Wednesday, 24 May 2017

When old is new and new is old


An interesting post from Aeon by Nick Romeo draws parallels between Plato's ideas and modern behavioural psychology and economics.

In his essay ‘On Being Modern-Minded’ (1950), Bertrand Russell describes a particularly seductive illusion about history and intellectual progress. Because every age tends to exaggerate its uniqueness and imagine itself as a culmination of progress, continuities with previous historical periods are easily overlooked: ‘new catchwords hide from us the thoughts and feelings of our ancestors, even when they differed little from our own.’

Behavioural economics is one of the major intellectual developments of the past 50 years. The work of the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in particular is justly celebrated for identifying and analysing many of the core biases in human cognition. Russell’s insight, in fact, bears a strong resemblance to what Kahneman calls the availability bias. Because the catchwords and achievements of contemporary culture are most readily called to mind – most available – they tend to dominate our assessments. The fact that Russell’s articulation of this idea is much less familiar than Kahneman’s is itself a confirmation of Russell’s point.

Changes in language and social emphasis tend to obscure the lessons of history, so much so that even common sense has to be relearned under the endless pressure of events. If it ever is relearned of course. There are reasons to doubt that. Romeo continues -

But the richest precedent for behavioural economics is in the works of ancient Greek philosophers. Almost 2,500 years before the current vogue for behavioural economics, Plato was identifying and seeking to understand the predictable irrationalities of the human mind. He did not verify them with the techniques of modern experimental psychology, but many of his insights are remarkably similar to the descriptions of the cognitive biases found by Kahneman and Tversky. Seminal papers in behavioural economics are highly cited everywhere from business and medical schools to the social sciences and the corporate world. But the earlier explorations of the same phenomenon by Greek philosophy are rarely appreciated. Noticing this continuity is both an interesting point of intellectual history and a potentially useful resource: Plato not only identified various specific weaknesses in human cognition, he also offered powerful proposals for how to overcome these biases and improve our reasoning and behaviour.

The whole essay is well worth reading. For example, the paragraph below impinges on a particularly corrosive modern problem where we seem to be losing sight of the personal element in ethical behaviour, where we pay attention to what our minds are doing or not doing when we go with the flow.

It’s rare that contemporary discussions of cognitive biases flow directly into conversations on ethics, pleasure and pain, and the best way to live one’s life. But ancient philosophy did not compartmentalise what are now cloistered academic fields. Plato understood that susceptibility to distorted reasoning was a matter of ethics as well as psychology. This does not mean anything as simple as ‘bad people are more vulnerable to cognitive biases’. But consider his diagnosis of misanthropy and other sampling errors, which stem from ‘the too great confidence of inexperience’. In the Apology, Socrates claims to be wiser than other men only because he knows that which he does not know. When Kahneman writes that we are ‘blind to our blindness’, he is reviving the Socratic idea that wisdom consists in seeing one’s blindness: knowing what you do not know.


Roger said...

Lots of things don't really change.

When reading 'The Republic' and its discourses I did get the same sort of feeling I got listening to consultancy presentations. Whilst the discussion sort of made sense there seemed a hint of hidden trickery and an attempt ultimately to score a point. A crafty fellow that Plato and I suspect not quite the ideal he is made out to be.

Then when I read of those psychological games played using students that purport to show this or that human economic trait I come away with a deep sense of suspicion. Such games might work once or twice on students but a repeated game played for real stakes? Not so sure. Am I suffering from misology?

Demetrius said...

He resembles our Waitrose delivery man. Few people, especially at the top, seem to have realised the implications of the collapse of 20th Century retailing.

A K Haart said...

Roger - those psychological games/experiments seem problematic to me too. They seem to be revealing but once the game is understood it isn't likely to work. Yet they also seem to reveal the realities of human nature. It's as if we must not see those realities too clearly, otherwise social cohesion won't work.

Demetrius - I'm not sure how we'll buy things in the future. Do it online and hope for the best seems to be the trend.