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Better Behaved Behavioral Models

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We often can’t rely on ourselves to act rationally. We know this, but much social science has a bad habit of ignoring it. A more realistic role for rationality is needed to grasp the unhidden but unmodeled relationship between decisions and actions. We evolved to frequently act without deciding.

The widely used Rational Actor Model rests on three assumptions: First, life is a stream of decisions, second we make them consciously, often by calculation, and third, they lead us to act rationally. One of many demonstrations that these are all frequently false, is the reliable failure, despite what we consciously and rationally decide, of most self-improvement resolutions. Much of what we do isn’t consciously considered or calculated on the spot, and what we know often doesn’t cause us to act accordingly.

The Rational Actor Model isn’t an action model; it’s a decision-model that sadly ignores how we do much of what we do. It is fundamentally aspirational, under-empirical, and applies only in limited situations. Yet this “rationalist delusion” still dominates economics.

Behavioral Economics—its name amusingly highlighting what’s been lacking— offers hope. Its discoveries, which you and I experience every day, but which un-behavioral economists typically ignore, include “cognitive biases.” Daniel Kahneman says these “systematic errors” trace to our “machinery of cognition.” This is progress, but it’s a near-reaching revolution, another repair to the old rationalist clunker. We can do better.

Better behavioral models should be, like us, habit driven. Our lives are often a stream of habitual actions. We repeatedly reap their harvest, on autopilot. We consciously decide only if that flow is interrupted. Thinking is expensive and reinventing cognitive or behavioral wheels is rarely productive, so we evolved to acquire second nature habits from others. As Darwin noted “much of the intelligent work done by man is due to imitation and not to reason.” We are habit-formers and habit-farmers.

Each habit can be modeled as a situational trigger with an action script. Habits are behavioral tools enabling rapid action without costly conscious attention. In triggering situations, they can be overruled, but only with conscious effort. Action scripts likely use rule of thumb style conditional logic, rather than cognitively unnatural numerical methods. Habits can be rationally useful or irrationally unfit for a given situation. It’s worth considering whether cognitive biases are bad cognitive habits—badly triggered action scripts—rather than built-in brain bugs. Especially since what is called rational, requires training.

We must be rational when habits are acquired, since later they will be repeated without deliberation. As Aristotle noted living well required “rational habits.”

Force of habit shapes our lives. Shouldn’t it also shape our behavioral science models? Especially those we build institutions on. Bring on the habitology and the habitonomics.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Previously in this series:

Kahneman and Bentham’s Bucket of Happiness
Kahneman’s Clarity: Using Mysterious Coinage in Science
What Rational Really Means
The Cognitive Science of Star Trek
Colonoscopies Clarify Inner Workings of Minds
Happiness Should Be A Verb

Jag Bhalla About the Author: Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at It explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles Follow on Twitter @hangingnoodles.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. davenussbaum 9:01 pm 06/14/2013

    “Habits can be rationally useful or irrationally unfit for a given situation. It’s worth considering whether cognitive biases are bad cognitive habits—badly triggered action scripts—rather than built-in brain bugs. Especially since what is called rational, requires training.”

    I think Kahneman and co. would agree with this — heuristics are often broadly useful, but can get us into trouble in situations where they’re a poor match. Sometimes we can train ourselves to recognize these situations and avoid the biases and sometimes, even knowing is not enough to help us change.

    So I’m curious, what would habit-onomics look like? It seems to me that it need not displace “behavioral economics” — which is just another way of saying doing psychology but measuring economically relevant outcomes — but that it would be a part of the behavioral science tool kit. For example, it seems like a lot of the work done by Brian Wansink’s lab at Cornell could plausibly be called the habit-onomics of food and eating.

    Link to this
  2. 2. hangingnoodles 12:38 pm 06/16/2013

    @davenussbaum That’s a great definition of “behavioral economics.” It points to an issue to be addressed in an upcoming post. There are two possible sources of error in “cognitive biases”: first the measured behavior and second the ‘rational’ standard it’s being compared to. Habitonomics could be an opportunity to incorporate other observable behavioral traits into the motivations of even economics decisions and actions.

    Link to this

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