Missing the point: thinking about behaviour beyond the individual

In the last post, I tried to articulate what BE fans are missing due to the conceptual blinkers of their fundamentally individualist models of human behaviour. Put simply, they are still stuck thinking about human behaviour in terms of individuals, their quirky cognitive make-up and (here's the new stuff) the context in which individual agents operate (which includes other people around the studied individual).

Ok, maybe not so simple.

Let's try a metaphor. I used this picture* to open that post and deliberately so: Photo-7
It's something I found at the South Bank Festival of Death for the Living – a picture about loss and grieving made by individual visitors drawing circles (of whatever size) to commemorate a lost one. The only rule being to touch circles drawn by others before you.

Now, it might be interesting and useful to look at the individual participants and their individual decisions about size, location, intensity etc, but given that all participants were united by a. having lost someone dear to them b. willingness to participate, that really is unlikely to tell us much of use in understanding the whole piece (even if asking the individuals concerned would be most interesting and revealing).

Far more interesting and useful in understanding the picture and how it grows is to understand the general principles of how individuals interact with each other and what this means for the picture at scale. Think picture and pattern and not individual and motivation or perception.

Coming back to the BE debate: it's genuinely hard to think about human behaviour beyond the individual but it is really important to do so. This is (I think) what e.g. Paul Ormerod's work on the importance of networks in shaping behaviour is reaching for – albeit through the lense of the n-word.

So when we're told: "there is nothing inherently individualistic about behavioural economics. People draw on all sorts of short-cuts and rules of thumb when making decisions; from looking at what others are doing, or listening to an authority voice, to opting for the middle choice or just picking something they recognise. The concepts and frameworks inspired by BE can embrace multiple contexts and behavioural influences, both social and individual

…you know that it's not us missing the point.

Clearer now?

*BTW If you are the artist or you know them, please get in touch! I've tried to track you down via the Southbank but without success.