Resisting the Fatalism of the Behavioral Revolution

I love Peter Levine’s latest post, “don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic.”

“Tversky’s and Kahneman’s revolutionary program spread across the behavioral sciences and constantly reveals new biases that are predictable enough to bear their own names. […] These phenomena are held to be deeply rooted in the cognitive limitations of human beings as creatures who evolved to hunt-and-gather in small bands on African plains. Not only has the burgeoning literature on cognitive biases challenged rational market models in economics, but it undermines the “folk theory” of democracy taught in civics textbooks and widely believed by citizens and pundits.”

I think Levine captures something important about the literature on cognitive biases and heuristics: that they tend to put people in labs and poke them in such a way as to show the ways in which individuals are prone to mistakes. Yet this is widely known, and many of the worst mistakes to which individuals are prone are things we have developed solutions for in ordinary life.

“Behavioral science would have predicted the demise of the independent newspaper–but about a century too soon. In fact, “the press” (reporters, editors, journalism educators, and others) sustained the newspaper as a tool for overcoming human cognitive limitations for decades.”

As such, the lab work undermines methodological individualism but doesn’t actually help us understand communities of inquiry or institutions of knowledge-production. We are extended minds, always dependent on cognitive “prosthetics.” We depend on watches and newspapers and Google and our friends to remember and process information. And yet I think Levine is perhaps too optimistic about the possibilities of “prosthetics.” (One of Levine’s finer qualities is that he regularly make “too optimistic” seem realistic in retrospect.)

I think we should especially push on the idea that journalism is or has been a solution to cognitive limitations. The golden age of journalism was a short period of time marked by very low elite disagreement on major issues as they joined forces against communism and to first suppress–and then manage–the Civil Rights revolution for women and Black people. This cynical potted history of the trustworthy news ignores much–but so does the optimistic one.

I’ve always thought that the main power of the “behavioral” revolution was to give scientific precision and credence to insights from earlier philosophy, political theory and psychology, as well as parsing the size of effects and the disagreements between cliches that would often emerge. So sure: you can find a lot of Tversky and Kahneman in Francis Bacon, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Friedrich Nietzsche, but you can also find a lot in those authors that has been overturned or rendered more carefully in later work.

And the big insights about democracy’s weaknesses–the ones that go back to Plato and Aristotle–those didn’t go away in the middle of the 20th Century. They were perhaps suppressed by the Cold War abroad and the race war here at home, but something big happened when the demographic models for redistricting got an order of magnitude better in 2010 than they had been in 2000. And those models are just getting better.

What’s more, the behavioral revolution can also be used for good: I’ve repeatedly defended these insights when applied to criminal justice, for instance. And one of the most famous “cognitive bias” studies come not from the lab but from the real world. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso showed that:

“experienced parole judges in Israel granted freedom about 65 percent of the time to the first prisoner who appeared before them on a given day. By the end of a morning session, the chance of release had dropped almost to zero.

After the same judge returned from a lunch break, the first prisoner once again had about a 65 percent chance at freedom. And once again the odds declined steadily.”

This is the kind of thing that we might have suspected before. Any professor with a stack of papers to grade might have suspected they were more lenient after dinner, for instance. But this is definitive, real world proof of a problematic bias, a result of the behavioral revolution.

Ironically, it doesn’t actually make me very fatalistic: it gives me hope. I hope that Israeli judges are reading this and worrying about it. I hope they are taking snacks to work. I hope that parole lawyers everywhere are taking note of these facts and acting to protect their clients from these biases. New information about our cognitive limitations doesn’t have to make us hopeless. And really, that’s Levine’s point.

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