A Theory of Moral Sentiments in the Era of Facebook

Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is a fascinating read in moral philosophy. A few pages in, you get the sense that Adam Smith was very much not who you heard about in undergrad.* For a long version of my take on this, see here. One of Smith’s most interesting arguments, for me, was the connection between sympathy and ambition. Specifically, Smith argues in section III, ch. 2, “Of the origin of Ambition and the distinction of Ranks” that:

“It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow that we make parade of our riches and conceal our poverty. … [I]t is chiefly from this regard to the sentiments of mankind, that we pursue riches and avoid poverty.”

So, because we prefer to sympathize with happy, successful people, and not major downers, we end up pursuing riches and avoiding poverty. Sympathy breeds self-interest.

What struck me this morning was how this plays out on Facebook. A friend of mine posted about an ill relative and I was struck by the desire to say something, express some generic emotion. But how? Smith thought mankind was “disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy” back in the 18th century. Facebook has taken that disposition and encoded it technologically. Every time a friend posts a happy status update, a funny story, etc., you can “like” the post, easily expressing your positive sympathies. No equivalent feature lets you so readily express generic sympathy with unhappy updates. Facebook has channeled our expressions of sympathy, reinforcing a trend Adam Smith saw 250 years ago.

Now, you could say, ‘just write some generic platitude and move on!’ There are certainly plenty of handy expressions floating around for expressing sympathy with a negative outcome (i.e. “scripts”, think of Get Well Soon cards). But somehow, Facebook “likes” have made such generic expressions of joy more insincere seeming, while the asymmetry highlights how useless and invasive it feels to say something generically sympathetic on a negative status (especially to a friend who is only a weak tie, so to speak). Also, to all my friends with sick relatives this morning (as sadly that set is non-singular today), well, pretend I clicked the “I’m here for you” and “I’m so sorry” buttons.

* Schumpeter referred to the apparent tension between Smith’s selfish rational individual in Wealth of Nations, and the sympathy driven individual of Moral Sentiments as “Das Adam Smith Problem.” I agree with others, like Gavin Kennedy, who don’t think there is as much a contradiction as a systematic misreading of Wealth, which doesn’t really rely on a selfish individual.


Keynes QOTD: 99 Problems but Benthamite Utility Ain’t One

Earlier this week, I came across an interesting speech delivered by John Maynard Keynes to, of all people, the Eugenics Society in 1937. The speech, titled Some Economic Consequences of a Declining Population, argues that a declining population may not result in economic growth. While declining population does stem the Malthusian pressures that worried most demographers, Keynes argues that these declines may also lead to unemployment as businesses (failing to predict the decline in demand resulting from a smaller population) over-invest and thus produce a glut of goods and services, leading to a period of high unemployment and declining standards of living. Keynes summarizes his argument:

When devil P. of Population is chained up, we are free of one menace; but we are more exposed to the devil U. of Unemployed Resources than we were before. (523)

Keynes rests this argument on what we might anachronistically* call a “behavioural economics” model – the inability of business to accurately predict the reduced demand arising from a declining population. This inability connects to the larger tendency of predictions of the future to look too much like the present. Keynes abstracts from this a critique of marginal utility and rational maximizer-style models of human behavior that became dominant in the 19th century:

…in the nineteenth century… they accepted an extraordinary contraption of the Benthamite School, by which all possible consequences of alternative courses of action were supposed to have attached to them, first a number expressing their comparative advantage, and secondly another number expressing the probability of their following from the course of action in question; so that multiplying together the numbers attached to all the possible consequences of a given action and adding the results, we could discover what to do. In this way a mythical system of probable knowledge was employed to reduce the future to the same calculable status as the present. No one has ever acted on this theory. But even today I believe that our thought is sometimes influenced by some such pseudo-rationalistic notions. (518)

I wonder, much more anachronistically and provocatively, if Keynes is advancing a bit of a performativity thesis: rational actor models have never been accurate descriptions of human behavior, but they were (and are) influential in producing agents that try very hard to calculate the future in terms of the model (and just the assumption that the future will resemble the present), for better or for worse.

* Though not too anachronistically, as the contemporary behavioral economics movement is in part inspired by Keynes, e.g. the borrowing of Keynes’ phrase “Animal Spirits” for the title of Akerlof and Shiller’s book on behavioral economics.

Yes, it really is all about culture.

The Freakonomics Blog has a shockingly humble post today, given their reputation and universalizing tendencies, about cultural variation in response to various psychological experiments. I should probably read the underlying paper first, but I wanted to get a thought out before doing so. The paper, as reported by Ayres on the blog, examines cross-cultural variation in responses to various deviations from rationality, broadly-construed. For example, one classic experiment uses a visual illusion to trick respondents into thinking two lines are not of equal length, and then varies the lengths until respondents believe them to be equal. It turns out that for respondents from some cultures, the illusion basically fails – they start off seeing the two lines as equal. Ayres also reports on variation in how participants play the “Dictator Game” and similar game-theoretic experiments, where participants have to share resources to maximize social (but not individual) benefits.

The conclusion drawn from the study, according to Ayres, is that we moderns are “WEIRD”:

The article, “The Weirdest People in the World” (ungated working paper), has the startling thesis that social scientists in trying to investigate basic psychology may have erred by oversampling outlier populations. The “Weirdest People” of the title are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. (The cuteness of the title is not one of the article’s strengths.) But the idea that “we” are the exotics usefully jars one from complacency.

Ok, nice, clever title and backronym. But I think it might be misleading, and might unintentionally reinforce the exact tendency the paper attempts to dispel. To argue from a set of responses to a certain set of experiments is to privilege those experimental results over all the experiments we did not run, and thus universalize them as the standard against which to measure deviation. In other words, this paper shows that the educated rich West is full of people who answer the most extreme on a particular set of measures. But why are those measures interesting? Only because we, until recently, thought they described universal problems in perception or rationality! Are we actually outliers because we have the most extreme responses to these games? Or do we look to these experiments because they are among the set of experiments for which Westerners are prone to give the most extreme answers?

One last way of saying it: assuming for a second that the results hold, and that people from the Kalahari desert see two lines as equal that we see as unequal, then we can guess that someone from the Kalahari trying to understand errors in perception would never have bothered asking anyone about those two lines – there would literally have been nothing interesting to see. Our methods are just as social, cultural, whatever you want to call it, as the variations in the findings from those methods. Turtles, all the way down.

Now I suppose I should read the paper and see if they make the same point.

EDIT: I read through some of the results and conclusions. I think Ayres’ summary is decent, but the authors both do and do not address the issues raised above. For example, from the discussion section:

The empirical foundation of the behavioral sciences comes principally from experiments with American undergraduates. The patterns we have identified in the available (albeit limited) data indicate that this sub-subpopulation is highly unusual along many important psychological and behavioral dimensions. It is not merely that researchers frequently make generalizations from a narrow subpopulation. The concern is that this particular subpopulation is highly unrepresentative of the species. The fact that WEIRD people are the outliers in so many key domains of the behavioral sciences may render them one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about Homo sapiens. (Henrich et al. 2010: 79)

I really like the overall tone of the study, especially the critique of psychology for ignoring or downplaying cross-cultural variation and for jumping to evolutionary origins for results that don’t hold up across groups. While I readily agree with the claim that we shouldn’t jump to cross-cultural or species-wide conclusions based on data from one group, I think jumping to the conclusion that rich Westerners are especially WEIRD falls into the trap of privileging our measures for weirdness, which are in turn based on precisely those deviations that we previously identified studying the people we now think are weird. Henrich et al. come close to this point:

Relying on WEIRD populations may cause researchers to miss important dimensions of variation, and devote undue attention to behavioral tendencies that are unusual in a global context. There are good arguments for choosing topics that are of primary interest to the readers of the literature (i.e., largely WEIRD people); however, if the goal of the research program is to shed light on the human condition, then this narrow, unrepresentative sample may lead to an uneven and incomplete understanding. We suspect that some topics such as self-enhancement, cognitive dissonance, fairness, and analytic reasoning might not have been sufficiently interesting to justify in-depth investigation for most humans at most times throughout history. Alternatively, the behavioral sciences have shown a rather limited interest in such topics as kinship, food, ethnicity (not race), religion, sacred values, polygamy, animal behavior, and rituals (for further critiques on this point, see Rozin 2001; Rozin et al. 2006). Had the behavioral sciences developed elsewhere, important theoretical foci and central lines of research might likely look very different (Medin & Bang 2008). (2010: 80)

That discussion comes close to (and is fair more coherent than) my discussion above. It’s an excellent start, but I think it still casts puzzles in terms derived from WEIRD populations, and I’m not sure I see a way past that. And given that it’s only one paragraph out of a paper whose overall theme is more similar to the first quote (from p79), I can see how it would easily get lost in translation and simplification.

In conclusion, a really interesting paper that raises lots of troubling issues about human nature and how we jump to conclusions whenever we think we’ve measured it.

The Interdependence of Irrelevant Alternatives

I don’t understand psychology. I’ve never studied it formally, and have read only a few popular books written by psychologists (e.g. Daniel Gilbert’s excellent Stumbling on Happiness). Not understanding psychology is one of the reasons I like being a sociologist – our explanations act on a different level, a level I feel more comfortable with (although at times it’s awkward to avoid a bit of psychologizing). When I’m trying to understand microeconomics and its critiques, however, I have to engage a bit more with that kind of work – rationality, what that means, deviations from it, the whole behavioral turn in economics. One of my favorite “deviations” is the violation of the axiom of “independence of irrelevant alternatives” (IIA). IIA says that if you prefer A to B when you don’t have option C, then you will still prefer A to B when you do have option C. So, if you have a choice between salad and soup and you choose soup, and then the waiter says, “But wait, you could also have fries!” you won’t then decide to have the salad. There’s some experimental work that shows people do precisely this (although not particularly often, if I recall correctly) but I’d never really encountered it in my own life…

Until tonight. As a bit of back story, in undergrad I spent a lot of time wishing I had more to do on Saturday nights. My first year, I didn’t meet a lot of people except through my older siblings, and for some reason I was never involved in their Saturday activities (perhaps because I didn’t really drink then, or go to bars). So I’d always end up in my dorm, failing to get work done, and mindlessly clicking away at some video game. I’m sure most of us have nights like that – where you don’t have anything to do, but wish you did, and can’t get anything done because of it. Things have improved in the last few years, and tonight (a Tuesday!) many of my friends gathered at our usual pub – affectionately nicknamed the Winchester. I realized early on that I just wasn’t feeling it (getting over a cold, didn’t sleep much, etc.), and decided to head home early to read a good book. What’s fascinating (to me anyway) is that the existence of the option to go out makes me feel completely differently about staying home. Even though, tonight, I prefer home to going out, the possibility of being out and actively electing the opposite means that I will likely get much more done and be happier doing it (much as I would have probably elected to stay home rather than going to a frat party or a skeezy bar freshman year). It’s not a perfect example, as there are only two choices involved and the second choice is changing the value of the first not the choice elected, but I think it fits the general idea.

Speaking of which, I should go read. And sleep. And get over this expletive deleted cold.

Archimedes, McDonough and “Nudge”

Archimedes famously said, “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.” I think about that quote a lot, along with two or three others, when I think about the problems of standing outside a system and looking down on it, trying to affect it – for example, in thinking about Gramsci and Althusser and the problem of trying to get outside ideology. If only I had a place to stand, then, then, I could See Things As They Really Are ™, and, Archimedes style, move them. The problem, as Althusser and others realized, is that there is nowhere to stand outside of the system, no privileged position or fixed point (to invoke another physics metaphor). Or, to reappropriate a phrase from Cradle to Cradle, “Away has gone away.”

Ok, so where am I going with this? There’s a new line of thinking, derivative from behavioral economics and embodied in the works of Thaler and Sunstein, called “libertarian paternalism”. Libertarian paternalists argue that because humans are prone to make certain decisions not so rationally, it makes sense for governments or other organizational authorities to nudge them in different directions while not actually taking away any formal rights – hence, libertarian but paternalist. The classic example is opt-in vs. opt-out decisions on retirement plans or organ donation (Kieran Healy has written on some of the issues with the organ donation example). Here’s the philosophical/empirical justification for Thaler and Sunstein’s move: 

‘NUDGE – Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness,’ by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein – Review – NYTimes.com:

The main insight from which Thaler and Sunstein proceed is that no decision setting is “neutral.” Whether it’s a restaurant laying out food or a business offering its employees a list of mutual funds in its 401(k) plan or the government presenting different Medicare options, whoever presents choices must frame them in some way. And the framing will affect the decisions. Even “small and apparently insignificant details can have major impacts on people’s behavior,” the authors write. Some ways of presenting the choices may give a gentler “nudge” than others, and we may think some settings are neutral only because we’re so used to them. But whoever is presenting the choices will inevitably bias decisions, in one direction or another.

As a result, Thaler and Sunstein argue, many of the familiar arguments for why people should simply be left to make choices on their own, and especially for why government should stay strictly out of the way, have little practical force. In many important areas of choice that matter both to the individual and to the rest of us (for example, when overuse of medical care drives up our insurance premiums and our taxes), the operative question is not whether to bias people’s decisions, but in which direction.

So, I love the first line – no decision setting is neutral. There’s no away, no outside, no context-free room where the real, underlying abstract preferences can be observed. Every detail has some effect on our choices – even if, in Callon’s terms, we do not actively calculate using those little details.

And yet, the last line bothers me immensely: “the operative question is not whether to bias people’s decisions, but in which direction.” Bias from what? Those abstract, unobservable, cannot exist in any setting, preferences? If something cannot even in theory be observed, then in what sense does it exist? And if stable, abstract preferences don’t exist, then in what sense are you introducing a ‘bias’?

I feel like all of our langauge for talking about these problems is off. The basic realization of “Nudge” is that decision-making (or, better, action at all) is highly interdependent with the environment, and even slight shifts in the environment can lead to very different decisions. So governments and other organizations must ask, what kind of decision-making environments do we want to craft, given some desired outcome? The question is, how do we wish to exercise what Simon and March (I believe) called “unobtrusve control”, since there is no other option.

Ok, so to sum up – you can’t bias something that doesn’t exist. You can exercise power through relationships though, and indeed you have no choice but to do so. All of our actions are consequential for the actions of other actors, although some are more consequential than others. Hooray Foucault.

The Problem With (Revealed) Preferences – Schelling vs. Varian

One of the most interesting aspects of economics, to me, is the model of humanity it puts forward and claims as (nearly, perhaps) universal. Homo economicus has both normative and positive aspects, depending on the particular author, model and time period. I am particularly interested in those claims that seem innocuous but actually elide much of the nuance of human behavior.

From Homo Economicus to Homo Genomicus? Free Will vs. Your DNA

Fans of musicals will most likely remember the endearing West Side Story song, “Gee, Officer Krupke”. In the song, the juvenile delinquent Jets explain to the forces of the law that their delinquency is not their own fault but rather, as the pretend psychologist says, “Society’s played him a terrible trick, And sociologic’ly he’s sick!”* With this song, The West Side Story (unintentionally, we can assume) enters headlong into one of the most pernicious and annoying debates in the social sciences – structure vs. agency.

The form of this debate goes along lines something like this: Someone argues that a large structure of society (class, caste, etc.) determines the behavior of those people enmeshed in that structure. Someone else argues that, wait, you’ve forgotten agency! People have free will, don’t they? If they didn’t, why would there ever be deviation, innovation, or resistance? And the argument sallies forth from there, arguing about the relative importance of particular structures, mobilizing other structures to explain residual variation (for example, explaining the actions of women of color as some sort of interaction between the two structures of race and gender), etc.
In this post, I’m going to talk about various notions of responsibility, agency and determinism. Terms are usually poorly defined, and often the level of analysis varies widely between the two arguments (trying to explain societal level outcomes vs. trying to explain individual decision-making, for example).

I personally find the whole argument a little baffling. As much as class or gender are not the most rigorous of scientific concepts (compared to, say, the electron), they are still miles apart from ‘agency’ or ‘free will’ in the commonsense usage. What role can free will play in an explanation of society? Why does the argument “you’ve forgotten agency!” still play so well in these circles? One reason, I think, for the continued persistence of this argument has to do with enduring enlightenment ideas of free will and rationality. And that brings us to homo economicus, at least momentarily.

Blasts From Research Past: “Economists Free Ride, Does Anyone Else?”

Reading through an excellent 2005 paper by Ferraro, Pfeffer and Sutton* on the way that social science theories in general, and economic theories in particular, can make themselves true when previously they were not, I came across a fabulous social psychology article they cited. The 1981 article, Economists Free Ride, Does Anyone Else?, by Marwell and Ames (M&A) analyzes the results of 11 different variations on a single experiment involving the provisioning of a public good. The experiment was designed to maximize the likelihood of free riding – participants were given detailed explanation several times about the options for the investment of a small amount of tokens (worth a few pennies each, depending on the experiment) into either a collective or individual fund, such that investing 100% into the collective fund produced the maximal total payout.