Thursday, February 12, 2009

Affecting Behavior Vs. Influencing Behavior

It is relatively easy to affect behavior. It is hard to change behavior in the sense of remaking it. Failing to note this difference is the cause of much panic and blather in the world. The distinction goes to the heart of progressive politics, for example, as well as addiction treatment, dieting, and paranoia about evil advertisers bending the people to their will.

Social scientists have acres of studies showing what affects behavior – who we vote for, what we buy, who we marry, where we live. We found a 28% increase when the presenter wore stripes…fewer than one in three New Yorkers said they would buy… How we make the enormous logical leap to believing that the effects are increasable, or even sustainable, is easy to understand, but still flat wrong. Yes, we tend to vote for the taller candidate, but our legislative houses are not stuffed with seven-footers. People drink more when they are around other drinkers, but one person drinking constantly does not turn his neighbors into lushes.

This pops up over and again. Human beings are not infinitely malleable. We habituate to some things, or react against them. If you eat less, your metabolism changes. You can reduce the speed limit by 20%, and many people will drive more slowly. If you reduce it 80%, they will disregard the law, or find another method of getting about. A great ad campaign can cause lots of folks to choose Bright-O, but they won’t buy gallons of the stuff unless they need gallons of the stuff. There is a law of diminishing returns.

Now run the thought experiment with taxes; with drug laws; with job programs, infrastructure building, welfare, education – with just about everything government does. The things that governments do influence behavior and outcomes. Politicians make the leap that if they just do more of it, they will fix more things. We don’t have to fall for it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

on that last point, if you give an infinite # of monkeys each a typewriter - one will thoroughly type the Bible word for word exact! So with infinite spending, more sh*t will obviously get done - the question always being, what's the opportunity cost however?