Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Economics and Psychology

Via World of Psychology, I stumbled across this article:
Economics-psychology's neglected branch

Economics - to the great dismay of economists - is merely a branch of psychology. It deals with individual behaviour and with mass behaviour. Many of its practitioners sought to disguise its nature as a social science by applying complex mathematics where common sense and direct experimentation would have yielded far better results.

The outcome has been an embarrassing divorce between economic theory and its subjects.

The article outlines many of the difficulties in economics research, and why economics should not necessarily be considered a science.

Scientific theories must also pass the crucial hurdles of testability, verifiability, refutability, falsifiability, and repeatability. Yet, many economists go as far as to argue that no experiments can be designed to test the statements of economic theories.

It is difficult - perhaps impossible - to test hypotheses in economics for four reasons.

Ethical - Experiments would have to involve human subjects, ignorant of the reasons for the experiments and their aims. Sometimes even the very existence of an experiment will have to remain a secret (as with double blind experiments). Some experiments may involve unpleasant experiences. This is ethically unacceptable.

Design Problems - The design of experiments in economics is awkward and difficult. Mistakes are often inevitable, however careful and meticulous the designer of the experiment is.

The Psychological Uncertainty Principle - The current mental state of a human subject can be (theoretically) fully known. But the passage of time and, sometimes, the experiment itself, influence the subject and alter his or her mental state - a problem known in economic literature as "time inconsistencies". The very processes of measurement and observation influence the subject and change it.

Uniqueness - Experiments in economics, therefore, tend to be unique. They cannot be repeated even when the SAME subjects are involved, simply because no human subject remains the same for long. Repeating the experiments with other subjects casts in doubt the scientific value of the results.

The undergeneration of testable hypotheses - Economic theories do not generate a sufficient number of hypotheses, which can be subjected to scientific testing. This has to do with the fabulous (i.e., storytelling) nature of the discipline.
In a way, economics has an affinity with some private languages. It is a form of art and, as such, it is self-sufficient and self-contained. If certain structural, internal constraints and requirements are met - a statement in economics is deemed to be true even if it does not satisfy external (scientific) requirements. Thus, the standard theory of utility is considered valid in economics despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary - simply because it is aesthetic and mathematically convenient.

Hmm...definitely some interesting considerations that are worth further thought and study...