Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Culture vs Logic in Decision-Making

In today's world, we generally think of ourselves as making decisions based on information. Even if our decisions aren't always rational, they are at least based on some kind of rationale. Decisions such as what to eat and drink, what car to get, what career to pursue, what cleaning products to use, where to live, and what to wear. The information technology boom has made it even easier for people to share product reviews, compare prices, and also see what decisions your friends have made. Even so, it seems like people know less and less about how things are made and how companies are run. Then, many decisions are made based on simply price and personal preferences. In the past, and certainly in older societies such as China and European countries, strong cultural norms drive many decisions. In particular, what to eat and when to eat it are emphasized in every culture.

The vast majority of us are very removed from the agriculture industry. In Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan explains how things are done now compared to how things were done before. He also explains why we need to eat healthy foods and what things are healthy. For example, traditional methods of growing crops and raising animals had very little waste because the outputs of one process are the inputs to the next process. The book is compelling today precisely because it is so rational and driven by information. On the one hand, we must embrace information driven decision-making and work to make even more information readily available to the general public. On the other hand, I feel that a lot wisdom used to exist in the form of "culture" or "conventional wisdom," and culture is still a good venue for guidelines and rules-of-thumb.

What consumer have to work with right now are prices, advertising, and certifications such as USDA Organic. The fact that certifications are so popular is a very positive sign. However, it would be too cumbersome for all the different practices of a farm or other company needed to have certification. Also, binary nature of the certificates give companies an incentive to only meet the minimum standards. One solution is to have ratings based on more categories and have gradations. For example, college rankings are done based on several metrics such as academics, faculty/student ratio, student life, amenities, etc. I think it would be better, though, to crowd-source the rating system, perhaps even with locations and pictures of the actual farms.

The amount of information needed is immense. The main advantage of culture is that information is not needed. You don't know to know exactly why processed foods are unhealthy if your culture simply dictates the need for fresh foods in your diet. This lack of information is also the great weakness of culture, though, and there are many outdated and wrong practices that continue for decades and perhaps centuries. In today's world, things change quickly. New technologies can lead to new practices. Companies change their practices. Ideally, there should be a tool for consumers to rapidly create new cultural practices that are backed with sound reasonings. Something that can influence people's decision-making that does not involve them reading a book could be very useful for everyone.

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