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August 03, 2006

Common Sense and Social Science

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

All due honor paid to genuine advances and breakthroughs, of course, but ... Doesn't it sometimes seem as though the social sciences spend a lot of time patting themselves on the back for "discovering" what everyone already knows? Today's example: In an Economic Scene column in the NYTimes, Cornell economist Robert Frank informs us that "Economists increasingly recognize the importance of herd behavior in explaining ordinary purchase decisions." (The column is readable, if you're registered, here.) Citing the popularity of SUVs, Frank writes, "The conventional determinants of consumer demand cannot explain this astonishing trajectory."

Gadzooks: A lotta people -- and perhaps all of us to one extent or another -- often mimic what everyone else is doing! Consider me newly enlightened. Making an effort to look on the positive side of this, I guess I'm glad that some eggheads have managed to abandon theory long enough to register a little bit of how people actually behave.

Next: Economists discover that people shopping for groceries often don't bother to compare prices.



posted by Michael at August 3, 2006


Common sense in this context is like a home remedy. We know it works, but we don't know why. The social sciences, when done correctly, are more like FDA approved drugs, in that they attempt to find out the reasons behind the phenomena that we all know about, so that these trends can be predicted and replicated with some success.

But yeah, I have the same reaction to a lot of those articles and exclaim, "They spent 10 million on THAT!? They could have paid me half of that to come to the same conclusion." Then my wife rolls her eyes.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 3, 2006 11:52 AM

I think about 90% of social science is smoke-blowing. And that's the bulk of my education! I would say that "hard" science is also about 10 - 20% smoke-blowing. What you want to see is what you DO see and both kinds of science know that very well. Without any surveys.

That out of the way, I think the problem with economists is that they don't allow for the little wheels inside the big wheels. The "discoveries" they make only apply to their own favored context. For instance, I once happened to be in the local chain grocery store when a regional manager was there, walking up and down the aisles and talking the store manager about what got bought and why. The store manager (this grocery store is on the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation) kept saying that people who shop there go for price and very little else. They have limited funds and try to stay alive on them. BUT there is a little contingent of highly paid professionals (doctors, lawyers, hospital management) who insist on being able to buy specialty items -- gourmet stuff. That latter group is all the regional manager could hear about. He completely dismissed the rez population, though I'd be willing to bet that the great bulk of the store's profit comes from those people.

In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, ALL the grocery stores stocked only budget basics: 3 or 4 kinds of toothpaste, detergent, etc. For fancy stuff one had to go to a specialty shop or drive down to the States. When I came back from a couple of years up there, I was almost paralyzed by the huge plethora of STUFF in US grocery stores.

Yet I'm sure that some economists would predict stuff about "all" buyers everywhere. I suspect that "new customers" arrive when behavior changes or related tech breakthroughs create a new community. I've always been impressed that in hindsight at one point the best investments in product company booms a person could make were in sports bras and condoms. No one had predicted the running craze or the HIV scare.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 3, 2006 12:07 PM

I once complained to an economics blog that they were discussing a case of the bleedin' obvious. So another economics blog promptly started a competition for more Bleedin' Obvious results. Mildly witty, I suppose.

Posted by: dearieme on August 3, 2006 12:16 PM

But if all social scientists did was discover what "everyone knows," then there would never be any debate. For example, "everyone knows" that getting married or having kids causes you to become more conscientious, but then "everyone" is wrong. That's one reason why divorce rates are high when they're allowed -- not particularly dutiful guys tend to remain not particularly dutiful even after getting hitched and/or having kids, and when the wife finally figures out that she & the institution of marriage can't noticeably alter her husband's personality, she says the hell with him.

On the other hand, "everyone knows" that we all tend to stay pretty much the same personality-wise in our adult lives: people with a dark, sadistic sense of humor tend to carry that into old age.

So which "everyone" is correct? Only empirical research can say. (In this case, the latter "everyone.") Similarly, you can take any interesting social science finding and dig up a quote from some famous literary figure that says the same thing -- so what's new? Well, poet 1 may have thought correctly, but poets 2 through infinity may have thought the opposite. Only science can tell us which poets got it right and which were in outer space.

Posted by: Agnostic on August 3, 2006 1:57 PM

Michael, I'm waiting for that next installment of "Tales of the Obvious", namely your Economists Go Grocery Shopping.

1) Would his/her family starve before he/she brought home the bacon?
2) How often would the term "Opportunity Cost" come up in the pasta aisle?
3) What new economic theory would result in the vegetable and fruits area? Immigrant labor effect v. prodcuts from Chile/Argentina.

Posted by: DarkoV on August 3, 2006 4:18 PM

One of the beautiful things about capitalism is that firms are leveraged (either operationally and financially or both) so that small reductions in sales have a disproportionate impact on profits. So a few, perhaps particularly knowledgeable consumers can stop (or start) buying a product and catch the attention of the marketers in charge of those products, generating product changes. That allows most of us not to pay attention to most of our purchases and just follow the herd. We can specialize in things we care about, like violent Asian films :)

Posted by: jult52 on August 4, 2006 1:39 PM

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