Archive for the ‘Behavioral Science’ Category

Stupid Politicians May Be Smart

Disturbed by political distortions (which some would call lying), some earnest commentators make some wonkish proposals. I haven’t reviewed them, but I can almost guarantee that they are DOA. Yes, yes – politicians do some stupid things and stretch the truth like Silly Putty. You might want to read Why Politicians Lie. But more fundamentally, all you need to know is that politicians lie and do other stupid things because such activities win elections. Are voters really that stupid? Yes and no. Modern behavioral psychology explains a lot: most voters are simply neither terribly engaged nor well informed because that would be an inefficient use of their mental energy – they have other things, like families and jobs, to worry about. Politics and policy only gets whatever mental cycles are left over after higher priority needs are serviced. Thus, for politicians, a winning strategy is to portray a simple message which is sympathetic and easy to digest. It’s hard to see democracy working any other way – and it’s hard to see a better system than democracy.

English: Library of Congress summary: "Ca...

English: Library of Congress summary: “Caricature showing politicians and people representing different professions revolving around head of Richard “Boss” Croker as the Sun.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I write this not to express cynicism. Instead, I find it helpful to remember that whenever a see some politician as stupid and venal, it’s just the way it has to be. Lighten up! This ought not to discourage us from thinking about issues and policy – instead, we should manage our expectations and focus where we can make a difference, not where we can’t.

Relational Modeling

Moral Compass

Moral Compass (Photo credit: psd)

If you’ve been reading me for any time at all, you know that I have slowly trying to integrate my understanding of economics with Haidt’s moral foundation theory. To recap, my interpretation of moral foundation theory is that there are a set of moral foundations from which everyone builds their own view of morality. Some of these moral foundations conflict with one another and we each must create a hierarchy where some moral precepts trump others. This is very similar to the economic condition of subjective valuation and suggests that the whole question of morality might be subject to the expansive view of economics known as praxeology.

Now I have some new understandings to lay over this: relational models theory. For a good introduction, read this article. In brief, there are multiple broad types of human relationships which we all experience. All kinds of mischief happens when people have different understandings of the nature of a particular relationship. (The article has a revealing story about Mitt Romney).

If you accept relational models theory, it adds a new level of complexity to the issues raised by moral foundations theory.

I’ve just started thinking about this, so I only have one conclusion to offer: be very very cautious in questioning people’s motives.

The Pursuit of Well Being

With all the emphasis on income and consumption inequality, it’s timely that an economist reminds us that these are not the only measure of well being. There is declining inequality in mortality rates and growing inequality in leisure time, although the distribution of leisure time is probably inversely related to to the distribution of income. After all, if you want one of those high income jobs, you’d better be prepared for a 70 hour work week!

I know too many people, involuntarily unemployed or retired, who would not choose to return to the world of full time work. They think this would not improve their overall well being.

It is important to remember that none of our economic data captures well being. Some researchers are trying to measure happiness, but it’s not clear that happiness equates to well being.

Well being is very subjective. The foundation of Austrian economics is that people act to improve their well being. This may or may not have anything to do with wealth, income, consumption, happiness, or status. We also know, from the behavioral sciences, that we are not terribly good at translating our desires for well being into appropriate actions. Our mental processes are flawed in well known ways. And few of us pursue well being in an organized and thoughtful way. There is plenty of room for improvement, but it may not be in the ways we expect.

Operational Philosophy and Immoral Monsters

Good versus Evil

Good versus Evil (Photo credit: Helico)

We understand a lot of things operationally that we don’t understand intellectually. Almost everyone has some notion about what is moral and immoral, but most of us would be hard pressed to express it in an intellectual framework that could stand much scrutiny. Philosophers are supposed to work at the intellectual framework part, but the news there isn’t very good. After a few thousand years of effort, there is no broadly accepted intellectual framework. Instead, there are several competing frameworks, all of which sound reasonable but also questionable under intense examination. I’m glad I didn’t make philosophy my life’s work. There is no a priori reason to assume that a comprehensive and unobjectionable philosophy is even possible.

Still, you don’t need to be an automotive engineer to drive a car. In most situations, operational philosophy is good enough.

So, why am I dwelling on this? Just another excuse to argue for awareness of moral foundations theory. In the real world, we have to deal with people who have different operational philosophies. The other guy probably isn’t an immoral monster – he’s just building on different moral foundations. Understanding this can make life a lot easier to digest.

Thinking About…

The nice thing about thinking things through is that there is always more to think about. Here are some things that have drawn my attention:

Supererogation. Is this just an obscure subject for philosophers and theologians? Or does this have greater implications to behavioral science, economics, and political order?

Economics and complex systems. Is there a better way to construct a capitalist economy?

Economics and evolutionary biology. Have we been asking the right questions?

It’s doubtful that I will reach any conclusions on any of these matters, but should it happen, it will happen here.

With the Best of Intentions

Hayek‘s great insight:

There is, in society, a “knowledge problem”: Economic life requires the coordination of individual planning. The relevant knowledge for economic planning is dispersed rather than concentrated in society. If this makes coordination challenging enough in a market system, it also makes coordination a virtual impossibility under central planning: The planner can never secure and process all the necessary information to provide detailed guidance to any given development in society.

(All quotes are from Alberto Mingardi’s excellent article).

Hayek pointed out that theories centered on the notion of “social justice” try to resemble, at the level of the “great society,” the nature of smaller groups. In the smaller groups in which human beings lived for most of our history, people were compensated and advanced in society due to some shared vision of merit and worthiness.


Market institutions are anonymous and blind. Imposing upon them any preordained scheme of merit and reward will just make coordination between individuals—and, thus, wealth creation—more difficult.

You can see the problem. Our sense of fairness and caring strongly urges us to impose “schemes  of merit and reward” which only serve to make us all worse off. Hurting people, even when motivated by fairness and compassion, is still hurting people. But our moral urges are strong and our analytic abilities are weak, so we continue to damage ourselves and will continue to do so – with the best of intentions.

Professor of Economic Science at LSE 1931-1950...

Professor of Economic Science at LSE 1931-1950, won Nobel prize for Economic Sciences in 1974. IMAGELIBRARY/1027 Persistent URL: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Deutsch: Phrenologie

Deutsch: Phrenologie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Moral Foundation Theory is giving us a framework for understanding conflicting moral values, neuroethics is providing insights into how moral values emerge. (See this). One of the more interesting aspects is that the age old argument between deontologists and utilitarians may have been totally beside the point – bad news for Philosophy Departments everywhere! Evidence is gathering to show that our biology gives us both deontological and utilitarian views. Our brains process some things in the context of moral certainty and other things as trade offs. Exactly how different values end up in which mental processing system is TBD, but knowing that our brains work this way lends credence to Moral Foundation Theory.

Understanding moral foundation theory should give one a more tolerant stance toward the other person’s view, but knowing that a particular moral stance is deontological hints that no meaningful dialogue is possible.