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

SpaceX catches Falcon Heavy nosecone with net-outfitted boat

It marks another milestone in SpaceX's long-standing effort to make spaceflight cheaper.

Technology & Innovation
  • SpaceX launched Falcon Heavy into space early Tuesday morning.
  • A part of its nosecone – known as a fairing – descended back to Earth using special parachutes.
  • A net-outfitted boat in the Atlantic Ocean successfully caught the reusable fairing, likely saving the company millions of dollars.
Keep reading Show less

Are these 100 people killing the planet?

Controversial map names CEOs of 100 companies producing 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

Image: Jordan Engel, reused via Decolonial Media License 0.1
Strange Maps
  • Just 100 companies produce 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gases.
  • This map lists their names and locations, and their CEOs.
  • The climate crisis may be too complex for these 100 people to solve, but naming and shaming them is a good start.
Keep reading Show less

‘Climate apartheid’: Report says the rich could buy out of climate change disaster

The world's richest people could breeze through a climate disaster – for a price.

(Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new report from a United Nation expert warns that an over-reliance on the private sector to mitigate climate change could cause a "climate apartheid."
  • The report criticizes several countries, including the U.S., for taking "short-sighted steps in the wrong direction."
  • The world's poorest populations are most vulnerable to climate change even though they generally contribute the least to global emissions.
Keep reading Show less