Monday, November 28, 2016

Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to my blog! If you already know me, or you just read my profile, you know that I'm an economist. What initially drew me to economics was the mathematical modeling: I fell in love with economics when I discovered that I could approximate humans’ and governments’ behavior with equations and graphs. For example, it is standard in economics to write down a model where humans buy the products, in the amounts, that make them the happiest. So, economists make up equations to measure people’s happiness, based on the amount of the product that they buy. If you took calculus in high school or college, maybe you remember how to use it (or at least that you can use it) to find where an equation is maximized. And, voila, you’re using mathematical modeling to understand economic decision making. 

So, math is powerful. But, with experience, as I've matured as a social scientist, I've come to appreciate the important roles that the other social sciences play in our understanding of economic models. I'm not the only one. Economics as a field has also matured in this way. In particular, the Great Recession caused me, and many of my colleagues, to “think outside the box,” and to realize that mathematical modeling isn’t necessarily the best way, or the only way, to analyze every situation.

I am now fascinated by all the social sciences. I've been studying psychology, social psychology, and sociology and how the insights in these fields can help me to understand the "behind the scenes" behavior in the models I work with. For example, I model people as having self-fulfilling expectations. If they all expect a recession, they play it safe, don’t spend as much, and their expectation is fulfilled. Vice versa if they all expect a boom. But the models can't explain how this self-fulfilling prophecy occurs. Why do people all start to behave similarly when they are in a group situation? It's herd behavior, group psychology. Insights from these other social sciences are needed. My working paper, "Sunspots in Social Networks: Experimental Evidence,” with Pietro Battiston, is incorporating such insights.

The point is that my studies of these other, fascinating social sciences have led me to my obsession with unintended consequences. Unintended consequences are everywhere. They result because human behavior is unpredictable. When individuals, groups, or governments take action with a goal in mind, that goal is almost never the only result of the action. When the other, usually unforeseen, outcomes are significant enough to be of note, they earn this distinction.  In his seminal paper, "The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action," Robert K. Merton wrote: 

"we may have sufficient knowledge of the limits of the range of possible consequences, and  even adequate knowledge for ascertaining the statistical . . . probabilities of the various possible sets of consequences, but it is impossible to predict with certainty the results in any particular case . . . We have here the paradox that whereas past experience is the sole guide to our expectations on the assumption that certain past, present and future acts are sufficiently alike . . . these experiences are in fact different."

In my search of the literatures, both academic and popular press, I’ve found that the most prominent examples are negative, or undesirable, unintended consequences of government policies. But unintended consequences, both positive and negative, can result from the actions of private individuals and groups as well. In this blog, my goal will be to delve deeply into some of the examples I’ve found the most compelling. I’ll interview the authors who wrote about these examples, then summarize each interview for you, including information about other related research that the author is working on. 

I’m looking forward to taking this journey with you. I expect each posting will bring us all, as professional and amateur social scientists, closer to an understanding of the complexities of human behavior; and to thinking about how to better anticipate, and hence prepare for, any consequences of our future actions. I hope that you will take the lessons you learn here and apply them in your daily life. The consequence might be a drastic change in the way you live your life. Maybe not, I don’t know, I can’t predict. Let’s see what happens. . .

Thanks for reading!

No comments:

Post a Comment