Meeting Across the River

(About the title: One of my recent vinyl purchases was “Born to Run.” The title song is of course a timeless classic that’s also musically about a couple of time periods (50s and 60s rock and R&B), but this track on the second side is a keeper too. Not one of Clarence Clemons’ (RIP), but enhanced by soulful horn playing.)

It’s frustrating to me that so many of our theories of human behavior are just so dumb and literal-minded. Take this piece in yesterday’s NYT about the return of genetic explanations in criminology:

A rash of new research has focused on self-control as well as callousness and a lack of empathy, traits regularly implicated in the decision to commit a crime. Like other personality traits, these are believed to have environmental and genetic components, although the degree of heritability is debated.

Why not just say, “we have no idea how these things are connected, so we’re going to make some stuff up based on our immediate cultural milieu and take the unspoken assumptions that govern our own behavior as the default for human nature”?

It’s like there’s no imagination about the complexity of human motivation. Get some Jonathan Franzen in there.

I get that you need to simplify to make predictive models work, but does the simplification have to be to models that are so boring and pedestrian? The model of simplicity you’re looking for here is Emily Dickinson, not Jack and Jill.

It’s one thing when this happens around the dinner table and your uncle sounds off in a cringe-inducing way. It’s another when these just-so stories are hidden in the assumptions of analyses that end up shaping policy. From the same NYT piece:

One gene that has been linked to violence regulates the production of the monoamine oxidase A enzyme, which controls the amount of serotonin in the brain. People with a version of the gene that produces less of the enzyme tend to be significantly more impulsive and aggressive, but, as Ms. Moffitt and her colleague (and husband) Avshalom Caspi discovered, the effect of the gene is triggered by stressful experiences.

“The effect of the gene is triggered by stressful experiences”? Come on now, we have to be able to do better than that. What’s the mechanism here – is stress about a certain kind of intensity of emotion – but that can be good or bad? Intense experience? Intensely negative experience? Or can euphoric experiences generate a stress-like spike in emotion, like when people bust up a downtown after their team wins a championship? (Ah, Vancouver, I so enjoyed my trip to you last month, why do you have to go and be a counterexample to the point I’m trying to make?)

I think we need to keep pushing to put some more imagination and ethnographic detail into our assumptions about the dynamics of human motivation. They’re called “microfoundations” in economics, but they don’t have to be small-minded.

All of which leads to a recurring topic on this blog, people’s motivations for giving. To be continued….

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