What are elementary particles atoms of human behaviour?


At my institution, the Max Weber Centre, a young sociologist is sojourning as a Fellow, Gabriel Abend. He has extremely stimulating work on the concept of ‘decision’ in modern societies, social sciences and philosophy. In a recent paper, he gives us much food for thought, and I think that his views are very relevant for INSOSCI topics.

In a nutshell, he argues that there are no clear criteria for identifying a ‘decision’ as a unit of, well, what? Think of your decision to eat pasta at lunch: Should this be partitioned further into a sequence of decisions about taking another spoon? Or even further, decisions about moving your arm in a specific direction? In fact, the field of ‘decision neuroscience’ adopts such a micro-perspective in laboratory work, for sure. But do we have a criterion how to define those elementary particles of behaviour? The same problems moving levels up, unfortunately. Did we really decide to become researchers? Do we take this decision every morning again? When exactly did this decision happen?

Abend raises these questions to increase our awareness that we (at least in rich Western countries) live in societies which clearly emphasize ‘decision-making’ and continuously expand the scope of this notion. Behavioural economics makes much fuss about wrong decisions and about how to improve decisions. Hence, the notion is not just a scientific one, but diffuses in society. This is what Abend is interested in, as a sociologist. Why do societies envisage behaviour as based on decisions? What are the social consequences? And finally, do we have normative criteria to assess whether this stance is good for our lives or not? For example, always and everywhere reflecting upon ourselves as taking decisions may lay huge cognitive and emotional burdens on our shoulders.

In the context of economics, this is a very important question. In experimental and behavioural economics, the notion of decision is taken for granted, it seems to me: Informed by game theory, all interactions in the lab are modelled in terms of ‘decisions among alternatives’. Abend emphasizes that decisionism is not only about ‘rational’ decisions. Thus, it seems that the true issue is not about ‘rational’ versus ‘irrational’ decisions, but, as Abend says, between ‘decisionism’ and ‘non-decisionism’.

But there is a big caveat! One should recognize that economics is not clear about the role of decisions in its theoretical edifice (even though most modern economist believe that…):

First, if you strictly follow a mathematical approach to utility theory and accept ‘revealed preference’ theory, you do not talk about decisions at all. Indeed, the accomplished microeconomist Ariel Rubinstein famously lambasted common uses of game theory as a ‘theory of strategic decisions’ and recommended to get rid of all psychological and behavioural concepts, such as ‘strategy’, ‘decision’ and so on. Then, no decisions in economics, only mathematical descriptions of observed behaviour, or, in fact, data sets. Such a view is most evident in evolutionary game theory, where heterogenous agents simply stick to their rules, and then are subject to selection. If you describe the population level patterns as ‘individual optimization’, that does not involve any decision-maker. Homo oeconomicus as ‘blind watchmaker’!

Second, in heterodox economics you have many contributions that downplay decisions, beginning with Thorstein Veblen’s concept of ‘habit’ which has been received in modern evolutionary economics, also related to other notions such as ‘routines’. Again, no individual decisions. Indeed, evolutionary game theory corresponds to this view, so that the distinction between mainstream and non-mainstream views partly evaporates (the main difference is in the maths).

Given this ambiguity in economics, I think it is time to jump on the train set into motion by Abend, and radically question the role of ‘decisions’ in integrating economics with psychology and the neurosciences. This leads me back to my previous blogs on social neuroscience. In my own work, I argue that ‘imitation’ might be a crucial analytical category. That is very different from trying to understand human behaviour in terms of decisions (unless one would argue that humans decide to imitate, which may be a contradiction in terms). Imitation would necessarily involve an externalist approach to behaviour, as the notion of individual action would lose much of its bite: The elementary particle of behaviour might be units of shared behavioural patterns among at least two individuals. In other words, behaviour would be approached as a population level phenomenon. Again, it may surprise readers to recognize that economics is inspiring here, again. Social choice theory is all about the question whether collectives can decide jointly about certain alternatives of action, rules etc. There are famous mathematical theorems that show that this kind of collective choice is impossible, beginning with the Condorcet paradox.

To conclude, Abend’s contribution is another example of the performativity of the social sciences: concepts such as ‘decision’ may not be merely descriptive and analytical terms but play an essential role in shaping the societies we live in: We take decisions since we ascribe to ourselves the capacity and actuality of taking decisions. It may be important for the way how our societies operate to treat ourselves and others as ‘decision-makers’. In the end of the day, our scientific concepts are deeply normative.

Gabriel Abend, Outline of a sociology of decisionism, October 2017, British Journal of Sociology, DOI: 10.1111/1468-4446.12320

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