Irrelevant Alternatives

by Douglas Zare
1 May 2013

Douglas Zare

Classical economics describes backgammon bots much better than it describes how people make decisions. In classical economics, agents consider all possibilities, and choose the option with the highest evaluation. That's very similar to the way backgammon bots choose plays.

Behavioral economists study ways that people differ from the classical model. For example, a rational agent should ignore irrelevant alternatives. If you choose A over B, then adding a third alternative C shouldn't make you prefer B over A. If your evaluation of A is higher than your evaluation of B, this relationship doesn't change when you also evaluate a weaker play C. However, people don't evaluate positions by comparing absolute numerical evaluations. People usually compare positions qualitatively. When there is a tough choice between quite different positions, you might be able to switch people's preferences by showing them a third option.

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