our species’ capacity for wide behavioral variability appears to be uniquely derived. No other ani

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Real Science? Skepticism Over Behavioral Econ + “Nudge” Theories

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We have voiced the same concerns about a theory and set of ideas that quickly became pop and media favorites without the hard years of testing and experimentation needed by any new theory.  Perhaps the British are more honest about the challenges.  We favor cognitive neuroscience models and theories.

There just is no peer-reviewed evidence.

There are also some serious ethical and ideological questions about the development of behavioral economic theories.

“It is of course open to question whether any of this will have any effect whatsoever. I don’t want to pretend that behavioural science is a sufficiently developed science to give us complete confidence or even sort of 95% confidence that any given technique will produce given results.

Here is the article from the Guardian:

‘Nudge unit’ not guaranteed to work, says Oliver Letwin FEB. 20, 2011

Oliver Letwin, the minister for government policy, has admitted that a £500,000 “nudge unit” formed to apply the behavioural economics theory that people’s habits can be improved without regulation is experimental and there is no concrete evidence that it will work.

Letwin told a committee of peers in the House of Lords that the unit, which is supposed to influence Whitehall policymaking, is not guaranteed to work, but that it was low cost with “almost zero risk” involved. The Cabinet Office, in which the group is based, confirmed that the nudge unit has seven government employees and costs £520,000 a year.

The unit, known formally as the Behavioural Insight Team, is run by David Halpern, a former adviser in Tony Blair’s strategy unit who is paid £100,000 a year. Advice is being given by Richard Thaler, the Chicago professor generally recognised as popularising nudge theory – the idea that governments can design environments that make it easier for people to choose what is best for themselves and society.

Letwin told the Lords science committee, which is conducting an inquiry into behaviour change:

  • “It is of course open to question whether any of this will have any effect whatsoever. I don’t want to pretend that behavioural science is a sufficiently developed science to give us complete confidence or even sort of 95% confidence that any given technique will produce given results.
  • It isn’t that way. As a matter of fact the science of investigating regulation isn’t sufficiently developed to give you that either.
  • But I think it is extremely clear that it is pretty cost-free to do these things, pretty straight forward to do them so that if they don’t produce any result we won’t have lost much.”

The disclosure follows a critical National Audit Office report on regulation that said the nudge unit had failed to convince a single Whitehall department to make use of its ideas so far. “The Cabinet Office told us that it has not been consulted by departments to date about possible alternatives to regulation at the assessment stage,” it said.

Letwin told the committee that the team were working on five key projects:

  • how to improve organ donations,
  • stopping smoking,
  • car labelling to make energy efficiency more conspicuous,
  • food hygiene and
  • a charitable project to improve donations. The unit is looking at a gift scheme in which consumers are offered the chance to donate their change to charity to make casual giving easier.

He said the common features of the schemes were that they involved “prompted choice” rather than regulating.

How Groups Are Successful – Hint: It’s Not Individual "Leaders"Boston Globe

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This is highly relevant to investment decision making especially among employees where group decisions are often the most important.

Group IQ – The Boston Globe

  • Researchers are finding hints about how individual people contribute to make a group creative and successful.
  • Intuitively, we still attribute too much to individuals and not enough to groups.
  • The proportion of women in the group was a predictor of collective intelligence
  • Group intelligence is highly malleable and that concrete steps — such as mixing newcomers into an established team or not allowing a single leader to dominate — could fundamentally alter the group’s intelligence.
  • Teams of people display a collective intelligence that has surprisingly little to do with the intelligence of the team’s individual members
  • Group intelligence is not strongly tied to either the average intelligence of the members or the team’s smartest member
  • Collective intelligence was more than just an arbitrary score: When the group grappled with a complex task it was an excellent predictor of how well the team performed.

The new work is part of a growing body of research that focuses on understanding collective behavior and intelligence — an increasingly relevant topic of research in an age where everything from scientific progress to entrepreneurial success hinges on collaboration.

Intuitively, we still attribute too much to individuals and not enough to groups.  

Part of that may just be that it’s simpler; it’s simpler to say the success of a company depended on the CEO for good or bad, but in reality the success of a company depends on a whole lot more.  Essentially what’s happening as our society becomes more advanced and more developed is that more things are done by groups of people than by individuals.

In a certain sense, our intuitions about how that works haven’t caught up with the reality of modern life.”

The new research suggests it may one day be possible to give a test to a sales team and predict how well it will sell in the following year, or to pick a management team with a good sense of exactly how it is likely to respond to an array of challenges.

What the researchers found was that:

  • groups’ collective intelligence strongly predicted how well they did evidence that something called “collective intelligence” did in fact exist
  • What was more surprising, however, was that neither the average intelligence of the group members nor the person with the greatest intelligence strongly predicted how well the group did.

Other tenets of group success also seemed to fall by the wayside:

  • A group’s motivation, satisfaction, and unity were unimportant
  • when a group had a high level of collective intelligence, the members tended to score well on a test that measured how good they were at reading other people’s emotions.

They also found that groups with overbearing leaders who were reluctant to cede the floor and let the others talk did worse than those in which participation was better distributed and people took turns speaking.

And they also found that the proportion of women in the group was a predictor of collective intelligence — a factor they believe was likely influenced by women’s generally superior social sensitivity.

  • The tendency to assign credit to a discrete individual, not a group, runs deep. 
  • People gravitate toward stories of individuals who matter, despite the fact that much of human history has been shaped not by one person at a time but by networks of people, whether they are bands of hunter-gatherers or corporations.

Instead of seeing groups as nameless and faceless affiliations that swallow up an individual’s identity, the new work on collective behavior suggests that in company lies opportunity.

The field of intelligence testing has long been controversial, in part because of concerns that such scores were crude and biased, pigeon-holing people as stupid or smart. In contrast, collective intelligence offers a new spectrum of possibilities. Instead of pronouncing a person’s intellectual engine good or bad, the research suggests that group intelligence is highly malleable and that concrete steps — such as mixing newcomers into an established team or not allowing a single leader to dominate — could fundamentally alter the group’s intelligence.

More broadly:

  • groups and the complex social structure of human interactions may help account for how people got “smart” in the first place
  • The dramatic changes in science, culture, art, language, technology, and music over the past thousand years are not due to the development of brand-new mental or physical capacities. 
  • Instead, it is a particular kind of group benefit in which human progress bootstraps upon itself through a collective cultural memory
  • Knowledge ratchets up in successive generations without our having to reinvent technologies, discover laws of nature anew, or risk tasting all the mushrooms in the forest.

The Cultural Cognition and Understanding of Risk

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This looks useful for addressing communciations issues with investment risk perceptions as well as any science and technical information based decision-making, e.g., medicine

Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to:

  • fit their perceptions of risk and related factual beliefs to their shared moral evaluations of putatively dangerous activities
  • The cultural cognition thesis asserts that individuals are psychologically disposed to believe that behavior they (and their peers) find honorable is socially beneficial and behavior they find base socially detrimental

The cultural theory of risk posits that: 

  • individuals can be expected to form risk perceptions that reflect and reinforce one or another idealized ‘way of life’ Continue reading