What We Should Study

Me a few days ago:

We usually explain human capacity to create and evaluate chains of reasoning in terms of [seeking] truth. … [But] once you give it a bit of thought, you can see many [other] possible and even plausible explanations.

More generally, we humans not only do things, we explain why we do things. Individuals and organizations stand ready to give reasons why we do each of the things we do. While such explanations are often self-serving, they are usually considered the standard default in ordinary conversation, popular media, and in academia.

I have a colleague here at GMU econ who recently expressed to me his feeling that we academics should usually accept such standard explanations unless we see clear strong evidence to the contrary. That is, if an academic journal has a statement of purpose or aim or mission, then we should believe what that statement says about the main social function of that journal in the world — if it says the journal exists to advance knowledge, that is what we should believe. He thinks we should similarly accept official purpose statements of hospitals, universities, charities, and government agencies. (He might not accept mission claims by firms, e.g., “Wal-Mart’s mission is to help people save money so they can live better”; apparently only admired non-profits deserve such deference.)

The most powerful insufficiently-appreciated insight I’ve ever learned is the one intellectual legacy I’d leave, if I could leave only one: we are often wrong about why we do things. Yes it is hardly original, and it might sound trivial, but few appreciate its full depth.

People are way too quick to assume that the main forces shaping the details of common human behaviors and institutions are their standard claimed missions. For example, people assume that the main force shaping doctors and hospitals is their declared mission to make people healthy, that the main force shaping universities and their research patrons is their declared the mission of advancing the frontiers of knowledge, that the main force shaping human capacities to make and evaluate reasons is the estimation of truth, and so on.

Once a social scientist starts to look seriously look for non-standard explanations, however, it is pretty easy to find them. Standard explanations leave many puzzling phenomena poorly explained, phenomena for which non-standard explanations often better account. Yes, there is an unfortunate tendency to latch onto the first plausible non-standard explanation one finds, instead of continuing to search for more possible explanations. I’ve probably been guilty of this myself, such as by perhaps focusing too much on signaling explanations.

But now I understand: today our priority should be a back-to-basics skeptical re-evaluation of human behavior.  That is, we should search for plausible non-standard explanations of our most common behaviors, even those we think “obvious,” and then seek simple matches between the simple robust predictions of each explanation and the puzzling phenomena we need to explain. I’m very interested in participating in such efforts, and uncertain about the best way to proceed.

Within academia, one important obstacle to this project is the tendency of “rigorous” folks like my colleague to insist that non-standard explanations are “extraordinary”, and so require “extraordinary” evidence. They aren’t worth much math modeling until stronger data support is offered, and they aren’t worth collecting much new data to test since they are not yet well supported. (Standard datasets, collected with standard explanations in mind, are usually poorly suited to this task.) Alas the first-cut math models and data analysis appropriate for this first stage of analysis tend to be poor places for academics to signal their math or statistics sophistication.

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  • dWj

    A few weeks ago, on a social network, I stated that I opposed parts of a particular proposal, and a friend asked why. I thought about it for a minute or two and told him, “because it conflicts with the solution to the problem that I thought of myself, and to which I’ve become emotionally attached.”

    I wonder whether that sort of answer is because I read your blog.

  • ad

    “I’ve probably been guilty of this myself, such as by perhaps focusing too much on signaling explanations.”

    Wow, you should elaborate on this in a new blog post !

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  • Matt Knowles

    “Know thyself”

    It’s certainly not new, and just as certainly poorly appreciated, even by you and me.

    How related is this to the religious experience of being “in the spirit”? To me, they are one and the same; simple, yet profound, and requiring constant vigilance.

  • Jayson Virissimo

    Mission statements are’t about missions?

    • Konkvistador

      A comment summing up a blog post entitled “What We Should Study”. heh

  • http://sites.google.com/site/benjamingeer/ Benjamin Geer

    Suggested reading: Pierre Bourdieu, “Is a Disinterested Act Possible?” in Practical Reason, 75-91. PDF

    • axa

      every once in a while a comment (reference) is waaaay better than the original post.

  • arch1

    “I’m very interested in participating in such efforts, and uncertain about the best way to proceed.”

    Your immediately preceding sentence outlines (in scrambled order) a 4 step process to do this. Which step are you stuck on?

    • Konkvistador

      we should search for plausible non-standard explanations of our most common behaviors, even those we think “obvious,” and then seek simple matches between the simple robust predictions of each explanation and the puzzling phenomena we need to explain.

      I think this is the stumbling point, If I read the paragraph following this correctly.

      They aren’t worth much math modeling until stronger data support is offered, and they aren’t worth collecting much new data to test since they are not yet well supported. (Standard datasets, collected with standard explanations in mind, are usually poorly suited to this task.)

      How can one test predictions if one has no real data to work with?

      • Khoth

        How can one test predictions if one has no real data to work with?

        By gathering data! Revolutionising our understanding of human actions is an ambitious goal as it is. Adding the additional restriction that you can’t leave your armchair while doing so is just making things unnecessarily difficult. We’re not in ancient Greece any more.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    My natural instinct is with your colleague is that explicit declarations are a default starting point, and generally there will be some data to show otherwise if that’s at odds with reality. Even just showing how modeling actors as holding the motivations they claim leads to results very different from reality is good evidence.

    Ed Prescott had a similar perspective about theory being ahead of measurement. At least that gives scope to make predictions that haven’t been tested yet but could be falsified by future data. I don’t know what Prescott thinks of advances since then in measurement, since macro is really not my bag.

    • Aron

      Are the 1 in 20 responses from Robin worth your participation?

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      The issue is isn’t what is the starting point but the unreasonably high standards imposed on data considered acceptable to move one at all away from that starting point.

  • http://www.cawtech.freeserve.co.uk Alan Crowe

    This post focuses on the person giving the explanation, which may be self serving. What though about the person demanding the explanation?

    Often the person demanding the explanation has some power over the person giving it. The giver must shape their explanation to satisfy the person demanding it. Also the person demanding the explanation can insist that the giver follow through on the stated reasons. The giver starts with his own reason, but is obliged to state a different reason, more acceptable to his patron, and then to undertake activities consistent with the stated reason that were not part of his original plan.

    Thus a hospice may be founded by a man with a fear of protracted dying, with a view to securing for himself and prompt and happy death when his time comes. “Prompt and happy” does not suit the spirit of the age. He must give a different reason “So that the avoidance of suffering may aid the prolongation of life.” Prolonging life makes it onto the mission statement because others require it, even though the founding is actually hoping to avoid dragging it out.

    Reluctantly he finds himself ventilating patients who, like him, would rather slip away early. Who demanded a proper reason from him, refusing to accept “Prompt and happy”? Perhaps ventilator manufacturers in search of a sale. The demander of a explanation may be self-serving, not just the giver.

    The starting point is to look at the power relationship between the demander of the explanation and the giver of the explanation. What difficulties may the giver expect if he states his true purpose instead of playing the game? What difficulties may the giver expect if he jeopardizes his ability to play the game by becoming aware of his true purpose?

  • http://www.gwern.net/hafu gwern

    > He thinks we should similarly accept official purpose statements of hospitals, universities, charities, and government agencies. (He might not accept mission claims by firms, e.g., “Wal-Mart’s mission is to help people save money so they can live better”; apparently only admired non-profits deserve such deference.)

    I didn’t realize non-profits had a legal fiduciary duty to maximize their profits and bent most of their efforts to doing so.

    • Aaron Armitage

      Not only does he miss the obvious in the first place, he doesn’t acknowledge that the alleged inconsistency is shown to be nonsense.

      But then, that’s pretty much true of every “inconsistency” he ever talks about, such as redistributing grades vs. money. It’s as if he thinks we should act without regard for context. I wouldn’t want to be caught contradicting myself by taking a step toward my refrigerator when I would refuse the exact same step on the edge of a cliff.

  • Bo

    If your colleague actually said that we should believe it, instead of just saying that it’s probably true, that’s a red flag right there.

  • http://www.knowingandmaking.com/ Leigh Caldwell

    For lots of insight into this, I’d recommend studying the work of a subfield of psychology called Judgment and Decision Making.

    It overlaps with behavioural economics, but also examines behaviours which are not traditionally considered part of the domain of economics (how we solve problems, how we use evidence to make decisions, how our response times to decisions are affected by emotional states). Much of the research is very powerful at illuminating why and how we do what we do; and it is mostly based on relatively rigorous experimental evidence.

    You will see a few familiar names at the conferences – Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahneman for instance at two of the recent ones.

    The phenomena studied in the discipline do tend to be a little bit lower-level than some of the questions you pose in this post – but you’ll probably still get insights that can be extrapolated upwards.

    The Society of Judgment and Decision Making conference is in Seattle at the beginning of November this year, you should try and go.

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  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    Why should we prioritize the truth value of one type of statement (mission statements) over other evidence?

    I have always found that actions speak louder than words and it is easier to judge what someone wants by looking at what they do and not what they say.

    I have always found that when people say “do as I say, not as I do” that they are hypocrites.

    Does your colleague at GMU practice this? Does he/she take what other people say about their motivations at face value? Or is this simply a recommendation for you to unilaterally disarm by not looking beyond facile (and usually self-serving) mission statements? Such as the one your colleague just made to not look beyond facile (and usually self-serving) mission statements?

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Great post. It looks to me like you’re grappling in good faith with how to improve our social science.

  • Scott Messick

    Great post. I agree with virtually everyone here that the colleague seems very poorly calibrated in terms of how he evaluates the strength of various types of evidence–in this case, the mission statement versus many other behaviors of the institution in question (such as everyday practices that do not seem to accord with the mission statement, which are repeated constantly while the mission statement is only rarely considered for revision).

    I have one thing to add: there is a tricky layer of abstraction in treating organizations as having purposes *at all*. No one person created the hospital, so it’s not immediately obvious what it means to say that the hospital was created for a certain purpose. It came to be as a result of a sequence of actions by many different people who many have had quite diverse motives for doing whatever particular thing they were doing. (Were the construction workers who laid the foundation of the building motivated primarily by the supposed health benefits the hospital would eventually offer?)

    Similarly, in the actions that people take in support of the hospital’s continuing existence as an organization, there are probably many obvious motives for individual actions that have nothing to do with the alleged mission. If you stop paying the doctors’ salaries, it is clear the whole thing will crumble, yet there isn’t an immediate connection between the doctors’ receiving money and the health of the patients. Certainly the doctors aren’t acting with patient health as their *primary* motivation, otherwise why would they leave in this case? (What if the mission statement said instead that the hospital is meant to be a place where people could trade money for health care (for some definition of “health care”). Doesn’t this seem a whole lot more accurate already? Does anyone know of a hospital that has ever said anything like this?)

    If it now seems difficult to pin down just what it should even mean for an institution to have a certain purpose, then it should be all the easier to understand why mission statements are just used as a place to tap on various far mode ideals.

  • Ian

    >[W]e humans not only do things, we explain why we do things.<

    Absolutely; in fact, that's one of the things I, personally, tend to focus on; I can generally justify everything I do. You know how they say to drive defensively? My slogan is "Live defensively".

    ~Ian

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