1792. Behaviorism in economics

The embrace by some in economics of “behaviorism” is a serious deja vu for me. When I was in grad school in psychology the struggle was between behaviorism and cognitive approaches, such as Piaget’s. Behaviorism was the view that we should model what people and animals do, not speculate on what was going on inside their minds.

There was a clever experiment, never got much recognition, in the 193’s by Marjorie Honzig. The idea she was combating was that animals (rats) learned by connecting actions in chains that could be “reinforced”by rewards. Marjorie filled a maze with water, put some rats on a barge and dragged it sound the maze past the “starting gate” and past the rewards; drained the maze and put the rats at the start and they read right to the rewards.

The movement of behaviorism stripped attempts at understanding , say a child learning to read, of any internal structure of mind. I this way everything “human” such as emotion, feeling, dreams, empathy, were culled out.

The tendency is the same in modern behavior approached in economics. We deal with observables, not speculation about the human.

This is part of the long trend in economics to deal with the physics like flow of forces rather than with society, psychology, identity, human solidarity and culture, anthropology and history, or the literature of say Dickens and Stendhal . (This trend, not so innocent, supports the conservative view that government should not interfere with a natural ((not social)) process).

The founder of behaviorism, John Watson, was fired from John Hopkins of amorous activity in the labs, went to advertising and did things like coined “coffee break” and ran programs to get women to smoke.

So it is painful for me to see behaviorism reborn when I thought we had killed it off. Of course in psych the humanism won by the cognitive turn was overtaken by the computerization of cognition. There are careers in calculability.

A student is hired to participate in an economics experiment.  We watch what they do sitting in a cubicle. What we fail to grasp is that the response that brought there: money, curiosity, its where   the girls are, are ignored even if more real, and rational,  than the questions explored in the experiment.


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