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Is behavioral economics blind to its blindness?

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I find some of the work of behavioral economists, especially that of Daniel Kahneman to be very interesting and important. Thinking Fast and Slow is essential reading. His distinctions between what he calls Type I and Type II thinking is very insightful, and the broad critique that human beings don’t always act like rational maximizers is a correct. Jennifer Roback Morse deals with this issue well in her excellent book, Love and Economics.

Yet despite many good elements of behavioral economics, some of the leading voices including Richard Thaler and Dan Ariely seem to identify the limited, empiricist rationality that they critique in the idea of homo economicus with rationality itself. That is, they appear equate a constricted notion of reason with rationality and then assert that people don’t always act rationally. Of course it is true that people don’t always act rationally. We make mistakes of intuition all the time as Kahneman points out.

But we have to be also consider that if we had a broader notion of reason that was not limited to empiricism or to rational maximization, some of those so called mistakes could be perfectly rational.  I also worry that behavioral economists can fall into the trap of not applying their theory to their own conclusions. Perhaps they are just a bit blind to the obvious…

Are we blind about our blindness?

Related to the this, here is an interesting piece on Aeon by Oxford Management professor, Teppo Felin on The Fallacy of Obviousness.   This is a wide ranging piece that addresses some the limited view of rationality and some of the underlying materialism of behavioral economics, cognitive sciences, and artificial intelligence.  One of the questions Fellin addresses is the notion that humans are blind to the obvious which underlies much of the work of Kahneman and the behavioral economists.

Felin uses the example of the famous gorilla test  by psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Charbis. (Spoiler alert–if you haven’t taken this test and want to, stop and take it and then continue reading)

Did you see the gorilla? If not, you are not alone. Many people missed it.

In case you didn’t watch it here’s how the test goes: The Gorilla Test is a test about our attention and how we can miss very obvious things. Test takers watch a video of people passing a ball and told to count how many times they pass the ball. During the middle of the video a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks into view, pounds his chest, and walks off. You can’t miss it. Except or course, people do.  This test has been used to demonstrate that we make many errors in perception. Behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman have pointed to this experiment as an example of how human beings are “blind to the obvious, and that we also are blind to our blindness.”

True as far as it goes, but as Felin points out, we don’t only miss the gorilla, we miss lots of things. We miss the color of people’s shoes, the color of the paint on the wall, how many of the players were men or women. We miss these things not only because we miss the obvious, but because we were specifically told to focus on a certain thing—counting the balls. If we were told to focus on the color of each person’s shoes, we would not have known how many times they passed the ball.

Missing the gorilla may we we are blind to the obvious. But what else does it mean? Felin argues there is another interpretation:

The alternative interpretation says that what people are looking for – rather than what people are merely looking at – determines what is obvious. Obviousness is not self-evident. Or as Sherlock Holmes said: ‘There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.’ This isn’t an argument against facts or for ‘alternative facts’, or anything of the sort. It’s an argument about what qualifies as obvious, why and how. See, obviousness depends on what is deemed to be relevant for a particular question or task at hand. Rather than passively accounting for or recording everything directly in front of us, humans – and other organisms for that matter – instead actively look for things. The implication (contrary to psychophysics) is that mind-to-world processes drive perception rather than world-to-mind processes. The gorilla experiment itself can be reinterpreted to support this view of perception, showing that what we see depends on our expectations and questions – what we are looking for, what question we are trying to answer.

As Felin and others have pointed out, what we are told to focus on, and equally important, our underlying assumptions, values, and beliefs shape how we see the world. This is an underlying problem with the dominant approach to the social sciences in general and related to the point that Benedict XVI made in the famous Regensburg Address, that our concept of rationality is constricted and incoherent.

None of this implies that humans don’t make mistakes or are always rational even under a broad concept of rationality. Using right reason is not easy and we make mistakes all the time. The point here is that what we focus on, and the frameworks that we use to look at a problem, the assumptions and beliefs we have, what Durkheim calls a “social fact” shape the way we see the world and what becomes obvious or not. I am not suggesting that everything is therefor relative, but one’s perspective does influence our understanding and what we see or do not see

Felin writes:

The biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) argued that all species, humans included, have a unique ‘Suchbild’ – German for a seek- or search-image – of what they are looking for. In the case of humans, this search-image includes the questions, expectations, problems, hunches or theories that we have in mind, which in turn structure and direct our awareness and attention. The important point is that humans do not observe scenes passively or neutrally. In 1966, the philosopher Karl Popper conducted an informal experiment to make this point. During a lecture at the University of Oxford, he turned to his audience and said: ‘My experiment consists of asking you to observe, here and now. I hope you are all cooperating and observing! However, I feel that at least some of you, instead of observing, will feel a strong urge to ask: “What do you want me to observe?”’ Then Popper delivered his insight about observation: ‘For what I am trying to illustrate is that, in order to observe, we must have in mind a definite question, which we might be able to decide by observation.’

In other words, there is no neutral observation. The world doesn’t tell us what is relevant. Instead, it responds to questions. When looking and observing, we are usually directed toward something, toward answering specific questions or satisfying some curiosities or problems

There could be some debate about neutral observation. There could be an occasion when a person could be observing without a specific focus and discover something he had not previously noticed. But even then it is a specific, unique individual in a specific context that is doing the observation. And the general point holds that our decisions about what to analyze, what data to collect, and what computer algorithms to write are all shaped by previous ideas. Technology is not neutral.

This is an important topic that has broad implications for the social sciences and for how we understand artificial intelligence and consciousness. Ultimately much of it comes down to fundamental questions about philosophical anthropology and the nature of reason. Definitely worth reading the whole thing.

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Michael Matheson Miller Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute