Today, two articles from the Washington Post tell us how economists and doctors are using behavioural psychology to make the world a better place.
The first involves the use of intuitions in making public policy – while my own research interest concerns the involvement of moral intuition in political and legal decision-making, scholars of behavioural law and economics are fascinated by intuitive calculations of costs, benefits, risks and distributive fairness – among other things which challenge the assumption of rational economic actors.
Paul Rubin says evolutionary psychology can tell us when politics goes off the rails due to errors in ‘folk economics’ – which he defines elsewhere to be “the intuitive economics of untrained persons.”
Public policy pays surprisingly little attention to evolutionary psychology. Yet there are many human intuitions and behaviors that influence contemporary policy issues — sometimes in ways that are no longer useful or perhaps even harmful to humans flourishing. These intuitions are sometimes referred to as “folk economics,” and one area in which they often emerge is the international economy. [emphasis added] …
As products of evolution, humans cannot help but be born with certain biases. But we are not condemned to this evolutionary programming; we can identify the biases and recognize when they lead us astray in the modern world.
- Evolution, Immigration and Trade, by Paul H. Rubin.
I don’t know why it should be surprising that public policy ignores evolutionary psychology, but I do agree that we are better off when we know intuitions are misleading us. How this can be practically applied to winning policy arguments remains an open question. Telling someone they are being misled by their evolutionary origins is bad rhetorical strategy – particularly if your opponent doesn’t think much of evolution in the first place.
The second article is a piece on the usefulness of body language training to doctors. The sell: presenting appropriate cues helps create a rapport with a patient, builds trust and fosters communication, therefore aiding diagnosis and saving time.
- New Doctors Develop an Old Skill: They Call It Clinical Empathy, Previously Known as Bedside Manner by Sandra G. Boodman
The two stories offer very different ideas about why we should learn about the implicit reasons for our behaviour:
- An economist hopes education about the evolutionary source of bias will strip away irrationality in discourse. Opting out from aspects of our human nature allows us to excise cognitive disadvantages.
- Doctors are being taught techniques to benevolently manipulate patients. Opting in to aspects of our human nature allows us to take advantage of behavioural cues.
I’ll go out on a limb and guess that opt-out strategies are less successful than opt-in strategies. It’s easier to take advantage of human nature than it is to escape it.
Sometimes, we might not even know when the implicit causes for our behaviour are good for us, and whether we should opt-in or opt-out. For an example of this, take a look at a recent study which invites the question: Is it a good thing when researchers implicit ethical values guide scientific studies?
- Inmaculada de Melo-Martín & Kristen K. Intemann. Can ethical reasoning contribute to better epidemiology? A case study in research on racial health disparities 22:4 (April, 2007) European Journal of Epidemiology 215-221.
The authors argue value judgements are unavoidable and essential to good epidemiological research.
Scientific training should prepare scientists to engage in ethical reasoning not only because it will make them more responsible human beings, but also because it will make them better scientists.
It makes sense that if there are epistemic benefits to having research methodologies guided by implicit ethical judgements, we should opt-in. It remains to be seen, however, whether there are genuine scientific advantages to implicit ethical judgements. The authors acknowledge this when they mix their opt-in conclusion with an opt-out qualification, and say researchers’ implicit ethical judgements need to be exposed to critical assessment. Either way you spin it, though, ethics training for medical researchers is a good thing.
For more discussion of that paper, see the commentary:
- David A. Savitz. Delimiting the role of ethical reasoning in epidemiology 22:4 (April, 2007) European Journal of Epidemiology 211-213.