Goodbye to rational economic man

A few weeks ago a Very Important Policymaker recommended Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings to me. It’s a fascinating book, and fascinating to know as well that at least one important policy organisation is taking decision-making so very seriously.

Gut Feelings: Short Cuts to Better Decision Making

At first glance, this book is in the vein of the many behavioural psychology books that have so interested economics in recent years – for me Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is the best. Jan Zilinsky posted a great list of them on Quora. The book discusses some similar issues, such as biases and framing. However, it also poses a challenge to the behavioural consensus, which always presents actual decision-making as a departure from the ideal of rational calculation. The aim of ‘nudging’ is to make people choose in ways that mimic rational economic man. What Gigerenzer argues is that the reliance on intuitive (fast) decision-making is often optimal: it not only saves on the energy needed for calculation, it also produces better outcomes than rational calculation.

For example, if asked to say which of Detroit or Milwaukee has the bigger population, Americans will be more often wrong than Europeans who don’t know the answer but have probably heard of Detroit – they rely on a recognition rule-of-thumb (if you’ve heard of it, it’s more important), whereas Americans who recognise both try to figure it out from other knowledge they have about the two cities. In an uncertain environment, it is better not to have full information – complex detail is good for explaining with hindsight but not for prediction. Some lack of knowledge is optimal -to take advantage of the recognition heuristic.  “In an uncertain world a complex strategy can fail exactly becaue it explains too much in hindsight. Only part of the information is valuable for the future, and the art of intuition is to focus on that part and ignore the rest,” Gigerenezer writes.

He describes a number of rules of thumb based on ‘evolved capacities’ such as language, recognition, object tracking,  memory, and emotions. These have come about because of both natural selection and cultural transmission. Using a rule of thumb requires two processes – in this example, recognition followed by evaluation – should it be applied to the present situation. The book spends a good deal of time on the recognition heuristic, which it sees as being behind the prevalence of brand advertising. Strong brands cause the recognition rule of thumb to kick in. Gigerenzer argues that this means, “If consumers can only tell the difference between competing brands by name, then there is little economic justificaiton for the idea that more choice is always better.” I admit to being intuitively resistant to this idea, but it obviously deserves careful thought.

The book also insists that we can’t analyse behaviour only with reference to personality or psychology – environment matters too. They are the two blades of the pair of scissors. This means there is great variability in human behaviour, something social scientists certainly ought to embrace. However, much economics looks for universally and permanently valid models. Here, my intuition is with Gigerenzer; our analysis needs to become far more context specific, looking at history and geography, and the interplay between economics and politics.

Gut Feelings is very clearly written and thought-provoking. I commend it to anybody interested in decision making and behavioural economics.

i also recommend my plane reading earlier this week, a rip roaring thriller set in the dysfunctional capitalism of modern Russia, Martin Baker’s Version 13. I can see the movie  in my mind’s eye.

Version Thirteen

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  1. Pingback: Welcoming the overlords | The Enlightened Economist

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