Tuesday, 12 May 2015

You have control...

...as they say on the flight deck. Which is where behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Tod professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton identified an early iteration of behavioural economics:
During that era [World War II], the authors recount, the United States military experienced an inordinate number of “wheels-up” crashes; after planes had landed, pilots would inexplicably retract the wheels instead of the wing flaps, sending the planes crashing to the runways on their bellies. At first, the blame fell squarely on the pilots, the authors explain: why were they so careless? Were they fatigued? But when the military began to look more closely, they realized the problem was limited to two particular plane models: B-17s and B-25s. Instead of looking inside the heads of the pilots,* Mullainathan and Shafir write, the military looked inside the cockpits of those specific planes; there investigators discovered that the wheel controls and flap controls were placed right next to each other and looked nearly identical—a design specific only to the crashing planes. After identifying the problem and implementing a minor change in design (a small rubber wheel was placed on the end of the landing-gear lever), the number of wheels-up crashes declined.
It's a telling example, because it seems to me to run counter to the frequent misapplication of behavioural economics by bodies like the British Government's infamous, now semi-privatised, 'nudge unit', where Mullainathan himself ended up working.

In providing an ergonomic fix to the wheels-up landing problem, the military looked at the system, found out what was sabotaging people's attempts to do what they needed to do, then made the system better.** The military weren't trying to mess with the pilots' heads. Before and after the fix, the pilots were trying to do the same thing - land the damn thing with the wheels down - and they had autonomy in consciously using their skill and judgement to try to do exactly that (with more success, once the bug in the system had been partly rectified).

But, somehow, the current post-democratic fad for "nudging" seems to have left the idea of autonomy behind in favour of the managerialist assumption that you're not just fixing a broken system in order to help grown-ups to do what they need to do more successfully, but cleverly using subliminal nudges to reprogramme those dumb ordinary people into unconsciously doing the right thing (as defined by some unelected, unnamed technocrat, who always knows best and never makes suboptimal decisions).

And once the unaccountable technocrats start thinking of the nudgees as dehumanised experimental subjects, rather than people with agency, sure enough, they start abusing the powerless, as they did with those fake psychometric tests they were wasting jobseekers' time with a couple of years ago.

You can't fool all of the people all of the time, but in these days of PR, think tanks and nudge, it's fashionable to suppose that you can do exactly that, and claim that you're doing the people you're trying to fool a big favour.

*My emphasis.

**Within the practical constraint of not being able to stop production and redesign the cockpit from scratch so those two controls were no longer adjacent and nearly identical.