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The things we do: The logic behind instant gratification

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Learning to give preference to long-term goals over more immediate ones is known as deferred gratification or patience and considered a virtue in many cultures.  However, there is logic behind asking for rewards immediately, and those who live in poverty know this all too well.

A woman tries to decideThe comedian Jerry Seinfeld, once joked “I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night because I’m ‘night guy’. ‘Night guy’ wants to stay up late. ‘What about getting up after five hours of sleep?’ ‘Oh, that’s morning guy’s problem. That’s not my problem—I’m night guy! I stay up as late as I want.’

Such decisions are described by the theory of intertemporal choice, the idea that decisions have consequences that come at different points in time. People weigh the relative trade-offs of getting what they want in the immediate future with the trouble associated with waiting but potentially getting something better.

We all face these kinds of decisions in our day-to-day lives, from deciding to work now or later or save or spend money, to whether or not we should stay up late to enjoy the night or go to bed early to feel better the next day. In each of these cases, a decision maker needs to assess the utility (or value) of one outcome that is will occur sooner with another one that is more distant in the future. 

The Things We Do: Regret can trip us up- before we’ve even begun

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Few people doubt the merits of pausing to "think things through" before making a decision. Without doing so, we fear we may end up making a decision that leads to harm and misfortune.  However, this process is itself a double-edged sword that can lead us astray.

Boy thinkingWe've all been forced to make tough decisions in life. From career progression and where to live to which route to take on a trip, we navigate life's choices by considering our options and weighing them against each other. In the context of these decisions, we attempt to predict the negative consequences from an action or decision and the likelihood that those consequences will actually occur. 

Regret- we seek to avoid it when we can

In a famous study on Regret Theory, Loomes and Sugden present the idea that in making decisions, individuals not only consider the knowledge they have and the resources at their disposal, but also the likely scenarios that will result from their choices.  They further suggest that the pleasure associated with the results of their choices depends not only on the nature of those results but also on the nature of alternative results. Individuals consider the regret their future selves may feel if they know they would have been better if they had chosen differently. Likewise, they consider the joy their future selves may feel if the consequences of their decisions turn out to be optimal. Thus, both a cause and a consequence of our desire to avoid losses (loss aversion) is our desire to avoid the pain of regret. 
According to researchers, individuals exhibit “regret aversion” when they fear their decision will turn out to be wrong in hindsight. Sometimes, we engage in regret aversion before making a decision, leading us to hem and haw and lose out on opportunities. Other times, we engage in regret aversion after a decision is already made, leading us to hold on to losing assets or undesirable positions because we don’t want to admit our choice was not the best one. Many of the interventions that behavioral economists suggest, such as automatic enrollment, default options, and providing information to consumers, are set up to reduce the ex post regret individuals will face for not doing something that’s in their interest.

Thinking about stakeholder risk and accountability in pilot experiments

Heather Lanthorn's picture

ACT malaria medicationHeather Lanthorn describes the design of the Affordable Medicines Facility- malaria, a financing mechanism for expanding access to antimalarial medication, as well as some of the questions countries faced as they decided to participate in its pilot, particularly those related to risk and reputation.

I examine, in my never-ending thesis, the political-economy of adopting and implementing a large global health program, the Affordable Medicines Facility – malaria or the “AMFm”. This program was designed at the global level, meaning largely in Washington, DC and Geneva, with tweaking workshops in assorted African capitals. Global actors invited select sub-Saharan African countries to apply to pilot the AMFm for two years before any decision would be made to continue, modify, scale-up, or terminate the program. One key point I make is that implementing stakeholders see pilot experiments with uncertain follow-up plans as risky: they take time and effort to set-up and they often have unclear lines of accountability, presenting risk to personal, organizational, and even national reputations. This can lead to stakeholder resistance to being involved in experimental pilots.

It should be noted from the outset that it was not fully clear what role the evidence from the pilot would play in the board’s decision or how the evidence would be interpreted. As I highlight below, this lack of clarity helped to foster feelings of risk as well as a resistance among some of the national-level stakeholders about participating in the pilot. Several critics have noted that the scale and scope and requisite new systems and relationships involved in the AMFm disqualify it from being considered a ‘pilot,’ though I use that term for continuity with most other AMFm-related writing.
In my research, my focus is on the national and sub-national processes of deciding to participate in the initial pilot (‘phase I’) stage, focusing specifically on Ghana. Besides being notable for the project scale and resources mobilized, one thing that stood out about this project is that there was a reasonable amount of resistance to piloting this program among stakeholders in several of the invited countries. I have been lucky and grateful that a set of key informants in Ghana, as well as my committee and other reviewers, have been willing to converse openly with me over several years as I have tried to untangle the reasons behind the support and resistance and to try to get the story ‘right’.

Quote of the Week: Peter Drucker

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"People who don't take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year."

- Peter Drucker, university professor, writer and business guru. He has written numerous books on management and business and is considered to be the "father of modern management". 

Broken Windows: Mending the Cracks

Leonard McCarthy's picture

When the World Bank investigates and sanctions a major corporation for corruption related to one of its project, the deterrent impact is readily apparent. However, not every case the World Bank investigates is a major corruption case. In the past year, the World Bank Integrity Vice Presidency (INT) received many complaints related to fraud, and it is important to demonstrate responsiveness to complainants who report credible allegations as well as fix the weaknesses identified. Sanctioning cases of fraud also sends a strong message about abiding by high integrity standards in World Bank-financed projects. 

Left unchecked, fraud erodes development effectiveness. It often coincides with poor project implementation, which can result in collapsing infrastructure or the distribution of counterfeit drugs. It causes costly delays and can lead to direct financial losses for countries which cannot afford it. Fraud also fosters a negative enabling environment, creating opportunities for more serious and systemic misconduct to occur.

Quote of the Week: Raghuram Rajan

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Central bankers have had enormous responsibilities thrust on them to compensate, essentially, for the failings of the political system. And my worry is we don’t have sufficient tools to do that, but we’re not willing to say it. And, as a result, we push as hard as we can on the existing tools, and they may create more risk in the system.” 

- Raghuram Rajan, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India since 4 September 2013. Prior to his post at the Reserve Bank of India, Rajan was chief economic adviser to India's Ministry of Finance in 2012 and chief economist at the International Monetary Fund from 2003 to 2007.

Risk and Accountability: What Role for the Inspection Panel?

Alf Jerve's picture

The World Bank wants to speed up. To meet the needs of clients and find new solutions to development challenges its appetite for taking risks must change. Accountability mechanisms, like the Inspection Panel, are often accused of causing staff to become risk averse – of slowing down the speed. The Panel has been set up to give people affected by Bank-supported projects an avenue for raising their concerns, knowing that the complaint will be handled by a body independent of those who man age the project. We call it citizen-driven accountability. Does this slow down speed or does it allow for speeding up because it improves the braking system? Fast cars need good brakes.

The answer is not simply one or the other. The Panel has stated on several occasions that it recognizes risk-taking is an essential part of development work, and that the Bank needs to be able to take the risks that go along with innovation, and venture into challenging circumstances where risks and potential rewards may be high. Effective safeguard policies provide means to identify and manage risks, which at times may slow down speed and rightly so. At the same time, citizen-driven accountability helps to enable risk-taking by providing a safety net for affected people in the event that risks materialize.

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Nieman Journalism Lab
Deutsche Welle’s trying to use Africa’s mobile-phone boom to spread news by new means

“As the fastest-growing mobile market on the planet, Africa is facing huge opportunities — and distinct challenges — in news dissemination.

By the end of the year, it’s estimated that more than three-quarters of the population will be cell phone subscribers, including in places where literacy rates are low and electricity is unavailable. To better serve that demographic, German media giant Deutsche Welle is using over-the-phone voice technology to deliver news.

No Internet access necessary: Just dial a number to access the program Learning by Ear, an educational show for teenagers that mixes news and explainers having to do with health, politics, the economy, the environment, and social issues.”  READ MORE