Conception of Homo Economicus

We need to look at how economics, as portrayed in political discourse by way of simple narratives (i), is a fairy tale much like religion is.  To be fair, the field of economics is a science (ii) – assumptions are stated and predictions are made – but once ideas become repackaged as absolutes for use as rhetoric, as the “invisible hand” (v), then we must put them in their place, right next to religion.

Admittedly there is an aesthetic to economics – in its coherence and logic  – and I get why many economists are attracted to it.  But after looking at how deductive and assumption-laden neoclassical economics is, especially when presented formally, it is indeed a miracle that homo economicus (iii) survives at all.  Here, we will look at how its axioms create the rational man.


Types of Reasoning

It will be helpful to review the different types of reasoning we engage in before going any further.  When we make observations from our natural world to form more general conclusions, then we are reasoning inductively, and when we base our conclusions on reasoning alone without observation, then we are reasoning deductively.

In other words, deductive reasoning is to a philosopher as inductive reasoning is to a scientist.  In reality, we use both types of reasoning (iv) but a distinction is that deduction can work with claims that are not true but still be valid, as illustrated below.

  • All people are rational. [premise]
  • Jon is a person. [premise]
  • Therefore Jon is rational. [conclusion]

People can be rational, but if we know Jon, who can be irrational, then this conclusion can’t be true.  But it is still logically valid – that is, the conclusion follows from the premises.  This is how neoclassical economics works because they start with assumptions and then deduce models from it.  In fact, its appeal was because it claimed to be “completely axiomatized” akin to mathematics (see comment #2).


Axioms of Economics

Below are the three assumptions that the entire field is built upon, often referred to as axioms.  The first assumption says that “we have rational preferences” which means we can assign value to specific items or services.  More specifically, rational choice theory says that we pick outcomes that provide us with the greatest benefits and satisfaction given the choices available.

  1. we have rational preferences
  2. we maximize our utility
  3. we all have perfect information

The second assumption is that we “maximize our utility” or self-interest, which equates to rational choice theory defined above.  Note that as long as we consistently rank what choices are important, then the goals, which are based on our preferences and desires, can be anything per rational choice theory.

“Perfect information” means everyone has access to the same information on pricing and that we know our utility.  In conclusion, we have explained how the model for a rational actor works, known as homo economicusas it’s just a summary of the axioms.  To be succinct, it is a man that is consistently rational, self-interested, and who pursues his subjectively-defined ends optimally [6].


Notes:

i) I am referring to the simplified version used for political discourse purposes, which are a series of myths and narratives; for example, “government intervention is always bad” and the market is “infinitely wise”.

ii) If assumptions are explicit and neoclassical economics attempts to make predictions, then it at least deserves to be in the category of science.  The question should always be how well does it do its job and not framed in absolute terms.

iiI) Homo economicus is a model for how man makes decisions regarding his needs and wants.  The exact definition is a human agent who is consistently rational, narrowly self-interested, and who pursues their subjectively-defined ends optimally.  [6]

iv) Actually, we reason neither deductively nor inductively but through inference.  In fact, deduction and induction are human inventions that just so happen to have utility.  There is no such thing as “universal logic.”

v) I have argued that the “invisible hand” is more of a rhetorical device to promote neoliberalism policies than it is an economic insight.  I don’t want to, however, give the impression that it has no value because economists have given it utility.

It can refer to the increased or created utility for both the buyer and seller after a voluntary exchange of goods or services as well as driving competition amongst firms to meet our needs for lower prices, which results in commoditization [2].


References:

[1] Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. HMH Books.

[2] Frank, Robert H.. The Darwin Economy (p. 27). Princeton University Press.

[3] Kennedy, Gavin. Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth. Econ Journal Watch 6(2): 239–263.

[4] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics . University of Chicago Press.

[5] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[6] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rational_choice_theory

Redacting the “Invisible Hand”

For those that still have their doubts, I have provided the details on how Adam Smith’s idea of the “invisible hand” was redacted and used in Paul Samuelson’s book titled “Economics” which was the beginning of neoclassical economics.

Although Adam Smith did not say that those that act selfishly always benefit society, this does not mean the neoclassical interpretation doesn’t have some value, which we will explore in the next post.  As a preview, it’s insightful but not magical.


Paul Samuelson’s Concoction 

Adam Smith only mentions the “invisible hand” once within the “Wealth of Nations”, and it can be found below verbatim.  The non-blue, bold portion is what was cherry-picked and used by Paul Samuelson.

But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value, every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it. [Book IV, Chapter II, paragraph IX of The Wealth of Nations.]

The bold above in the original text was redacted to form the excerpt below and was inserted in the textbook “Economics” by Paul A. Samuelson – the book that made economics a science.  It appears that the role of self-interest was exalted but at the cost of excluding the sentiment of sympathy.

If we look at the italics in blue from the original, then we see what was omitted, namely the idea of domestic preference, or a “home bias”, which is an expression of compassion and camaraderie.  Smith claims that England’s sympathy towards domestic interests – home bias – would trump any losses from not investing abroad.

Every individual endeavors to employ his capital so that its produce may be of greatest value. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. He intends only his own security, only his own gain. And he is in this led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.  By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. [Economics by Paul Samuelson]

Now let’s read Paul Samuelson’s take on the “invisible hand” which can also be found in his textbook “Economics”.  This stands in stark contrast to what Adam Smith said and this could be what started the generalization that selfish behavior always leads to good outcomes and that government interference is always bad, or as Samuelson says “injurious”.

“The Wealth of Nations” (1776) , represents the beginning of modern economics or political economy-even he was so thrilled by the recognition of an order in the economic system that he proclaimed the mystical principle of the “invisible hand”: that each individual in pursuing his own selfish good was led, as if by an invisible hand, to achieve the best good of all, so that any interference with free competition by government was almost certain to be injurious[Economics by Paul Samuelson]


References:

[1] Chomsky, Noam.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_hand

[2] Foster, Peter.  Biting the Invisible Hand: An Interview with Peter Foster.  FEE.org.

[3] Foster, Peter. Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism . Pleasaunce Press.

[4] Frank, Robert H.. The Darwin Economy. Princeton University Press.

[5] Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom . University of Chicago Press.

[6] Friedman, Milton. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. HMH Books.

[7] Goodwin. Harris. Nelson.  Microeconomics in Context.  Fourth Edition.

[8] Kennedy, Gavin. Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth. Econ Journal Watch 6(2): 239–263.

[9] Kennedy, Gavin. “A Reply to Daniel Klein on Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand”. Econ Journal Watch 6(3): 374–388.

[10] Klein, Daniel B. In “Adam Smith’s Invisible Hands: Comment on Gavin Kennedy”. Econ Journal Watch 6(2): 264–279.

[11] Klein, Daniel B. Economists Misplaced Faith in the Invisible Hand.  FEE.org.

[12] Lucas, Brandon, Klein, Daniel B. In a Word or Two, Placed in the Middle: the Invisible Hand in Smith’s Tomes. George Mason University Department of Economics Research Paper No. 09-02

[13] Meeropol, Micheal. Another Distortion of Adam Smith: The Case of the “Invisible Hand”.  Research Gate.

[14] Optiz, Edman. Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand.  FEE.org.

[15] Samuels, Warren J. Erasing the Invisible Hand . Cambridge University Press.

[16] Schlefer, Jonathan.  There Is No Invisible Hand.  Harvard Business Review.

[17] Schlefer, Jonathan.  Today’s Most Mischievous Misquotation.  Adam Smith did not mean what he is often made to say.  The Atlantic.

[18] Skousen, Mark. Adam Smith Reveals His (Invisible) Hand.  Foundation for Economic Education.

[19] Ullmann-Margalit, Edna.  The Invisible Hand and the Cunning of Reason.  The Johns Hopkins University Press.

 

Adam Smith Means to Say

It is embarrassing that our culture still wants to believe that Adam Smith’s message was that markets always produce good outcomes for society when we maximize our self-interest.  Because he never said it and in fact argued against it.  It has become our folklore to our own demise, and our ignorance has been exploited by policymakers ever since its invention(i).

The historian Warren J Samuels helps here by giving us an appreciation for the sophistication of Adam Smith.  I underscore sophistication because either a selective reading of primary sources or a biased selection of secondary sources will result in a lopsided and shallow understanding of the very nuanced, and at times contradictory, arguments that Adam Smith presents (ii).

However much ideological filtration may have distorted and emasculated Smith’s analysis, his was a first-rate intelligence and his was a brilliant accomplishment – one that has been infrequently attempted and even more rarely achieved. [14]


What Economists Mean to Say

There are some distinctive qualities about Smith’s writings to admit to regardless of our political leanings.  Smith most certainly stood for self-interest, but not selfishness (iv), and free enterprise, as noted below, but that doesn’t mean his ideas didn’t come with caveats.
Let there be no mistake about acknowledging the obvious: Adam Smith most distinctively stood for private enterprise, private property, self-interest, voluntary exchange, the limited state, and the market. [14]

But economists generalized the original meaning based on their fancy for the concept of self-interest.  Gavin Kennedy, a historian of economics, explains how this generalized idea is not in line with what Adam Smith said.

It was a post-war invention that Smith’s “self-interested behavior by individuals leads them to the social good, almost as if orchestrated by an invisible hand”, especially that it is formulated by Kaushik Basu (and Samuelson, et al) as “selfish” behaviour , which is an idea antipathetic to Smith’s moral sentiments. [7]

Jonathan Schlefer, a political scientist, explains how the content of Adam Smith’s idea was redacted.  This was then presented in the text “Economics” by Paul Samuelson in 1950 and is known to be what made neoclassical economics a science.

Paul A. Samuelson and William D. Nordhaus concocted a typical variant of Smith’s actual remarks. They pulled them from the midst of a paragraph hundreds of pages into The Wealth of Nations, presumed to streamline the prose by chopping and splicing without using ellipses, and elevated the result into the theme of Smith’s entire thousand-page book. [16]


What Adam Smith Means to Say

If we don’t understand what Smith means to say, instead of what we mean to him to have said, then we repeat the narrow interpretation of neoclassical economics. The most common way we mean him to have said is that ” markets always harness individual self-interest to produce the greatest good for society as a whole.” [3]

He was far too savvy to make an absurd generalization like that. Whether any individual’s actions when “pursuing their own interests” would have beneficial outcomes for “society at large” would entirely depend on the consequences of their actions. [7]

When we look at what Adam Smith says in both “Wealth of Nations” and “Theory of Moral Sentiments” – where “invisible hand” is mentioned only once in each book – we see how he argued against self-interest for certain cases.

Whether actions motivated by greed (Mandeville, Ayn Rand, and others), were “beneficial” depends on circumstances. Indeed, Smith gives over 70 examples of non-beneficial outcomes for society from the actions of self-interested individuals in Books I, II, and III, of Wealth Of Nations and book IV is a detailed (and “violent”) polemic against the self-interest actions of “merchants and manufacturers’ that were decidedly non-beneficial for society at large. [7]

The metaphor specifically addresses the tension of his day felt amongst merchants when sending domestic capital abroad (iii).  But Adam Smith’s claim is nothing more than a statement about GNP, and it is neither synergistic nor magical.

Smith’s example of the “invisible hand” (in his case, the “insecurity” felt by traders for foreign trade) adds to what we call GNP – the whole is the sum of its parts, that’s all. [7]


Notes:

i) This was not a conspiracy on the part of neoclassical economics.  Economists redacted and simplified Smith’s arguments in a way that favored the role of self-interest, intentionally or unintentionally, is anyone’s guess.

A discipline was then built based on the axiomatic idea that man maximizes his utility (self-interest) – a half-truth theory on human behavior.  So self-interest gets centerstage and caveats are suppressed.

This is a problem because our culture understands the “invisible hand” in an all-encompassing way – as a law of nature and of markets – and policymakers take advantage of this.

ii) I did not “wrestle” with the primary sources because I have chosen an even distribution of both “left” and “right” leaning economists, historians, and political philosophers who have devoted their lives to this very topic.

iii) Most specifically, the benefits that Smith claims when he says “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention” is the merchants’ unintentional “adding to domestic capital and employment”. [7]

These were the public benefits mentioned by Adam Smith as an unstated consequence of the simple quantitative rule that the “whole is the sum of its parts”. [7]

iv) “Smith never proclaimed in favor of ‘selfishness’, nor did he describe the actions of merchants as ‘selfish’; he always recognized ‘self-interest’, which he never confused with ‘selfishness’, an attribute of Bernard Mandeville’s philosophy (Mandeville 1988), which smith regarded as ‘licentious’ (TMS, 306-14).” [7]


References:

[1] Foster, Peter.  Biting the Invisible Hand: An Interview with Peter Foster.  FEE.org.

[2] Foster, Peter. Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism . Pleasaunce Press.

[3] Frank, Robert H.. The Darwin Economy. Princeton University Press.

[4] Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom . University of Chicago Press.

[5] Friedman, Milton. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. HMH Books.

[6] Goodwin. Harris. Nelson.  Microeconomics in Context.  Fourth Edition.

[7] Kennedy, Gavin. Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth. Econ Journal Watch 6(2): 239–263.

[8] Kennedy, Gavin. “A Reply to Daniel Klein on Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand”. Econ Journal Watch 6(3): 374–388.

[9] Klein, Daniel B. In “Adam Smith’s Invisible Hands: Comment on Gavin Kennedy”. Econ Journal Watch 6(2): 264–279.

[10] Klein, Daniel B. Economists Misplaced Faith in the Invisible Hand.  FEE.org.

[11] Lucas, Brandon, Klein, Daniel B. In a Word or Two, Placed in the Middle: the Invisible Hand in Smith’s Tomes. George Mason University Department of Economics Research Paper No. 09-02

[12] Meeropol, Micheal. Another Distortion of Adam Smith: The Case of the “Invisible Hand”.  Research Gate.

[13] Optiz, Edman. Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand.  FEE.org.

[14] Samuels, Warren J. Erasing the Invisible Hand . Cambridge University Press.

[15] Schlefer, Jonathan.  There Is No Invisible Hand.  Harvard Business Review.

[16] Schlefer, Jonathan.  Today’s Most Mischievous Misquotation.  Adam Smith did not mean what he is often made to say.  The Atlantic.

[17] Skousen, Mark. Adam Smith Reveals His (Invisible) Hand.  Foundation for Economic Education.

[18] Ullmann-Margalit, Edna.  The Invisible Hand and the Cunning of Reason.  The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sleight of the “Invisible Hand”

This idea usually takes on the meaning that those who act in their self-interest provide unintended consequences that betters society at large.  If it wasn’t for Warren Samuel’s quote below reminding me how easily we are influenced through the “reiteration” and “invocation” of ideas, I would have forgotten how powerful a rhetorical device the “invisible hand” is for politicians and pundits.

The foundation of our society is not the predominance of falsity and pretense. The reiteration and invocation of terms like “free market” and “rule of law” as well as “invisible hand” distract attention from the key issues of policy and empower those with selective perception and selective specification. [12]


Social Control

The debate on the significance and meaning of the metaphor that Adam Smith uses in the Wealth of Nations reminds me of the battle in exegesis over the authors’ meaning in Genesis I and II.  The answer is we can never be sure of the authors’ intentions unless we ask them, and we all use our own heuristics to evaluate and interpret text.

We may prefer a literal over a figurative interpretation or place an emphasis on how context shapes meaning but often forget that our motivations cause us to favor one over the other.  It is predictable when fundamentalists interpret Genesis I and II in a way that serves their interests, and we should expect the same when evaluating “left” versus “right” economists on the “invisible hand”.

I don’t have a stake in an economic camp and put an equal amount of time into an unbiased selection of sources.  And a surprising result was that most economists, right or left, fall in line with the idea that it’s a metaphor.  The only difference is that those on the “right” use it as a rhetorical device to show the magic of markets and those on the “left” are quick to point out that it doesn’t exist.

This sums the “invisible hand” up to be nothing more than an obfuscation that acts as a rhetorical device for social control.  Persuasion is not always a bad thing if the ideology is good, but my cost-benefit analysis of capitalism is still lightyears away.

Much invisible-hand reasoning assumes the invisible hand to be a definition of reality, as well as part of the social belief system operating as psychic balm and social control. The invisible hand projected by such reasoning is believed to be in part about the economy but is also of the economy, part of the process of working things out.  The rhetoric or belief system of the invisible hand is a self-projection of western civilization and the modern economy – an aspect of culture that resonates with, reflects, and reinforces other aspects. [12]


References:

[1] Foster, Peter.  Biting the Invisible Hand: An Interview with Peter Foster.  FEE.org.

[2] Foster, Peter. Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism . Pleasaunce Press.

[3] Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom . University of Chicago Press.

[4] Friedman, Milton. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. HMH Books.

[5] Kennedy, Gavin. Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand: From Metaphor to Myth. Econ Journal Watch 6(2): 239–263.

[6] Kennedy, Gavin. “A Reply to Daniel Klein on Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand”. Econ Journal Watch 6(3): 374–388.

[7] Klein, Daniel B. In “Adam Smith’s Invisible Hands: Comment on Gavin Kennedy”. Econ Journal Watch 6(2): 264–279.

[8] Klein, Daniel B. Economists Misplaced Faith in the Invisible Hand.  FEE.org.

[9] Lucas, Brandon, Klein, Daniel B. In a Word or Two, Placed in the Middle: the Invisible Hand in Smith’s Tomes. George Mason University Department of Economics Research Paper No. 09-02

[10] Meeropol, Micheal. Another Distortion of Adam Smith: The Case of the “Invisible Hand”.  Research Gate.

[11] Optiz, Edman. Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand.  FEE.org.

[12] Samuels, Warren J. Erasing the Invisible Hand . Cambridge University Press.

[13] Schlefer, Jonathan.  There Is No Invisible Hand.  Harvard Business Review.

[14] Schlefer, Jonathan.  Today’s Most Mischievous Misquotation.  Adam Smith did not mean what he is often made to say.  The Atlantic.

[15] Skousen, Mark. Adam Smith Reveals His (Invisible) Hand.  Foundation for Economic Education.

[16] Ullmann-Margalit, Edna.  The Invisible Hand and the Cunning of Reason.  The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Chomsky on Friedman’s Freedom

This is not an argument against libertarianism, so don’t jump to the conclusion that because the analysis is done on certain aspects of capitalism that I must be making denunciations.  And for those that find themselves getting defensive over a critique, they should do a personal inventory on where they are investing their emotion because it’s that very deposit that causes divisiveness.

This post assumes you are familiar with Noam Chomsky’s perception of the world.


Friedman’s Freedom

If you read Milton Friedman and other apostles of libertarianism, they don’t call for democracy but freedoma very restrictive concept of freedom.  It’s a freedom not of a working person to control their lives and work and so on, but it is their freedom to submit themselves to a higher authority. [2]

Chomsky is saying that libertarianism’s view on freedom has much irony because by submitting to a corporation, we are giving up some freedoms.  Admittedly I never thought of it like this, but he does point out the obvious quite well for those that may have missed it.

And for those that say people have a choice to not work for a company, then they are using an incorrect definition of free will for the sake of their argument.  The idea of free will has been distorted by libertarians to make their arguments work much like theologians do on their arguments for God.  People do make choices, but they are not made in the rational way they claim.

They are in favor of private tyranny—the worst kind of tyranny—tyranny by unaccountable private concentrations of wealth.  They mean—maybe they don’t understand it but if you think it through it’s pretty obvious—the kind of government interference they want to block is the kind that wouldn’t permit unconstrained tyranny on the part of totally unaccountable entities, which is what corporations are [2]

“They”, the modern libertarians, are for the tyrannical corporation of course.  I have mixed opinions on the corporation but do see much benefit to them.  Chomsky, on the other hand, apparently believes that the benefits don’t outweigh the costs.

Companies do have human features since they are often unaccountable, ignore externalities, driven for self, and are legal entities with rights.  This does make them just as dangerous as we are but like not every human is destined to be a tyrant neither is a company.


References

[1] Chomsky, Noam. Requiem for the American Dream . Seven Stories Press.

[2] Chomsky, Noam. YouTube one.  Youtube two.

[3] Mele, Alfred R.. Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Freewill. Oxford University Press.

[4] Miles, James B.. The Free Will Delusion: How We Settled for the Illusion of Morality. Matador.

Profiling Chomsky

Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

Is Noam Chomsky just another liberal who uncritically inherited the left-leanings of his academic colleagues?  I doubt it as he has devoted his life to understanding the structure and origin of human language—in fact, he is the “father of linguistics” and founder of cognitive science—and is most likely well aware of his biases against power, authority, and conformity.

Chomsky has a personality that emphasizes compassion, individuality, and resentment for control.  The negative experiences he has had with others serve to validate these attitudes.  His meekness – being easily pushed around – reinforces a need for subversion, and the fact that he often doesn’t meet our popular culture’s standards makes conformity unpleasant.

So knowing someone’s personality traits and past experiences will help us understand why they focus on things that others may find absurd.  We can’t deny how he sees the world, as that is called invalidation, but we can see if what he feels and thinks conforms to a wider reality.  And it turns out that it does because most liberals share the same attitudes.

Chomsky on Playing Fair

Noam Chomsky is a great orator if you get him and that means you must share his contempt towards unjustified power.  If you don’t and instead have unabashed exuberance and pride towards the United States, such that you wouldn’t ever criticize it, then you will hate him and call him an anarchistic, left-winged, socialist nut.

His writings and speeches—all shaped by his disdain for hegemony—are the epitome of diatribes but serve the purpose of reminding us that we too must look in the mirror.  And not only does Chomsky tell us that hypocrisy escapes no one, but he also provides us with deep social and economic analyses even if in a bitter package.

It is perplexing to me how so many conservatives are turned off by him because he connotes radical liberalism, yet he is arguably one of the greatest thinkers of our time.  But just because I value his critical thinking skills and astute ability to point out our moral failings, this does not mean I’m a raging socialist as I like my 65″ OLED Sony made possible by market-based principles.


Competition and Our Values

Chomsky’s message that power systems can and often times do exploit and subordinate by creating social hierarchies should be listened to (i).  And here below he comes across as a radical much like Jesus would have when advocating “turning the other cheek”.  Think about how foreign this must sound to staunch believers in free markets and the pursuit of self-interest to better all.

Milton Friedman’s interpretation of the success of market systems is historically wrong, and his faith in market systems to achieve desirable ends is grossly mistaken.

And I don’t accept his values either. I don’t think the ability to succeed in a system of competition is much of a value to be admired.  [3]

Despite the proverbial economic pie being a positive summed game when we gain wealth, this does not mean those disparities that competitive-based systems create, which are a feature of capitalism, do not have measurable effects yet to be clarified (ii).  And like or hate Chomsky’s values, he highlights certain aspects of our human nature quite well.


We Did Not Always Play Fair

What about the idea that most hegemonic economies, like the US and England before it, built their economies on the “backs of others” and didn’t attempt to follow the rules of laissez-faire until they were powerful enough to risk it.  From protectionism to slaved labor, the US did not play fairly and has no right to boast about being a beacon of capitalism until after WWII.

Through massive state intervention, US was a pioneer in protectionism to protect the textile and steel industries from superior British technology and production while stealing technologies from them.

The US economy was built on vicious and murderous slaved labor.  The slaved labor camps in the South producing cotton would have impressed the nazis and was a violent intrusion in market systems.  [3]

We could even argue that the genocide of the indigenous population that came before us was a violation of free-market principles.  But those in power often do what they can get away with and always justified in the name of nationalism, economic interests, and religion.

Cleaning the continent of its indigenous inhabitants is a serious interference of the state on economic systems since they had an economy. The idea that economies developed from market systems is so grossly false that you can hardly even talk about it[3]


Notes

i) Human social hierarchies are complex and wax and wane between agonic—dominance-based and uses the threat of force and aggression—and hedonic—affiliative-based on mutual benefit through positive displays—scenarios.

Just because macroeconomic principles claim that if we pursue our selfish interests that everyone will benefit, this does not mean that conflicts of interest don’t arise from everyone pursuing the same things – positions, high salaries, desirable mates, and friends.

ii) The study of happiness and wellbeing is still in its infancy and there is much to say on how unconscious social comparisons tax our mind and body—by increasing cortisol circulation and down-regulating serotonin receptors—to create a lower mood and accommodate us to a lower rank.


References

[1] Boehm, Christopher. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior . Harvard University

[2] Chomsky, Noam. Requiem for the American Dream . Seven Stories Press.

[3] Chomsky, Noam. YouTube one.  Youtube two.

[4] Deaton, Angus. The Great Escape. Princeton University Press.

[5] Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome . Henry Holt and Co..

[6] Quartz, Steven. Cool. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[7] Wilkinson, Richard G. . The Inner Level. Penguin Publishing Group.

[8] Wilkinson, Richard. The Spirit Level. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Constructed Reality

Modern neuroscience is challenging innatism—think evolutionary psychology—with their findings on how our emotions work.  The bottom line is that our emotions are not hardwired (i) at least not in the sense we were sold.  The proponent of the theory, Lisa Feldman Barrett Ph.D., tells a lucid story in “How Emotions are Made” on how the mind constructs emotions minus the fingerprint (i) requirement.

I will explain here how motivated reasoning (v) corrupted the science of the day while the next post will look at how Dr. Barrett cleverly uses language to promote her theory but at the cost of misrepresenting others’.  It brings up the disturbing idea, at least for the strict innatists, that our realities are constructed purely by statistical reasoning and interoception and that our emotions are only valid in so much that there is a collective agreement.  

This is particularly important because it shows how researchers were motivated to reinterpret findings and even architect experiments to conform to their faith in innatism.  But judging by Dr. Barrett’s interest in constructionism, she too is motivated to reinterpret studies and prove the status quo—Plato, Steven Pinker, Charles Darwin (ii), and Paul Ekman—wrong but nevertheless shows a genuine passion to accurately characterize our emotional states.


Motivated for a Fingerprint

Darwin’s theory of evolution says that differences found within a species are not errors from the ideal-type but are necessary ingredients for natural selection to work.  So the ideal species is better seen as a statistical average (iii) where individual members of the species vary from this average in, sometimes, important ways.

This insight that an ideal-type doesn’t exist matters because our emotions are best viewed in the same way.  It was ignored, however, when the philosopher John Dewey, a Darwinist, reframed William James’ work on emotions to conform to the ideas of essentialism (iv).

Dewey’s misinterpretation of James is one of the great mistakes in modern psychology, forged by essentialism in the name of Darwin. [1]

The irony is that Darwin’s theory was arguing against essentialism since it was saying that there was no essence or ideal-type.  But Dewey’s motivations were philosophical and so labeled the essence a fingerprint since it was thought to be unique and exist in all of us.  But no fingerprint for emotion has ever been found.


Architecting a Fingerprint

The idea that emotions have a fingerprint exists today as the classical theory of emotions.  But studies conducted to prove this was in a way architected [1].  In other words, they allowed their experimental method to be influenced by their philosophy (iv).  Let me explain how the study was contrived.

Researchers knew that at least seven emotions had fingerprints.  The experiments required that participants choose from a list of emotions when trying to guess the emotion conveyed.  This list was not random but handpicked and consequently improved the accuracy for guessing the correct emotion.

There were also opportunities for non-Westerners to learn the meaning of our stereotyped emotions before being given the list.  Moreover, the list itself was providing them with emotional concepts that acted as cues that experimenters didn’t take into account.  The researchers still succeeded, however, at replicating the studies with the faulty methodology and proved innateness.

But using more sophisticated techniques from neuroscience to measure our emotions shows that they are more like variations of a theme than fingerprints.  That is we construct emotions by using learned concepts and no one instance of emotion is the same although a category of emotion, say anger, seems to converge to some average distribution.


Notes

i) The book takes innate in the most strict sense where each emotion must have a similar neurological pathway and be universally expressed and recognized across all cultures.  The word fingerprint is alluding to a predefined pathway that is expressed in everyone the same way.

ii) Darwin’s insight that there is no ideal species but rather a prototype instead would have helped innatists, but they relied on the book in which Darwin got it wrong, namely “Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”.  He speculated that there were universal emotions but portrayed it in a way that betrays the anti-essentialism he was expressing in “On the Origin of Species”.

iii) A statistical average is not real but abstract.  We can think of the ideal species as being the statistical average, and the members of the ideal species as data points in an experiment that all vary from the ideal or average.

iv) Essentialism is a philosophical belief that any entity has a definable and finite set of properties that make it what it is but claims that it is science’s role to figure out what that is.  Staunchly holding to this belief, however, led to faulty experiments and conclusions.

v) Motivated reasoning is a confirmation bias.  And despite cognitive science labeling, it is a ‘cognitive distortion’, it is a feature of the mind and is how it works.  Fortunately, our motivated hypotheses are challenged by others if not trapped in the same dogma.


References

[1] Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. HMH Books.

Brief Thoughts on: “That’s right.  Psychology isn’t science.”

My hunch that this opinion is common was finally clinched after reading a dated piece a microbiologist wrote for the LA Times who claims: “That’s right.  Psychology isn’t science.”  

I will not, however, be critiquing the author’s article until the next post but will briefly discuss tactics and motivation.


My Take on “That’s right.”

When we embed emotion within our claims, as the above clearly does, then we are using rhetorical devices meant to persuade and thus give others reason for skepticism.  This does not of course preclude us from being correct, but it does tell others we are determined to win an argument.

This claim panders to the ego since the slanter (i) used for effect is the inflated variant of pride known as hubris.  Hubris shows when we self-aggrandize and pride shows when we achieve for its own sake.  So do we think the microbiologist will be fair when evaluating psychology against the five criteria if he is driven to impress and using motivated reasoning (ii)?

Underneath it all, however, there is most certainly contempt and this is the prime motivator as you need a strong catalyst to fuel a diatribe.  The secondary motivator is to impress and dazzle his audience which is reinforced by feelings of hubris upon reflecting how his finished product will come across to others (iv).

I could be wrong on intentions, but we still end up with a finite sample space (iii) on motivations: he is either motivated to impress and win or motivated to be objective and fair.  These two motivations aren’t compatible, so he can’t be both but could still be right regardless of motivation.


Notes:

i) A slanter is figurative speech meant to manipulate the reader by appealing to our emotions.

ii) Motivated reasoning is when we focus on what we want the conclusion to be and are not objective and fair with the evidence nor do we consider alternative explanations.

iii) The expanded sample space includes two more possibilities: motivated to impress and be fair and objective or motivated to win and be fair and be objective.  This is unlikely based on the content though.

iv) This is not meant to be a definitive and exhaustive list as it is just my first impressions.  Claiming to know someone’s intentions is a cognitive distortion labeled as “mind-reading”, and I don’t have that power.

Ranking on Psychology

Doubts towards Psychology

I have had doubts about personality psychology’s ability to define traits because of the difficulty in controlling for situational factors as well as, more recently, the methodologies that social psychology has been using, or not using, which has resulted in a replication crisis.  But to say it is pseudoscience is not only discouraging honest inquiry into a field that asks important questions about our nature but is also, quite frankly, interesting enough in its own right to write about.

I am reminded of the time I was schooled by someone on the field of medicine as being the “hard” science whereas psychology was the “soft” science if one at all.  The contemptuous tone and smug face made it all the more memorable which served to not just stoop my posture but also to taunt me.  I was hoping for rational discourse but instead provoked a reaction that I have no doubt seen before when challenging others, and I soon realized that I was engaging in tribal warfare guise as truth-seeking.


Not Judging Just Saying

I am guilty too of using contempt as some of my posts have been described as “vitriolic” and “scornful”.  But I’m more careful now in how I present topics so that issues can be discussed without severing our prefrontal cortex.  To be clear, I am not judging those who use contempt but instead am offering analysis on the emotion of contempt.  I would like to understand it and assess if the benefits of its use – stoking our own egos and bolstering our tribe’s beliefs – outweigh the costs.

By discussing psychology’s progress towards understanding our emotions, part I, we will be able to say at the very least that the field attempts to be a science since it asks questions on how things work and accumulates a body of knowledge, and at the very most, part II, we can say it meets the five criteria often cited to qualify an endeavor as a science.

Furthermore, the question should not be framed in terms of absolutes, as that only serves the victor when disparaging it, but rather to what degree does it adhere to these five criteria.

Stay tuned!