What a great tag line for a book: “the definitive Freakonomics for sports.” Paul Oyer, an economics professor at Stanford, a research associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research and editor in chief of the Journal of Labor Economics, has just published An Economist Goes to the Game, a study not just of sports economics, but of how economics thinking can transform the way you think about athletic performance.
A blurb describes it quite accurately as “a fun and insightful account of what happens when economic thinking intersects with the world of sports.” The book:
- Calculates the return on investment for a talented kid growing up in Dakar, Senegal, focusing on soccer rather than schoolwork.
- Explains in economic terms why American women outperform American men in soccer and Korean women outstrip Korean men in golf.
- Estimates the likelihood that a particular sprinter is taking performance-enhancing drugs or that a professional tennis match is fixed or that particular basketball team is engaging in point shaving.
- Assesses whether it makes economic sense for an especially talented professional athlete to sign a long-term contract.
Some of Oyer’s insight won’t surprise you. No reader will be shocked to learn that public spending on a sports arenas or events like the Olympics is a money-losing proposition. But you may be struck by some of Oyer’s findings:
- That star athletes act in ways predicted by game theory.
- That despite a bias against non-English-speaking hockey players, teams disproportionately hire Francophone goalies because their talent is transparent.
- That casinos shift the odds in sports betting in their favor by capitalizing on betters’ cognitive biases.
Oyer’s book offers a textbook example of the practical value of thinking like an economist.
I’ve written before about the need to cultivate social science literacy. Here, I want to examine at somewhat greater length the need to teach lower-division undergraduates about how to think like an anthropologist, an economist, a geographer, a political scientist, a psychologist and a sociologist.
Every social science discipline not only has its distinct subject matter and language; it also has its unique ways of thinking.
For history, that subject matter is, of course, the past; the discipline’s terminology includes words like “chronology,” “historiography” and “periodization.” The discipline’s distinctive ways of thinking include these:
- Everything has a history. Nothing is static. Every word, idea, custom and social category or entity has a history that can be reconstructed. Therefore, historians must think diachronically, dynamically and longitudinally.
- Path dependence. The past isn’t simply preface. Choices made in the past narrow future options.
- Context matters. Every event and every decision must be understood in terms of its context. Only by understanding context can we understand and evaluate conflicting viewpoints, the standards of the time or the options that seemed plausible.
- Contestation. Conflict is omnipresent across history. People have struggled continuously over values, priorities and even their memory of the past.
- Contingency. Nothing is inevitable until it happens. Events are unpredictable because they are the product of individual actions and circumstances and, often, chance.
- Conjuncture. If contingency tends to emphasize the role of individuals or of groups in causation, conjuncture attaches weight to the structural conditions and intersection of events and contexts that shape outcomes.
- The role of ideology. Because human beings have minds and act upon beliefs, values and perceptions that may or may not be rooted in measurable realities, ideology—the perceptual, cognitive lenses and mental and moral models through which individuals view the world—matters.
- Human life is enmeshed within long-term processes that people are often blind to. These historical processes or developments might be demographic or economic or sociological. Many only become apparent in retrospect.
What about the core social science disciplines? What does it mean to think like an anthropologist, an economist, a geographer, a political scientist, a psychologist or a sociologist? At the risk of gross oversimplification, flagrant overgeneralization and sweeping overstatement, let me take a stab.
Anthropology is, of course, the study of human diversity across multiple dimensions: biological, cultural, historical, linguistic and social. The field encompasses archaeology (the study of prehistory and artifacts and other physical remains); ethnography (the systematic study of particular societies and cultures); human biology (including human evolution and human genetics and physiology); human societies, institutions and cultures (including families, religions and social structures); and linguistics (including the use of language as a cultural resource and speaking as a cultural practice).
To think like an anthropologist requires a recognition of the rich diversity of human cultures, the distinctiveness or exoticism of today’s Western societies and a willingness to understand a culture on its own terms and not judge it using the standards of one’s own culture.
The standard dictionary definitions of economics—the study of labor, land and investments, of money, income and production and of taxes and government expenditures or the branch of knowledge concerned with how economies function or how goods and services are produced, distributed, sold and purchased—only begin to suggest the field’s breadth or what it means to think like an economist.
Economics, of course, encompasses a vast array of subfields, including applied economics, behavioral economics, developmental economics, econometrics, economic history, economic theory, game theory, international economics, labor economics and micro- and macroeconomics.
If students are to think like economists, they must understand how market economies function and grasp such key terms as prices, price discrimination, market power, trade, economic stratification, inflations and standards of living.
In addition to mastering basic economic concepts and principles, including demand elasticity, externalities, incentives, incurred costs, opportunity costs, productivity, profit, scarcity, supply and demand, and trade-offs, students must learn about specific factors influencing policy (business cycles, government debt and deficits, fiscal and monetary policy, exchange rates, interest rates, and more).
The key to economic thinking, however, lies in understanding trade-offs, weighing costs and benefits, and making decisions at the margins.
Geography is not merely a synonym for studying the properties of particular environments, including their climate, topography and weather, or the distribution of people, natural resources and industries. It’s about the impact of geography on people’s lives and the outcome of key historical events; the ways that people have adapted to, exploited and altered those environments; and the impact of climatic change.
To be able to think geographically, students need to:
- Develop spatial literacy: to understand the terminology and concepts that are essential to geographical analysis.
- Develop spatial awareness: to be able to use spatial concepts and representations to address complex human and environmental problems.
- Develop integrative competencies: to be attuned to the interconnections, interactions and linkages between physical environments, climatic conditions and human actions.
- Develop environmental awareness: to recognize the significance of geography and climate on human and nonhuman life as well as the ecological dimensions of social and economic developments.
Political science is, of course, the study of systems of government, political activity and behavior, public policy and the exercise of political power from local, national, regional and international perspectives. Its subject matter includes elections, justice in politics and policy, leadership, legitimacy, consent, the exercise of power and dominance, international relations, international and transnational institutions, party politics, political ideas, theories of governance, and the varieties and evolving nature of states and polities.
To think like a political scientist requires a student to be able to do many of the things that other social scientists do: to formulate good questions; collect, evaluate and interpret data; craft and test hypotheses; understand, analyze and solve complex problems; perceive behavior from multiple perspectives; and assess policy options.
But thinking like a political scientist also involves some special skills. A student must be able to analyze political phenomena through multiple lenses: through the lens of moral philosophy, law, policy analysis, theory and systematic comparisons.
In the popular mind, psychology is often indistinguishable from pop psychology and psychobabble, the simplistic, superficial concepts and terminology that frequently inform self-help and personal advice manuals. Although these ideas purport to come from the psychological, behavioral and brain sciences and neuroscience, many are simply a hodgepodge of discredited, misconstrued or misapplied ideas.
Take, for example, one of the many books entitled How to Think Like a Psychologist, which claims to instruct readers in how to interpret body language, decipher people’s intentions and uncover hidden motivations. Or in another case, learn how to “stop worrying, control your thoughts and develop a positive mind-set.”
It’s not hard to distinguish pop psychology from the real thing. The former is laced with sweeping generalizations about personality types, temperaments, traits and various forms of abnormal behavior. It’s filled with myths: “The left brain is rational; the right brain is creative and emotional.” “Women and men are intrinsically different psychologically.” Pop psych also typically offers simpleminded and unsophisticated advice. For example: “Reframe unhelpful thoughts.” “Create a personal mantra.”
Academic psychology, in contrast, is the study of the mind and brain functioning, cognition, learning, memory, motivation, development, behavior, emotions, personality, individual differences, and mental disorders, among other topics, through controlled observation and rigorous experimentation.
So what does it mean to think like a psychologist? It involves:
- Subjecting intuitive and commonsensical beliefs about human behavior, emotions and thought to rigorous empirical testing.
- Looking out for cognitive distortions and biases that result in inaccurate perceptions and errors in reasoning.
- Thinking critically about theories, experiments and studies that make psychological claims.
Sociology, the study of the development, structure and functioning of human societies, also has its distinctive ways of thinking. Drawing on quantitative (extracting inferences from data) and qualitative research (interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, participant observation, documents and other sources of information), sociology lays bare patterns of social relationships and social interactions and uncovers the social factors—the ideologies, institutional and organizational dynamics, role expectations, stereotypes and systems of stratification—that shape human behavior.
It also explores how individuals, groups and institutions make decisions, exercise power and respond to change. Its subject matter includes deviance, dramaturgy and socialization (including gender socialization), among other topics.
Sociological thinking involves understanding how social structures, social processes, norms, tacit expectations and socially defined roles shape individual lives and interpersonal interactions. It also entails using sociological concepts, paradigms and analytical frameworks to understand the world around us.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to believe that I would have benefited greatly had I been introduced, at a much earlier age, to the distinctive subject matter, terminology and ways of thinking of anthropology, economics, geography, political science, psychology and sociology.
In theory, that’s the mission of the K-12 social studies curriculum. But I think it’s fair to say that that kind of grounding rarely occurs. At the same time, as fewer and fewer students major in the social sciences, with the sole exception of psychology, there’s a danger that few will acquire the rudiments of social science literacy.
So let me ask you: Might there be a way to introduce students to social science thinking in college, not through distribution requirements, which almost invariably lead students to take a single introductory course in a particular social science discipline, but more holistically?
When I was an undergraduate, a double major in English and history, a friend and I pondered the course catalog to calculate how many different courses we’d have to take to get an overview of the history of English literature. That figure was mindboggling and obviously impossible. We did succeed in arranging a private reading course, but it still strikes me as incredible that the English department, at that time, had no interest in offering the kind of sweeping overview that would place particular eras and literary works in historical perspective.
Breadth and depth are always in tension, and my call for a more holistic and multidisciplinary approach to teaching the social sciences at the lower level may strike you as boneheaded, or, even worse, as high schoolish. I appreciate those objections. But let us not forget that the architects of the social sciences, including such towering figures as Durkheim, Marx and Weber, did not define their professional identities in narrow, discipline-specific terms. Their goal was truly to create the scientific study of society and human, institutional and political behavior as a distinctive and integrated field of inquiry. As the economist Kenneth E. Boulding put it, “There is no such thing as economics, only social science applied to economic problems.”
Shouldn’t we as teachers do all that we can to ensure that all undergraduates gain a basic grasp of social studies methods, concepts, theories and ways of thinking? And more than that, shouldn’t we expose them to the ideas that lie at the very heart of the social sciences:
- The diverse ways that power is exercised and legitimated and that society is stratified;
- The distortions that cloud our understanding of how individuals, institutions and societies act; and
- The hidden and unconscious mechanisms and processes that influence individual, social and political behavior?
I live my life according to a series of mantras, and one is that education is liberation. The primary purpose of the social sciences is not just to explain but to emancipate us from dogmatism, insularity, narrow-mindedness, provincialism and preconceptions.
As a historian, I know full well that the social sciences have skeletons in their closets and have contributed to bigotry, ethnocentricity and prejudice. But those disciplines also hold out the prospect of freeing us “from the limited horizons of contemporary time,” “from the coercions of blind and unrecognized” psychic and social forces and from “the screening effects of our own culture and ideology.”
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.