March 1, 2010

The Decision Makers

Why do humans do the things they do? And how can anthropologists explain these behaviors? Are humans rational actors? Or are our decisions culturally determined? Somewhere in between?

You see, this is what I get to talk about all week in grad school land. Sounds fun, doesn't it?

The readings of the week in my Economic Anthropology seminar focus on rational choice and decision making. A couple of the articles talk about something called "experimental economics," which is basically an attempt at finding human behavioral universals through field experiments. Although I understand the underlying intentions, I am not convinced by the results of these tests, which basically "test" human decision making through a series of games. My main problem: how can the information from these "experiments" be extrapolated to other behaviors? Why should we (or anyone else) assume that the tests tell us about human behavior writ large?

What do tests actually test? What do these kinds of experiments actually tell us? I tend to think that they tell us how people respond to test/experiment situations, and not much else. Now, that can be interesting--I suppose--on some levels, but I think it's pretty questionable when researchers start assuming that these kinds of results automatically apply to other behaviors. Maybe they do. Maybe they don't.*

*Note: this post will not qualify me for the public anthropology of the year blog. I know. This is more of an internal issue.

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