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…
For those interested in a bit more background to my Times article today, here are some details on how Cummings's topics have showed up in my cognitive economics research. You can judge for yourself if I have spotted what he is working towards.
Starting with Judea Pearl's modelling of causality. Pearl developed a way of using graphs (a kind of diagram showing a network of relationships between objects – like the chocolate example below) to express and work out cause-and-effect relationships. For example, you might use them to determine whether smoking causes cancer, or carbon dioxide causes global warming – or more locally, whether cutting Universal Credit reduces unemployment.
Quite often, we find that when scientists discover something about the structure of the world, the human brain has got there before us. The brain has evolved to seek out cause-and-effect relations in the world around us, and assemble them into a graph just like this. It learns the relationships by obser…