The adaptive nature of context-dependent choice

Rosati, A. G., & Stevens, J. R. (2009). The adaptive nature of context-dependent choice. In: Rational Animal, Irrational Human, S. Watanabe, A. Young, A. Blaisdell, & Y. Yamazaki (Ed.). Tokyo, Keio University Press, pp. 101-117.

[PDF]  [Publisher’s Version]  Abstract

Although classical economic theory hinges on the assumption that rational actors should seek to maximize gains, psychologists and behavioral economists have recently collected a wealth of evidence challenging this premise. In violation of the principles of rational choice, context appears to dramatically influence human decision making. Like humans, numerous nonhuman animals, ranging from honeybees to primates, are sensitive to context, suggesting deep evolutionary roots for seemingly irrational decision-making. Many psychologists have suggested that such choices may stem from cognitive biases that result in errors. We contend, however, that labeling context-dependent choices as errors obscures the real issue. Natural selection does not create organisms that adhere to economic theory—it creates decision makers that maximize fitness. We review evidence that many species show context-dependence when making decisions and then present a framework for analyzing the adaptive consequences of these choices. We argue for an approach weaving psychological perspectives into an evolutionary framework to elucidate the nature of decision making.