Human behavior is a mystery. Trying to uncover the layers of cumulative results of multiple stimuli and influences is a crap shoot at the very least.
The study of human behavior has baffled many a scientist, social scientist and parent for millennia. Nature versus nurture has been discussed, debated and intellectually argued ad nauseum.
The conclusions often are twofold. If your child does something incredibly wonderful, you can take full credit for it. If he or she chooses to really screw up, it is his grandfather’s fault on your spouse’s side, the kids he hangs out with, the current music or the media; take your pick.
Pulp pseudo textbooks, talk show hosts and other authorities have information that ventures into predicting human behavior. Science tried to narrow it down, categorize and study how the brain works. Defining influence and motivators is a start. There actually are some markers to take to heart (or brain) but the truth is, people are only human.
As humans we have what is called the human factor in behavior, which is by definition, unpredictable. It might not say that in a definition, but when you are trying to understand interactions and decisions made by humans, the data for the overall system performance is more theory than accurate prediction.
For as long as we are dealing with humans, even though they behave physically and psychologically in relation to particular environments, products, services, and other humans, there always will be a wild card.
Circuits break, chemicals get out of balance, drugs, alcohol, sugar or spice may trigger an action that is totally out of character, unreasonable, or both.
Richard Thaler is a theorist in behavior science and is best known for his contributions to behavioral economics. Behavior economics is the study of psychology as it relates to the economic decision-making processes. His recent exploration has incorporated the psychologically realistic assumptions into analyses of economic decision making. In other words, humans have limited rationality, social preferences that are suspect and a lack of self-control. People make bad choices, and act irrationally and there is no accounting for bad taste.
That might not be exactly why he won the Nobel Prize in Economics. His ability to build a bridge between the economic and psychological analyses of people’s decision-making is how it is listed. Which, I think, means humans are expected to be reasonable and make rational choices on their own behalf, and they don’t. Humans are inconsistent, flawed and fallible.
Someone once asked me what good is it to understand human behavior if you can’t change it? Good point. I think Thaler has come close. He has done his homework, evaluated experiments and written the books. He has divided the population into humans and econs. Econs are economically rational people. Humans are the rest of us.
Concluding that people don’t always act in their best interest, he used the example of removing a bowl of cashews from guests before dinner. They were devouring them and he didn’t want them to ruin their appetite. The guests thanked him, which spurred a discussion. Why did they keep eating them when they were present, but were grateful when they were taken away?
We might ask why people spend money on things they don’t need? Drink more than what is in their best interest? Why do people speed even though they know the limit is there for their own well-being? Illogical behavior has economic consequences and our culture feels the pain, whether it is the collapse of the housing market or baby boomers not saving enough for retirement.
Thaler implies fewer choices help people make better decisions. Presented with cashews or carrots, the humans will choose cashews; a lot of them, by the handfuls. But given carrots or broccoli, the carrots stand a chance.
“I try to teach people to make fewer mistakes,” Thaler said. I never thought I would have something in common with a Nobel Prize winner. When asked how he was going to spend his prize money, he quipped he planned to spend it as irrationally as possible.