EvPsych vs. Economics

Eliezer has a great post on Overcoming Bias about the clash between Hansonian-style economics and EvPsych, when analyzing human motives and behavior:

Evolutionary psychologists are absolutely and uniformly cynical about the real reason why humans are universally wired with a chunk of complex purposeful functional circuitry X (e.g. an emotion) - we have X because it increased inclusive genetic fitness in the ancestral environment, full stop.
...
But it wouldn't be conventionally ev-psych cynicism to suppose that you don't really love your mate, and that you were actually just attracted to their body all along, but that instead you told yourself a self-deceiving story about virtuously loving them for their mind, in order to falsely signal commitment.

Robin, on the other hand, often seems to think that this general type of cynicism is the default explanation and that anything else bears a burden of proof - why suppose an explanation that invokes a genuine virtue, when a selfish desire will do?

Of course my experience with having deep discussions with economists mostly consists of talking to Robin, but I suspect that this is at least partially reflective of a difference between the ev-psych and economic notions of parsimony.

Ev-psychers are trying to be parsimonious with how complex of an adaptation they postulate, and how cleverly complicated they are supposing natural selection to have been.

Economists... well, it's not my field, but maybe they're trying be parsimonious by having just a few simple motives that play out in complex ways via consequentialist calculations?

Read the whole thing, it's great. I love both these ways of looking at the world, but have realized for years that they are in conflict. This is the best example / analysis of that conflict that I have seen. The a priori assumptions about rationality in economics just don't square with modern scientific data about the design and effectiveness of our mental hardware, whereas EvPsych (to the degree that it is a falsifiable science, which is admittedly limited) does.

Our brains clearly do not work via incredibly sophisticated, rational analyses of large numbers of possible actions and their consequences. Instead, they are patched together from many specific modules and some general but limited reasoning ability.

My viewpoint is that this, like happiness research, is something that economists and their fans (like, say, libertarians) argue vociferously against because they don't like the implications. Because it threatens their identity by threatening their worldview. And not because they are rationally analyzing/dismissing it.

Not that they don't have some valid criticisms, but the burden of evidence they place on these fields they don't like is far higher than on fields they do like. Which is nothing unusual, it's typical human nature - of the EvPsych kind, not the rational economic kind. Practice beats theory, as usual.

Share this

I don't think there's necessarily any conflict

The main distinction that divides the two things that Eliezer is talking about are evolution and learning. A creature that engages in behavior X which serves a recognizable interest of that creature may have acquired that behavior by two possible routes (or some mix of the routes):

a) The creature may have, over its own life, learned to engage in that behavior because it served that interest. The interest remains present and active in the creature's mind, though the creature may fool itself otherwise. This is the idea Eliezer is assigning to economists.

b) The creature may be descended from creatures into whom that behavior appeared as a mutation and which won the evolutionary contest because that behavior served that interest. There may be no awareness of any sort in the creature's mind that that behavior served that interest - the interest, as such, may not be in its own right an active presence in the creature's mind. This is the idea Eliezer is assigning to evolutionary psychologists.

My point about this is simple. Economics works either way. You can do an economic analysis of the evolutionary scenario to help you predict and explain the behaviors. Or you can do an economic analysis of the self-interested learner to help you predict what the learner will do.

(a) isn't required by economics. Economics works either way, with either (a) or (b). Obviously the predictions will not be precisely the same in part because the environments are different: the environment relevant to (b) is the ancestral environment, the environment relevant to (a) is the current environment. This doesn't mean that economics applies to one and not to the other, but only means that the environment is relevant to the analysis.

Robin answered Eliezer in much the way that I predicted he would:

Eliezer, you have misunderstood me

Eliezer responded with some specific statements by Robin which suggest that Robin is thinking in terms of (a). But such statements need not be interpreted literally. Economists are very comfortable with modeling, and an imagined rational self-interested learning being can be a useful model for predicting and explaining evolved behavior. To employ such a model does not necessarily mean that the one employing it believes that the model is an accurate description of the reality.

Moreover, it is often quite difficult to talk about evolution without using terminology that is associated with the folk psychology of purposes, goals, intentions. Unless the speaker is known to be ignorant, I think such talk should not be understood literally, and should be taken a convenient way of talking about natural selection. After all, the very word "selection" is associated with an agent who selects - so even excruciatingly correct talk does not entirely escape the language of folk psychology.

My viewpoint is that this, like happiness research, is something that economists and their fans (like, say, libertarians) argue vociferously against because they don't like the implications.

1) I'm a pretty dyed-in-the-wool libertarian and I don't feel in any way uncomfortable with evolutionary psychology. Where are you getting the idea from that libertarians are uncomfortable with it? Yourself?

2) You slipped in a comment about happiness research. Maybe I should slip in an uncomplimentary comment about people who have a habit of uncritically embracing whatever is popular and cool.

I'll add 3) Correct me if

I'll add

3) Correct me if I'm wrong but I understand this comment as being an attack on the Austrian stand against utility comparison. In this case

a) It only applies to utilitarian / consequentialist libertarians. I can't begin to see why a natural right libertarian would be bothered with happiness research.

b) Even then, the Austrian's view on utility is merely epistemological, it doesn't change much if you can measure something and call it happiness.

It's great if we can learn to be happier or measure the effect of different things on us, but wtf does it have to do with libertarianism?

Back to evopsy, among hundred of libertarians I know of only one hostile to evopsy.

I'm baffled by your

I'm baffled by your assertion that libertarians tend to have an unreasonable bias against evolutionary psychology. My experience has always been that libertarians are much more likely than average to accept evolutionary explanations for human behavior. Non-religiously based hostility to evopsych seems to be almost exclusively the province of the Left.