|From this ABC news story, 2011|
It's a pretty fundamental idea to some social science methods -- especially in economics, but also more generally, because it plays a role in helping to figure out what people are doing and why. There are many questions about modelling human behavior through this family of ideas associated with rational choice. For example, as many people have pointed out, it makes morality somewhat obscure. If you keep a commitment to another person because you've promised to do so, or if you do the right thing at a tremendous cost to your own happiness, it seems bizarre to say you've just acted to satisfy your own "preference."
But the issue that came up in our readings, though related to that, was somewhat broader. That week we were talking about the question of whether social science can take up an objective, impartial, scientific stance toward its subject, or whether humanistic interpretation is always necessary to understand human behavior.
In arguing for the latter position in a 1971 paper, Charles Taylor points out that when we understand people as rational bargaining actors -- as he thinks we do in the more scientific approach -- we always risk interpreting them incorrectly.
For one thing, he says, not all societies even have practices that would be obviously analogous to our own practices of bargaining and negotiation. But more deeply, much important human behavior isn't like this. And when we theorize it using this set of concepts, we get it wrong.
There are many kinds of examples, but Taylor gives an interesting one in the analysis of protest movements. He says that theory of rational choice entails that we analyze these movements in terms of individuals' aims, and that in this case we have two possibilities: either protests are "bargaining gambits," or they are simply madness.
But, Taylor says, sometimes a protest is neither of those things. Taylor sees around him a profound dissatisfaction with the way things are, an alienation, a sense that things are deeply not what they should be. A protest borne of this sense would not be correctly analyzed as a bargaining gambit: it may be utterly unclear what the possibilities are. And if things are not what they should be, it would not be correctly analyzed as madness.
Though Taylor wrote this in 1971, when I read it I immediately thought of the Occupy movement, and especially of the deafening chorus that met that movement, where everyone was shouting, "But what are your demands?! If you haven't got specific demands, your protest makes no sense!"
Many people said in response that it wasn't about demands, that wasn't the point. Of course the movement had many strands and ideas, but I don't think it's farfetched to say that among these was the thought that things are deeply not what they should be.
Interpretation through the lens of rational choice and bargaining makes it impossible to arrive at this conclusion about the social meaning of the protests. But that interpretation has become so ingrained in our culture, we almost can't interpret it any other way.
I don't know how and when exactly this happened, but somewhere along the way the idea that humans are basically purposive rational actors working to satisfy their own preferences at the least cost possible to themselves became so entrenched in our thinking and talking, it's hard to even frame the alternatives. It's become almost like a tautology: well, you chose that thing, so either you preferred it and acted wisely, or you preferred something else and acted stupidly.
I think one reason this idea of people as rational actors is so hard to challenge is that if you're just looking at behavior, data, all those things we've embraced in the modern world as alternatives to old-fashioned listening and literature, the theory of people as rational actors is almost impossible to really falsify. As is often pointed out, any behavior can be made to come out as rational: you just have to attribute to the person a preference for the outcome, and voilà!
But behavior that doesn't fit -- and especially behavior that seem to signify that things are deeply not what they should be -- is everywhere, not just in the modern world but as part of the human condition. When things get bad and someone can't see their way out, they freak out: they become enraged, or riddled with anxiety, or they just decide to do something, anything, to derail the situation. It's a very human response.
Whether you're talking about an unhappy marriage or the state of the modern world, this kind of "protest" behavior is common and well-known. But with our theory of human behavior, we can't even see it for what it is, because we're stuck in the bargaining gambit theory of the world.
I think Taylor is right when he says that the problem goes beyond a "mistake" and gets into the category of "illusion": the version we see looks totally normal to us, even though it is the version reflected in a fun house mirror.