To return for a moment to my point about objectivity existing only in the mind of the beholder: it amused me to see the popular news digest ‘The Week’ beginning its first Talking Point column of the new year with the headline “Will 2017 be as bad as 2016?” The reason for my amusement was that the editors of that publication regularly assert that it is impeccably neutral. This is not however a question that will resonate with readers of the right-leaning ‘Sun’ and ‘Mail’, the two British newspapers that find themselves seldom if ever quoted in ‘The Week’ despite together accounting for over half the circulation of all daily newspapers in the UK. Readers of those two papers will instead be asking whether 2017 can hope to live up to its outstanding predecessor. Whichever question you are asking will be a perfect litmus test of which camp you see yourself in, and that’s entirely a matter for you. As for me, I shall simply remember 2016 as an outstanding year from one perspective: because of its epochal events, it was spectacularly good for observing human psychology in the round.
Old Bunyard’s Philosophick Fables was intended as a collection of interesting exhibits from the world of the brain sciences, their validity resting on the experimental evidence behind them. Experiments, no matter how well conducted, normally embrace rather small numbers of subjects compared with populations; so it’s always satisfying to see the learnings reported in scientific papers borne out on the grand canvas of human life. The beauty of the Brexit-Bremain and Trump-Clinton conflicts was the way that each spotlighted various of the ways in which great masses of human beings behave in practice. This behaviour has tended to be very much at odds with the expectations of experts who assume that others will be as unflappably rational as they perceive themselves to be, yielding a great opportunity for all of us to learn more about what we’re really like. Consequently, more of my recent posts have related to politics than I originally intended. This time, however, I’m going to ring the changes.
December 2016 saw the launch of ‘The Undoing Project’, a book telling the story of the true fathers of behavioural economics, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. It’s fair to say that these two academics had a major impact on my life. I first heard of their work when I’d been working for a short time in advertising. I’d been surprised to learn on entering the industry as a graduate trainee that there was little interest in the psychoanalytic school of thought with which I’d been familiarised by Vance Packard’s famous (but epically misleading) ‘The Hidden Persuaders’. Instead, the advertising model was firmly rooted in neo-classical economics’ belief in human rationality, for which reason all ads had to promise a “unique selling proposition” backed by “reasons why”. The conviction that ads need to make a good argument in order to change the behaviour of a sceptical consumer didn’t alter in the whole time I was associated with advertising, even when the industry began to include among those supposedly persuasive messages a few ‘promises’ of an overtly emotional nature.
I took it as gospel for a while, until the results typically achieved by the industry persuaded me that it was a very weak force. Yet, even though Freudian thinking plainly did not offer a realistic alternative to this model, a third school of thought – the behaviourist one – had amply demonstrated that behaviour can be strongly affected in ways that have nothing to do with cognition: think Pavlov’s dogs. Since most of our advertising strategists had psychology degrees, they were perfectly aware of this; but it was only the persuasion model that we could sell to our dyed-in-the-wool clients.
Kahneman & Tversky kicked off a slow process of change in 1979 with their Prospect Theory, which introduced me for one to a whole new approach to changing human behaviour. What they demonstrated to my surprise and delight was that humans do not generally weigh up alternatives rationally, but leap to decisions by means of mental short-cuts called ‘heuristics’. These tend to enjoy the benefit of being thinking-lite, but at the expense of objective accuracy. The professors’ work over two or three decades delightfully explored this principle in different contexts, building a far more realistic and useful picture of human judgement and decision-making than I’d derived from any other source. Nevertheless, in the 1980s, it still seemed almost like heresy to challenge the idea of human rationality. It wasn’t until Professor Stuart Sutherland summarised much of their work in a highly readable 1994 book called ‘Irrationality: The Enemy Within’ that I began to feel comfortable talking about what now seems perfectly blooming obvious: that our brains have evolved to be far less Spock-like than we kid ourselves.
By that time, I’d left the ad industry to set up a new enterprise in competition to it. At the heart of it was a new heuristic I’d identified from data, which I called the ‘expectation-matching’ heuristic. It would later be lent huge weight when, quite independently, a Cambridge neuroscientist called Professor Wolfram Schultz experimentally isolated its neural correlate in rats, and others later did the same with humans; it forms the basis of my 26th Fable, ‘The Expectant Seal’. But for Kahneman & Tversky lighting the way, it’s doubtful that I’d have had the confidence to plough the furrow that became my professional life for ten years.
Sadly, as with so many great partnerships, a rift opened between them, and the amiable Tversky died prematurely. When Kahneman made his Nobel-Prize acceptance speech, it was such a poignant affair that I struggled to hold back the tears. Although I’ve been saddened to see how much lucrative twaddle has subsequently been traded by ‘experts’ in the name of behavioural economics, this pair did change the psychology landscape, and it was in tribute to their lifetime’s work that I included no fewer than four Fables based on it, as well as several others also from behavioural economics. You’ll find Michael Lewis’s new account of their association a fuller (though no more heartfelt) memorial to their achievement.