Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ariely: Religion as a Source for Research Ideas

Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely posted some thought-provoking insights on his personal blog recently, raising questions about the potential role of religious teachings in providing insights into human nature that could be used to motivate scientific research:

Given religion’s role in society and the way it evolves over time, I think we could benefit from using its wisdom to direct social science research. The key is to zero in on a religious tenet and ask why it’s there and what is suggests about human behaviour, and then to empirically test the hypothesis with the hopes of deriving science from religious texts.

Science, especially the social sciences, is not immune from the subjective lenses through which we view reality. All scientific inquiry requires some sort of faith in the basic assumptions that form the foundation beneath the work of a scientist. In the social sciences, these assumptions are more pronounced, given the confusion and divergence of opinion among scientists regarding the nature of human behaviour.

It appears that much of Ariely’s work has led him to this realization (or vice versa). In one of the chapters of his book, Predictably Irrational, Ariely discusses the power of expectation in shaping our perception of reality. In one of his experiments, he provides free coffee at a University, and then asks students to state how much they would pay for the coffee if it were sold at the café around the corner. On some days, he would serve the coffee in simple Styrofoam cups next to odd containers of sugar, cream, and coffee spices. On other days, he would provide the exact same ingredients, only the serving items provided were more classy-looking. He found that students were prepared to pay more for the coffee with the classy set-up, suggesting that their preconceived opinion of the coffee’s value ultimately affected their judgment of how good it tasted, or of its actual value. On a broader scale, this could illustrate how human perception of reality is never neutral, but always biased by one’s preconceived assumptions and values.

Let us now turn to Ariely’s thoughts on the potential of using religious teachings to enlarge the scope of scientific research. In a sense, he’s suggesting that scientists’ ‘expectations’ be informed by religious teachings. Let’s use economics as an example. We could take religion’s golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and accept this principle about social behaviour as one conducive to individual and shared prosperity. How would this ‘expectation’ then guide an economist’s research into human behaviour? Surely he would set out to prove different theories and shed light on new areas of research previously hindered by assumptions about the individual (i.e. that an individual is motivated by self-interest). Such work could shake the entire foundation of the science of economics. What would be the consequences on economic theory as we know it?

Certainly, economic theory would be obliged to tackle new and perhaps more complex questions. Assumptions about human nature promote and institutionalize a certain vision of progress based on the perceived potential of human beings. Once these fundamental assumptions change, a scientist’s theories and expectations would naturally evolve. Thus, the objectives they set and, by default, the indicators they choose, must be raised to heights commensurate to this new vision of human potential and human purpose. Questions asked may not simply be, how do we progress human society, but rather, how do we tap into human potential? What is the role of religious teachings here?

Ariely’s research also shows that whether religious or atheist, there seemed to be a universal attraction within an individual to act in a ‘moral’ way once presented with a ‘moral reminder’. But there is a point Ariely doesn’t consider in much depth: what is the force that motivates an individual to follow the laws or tenets provided by religion or social norms? What are the forces that can shape – even transform – human behaviour? What motivates man to reach to higher, nobler aspirations? These are evidently the big questions perplexing social scientists today, and we should consider how religion can provide insight here, too.

Some further considerations:

v Ariely defines religion as ‘a social mechanism that has evolved over time’. How would this definition change our understanding of religion’s role in motivating scientific research when compared with a definition of religion as a set of divinely-inspired teachings that responds to the spiritual and material needs of humanity?

v Could this extend beyond the social sciences to other areas in science? Are there limits to the relevance of religious teachings to science?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Economic Indicators of Recovery and the Reality on the Ground

Joseph Stiglitz provided the following quote in a recent interview:
"Very clearly things are better than they were a year ago. We have pulled back from the precipice. But in a meaningful sense the global slowdown is in sight. Economists refer to crisis in terms of a series of quarters of negative growth. But for most citizens the recession means [whether] they can get a job. For homeowners it means whether there is equity in their home, whether its prices go down 10-20-30-40 percent, for business it is whether they can sell the goods that they have the capacity to produce. In these perspectives the recession is not over, and in many respects, particularly in employment, it might get worse.

For the US the official unemployment rate is 9.8 percent,
but the broader unemployment rate shows that one out of 6 Americans cannot get a full-time job. The broader rate calculation includes discouraged workers, workers who have stopped looking for a job but are not employed and those who accept a part-time job because there is not a full-time job available. There are hundreds of people who have applied for disability pay who would be working if they could get a job. It’s true that the labour market situation in America is worse than at the outset and from this point of view the recession is going on. "
Stiglitz highlights a key point related to the inconsistency between reports of economic recovery and the reality experienced by citizens in our community. I've been increasingly reflecting on the idea that even when people are employed, seldom are they able to be as productive in their employed position as their inherent training/capacity allows them to be.

For example, a friend of mine was recently evicted from his home because he hasn't been able to pay rent for a number of consecutive months. He was working a security job at a construction site for a while, but as construction slowed down, there was no reason for his employers to keep him around. This same friend was providing wonderful services to his neighbors and other community members whenever he could. He would mentor kids that lived on his street, show them how to cook, cook food for his roommates, etc. Every day, he would go out to look for a job - any job - and would often find himself doing some sort of landscaping work just to have enough to get by at the end of the day.

I kept thinking to myself, this man is highly capable of being productive either as a chef, landscaper, construction worker, daycare worker, etc. His only shortcoming, if it can be called that, was that he was unable to figure out how to be productive within the context of the market dynamics in Durham and did not have the start-up capital to pursue an entrepreneurial career. There are no structures in place that would allow him the necessary insurance/security blanket to pursue an entrepreneurial passion, which would allow him to be far more productive than he would be with any job.

This scenario plays itself out in less dramatic fashion for far too many individuals in society. I feel that much of this stems from the inclination for many people to think of labor as a commodity rather than a necessary component of human civilization. What I mean by this is that our indicators for success (GDP, financial indices, etc.), as mentioned by Stiglitz, do not direct us to make policy decisions in a manner that recognizes the dignity of the human station and acknowledges the unique talents and capacities that individuals possess. There are a couple related questions I will think about as I continue my daily reflections:

  • How would economic policy be shaped if ability to work was a right that we would incorporate into social reality?
  • What sorts of indicators (other than poverty levels and unemployment) can we use to demonstrate economic success? How would micro-indicators differ from macro-indicators? How would they be able to indicate worker satisfaction vs. worker discouragement? Would this be akin to saying that the worker feels as though he/she finds purpose and stability in work?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Dear friends,

Welcome to this site! Let's jump right into the purpose of the blog...

Conceptual framework for the blog

The motivation behind this blog finds its basis in its attempt to investigate the implications of emerging understandings of a need to redefine human nature/relationships/decisions in the context of economic exchange. It is increasingly obvious that current economic models have not been able to address the inordinate disparity between rich and poor, let alone the frustration of many who are forced into work that does not correspond to the higher calling of human beings. In an attempt to redefine common assumptions of economic agents, this blog will draw from assumptions inspired by the Bahá’í writings, which state that individuals should “at all times concern themselves with doing a kindly thing for one of their fellows, offering to someone love, consideration, thoughtful help. Let them see no one as their enemy, or as wishing them ill, but think of all humankind as their friends; regarding the alien as an intimate, the stranger as a companion, staying free of prejudice, drawing no lines.”[1]

This conception of the individual has implications on community and institutional interactions which are at the core of a budding synergy between material and Divine civilization. The combination of these two civilizing forces results in the desired outcome of “the felicity of mankind,” the overarching question of the discourse in economics. To this extent, Abdu’l-Bahá, a central figure of the Bahá’í Faith exclaims “Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity.”[2]

So… what does this all mean? The implications of these ideas on common economic concepts such as competition (“let them see no one as their enemy”), the nature of markets (“concern themselves with doing a kindly thing for one of their fellows”) and human choices/decision making is obvious. The resulting challenge, however, is to look for examples of the “combined application of spiritual, moral and practical approaches… entailing consultation with experts from a wide spectrum of disciplines, devoid of economic and ideological polemics, and involving the people directly affected in the decisions that must urgently be made.”[3] This blog is an initial attempt to bring together spiritual, moral and practical approaches towards economic development that have been adopted in various communities, professions, circles of thought, etc.


It is not assumed that this is a simple task, or even a task which has a specific direction or distinct vision that is guiding it. This begs the question… how will the blog entries be guided/directed?

Blog entries will be multi-faceted. Many entries will consist of the thoughts of the writers (in light of the blog’s conceptual framework, which itself will be fluid and constantly updated) as responses to literature, experience, and other elements related to this discourse. From time to time, the more relevant of these thoughts will be converged into a “So What?” piece, which will seek to create a more coherent vision of how these thoughts contribute towards economic reality in light of the conceptual framework.

The quality of the blog will depend heavily on the quality and thoughtfulness of the comments provided by its readers and collaborators. In this light, the methodology of the blog will attempt to borrow from the principles of consultation.[4] Meaningful insights will be incorporated into the “So What?” entries in an effort to elevate our understanding on this topic. People of all backgrounds are encouraged to contribute. The more diverse, the better.

[1] Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablet to the Central Organization for a Durable Peace, The Hague

[2] Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pg. 239

[3] Universal House of Justice, October 1985, To the Peoples of the World

[4] Bahá’u’lláh: “The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.”