In an extensive review of The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, the book by Michael Lewis on the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Tamsin Shaw provides a deeper criticism of the field of behavioral economics. He claims that behavioral science can be used quite deliberately for the purposes of deception and manipulation, and that this has been one of its most important applications:
Behavioral scientists claim to have developed the capacity to manipulate people’s emotional lives in ways that shape their fundamental preferences, values, and desires. […] Kahneman, working with others in the field of positive psychology, has helped to establish a new subfield, hedonic psychology, which measures not just pleasure but well-being in a broader sense, in order to establish a more objective account of our condition than our subjective reflection can afford us.
This new subfield has led the way in combining research in behavioral science with “big data,” a further development that has tremendously expanded the potential applications of Kahneman and Tversky’s ideas.
The manipulation of preferences has driven the commercialization of behavioral insights, he says, and is now fundamental to the digital economy that shapes so much of our lives.
He also describes how these techniques are being used in politics and even in military confrontation.
The idea of Libertarian Paternalism, in which the tools of the new behavioral sciences remain in the hands of benign liberal mandarins, has come to seem hopelessly quaint. In a more combative and unstable environment there must clearly be greater concern about our capacity to regulate the uses of behavioral science, the robustness of the fundamental research, and the political or financial motivations of any behavioral initiatives to be employed or countered.
Shaw concludes: “It is still possible to envisage behavioral science playing a part in the great social experiment of providing the kind of public education that nurtures the critical faculties of everyone in our society. But the pressures to exploit irrationalities rather than eliminate them are great and the chaos caused by competition to exploit them is perhaps already too intractable for us to rein in.”
Tamsin Shaw is Associate Professor of European and Mediterranean Studies and Philosophy at NYU and the author of Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism.