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How (Supposedly) Rational People Make Decisions

There are four principles that Gregory Mankiw outlines in his multi-disciplinary economics textbook Principles of Economics.

I got the idea for reading an Economics textbook from Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett. He said:

Economics was always more multidisciplinary than the rest of soft science. It just reached out and grabbed things as it needed to. And that tendency to just grab whatever you need from the rest of knowledge if you’re an economist has reached a fairly high point in Mankiw’s new textbook Principles of Economics. I checked out that textbook. I must have been one of the few businessmen in America that bought it immediately when it came out because it had gotten such a big advance. I wanted to figure out what the guy was doing where he could get an advance that great. So this is how I happened to riffle through Mankiw’s freshman textbook. And there I found laid out as principles of economics: opportunity cost is a superpower, to be used by all people who have any hope of getting the right answer. Also, incentives are superpowers.

So we know that we can add Opportunity cost and incentives to our list of Mental Models.

Let’s dig in.

Principle 1: People Face Trade-offs

You have likely heard the old saying, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” There is much to this old adage and it’s one we often forget when making decisions. To get more of something we like we almost always have to give up something else we like. A good heuristic in life is that if someone offers you something for nothing, turn it down.

Making decisions requires trading off one goal against another.

Consider a student who must decide how to allocate her most valuable resource—her time. She can spend all of her time studying economics, spend all of it studying psychology, or divide it between the two fields. For every hour she studies one subject, she gives up an hour she could have used studying the other. And for every hour she spends studying, she gives up an hour that she could have spent napping, bike riding, watching TV, or working at her part-time job for some extra spending money.

Or consider parents deciding how to spend their family income. They can buy food, clothing, or a family vacation. Or they can save some of the family income for retirement or for children’s college education. When they choose to spend an extra dollar on one of these goods, they have one less dollar to spend on some other good.

These are rather simple examples but Mankiw offers some more complicated ones. Consider the trade-off that society faces between efficiency and equality.

Efficiency means that society is getting the maximum benefits from its scarce resources. Equality means that those benefits are distributed uniformly among society’s members. In other words, efficiency refers to the size of the economic pie, and equality refers to how the pie is divided into individual slices.

When government policies are designed, these two goals often conflict. Consider, for instance, policies aimed at equalizing the distribution of economic well-being. Some of these policies, such as the welfare system or unemployment insurance, try to help the members of society who are most in need. Others, such as the individual income tax, ask the financially successful to contribute more than others to support the government. Though they achieve greater equality, these policies reduce efficiency. When the government redistributes income from the rich to the poor, it reduces the reward for working hard; as a result, people work less and produce fewer goods and services. In other words, when the government tries to cut the economic pie into more equal slices, the pie gets smaller.

Principle 2: The Cost of Something Is What You Give Up to Get It

Because of trade-offs, people face decisions between the costs and benefits of one course of action and the cost and benefits of another course. But costs are not as obvious as they might first appear — we need to apply some second-level thinking:

Consider the decision to go to college. The main benefits are intellectual enrichment and a lifetime of better job opportunities. But what are the costs? To answer this question, you might be tempted to add up the money you spend on tuition, books, room, and board. Yet this total does not truly represent what you give up to spend a year in college.

There are two problems with this calculation. First, it includes some things that are not really costs of going to college. Even if you quit school, you need a place to sleep and food to eat. Room and board are costs of going to college only to the extent that they are more expensive at college than elsewhere. Second, this calculation ignores the largest cost of going to college—your time. When you spend a year listening to lectures, reading textbooks, and writing papers, you cannot spend that time working at a job. For most students, the earnings they give up to attend school are the single largest cost of their education.

The opportunity cost of an item is what you give up to get that item. When making any decision, decision makers should be aware of the opportunity costs that accompany each possible action. In fact, they usually are. College athletes who can earn millions if they drop out of school and play professional sports are well aware that the opportunity cost of their attending college is very high. It is not surprising that they often decide that the benefit of a college education is not worth the cost.

Principle 3: Rational People Think at the Margin

For the sake of simplicity economists normally assume that people are rational. While this causes many problems, there is an undercurrent of truth to the fact that people systematically and purposefully “do the best they can to achieve their objectives, given opportunities.” There are two parts to rationality. The first is that your understanding of the world is correct. Second you maximize the use of your resources toward your goals.

Rational people know that decisions in life are rarely black and white but usually involve shades of gray. At dinnertime, the question you face is not “Should I fast or eat like a pig?” More likely, you will be asking yourself “Should I take that extra spoonful of mashed potatoes?” When exams roll around, your decision is not between blowing them off and studying twenty-four hours a day but whether to spend an extra hour reviewing your notes instead of watching TV. Economists use the term marginal change to describe a small incremental adjustment to an existing plan of action. Keep in mind that margin means “edge,” so marginal changes are adjustments around the edges of what you are doing. Rational people often make decisions by comparing marginal benefits and marginal costs.

Thinking at the margin works for business decisions.

Consider an airline deciding how much to charge passengers who fly standby. Suppose that flying a 200-seat plane across the United States costs the airline $100,000. In this case, the average cost of each seat is $100,000/200, which is $500. One might be tempted to conclude that the airline should never sell a ticket for less than $500. But a rational airline can increase its profits by thinking at the margin. Imagine that a plane is about to take off with 10 empty seats and a standby passenger waiting at the gate is willing to pay $300 for a seat. Should the airline sell the ticket? Of course, it should. If the plane has empty seats, the cost of adding one more passenger is tiny. The average cost of flying a passenger is $500, but the marginal cost is merely the cost of the bag of peanuts and can of soda that the extra passenger will consume. As long as the standby passenger pays more than the marginal cost, selling the ticket is profitable.

This also helps answer the question of why diamonds are so expensive and water is so cheap.

Humans need water to survive, while diamonds are unnecessary; but for some reason, people are willing to pay much more for a diamond than for a cup of water. The reason is that a person’s willingness to pay for a good is based on the marginal benefit that an extra unit of the good would yield. The marginal benefit, in turn, depends on how many units a person already has. Water is essential, but the marginal benefit of an extra cup is small because water is plentiful. By contrast, no one needs diamonds to survive, but because diamonds are so rare, people consider the marginal benefit of an extra diamond to be large.

A rational decision maker takes an action if and only if the marginal benefit of the action exceeds the marginal cost.

Principle 4: People Respond to Incentives

Incentives induce people to act. If you use a rational approach to decision making that involves trade offs and comparing costs and benefits, you respond to incentives. Charlie Munger once said: “Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.”

Incentives are crucial to analyzing how markets work. For example, when the price of an apple rises, people decide to eat fewer apples. At the same time, apple orchards decide to hire more workers and harvest more apples. In other words, a higher price in a market provides an incentive for buyers to consume less and an incentive for sellers to produce more. As we will see, the influence of prices on the behavior of consumers and producers is crucial for how a market economy allocates scarce resources.

Public policymakers should never forget about incentives: Many policies change the costs or benefits that people face and, as a result, alter their behavior. A tax on gasoline, for instance, encourages people to drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. That is one reason people drive smaller cars in Europe, where gasoline taxes are high, than in the United States, where gasoline taxes are low. A higher gasoline tax also encourages people to carpool, take public transportation, and live closer to where they work. If the tax were larger, more people would be driving hybrid cars, and if it were large enough, they would switch to electric cars.

Failing to consider how policies and decisions affect incentives often results in unforeseen results.