Willful and for Itself, as Such

Scott McLemee reviews Willful: How We Choose What We Do by Richard Robb.

November 8, 2019
 
 

Two economists are walking down the street when they see someone parking a really nice car. They stop to look at it, and after a bit, one of the economists says, "I'd like to buy a car like that."

To which the other economist replies, "No, you wouldn't."

And … that's it. Thank you, you've been a wonderful audience!

To explain a joke, it's said, is to kill it. Here we have an exception. I doubt anything can make it funny, but the explanation may at least show why it is, approximately, a joke. Given their profession, you see, our two economists share an understanding of human behavior as a pursuit of the satisfaction of wants in accord with a rational calculation of costs and benefits, given the available options. "The first economist," writes Richard Robb in Willful: How We Choose What to Do (Yale University Press), "doesn't want the car enough to make the required sacrifices or else he would already have bought it." Ba-dum-bump!

No more, I promise. The author, a professor of professional practice in international and public affairs at Columbia University, resorts to this old chestnut to illustrate economic reductionism at an extreme of blinkered literal mindedness. In general, though, Robb is an enthusiast for rational-choice analysis: with sufficiently extensive and accurate information about the preferences, options and restraints (of time, money, mobility, etc.) of a given individual or population, it's often possible to work out the rationale for decisions and to venture some estimate of future actions. Robb also gives a nod of recognition to the supplemental insights of behavioral economics, which looks at seemingly irrational or suboptimal choices and finds patterns. A variety of entrenched biases and misconceptions may be at work, skewing the assessments and advice of our inner accountants.

"According to behavioral economics," Robb says, "we overestimate our own abilities, seek out evidence that confirms our preconceptions, and are generally overconfident." That sounds about right, and does not preclude, e.g., extremes of counterproductive fearfulness or risk aversion. We can be overconfident about understanding our own self-interest.

The challenge either way -- through rational-choice analysis or behavioral pattern recognition -- is to work out the relationship among preferences, means and ends. But what about human behavior for which the search for a purpose or rationale reaches a dead end?

As a New Yorker, the author says, he occasionally finds himself stopping to assist a tourist struggling with maps. "I have no idea why I do this sometimes and not others." It is not a reciprocal exchange involving money or benefits. Neither the folding itself nor revealing the behavior in a book is likely to generate much social capital. If it were a matter of enjoying the warm glow of self-regarding at his own generosity, Robb would probably do it whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Another example is procrastination. While a vice, it brings no pleasure to anyone involved. "From a rational choice perspective," the author notes, "it should not exist. If people continuously reevaluated their activities to maximize gratification from consumption … we would lay out all our tasks and perform each at the optimal time." Indeed, we'd probably put a high priority on getting the tedious or onerous ones out of the way at the earliest possible convenience, not risking trouble by putting them off.

Or consider the persistence of beliefs. To someone who does not hold it, a belief may resemble a kind of desire or preference. But we evaluate and make trade-offs among desires and preferences all the time; the difficulties of doing so make up the larger part of literature of any kind and probably half the songs ever written. Beliefs, by contrast, are not nearly so tractable. "When we change our beliefs," Robb says, "we change ourselves, triggering feedback into our preferences." The process may be rapid and dramatic, in the case of a conversion experience, though that is rare while "gradually revising [beliefs] over time based on reflection and experience" seems more typical.

To clarify things, Robb proposes that we distinguish between two categories of human action. One is the domain of purposeful choice, rational or otherwise. The other he calls "for-itself" behavior, including the examples just given of impulsive altruism, procrastination and belief. Most of our activity is purposive. We weigh various wants, resources and potential outcomes and make choices among them, with whatever degree of care or dumb luck it may be.

Activity of the sort Robb calls "for itself" is not arbitrary or irrational, but the distinctions between preferences, means and ends is much more complex and idiosyncratic. As the term suggests, for-itself behavior is both autonomous and self-justifying, manifesting agency or identity in the course of struggling with problems, including difficulties that have been self-inflicted. A spontaneous act of gratuitous generosity is for itself, while procrastinating "right up to the deadline is exciting," Robb says, because "we need to feel the bite before [the task] rises to the level of a game worth playing." Likewise holding fast to one's beliefs despite any opposition, even from the facts, gives expression to the for-itself dynamic.

The author of Willful is CEO of the investment firm Christofferson, Robb & Company, and he includes some recollections of the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and certain knuckle-biting experiences related to the Brexit vote. At first I was intrigued to see that Robb had seemingly reinvented an element of Being and Nothingness, where Jean-Paul Sartre (himself borrowing from Hegel) distinguishes between being in itself (the world of objects and their order) and being for itself (human consciousness, which is radically free, as proves more of a burden than it might seem). Robb scatters a few existentialist references, so the derivation seems possible.

But the more direct influence probably comes from John Maynard Keynes -- in particular, his notion of "animal spirits," which Robb glosses as "the exercise of will that lies at the heart of all action." In rational-choice thinking, economic choices are made "within a world the individual did not create." So Willful is in part an existential-capitalist manifesto, pressing upon readers a core idea: "The act of choosing, of overcoming the state of indeterminacy that prevails before the choice is made, is crucial and the outcome often less important than we might imagine." The last part of that sentence will leave some readers feeling angst rather than exuberance.

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