Interesting stuff, that I don't really fully believe, but it is a piece of the puzzle. In other words, true but partial.
A SHORT COURSE IN BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICSGo to the Edge site to see the video and to read the rest of the discussion.
Edge Master Class 2008
Richard Thaler, Sendhil Mullainathan, Daniel Kahneman
Sonoma, CA, July 25-27, 2008
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There's new technology emerging from behavioral economics and we are just starting to make use of that. I thought the input of psychology into economics was finished but clearly it's not! —Daniel KahnemanTWO BIG THINGS HAPPENING IN PSYCHOLOGY TODAY
DANIEL KAHNEMAN: I want to tell you a bit of straight psychology that I find very exciting, that I found more exciting this year than I had before, and that in some ways is changing my view about a lot of things in psychology.
There are two big things happening in psychology today. One, of course, is everything that's got to do with the brain, and that's dominating psychology. But there is something else that is happening, which started out from a methodological innovation as a way to study memory, and we've always known, that's the idea of the notion of association of ideas, which has been around for 350 years at least.
We know about how associations work because we have one thought, and when it leads to another‚windows and doors and things like that, or white and black‚and we have our ideas of associations, and it's always been recognized as important and interesting. But our view of how associations work has been changed in a profound way by a technical innovation, which is something that happens a great deal in psychology and I suppose in all sciences.
This innovation is the following: If, for example, you hear the word "sick", there are few associations that come to mind. But there are a number of other things that you can do, that are little more refined. You can present words, and measure the amount of time that it takes people to read the words. Or you can measure words and non-words, and the task is to decide whether they're a set of letters, or a word, or a non-word, and it's the ease with which words are recognized as words as against non-words. I'll begin by focusing on reaction time, because that's the simplest one.
Here's how it works: after the presentation of the word "sick", the number of words that are affected to which you react differently than you reacted before is enormous. You will be faster, obviously, to "ill", and to "death", and so on, but it will be "hospital", and it will be "nurse", and it will be "doctor", and all of a sudden you've got a huge range of things to which the response is influenced by just presenting that one thing. We find that associative networks that we have in our minds appear to be a lot richer than it did before.
But that's not the only thing that happens. It turns out that the kinds of associations that are built in are a lot richer than we thought. When I want to make an impression while giving a talk, I put the word "vomit" on the screen. Just imagine the word "vomit" on the screen. I point out we know from experiments what happens to people within the first second or two that the word "vomit" is present. In the first place there is that enormous range of changes in the associative structure, and the readiness as well.
But there is more that happens. You have a facial reaction. When people see the word "vomit" or hear the word "vomit", and you can take pictures of their face, you will see that the reaction is that they're disgusted. It's more than that. Nobody noticed that this was happening to you, but you recoiled; you recoil when you are presented the word like "vomit".
I'll give you an example of the kind of experiments that demonstrate it. I find them very elegant. You put people in front of the computer screen, you give them a lever. You tell them that things are going to appear on the screen. It doesn't matter what appears on the screen. Mostly there will be words, but it doesn't matter. What you're supposed to do is as soon as anything happens on the screen is to move the lever and make it go off. It's completely independent of content. You present words. The experimental manipulation is that for half of the subjects the lever moves this way; and for half of the subjects, it moves that way, towards me or away from me.
You present words that are either good or bad‚"peace" and "love" versus "crime" and "death" and "sickness" and "vomit", and what have you. It turns out that the speed with which people respond to the lever, to the words, although the word is irrelevant to the content and they don't have time to become conscious of it, the speed with which they respond depends on the lever. They are faster, much faster‚all of this is measured in tenths of milliseconds, the effects‚ but they're robustly faster pulling the lever towards themselves when the word is good, and pushing the lever away from themselves when the word is bad.
It's not the real thing, it is a symbolic representation of the real thing, and people are responding to the symbolic representation, in a way as if it were the real thing. It goes on from there. I'll now give you a few more examples. That's called a priming paradigm. But the word "priming" in this context is like priming a pump, and you'll see it the most clearly in the case of recognizing a word that is presented. You are primed, you are ready, to recognize that word; more ready than you are to recognize other words.
The thing that happens is you can present a smiley face so fast that people absolutely do not see it, and it influences their responses to other things. They tend to like everything better if the smiley face has been presented, which they're not aware of. Consciousness is not necessary for the effects. What began this whole thing‚and it's one of the most important contributions of psychology in the last decade or so‚is a study in 1996 associated mainly with the name of John Bargh who is at Yale.
Since then, there has been an explosion of research. Bargh was at NY at the time, and in the study that kicked off this line of research, people were brought to participate in an experiment and were given one of the tasks that psychologists use to make you think of words. You might have a set of five words, or you have to take four of them and make a sentence out of them, or to memorize lists of words. Different groups of subjects are exposed to different lists of words that will be used as primers. And one of the lists contains words like "wrinkles", "Florida".
The word "old" is not mentioned. Then they're dismissed from that experiment, the experiment is over, and they're sent over to participate in another experiment, which is at the other end of the corridor. The dependent variable is the speed at which they walk, and you have a substantial effect on the speed. You haven't mentioned the word "old", and you made those people act as if they were old. You've primed "old", and you've primed the behavior of an old person.
It works the other way, too. That's an experiment done in Germany. You take people and with a metronome you make them walk, and you make them walk slowly. The metronome just beats slowly, so they walk slowly. They're faster to recognize any word that has to do with old age. You haven't gotten anything, they're just walking more slowly than usual.
What you get is the point I'm trying to make; we speak a lot about logical coherence, that's what the rational agent was supposed to be, the rational agent is supposed to be coherent. There is remarkable coherence in those results. What you end up with as a result of the presentation of a single word like "vomit", you get a lot of changes that reinforce each other. You get an emotional response, and you get a facial response, but the facial response primes emotions.
I'll give you an example of the kinds of experiments that people are doing now. You give people a pencil, and have them watch cartoons. First, they watch with a pencil in their mouths horizontally, and then with a pencil in their mouths sticking straight out. And they are rating how funny the cartoons are. Cartoons are a lot funnier if you have a pencil in your mouth horizontally, than if you have the pencil sticking straight out. Nothing has been mentioned about mood or anything else. You are creating a facial shape that is the shape of a smile, or more of a frowning shape. That influences emotions.
A famous experiment being done is, you give people an earphone. This is supposed to be an experiment on the evaluation of the technical quality of earphones‚ and you say, "We want to know how those earphones respond to different movements", and you have people listen to messages, persuasive messages of various kinds, while either they're told either to nod their heads, or they're told to shake their heads. Big effect. You nod, the message looks more believable. You shake your head, the message is less believable.
What you get is, it seems as if everything is interconnected, and is interconnected in a very coherent way so that you should see what the biological significance of this must be. The biological significance is that you are prepared, and you're prepared in a funny sort of way. Why would the word "vomit" make you prepared for emergencies? But the word "vomit" triggers a readiness to flee or fight. It's a threat, and you're responding to it as a threat, and you're responding pretty specifically, which is you are prepared for certain kinds of bad things that are related to that threat more than you are prepared to react to threats in general. It's specific, and it's internally coherent.
You get those strangers when it could go any differently, because there have been hundreds of those experiments, and some of those are pretty huge. You mention the library, and you measure that‚which you should have done last night, if you were complaining about your too loud neighbors‚you mentioned the library, and it softens people's voices.
What you get from this is a sense of where the control of behavior is, and the control of behavior isn't where we think it is. All behavior turns out to be a lot more controlled by the environment.