icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an 

ongoing web column   by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.

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Do you know the value of your life?

About the responsibility of information and the public utility of new behavioural economics

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2015). Do you know the value of your life? About the responsibility of information and the public utility of new behavioural economics. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 4.12 (December).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2015). Do you know the value of your life? About the responsibility of information and the public utility of new behavioural economics. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 4.12 (December).

To Amos Tversky, that might be fed up of not getting a penny from all those best-sellers on behavioural economics

London, 14 March 2016 - Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman is a great collection of the contributions the author made to psychology and economics along a career he spent mainly working for the military and the academia. Before I actually bought and read the book, in 2011, I knew little about his research and nonetheless his Nobel Prize in 2002 had given me a strong positive bias towards him in that: it boosted my way to advise and coach executives and researchers on how to deal with problem definitions.

In fact, my formal education in library and information science and computer science in the 1980s had not covered at all problem solving. As a way to improve my way to deal with desk research and intelligence enquiries in the corporate world, upon my own initiative, I had found very effective and practical advice in Herbert Simon's idea of bounded rationality. Simon's books helped me enormously to understand the corporate world with its dimensions (organisational culture, decision making, industrial policies and so on) I did not study anything. So years later, and possibly very naively, I thought that the newbehavioural economics that Kahneman represented would bring more practical help to information managers: for instance in order to select data and share arguments about wicked issues, malformed or misunderstood problems and dilemmas, and all those types of problems in which it seems really impossible for any intermediary or any party involved to guess what data could lead to (or facilitate) the achievement of a very needed solution. Think about obesity or pollution, for instance.

In sum, if the ideas of "old" behavioural economists had been so useful to my work, I thought, the new one would be even better!

Ten and more years on, I have suspended any judgement on the actual usefulness of the new behavioural economics from an information management perspective.

I know that many economists, social researchers and public policy makers are watching and monitoring my preferences and opinions very carefully: in their views, I am that networked individual, a sort of "professional amateur" (after I campaigned three decades for the education of information professionals?) and creative extrovert that always says interesting things to copy around and share on social media. I tweeted on the 9th September 2015 [https://mobile.twitter.com/Brunella_Longo/status/641651615401947136, not available online anymore] that I would recommend 1978 Herbert Simon's Nobel Lecture. I do believe it is a great reading, entitled Rational Decision-Making in Business Organizations, and the truth is that I prefer it to many new behavioural economists' articles. But things always move on and, as I said, I'd better suspend my judgement for now. This is why.

Reality check 1: the positive aspects

For sure, and thanks to the new behavioural economists, we now know more about how we think and how we tend to make decisions under the influence of certain ways to frame problems and represent data.

As I say in the description of this ongoing web column, authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years and a consistent tribute for this goes to behavioural economists. Their studies have increased the awareness on the role that self-reflection, meta-communication and language play in any problem definition.

Barak Obama has recently even endorsed the adoption of behavioural advertising advice to simplify communications and public engagement with science and government (on the 15th September 2015, few days after my tweet about Simon's Nobel Lecture, the Press office of the White House published the news of an "executive order" made by the President in this respect).

And there are now new behavioural economics courses and masters and a long series of bestsellers - many of which have been promoted by the Cabinet Office in the UK since 2010 and have had great echo in public programmes.

Reality check 2: some doubts about nudging

I am not alone in raising an eyebrow about the increasing nonsense that is being flushed into the mainstream news, advertising campaigns and public policies agenda apparently with the support of "behavioural evidence" or to reach some "behavioural targets".

In 2015 a number of organisations in London, mainly funded with public money, offered the opportunity to learn, discuss and possibly review the increasing infatuation that teachers and students, advertisers, management consultants, researchers, civil servants and politicians show for experimental psychology and behavioural economics. (I believe similar reflections are going on also in other countries but I have not had much time to investigate them).

A lecturer from the LSE suggested few months ago an interesting general question and a review in this direction: "should policy-makers try to influence people’s behaviour when it comes to lifestyle choices and does nudging represent an efficient yet proportionate tool of governance or might it be seen as a step towards a nanny state?" - he asked.

"Should we choose Nudging or Shoving? or Boosting?": these were the synthetic, humoristic replies coming from other researchers - all in all it seems everybody is very well aware there are some problems in the application of behavioural economics in the real world, besides the easy sale on impressible politicians and civil servants.

I felt time has come to consider if the ideas of Kahneman and other behavioural economists have been influenced by the digital revolution and in which proportion they are going to last and permeate our collective management and organisational culture. They need to go through a reality check to see to what extent they are acceptable in the corporate world and for policy making purposes.

No matter how valuable they are from a strictly scientific, methodological or technical point of view, it seems to me that such ideas, collected since the early 1980s, became simply too fashionable, like the successful metrics publicised by the movie Moneyball in 2002, in a period in which the average manager started to understand the power of data management and statistics for everyday operations. The flourishing of web based services and the diffusion of APIs technology during the last ten years have made all the examples publicised by behavioural economists instantly relevant, significative or entertaining for all sorts of analytics software demos.

But this is, most of the times, suggestive and interesting marketing literature. Furthermore, it is not at all true that there is a collective interest in sharing data and contents from experimental psychology. These may be perfectly useful and legitimate in a research context, like the famous question of Thaler's provocative thesis "what is the value of a life?" but generate substantial misinformation and unintended consequences when mashed and trivialised into the digital buzz world.

The blind spots of behavioural economics

One of the most revolutionary discoveries of Tversky and Kahneman was that software programs can make better decisions in a number of contexts in which success depend on calculus and logical reasoning or derives from the application of precise procedural knowledge. I was an enthusiast promoter of such conclusions, so relevant for the automation of services in education, retailing, finance and so on. Then, I had to acknowledge and increasingly deal with the pressure of context in decision making, a notion with a subversive nature that many specialists find hard to accept and adapt to.

The idea that a computer can find the optimal solution better than a human being seems to me, now, intrinsically very poor and not so exciting after all. "So what?" is the conclusion of the majority of responsible business owners and decision makers. There is no way to optimise calculations when dealing with a variety of problems and situated decisions that simply do not rely on statistics or artificial intelligence, starting with the "unknown unknowns" that are very relevant for markets that do not exist or cyber security threats that still have to be detected.

The concepts introduced by the new behavioural economists, taken out of their authors' experimental academic settings, can be hardily adopted in a safe generalised way particularly in the real world of organisations and even in judicial settings. They are often not transferable from a sector to another one and above all they can be exploited in dangerous ways. It is not so difficult to create abusive conditions that lead people to make "choices" that are purely fictitious, manipulating their emotions as well as their interpretation of a certain context, in ways that are deeply unethical - when not illegal.

If you think I am exaggerating because I have had bad experiences… well you may be right! but that is not the point. Also the legal community is increasingly accepting that context, traditionally rejected as non pertinent to the substantial application of the law to a precise set of circumstances, is often everything.

In a passage of Thinking, fast and slow the same Kahneman wrote about certain "blind spots of prospect theory". He has possibly tried to make a point on this "gap" in his own understanding of people behaviours while lecturing the general public with a simple distinction between happiness and well-being (in a Ted lecture publicly available via Internet, and extremely enjoyable). Unfortunately, it turned out this is not an easy difference to deal with.

Both the High Court and the Charity commission have recently had a say, for instance, pointing out that the exploitation of people facts, emotional dispositions and ambitions or medical conditions for the noblest purposes (like charities fundraising) as well as for the worst (slavery or child prostitution) make no difference: it is just wrong exploitation of consumers' trust.

Many years ago, one of the arguments I put forward to sell my own training services was the idea of "the responsibility of information". It was not meant to be a pompous reference to any ethical proposition but only a very practical reminder that no matter the sources and the methods, the time or the timescale of a project, nor its level of automation, any decision made by either a human being or by a robot or a software process should be always accountable. If we are committed to the long term success and sustainability of our business, this is also true when dealing with electronic data and information that exist only in digital formats.

Perhaps it is true that Kahneman, Thaler and other academics, have never really abandoned the utility theory and the traditional economic education they all come from. Or they simply have never had the practical necessity to show people that there are fair, peaceful and endurable ways to solve problems without moving their goalposts or nudge them in order to obtain an outcome that is possibly not the one they would be ever advised to pursue if their contexts and circumstances were factored in.

It seems to me that, all in all, the new behavioural economists do not believe people can make responsible effective decisions on the grounds of their own creativity and learning processes. Tacit knowledge and social responsibility are factors that both our rational and irrational minds tend to share (and partner for) in order to have a healthy life in many cultures, adapting to the contexts of human life. They do not consider the effect of asymmetric relations and mistrust in the production and use of knowledge nor how we tend to make effective decisions when there are evidences - or suspects - of defective equipment, compromised algorithms, dangerous environments.


You must not know about me, you must not know about me
I can have another you by tomorrow
So don't you ever for a second get to thinking
You're irreplaceable
[Extract from Beyoncé's song "Irreplaceable" lyrics]

History and everyday life are full of innumerable optimal decisions you really want to avoid, like the use of gas chambers at Auschwitz or cooking eggs florentine in a microwave oven ….to save time!

I have tried to rethink Kahneman's lessons asking myself how the prospect theory helps you prevent consequences of abuse of power within hierarchies both in the public and in the private sectors or how your mind can reject optimal choices that are criminal behaviours. Managing information requires sometimes to deal with such behavioural issues.

I have not been able to reckon an answer to these complicated abstract questions. But I am content that I am not an economist and this is not my problem after all. Or it is?