01 September 2009

Rationality, choice and the economic agent

An article by Lee Drutman about a study, titled "Why Did They 'Choose' to Stay?" published in Psychological Science and co-authored with MarYam G. Hamedani, a former Stanford psychology Ph.D. student who's currently a private research consultant; Stanford psychology professor Hazel Rose Markus; Princeton psychology Ph.D. student Hilary B. Bergsieker; and Stanford psychology Ph.D. student Liyam Eloul.
The study explores the reasons behind some people 'choosing' to stay behind during Hurricane Katrina and the implications for policy making.
The psychologists framed the study around a distinction between two models of human agency — the disjoint and the conjoint — in order to understand what happened in New Orleans and why.

The disjoint model is built on assumptions of independence. It assumes that individuals have opportunities, make choices to influence their environment and that their choices are a reflection of their goals and preferences. This is the model that dominates mainstream American discourse and culture, and the model of agency held by many of the people who did leave.

The conjoint model, on the other hand, is built on assumptions of interdependence. Here, human agency is primarily about adapting one's self to the world (rather than trying to change the environment), often through faith and spirituality, and decisions are more community-oriented. Though the conjoint model might seem more familiar to many middle-class observers as an East Asian philosophy, the authors argue that these attitudes are also prevalent in working-class Americans.

That's because many working-class folks lack the resources to engage in individualistic, independent behaviors. And this particular lived experience leads them to adapt by developing a sense of personal agency in which they make the most of their lives, given the challenges they face in exerting meaningful control over their environment. This is something that is often very difficult for outsiders to get.

This is the part I liked best:

"Despite the whole thing about putting yourself in someone else's shoes, you won't necessarily get it," Hamedani said. "Even to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. You have to walk through their world and how that informs who they are."

All of the social sciences are using one and the same model of the person," Markus said. "And that's a particular model that comes out of the middle-class American context in particular. It's the rational actor of economics, the reasonable person of the law.

"But as far as it goes," Markus added, "it's really right for about 5 percent of the world's population. When it comes down to it, when we say 'people,' we're talking only about North American, middle-class people with a reasonably high level of education and resources. ... This model is an historical and philosophical product, but it's not the way people naturally are. There are other ways to be an agent that deserve study."

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