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Difficult Choices: To Agonize or not to Agonize?

  • Edna Ullmann-Margalit
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    What makes a choice difficult, beyond being complex or difficult to calculate? Characterizing difficult choices as posing a special challenge to the agent, and as typically involving consequences of significant moment as well as clashes of values, the article proceeds to compare the way difficult choices are handled by rational choice theory and by the theory that preceded it, Kurt Lewin's "conflict theory." The argument is put forward that within rational choice theory no choice is in principle difficult: if the object is to maximize some value, the difficulty can be at most calculative. Several prototypes of choices that challenge this argument are surveyed and discussed (picking, multidimensionality, "big decisions" and dilemmas); special attention is given to difficult choices faced by doctors and layers. The last section discusses a number of devices people employ in their attempt to cope with difficult choices: escape, "reduction" to non-difficult choices, and second-order strategies.

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    Paper provided by The Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem in its series Discussion Paper Series with number dp450.

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    Length: 19 pages
    Date of creation: Mar 2007
    Date of revision:
    Publication status: Published in Social Research, 2007, vol. 74, pp. 51-78.
    Handle: RePEc:huj:dispap:dp450
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    1. Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman, 1979. "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk," Levine's Working Paper Archive 7656, David K. Levine.
    2. Ariel Rubinstein, 2006. "A Sceptic's Comment on the Study of Economics," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 116(510), pages C1-C9, 03.
    3. Schelling, Thomas C, 1984. "Self-Command in Practice, in Policy, and in a Theory of Rational Choice," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(2), pages 1-11, May.
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