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Social Psychology: A Public Policy Blind Spot?

A recent NOVA episode ( pits the rational 
actor theorists within the discipline of Economics against the behaviorists.  As a sociologist,
I’ve always been more partial to the behaviorists’ approaches (like Gladwell and the 
Freakonomics folks) since I think that they better interpret the complexity of human behavior
that both drives and reacts to economic endeavors.  I thought that the rational actor theorists
seemed to be repeating themselves in the NOVA piece and that they did not have a very satisfying
explanation for the most recent bubble burst.  The behaviorists had better guesses, but they are
plagued by a tendency to do what are effectively neat psychological experiments and thereby to
point out interesting observations that are disconnected from any real theoretical base.  The result
was a rather unsatisfying end to the program:  the rational actors are wedded to an inflexible,
dated, rigid positivist model and thus have plenty of theory (and lots of mathematical models)
that fails to sufficiently explain actual economic behavior while the behaviorists have lots of data
and some interesting ideas about behavior but no theoretical engine to connect and drive
any of it.

What struck me in terms of relevance to our work here at IF is how hard it can be to model, or
represent, social psychological concerns within conceptual policy possibilities.  For instance,
one distilled concern that has come up in my Civil Rights Project is the idea that a lot of the efforts
to curtail a particular group’s rights seem to be driven by fear (i.e., fear of a _____
[black/brown/gay/communist hippie/etc.] planet).  Translating this into a conceptual policy
seems challenging:  you could say that the connected policy direction would be to reduce rights
and engage the fear dimension in the description, but this doesn’t feel completely satisfying.  
And yet, a conceptual policy possibility does not aspire to posit a means by which to
address/correct a social psychological concern.  Perhaps this is why things like the rational
actors’ approach more easily make their way into policy directions:  people are rational beings,
and if we just get out of the way, they will make rational economic choices that will drive a
healthy economy.  In fact, though, we do see a lot of reactive policy that is fear-driven:  
for instance, the sex offender registry (to which California is now debating the addition of an
animal cruelty registry).  A contrasting approach that acknowledges this fear but proposes a
different direction/response is less evident in terms of what it might look like as a policy.