Nudg­ing your karma

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Ja­son Lim Ja­son Lim (ja­son­ is a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based ex­pert on in­no­va­tion, lead­er­ship and or­ga­ni­za­tional cul­ture. He has been writ­ing for The Korea Times since 2006.

The cen­tral nar­ra­tive of the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis was that highly ca­pa­ble in­di­vid­u­als driven by ra­tio­nal self-in­ter­est made such bad de­ci­sions that they al­most brought down the world’s fi­nan­cial in­fra­struc­ture and vis­ited ruin upon them­selves, not to men­tion the Main Street. But bad de­ci­sion-mak­ing is not lim­ited to pow­er­ful ex­ec­u­tives. From A-list celebri­ties to pow­er­ful politi­cians, we have wit­nessed peo­ple make dis­as­trous, self-de­struc­tive de­ci­sions. For Ex­hibit A, look at what Har­vey We­in­stein has al­legedly done in go­ing from a leg­endary film pro­ducer to a sex­ual preda­tor. I am sure that wasn’t the legacy that he wanted to leave be­hind, yet he en­gaged in ac­tions that inevitably marched him off the cliff.

As be­hav­ioral sci­en­tists have al­ready proven, hu­man de­ci­sions are not driven by ra­tio­nal self-in­ter­est coldly max­i­miz­ing util­ity and re­sources, as tra­di­tional eco­nom­ics have taught us. Then, what re­ally drives our de­ci­sions, many of which can be self-de­struc­tive?

This was the ques­tion that ul­ti­mately won the 2017 No­bel Memo­rial Prize in Eco­nomic Sci­ence for Richard Thaler, one of the fathers of be­hav­ioral eco­nom­ics and a pro­fes­sor at the Booth School of Busi­ness at the Univer­sity of Chicago.

Writ­ing in the At­lantic, Derek Thomp­son de­scribes Thaler’s work in the fol­low­ing: “In stud­ies that bor­rowed from psy­chol­ogy, so­ci­ol­ogy, and plain-old cu­rios­ity, Thaler demon­strated that mankind was af­flicted by emo­tion and ir­ra­tional­ity, which in­flu­ences their decisionmaking on ev­ery­thing from re­tire­ment sav­ings, to health-care pol­icy, to pro­fes­sional sports. But Thaler didn’t con­tend that hu­mans were ran­domly ir­ra­tional. More im­por­tantly, he ob­served that peo­ple are pre­dictably ir­ra­tional (to bor­row a term from the economist Dan Ariely). Some of Thaler’s most in­ter­est­ing work stud­ied the pre­dictably ir­ra­tional ef­fects of own­er­ship, con­fi­dence, and a sense of fair­ness.”

Thaler is only par­tially cor­rect. While much of our pre­dictable ir­ra­tional­ity is in­her­ited bi­o­log­i­cal bi­ases (as ex­plained through evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy), we are also con­di­tioned to spe­cific ir­ra­tional­i­ties that are all our own.

Bud­dha, born more than 2,500 years ago, con­cluded that most hu­man be­ings make de­ci­sions in such a man­ner that lead not to their hap­pi­ness — their stated goal — but to dis­con­tent be­cause they are not self-aware of what re­ally drives their de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Trans­lated into mod­ern ver­nac­u­lar, Bud­dha had es­sen­tially ob­served that what re­ally drives hu­man de­ci­sion-mak­ing is a com­plex and or­ganic web of so­cial con­text, cul­tural norms, ge­netic pre­dis­po­si­tion, evo­lu­tion­ary im­prints, peer pres­sure, trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences, and ev­ery­thing else that has had any in­flu­ence in shap­ing us as hu­man be­ings and in­di­vid­u­als. All these etch a deeply in­grained pat­tern of cog­ni­tive re­flexes and au­to­matic bi­ases that make us de­cide how we de­cide, most of­ten with­out even think­ing.

He called this Karma. Sounds very much like the pre­dictable ir­ra­tional­ity that Thaler de­scribed, ex­cept much more. Karma is the to­tal­ity of what Bud­dha called the hu­man be­ing’s con­di­tioned ex­is­tence that hi­jacks our de­ci­sion-mak­ing with­out our aware­ness.

Go­ing back to Thaler, his most in­ter­est­ing claim to fame is his sup­port of “nudg­ing” tech­niques to shape peo­ple’s be­hav­iors. “If ir­ra­tional hu­man be­hav­ior can be pre­dicted, then it can be in­cited, or nudged. Thaler coined the term “nudg­ing” to de­scribe cheap and easy in­ter­ven­tions that change peo­ple’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing. The term can ap­ply to both weighty and triv­ial causes, from en­cour­ag­ing sav­ings by auto-en­rolling em­ploy­ees in re­tire­ment plans to putting a house­fly sticker in a men’s uri­nal to ‘im­prove aim.’”

Which brings us back to karma. Is it pos­si­ble to nudge our kar­mas to­ward a di­rec­tion that we de­sire? If karma is a deeply in­grained pat­tern of cog­ni­tive habits, then what are the nudg­ing in­ter­ven­tions that we can do to re­shape this pat­tern? More im­por­tantly, this would also rep­re­sent an in­ten­tional, con­scious re­shap­ing of who we are, rather than al­low our con­di­tion­ing to make de­ci­sions on our be­half. We can take back our de­fault state and own our lives.

On sec­ond thought, for­get nudg­ing. I want Thaler to come out with tech­nique called, “push” or “kick ass.” I am wait­ing.

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