Do the right thing: The assumption of optimality in lay decision theory and causal judgment

Samuel G.B. Johnson, Lance J. Rips

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Citations (SciVal)


Human decision-making is often characterized as irrational and suboptimal. Here we ask whether people nonetheless assume optimal choices from other decision-makers: Are people intuitive classical economists? In seven experiments, we show that an agent's perceived optimality in choice affects attributions of responsibility and causation for the outcomes of their actions. We use this paradigm to examine several issues in lay decision theory, including how responsibility judgments depend on the efficacy of the agent's actual and counterfactual choices (Experiments 1-3), individual differences in responsibility assignment strategies (Experiment 4), and how people conceptualize decisions involving trade-offs among multiple goals (Experiments 5-6). We also find similar results using everyday decision problems (Experiment 7). Taken together, these experiments show that attributions of responsibility depend not only on what decision-makers do, but also on the quality of the options they choose not to take.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)42-76
Number of pages35
JournalCognitive Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2015


  • Behavioral game theory
  • Causal attribution
  • Decision-making
  • Lay decision theory
  • Rationality
  • Theory of mind

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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