The Tyranny of Small Decisions: Origins, Outcomes, and Proposed Solutions
Warren K. Bickel Lisa A. Marsch University of Vermont
It occurs frequently, I believe, that a person is faced with a choice between a present and future satisfaction or dissatisfaction and that beweem [sic] decides in favor of lesser present pleasure even though be knows perfectly well, and is even explicitly aware at the moment be makes his choice, that the future disadvantage is the greater and that therefore his well-being, on the whole, suffers by reason of his choice . . . How often does each of us "give into weakness" and allow himself to be swept along into acquiescence or action which he knows immediately he is going to regret on the morrow.
-- Böhm-Bawerk ( 1889/ 1970, p. 269, underscore added)
"Suffers by reason of his choice" is a powerful phrase describing a behavioral pattern in which an individual opts to engage in behavior that is desirable at the present time, but is less than desirable and perhaps even harmful at some future point in time. This type of behavior (variously termed as impulsive, myopic, self-defeating, short-sighted, or a self-control failure) has been the focus of several chapters in this book and is central to this one. Of course, many individuals, on occasion, may suffer by reason of their choice in many different arenas of their lives. Our concern here is not with these occasional choices but rather the persistent and continued choices that cause an individual to suffer time and time again. In a sense, individuals who engage in such patterns of behavior are victimized by their choices. This persistent behavioral pattern is what we are interested in and what we refer to as the tyranny of small decisions. This term was first coined by the economist Alfred Kahn ( 1966), who used it to describe market conditions