I’ve been coming across these issues from several different directions lately, and I wanted to get the basic idea down without killing myself in the writing of it. So consider this a sketchy first draft.
The starting point is “behavioral economics,” also known as the “heuristics and biases” subfield of cognitive psychology. It’s associated with various studies of cognitive illusions, settings where people systematically mispredict uncertain events or make decisions. Within psychology, this work is generally accepted but with some controversy which could be summed up in the phrase, “Kahneman versus Gigerenzer,” but it’s my impression that in recent years there’s been a bit of a convergence: for Kahneman the glass is half-empty and for Gigerenzer the glass is half-full, but whether you’re talking about “heuristics and biases” or “fast and frugal decision making,” there’s been a focus on understanding how our brains use contextual cues to decide how to solve a problem.
In economics, this work is more disputed because it seems to be in head-on conflict with models of utility-maximizing rationality from the 1930s-50s associated with the theories of Neumann and others on economic decision making. While some economists have embraced so-called “behavioral” ideas to explain imperfect markets, other economists are (a) skeptical about the relevance to real-world high-stakes behavior of laboratory findings on cognitive illusions and (b) wary of the political implications of social engineers who want to use cognitive biases to “nudge” people toward behavior they otherwise wouldn’t have done.
Within economics, I’d say that the behavioral/classical debate roughly follows left/right lines: on the left are the behaviorists who say that individuals and firms are irrational and thus we should not trust the judgment of the markets, instead we should regulate and protect people from their irrationality. On the right are the classicists who hold that people are rational when it comes to real economic decisions and thus any interference in the market, whether from governments or labor unions, will tend to make things worse.
The conservative position has some difficulties when dealing with customs and culture and roles and various non-governmental constraints on economic behavior: from one sort of conservative perspective these are unnecessary restrictions on the economy, silly traditions that rule-breaking entrepreneurs will shatter; from another conservative perspective, these traditions represent collective wisdom and we should be wary of reformers who try to start anew without recognizing that traditions are traditions for a good reason. But for now I will set all this aside and focus on the question of behavioral economics.
Step aside from economics for a moment, though, and things look a little different. Instead of thinking of “heuristics and biases” or “behavioral economics” in opposition to simplistic models of rationality (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I see no reason why a long-discredited psychology model from the 1930s and 1940s should be taken as any sort of starting point for understanding human decision making; utility theory is, at best, one framework for such modeling), and put this work in a more general context of disparagement of human decision making.
To put it another way, think about “behavioral economics” not so much as “economics” but as “behavioral.” From a psychology point of view, behaviorism is a nearly century-old theory that was in many ways superseded by cognitive psychology. And, in many ways, “behavioral economics” is a sort of counter-revolution: it’s full of tropes under which people are doing things for irrational reasons, in which actions speak louder than words etc.
The full story here is complicated but one reason I think these ideas are popular in neoclassical economics is that they are, in some sense, anti-democratic. If people’s votes are determined based on the time of the menstrual cycle or on the outcomes of college football games, then elections are pretty silly, no? Which is an implicit argument in favor of lower taxes and more power for business, as compared to government (or, for that matter, unions).
This becomes particularly clear when we look at work along these lines in political science. If, for example, subliminal smiley faces have big effects on political attitudes, then this should cause us to think twice about how seriously to take such attitudes, no? Or if men’s views on economic redistribution are in large part determined by physical strength, or if women’s vote preferences are in large part determined by what time of the month it is, or if both sexes’ choice to associate with co-partisans is in large part determined by how they smell, then this calls into question a traditional civics-class view of the will of the people.
Luckily (or, perhaps, depending on your view, unluckily), the evidence for the empirical claims in the above paragraphs ranges from weak to nonexistent.
But my point is that there is a wave of research, coming from different directions, but all basically saying that our political attitudes are shallow and easily manipulated and thus, implicitly, not to be trusted. I don’t find this evidence convincing and, beyond this, I’m troubled by the eagerness some people seem to show to grab on to such claims, with their ultimately anti-democratic implications.
Let’s be clear here, though: I do have a dog in this fight, as the saying goes. In 1993, Gary King and I published an influential paper claiming that wide swings in the polls, swings that had often been taken as evidence of the capriciousness of voters or of their easily-manipulated nature, could be reinterpreted as evidence in favor of voters moving to their “enlightened preferences.” And then, more recently, David Rothschild, Sharad Goel, Doug Rivers and I updated this argument by providing evidence that some poll swings can be mostly explained by differential nonresponse without any large attitude changes. I’ve published work (with Aaron Edlin and Noah Kaplan) arguing why voting can be rational. And I’ve worked with Jeff Lax and Justin Phillips on their series of papers on the responsiveness of state legislators to state-level opinion. In my research I’ve been strongly committed, in many different ways, to the model in which voter preferences and attitudes should be taken seriously. So it would be fair enough to read my resistance to voters-are-influenced-by-irrelevant-stimuli arguments in that context. I’m providing you with my perspective, but I recognize that other perspectives are out there.
What I’m getting at is that I see a common thread in a lot of the counterintuitive, tabloid, Psychological-Science-type work out there, and that thread is a dismissal of human rationality and even human agency in the political (and, to some extent, the economic) arena. Here I’m speaking of “rationality” not in the limited sense of utility maximization but in the more general sense of thoughtful, purposeful decision making.
In the “Psychological Science” world, voters’ attitudes are determined by upper-body strength and the time of the month, their attitudes on important issues are influenced by meaningless subliminal stimuli, and their elections turn on the outcomes of late-October football games, and they flub any decisions involving uncertainty. Throw the words “Florida” and “bingo” at them and they walk slower, without even realizing why, they’re influenced by stereotype threat even without realizing it, and even their choice of clothing is not under their conscious control. Put it all together and you get a pre-cognitive conception of the citizen: not a man or woman who weighs the evidence, forms political views, and makes economic and political decisions, but a creature who is continually pushed to and fro by influences of which he or she is not even aware, an unstable product of hormones and the manipulators of political and social marketers, a sort of particle in the water being jostled by invisible Brownian forces.
Let me repeat that the evidence for many of these claims is weak, indeed I have the feeling that a lot of people want to believe in these things so they grab on to whatever “p less than .05” comparisons they find, and take them as representative of the general population, as scientific truth. On the other hand, I perhaps am coming from the opposite direction.
What I’m getting at is that there’s a political theme here, and also a scientific theme: I see a lot (although not all!) of this “behavioral” work as being behaviorist in the sense of being faithful to a pre-cognitive, and pre-modern conception of psychology.
The cognitive-psychology perspective, as I see it, is that we are thinking beings, and to the extent that we are influenced in irrational ways (whether by hormones, or subliminal marketing, or whatever), we mediate these influences through our thought processes. One reason I found the work of Cengiz Erisen so interesting (even while I disagreed with Larry Bartels’s more dramatic claims for the importance of that work) is that Erisen was not just treating his subliminal stimulus as a black box but rather was investigating how our conscious reasoning process might mediate the effects of a non-rational stimulus. In that particular case, the stimulus had no consistent effect on attitudes but I like the general approach of the study.