Influence: Social Psychology v. Human Reason


I’ll admit it’s been a while since my last post, but these musings come and go as they please, whether I write them down or not.

I’ve finished a particularly interesting book on social psychology called Influence by Robert Cialdini. In the book, Cialdini talks about the “click, whirr” responses of humans – that is to say, those actions which we instinctively revert to once we receive the right triggers, out of some primitive sense of survival or self-interest. These are situations where we provide our compliance without thinking very hard about why, or automatically, in most cases. For example, you are more likely to do a favour for someone who have given you an unsolicited gift than someone who outright asks for the favour. Cialdini shows in his book how such responses can sometimes be conducive to poor or dangerous choices for individuals.

On first blush, these conclusions from the body of social psychology research seem to undermine the foundations of theories about human reason, particularly those of Ludwig von Mises laid out in Human Action.  According to him, human action is purposeful and rational behavior, not reflexive behaviour. People have goals and adopt means of trying to achieve them. Human action involve choice – the free will to choose among alternatives to achieve our desired ends.

So how do we reconcile automated responses like the “click, whirr” reaction with Mises’ view of human action (driven by reason)? Well off the bat, Mises goes through great lengths at the beginning of his book to differentiate his field of study, praxeology, or the study of human action, from social psychology or any other sciences. If the “click, whirr” function is based on instinct, Mises rejects the view that all human action is based entirely on instinct because a) if true, it can still be defined as human action (i.e. human trying to satisfy a goal – hunger, survival, etc.), and b) humans are capable of defying their instincts (e.g. not eat).

Mises also rejects the notion of “irrational action” or qualifying certain actions as more rational than others. For example, eating when you’re hungry is not more or less rational than saving for retirement – both are equally rational decisions, just achieved by different means. He goes on to say it is wrong to condemn any action as irrational simply because the means chosen were ill-suited to achieve the desired end. If the actor truly believes the means will achieve the end, the choice was “rational” to the actor. Whether an overweight person satisfies their hunger with a salad or a hundred donuts does not really matter for the praxeologist – as long as they have a reason.

For Mises then, the “click, whirr” reaction would be a rational action for the simple reason we as actors believe we are achieving our ends by acting in that manner. When we buy a car because we like the salesmen or because our friends have the same one, we are making a conscious judgment call (i.e. we have rationalized the decision), whether or not the car itself is in mint or poor condition. For Mises, the study of the action is more important than the study of whether or not the choice was good or bad. Only the individual can ascribe value to the “goodness” or “badness” of a choice and it is their ability to do so free of outside pressures that Mises is defending throughout his philosophical tome.

Does this make Cialdini wrong in his assessment of human behaviour? The answer lies in the end notes for each of Cialdini’s book chapters, which outlines ways to defend oneself from falling into bad “click, whirr traps”. Most of the recommendations revert to consulting “common sense”, a trust in “gut feelings”, and asking ourselves some reflective questions. It is realizing we have a choice and understanding why we are considering certain options over others based on the available information. In other words, Cialdini is calling on us to activate our rational processes when making these choices, particularly when there is a danger of making poor ones.

For both authors, humans will never learn how to be better decision makers until they learn through experience, or if you will, by the consequences of their actions. It is when they don’t learn that Cialdini becomes most concerned, but Mises would insist they must develop their own sense of reason through John Stuart Mill’s quintessential self-improvement mantra – like reading Cialdini’s book for example. Humans will always make decisions based on the best available information, whether it’s a friendly salesperson or a magazine ad – which is why so much hinges on humans learning to be better thinkers and actors.

Is there any other way to encourage humans to make better decisions? Should the state have a role to play in incentivizing, maybe even forcing, people to make better decisions? There’s an interesting case study that Cialdini writes about in his book about achieving compliance, conducted by a Jonathan Freedman. The study involved telling children not to play with a toy robot and gauging their compliance behaviour in the short-term and long-term. When Freedman provided a forceful threat not to play with the toy and stressed there would be consequences, the majority of boys tested did not play with it even when he left the room. However, six weeks later, when they were brought into the same room without Freedman, most of them started playing with the toy. Surprisingly in his second sample, Freedman issued the same threat but provided no reason for compliance other than “it was wrong to play with the toy”. Interestingly, the boys did not play with the toy both immediately AND six weeks later.

The crux of the story is individuals will take personal responsibility for their actions when they are given a moral choice. Outright coercion is not as effective for developing “good” long-term behaviour patterns as simple social cues and common sense. Perhaps this is what Aristotle meant when he thought of virtue as a creature of habit, and not of study. The onus is certainly on the individual to develop good patterns of behaviour and self-improvement, though it is up to the authorities at hand to ensure such an individual is free to pursue such ends within the boundaries of the harm principle.

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