We Can’t Say That People Are Predictable

Bad Arguments Vol. 14

people are predictable

There are entire fields of study devoted to the question of whether people are predictable or not. Psychology, sociology, and anthropology have all attempted to answer this question. Even in the realm of philosophy, we find those who focus nearly all of their efforts towards the study of the human condition and its behaviors. In these fields stating that people are predictable, or at least somewhat predictable, is the basis of their entire field. In the realm of economics and the political, this statement becomes a bad idea and bad argument for action.

To start, let’s look at how this argument gets used. In most economic models that suggest a particular form of planning, such as Keynesian models, tend to be based on a general interpretation of human action. For example, there is the belief in some models that an increase in wages will automatically translate to more economic growth. The idea here being that if the average individual has more money they will spend more, currency will move around more, and the economy, in general, will be stimulated. The issue in thinking here is the assumption that people will automatically go out and spend all of this new money of theirs.

Consider the most common answer people give when asked what they would do if they won the lottery. The answer: pay off their debt. Rather than go out and spend all this new money the average person is just as likely to give that money right back to the banks to eliminate their debt. Having additional funds could also lead large portions of people hiding it away in savings accounts to prepare for retirement. There are too many ways for people to spend their money to try to base centralized planning around one particular aspect or theory. Saying that there is a degree to which people are predictable doesn’t cut it here. Next is where the money comes from in those models. They make an assumption that the business owners (who would either pay the higher wages or the bulk of the taxes supporting government programs) aren’t spending the money themselves when that is obviously not the case because of the amounts of reinvestment they make. In many ways, it’s a form of the Broken Window Fallacy.

Outside of specific fields, we still find competing theories. Look at the works of David Hume. Hume was an Enlightenment-era philosopher that contributed to many different fields and his work on skepticism and empiricism. Most notably was his work “A Treatise On Human Nature.” In this work, he combated the prevalent rationalist thought of the time and attempted an empirical investigation into human nature and psychology. I highly recommend the read, however, I will focus on one key finding to highlight why his work contributes to my view of “people are predictable” being a bad argument. He introduced a relatively famous concept known as the problem of induction. The simple version of this is the idea that the only thing that supports pure rationalist induction is the faith in induction itself, making it rather faulty grounds to base much else on. This along with other parts of the work lead Hume to the idea that it was passion rather than reason that drove human action. If this is the case it explains people acting irrationally, and general emotionalism. By extension, we can see the subjectivity of individual emotions making any meaningful level of predictability beyond the grasp of pure rationalism, or any socioeconomic modeling that may be based on it.

When it comes to tracking the behaviors of people it would be easiest to describe it as a version of chaos math. It’s easy to see the pathways after the event takes place, but near impossible to accurately predict how things will unfold beforehand. Even though many of the fields that study whether people are predictable or not keep seeming to get closer and closer to some form of an answer, there is still too much variation on individual levels to build anything meaningful on it. While it would be false to claim that people are predictable as some form of truth, those that use this argument for political or economic reason are also predictably bad at forming arguments.

Read more articles from Killian on Think Liberty here.


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