Kahneman and schizophrenia in economics

By Paul Ormerod

I was at a fascinating session last Thursday, with Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman in conversation with a leading thinker from the advertising world, Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy and Mather.  Kahneman was talking about his book Thinking Fast and Slow, a summary of his life’s work.

I am a great admirer of Kahneman.  Trained as a psychologist, along with his co-Laureate Vernon Smith, he more or less created experimental and applied behavioural economics.  He had the extraordinary idea (!) that instead of theorising a priori about how ‘rational’ people ought to behave, we should observe how people really do behave.

His work shows that, in general, people do not behave as the model of Rational Economic Person says they should.  His Nobel lecture is very accessible, written in English, and is available via this link.  He concludes that ‘people reason poorly and act intuitively’.

Yet despite his scientific standing, economic theory has so far made very little use of his results.  Theoretical journals are still replete with articles full of calculus, in which agents (econo-speak for ‘people’) are reasoning very well, and taking the ‘optimal’ decision.

So there is a schizophrenia in the profession of economics.  Nobel prizes are awarded to people whose work shows empirically that in general people do not optimise.  Theoretical work carries on in the same old way, assuming that they do.

Why is this?  Perhaps Kahneman’s own work gives us an insight.  He distinguishes between System 1 and System 2 thinking.  System 1 is when the brain is almost on autopilot.  He illustrated this in his talk last night.  ‘If I mention the word “vomit”, your brain reacts.  If I ask “what is 2 plus 2?”, the answer comes in your mind automatically’.  System 2 thinking requires much more effort – most people, he said, cannot multiply 24 and 17 whilst at the same time negotiating a right turn in heavy traffic.

Actually, I guess that most economists could do this.  Many of them could even carry out the maths required to optimise a particular function at the same time!  In other words, economists are so steeped in calculus, they have performed these mathematical operations so many time, that for them, the maths of calculus has become System 1 thinking.

So when economists approach a problem it has become second nature to write down some functions and to maximise (or minimise) them.  It is as instinctive as adding 2 and 2 is for more normal people.

But Kahneman’s empirical insights require hard System 2 thinking.  You are trying to understand a particular problem.  Well, exactly how do agents behave in this situation?  What rules are they following, how do we translate them into maths, can we solve the resulting equations or do we need numerical solutions?

In short, it is much harder to do Kahneman-inspired theory than it is to maximise a utility function.  In economic theory, System 1 thinking rules!

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3 Responses to “Kahneman and schizophrenia in economics”

  1. Woj says:

    I too enjoy Kahneman’s work but, after reading more about complexity theory, think the distinction between the two systems is slightly misleading. If my understanding is correct, newer theories in science suggest that system 2 is also on “autopilot”, separate from conscious control. Our conscious thought occurs after the brain has processed the information to make sense of our actions/thoughts.

    Separately, as a future economist, I’m a bit troubled that economics tends to express the theories of Kahneman, and others in his field, as an exogenous factor to rational expectations models. In my view, one of the grand lessons from these studies is that irrationality and disequilibrium are the normal state. While modeling disequilibrium is far more difficult and offers less “certainty”, I think economics will benefit from moving in that direction.

  2. Lawrence van der Post, in the book ‘A Walk with a White Bushman’ declares that suffering is the language the universe uses when we will not ‘learn the other way’. He says we need pain and suffering as it is the only way we’ll open our eyes and ears. So ‘system one’ thinking is habituated stimulus/reaction, and ‘system two’ thinking (van der Post’s ‘other way’) is conscious consideration of responses and consequences. Now in the old hierarchy of competence model ‘unconscious competence’ represents habituated thinking that is appropriate to the context, and ‘unconscious incompetence’ is such thinking that is inappropriate to the context – resulting in van der Post’s ‘suffering’. In an increasingly dynamic and complex environment we do not progress to ‘conscious competence’ (system two thinking) unless we have progressed through the discomfort of ‘conscious incompetence’ (also system two thinking). The contribution of complexity thinking to ‘learning the other way’ is that it presupposes a humility to knowledge. Now habituation is a phenomenon of reduced conduction resistance in the neuronal networks of the brain. Learning requires not only the breaking through of conduction resistance in neuronal re-networking but often the generation of new neuronal processes. This, as in acquiring skills in complexity thinking, takes practice and commitment.

  3. tom says:

    And still the unparadoxical scientific method remains, even in these complex circles! maths after all is the language of nature, is it not? Perhaps this is the point, that those soft empirical insights don’t need hard system 2 analysis, but something quite different. perhaps this is the real message in complexity?

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