The Economics of Hate, Desire, and the Moment

I wanted to say more about this essay, The Marketplace of Perceptions, by Craig Lambert, in Harvard Magazine, March-April 2006.

HOW ALTERNATIVES ARE PRESENTED DETERMINES OUR CHOICES AS MUCH OR MORE THAN THE ACTUAL VALUE WE GIVE TO THOSE ALTERNATIVES: As I mentioned in the previous post, the essay concerns the strong shaping force of human psychology in economic and other choices that have long been thought to be made completely (or mostly) rationally and always (or almost always) in the best interests of the chooser. Lambert cites research indicating that most people don’t evaluate the risks and rewards of their choices objectively, and that it’s the ways in which alternatives are framed, and not just their objective or even subjective worth, that heavily influence our decisions.

The example given is a proposal of two alternative programs to combat a hypothetical disease; in A, a projected 200 people will be saved; in B, there’s a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no one will be saved.

The vast majority of respondents (72%) chose A, even although the theoretical outcomes of the two programs are identical.

“Most subjects were risk averse, preferring the certain saving of 200 lives.” Then they ran it in reverse: with Program C, 400 people will die; with Program D, there is a 1/3 probability that no one will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die. This time, 78% of respondents chose D, which is theoretically the same as C.

“Respondents now preferred the risk-taking option. The difference was simply that the first problem phrased its options in terms of lives saved, and the second one as lives lost; people are more willing, apparently, to take risks to prevent lives being ‘lost’ than to ‘save’ lives.”

So if you can blind people with math, science, phraseology, or other facts and figures, they’re likely to choose irrationally.

PEOPLE OVERLY DISCOUNT THE FUTURE: Later, in a section called “The Seductive Now-Moment,” Lambert quotes behavioral economist David Laibson, who explains that, ‘There’s a fundamental tension, in humans and other animals, between seizing available rewards in the present, and being patient for rewards in the future. … It’s radically important. People very robustly want instant gratification right now, and want to be patient in the future. If you ask people, “Which do you want right now, fruit or chocolate?” they say, “Chocolate!” But if you ask, “Which one a week from now?” they will say, “Fruit.” Now we want chocolate, cigarettes, and a trashy movie. In the future, we want to eat fruit, to quit smoking, and to watch Bergman films.'”

MOMENTARY, TRANSITORY FACTORS OFTEN OUTWEIGH STATED VALUES AND LONG-TERM GOALS: Sendhil Mullainathan, who received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002 and who is working to improve the economic outlook in so-called developing countries, says:

‘We tend to think people are driven by purposeful choices …. We think big things drive big behaviors: if people don’t go to school, we think they don’t like school. Instead, most behaviors are driven by the moment. They aren’t purposeful, thought-out choices. That’s an illusion we have about others. Policymakers think that if they get the abstractions right, that will drive behavior in the desired direction. But the world happens in real time. We can talk abstractions of risk and return, but when the person is physically checking off the box on that investment form, all the things going on at that moment will disproportionately influence the decision they make.'”

VENGEANCE MOTIVATES HATE, VIOLENCE; AND, LEADERS AND OTHERS USE THIS FACT TO THEIR BENEFIT: The section on hatred is fascinating (and Girardian), too: “Edward Glaeser began using behavioral economic approaches to research the causes of group hatred that could motivate murderous acts of that type. ‘An economist’s definition of hatred,’ he says, ‘is the willingness to pay a price to inflict harm on others.’ … You don’t poke around in the dark recesses of human behavior and not find vengeance,’ Glaeser says. ‘It’s pretty hard to find a case of murder and not find vengeance at the root of it.'”

Glaeser also comments that ‘group-level hatred has its own logic that always involves stories about atrocities. These stories are frequently false. As [Nazi propagandist Joseph] Goebbels said, hatred requires repetition, not truth, to be effective. … This pushes us toward the crux of the model: politicians or anyone else will supply hatred when hatred is a complement to their policies.'”

PEOPLE ARE MUCH MORE LIKELY TO BE PERSUADED OF SOMETHING THAT’S CONSISTENT WITH WHAT THEY ALREADY BELIEVE: Depressingly for democracy and civil discourse, Andrei Shleifer notes that because successful persuasive messages are consistent with prevailing worldviews, someone hoping to persuade should definitely not try to educate, “which involves adding new information or correcting previous perceptions. … ‘Don’t tell people, “You are stupid, and here is what to think,”‘ Shleifer said. During presidential debates, he asserted, voters tune out or forget things that are inconsistent with their beliefs. ‘Educational messages may be doomed,’ he added. ‘They do not resonate.'”

IMO, this reluctance to be educated against what we already believe can be explained by at least two theories. One is the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, the discomfort felt when what we already know or believe is challenged by new information or a new interpretation. This discomfort occurs because we place more value on what we have invested heavily in or sacrificed most for, whether financially, physically, emotionally, etc., and if we have invested our identity, ego, etc., in our beliefs (if they define us), we will experience discomfort when our beliefs are called into question, because that’s tantamount to calling our identity into question.

The second way to explain this reluctance to be educated, and closely allied to it, is through Girardian anthropology: We learn (or “catch”) our desires from each other, but we don’t perceive or acknowledge that fact, each believing we and our desires are primary. From these “caught” desires, both concrete (J is seen as cool; I want J’s haircut, clothes, lifestyle, spouse) and abstract (my mother wants me to be the best; I want to be the best. Or, J is cool; I adopt J’s set of values, public causes, reckless behaviours, etc.) derive our beliefs, values, career choices, daily actions, ways of being, and in short, our identity, our self. We are very much products of “the other” but because that feels so random, so unoriginal, so uncontrollable, we cling tightly to the illusion of our own identity as primary, permanent, solid, and mine.

So we cling to our beliefs — e.g., that one electoral candidate or party is better than another, or that one side of an issue is right or wrong — with the hope of clinging to our identities.

And because the other is the unacknowledged rival to us in some way, whose existence threatens our perception of a solid, original self, we are prone to resist attempts by the other, this rivalous other, to change us, to influence us … without realizing consciously how much the other already has influenced us. By letting in only information that’s consistent with what we already believe, we “solidify” our sense of a self apart from other selves, original and whole.

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