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Every Day Is Interdependence Day

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

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We see with our ideas. That idea can open our eyes to key questions about modeling human nature. Varying blues and illusions illuminate a weird sampling error at the heart of a heartless economic worldview. And suggest a fix.

To see how deeply ideas influence what we see, consider that: Russians have blues, but no blue. They have no single word for our color blue. Their language makes “an obligatory distinction between” lighter blues (goluboy) and darker blues (siniy). Their idea that these are separate colors means Russians distinguish them faster than English speakers can.

Daniel Kahneman, a leading behavioral economist, says of the Muller-Lyer optical illusion (Fig 1) that even after it is explained, “we all see” one line as “obviously longer.” And makes an analogy with “illusions of thought” or cognitive biases—”systematic errors” that cause deviations from supposedly rational choices.

But we don’t all see it that way. Some non-industrialized cultures don’t fall for the illusion. One suggestion is that they don’t see converging straight lines as box-like perspective. But whatever the reason, susceptibility to the Muller-Lyer varies by culture.

Could cognitive biases also vary by culture? Though de-anthropomorphizing human behavior can be risky, technomorphic thinking—projecting technological features onto humans—can help here. Are cognitive biases mostly hardware flaws and cross-culturally consistent (like the physiological blind spot you’re ignoring as you look at this)? Or are some bugs in our culturally configured software?

Like Kahneman’s view of the universality of the Muller-Lyer illusion, the rational-agent model of human nature, which dominates economics, is based on a sampling error. Globally the “Western self…is a rather peculiar idea.” Models of it are based on overwhelmingly WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) research. But most humans aren’t all WEIRD. Not yet.

Human hardware and software evolved for 10,000 generations to fit team survival strategies. The unchecked and imbalanced individualism that many economists now consider natural and rational, was “a novel expression” in Tocqueville’s time (too recent for a hardware upgrade). That idiotic (idios meant private and overly self-oriented) idealization is unrepresentative, “cognitively unnatural,” and ignores that we evolved to be self-deficient and relationally rational. It’s distorted “rationality” often prioritizes short term transactional self-maximization that can produce self-undermining outcomes (as in Prisoners’ Dilemmas or Tragedy of the Commons situations). No really rational self-interest should fall for illusions of thought that are so foreseeably at odds with ultimate self-preservation.

Economic models of human nature should be, like us, a complicated balance of individual and socio-centric interests. They can fruitfully incorporate more ideas about interdependent success (like evolution’s inclusive fitness).

Our ideas must help us see clearly that it can’t be deemed rational to damage what you depend on.

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
Better Behaved Behavioral Models
Rationality In Markets Is Cognitively Unnatural
The Limits of Psychophysics, And Physics

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. priddseren 3:08 pm 07/5/2013

    Unchecked and imbalanced individualism and individualism itself is somehow not the natural state, implying some sort of ridiculous collectivism is how most of human evolution developed, what a load of you know what. Individualism is the natural state of a man and likely most animals. This idea that some moron can force himself as a leader along with some aristocratic class, called the chiefs family, the clergy, the king, or a senate and everyone else has to sacrifice for the betterment of the group is what is totally unnatural for a human. The fact is like every other species, a human is not obligated to do anything at all for anyone but himself. He has the totally selfish desire and or need to breathe, eat and live. Likely a desire to procreate. No possible way is it legitimate or natural to sacrifice my existence because other people want to eat, breathe and have the good life, worse when that sacrifice is not even my choice but forced on me by others.

    Individualism is not changed by the fact that cooperation with other humans does in fact make it more efficient to survive and produces a better quality of living.

    It is almost amazing how the socialists of today try to impose there insanity on ancient humans. It is ridiculous to actually believe a cro-magnon male was NOT running around raping whenever he chose, killing whatever he wanted all in the name of his own survival. Also ridiculous is to believe a cro-magnon woman would NOT kill of her own rivals or even their children to ensure the survival of herself and her own.
    These early humans were not living in communes of harmony all singing 1970s hippie songs of peace and harmony. They were violent killers, rapists and lived in complete and total selfishness with the very Darwinian rules of the strong survive.
    What became unnatural is the political class developing from religion primarily of a group of people likely too lazy to actually participate in what was part of group cooperating for abundance and survival. So they and eventually secular parasites create this concept of some sort of greater good exists and everyone but them is subject to being sacrificed for it.

    The only mistake being made today is not removing from power the current political class and the half of the population that supports them making a massive collective parasite on others and adopting the very natural concept of individualism. Individuals cooperating for the benefit of the chosen group, while respecting everyone’s individual right to live and survive will always succeed and do well. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and no where is it legitimate for a political class or those who benefit to stand up and say the individual does not exist only their concept of group.

    All humans are WEIRD, the ones who think they are not are living in a false reality.

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  2. 2. popseal 7:13 pm 07/5/2013

    I’m still trying to understand how since we came from monkeys, why do we still have monkeys?

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  3. 3. @Nancy 1:43 am 07/6/2013

    Congetive biases maybe cheat yourself.I support the view about the interdependent between self-interest and interest of others.The key problem is how to build the relationships between them .However,lay emphasis on interdependent ,which contrast with a word equal.They are
    rather different.

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  4. 4. dbtinc 7:59 am 07/6/2013

    Popseal – simple, they evolved into the political class.

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  5. 5. sjfone 8:54 am 07/6/2013

    I’m going back to reading the business news.

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  6. 6. Squish 10:14 pm 07/6/2013

    @priddseren: It appears you did not read the article. Certainly the rational-agent hypothesis and your view of the strict individualism of humans is cohesive and has some explanatory power. It is not, however, entirely supported by science; this article is about the science of human nature often neglected by economics, thus references to Kahneman, etc. (Dan Ariely is also good).

    We cannot thrive alone like some species; we are in fact similar in a few ways to ants, a coloney of which can be thought of as a super-organism. Therefor EO Wilson’s sociobiology could help you a bit.

    Our huge brains require massive amounts of investment. We are hardwired to help babies and children (perhaps differentially, but this can also be explained by evolutionary psychology). Our investments can later invest in us; studies have found this kind of reciprocity is also found in other primates, as is a sense of disgust at inequality.

    People are also not strictly motivated by selfishness. People also do things because of: honour, patriotism, social expectancy, altruism, etc. To understand the science, and get away from Ayn Rand, you could investigate the disputed dynamics of group selection evolution.

    Watch a youtube presentation by Harvard law professor Michael Sandel for more pieces of evidence refuting the notion that we have a fundamental nature of selfish individualism: Google “Michael Sandel What Money Can’t Buy.”

    Anecdotally, the historic penal use of solitary confinement also points towards strong human prosociality. Integrating the science of our dual selfish/social nature into economics – and address our evolved biases – could serve us all well.

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  7. 7. Squish 10:25 pm 07/6/2013

    @popseal. Troll or not, this may blow you away:

    Eukaryotes evolved from prokaryotes, yet prokaryotes still exist!

    I am not joking. They do.

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  8. 8. David Illig 1:33 am 07/7/2013

    I recall serving in an American Embassy abroad when an alarm system was installed to warn of fire, terrorist attack, or other peril. On the wall at each alarm klaxon was a cross-cultural pictogram with dotted, dashed, or wavy lines representing the sound of the alarm, followed by human stick figures indicating what action should be taken for each alarm sound. The native employees who installed the pictogram stickers had no idea what the figures were supposed to represent, and they installed them rotated randomly in all four possible square directions–stick-figure feet at the top, left, right, or bottom.

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  9. 9. phalaris 1:57 am 07/8/2013

    Everyone’s in favour of motherhood.
    What’s intended by stating the obvious truisms about interdependence? How does this translate into practical politics? It’s a thinly disguised plea for the left-wing agenda of more public spending, of course, from which perhaps the author and his supporters might benefit.

    The fact is that in western Europe the balance is tipped so strongly in the direction of the entitlement culture that its countries are scarcely viable any longer. Hence enormous public debts and the euro-crisis.

    When will we see an article in SciAm looking at the balance objectively without the subtext of more for the public domain?

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  10. 10. marclevesque 5:27 pm 07/8/2013

    : )

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