Friday, November 25, 2016

Zealously seized and manically attentive

Via SilentsPlease, from Alfred Lind's Il Jockey della Morte (1915).
Book report time from David Brooks ("Does Decision Making Matter?"), on Michael Lewis's The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds about the story of the collaboration between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the founders of behavioral economics, a book not yet released (it comes out December 6), so I can't tell you whether there's any evidence he's read beyond page 40, or how much the column plagiarizes it, or that kind of thing.

I can tell you Brooks spells Tversky's name wrong ("Twersky", 11 times), an error no editor has caught, though he's spelled it correctly in five columns since 2006.

The intellectual excitement over the work of Kahneman and Tversky was at its peak around 1979, when they published the seminal paper on "Prospect Theory: An analysis of decision making Under risk" which was at the center of the Nobel Prize in economics Kahneman received in 2002 (Tversky died in 1996), so at the time when Brooks was an undergraduate, so perhaps what he retains is a sense of their fashionableness, though in 2011 he wrote a column calling them "the Lewis and Clark of the mind" (in a book report on Kahneman's memoir, Thinking Fast and Slow).

Today he's pretty excited over the emotional intensity of the collaboration (Lewis's book sounds like a great read, and I mean that in a positive sense), but when he comes to what I think is the most important aspect of their work together, on the fundamental irrationality of human decision making, which should have had a revolutionary impact on the conduct of economics (human irrationality was already pretty well known to psychologists by the 1980s), and unfortunately didn't, a radical attack on the choice theory that is at the base of all conventional microeconomics and still used as the foundation of economic prediction and planning—when it comes to that, he's strangely dismissive, because after all decision making didn't play much of a part in Kahneman's and Tversky's lives:

But over the course of their lives Kahneman and Twersky don’t seem to have actually made many big decisions. The major trajectories of their lives were determined by historical events, random coincidences, their own psychological needs and irresistible impulsions. In the course of the book there’s only one big formal decision point — when Twersky decides to move to the U.S.
Their lives weren’t so much shaped by decisions as by rapture. They were held rapt by each other’s minds. They were fervently engaged by the puzzles before them. They succeeded not because they were master decision-makers but because of their capacity for zealous engagement. They followed their interests step by step.
So that world-famous psychological theorist David Brooks is able to inform them that although their work was successful, it isn't really very important and they ought to have been studying something else. David Brooks (apparently completely unaware of how he was praising it five years ago) has a problem with that:

And this is my problem with the cognitive sciences and the advice world generally. It’s built on the premise that we are chess masters who make decisions, for good or ill. But when it comes to the really major things we mostly follow our noses. What seems interesting, beautiful, curious and addicting?
Well, then! (Apart from the fact that Kahneman has in fact devoted most of the past 25 years or so to the issues of "hedonic psychology", the "study of what makes experiences and life pleasant or unpleasant", which probably does have some relevance to the issues he's curious about.)

I love how the cognitive sciences are a subcategory within "the advice world generally". I've been telling you for years how Brooks can't tell the difference between social science and self-help books, and here he is saying that social science is just a minor part of self-help, and of course that they're doing it wrong.

The other thing I should point at would be the Brooksian projection in today's piece, in the involuntary autobiography aspect. Kahneman and Tversky had, in their friendship, exactly what Brooks is missing, they were "rapt" and "fervently" and "zealously engaged", following their "interests", where he is plainly not really interested or engaged in anything, and what he's angry with them for is not studying what he's interested in, the prospect of finding something for him to be engaged in, the issue of why they managed to have so much fun when Brooks isn't having any at all:

Why are you interested in the things you are interested in? Why are some people zealously seized, manically attentive and compulsively engaged?
"Why am I not interested in anything? Why am I dead inside? Why didn't you give your careers to giving advice to me?"

Update: Classic response from Driftglass. Who also runs a deeply inspiring long quotation from the late Steve Gilliard, from the electoral disappointment of 12 years ago.

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