The Psychological State

The new science of public policy

Homo Economicus to Homer Simpson

Psychological governance and new subjectivities.

Simpsonian Subjectivities

One of my enduring memories of reading Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s highly influential book Nudge (2008) was its reflections on an unlikely subject of academic literature: Homer Simpson. Thaler and Sunstein cleverly deploy Homer Simpson as a counter point to the hyper-rational figure of homo economicus. Homo economicus has, of course, provided an enduring model of human behaviour within economics. But the supposedly hyper-rational capabilities of homo economicus has led even staunch neo-classical economists such as Gary Becker (1962) to claim that it embodies a fundamentally ‘outdated psychology.’ Enter Homer Simpson. Never one for well-reasoned decisions and long-term planning, Homer has become something of postmodern reaction to his classical predecessor.

I am sure that we all have our favourite Homer Simpson story. Mine remains the incident when he makes the most of an “eat as much as you can” offer in a restaurant only to bankrupt the establishment. But there is clearly more to the figure of Homo Simpson than pure comedic hyperbole. His unhealthy diet, dislike of exercise, penchant for alcohol, financial irresponsibility, and generally shortsighted decision-making, resonate strongly with some of our own behavioural tendencies. In essence, Homer Simpson reflects a part of ourselves that we rarely discuss. He nonetheless embodies an account of the self that feels much more candid and realistic than that offered within the idealized universe of homo economicus.

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In many ways the shift from the classical universe of homo economicus to the more earthly realities of Springfield reflects the changing understandings of human subjectivity that are associated with emerging forms of psychological governance. It is, after all, the assumption that we will not consistently act in our own rational self-interest that underlies psychologically informed public policies that encourage us to eat more healthily, save more for our retirements, reduce our carbon footprints, join organ donor registers, exercise more frequently, and pay our taxes on time. Despite their clear policy utility, it is important to ask what the costs of these emerging understandings of human subjectivity may be. It is also critical to consider the role that psychology plays in both supporting and contesting these Simpsonian subjectivities.

Psychology and the Governmental Subject 

The insights of psychology have informed the ways in which human subjectivities have been understood within different regimes of government (see Rose, 1998). If the classical perception of the human involves, as Clifford Geertz asserts, a ‘[c]onception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic centre of awareness, emotion, judgement and action, organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively against other wholes […]’ (p.229), it isn’t difficult to see how psychology and psychiatry have contributed to this vision. This is, of course, a vision that is not only important in economic terms: where it suggests a self-interested, competitive, utility maximizer. It is also important politically: where it is suggestive of the presence of a subject who is capable of self-control and self-regulation. Through the promotion of better forms of self-understanding, the psychological sciences have been historically complicit within the emergence of distinctively liberal forms of government, which rely on this self-regulating subject (Rose, 1998). At the other end of the subjectivity spectrum, psychology (and in particularly behavioural psychology and economics) have revealled the various ways in which humans fail to live up to the behavioural expectations of homo economicus. Whether is be our tendency to discount future gain against immediate gratification, or our propensity to behaviour in accordance with our previous actions (no matter how irrational they were), behavioural psychology and economics have exposed the numerous irrational short-cuts that inform our behaviour. 

If more classical forms of psychology are synonymous with liberal systems of government, behavioural psychology is now aligned with a paternalistic liberalism. This libertarian paternalism now sees governments the world over trying to correct our behavioural hortcomings without undermining our freedom (see our previous post on neuroliberalism and freedom: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-psychological-state/20140...). Our concern is not with the intention of these softly paternalist policies (they often reflect a genuine desire to enable us to live longer, more financially secure, and environmentally benign lives), but with the visions of human subjectivity they promote. What appears to unite a lot of these policies is the promotion of a figure of the citizen fool. The citizen fool is a parody of homo-economicus: a hyper-irrational, flawed subject who we are, quite frankly, shocked to find has been able to survive long enough to receive government support. In its most extreme manifestations, the figure of the citizen fool appears to usher in a form of post-enlightenment government in which the desire for human development is engulfed by the inescapable limits of the human subject.

The hybrid subject.

 Our main objective in this post has been to point out the current tendency to replace one ideal, but totally unrealistic, subject type (homo eocnomicus), with another flawed, but equally unrealistic, subjectivity (the citizen fool). Care must be taken in both contexts not to transform rational human contemplation and action into universal expectations, or to convert behavioural mistakes into pathologies. As humans we are hybrid forms, combining facets of homo economicus and Homer Simpson. The best forms of psychological government already recognize this.

It is our contention that the psychological sciences have a crucial role to play in ensuring that more complex, and less universalizing, understandings of human subjectivities can inform emerging systems of behavioural government. These visions of human subjectivity can hopefully embrace a realization that human behaviour is the product of a complex web of socio-cultural and environmental factors (which go well beyond the isolated self of homo eocnomicus), and that our failure to deliberate effectively does not mean that we cannot be encouraged to be more psychologically reflexive.

 

References

Becker, G. (1962) ‘Irrational action and economic theory’ Journal of Political Economy 70 pp. 153-168.

Geertz, C. (1979) ‘From the natives point of view: On the nature of anthropological understanding’ in P. Rabinow and W.M. Sullivan eds. Interpretative Social Science (University of California Press, Berkley) pp. 225-42.

Rose, N. (1996) Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power and Personhood. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Thaler, R. and Sunstein, C. (2008) Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness (Yale University Press, London). 

Mark Whitehead, Ph.D. is a Professor of Human Geography at Aberystwyth University (Wales), who is interested in the connections between psychology and public policy.

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