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“The Economist” Likes Behavioural Research: Of iPods, Gratitude Theory and Modeling

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

We’re taking a quick diversion from our series arguing against war with/in/around/about Iran to return to an old On V bailiwick, counter-insurgency theory. A few days after we published “Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, Gulliver of Ink Spots let loose a 6,000 word rebuttal of our post. An excerpt:

“The problem with On Violence's Gladwell-deep survey of behavioral economics is that bounded rationality cannot as yet meaningfully inform our models of human agency in conflict. We may recognize that rationality and utility maximization fail to perfectly explain all human behavior, but we have no better predictive model on which to base our efforts to influence the choices of others -- the most extreme of which is war....Until Kahnemann, Tversky, Thaler, Becker, et al can present a coherent, predictive theory of human choice that can be plausibly applied to economic and political behavior and which definitively falsifies the rational choice model...all this bleating about "humanity's underlying irrationality" is worse than useless...”

Then the Christmas double issue of the Economist arrived in the mail. I tore it open to read some of their special articles on “The East India Company”,“Religion in America: The faith and doubts of our fathers” and “The Amen break”, because who isn’t interested in 17th century international trading and Drum and Bass electronic music? I completely breezed past an article called, “Sex and advertising: Retail therapy”. Fortunately Eric C did not. He called and read me these two paragraphs:

“THESE are thrilling days for behavioural research. Every week seems to yield a new discovery about how bad people are at making decisions. Humans, it turns out, are impressionable, emotional and irrational. We buy things we don’t need, often at arbitrary prices and for silly reasons. Studies show that when a store plays soothing music, shoppers will linger for longer and often spend more. If customers are in a good mood, they are more susceptible to persuasion. We believe price tends to indicate the value of things, not the other way around. And many people will squander valuable time to get something free.

The sudden ubiquity of this research has rendered Homo economicus a straw man. Yet such observations are not new. Analysts have been studying modern man’s dumb instincts for ages. Sigmund Freud argued that people are governed by irrational, unconscious urges over a century ago. And in America in the 1930s another Viennese psychologist named Ernest Dichter spun this insight into a million-dollar business. His genius was in seeing the opportunity that irrational buying offered for smart selling.”

Homo economicus...a straw man?

A publication much more esteemed than us, the Economist--Michael C often calls the Economist the best weekly intelligence report, period--essentially doubled-down on our thesis. A new model of human behavior, one that embraces irrationality and emotion, may not explain everything, but the old, rational model explains less.

This Economist article single-handedly debunks the core argument of Gulliver’s 10,000 word rebuttal: he claims that we cannot model human’s emotionality. That’s wrong; American marketing executives do it every day. Gulliver thinks that, “Until Kahnemann, can present a coherent, predictive theory of human choice that can be plausibly applied to economic and political models...” his research is useless for the military. Well, since businesses use Kahnemann’s research everyday, couldn’t the military find something it could use too?

I could list all the possible advertisements and marketing ploys that play on our emotions every day--from luxury cars to trucks to clothes to fast food to beer--but one commercial captures the emotional pull of advertising better than any other, the iPod commercial.

This commercial used five words and a symbol (iTunes + iPod, Now for Windows) and sold millions of units, transforming the way Americans listen to music.

Does this emotional appeal apply to politics as well? Take a look at this Newt Gingrich advertisement and ask yourself, is this an appeal for “rational utility maximization”?

So we have increased the number of groups using Kahnemann’s (and many, many others) research from academics--as Gulliver would have it--to marketing executives (for every Fortune 500 company in America at least) and political operatives. We could also add in teachers (praising students for correct answers) and mass media (“Is something in the water going to kill you? Find out at 11.”).

In other words, all sorts of people use emotional persuasion in their modeling.

I am going to take Gulliver’s royal “we” from his quote more specifically than he intends it. I assume by “we” he means the U.S. military. (And the larger defense establishment. I have never met Gulliver, and his blog doesn’t list his name, current employer or biography. I assume he works somewhere in D.C. in some job  in national defense funded directly or indirectly by the taxpayer.) On that front, I agree with him: the Pentagon does not have a good grasp on modeling counter-insurgencies. He’s right, the U.S. Army needs more officers with MBAs, and when it gets them, it shouldn’t just send them to Human Resources or Operational Research/Systems Analysis.

Our whole series--and that post in particular--argued primarily one point: the very rational, very simplistic model of “kill enough bad guys, and the other side will give up” is just that: simplistic. Modeled using strict, utility maximization and survival-based rationality, it works. But humans don’t fit that model.

We need an approach to counter-insurgency that works off emotion and rationality simultaneously, providing security (feelings of safety), reconstruction (good will), good governance (respect), and kills the bad guy (survival and utility maximization).

You know, like population-centric counter-insurgency.

two comments

The Thing I noticed from the iPod commercial? All of the people in the commercial have really bouncy hair.

More on topic, The Economist has a another article on modeling insurgencies a few weeks ago, and we’re going to follow up on that soon.


We also only dealt with positive emotions in this post, what the counter-insurgent does to engender good will. In past posts, and future posts, we will deal with negative emotions—the red, yellow, and orange emotions of the color spectrum