Nudging your karma
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.