Better Behaved Behavioral Models

We often can’t rely on ourselves to act rationally (or prudently). We know this, but influential social science models have a bad habit of ignoring it. We evolved to frequently act without “deciding.” We are habit-formers and habit-farmers.

We often can’t rely on ourselves to act rationally (or prudently). We know this, but influential social science models have a bad habit of ignoring it. They need a more realistic role for “reason” in how our decisions and actions interact. We evolved to frequently act without “deciding.”

1. The widely used Rational Actor Model makes three assumptions: First, life is a stream of decisions, second we make them consciously (often calculatingly), and third, they lead us to act rationally.

2. That most self-improvement resolutions reliably fail (despite our consciously decided aims) is one of many demonstrations that those assumptions are all frequently false, is. Much of what we do isn’t consciously considered or calculated on the spot, and what we rationally know often doesn’t determine our actions.

3. The Rational Actor Model isn’t an action model; it’s a decision-model that ignores how we do much of what we do. It is fundamentally aspirational, under-empirical, and applies only in limited situations. Yet this “rationalist delusion” dominates economics and social policy.

4. Behavioral Economics—its name amusingly highlighting what’s been lacking—offers hope. Its discoveries (which we experience every day, but which un-behavioral economists typically ignore) include “cognitive biases” (assumed to be “systematic errors” in our “machinery of cognition”). This is progress, but it’s a near-reaching revolution (repairing the old rationalist clunker).

5. Better behavioral models should be, like us, habit driven. Our lives are often a stream of habitual actions (whose harvest we repeatedly reap on autopilot). We consciously decide only if that flow is interrupted. Thinking is expensive and reinventing cognitive or behavioral wheels is rarely productive, so we evolved to acquire second nature habits from others. Darwin said “much of the intelligent work done by man is due to imitation” not reason. We are habit-formers and habit-farmers.

6. Habits = behavioral tools enabling rapid action without costly conscious attention. Each habit can be modeled as a situational trigger with an action script. In triggering situations, they can be overruled, but only with conscious effort. Action scripts likely use rule of thumb style conditional logic-scripts, rather than cognitively unnatural numerical methods.

7. Habits can be rationally useful or irrationally unfit for a given situation. And cognitive biases could be bad cognitive habits—badly triggered action scripts—rather than built-in brain bugs. Especially since what is called rational, requires training.

8. We must be rational when habits are acquired, since later they will be repeated without deliberation. As Aristotle noted living well required “rational habits.”

Force of habit shapes our lives. Shouldn’t it also shape how our sciences model us? Especially those we build institutions on. Bring on the habitology (and habitonomics).


Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

A dark matter hurricane is crashing into Earth

Giving our solar system a "slap in the face"

Surprising Science
  • A stream of galactic debris is hurtling at us, pulling dark matter along with it
  • It's traveling so quickly it's been described as a hurricane of dark matter
  • Scientists are excited to set their particle detectors at the onslffaught
Keep reading Show less

Are we all multiple personalities of universal consciousness?

Bernardo Kastrup proposes a new ontology he calls “idealism” built on panpsychism, the idea that everything in the universe contains consciousness. He solves problems with this philosophy by adding a new suggestion: The universal mind has dissociative identity disorder.

We’re all one mind in "idealism." (Credit: Alex Grey)
Mind & Brain

There’s a reason they call it the “hard problem.” Consciousness: Where is it? What is it? No one single perspective seems to be able to answer all the questions we have about consciousness. Now Bernardo Kastrup thinks he’s found one. He calls his ontology idealism, and according to idealism, all of us and all we perceive are manifestations of something very much like a cosmic-scale dissociative identity disorder (DID). He suggests there’s an all-encompassing universe-wide consciousness, it has multiple personalities, and we’re them.

Keep reading Show less

California wildfires death toll climbs to 50

Firefighters in California are still struggling to contain several wildfires nearly one week after they broke out.

(Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Hundreds of people are still missing after three wildfires spread across Northern and Southern California last week.
  • 48 of the 50 deaths occurred after the Camp Fire blazed through the town of Paradise, north of Sacramento.
  • On Tuesday night, a fourth wildfire broke out, though it's mostly contained.
Keep reading Show less