Koliko smo racionalni oziroma neracionalni in ideološke posledice

Zanimivo razmišljanje Andrewa Gellmana o kognitivnem vs. behaviorističnem pristopu k razumevanja človeških odločitev v psihologiji in ekonomiji oziroma nasploh. Nekoliko širše zastavljeno in zelo poenostavljeno, gre za to, v kolikšni meri na naše odločitve vpliva racionalna komponenta (posledica našega miselnega procesa), v kolikšni meri pa hipne distrakcije (izid nogometne tekme, menstruacija) oziroma strukturne razlike med spoloma (fizična moč vs. čustva). Gellman vidi v poudarjanju enega ali drugega pristopa tipično levo / desno ideološko delitev: behavioristi predpostavljajo, da so ljudje iracionalni, zato so njihove odločitve nepredvidljive in ne smemo zaupati tržnim izidom, pač pa je potrebna regulacija države, neoklasiki pa smatrajo, da so ljudje racionalni, kadar gre za ekonomske odločitve, zato bi vsaka intervencija na trge od zunaj samo poslabšala stvari. Gellman kot odličen empirični ekonomist ugotavlja, da stvari niso bele ali črne, da za nobeno izmed struj ni močnih empiričnih dokazov.

Moje apriorno in amatersko mnenje je, da sta obe komponenti (racionalna in iracionalna) v našem obnašanju ves čas prisotni in pomembni, da se relativni pomen vsake spreminja glede na konkretno situacijo. Enkrat ima relativno večjo težo ena, drugič druga. Zato se je nesmiselno postaviti na apriorno (ideološko) stališče, da imajo trgi vedno prav ali pa da je vlada vedno družbeno bolj učinkovita od trgov. Ne vemo, odvisno od konkretne situacije. Nič ni zgolj belo ali črno, pač pa obstaja mnogo odtenkov sive, zato je za vsako konkretno situacijo potrebno poiskati specifično rešitev. In zato mi je blizu komentar spodaj od Dalea Lehmana, ki pravi:

If we can live with the grayness that both rationality and irrationality coexist – and some times under some circumstances one or the other may be stronger – then we might make more progress towards understanding human behavior (whether it be in markets, politics, consumer purchasing behavior, etc.). We would have to give up the (incorrect, in my view) illusion of certainty required for clear policy recommendations.


The starting point is “behavioral economics,” also known as the “heuristics and biases” subfield of cognitive psychology. It’s associated with various studies of cognitive illusions, settings where people systematically mispredict uncertain events or make decisions. Within psychology, this work is generally accepted but with some controversy which could be summed up in the phrase, “Kahneman versus Gigerenzer,” but it’s my impression that in recent years there’s been a bit of a convergence: for Kahneman the glass is half-empty and for Gigerenzer the glass is half-full, but whether you’re talking about “heuristics and biases” or “fast and frugal decision making,” there’s been a focus on understanding how our brains use contextual cues to decide how to solve a problem.

In economics, this work is more disputed because it seems to be in head-on conflict with models of utility-maximizing rationality from the 1930s-50s associated with the theories of Neumann and others on economic decision making. While some economists have embraced so-called “behavioral” ideas to explain imperfect markets, other economists are (a) skeptical about the relevance to real-world high-stakes behavior of laboratory findings on cognitive illusions and (b) wary of the political implications of social engineers who want to use cognitive biases to “nudge” people toward behavior they otherwise wouldn’t have done.

Within economics, I’d say that the behavioral/classical debate roughly follows left/right lines: on the left are the behaviorists who say that individuals and firms are irrational and thus we should not trust the judgment of the markets, instead we should regulate and protect people from their irrationality. On the right are the classicists who hold that people are rational when it comes to real economic decisions and thus any interference in the market, whether from governments or labor unions, will tend to make things worse.

To put it another way, think about “behavioral economics” not so much as “economics” but as “behavioral.” From a psychology point of view, behaviorism is a nearly century-old theory that was in many ways superseded by cognitive psychology. And, in many ways, “behavioral economics” is a sort of counter-revolution: it’s full of tropes under which people are doing things for irrational reasons, in which actions speak louder than words etc.

The full story here is complicated but one reason I think these ideas are popular in neoclassical economics is that they are, in some sense, anti-democratic. If people’s votes are determined based on the time of the menstrual cycle or on the outcomes of college football games, then elections are pretty silly, no? Which is an implicit argument in favor of lower taxes and more power for business, as compared to government (or, for that matter, unions).

This becomes particularly clear when we look at work along these lines in political science. If, for example, subliminal smiley faces have big effects on political attitudes, then this should cause us to think twice about how seriously to take such attitudes, no? Or if men’s views on economic redistribution are in large part determined by physical strength, or if women’s vote preferences are in large part determined by what time of the month it is, or if both sexes’ choice to associate with co-partisans is in large part determined by how they smell, then this calls into question a traditional civics-class view of the will of the people.

Luckily (or, perhaps, depending on your view, unluckily), the evidence for the empirical claims in the above paragraphs ranges from weak to nonexistent.

What I’m getting at is that I see a common thread in a lot of the counterintuitive, tabloid, Psychological-Science-type work out there, and that thread is a dismissal of human rationality and even human agency in the political (and, to some extent, the economic) arena. Here I’m speaking of “rationality” not in the limited sense of utility maximization but in the more general sense of thoughtful, purposeful decision making.

In the “Psychological Science” world, voters’ attitudes are determined by upper-body strength and the time of the month, their attitudes on important issues are influenced by meaningless subliminal stimuli, and their elections turn on the outcomes of late-October football games, and they flub any decisions involving uncertainty. Throw the words “Florida” and “bingo” at them and they walk slower, without even realizing why, they’re influenced by stereotype threat even without realizing it, and even their choice of clothing is not under their conscious control. Put it all together and you get a pre-cognitive conception of the citizen: not a man or woman who weighs the evidence, forms political views, and makes economic and political decisions, but a creature who is continually pushed to and fro by influences of which he or she is not even aware, an unstable product of hormones and the manipulators of political and social marketers, a sort of particle in the water being jostled by invisible Brownian forces.

Let me repeat that the evidence for many of these claims is weak, indeed I have the feeling that a lot of people want to believe in these things so they grab on to whatever “p less than .05″ comparisons they find, and take them as representative of the general population, as scientific truth. On the other hand, I perhaps am coming from the opposite direction.

The cognitive-psychology perspective, as I see it, is that we are thinking beings, and to the extent that we are influenced in irrational ways (whether by hormones, or subliminal marketing, or whatever), we mediate these influences through our thought processes.

Vir: Andrew Gellman

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