Saturday, September 27, 2014

Behavior: We Are More Rational Than Those who Try To 'Nudge' Us

From Aeon Magazine:
We are told that we are an irrational tangle of biases, to be nudged any which way. Does this claim stand to reason?

Detail from The Ship of Fools 1510-1515 by Hieronymus Bosch. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo by Getty
Detail from The Ship of Fools 1510-1515 by Hieronymus Bosch. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo by Getty
Humanity’s achievements and its self-perception are today at curious odds. We can put autonomous robots on Mars and genetically engineer malarial mosquitoes to be sterile, yet the news from popular psychology, neuroscience, economics and other fields is that we are not as rational as we like to assume. We are prey to a dismaying variety of hard-wired errors. We prefer winning to being right. At best, so the story goes, our faculty of reason is at constant war with an irrational darkness within. At worst, we should abandon the attempt to be rational altogether.

The present climate of distrust in our reasoning capacity draws much of its impetus from the field of behavioural economics, and particularly from work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1980s, summarised in Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). There, Kahneman divides the mind into two allegorical systems, the intuitive ‘System 1’, which often gives wrong answers, and the reflective reasoning of ‘System 2’. ‘The attentive System 2 is who we think we are,’ he writes; but it is the intuitive, biased, ‘irrational’ System 1 that is in charge most of the time.

Other versions of the message are expressed in more strongly negative terms. You Are Not So Smart (2011) is a bestselling book by David McRaney on cognitive bias. According to the study ‘Why Do Humans Reason?’ (2011) by the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, our supposedly rational faculties evolved not to find ‘truth’ but merely to win arguments. And in The Righteous Mind (2012), the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the idea that reason is ‘our most noble attribute’ a mere ‘delusion’. The worship of reason, he adds, ‘is an example of faith in something that does not exist’. Your brain, runs the now-prevailing wisdom, is mainly a tangled, damp and contingently cobbled-together knot of cognitive biases and fear.

This is a scientised version of original sin. And its eager adoption by today’s governments threatens social consequences that many might find troubling. A culture that believes its citizens are not reliably competent thinkers will treat those citizens differently to one that respects their reflective autonomy. Which kind of culture do we want to be? And we do have a choice. Because it turns out that the modern vision of compromised rationality is more open to challenge than many of its followers accept.

For most of recorded thought it was taken for granted that rationality was what separated us from the beasts. Plato argued that hatred of reason (misology) sprang from the same source as hatred of humankind. Aristotle declared that man was ‘the rational animal’, and this seemed evident to Spinoza, too: just as ‘a dog is a barking animal’, so man was the beast who reasoned. Philosophers have, of course, long differed about the nature and limits of rationality. Kant argued against ‘rationalists’ such as Leibniz, who taught that pure reason could disclose the nature of reality. Hegel insisted that individual thinkers cannot escape their particular historical context, and Hume observed that reason alone cannot motivate action.

Nevertheless, until recently it was still largely assumed that rationality, whatever its character and limits, was a definitional aspect of humankind. Hence the despairing apotheosis of Romantic anti-rationalism in the later 20th century, when it seemed to many that the Enlightenment had led straight to the Gulag and the Holocaust: to decry the operation of reason was to take a pessimistic view of humanity itself. Today, however, we are told we can abandon the notion that rationality is central to human identity. But does the evidence show that we must?

Modern skepticism about rationality is largely motivated by years of experiments on cognitive bias. We are prone to apparently irrational phenomena such as the anchoring effect (if we are told to think of some arbitrary number, it will affect our snap response to an unrelated question) or the availability error (we judge questions according to the examples that come most easily to mind, rather than a wide sample of evidence). There has been some controversy over the correct statistical interpretations of some studies, and several experiments that ostensibly demonstrate ‘priming’ effects, in particular, have notoriously proven difficult to replicate. But more fundamentally, the extent to which such findings can show that we are acting irrationally often depends on what we agree should count as ‘rational’ in the first place.

During the development of game theory and decision theory in the mid-20th century, a ‘rational’ person in economic terms became defined as a lone individual whose decisions were calculated to maximise self-interest....MORE
Possibly of interest:
Investing: "Have the Behaviorists Gone Too Far?"

"Nudge Squad": White House Creating "Behavioral Insights Team" that Will Look for Ways to Subtly Influence People's Behavior to Get Us to All Act "Better"
Nudge Squad.
Sounds like a '70's chimera: Mod Squad meets Esalen Institute.*
*In the early '90's some graffiti artist sprayed the entry sign at Esalen with "Jive shit for rich white folk" which I think was a bit harsh. All you have to do is check the prices for the various retreats on offer:

accommodations Weekend Workshops Five-Day Workshops Seven-Day Workshops
Point House Single $1750 $3550 $4975
Point House Couple $2500 $4850 $6750
Premium Room Single $1300 $2450 $3430
Premium Room Couple $2000 $3725 $5225
Standard (per person) $730 $1215 $1700
Bunk Bed (per person) $555 $935 $1300
Sleeping Bag (per person) $405 $650 $900
Off-Site (per person) $405 $650 $900

and you'll note they all have a sleeping bag option.