Friday, October 21, 2011


David Brooks devotes today's column to Daniel Kahneman, a social scientist whose memoir is about to be published (and excerpted in the Times Magtazine). Brooks writes that Kahneman and his partner, Amos Tversky, challenged certain scientific notions about what people are like:

Before Kahneman and Tversky, people who thought about social problems and human behavior tended to assume that we are mostly rational agents. They assumed that people have control over the most important parts of their own thinking. They assumed that people are basically sensible utility-maximizers and that when they depart from reason it's because some passion like fear or love has distorted their judgment.

Kahneman and Tversky conducted experiments. They proved that actual human behavior often deviates from the old models and that the flaws are not just in the passions but in the machinery of cognition. They demonstrated that people rely on unconscious biases and rules of thumb to navigate the world, for good and ill. Many of these biases have become famous: priming, framing, loss-aversion.

Kahneman reports on some delightful recent illustrations from other researchers. Pro golfers putt more accurately from all distances when putting for par than when putting for birdie because they fear the bogie more than they desire the birdie. Israeli parole boards grant parole to about 35 percent of the prisoners they see, except when they hear a case in the hour just after mealtime. In those cases, they grant parole 65 percent of the time. Shoppers will buy many more cans of soup if you put a sign atop the display that reads "Limit 12 per customer."

Brooks loves this sort of thing. He loves telling his readers that people aren't cold, calculating machines. He seems utterly delighted and astonished by it. (I can't believe that many of his readers are particularly surprised by it.)

The problem is, Brooks delights in this while supporting precisely the politicians who think human behavior can be coldly rational. Specifically, he supports the politicians who think the economic system can run on its own, pretty much unregulated, and never produce ... oh, say, a huge bubble that brings down the entire global economy when it bursts, because they believe the market is infallible and self-correcting.

Brooks believes that you'll be more lenient on a pardon board after you've had a nice meal because your brain is simply wired that way, but when he looks at a comparable but truly destructive example of irrational behavior -- every fat cat in America, say, deciding that slicing and dicing junk mortgages is a get-rich-quick scheme that can work forever -- he doesn't see this as an inevitable consequence of brain wiring the likelihood of which we ought to minimize via regulation. Instead, he puts on his jackleg-preacher hat and declares it a matter of morals. (See, e.g., his last column.)

In short, Brooks understand certain ideas -- he just has an astonishing talent for thinking the wrong ones are applicable in nearly every case.