Individuals don’t have preferences

guest-preference-2This is just a vague stab at a germ of an idea. It’s what I hope to work on in the future by looking at the history and philosophy of political economy. It’s not properly formed at all; I’m just getting the idea out there to be discussed by all the smart people who read my blog and have offered so much helpful advice in the past.

The basic claim I want to make is that the theory of individual preferences that lies at the basis of economic analysis, public choice theory, and other related social sciences, is wrong. Individuals don’t have preferences.

Start with consumer choice theory. Here is how Samuelson and Nordhaus (Economics, 2009, 84) define utility in that context:

In a word, utility denotes satisfaction. More precisely, it refers to how consumers rank different goods and services. If basket A has higher utility than basket B for Smith, this ranking indicates that Smith prefers A over B. Often, it is convenient to think of utility as the subjective pleasure or usefulness that a person derives from consuming a good or service. But you should definitely resist the idea that utility is a psychological function or feeling that can be observed or measured.

Here it is clear that “satisfaction” is no less a technical term than “utility”. To say that an individual is more satisfied by A than by B is not to say that A provides a greater feeling of satisfaction than B. So what does it mean?

In fact we can take the following sentence from the above passage as a definition: “If basket A has higher utility than basket B for Smith, this ranking indicates that Smith prefers A over B.” For A to have “higher utility” (or greater satisfaction) than B just is for A to be preferred over B. “Utility” basically just means “degree of preferredness”.

Well, what is preference? Hard-headed economists sometimes pretend to the view that preferences on their theory are nothing more than behavioural tendencies. But they can’t really mean it. In the first place, for all their protestations of value-neutrality, they can never forebear to attach positive value to the condition of people satisfying their preferences. But there is no reason to value the continuation of a mere behavioural tendency.

Secondly, they take behavioural tendencies to reveal preferences only under some descriptions. Suppose a consumer chooses a basket containing strawberries over one containing blueberries. Suppose he also, in the same choice, chooses a basket containing a prime number of fruits over one containing a composite number of fruits. One description is likely to be accepted as the description of a preference; the other is not. But both work equally well as descriptions of a behavioural tendency.

I think a preference can only be a rule. A person who prefers A over B is best described as following a rule specifying that A is to be chosen over B (with whatever relevant escape clauses must be added for realism). The rule must contain the relevant descriptions of “A” and “B”. But here the trouble begins.

If preferences are rules, and preferences govern behaviour, then Wittgenstein’s rule-following arguments suggest to me that it is impossible for a subject by herself to be consciously directed by her preferences. We have to ask: how is knowledge of a preference made available to the subject? Remember that the rule must contain the relevant descriptions of the things to which it relates. Suppose the subject is following the rule: “Always choose green Smarties over blue ones.” Then she says to herself: “Well, of course on Tuesdays blue Smarties count as green Smarties. That’s what the rule meant all along.”

Is it what the rule meant all along? If she is on her own there is nobody to challenge her judgement. As Wittgenstein puts it: “to think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule.” (Philosophical Investigations, 201) The most she can know through conscious introspection is that she thinks she is obeying the rule – following the preference.

But acting on a preference is obeying a rule, not simply thinking that you are obeying it. After all, if my preference for A over B leaves it completely open whether in any given circumstance I choose A or B (e.g. because I can always reinterpret what “A” and “B” mean), then it can’t be said that my preference is determining my behaviour. The preference becomes operationally insignificant. To adapt Wittgenstein, no course of action could be determined by a preference in this case, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the preference.

To continue with the example: maybe our subject has the rule written down somewhere and notices that it contains no special Tuesday provision. Is this enough for her to be able to be determined by the rule? No, because the rule she gave herself was what she intended to write down, not what she actually wrote down. If she made a spelling mistake in writing down the rule, she hasn’t thereby compelled herself, per impossibile, to choose ‘gren’ Smarties over blue. Anyway, there is always room for interpretation of what she wrote. If she wrote: “Always choose green Smarties over blue”, does the “always” mean that she should do nothing besides choose Smarties? Or was she compelling herself to live forever? In other words, there must be rules governing how to read the recorded statement of the rule, and if these rules also are recorded then we run to regress.

Our subject can, we might think, consult her memory to see if the intention behind the rule, when she first gave it, contained the special Tuesday privilege. But again we can say that to think that one remembers is not to remember. Checking what you think the rule is now against what you think you remember the rule being in the past is like, in Wittgenstein’s memorable image, buying a second copy of the newspaper to check that the first is accurate.

The upshot is that for an individual to act on a preference requires an external standard to confirm the rule defining the preference. This external standard can only be found in social interactions. The question is: what sort of social interactions?

Spinoza’s theory, especially prominent in Part Three of the Ethics, is that preferences work through mimesis (not his word). Naturally most of us don’t go around asking each other whether we are acting on our preferences. But what we do is look to others whom we believe to be similar to ourselves – to share our preferences. We make up our minds about what rules we are following by observing what rules they appear to be following. Now we have an external standard for what counts as following the rules – being guided by preferences.

Admittedly, it is not a very reliable standard, since the people we observe can always be breaking the rules. But the rules defining preferences are determined in an ongoing communal practice. The best analogy is with the meanings of terms in a language. Any individual can be simply wrong about the meaning of a word. But that doesn’t mean that meanings are objective in the sense of being independent of everyone’s beliefs about them. For a word to mean what it does, thinking makes it so – that is why meanings change over time. But it is the thinking of the linguistic community as a whole that makes it so, not the thinking of any particular member of the community.

Yes, ‘as a whole’ is tricky here. It isn’t a case of unanimity. And it doesn’t look like a case of majority rule either; it seems perfectly possible that most people should be wrong about what a certain word means. I can’t explain the analogy any better than it explains itself. In some sense the meanings of words are decided communally, and I am saying that preferences are communally decided in just the same way. And as we come to attach meanings to words by observing how others use them (even though any other person might be using any word incorrectly), so we come to determine what counts as acting on our preferences by observing the behaviour of those supposed to have the same preferences (even though any other person might be wrong about what counts as acting on any preference).

Put briefly: You can only prefer A to B by finding and interacting with somebody else presumed to prefer A to B, and that other person is in the same situation.

Veblen, Galbraith, Duesenberry, Fullbrook, Hodgson, and many others tried to incorporate interdependent preferences into the theory of economics. Gary Becker tried to develop a theory of what he called “social interactions”, and even Pigou wrote a couple of articles on interdependent preferences. That notion on its own plays havoc with the familiar idea of equilibrium. But this theory goes much further. Preference, on this theory, is inherently social. More bluntly: individuals don’t have preferences; only communities do.

If this is right, I believe that economics and public choice theory need to start afresh from a new foundation.

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27 thoughts on “Individuals don’t have preferences

  1. Nathan Glass

    Randomly came across this post: really interesting! Here’s a few thoughts it provoked — please take with a pinch of salt.

    I wonder how felicitous it is to say, given what you’re arguing, that individuals don’t have preferences but groups do. People who take a certain anti-realist interpretation of Wittgenstein’s rule-following considerations seriously tend to say, roughly, that rules — such as the rules that underwrite the normativity of understanding — can only be followed (or transgressed) relative to the yardstick of some community. But do they say that therefore individuals don’t have linguistic understanding? No. By analogy, I’m sceptical that these same considerations suggest that individuals don’t have preferences, even if we accept the considerations.

    Your discussion of the idea of choice as revealed preference is really interesting. I’d love to learn more about it. If you have any reading suggestions that push the kind of criticisms you’ve levelled I’d be very interested…

    Reply
    1. axdouglas Post author

      Thanks for that!

      I’m sorry to say, I haven’t been able to find any literature looking at revealed preference from this perspective. One reason I wrote this was in the hope that people might point me towards existing literature I didn’t come across.

      I take your point about my expression possibly being overkill. But I think the right analogy is between private language and individual preference. Meanings must be shared among language-users in order to exist at all. Likewise, I’m saying, preferences must be shared among a community in order to exist at all. So I suppose what I meant was “individuals on their own don’t have preferences” – private preference is no more coherent than private language – which is still a pretty significant revision to RCT.

      Reply
      1. Nathan Glass

        Thanks for the reply!

        I’m struggling a bit with your reply, but again please take with a pinch of salt…

        You say: “I’m saying, preferences must be shared among a community in order to exist at all. So I suppose what I meant was “individuals on their own don’t have preferences” – private preference is no more coherent than private language – which is still a pretty significant revision to RCT.”

        Let’s take the claim that, by analogy, you seem to be endorse which is that “individuals on their own don’t have private languages”.

        One way to take this claim would be that a Robinson Crusoe figure couldn’t have a language of his own. This seems wrong. Of course, to acquire something resembling a human language he’d need some minimal exposure to people speaking a language at key stages in his development (rather like he’d need sufficient love and attention in infancy to develop something resembling a normal emotional register). But, I take it as obvious that once acquired he could develop a language of his own and chatter away to himself on his desert island.

        A second way to take the claim would be that it’s about, so to speak, the metaphysics of the normative contract that individual language users enter into when they participate in speaking a language. The idea is that this normative contract is always underwritten by a community — there is no more reality to these linguistic norms than the herd agreeing that skinny jeans are cooler than flares. On this view no one has a private language, but language is by its nature public.

        I take the second view, but not the first, to be something like the anti-realist interpretation of the rule-following considerations (admittedly totally butchered). Notice that the second view is compatible with the first view being false. This is because a private language is not a language spoken by one person, but a language whose rules are epistemically inaccessible to others. More generally, the second view doesn’t impugn the idea that individuals have languages (or linguistic understanding, meaning, etc.) — we just have a radical thesis about the metaphysics of their linguistic understanding, the nature of the norms that they’re contracted by.

        Let’s transpose back, by analogy, to the claim you make about preferences: “individuals on their own don’t have preferences”.

        By analogy, I take it that it’s fully compatible with the rule-following considerations (and common sense) that Robinson Crusoe has preferences, whatever they are. But the point that you seem to want to help yourself to is the analogue of the second claim: that the contract we enter into in having preferences is ultimately underwritten by the community we belong to. Again, this doesn’t impugn the idea that individuals have preferences.

        So understood, I’m struggling to see how this presents a “significant revision to rational choice theory”. As I understand it, rational choice theory itself is a formal system, which makes claims about preferences which are certainly very demanding from a human perspective (e.g. that they should be synchronically consistent, etc.) but which doesn’t seem to say anything in particular about the metaphysics of preferences. Indeed, it seems to me to be compatible with an explication of preference as revealed behaviourally, or with a more psychological explication of preference, or indeed with the kind of communitarian basis you’re arguing for. But it’s not something I know as much about as I’d like, unfortunately! So would be very happy to be corrected on this point!

      2. axdouglas Post author

        Thanks again.

        Would Crusoe on the island really continue to possess a language?

        We sometimes say he could have “internalised” the norms he learnt in society. But words like “internalised” suggest the grammatical fiction of an inner world, about which Wittgenstein warned us.

        Crusoe thinks he still follows the norms of language. But is he right about those norms? He has only memories against which to test his beliefs about the norms. Are his memories accurate? He has nothing to test those against, either, except more memories.

      3. Nathan Glass

        Okay, so you are in fact endorsing the first view, that a Robinson Crusoe figure wouldn’t have a language (or preferences).

        You ask, “Would Crusoe on the island really continue to possess a language?”

        Your suggestion is that since there’s no one around for him to measure his knowledge of language against, he doesn’t know a language.

        Does this mean, by your lights, that if we turned up on Crusoe’s Island we’d find someone there incapable of communicating with us in language? You can’t be claiming this, right? I’d be stunned if castaways somehow lost their knowledge of language.

        Without bothering to look up data on castaways, you can see the absurdity of this claim by noticing that each of us is, in a sense, in Robinson Crusoe’s position with respect to language. In ordinary daily life, 99% of our language use is internal monologue. And if I spend a couple of days at home with nothing but my memories of the communal norms of language, have I lost my knowledge of language? If not, how many days does it take for me to lose my knowledge of language?

        You must mean something else when you say he doesn’t possess a language, but I can’t work out what it is you mean. I had thought you meant something like the second view, to do with the metaphysics of the normative constraints on understanding, but you didn’t seem to accept that reading…

        But whatever it is you mean, if you accept that individuals know their languages in isolation from a community, then, as I’ve been trying to suggest, your analogical argument loses its crucial premise. Again, I don’t think Wittgenstein is in the business of denying this, but I’m absolutely not an expert on his work (very far from it), and don’t want to stamp my feet on that point.

        On a separate note, I’m very sympathetic to the general thrust of your original blog post, to the idea that preferences are tightly bound up with group membership — which was why I commented in the first place. One’s preferences seem to be to a very large extent determined by other people, including other people’s preferences. But, again, I’m not sure I go along with your strong claim that only groups have preferences, and, again, I’m still sceptical about your Wittgensteinian argument for that claim.

      4. axdouglas Post author

        When the castaway returns, and is able to speak to us, we are of course justified in ascribing to him an ability to use language. And if we read his journals, we are justified in saying that all along he retained his use of language. But *while he is on the island* there is no available justification for the claim that he can still use language. Nor is there any for saying he cannot.

        And so, on an anti-realist view, he cannot be said to possess language so long as there is no available justification for that claim.

        It seems odd, of course, to say that a claim can fall into a truth-value gap and then rise out of it again when a new means of justification presents itself. But that’s just a consequence of anti-realism, as Dummett argued. Anti-realism is belief that bivalence for a class of statements when they are made inaccessible to methods of justification.

      5. Nathan Glass

        okay, we’re drifting into quite esoteric philosophy of language now…

        Dummett is careful to avoid saying that a claim “can fall into a truth-value gap and then rise out of it”. Nowhere does he say or imply this. What he says is that we are not entitled to assert that a statement is determinately true or false if there is no way of deciding its truth or falsity — where “way of deciding” is quite a subtle, modal notion. He never says or implies that such a statement is truth-valueless. (Intuitionistic logic does not have a trivalent semantics.)

        Even a radical anti-realist like Dummett would not be inclined to demur from imputing truth or falsity to some theory about the characteristics of an individual on the grounds that they were on a desert island. The notion of “decidability” in play in this kind of anti-realism is highly idealised and modalised. Statements about the distant past (which would require time-travel to verify) or about infinite totalities (which are unsurveyable with finite resources) are deemed “undecidable”. But no one in that literature says that a garden-variety claim about an observational state-of-affairs (such as a person being able to communicate in language) on a desert island is undecidable. The notion of “decidability” is supposed to be idealised in such a way that statements about these garden-variety states of affairs that happen to go unobserved are deemed to be determinately true or false.

        I fear that this thread has trespassed into very murky and highly controversial territory. Adducing these kind of considerations, which I’ve tried to suggest are wrong, as a foundation for rational choice theory, strikes me as wrongheaded.

      6. axdouglas Post author

        I wasn’t trying to invoke Dummett’s authority; I was just referring to his definition of anti-realism.

        Of course Dummett defines “anti-realism” in a number of ways. In “Realism” he claims that anti-realists can either:

        (a) reject standard truth-conditional semantics for a class of statements, or

        (b) reject “the account embodied in the two-valued semantics of the mechanism whereby a statement is determined as true or false; they may, for instance, repudiate the conception whereby a determination of the truth-value of a statement containing a singular term proceeds via an identification of an object as the referent of that term.”

        What I want to do with statements ascribing *individual* preferences to people is, I think, something along the lines of b. In determining the truth of such statements there is no need to identify something – the preference – that lives inside the subject and animates his actions in the right way. Rather, the truth-conditions for preference-ascriptions involve the subject’s being embedded into a social process of mimesis.

        But I’m not adducing these considerations as a foundation for rational choice theory. I think rational choice theory is bogus in any number of ways.

        My purpose is to look at preferences in a different way. Preferences, as I see it, aren’t properties of subjects at all; they exist in and through processes of mimesis.

        I see that I’m not going to convince you, nor is this watertight enough to withstand the sort of onslaught you find in analytic philosophy seminars. But in my view, that stuff is all intellectual machismo and nothing to do with honest truth-seeking.

      7. Nathan Glass

        Fair enough.

        I agree that analytic philosophy generally gets it totally wrong. But, worse, some other discursive practices, that one doesn’t have to search too hard to find examples of, don’t *even* get it wrong.

  2. NeilW

    We have a saying in IT that if you ask users what they want they will always say “how do I know what I want, until I know what I can have”.

    Increasingly it seems to me that the preferences of a consumer arise from the emotional state they are put in by the inputs they receive from their surroundings and interactions, which they then post hoc justify with made up reason statements.

    How did people know they preferred to vote for Donald Trump until he turned up and persuaded them to do so? A year ago he wasn’t even on the radar in the US.

    I think this goes beyond words and language and into emotional feelings and shared experience which are then post-hoc mapped onto words to justify the prior decision.

    And that means tapping the science of persuasion, PR and marketing.

    Perhaps start with ‘The Art of the Deal’. And then a few Derren Brown books.

    Reply
  3. Tom Hickey

    I think that the core problem with the conventional view of economics is the assumption of individualism as a methodological assumption.

    Methodological individualism is too atomistic to be realistic enough to model human behavior, which is social to the core, as Wittgenstein’s logical analysis shows. Humans expresses themselves using language and meaning is context-dependent. This is also basic for information theory and psychology.

    See Tversky and Simonson, Context-Dependent Preferences.

    Moreover, psychology and sociology also suggest that humans are biologically and socially determined, accounting for the difference between nature, which is genetic, and nurture, which is acquired by experience and learning (“programming”). There is considerable variation involved in this, and experience and learning are reflexive so individuals change based on feedback.

    Homo economicus, which is based on 19th century atomism, needs to be replaced with homo socialis, which is more consistent with contemporary findings, as a core assumption. The problem is that individualism, both methodological and ontological, lie at the core of social, political and economic liberalism, and liberalism is the dominant ideology of the day.

    So changing approach is not just a matter of altering assumptions. It requires deep and far-reaching cultural and institutional change. But this would be for the better, too, since the current ideology is leading humanity over a cliff.

    Not that restrictive assumptions are not useful in creating simple and tractable models that may serve as tools under some conditions. However, to take simpliciations as indicative of reality without qualifying their limitations invites error. This is where I think that conventional economics can go off the rails, often owing to ideological biases. It devolves into wishful thinking if not magical thinking. This is dangerous when it affects policy as well as the popular mindset. And economic is a policy science.

    But the digital age is also the information age using in the knowledge society, and its approach is altering both expert knowledge and the popular mindset. So dump individualism and think networks and systems, where relationships among elements, nodes, subsystems, and the network-system as a whole are key factors. Systems are synergistic, and their behavior cannot be predicted from analysis of elements alone. Meso and macro causality are operative in systems in addition to micro.

    Reply
  4. Tom Hickey

    Elaborating on the above, I don’t see a problem with generating simple rational choice models in economics and other fields that can produce useful information, such as it A-B testing in advertising. The problem lies in mistaking a special case for a general one and extending the conclusions beyond the scope of the model.

    Wittgenstein suggests this in the first section of Philosophical Investigations, where he quotes Augustine on naming as the basis for language. Augustine is fooled by the obvious and ignores the nuance. Of course, labeling is involved in learning a language. For example, some people learning a foreign language put labels on all the objects in their personal space in order to acquire extensive practical vocabulary quickly. But this is just one of the “games” involved in language learning, a lot of which involves learning rules for combining signs or modifying them. Wittgenstein goes not show the intricacies of the many “games” involved in ordinary language. Naming is clearly insufficient to account for language use.

    Even the game of naming is not a simple as it seems. A context is required in which naming plays a role. Children don’t acquire labels but rather instruments that satisfy preferences. I was told my mother that the first word I learned was “no.’ It’s the zero in a bivalent system, and it can be used to cover a lot of ground with respect to indicating preferences, which at that stage of development are pretty simple. No, is the rejection of X, implying that not-X is preferred. By the way, is significant in how my feline companion communicates with me. It gives cats the reputation for being finicky, unlike dogs.

    It seems to me that there is often some confusion of special cases with the general case in economics. The simple preference model‚ basket A versus basket B, is really a simple stimulus-response model. B. F. Skinner attempted to explain human motivation in terms of S-R, and captured the field in academia for some time, until the objections about this being too simplistic gained sway. But it is still an important model in psych.

    So I would not claim that individuals either have no preferences as individuals or, stronger, can have no preferences individually. Model builders are just going to say that they are only building a model and then testing the degree to which it borne out empirically. This happens in business frequently. A firm is making widgets that have been produced in only one color. It wants to find out how many customers would prefer something identical but of a different color along the relative degree of preference. That’s pretty simple for statisticians to figure out using a random sample.

    So, like naming in language learning, this kind of simple model is both useful and true — as far as it goes — which is not very far in terms of accounting for the larger picture or the whole.

    But like naming in the context of language learning, the whole issue of preferences is bound up in a lot more than individuals choosing A or B. There is a biological dimension of preference that is individually determined and social one that is not, and the social dimension is much more prominent than the biological in modern human society. Just as meaning is context-dependent, so is preference, at least for the most part and wrt to the parts that are most interesting.

    Not like this is new. Veblen investigated it, for example, and Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, wrote a book published in 1928 entitled, Propaganda, on influencing preference socially, which initiated public relations and marketing & advertising. By now, preference has been thoroughly influenced socially, culturally and institutionally. Of course, preferences are still “revealed” in individual choices, but preferences are not given. They are formed socially though a variety of factors, some specifically designed to influence.

    Reply
  5. Pearce Tournier

    Fun stuff. But rather implausible. I am no fan of Samuelson, but I think he is somewhat closer to how things work (although Steve Keen has pointed out the problems with Samuelson’s approach, of course.) It seems to me that language, rational choice, and community preferences (I mean c’mon, the onion skin argument?) are largely irrelevant. I don’t know if any of you are plump, and have beeen on a diet. Choices about what food to eat, at 11 PM, when you are still up and should be in bed, are about as voluntary as the gasping breath you take after you surface from a long, involuntary dunking. Language and thought do not enter into it. Most preferences are like that. Mind you, I don’t believe in predestination, and acknowledge the power of conditioning. But there is no reason to believe that that conditioning is necessarily communal or consistent.

    Reply
    1. axdouglas Post author

      Yes, I realise that there’s a lot of work to do to make this convincing. The blog post wasn’t meant to be the whole argument!

      Reply
  6. David Merrill

    “…whether we are acting on our preferences.” Whether we are acting on our preferences depends on whether the acting is a mode of self-determination. Consider preferences in the context of markets. Acting on our preferences occur when the market is a mode of self-determination. When are markets modes of self-determination? The answer would have to attend to the subjective state of individual who is about to enter the market, the character of the existing market relations and of course the character of the objects available in the market. If these three components did meet the criteria of self-determination, for everyone, the resulting economy would have a decidedly bourgeois character and would require, by the way, major state intervention by means of such measures as the Job Guarantee.

    Neoclassical economics makes a mistake when it discusses the character of preferences separately from and prior to its discussions of markets. The preferences that are the concern of economics are those that are part of markets and economies that support self-determination. When the markets and economies are of this character preferences are revealed in market activity. Preferences that are formed in situations of unfreedom or without self-determination are not relevant.

    Reply
    1. axdouglas Post author

      Thanks David.

      That sounds like a distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic” preferences that Hayek and others discussed.

      But I’m interested in a more extreme departure from the standard theory of preference; preferences just aren’t properties of individuals at all.

      Reply
  7. Ed Seedhouse

    I think you have to extend your argument because, as stated above, “atomistic individualism” is wrong. We are connected not only to humanity but also to the environment. You can only have preferences about what is available to you, so even if you are entirely alone on a desert Island what you prefer and not prefer is determined by the resources available on the island. If the only food available is coconuts then you might prefer ripe coconuts to unripe ones, but you won’t prefer steak over coconuts because no steak is available. You may have a memory of steak if you are shipwrecked, but that’s beside the point. You can only make choices among what is available.

    We are, in other words, connected to our environment and it determines what we choose as much as other people do (who are of course part of that environment as well) what may go on in our heads.

    Reply
  8. arun

    My understanding is that, for Revealed Preference theory, having a preference does not necessarily mean that the preference is describable just that some feature of its underlying ‘conceptual tie to action’ is observable. Assuming scarcity and cognitive computing costs, the evolutionarily stable strategy mix for a population is likely to be peak normally on a sparse, low ambiguity, ‘description’ (not necessarily linguistic) to which we could attribute something like Gibbard type semantic normativity.

    In aggregate, provided that preference diversity in the population is not too little nor too great (Chichilnsky)- i.e. phenotypic diversity is constrained, which suggests population level environmental uncertainty obtains- some information is extractable which could as easily bear your interpretation as that of the methodological individualist. Indeed, if we rule out easy exit from the population, or if individual regret minimization features high interdependence, then your interpretation of relevant results in the literature would appear more persuasive.

    Reply
  9. Hugo Evand

    Thank you for this post. May I ask if you got the direction of your thoughts from Wittgenstein or the Fullbrook group (Agents and structures 2002). It seems to me that once that ‘value’ placed on the use of infinitesimal calculus is abandoned, we can rediscover mimetic theory in economics (Smith, Tarde, Veblen, Girard etc).
    But would there still be anything called economics left?

    Reply
    1. axdouglas Post author

      I got the argument from Wittgenstein and the underlying idea from mimetic theory. Good question about whether there would be anything left called economics. I suppose the nature of the subject would have to change dramatically.

      Reply
      1. Tom Hickey

        Evolutionary theorist David Sloan Wilson observes that modern scientific method requires observing consilience, where ideas and conclusions of different branches of science converge.

        He faults conventional economics failure to take this into consideration in its self-absorption. Conventional economics doesn’t even take other approaches into account, marginalizing them as “heterodox.”

        Conventional economists are not likely to change given their investment. They will have to be selected out by superior performance. But the wheel of inter and intra-group selection grinds slowly.

  10. Aristote

    There is an issue of time horizon. As of today, most of my “preferences” are behavioral tendencies. Over the long term, it is almost impossible to disentangle the effects of mimetism, market interactions, what have you…, and why not of decisions you occasionally made to consent or not to the pressure of you “environment”.

    Reply

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