Social Rationality

Consumers in Europe can choose between renewable energy sources – so-called green energy – or energy generated from fossil fuels. Although half of European consumers claim to favor green energy, only about 5% actually opt for renewable energy supplies. Yet there are exceptions, such as the town Schönau in the Black Forest, with a population of 2500. In 2006, 99% of all households (1669 out of 1693) in Schönau were already relying on energy from renewable sources.

Are the remaining 95% Europeans who don't use green energy polluters? Or is the town a role model for the rest of the world? Not necessarily. When Schönau discussed converting its power supply to renewable energy, only 52% of its inhabitants voted for the change and 48% against it. The high acceptance rate of renewable energy in Schönau is a result of the environment rather than of its inhabitants' mindset: All households are supplied with green energy, unless they actively decide against it (opt-out-system). In most residential areas in Europe, households are supplied with green energy only when they actively decide in favor of it (opt-in-system). Even when dealing with ethical questions, humans seem to follow a simple heuristic: Do not deviate from the default setting. The lesson we can learn from Schönau is less about developing an environmentally friendly attitude than about using this simple yet effective heuristic intelligently.

In real life, humans rarely make decisions autonomously. They live and act in a social environment in which their decisions are influenced by other people. Models of social rationality explore heuristics that are not only fast and frugal but also morally acceptable and justifiable, thereby leading to consensus. Social norms as well as emotions play an important role and are hence a special focus of the research in this area.

Key References

  • Gigerenzer, G. (2010). Moral satisficing: Rethinking moral behavior as bounded. Topics in Cognitive Science, 2, 528-554.
  • Hertwig, R., Hoffrage, U., & the ABC Research Group (Eds.), (2013). Simple heuristics in a social world. New York: Oxford University Press.