11 May 2008

Predictably tendentious

Economics professor Dan Ariely, author of the book Predictably Irrational, conducted an experiment in which students were asked to choose a brand of beer in front of their friends. He found that

when people order out loud in sequence, they choose differently from when they order in private ... Overall, those who made their choices out loud ... were not as happy with their selections as those who made their choices privately. (pp.235-236)
Does the fact that people regretted their choice afterwards prove the choice was 'irrational'? Not really. It may just mean that the weighting given to factors other than the taste of the product, e.g. social esteem, is greater before drinking than after. Asking a person afterwards how “happy” he is with a choice he made is no more reliable an indicator of whether the choice was 'rational' than morning-after regret is a sign you didn't do what was (on some level) in your interest. If there are different 'versions' of you with different tastes, it isn't legitimate to assign greater rationality to one version just because it occurs later.

Yet on the basis of experiments such as this, Ariely — echoing other behavioural economists — feels entitled to opine that
we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver's seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires — with how we want to view ourselves — than with reality. (p.243)
Note how the thesis "we are all less rational than we think" may appear to make state intervention more acceptable. If an individual cannot be trusted to decide for himself, there is less reason to treat his wishes as sacrosanct; other people might be capable of making choices on his behalf which are more aligned with his interests.

* * * * *

In a mediocracy, the concept of the individual is that of a physiological mechanism programmed to satisfy low grade impulses such as sex and aggression. Notions such as self, consciousness and free will are considered delusions that must be corrected by education.

The mediocratic individual has no autonomous inner world, i.e. one that is free from being determined by biological and social factors. His choices, while possibly unpredictable in detail, are ultimately trivial. He has no emotions beyond those implanted and sanctioned by society. He is a sink for everything, and a source of nothing.

But that is just the kind of individual that is wanted in a mediocracy. A person who is no threat to its systems, who subordinates himself to its authority figures, and who can be relied on to uphold its beliefs without question.