Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cognitive scientists as policy advisors

If there is a social science that sees as its birth right to advise on matter of policy then it's Economics. From cold war strategy to inflation-fighting to abortion, economists have been advising policy for over a century.

They should better watch their backs now, for the cognitive scientists are coming.

In a way, economists are already cognitive scientists. They study people's (or animals'--but these are called ecologists) behavior in the aggregate. Two fundamental pillars of classical economics are the ideas of (i) incentive systems and (ii) utility.

Incentives assume that people will tend to do what they get incentives for, and will tend to inhibit their behavior if a negative incentive is there. Sticks and carrots, sticks and carrots. This insight, of course, is the behaviorist insight: treat the mind as a stimulus-response black box. Incentive systems work most of the time. Sometimes they backfire, as in "perverse incentives" which actually encourage people to do exactly the opposite of the intended policy.

I have come to believe that the mind has three distinct feedback systems, and incentives apply to just one of them, an hedonic system. Give a shock to a mouse, and the poor creature will learn not to do whatever it was doing. Stimulate it's brain's pleasure center, and, like a heroine addict, mice will ignore food and sexy females, fancying themselves all the way to their death. Inhibitions act as if they were sending a global halt message to the brain's numerous activities, and hedonically good incentives will bring computer-loopy types of behavior.

This is a good insight, of course, but it is not sufficient to explain (and predict) behavior. More is needed. We need to look inside the black box.

Utility is related, but different. It concerns different preferences that different people may have. I like nurses; maybe others don't. Different people, different preferences. Classical economics takes this into account, and it probably stems from the same cognitive mechanisms which have built different memories through experience. Genetic and anatomical stuff also may play a large part in determining preferences.

Another thing involved in utility is that it does not grow linearly. A 30 minute massage is a better experience than a 30 second one. But it is probably worse then a 30-day one. Now, if the hedonic feedback system helps to determine your preferences, a different system, I think, acts over here; an attentional feedback system--this one does not directly drives behavior, but it decides what gets stored into memory. The first minute of the massage gets stored; the fifth hour is just plain boring (people in chronic pain notwithstanding, but even they should find diminishing returns).

Now, here's some cognitive science creeping under the economists' stage.

Herbert Simon, for one, pointed out that we just can't figure things out--or at least not as infinitely deeply as the rational actor model suggests. The space of possibility is just too monstrouly huge. Here is one of the goals of the Human Intuition Project: to study how intuition guides the choice generating process, and the repercussions of this to economics. Intuition destroys the vastness of the space of possibility, presenting a tractable course of thought and action. (Perhaps misguided, of course, but if it's here, there are evolutionary reasons).

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky truly turbocharged Simon's work--eventually leading to the school of behavioral economics. They've shown that framing affects decision-making; that the utility curve was susceptible to language, that preferences do revert even within a single individual in an instant of time. But this insight is something that economics should have embedded in the models since Thomas Schelling, another psychologically inclined economist. I love how he brings up our Jekyll and Hyde nature, and the deep, deep, questions involved. Choice and Consequence, and Micromotives and Macrobehaviors, and the Strategy of Conflict, is beautiful cognitive science, an enmeshing of philosophy, psychology, economics, and mathematics. (A Schelling point, for example, should be something studied by cognitive psychologists--though I´ve never seen a single textbook mention the term.)

Language and framing seem to be now on the agenda of cognitive scientists as policy advisors. George Lakoff, looking at language, telltales how the Bush team used language to present policies which become impossible to attack. My favorite example is the term "tax relief". Only a monster can be against any kind of relief. Watch your language, sir. Beware if you want to argue against this policy.

Even Steve Pinker seems to be joining the boat. In his recent book, he shows how language indirection distorts, for example, game-theoretical models. For example, nobody bribes a cop in direct language. Corruption has an etiquette. Here in Brazil you can buy a cop for a "cervejinha" (i.e., a small beer). In China or Greece it would be called an "envelope", in Iraq a "good coffee", in Mexico a "refresco", in North Africa, "un petit cadeau". Everyone knows the meaning of the message, but nobody uses the information efficient terms: "Can I bribe you, officer?"

The euphemisms, and language indirection, introduce plausible deniability, this distorting the game-theoretical scenario, as Pinker points out: they have long been know by diplomats to be "not a bug, but a feature" of language. Teen kids rarely know that the fastest way to a girl's, ahem, "heart", is never the direct route.

There are some very important insights I feel should find their way, eventually, into economic models:

  • The distinction between hedonic feedback systems and attentional feedback systems;
  • Hofstadter's fluid concepts model of cognition;
  • The choice generating process studied by Gary Klein, Gigerenzer, Barry Schwartz, and many others.
I had plans that Bia, a mathematician who joined my research group for the Ph.D., could make a great contribution here. But I guess Ἄτροπος had other plans.

The ideas live on, though.

In some years, we´re going to start seeing undergraduate courses on cognitive science flourish. MIT has one. But what will the thousands of students go after graduation? From MIT's website, it seems that most careers should need a PhD:

After Graduation

The majority of people who major in Brain and Cognitive Sciences attend graduate school, in fields such as medicine, neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, or computer science. Some attend law or business school. With or without advanced degrees, majors work in a diverse array of careers, as researchers and professors, in telecommunications, financial advising, human resources and human relations, counseling, teaching K through 12, ergonomics, environmental design, robotics, AI.

I think that's not enough. Most undergraduates want a job after school; and Undergraduates-level cognitive scientists should play great roles as policy designers and advisers, and, of course, in entrepreneurship.