Thursday, December 20, 2018

Kahneman and approaches to social science

This conversation with Daniel Kahneman is so great.

First of all, I love that he persistently pushes back against the notion that everything vaguely "behavioral" is a "bias". It's a terrible misconception of behavioral economics that we study the myriad ways in which people make bad decisions. Nonstandard preferences are not biases and many "biases" are sensible heuristics and error management strategies in disguise.
COWEN: Well, sports. You’re consuming bias, right? You don’t actually think your team is better.
KAHNEMAN: No, but you identify. There are emotions over which you have very little control. It’s a fact that you feel pride when your team wins. In fact, you feel pride if a stranger who lives on your street gets a prize. That tendency to identify with what’s around us, and with things that we are connected to, is very powerful. We derive a lot of emotion from it. I wouldn’t call that a bias because you can call any emotion a bias.
COWEN: If you think of the literature on what are called cognitive disabilities — ADHD — do you think of that as bias or somehow in a different logical category? Or . . . ?
KAHNEMAN: I don’t think it’s a bias, no. I think it’s an attention deficit. It means that people have difficulty controlling their attention, focusing on what they want to focus on, and staying focused. That’s neither bias nor noise.
COWEN: If you think about the issue of, when people think about the world, they find some kind of transactions repugnant. Sometimes they just don’t like to sell what they have. Other times, they seem to object to markets, say, in kidneys or kidney transplants. Do you view that as bias? Or where does that come from?
KAHNEMAN: In the sense that this is a norm, and there are things that we’re trained or socialized to find disgusting, to find repugnant. So there are repugnant transactions. And you have to treat them as you treat every other moral feeling. We have lots of moral feelings, things that we find unacceptable without any ability to really explain why they are unacceptable. There is such a thing as moral emotion. There is such a thing as indignation, as moral disgust. And that’s what we’re talking about here.
COWEN: A society such as Argentina that relies so heavily on psychoanalysis — as a psychologist, do you see that as bias? Is it a placebo? Is there a placebo effect in psychoanalysis?
KAHNEMAN: You seem to attribute . . . You seem to think that I think of bias all the time.
Secondly, I love Kahneman's unwillingness to speculate / unwillingness to engage in ex post rationalization. E.g.
COWEN: But the idea of attention-switching costs — so Israeli bus drivers, it takes time for them to switch attention from one event to another. Is that not an underlying micro foundation of your, say, 1980s papers on bias?
COWEN: That people aren’t switching their attention to the new problem?
KAHNEMAN: It’s not. We didn’t think of it. That really happens a great deal, and quite often, it happens in a different way. It happens when somebody’s insulted because you didn’t cite him. He looks at your work, and he says, “That’s just the same as what I’ve said before.” And in some way, it may be true. There may be some resemblance. It may be true, and yet you were completely uninfluenced by that. And it’s the same thing. I was uninfluenced by my earlier work, I think.
COWEN: Do you think of those in functionalist terms? Some people might argue, “Well, Israelis, they have a tendency to speak directly because they’ve had a lot of crisis situations, where you can’t beat around the bush. You need to say what you think.” Or we don’t know?
KAHNEMAN: I don’t like those kinds of explanations. They look facile to me.
COWEN: Do you have thoughts on the potential cognitive advantages of bilingualism or trilingualism?
KAHNEMAN: It’s an empirical matter. It’s not a matter of thinking. And I don’t know enough. It appears to be advantageous, but I don’t know the literature.
This approach, in contrast with a more freely speculative approach, reminds me of another issue I've thought a bit about. There's kind of a divide in behavioral economics (and economics more generally, but I'm going to write what I know best...) between what you might call the Matthew Rabin camp and the Ariel Rubinstein camp. The former says that economic theory is a slave to empirical results; regarding the evaluation of theories their motto would be Kahneman's great line "It's an empirical matter. It's not a matter of thinking." The latter says that economic theory consists of informative fables, regardless of empirics.

In my heart, I'm on team Rubinstein. I love math because it's beautiful and abstract and I honestly couldn't care less if it has anything to do with the world; I love economic theory because it's beautiful and clear and it teaches important lessons regardless of how it performs empirically in a particular situation. And in discussions like this one I'm more like a Camille Paglia (whose interview I also love), wildly theorizing from intuition and experience*, not because I think that's a valid way to go about producing knowledge but because it's at least a valid way to hypothesize and more importantly it's fun**.

But cognitively, as a scientist, I have to be on team Rabin. No matter how aesthetically pleasing a theory is, it doesn't mean anything if it isn't empirically useful. You can't think your way to the truth, even in the social sciences, and in these fields where it is so tempting to proceed on intuition, it's all the more important to insist on a rigorous scientific method.


* I realize there's more going on than wild speculation in the humanities, and that's what a lot of Paglia's theorizing is based on, but I can't tell the difference. The point is, don't take this characterization as a criticism of Paglia; I'm quite a fan, actually.

** Case in point: there's probably not a solid connection between interview style and scientific approach, but that isn't stopping me from analogizing freely.


koenfucius said...

Hey Vera, super post: it voices many thoughts I had too when listening to this conversation earlier today!
Just one small typo (or rather a Freudian slip :-)j that will probably throw (or have thrown) other readers—when you say team Ariely, you probably mean team (Ariel) Rubinstein, given the context.
, koenfucius

Vera said...

Oh my gosh, that's a hilarious typo/slip! Thanks for pointing it out; fixed :)