Choices and Preferences: The Psychology and Economics of Value

Robin Gregory

Economists and psychologists and regular citizens typically think about the word “value” very differently. For economists, value is something that ultimately needs to be expressed in terms of dollars and that can be calculated with some precision, perhaps for inclusion as part of a comparison of the benefits and costs of an action. For psychologists, value is a combination of cognitive and emotional processes and there is a recognition that people often need help in thinking about their values, so much so that measurements of value can vary greatly. For most other people, value refers to the fact that something matters to them, because it is important to themselves or their family or their community, and the notion of measuring or comparing values often seems weird or even morally offensive.

Robin’s work on values has three main parts. The first is understanding some of the different ways in which different individuals or groups might think about value. For example, appropriate attention often is not given to the significant body of knowledge about values that is held by local and community residents, including First Nation (in Canada) or aboriginal populations (in other countries) as well as other resource users such as fishers or trappers or hunters. This alternative knowledge base may employ differently constructed forms of knowledge than those of western scientific methodologies, yet it often represents a useful — in many cases essential — complement.

A second focus of Robin’s work on values is to learn more about the context dependence of values information. This is important because how we think about the importance of something often changes dramatically depending on the context. So it may be that to reach agreement on how to elicit or understand values, we need first to reach agreement on the definition of an appropriate context for talking about values. The third focus is to understand how to address so-called taboo tradeoffs, which can arise when people refuse to address an exchange because they feel they are (unfairly) asked to balance morally or ethically important components of the decision. Robin’s work is seeking to identify when such tradeoffs are merely difficult, emotionally or cognitively (which means that decision aids may be helpful), and when such exchanges are truly taboo (in which case a person’s refusal must be respected).

For more, read:

Gregory, R., & Trousdale, W. (2009). Compensating aboriginal cultural losses: An alternative approach to assessing environmental damages. Journal of Environmental Management, 90, 2469–2479.

Gregory, R., Fischhoff, B., & McDaniels, T. (2005). Acceptable input: Using decision analysis to guide public decisions. Decision Analysis, 2, 4–16.

Gregory, R. (2002). Incorporating value trade-offs into community-based environmental risk decisionsEnvironmental Values, 11, 461–488.