A problem in the world or a problem in the model

In reviewing Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project, John Kay writes:

Since Paul Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis, published in 1947, mainstream economics has focused on an axiomatic approach to rational behaviour. The overriding requirement is for consistency of choice: if A is chosen when B is available, B will never be selected when A is available. If choices are consistent in this sense, their outcomes can be described as the result of optimisation in the light of a well-defined preference ordering.

In an impressive feat of marketing, economists appropriated the term “rationality” to describe conformity with these axioms. Such consistency is not, however, the everyday meaning of rationality; it is not rational, though it is consistent, to maintain the belief that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden in spite of all evidence to the contrary. …

… In the 1970s, however, Kahneman and Tversky began research that documented extensive inconsistency with those rational choice axioms.

What they did, as is common practice in experimental psychology, was to set puzzles to small groups of students. The students often came up with what the economics of rational choice would describe as the “wrong” answer. These failures of the predictions of the theory clearly demand an explanation. But Lewis—like many others who have written about behavioural economics—does not progress far beyond compiling a list of these so-called “irrationalities.”

This taxonomic approach fails to address crucial issues. Is rational choice theory intended to be positive—a description of how people do in fact behave—or normative—a recommendation as to how they should behave? Since few people would wish to be labelled irrational, the appropriation of the term “rationality” conflates these perspectives from the outset. Do the observations of allegedly persistent irrationality represent a wide-ranging attack on the quality of human decision-making—or a critique of the economist’s concept of rationality? The normal assumption of economists is the former; the failure of observation to correspond with theory identifies a problem in the world, not a problem in the model. Kahneman and Tversky broadly subscribe to that position; their claim is that people—persistently—make stupid mistakes.

I have seen many presentations with an opening line of “economists assume we are rational”, quickly followed by conclusions about poor human decision-making, the two being conflated. More often than not, it’s better to ignore economics as a starting point and to simply examine the evidence for poor decision making. That evidence is, of course, much richer – and debatable – than a simple refutation of the basic economics axioms.

One of those debates concerns the Linda problem. Kay continues:

Take, for example, the famous “Linda Problem.” As Kahneman frames it: “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which of the following is more likely? ‘Linda is a bank teller,’ ‘Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.’”

The common answer is that the second alternative—that Linda is more likely to be a feminist bank teller than a bank teller—is plainly wrong, because the rules of probability state that a compound probability of two events cannot exceed the probability of either single event. But to the horror of Kahneman and his colleagues, many people continue to assert that the second description is the more likely even after their “error” is pointed out.

But it does not require knowledge of the philosopher Paul Grice’s maxims of conversation—although perhaps it helps—to understand what is going on here. The meaning of discourse depends not just on the words and phrases used, but on their context. The description that begins with Linda’s biography and ends with “Linda is a bank teller” is not, without more information, a satisfactory account. Faced with such a narrative in real life, one would seek further explanation to resolve the apparent incongruity and, absent of such explanation, be reluctant to believe, far less act on, the information presented.

Kahneman and Tversky recognised that we prefer to tell stories than to think in terms of probability. But this should not be assumed to represent a cognitive failure. Storytelling is how we make sense of a complex world of which we often know, and understand, little.

So we should be wary in our interpretation of the findings of behavioural economists. The environment in which these experiments are conducted is highly artificial. A well-defined problem with an identifiable “right” answer is framed in a manner specifically designed to elucidate the “irrationality” of behaviour that the experimenter triumphantly identifies. This is a very different exercise from one which demonstrates that people make persistently bad decisions in real-world situations, where the issues are typically imperfectly defined and where it is often not clear even after the event what the best course of action would have been.

Kay also touches on the more general criticisms:

Lewis’s uncritical adulation of Kahneman and Tversky gives no credit to either of the main strands of criticism of their work. Many mainstream economists would acknowledge that people do sometimes behave irrationally, but contend that even if such irrationalities are common in the basements of psychology labs, they are sufficiently unimportant in practice to matter for the purposes of economic analysis. At worst, a few tweaks to the standard theory can restore its validity.

From another perspective, it may be argued that persistent irrationalities are perhaps not irrational at all. We cope with an uncertain world, not by attempting to describe it with models whose parameters and relevance we do not know, but by employing practical rules and procedures which seem to work well enough most of the time. The most effective writer in this camp has been the German evolutionary psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, and the title of one of his books, Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart, conveys the flavour of his argument. The discovery that these practical rules fail in some stylised experiments tells us little, if anything, about the overall utility of Gigerenzer’s “fast and frugal” rules of behaviour.

Perhaps it is significant that I have heard some mainstream economists dismiss the work of Kahneman in terms not very different from those in which Kahneman reportedly dismisses the work of Gigerenzer. An economic mainstream has come into being in which rational choice modelling has become an ideology rather than an empirical claim about the best ways of explaining the world, and those who dissent are considered not just wrong, but ignorant or malign. An outcome in which people shout at each other from inside their own self-referential communities is not conducive to constructive discourse.

One comment

  1. The more I’m exposed to this argument, the more I’m struck by some wisdom expressed regarding the US in Afghanistan from Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’. (Following excerpt from NYTimes)

    ‘Toward the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a CIA officer played by the pitch-perfect Philip Seymour Hoffman cautions the Wilson character (played by Tom Hanks) not to be too sure they have done something glorious. To make the point, he tells the story of a Zen master who observes the people of his village celebrating a young boy’s new horse as a wonderful gift. “We’ll see,” the Zen master says. When the boy falls off the horse and breaks a leg, everyone says the horse is a curse. “We’ll see,” says the master. Then war breaks out, the boy cannot be conscripted because of his injury, and everyone now says the horse was a fortunate gift. “We’ll see,” the master says again.’

Comments welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s