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28 May 2009

Behavioral Economics, Again

I'm sorry to bring this topic up again, but I feel as if I didn't do a very good job of explaning my position in my previous post. I got too caught up in the political philosophy of positive and negative freedom when I could have been more direct and concise in my critique.
I just watched this interesting video with Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational, and the issue came back into my mind. Watch the video, and then I'll share my thoughts. (If the embedded video doesn't work for you, as it isn't for me, then you can view it here).

I like Dan, and I enjoyed his talk - it's interesting and entertaining. I would also like to read his cookbook - let's hope he still plans on writing it. I am also interested in behavioral economics. It is a necessary antidote to the abstract hyper-rationality of Neoliberal economics, which would rather trust in the "invisible hand" of the market than allow regulation. It's about time economists looked at how people actually are rather than positing a model and developing theory based on that. However, I have three major problems with the theory, which I will describe below.
First of all, it is just as fallacious to assume that humans are wholly irrational as it is to assume that we are wholly rational. Humans are complex creatures with many different, and at times competing faculties. Our actions are determined by an intricate mix of reason, emotions, spontaneous thought and default reaction. As the research suggests, it's true that we make some bad choices from time to time. With regard to the organ donor example in the video, though, I would ask why it is that the countries on the left don't have 0% participation, and why some of the countries on the right don't have 100% participation. What factors made it possible for some people to go against the predictions of behavioral economics? More fundamentally, however, I feel that the assumption that we are wholly irrational opens up the possibility for someone to say that our decisions must be guided or dictated, which brings me to my second point.
In the talk, Ariely says "We feel as if we make decisions...but in fact, the decisions reside in the person who designed the form." The question is, who gets to design the form? Who gets to make those decisions for us? Some would suggest a kind of enlightened bureaucracy, but the fact is that bureaucracies are not composed of the best and the brightest, and they certainly don't know what's best for us all of the time. It doesn't seem like a big deal when it's something like hip replacement surgery or organ donors (though those have their complexities as well), but what happens when it's something a little more ambiguous? Where we invest our retirement, for example. Who makes that decision? How do we know that they will make the best decision?
My final problem with the theory is that it is essentially ahistorical and apolitical. Our current economic problems, it suggests, are the result of bad economic decisions made by irrational individuals on a massive scale. It takes no account of the political economic (not to mention the political ecological) situation that lead to this crisis - the fact that millions of people were being exploited by large corporations, that the government was essentially (and continues to) back those corporations up, and that our redistributive mechanism had been retooled to fuel the wealthy in the (mistaken) hope that the wealth would "trickle down" to the rest of us.
We need an economics that is grounded in real world experience, one that recognizes human limitations as well as human abilities. We also need an economics that is situated in the social and cultural context of modern life - including the political and the ecological. Behavioral economics is a good start toward ending the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, but it is far from being the ideal basis for economic theory.

26 May 2009


I just came back from a talk by Daniel Pinchbeck here in downtown Lawrence. I actually left early because I was on my bike and neglected to bring my headlamp. In any case, I learned about Pinchbeck (and I've mentioned him before in this context) from the Shamanism class I took this past semester with Prof. Hoopes. He is an icon of the Neo-shamanism movement and the 2012 mythology that has become so popular in hippie/new age culture. Needless to say, I went into the talk with a fair bit of skepticism. Coming out of it, I feel relieved to know that he is actually a well read and knowledgeable about a lot of things besides the mythos that he is trying to promote.

He integrates some surprising figures and ideas into that mythos that could at least spark some genuinely useful activity, rather than simply reinforcing the hedonic love cult to which most of his followers subscribe. Furthermore, I saw indications in his talk that he is willing to take on new ideas, and reevaluate his old ones rather than immersing himself in a rigid dogma.

That said, there were many ideas in his talk that were simply too far out for me to accept (ten years ago, I may have, but I have a more cynical and critical eye now). For example, his belief in the extraterrestrial origins of crop circles and other similar phenomena - I can tolerate this to a degree, since I don't really care one way or the other, but I get bored of hearing about it again and again. Another is the fact that he talked about 3 spheres where change is taking place (driving us toward the 2012 transformation). These are the biosphere, the technosphere and the noosphere. What bothers me here is that he talks about them as separate entities without recognizing that they are integrated and systemic. I'm not so concerned with the noosphere, because I feel that the concept homogenizes humanity and implies a single track of culture evolution. However, the biosphere and the technosphere are somewhat more legitimate. The problem is that they are not separate entities moving to unite, as Pinchbeck suggests, rather they are already integrated and systemic phenomena. His vision is that the technosphere will continue to move forward toward a more ecologically friendly or (to use his word) thriveable state. This fails to take into account the fact that every increase in technological capability has a concomitant increase in environmental exploitation. Beyond a certain point, an increase in the one system will collapse due to the decay of the other.

My final qualm is that he talks like an anarcho-primitivist, but he couches it in terms of his neoshamanic spiritual synchretism and an underlying faith in technology. Right before I left, he even suggested that, in order to solve the global climate change issue, we might have to tap into our latent psychic abilities to control the weather and climate (as evidenced by the ability of some indigenous groups to "create" rain by dancing). He does recognized that the transformation will likely result in some extremely difficult times, however, he fails to account for the massive amounts of suffering that will be experienced - in particular, by those very indigenous peoples from whom he claims to have gained his insights. There is no sense of responsibility toward those people, or toward the billions of people living in extreme poverty.

My hope is that, by listening to him and being opened to the peppering of actually valuable ideas he incorporates, his followers, at some point, will be able to take some kind of effective action. Hopefully, they won't just wait until 2012 to see what happens.

22 May 2009

Open Anthropology Cooperative

Hey everyone, I want to invite you all to be a part of something with enormous potential. No, I'm not trying to get you into a pyramid scheme or anything. I'm talking about the Open Anthropology Cooperative. Now, before you say "But I'm not an anthropologist!" (unless you just said it, in which case it will be after you say "But I'm not an anthropologist!"), this group is open to everyone whether they are an anthropology student, professor, practitioner, or just interested in anthropology or humanity in general. The whole point is to be Open in every sense of the term "open access, open membership, open to new ideas, open to whatever the organization might do or become." For now we're just discussing the basic structure of the group and recruiting new members. If you're interested (and even if you're not) then let other people who might be interested know and come join the discussion here. We already have a good member base, but we're always looking for more, and we want your insights.
Hope to see you there!

10 May 2009

Creative States of Consciousness

This past Friday, I sent my Shamanism professor a paper. It was 2 pages under the lower limit, full of grand claims lacking citations, and about half an hour late. To be fair, I was rushing at the end to get my bibliography together and my citations in order, and so I didn't do as thorough a job as I should have. It was a great idea for a paper, but I didn't give myself enough time to flesh it out, and I didn't anticipate getting really bad allergies this past week. The end result was a crappy paper, which probably deserves a 'C', but will probably get a 'B' or an 'A' because the professor is really nice. I am not going to post the paper here, as I had promised earlier, because of its poor quality. However, I will give a synopsis of what I found, because it's still really interesting.

Stochastic Creativity
As some of you know, I've been thinking for a long time about change, cultural, personal and otherwise. When anthropologists typically talk about change they'll mostly be talking about diffusion, fusion and acculturation - in other words, they're focused on contact between cultures. This makes sense, since most cultural anthropological research has been conducted under conditions of contact (i.e. colonialism). But cultures and people must change independently of external pressures, so what mechanisms are there for intrinsic change? The answer is creativity (to be fair, anthropologists do recognize creativity as a factor, but culture contact is part of the inherent bias of anthropology).
What I've realized recently is that creativity in both culture and individuals can be understood as a stochastic system. A stochastic system is on which has a foundation in randomness, diversity, or variability with an overarching selective structure. The prototypical stochastic system is evolution, where there is variable traits within individuals of a species which is molded by natural selection to adapt the species to its environmental conditions. The result is a highly stable structure which can easily adapt to changing conditions.
There are a lot of structures that follow this pattern, such as crystal formation, ecosystems, and cultures. What's more, a lot of issues can be predicted by looking at structures using a stochastic model. Jeremy Trombley's Economic Principle No. 1, for example. Capitalism, as articulated by neoliberals, SHOULD work if it were based in a diversity of businesses and financial institutions. It DOES NOT work because it fails to conserve underlying diversity (through redistribution and decentralization) and allows a handful of large financial structures (corporations) to dominate. This makes it too rigid and maladaptive should large changes occur (i.e. a housing bubble). On the opposite end of the spectrum, structures that are too random will simply dissipate. Both the randomness and the selective mechanism are required to make a stable system.

Creativity in Individuals
I read through a whole bunch of neurological and cognitive sciences research into creativity. It was fascinating - I'm actually getting really interested in cognitive science stuff. What I learned from all of it is that creativity relies upon what we would call "altered states of consciousness."
Really the term "altered states of consciousness" is very misleading. We go through our lives moving from one state of consciousness to another, and it's virtually impossible to isolate a "normal" state of consciousness to contrast with "altered states." It's better to look at states of consciousness on a continuum, rather than to try and categorize them into two discrete groups. There are several axes along which consciousness could could be mapped, but I'm only going to look at one - controlled states and relaxed states. Controlled states of consciousness are characterized by focused attention, and purposiveness. This is when your mind is set on a goal or a task and nothing can distract you from it. Relaxed states, on the other hand are characterized by a wandering, free floating state of mind. This is when you allow yourself to let go and daydream or just think about whatever comes into your head. The most extreme relaxed state is, of course, dreaming, where there is absolutely no control over the content of consciousness and things just seem to come up out of nowhere. This continuum was referred to by Freud in terms of the primary process (unconscious) and secondary process (conscious) functions.
It is apparent that primary processes or relaxed states of consciousness are an essential part of creativity. The reason is that relaxed states allow us to think outside of habitual modes, and hold multiple ideas in mind at once. This makes it possible to think of new ideas, and to create new associations between existing ideas. Neurological studies back this up. When we enter relaxed states, the brain goes into what is referred to as "default mode." Instead of an inactive state, this is a highly active state over a broad range of brain structures. It may be that this default mode allows connections to be made between many different parts of the brain which allows us to make these novel connections in consciousness.
However, creativity isn't only the ability to come up with novel ideas. If asked to solve a problem that has never been encountered, the solution must be innovative, but it must also be appropriate. This is where the selective mechanism of the stochastic system comes into play. From all of these new ideas being generated, we must be able to select the ones that are actually useful. Cognitively, this manifests as an ability to modulate between relaxed states and focused states of consciousness. Indeed, people who were better at modulating between these two extremes performed better on creativity tests. Neurologically, this appears as a modulation between temporal lobe dominance (which is associated with relaxed, unconscious thought) and Prefrontal Cortex dominance (which is associated with focused thought).
What about the more extreme relaxed states of consciousness, such as dreams or psychedelic states? These are much more difficult to study, for obvious reasons. However, preliminary evidence shows that there is an increase in novel ideas from these states, but that those ideas are less likely to be appropriate. In fact, those ideas may be completely indecipherable at times. These states lack any kind of selective structure. It is next to impossible to modulate between extreme relaxed states and focused states of consciousness. Instead, those ideas found in these states have to be interpreted and evaluated after the fact, from a sober point of view.

Creativity and Culture
Looking at creativity in a larger scale, the same pattern can be seen. Individuals are the source of creativity in cultures (since cultures are, at base, associations of individuals), and, as a result, similar rules apply to cultures as those described above. The question is, what would a cultural structure for creativity look like? Based on the idea of creativity as a stochastic system, there are two basic criteria - one, culturally sanctioned access to relaxed states of consciousness (particularly extreme relaxed states, which are less common and more threatening) and, two, a culturally circumscribed context for evaluating and interpreting those states.
Shamanism and other similar practices fit these criteria nicely. Shamanism is defined by most researchers as a practice which uses altered (relaxed) states of consciousness to access other worlds. From these other worlds, the practitioners (shamans) gain insight and the ability to cure disease and solve problems. (Avoiding a precise definition of "shaman" and "shamanism," I will simply use those terms to refer to traditions which utilize altered states of consciousness for various purposes).
However, in most cultures, shamans don't merely use relaxed states, they are highly trained individuals with a great deal of background knowledge in medicinal plants, human illness, and a host of other phenomena. Furthermore, they are extremely experienced in inducing relaxed states in others and interpreting their imagery from a culturally specific prespective. As a result, the experiences are not just random, but capable of generating culturally useful information and novel ideas. The result is the ideal stochastic structure for cultural creativity.
These ideas haven't been thoroughly evaluated yet, but it's an avenue for further study (as so many of my ideas end up being). In terms of our own society, this model suggests a lack of cultural context for the many people experimenting with mind altering substances. That's not to say that no creative ideas come out of those experiences, but that an awful lot of nonsense comes out of them as well, since there is no selective mechanism to weed out that nonsense. I'm not sure what to do about it, and I'm too burned out to think about it now.
If anyone wants some background information, let me know, I'll be glad to email some of my sources.
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