Harnessing Our Inner Angels and Demons: What We Have Learned About Want/Should Conflicts and How That Knowledge Can Help Us Reduce Short-Sighted Decision Making

by Katherine L. Milkman, Todd Rogers & Max H. Bazerman

Overview — Many of the most important problems facing the world today are exacerbated by myopic decision-making. Examples include climate change, under-saving for retirement, deficit spending, and obesity. As observed by Freud, contemporary psychologists and researchers, and entertainers, people everywhere struggle to choose between doing what they want to do and what they should do. This paper synthesizes 15 years of empirical explorations of this "want/should" conflict and discusses the most important applications of this work. The results of recent studies have the potential to help individuals and policymakers by arming them with insights about how to increase the chances that they and their constituents, respectively, will favor options that are in their best interest. Key concepts include:

  • Knowledge of the want/should self could help individuals and policymakers learn how to design circumstances that steer people away from making impulsive, short-sighted decisions.

Author Abstract

Although observers of human behavior have long been aware that people regularly struggle with internal conflict when deciding whether to behave responsibly or indulge in impulsivity, psychologists and economists did not begin to empirically investigate this type of want/should conflict until recently. In this paper, we review and synthesize the latest research on want/should conflict, focusing our attention on the findings from an empirical literature on the topic that has blossomed over the last 15 years. We then turn to a discussion of how individuals and policy makers can use what has been learned about want/should conflict to help decision makers select far-sighted options.

Paper Information