Retro replays: embodied economics
Another in my series of retro replays... an entry from my now-defunct Age of Embodiment blog
I've been thinking again about the idea that we need a web application that contrasts the daily content of our newsfeeds with aggregated statistics pertaining to the news's topics. For instance, we're inundated with news items about violence and crime, while in fact most forms of crime have been dropping (at least in Canada) for several decades. People perceive that the world is getting steadily worse, where in fact by most measures (such as democracy, literacy, childhood mortality etc.) globally things are getting better. I should have proposed such an application at the recent SciBarCamp; in any case, it reminded me of the following blog entry I wrote into Age of Embodiment a couple of years back.
There's an interesting article by Craig Lambert at Harvard Magazine, called The Marketplace of Perceptions. Lambert examines the (relatively) new science of behavioral economics, which is predicated on the now-obvious idea that when making economic decisions, human beings are not rational actors. It turns out, in fact, that our decisions--even life-changing ones--are influenced by a host of completely non-rational quirks of human nature. Taking these quirks into account is essential for accurately modeling human economic activity.
In the context of this weblog, the idea of behavioral economics is simply another instance of theory-driven practices being replaced by empirically-derived ones. The assumption that humans act rationally in economic exchanges rests on a piece of 17th-century metaphysics: namely, the idea of the "rational mind" which maximizes benefits and minimizes risks. Humans were supposed to possess such minds (which were, of course, constantly battling against the irrational subconscious and evil desires for instant gratification). And you could misinterpret behavioral economics and related disciplines as being extensions of classical economics that take into account the presence of the irrational mind and human lusts. This would be a mistake.
At stake is actually the idea of the rational actor itself. As a metaphysical entity disconnected from the actual, physical world, the rational actor perpetuates the separation of those qualities we consider human from those we consider animalistic, base, and 'merely' physical. We may want that candy, but the rational mind, safe in its aloof tower, can command us not to take it.
What behavioral economists are showing is not that our rational decision-making processes are frequently interrupted or circumvented by irrational decisions, but that the rational actor doesn't exist. What do exist are multiple competing agendas inside each human being, some of which have been labeled as rational in the past, but none of which has primacy over the others.
Which doesn't mean we're doomed--quite the contrary. Knowing how we actually work when we make economic (and political) decisions is the first step to learning to actually control ourselves. In the case of economics, it starts with recognizing that regardless of how we style ourselves as the heirs of a rationalist tradition, we make decisions using a cognitive apparatus that was designed to maximize short-term benefits for hunter-gatherers.
The Harvard artitle talks about the implications this new science has for policy makers and people designing public programs. But what about the implications for the individual? After all, we're the ones who are going to be controlled to an increasingly accurate degree by those programs. We should have some ability to monitor the process.
This is where the open-source community can help. What we need is an application that uses a combination of software tools and the aggregation of human responses to analyze our inputs--the news stories, ads, and ideas that are presented to us, the information consumers, every day. Think of it as Slashdot-for-subliminal-advertising. It might work like this: I turn my browser to the CNN home page. The page pops up in the main pane of the window, but along the side of the browser, a list of biases is recorded--the assumptions and agendas that have been read off the home page by the app. As well as a list of probable responses people will have (in terms of buying patterns or voting patterns, say) to the various major news items.
It's time our unconscious minds started reporting to us in terms that our conscious minds can use. As behavioral economics progresses, I hope people in the online community will keep up--and develop tools that let the individual participate in the process of controlling his or herself.