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.

Nietzsche and the Parable of the Talents

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. (Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth And Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense.)

I think most philosophers will be familiar with this famous essay by Nietzsche deflating our conception of truth into a kind stripped metaphor. This idea that words are like coins who have gotten so old and rubbed clean that they count only as weights of metal and not as coins captures the ways in which the etymologies of words can surprise and delight us, and give us an understanding of our history–and ultimately of human meanings–that we have not previously explored.

Yet it has always seemed to me that there was a direct reference hidden in these lines–almost certainly a well-known one that Nietzsche the philologist would have been expecting us to catch. The coins that become mere metal complete a transformation that began in the Gospel of Matthew, in the “parable of the talents.” The word “talent” in modern English means a natural skill or aptitude. It’s a term for innate competence or mastery. Yet for the Greeks it was a unit of measure, and for the Romans it was a unit specifically used for the measure of currency. How did this odd “worn out metaphor” come about?

In the parable, Jesus depicts a master leaving on a long trip: he leaves different sums of money to three different servants. When he returns, those with the most money had invested it. The servant with the least money had merely preserved the original loan. So the richer servants hand over increased wealth, while the poorest merely returns the principle. The master punishes the servant for not investing as the richer servants had done.

It gets worse:

But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

On their own, these lines from Matthew seem to be advocating for a kind of “success theology,” by which God demands that we grow rich or suffer punishment. If nothing else, it supports usury and interest-bearing loans, which the Church forbade.

But this passage is followed by a list of commandments that seem utterly at odds with the claim that “Them that’s got shall have/Them that’s not shall lose/So the Bible says/And it still is news” as Ella Fitzgerald sang. Thus the passage–or perhaps the compositor–already begins the transition in the meaning of the word (we see the same in Luke, but the term there is “mina,” which didn’t receive the same development.) How do we save the passage from the explicit reading?

As early as Augustine, the passage has been interpreted as an allegory: since the direct meaning is offensive and at odds with what follows, the implicit meaning must be otherwise. Augustine saw it as a passage on salvation, and not wasting the opportunity it supplies. Later commentators analogized the talents to God-given abilities, and later still we find ordinary language mentions of “talents” without the connection to the Biblical text, including the success theology idea.

But back to Nietzsche: it seems to me obvious that Nietzsche is referencing this particular history in his account of the coins returned to metal once again. How odd that we would embed meanings in innocent words, and have later generations read them back out again? We’re doing that all the time, at many different levels, mobilizing that army of metaphors in a way that takes crystallized human relations as if they were merely for expressing banal observations about the color of snow.

I call it “deflationist.” Nietzsche makes an effort to reduce Christian allegories to their constituent parts, to take all meanings and make them mere patterns of behavior, all while spinning out more allegories, parables, and poetic embellishments. In particular, explorations of metaphysics become etymological explorations into the play of metaphors. In a future post, I hope to detail the ways in which Hannah Arendt picks up this metaphysical deflation in her own work, and try to specify what it means for her conception of truth.