The problem with behavioral economics

One more small point. It’s an obvious point, but too often forgotten. The way that someone speaks in a given context — including the context of the phonetics lab — is not a fixed and invariant property of their individual essence. It’s a way of behaving that depends not only on who they are, but also on what they’re saying, where they’re saying it, why they’re saying it, and who the audience is. Among other things.

Language Log

Similarly, because someone has funny preferences in the economist’s lab, wagering with small dollar amounts for example, doesn’t mean they have funny preferences in general. Economic behavior “in a given context is not a fixed and invariant property of their individual essence.”

But in general, in order to understand behavioral measurements from human groups, whether biologically or culturally defined, we need to think about what the contexts were, and how the people interpreted and responded to them. And whatever we learn about the group effects, we need to remember one of Martin Luther King’s other memorable phrases:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.


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