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Relax, Fatalists and Stay-at-Homes. There’s Nothing Wrong With You

Human irrationality is an important and fascinating subject, especially when it’s pitted against the assumption that people are rational, which still dominates modern life. Sometimes though evidence of human irrationality is presented in a glib and trivializing argument that amounts to this: “Other people don’t think straight, unlike me.” Case in point: This Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, which bemoans evidence that Americans are no longer ready to take big risks—specifically, leave their home towns—in order to chase economic success.

The writers, Todd and Victoria Buchholz, present some fascinating data: Since the 1980s, the likelihood of an American in his/her 20’s moving to another state has dropped by more than 40 percent. Adults living with their parents doubled in number in the same period (an effect measured in 2008, before the effects of the economic meltdown). These are some pretty interesting indicators of human non-rationality: Rational Economic Man follows opportunity, but Actual American Person is staying put, and this gap between model and reality, as the authors note, needs explaining: “For about $200, young Nevadans who face a statewide 13 percent jobless rate can hop a Greyhound bus to North Dakota, where they’ll find a welcome sign and a 3.3 percent rate. Why are young people not crossing borders?”

To shore up their point that this behavior is bad news, they cite another bit of post-rational insight: Far from being able to assess their life prospects according to objective economic facts, people have their perceptions shaped by early-life experience. The writers cite Paola Giuliano’s research, which indicates that people who were raised in bad economic times tend to believe that success in life depends more on luck than on effort. Thanks to our ongoing economic mess, then, skepticism about the value of chasing a dream to North Dakota is likely to be with us for some time.

Interesting points, but the Buchholzes don’t do anything interesting with them. Instead, they use the evidence of human irrationality as a cudgel to bash the stay-at-homes and fatalists. These people, they argue, are bad for the economy. And because the population of this country have been prone to uprooting and migration, these risk-averse young people, they suggest, are somehow just plain un-American.

This is the sort of argument that makes post-rational research sound like just another collection of soundbites, presenting evidence that isn’t much different from thousands of other white papers, calls to action, official reports and press releases issued last week. But human irrationality is much deeper subject, and a much bigger challenge, than the Buchholzes allow.

If they had realized this, then their piece wouldn’t just condemn people for thinking that luck plays a big role in success. They would defend their own belief that luck does not. And rather than assuming that Nevadans ought to move to North Dakota, they would justify that view. (Maybe it is always better in life to go into exile to chase a bigger salary, but that idea isn’t self-evident. There are benefits to staying in a place you know and love, in the warm embrace of family and friends and local culture.)

When a writer uses post-rational research to say “those people don’t think straight,” s/he is missing the profound point of this work. Which is that none of us think straight, much of the time, and that includes the writer. Post-rational research ought to make people wonder about the hidden forces and invisible biases of their own lives, not just invite them to look down on the supposed folly of others.

I wish the Buchholzes had also looked at themselves, and tried to explain the sources of their belief that restless movement is better than community and love of home; I wish they’d looked at their own early years to explain their (to me) eccentric notion that luck doesn’t play an important role in success. I’d love to read a piece about the effects of people’s always being well-adapted to their childhood economy rather than the one in which they are adults (but that would require admitting that behavior that’s right for one era is wrong for another). That would have been a real engagement with the new science of human nature, which suggests new ways to understand our own beliefs, as well as those of others.


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