Dr Edmund Chattoe-Brown, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester:
The economic view (that we choose what we prefer from a set of options) has an obvious appeal. Yet it doesn’t take much reflection to show how far this is from the full story. We regularly fail to choose what we claim we want (How are your New Year Resolutions looking?) We also know that children (often) and adults (surprisingly often) don’t seem to act in ways that make them happy. Everyone knows somebody who sabotages close relationships with monotonous regularity.
These problems suggest a much more sociological question: Where do these sets of options (between which we choose) come from? Even if we are rational, do we end up choosing between options that could actually make us happiest? The sub text of consumerism is that choosing the right car or the right holiday will make us happy but how many of us can really be sure we wouldn’t be happier living in a tent on a Welsh mountain snaring rabbits? Of course, we have no idea because we almost certainly know nobody who has made that choice. Our choice set is constrained not by rationality but by the social structure within which we live.
One problem with this insight is that economists believe that the best theories must be expressed in mathematics. The trouble is, it doesn’t follow that a theory isn’t true just because the mathematics are too hard to solve. The real world is complicated. Fortunately, there are alternatives, and computer simulation is a technique that combines much of the rigour of mathematics with the richness of non-mathematical theorising.
A simulation in which agents communicate about available choices as well as their benefits supports the view that a simplistic belief in economic rationality is over optimistic. While the simulated choosers rapidly identify all relevant choices in a particular situation, they do not converge on the best choice. The reason for this is interesting. While some choosers have tried particular choices (and thus have accurate information), this accurate information is rapidly degraded as it passes through the population. (Even if I take someone more seriously because they have tried something, “I know because the friend of my friend of my friend tried it” will cut no ice at all.) Thus, as we might expect in a social setting, we cannot count on the best choices becoming dominant, even when everyone communicates and tells the truth as they see it.
Even more interestingly, when the simulation was extended to represent two groups with very different tastes (so that what made one group happy made the other unhappy), the mere fact that one group was in the majority could severely harm the wellbeing of the other group without any coercion, punishment or social disapproval. It was simply much harder for the minority group to get access to the choices that might have made them happy given the information circulating in the simulated society. What effect does it have on gay sexuality when everyone is constantly bombarded with images of heterosex? What effect does it have on women (and men come to that) when advertising images are significantly thinner than the real population? It is thus possible that the ability of certain groups to monopolise channels of communication would still be harming us, even if they were completely honest, sincere and non-directive (which is perhaps a bit too much to hope!).
Keynes famously observed that, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” New methods like simulation can challenge our preconceptions about how happiness ‘works’ and remind us of the vital social dimensions in the choices we make.
Dr Edmund Chattoe-Brown is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leicester and a founder member of the University’s Well-Being and Health Research Group. His research deals with decision-making, computer simulation, social networks and models of innovation and change.
He has also written for Leicester Exchanges on ‘Is Britain Broken?’: It’s not broken but the instructions are missing
Chattoe-Brown, Edmund (2009) ‘The Social Transmission of Choice: A Simulation with Applications to Hegemonic Discourse’, Mind and Society, 8(2), December, pp. 193-207.
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