Category Archives: rational choice

Why do people honk so much?

This question seems quite important considering that the sanity of people having to tolerate incessant honking might be somewhat rescued from the edge of the cliff on which it now stands if they understand why. Honking probably served an important public purpose, that of preventing two vehicles from occupying the same space at the same time often, but its usage has gone beyond such mundane considerations to being a reflection into the personality of the owner of the horn itself.

First, one must distinguish between different types of honking:

  • The standard honk, which is used for the important public purpose mentioned above.
  • The stylish honk, which rises above the previous one to include (normally irritating to everyone else) tunes or rhythmic patterns. Normally used to show a possible flair for music and an upbeat mood.
  • The angry honk, longer in duration but bursty in nature, when the owner seems to think (or hope) that the honk will become louder and more irritating to others if used for a longer duration. It is normally used to show disapproval.
  • The frustation honk, normally used in beastly traffic jams, and whose duration is proportional to the feeling of powerlessness that the owner feels. Normally used when the owner wants to make something/someone cry for what he is feeling and the effect is conveniently reproduced by pressing the horn.
  • The celebration honk, used when India wins the World Cup or something like that. It consists of innumerable vehicles on the road honking in unison for an unbearably long period of time. One must thank the Indian team for not doing such a disservice to the road travellers of India often.

There might be a richer variety, but these are what I can think of. If one thinks about it, there is no logical reason why some of these should exist. I have heard a person relentlessly honking at a railway crossing when the gates were closed, and others honking back, probably to make him stop. Don’t think it worked very well. The scene felt like watching wolves howling at the moon. There is no rational reason to honk at a closed railway gate, but then the mistake lies in believing that people are driven by reasoning and solid logic in their day to day conduct.

Driving or sitting in a vehicle under busy conditions is one of those few instances in one’s life when you are shown for what you really are. People who seem nice and sweet suddenly start acting bossy and judgemental, and mousy and mild people, well, continue being so. People who tell you that they don’t feel the need to control everyone or everything show their true colors when they are passengers in a vehicle¬† zipping at 100 kilometers an hour past other vehicles.

All these and other observations point to what seems to be a fundamental feature of the human psyche – the need to assert the Self, to show the world that you exist. As the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran points out, the Self cannot really be defined without reaching out to the Other – who or what you are is shaped by your interactions with others. People who are completely shut off from others, like in the case of autistic children, don’t seem to possess (at least observably) what we would call a normal human personality. The honking at a jaywalker becomes more and more urgent unless she acknowledges your presence by looking directly in your direction. While one can explain this away by saying that you were only hoping to draw her attention to the fact that a possibility exists of her being stuck under your tyres, but sometimes even when there is no reasonable chance of this happening, the honks still persist.

The traffic jam is the ultimate put off, one of the few (well, maybe not few) moments in when you simply don’t matter, and really cannot do anything about it. The effect is similar to what you would evoke if you tried to end a fight by trying to walk away and ignore the other person. On the other hand, a person who is angry at you will try to incite anger in you, knowing fully well that that is the only way any decent fight can result. One needs to know that one’s anger is fully reciprocated and probably some mechanism like the mirror neurons will help maintain the feedback loop, keeping the anger flowing from one to the other. In this light, it would be interesting to see how frustration honks start and spread in a traffic jam.

Almost every facet of our personality – beauty, intelligence, aggression – make sense only in a social context. ‘Setting goals for yourself’ or ‘Not following the herd’ seem to simply be replacing the social with a reflexive analysis, but the mechanism is still the same. Which is why we have Special Interest Groups, debating clubs and Facebook which serve the purpose of ‘mutual admiration’, in the words of J.K. Galbraith. Knowing that you matter matters.

Sociable sociopaths – is it the system ?

System Analysis is simply another way of looking at the world, trying to look at the structure and composition of an aggregate of anything from computer code to people to machines.

For those unaware of terminology (which would be anyone who has not taken a systems course), a system is an entity with certain inputs and outputs, and which converts inputs to outputs through a certain mechanism. It can be completely defined by its inputs, outputs, external limits and feedback systems. Limits determine the boundaries within which the system must operate, like the size of our parliament is limited by the number of rich and powerful idiots in the country. Feedback systems determine the response of the system to changes in its output or environment, like the elections are a feedback in a democracy.

Another factor which determines the performance of the system is delay in the feedback systems. Scientists have been telling economists to change developmental objectives to include climate change issues for many decades and yet it has come into focus only very recently. Even today, development does not include many environmental issues like deforestation and toxic dumps and species extinction. This can be called as a large delay between output changes and the attendant change in system performance.

Why is systems thinking important ? From a business perspective, it can help analyse the people and objects that determine how a system (company) behaves, and how certain kinds of behavior of these ‘components’ can affect overall system output. For example, car manufacturers should change the specifications of their car according to general consumer tastes. Therefore, there must be some system feature that links car specification with consumer taste. If the person who is in charge of implementing this feature in this system fails to do her job well, system output (which is cars) will fail to make the desired impact.

Therefore, most social systems – religion, corporation, state – come up with a set of desired behaviors that the components that make up the system should have, and this is inculcated by various mechanisms – schools, corporate orientation, religious instruction and so on.

One can, if one has considerable amount of time to burn, apply systems principles to the present situation in India. First, a look at the state. The state is a glorified watchman of sorts, taking money from us taxpayers and giving political, social and economic protection. The recent spate of terrorist attacks have underlined the fact that it is unable to deal with the phenomenon of terrorism which is structurally very different from the normal antisocial elements that it is used to dealing with. Highly motivated individuals, working in small groups, from varied backgrounds, with no monetary motivation causing mayhem is something no state can cope with: it was simply not designed for such a task. And there goes physical safety that we were supposed to have.

Next thing to go was religious tolerance. Talking to random people on the train shows that the average Hindu looks at his Christian neighbor with suspicion and will be more hesitant than before to attend religious festivals. This is due to the sensationalist feedback systems which have been set in place called the media and no doubt supported by a political party that wants to expel Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals (only those with expired visas, of course, preferably Muslims) since they might be terrorists. Never mind the fact that terrorists will go to great lengths to see that their papers are in order, and are not stupid enough to be in a place where checks are taking place. A system is only as good as the people that make it up, and this is shown well in Karnataka now and Gujarat before.

Before these was, of course, financial security. A global economic system needs global  regulatory agencies, a role which the IMF and World Bank ostensibly play. The present crisis shows that a system designed around rational ordering and behavior of individuals completely fails when greed, fear and panic are the inputs. The subprime crisis surfaced around this time last year and its effects are showing now, a huge delay between input and output. This kind of behavior can only mean worse things in the coming year. IMF and the World Bank probably should stick to bullying third world nations.

All these developments are having interesting effects – terrorism has made grassroot level spying a noble duty in service of the state (Orwellian nightmare!), people belonging to different religious groups are eyeing each other with suspicion, and people with money to lose are running around like headless chickens. If people are taken as a system, and if insecurity is an input, the system moves towards whatever promises stability. Therefore, unfortunately, the State and religious organizations are going to be more powerful than before when the dust settles. The last bastion of reliable information feedback, the internet, is now becoming more prone to State intervention. Wonder what the status of the people will be after this – are we going to be sociable components of sociopathic systems ?

Pavlov’s Dog and Rational Choice: The same side of the same coin ?

Posts are more sporadic nowadays, thanks to exams being round the corner and last minute ‘copy the notes’ syndrome that most are familiar with. Along with day to day stuff, also doing the normal outside reading. Starting off with microeconomics, just came across the fundamental Axioms of Rational Choice. Few questions are in order, namely, why rational, and what is choice doing in economics, which is supposed to be measuring utility. The rational part is simply because, well, economics would be worse than guessing otherwise, and why choice is explained in the appendix of this. Since most would be too lazy to click on the link, it is simply because utility cannot be measured, and only thing that can be measured is choice, and that has to suffice. In essence, measuring people’s welfare degenerates to behaviorism. Since that is the best we can do, we have to live with it, and in most cases choice will reflect utility. But a man who takes up a certain profession just because his family has been doing it for generations, will not choose because of utility but something other than it, whatever that may be. Anyways, these are the axioms.

  • Completeness: if A and B are any two goods, a person can make the following decisions, either A > B, A < B or A = B, where <, >, = are taken to mean preference. This means can’t say is not an option.
  • Transitivity: if A > B and B > C, then A > C.
  • Continuity: if A > B, there is some A’ very close to A so that A’ > B.

These axioms are needed to show that a person can rank all commodities in a linear fashion. The last one is present to insinuate calculus into the picture, which is one of the favorite tools of economists. How many people are aware that this is what defines rationality is a question best left unanswered. These also make the implicit assumption that everything can be priced, and everything can be exchanged for anything else. This may not represent reality too well, but economics is not about to reinvent itself fundamentally anytime soon (Though modifications are happening all the time).

The other part of this post was supposed to talk about conditioning, you can read a classical case about Pavlov’s Dog. This was introduced to us in class, when talking about behavior modification. It essentially says that behavior can be changed by reapeatedly applying certain stimuli along with punishment/reward. The teacher gave an example of a child who is haphazard in her behavior, and how counsellors treat such conditions using conditioning. The obvious question to be asked here is whether the behavioral ‘correction’ is permanent, and the teacher said that the parents have to be trained as to how to deal with the child from now on, and the counselor must make follow up visits. Apart from the obvious question about treating children like dogs, another question that comes to the mind is whether the ‘treatment’ is actually working. Are we actually changing the behavior of the person, or are we changing the environmental stimuli to elicit a desired response? Behaviorism would say that both are the same, since the outward behavior is, after all, the same. There is no ‘free will’ or volition that matters for behaviorism. Going back to the case of the child, how long do the parents have to modify their behavior to suit certain ends ? These, for me atleast, are very disturbing questions. Looking at it from another angle, almost all of social life is conditioning. Our ancestors condition us to certain accepted types of behavior through customs and norms. Finding an ‘unconditioned’ person would be searching for the wolf children, and even these would be conditioned to behave like animals. So why not, says psychiatry, use conditioning to do what is desirable or essential ? This is an ethical question, and each may have their own answer.

And the link between the Rational Choice and Pavlov’s Dog ? Well, any reading of economic history would put two paradigms of society before us: a pre- and a post-capitalist society. We can say that the former essentially did not exercise Rational Choice, and the latter did, their conditioning has changed. Rational Choice symbolises the baggage handed down to us by the distinguished personalities of 16th century onward, like Irrational Choice symbolised medieval baggage. Capitalism is not just a system of economic arrangement, but is far more than that. It provides the environmental stimuli to create people who choose ‘rationally’, as defined by theory. If you look at the axioms and their implicit assumptions again, you will see that people nowadays are more ‘rational’ than during the Indira Gandhi days. The economy does not grow unless people spend, and true to form, people are spending more than their elders just a generation behind. You will hear parents talk about how we ‘don’t realise the value of money’ and such things, which points to this facet of a capitalist economy. They will tell you how much they used to save, but only savings does not stimulate demand which is needed for, what else, supply. When they complain that today nothing is sacred or profane, they are quoting the first axiom. When they say their son chose to dump them in a old age home since he could not take care of them, the second axiom is quoted.

Therefore, I do not believe that what we have today is the most ‘natural’ way to live. It has been a result of systematic conditioning to have us believe so, and therefore we cannot imagine a life otherwise. Whether a liberal society is preferable to a socialist one is a question of ontology and ethics, not some law of nature. We may think we are lucky that we live in a liberalising economy, but the Russians were also made to believe that they were lucky to live in a socialist one. Who knows how Rational Choice Revision 2 will look like :)