How Wrong Can We Be?

Most models published in economic journals have a reasonable if loose match with human behavior.  If most published economic models says that in X-type situations people tend to do more Y, then more often than not, people in fact more often do Y when X.  This is evidence that economic theoryists actually know something about human behavior.

However, when you ask people in situation X why they do Y, the reasons they give usually have only a weak connection to the reasons in related economic models.  Yes people who have been taught economics can find it easy to explain their actions in economic model terms, but this is not how most folks usually think.  Thus the practice of academic economics implicitly accepts that people often, perhaps even usually, do things for reasons other than the reasons they give.

Consider also that something similar holds in sales and marketing.  The rationale a marketer gives for why an ad or other product strategy works usually differs quite a bit from the reasons people give for why they like an ad or a product.  Similarly, the reasons dating and other relation consultants give for why their suggested strategies help people like or respect you are often quite at odds with the reasons people give for why they like or respect others.

In addition, I just posted on how seeing the hidden status games in most conversations makes one a better actor, and on how psychotherapy is all about exposing our hidden-to-ourselves agendas.   Standard social science accounts of religion say religion is quite functional for people, but for reasons rather different from the reasons religious people give.  Similarly, my “showing that you care” explanation of medicine suggests medical behavior is functional, but for quite different reasons than people usually give.

This all seems to add up to a consistent expert consensus that humans quite often, perhaps even usually, just don’t know why they do what they do.  And this is extremely disturbing, as it calls into question our own opinions about why we do what we do.  Worse, if each of these areas (econ modeling, marketing, acting, psychotherapy) experts call into question only a limited range of our opinions, while implicitly assuming most of our other opinions are correct, perhaps these experts seriously underestimate just how misinformed we all are.

I’d like to take this skepticism seriously, and in fact seem to be somewhat obsessed by this project.   I’m not sure exactly how, but I’ll plow ahead anyway.

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