Keynes famously said that the hardest part of coming up with the General Theory was not coming up with the new ideas so much as escaping from the old ones. I’ve just run into a great article on the implications of happiness research for making policy (and yes there are implications) at least according to John F. Helliwell. Read the whole article if you wish – it’s not very long, not technical and very interesting and it’s here (pdf). Anyway, here’s the first half of it’s conclusion which struck me, perhaps because I’ve been thinking about the Keynes quote a lot recently not in the intellectual but in the organisational context. Why is it that ideas that are clearly good ones, which have negligible risks and are clearly worth giving a go, are not given a go? Laziness? Inertia? The fact that people are busy and fully engaged in existing routines? Undoubtedly. But at least the chess example brought it home to me in a concrete way (and of course as a chess player it describes perfectly why I’m not very good – well one reason!)
There seems to be sufficient evidence already in hand to encourage policy field trials and policy experiments implementing what is already known from subjective well-being research. If this is so, why has so little changed? The relatively slow progress from accumulating evidence to even experimental changes in policies and procedures is partly due to the human predilection, evident in medicine and all sciences (Nickerson 1998), to adhere to old ways despite the arrival of contrary evidence. Even chess masters unconsciously stop looking effectively for better strategies once they have something plausible in hand, enough so to drag the quality of their play down by three standard deviations in the skill distribution (Bilali? et al 2008, 654). [this article is here btw, though there are better formatted, possibly later versions behind a paywall.]
Caution has its own rewards, however, as the inherent conservatism of science can at least reduce the likelihood of running off in all directions. But if taking subjective well-being more seriously has the potential for increasing the quality of lives while reducing pressures on available resources, should there not at least be a stronger commitment to broaden the range of policy alternatives to include those with a strong chance of improving subjective well-being?
Postscript: Here’s the problem in the experiment.
The experimental procedure then involved comparing the ease with which people presented with the first problem saw the most efficient solution – given that they would almost certainly have seen the less efficient (smothered mate) solution first.
And from the article:
Across a range of skill levels, the presence of a familiar solution that ?rst came to mind [the smothered mate in the first problem] reduced the problem solving performance of the experts to that of players about three standard deviations lower in skill. Similar results were obtained using different problems and the more naturalistic instruction to ?nd the best move (Bilalic´ et al., 2008). Three standard deviations is a gulf in skill level. The chance of a player being beaten by one 600 Elo points lower is close to zero. And yet the Einstellung effect temporarily reduced the problem solving ability of the experts to that of the less skilled players. It is a very powerful effect. . . .
We show, by measuring players’ eye movements, that the mechanism by which the ?rst idea prevents a better idea coming to mind can be demonstrated. Crucially, we ?nd that players believed that they were actively searching for better solutions when in fact they continued to look at aspects of the problem related to the ?rst idea they consid- ered. This is why the Einstellung effect is pernicious – peo- ple do not realize that it is in?uencing their thoughts.
It was (I read somewhere) to avoid this (Einstellung) effect that Freud refused to read Nietzsche because he thought his ideas would pre-empt and so displace his own emerging ideas.
More generally while there are sub-disciplines variously entitled the ‘methodology’, the ‘sociology’, the ‘philosophy’, the ‘history’ and the ‘theory’ of one’s discipline, one of the most interesting and useful of these sub-disciplines might be called the ‘psycho-pathology’ of one’s discipline. Such a sub-discipline, which I think there should be courses in which could be very valuable for the health and usefulness of the discipline would seek to generate greater self-awareness amongst practitioners of the psycho-pathology of their own discipline. Certainly there’s a dark psycho carnival going on in economics. Wouldn’t it be worth making some awareness of the psychological foibles of their discipline a routine part of the intellectual apparatus of economists? Ditto, (mutatis mutandis) for lawyers, doctors and other professional practitioners. Shouldn’t all people seeking to become ‘experts’ of one kind or another be familiar with all the foibles of expertise, as documented for instance by Philip Tetlock?