What's happening inside your head right now? What thoughts, feelings, ideas are spinning around in there? Are they important to you? If you were not able to think those thoughts, would you care? How much does your internal mental experience matter to you?
To an economist: not at all. Traditional economics explicitly rules out any consideration of how people think, and what is going on in their minds or hearts. Economists only trust what they can observe: specifically, the things you buy and sell. This can include selling your labour (for a wage) and buying and selling services, but in practice it mostly means the physical goods that we buy and consume.
Yet most of us know there is more to life than buying and selling. The activities inside our heads are a major – maybe the major – contributor to our quality of life. Are you happy? Do you have purpose in your life and work? Do you feel appreciated? Are you looking forward to the future or anxious about it?
Rory Sutherland's new book Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas that Don't Make Sense continues his 10-year campaign against the traditional, logical pursuit of business advantage, through a scientific lens that includes several cognitive economics themes. As ever, a curated series of amusing anecdotes about people or companies who took an unusual angle on marketing or product invention, fuel a philosophical wander.
That philosophy could be summarised as: if it makes sense, someone's already tried it. So try something that doesn't.
The ideas that underpin the book are broadly based on behavioural economics and cognitive science, with bits of evolutionary theory, statistics and old-fashioned advertising intuition thrown in. At first it doesn't look like a behavioural science book as such: the theoretical backbone takes a while to show. Rory's style is discursive: an after-dinner-talk of anecdotes, dismantling of conventional wisdom, ever-so-slightly outrageou…
If conventional economic theory is so wrong (as we are repeatedly told) why does it survive so well?
This post by UnlearningEcon prompted me to think again about why economics, despite widely accepted empirical data from behavioural econ, is broadly taught in the same way as before, and why its basic assumptions still underpin much modern research.
Some have a sociological explanation for this. In this view, economists are invested in the old approaches, have spent decades honing specific mathematical skills, and effectively collude to make sure new ideas do not displace the old. The top journals only accept papers that cite the same old work, perpetuating the models. Science, as they say, advances one funeral at a time. No doubt there's something to this, but I don't think economists are quite so closed minded.
There is a clue in the above article: "...Euclidean geometry, despite being incorrect, is more effective than non-Euclidean geometry in some engineering and archit…