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The under-appreciated drive for sense-making


  • Chater, Nick
  • Loewenstein, George


This paper draws attention to a powerful human motive that has not yet been incorporated into economics: the desire to make sense of our immediate experience, our life, and our world. We propose that evolution has produced a ‘drive for sense-making’ which motivates people to gather, attend to, and process information in a fashion that augments, and complements, autonomous sense-making. A large fraction of autonomous cognitive processes are devoted to making sense of the information we acquire: and they do this by seeking simple descriptions of the world. In some situations, however, autonomous information processing alone is inadequate to transform disparate information into simple representations, in which case, we argue, the drive for sense-making directs our attention and can lead us to seek out additional information. We propose a theoretical model of sense-making and of how it is traded off against other goals. We show that the drive for sense-making can help to make sense of a wide range of disparate phenomena, including curiosity, boredom, ‘flow’, confirmation bias and information avoidance, esthetics (both in art and in science), why we care about others’ beliefs, the importance of narrative and the role of ‘the good life’ in human decision making.

Suggested Citation

  • Chater, Nick & Loewenstein, George, 2016. "The under-appreciated drive for sense-making," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 126(PB), pages 137-154.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jeborg:v:126:y:2016:i:pb:p:137-154
    DOI: 10.1016/j.jebo.2015.10.016

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Botond Kőszegi & Matthew Rabin, 2006. "A Model of Reference-Dependent Preferences," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 121(4), pages 1133-1165.
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    6. Emily Oster & Ira Shoulson & E. Ray Dorsey, 2013. "Optimal Expectations and Limited Medical Testing: Evidence from Huntington Disease," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 103(2), pages 804-830, April.
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    1. Francesco Capozza & Ingar Haaland & Christopher Roth & Johannes Wohlfart, 2021. "Studying Information Acquisition in the Field: A Practical Guide and Review," CEBI working paper series 21-15, University of Copenhagen. Department of Economics. The Center for Economic Behavior and Inequality (CEBI).
    2. Joshua Schwartzstein & Adi Sunderam, 2021. "Using Models to Persuade," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 111(1), pages 276-323, January.
    3. Leonardo Becchetti & Massimo Cermelli, 2018. "Civil economy: definition and strategies for sustainable well-living," International Review of Economics, Springer;Happiness Economics and Interpersonal Relations (HEIRS), vol. 65(3), pages 329-357, September.
    4. Lane, Tom, 2022. "Intrinsic preferences for unhappy news," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 202(C), pages 119-130.
    5. Liesbeth de Schutter & Stefan Giljum & Tiina Häyhä & Martin Bruckner & Asjad Naqvi & Ines Omann & Sigrid Stagl, 2019. "Bioeconomy Transitions through the Lens of Coupled Social-Ecological Systems: A Framework for Place-Based Responsibility in the Global Resource System," Sustainability, MDPI, vol. 11(20), pages 1-23, October.
    6. Kaspars Naglis-Liepa & Liga Paula & Lana Janmere & Dace Kaufmane & Liga Proskina, 2022. "Local Food Development Perspectives in Latvia: A Value-Oriented View," Sustainability, MDPI, vol. 14(5), pages 1-30, February.
    7. Chaxel, Anne-Sophie & Wiggins, Catherine & Xie, Jieru, 2018. "The impact of a limited time perspective on information distortion," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 149(C), pages 35-46.
    8. Kai Barron & Tilman Fries, 2023. "Narrative Persuasion," CESifo Working Paper Series 10206, CESifo.
    9. Ganga Shreedhar & Susana Mourato, 2020. "Linking Human Destruction of Nature to COVID-19 Increases Support for Wildlife Conservation Policies," Environmental & Resource Economics, Springer;European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 76(4), pages 963-999, August.
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    11. Barron, Kai & Fries, Tilman, 2023. "Narrative persuasion," Discussion Papers, Research Unit: Economics of Change SP II 2023-301, WZB Berlin Social Science Center.
    12. Francesco Capozza & Ingar K. Haaland & Christopher Roth & Johannes Wohlfart, 2022. "Recent Advances in Studies of News Consumption," CESifo Working Paper Series 10021, CESifo.
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    14. Tobias Wolf & Maria Metzing & Richard E. Lucas, 2022. "Experienced Well-Being and Labor Market Status: The Role of Pleasure and Meaning," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 163(2), pages 691-721, September.
    15. Burbano, Vanessa & Padilla, Nicolas & Meier, Stephan, 2020. "Gender Differences in Preferences for Meaning at Work," IZA Discussion Papers 13053, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).
    16. Yaniv Abir & Caroline B. Marvin & Camilla Geen & Maya Leshkowitz & Ran R. Hassin & Daphna Shohamy, 2022. "An energizing role for motivation in information-seeking during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic," Nature Communications, Nature, vol. 13(1), pages 1-10, December.
    17. Johnson, Samuel G. B., 2019. "Toward a cognitive science of markets: Economic agents as sense-makers," Economics - The Open-Access, Open-Assessment E-Journal (2007-2020), Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel), vol. 13, pages 1-29.
    18. Roberta Sferrazzo, 2021. "The ‘Agapic Behaviors’: Reconciling Organizational Citizenship Behavior with the Reward System," Humanistic Management Journal, Springer, vol. 6(1), pages 19-35, April.
    19. Julissa Alexandra Galarza-Villamar & Mariette McCampbell & Cees Leeuwis & Francesco Cecchi, 2021. "Adding Emergence and Spatiality to a Public Bad Game for Studying Dynamics in Socio-Ecological Systems (Part I): The Design of Musa-Game for Integrative Analysis of Collective Action in Banana Disease," Sustainability, MDPI, vol. 13(16), pages 1-21, August.
    20. Francesco Capozza & Ingar Haaland & Christopher Roth & Johannes Wohlfart, 2022. "Recent Advances in Studies of News Consumption," ECONtribute Discussion Papers Series 204, University of Bonn and University of Cologne, Germany.
    21. Johnson, Samuel G. B., 2019. "Toward a cognitive science of markets: Economic agents as sense-makers," Economics Discussion Papers 2019-10, Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).
    22. Sundström, Malin & Hjelm-Lidholm, Sara & Radon, Anita, 2019. "Clicking the boredom away – Exploring impulse fashion buying behavior online," Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, Elsevier, vol. 47(C), pages 150-156.

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