Saturday, July 19, 2008

Social Psychology Revolution Reaching a Tipping Point?

From The Times Online, an interesting look at the re-emergence of social psychology.
The social psychology revolution is reaching its tipping point
Go and look in your bookshop: new thinking is seeping into politics

By Daniel Finkelstein

It took a long time. Longer than it should have. But in the end, the penny dropped.

Back in the 1980s, Tony Blair, a junior Shadow minister, was sitting quietly with his constituency agent, John Burton, when he suddenly exclaimed: “You know, John, I understand it all. Finally, I've got it.” When Burton asked him what he was talking about, Blair triumphantly replied: “Microeconomics!”

Twenty years later the remark seems charmingly naive. Could a Labour spokesman with an economic portfolio really have been so pleased to understand the basic ideas of supply and demand, pricing and competition? But at the time it was a considerable intellectual achievement for a politician of the Left, and it was to prove an important political moment too.

I wonder whether in a couple of decades' time, our own fumbling first acquaintance with new thinking will appear similarly amusing. For an intellectual revolution is under way that will change the way we think about public policy just as the free market economists did in the 1980s. I wonder whether one day soon a future party leader will turn round to his agent and say: “Finally, I've got it! Human behaviour.”

Hmmm . . . so you think we've got that figured out do ya? I wouldn't be so sure. Oh, but he's looking at books -- on evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics.

Those who doubt that there is something going on in the world of ideas should get themselves a publisher's catalogue. One month there is a book called Nudge, the next a book called Sway. A volume called Predictably Irrational follows another called Irrationality. Since the success of Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, books on tipping points have reached a tipping point.

Behind this publishing explosion, with its PR hoopla, is real and solid intellectual progress. It comes from two streams of thought, developing alongside each other. The first is the idea of evolutionary psychology.

The breakthrough came with E.O. Wilson's controversial work Sociobiology, first published in 1975. Since then a number of academics, including familiar names such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, have illuminated aspects of human behaviour by explaining how they arise from our Darwinian struggle. For example, we reciprocate favours because we are the genetic descendants of those who survived to breed because they reciprocated favours.

Why was this work controversial? Because it argued that behaviour is partly inherited, offending against those who believe that we are born completely free of such influence. As Pinker explains in his unmissable book The Blank Slate, the critics have really lost the battle, even if they haven't given up.

The second stream of thought is behavioural economics. For twenty years now, some economists have been looking at the psychology of economic decision-making. Instead of seeing humans as rational calculating machines, behavioural economists have been conducting experiments to assess how real choices are made. On paper, two alternatives may look economically identical. But the way that they are framed and the context will, in the real world, determine the choice. Human beings are, for instance, highly loss-averse. They will take risks to avoid a loss, while behaving conservatively when a possible gain is in the offing.

This work has revolutionised economic thinking and helped to win Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. This was the prize that Milton Friedman won in 1976, just before monetarism swept all before it.

All this does not overturn classical economics. It enriches our understanding of it. It suggests that there is such a thing as society and you can't understand the impact of policy on individuals unless you realise that. We are not just individuals. We abide by social norms, reciprocate favours, stick by our commitments, are desperate to remain consistent and are tribal.

Read the whole article.

Finkelstein seems hopeful that this new understanding, which still really is in its infancy, will intelligently inform political debate and policy. Not likely, at least not in this country -- maybe politicians on the other side of the pond are a bit more educated and dedicated to actually making intelligent policy.

Not so here. My guess is that people like Karl Rove will use these fields to figure out new ways to manipulate voters into selling themselves dowm the river. And worese, the marketers who are funding a lot of research in these areas will use it to sell us more shit we do not need.

Yeah, gotta love the science.

No comments: