The Utility Function of a Prepper

Looking at the top posts on /r/prepping right now, you can find these two images:

Various “survival” gear. Good luck carrying all that wet food!
I think this one is cute, and I might talk more about it in another post.

I used to think that people who are stockpiling food, water, and guns out of fear of are acting irrationally. But then I realized maybe they just have different utility functions than me.

I think preppers have a satisficing utility function. As an exaggerated example, imagine a utility function where you got 1 utility each day from having enough food and water, and 0 utility from not having enough food or water. If you had that utility function, you really should start stockpiling food and water immediately!

Arguments about prepping are often have the general form of a prepper saying “it improves the worst-case outcomes in lots of scenarios” and a non-prepper saying “but it doesn’t maximize expected value!”. If you accept that the source of the disagreement is preppers having satisficing utility functions, and non-preppers having maximizing utility functions, you can see the futility of that line of argument. Telling someone their utility function is wrong won’t get them to change their utility function.

Once I started thinking about preppers as satisficers, I realized why they are so worried about civilizational collapse. If you feel reliant on other people to provide you with the resources you need to meet your satisficing threshold, then reducing that reliance would be a high priority.

While I have you here and we are talking about prepping, I’m going to try to convince you to store a little water in your house. Water is one of the largest (by volume) necessary inputs to human life. If the water main burst in your house, it would be highly inconvenient and would require moving. If a natural disaster took out running water in your neighborhood or city, it might be a humanitarian crisis. Buying some large jugs of water and stashing them under your bed is a very cheap, low-cost intervention that has a decent chance of greatly improving your life if you lose access to running water.

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