don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic

Beginning in the late 1960s, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman shook the prevailing assumption that human beings can plan and make decisions rationally. Their experiments demonstrated that we use “simplifying heuristics rather than extensive algorithmic processing” to make decisions. We err in predictable ways even when we want to think rationally (Gilovich & Griffin 2002).

Tversky’s and Kahneman’s revolutionary program spread across the behavioral sciences and constantly reveals new biases that are predictable enough to bear their own names. Attribution Bias means explaining one’s failures as the results of difficult external circumstances, while others’ failures must flow from their bad choices. The Control Illusion is the tendency to overestimate how much we control events. The Halo Effect causes us to overvalue work by people whom we have previously judged as talented. And the lists go on for pages.

These phenomena are held to be deeply rooted in the cognitive limitations of human beings as creatures who evolved to hunt-and-gather in small bands on African plains. Not only has the burgeoning literature on cognitive biases challenged rational market models in economics, but it undermines the “folk theory” of democracy taught in civics textbooks and widely believed by citizens and pundits. The folk theory holds that “Ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do these things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants becomes government policy” (Achen and Bartels 2016). Citing the research on human cognitive limitations as well as other evidence, Achen and Bartels argue that this folk theory is not only false as a description of actual politics in the United States; it is impossible.

Such evidence should be taken very seriously. No reform program will work that doesn’t address human cognitive limitations. But we can design solutions. For example, people are not very good at measuring time, but most of us carry little prosthetic devices on our wrists that tell us what time it is. We’ve also sprinkled our walls and computer screens with clocks that are synchronized so that we can coordinate billions of people’s time.

Similarly, a newspaper is a prosthetic device for telling us what important events are occurring around the world that are relevant to our decisions as consumers, workers, and citizens. We didn’t evolve to know the news, but we have built tools that tell us the news.

To be sure, human cognitive limitations make the news business a hard one. We human beings are not very good at separating reliable information from misinformation, at seeing the world from perspectives other than our own, or at absorbing information that challenges our prior assumptions. We are not automatically motivated to pay for reliable information about public issues.

Some of these points have been known for a very long time. Francis Bacon, for example, was an acute observer of human cognitive limitations. Around 1880, there was no such thing as a professional, politically independent, reliable press in the United States. If people had considered the many reasons to doubt that human beings can know or value the news, they would not have set about to create the modern press.

Instead, naively, they went ahead and built the press. And they made it work by selling a desirable package that included entertainment and advertising as well as hard political news. The metropolitan daily newspaper had a pretty good run until new forms of advertising and entertainment finally shrank it in our century. Behavioral science would have predicted the demise of the independent newspaper–but about a century too soon. In fact, “the press” (reporters, editors, journalism educators, and others) sustained the newspaper as a tool for overcoming human cognitive limitations for decades. Nor is the newspaper the only such success story. Behavioral science would not predict schools and universities, research labs, or public libraries, either.

The moral is to be sober about the limits of reasonably rational and ethical human behavior without ever giving up on our ability to create better tools and contexts.


  • Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016)
  • Thomas Gilovich and Dale Griffin, “Introduction–Heuristis and Biases: Then and Now,” in Gilovich and Griffin (eds.), Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

See also: hearing the faint music of democracyJoseph Schumpeter and the 2016 election.