are constantly trying to live up to our own expectations of ourselves, and our surroundings are part of what determines our ability to do so. I know that eating less meat is a good way to reduce my overall environmental impact, but I have varying degrees of motivation and success in achieving that. A lot of it has to do with what happens to be in my fridge. My food-buying decisions influence my eating decisions.

Ok, put that way it seems kind of obvious, but I think there is an important point buried here:
our values are not necessarily a perfect reflection or prediction of our behavior. This helps to explain Al Gore’s astronomical frequent flier mileage, and author Jared Diamond’s Bel Air mansion (Diamond wrote Collapse, which explores how overconsumption led to the demise of various civilizations).

A friend of mine at Arizona State University is involved in an interesting research endeavor to find ways of helping people live up to their own expectations. In what they call Game As Life–Life As Game (GALLAG), a person would use interactions between an online game and his or her real life to provide incentives that help in achieving various goals. In engineering speak:

Ubiquitous computing and personally tailored game scenarios integrate activities across the virtual and physical domains, holistically throughout everyday life. Influences and activities in the game scenarios affect real life and vice versa; influences and activities in real life affect the game. Several methods of experience and behavioral assessment, and environmental, contextual, and physiological sensors, are being used in conjunction with participatory design approaches that include end-user- programming. This agenda empowers users to create their own synergies between their on-line activities and helps them achieve their personal real-world aspirations. Ultimately, GALLAG is leading to “Life Long Games” that provide persistent, supportive, and actualizing experiences.

If that seems a little out there, well, I know what you mean. But if we’re going to be so plugged in all the time, the idea of using that to help us live the kinds of non-virtual lives we want to live seems pretty appealing.

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