Human behavior is behind so much of what we do in our lives

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I happened to catch this Q&A on the radio today, at the start of program segment about a course on "Shakespeare and Financial Markets":

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Q: All right, right away can you make the link for us between Shakespeare's writings and economics?

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A: I- I think it's uh clear when you delve into Shakespeare —
and of course I've spent a lifetime  looking at Shakespeare
and also you know being in the financial markets  —
human behavior is behind so much of what we do  in our lives,
and also most important in our decision making,
and Shakespeare held up a mirror to humans and
showed us how we behave, probably one of the first artists  to really capture that.
And when you look at some of the mistakes,
both policy-wise and also by investors in the last  twenty or so years,
you see a lot of those behaviors,
and so  drawing out those connections is part of what made the course I think for-
for me and also for the students a lot of fun this year.

The literal meaning of behavior is something like "the manner of conducting oneself" or "the way in which someone behaves", and "human behavior" is therefore, roughly, "the way that people act". So can we rescue "Human behavior is behind so much of what we do in our lives" from tautology? After all, "human behavior" is literally just a polysyllabic term for "what we do in our lives".

It's possible that the speaker meant only to move from the personal ("what we do in our lives") to the universal ("human behavior" in general). But I think that something more is going on.

A Google Books search for "human behavior" turns up contexts like this, from the publisher's description of a textbook for medical students on Human Behavior:

… the biopsychosocial model in medical practice; culture, ethnicity, and the practice of medicine; psychoanalytic psychology; human sexual development and physiology; childhood and adolescent development; medicine and the family; the psychology and psychobiology of developmental trauma; and neurobiological aspects …

And of course there's B.F. Skinner's famous (or infamous) Science and Human Behavior, "a detailed study of scientific theories of human nature and the possible ways in which human behavior can be predicted and controlled". Or G.K. Zipf's Human behavior and the principle of least effort, where according to its abstract

After a brief elaboration of principles and a brief summary of pertinent studies (mostly in psychology), Part One (Language and the structure of the personality) develops 8 chapters on its theme, ranging from regularities within language per se to material on individual psychology. Part Two (Human relations: a case of intraspecies balance) contains chapters on "The economy of geography," "Intranational and international cooperation and conflict," "The distribution of economic power and social status," and "Prestige values and cultural vogues"—all developed in terms of the central theme.

As a result of decades of such use in academic contexts, it seems that for some people, the phrase "human behavior" has come to mean something like "psycho-social analysis of motivation and interaction".


  1. Ø said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

    I am reminded, a little obscurely, of the P. G. Wodehouse quote:

    "You can't expect a dog to pass up a policeman on a bicycle. It isn't human nature."

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

    There are lots of terms that exhibit this kind of duality (conflating the thing and the study of the thing). Psychology, for instance, which can mean (1) how humans think, and (2) the study of (1). The late John Verhaar used to talk about this and similar things under the general heading of "noumenalization."

    [(myl) But in this case, "behavior" means neither "what people do" nor "the study of what people do", but "(the study of) the forces that drive people to do what they do". I think….]

  3. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

    I wonder if this is "behavior" in the sense often found in economics, where it (roughly speaking) contrasts with "rationality"; the idea being that "behavioral economics" is the study of how people actually do behave (real behavior), rather than of how a rational agent would behave (ideal behavior). As Wikipedia puts it:

    > Behavioral economics and the related field, behavioral finance, study the effects of social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions and the consequences for market prices, returns, and the resource allocation. The fields are primarily concerned with the bounds of rationality of economic agents. Behavioral models typically integrate insights from psychology with neo-classical economic theory. In so doing they cover a range of concepts, methods, and fields.


    [(myl) This makes a lot of sense — in the context of "behavioral economics", behavior could certainly be taken to mean "the stuff that's in Shakespeare that isn't predicted by rational choice theory".]

  4. Brett said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 11:13 pm

    @Rod Johnson: "Psychology" is an example going the other way. It first mean the study, then thought itself.

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    December 30, 2012 @ 10:08 am

    Brett: true, but my point is simply that the two meanings are conflated.

  6. Jeff Carney said,

    December 30, 2012 @ 11:28 am

    This may be Ran Ari-Gur's comment dressed up in different words.

    Perhaps the claim is that Shakespeare investigates the micro-world of interpersonal relationships, but his insights can be applied to the macro-world of large, impersonal institutions.?

  7. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 30, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    @Myl (paraphrasing):"the stuff that's in Shakespeare that isn't predicted by rational choice theory".

    Ha! You — I write this sincerely — may be exactly correct about this particular example. If so, it's a sorry commentary on economics. That is to say, "rational choice theory" has been so conflated with "economics" that someone might seriously suggest that examples from art of the complex motivations (many of which are far from rational) that actually drive people is some startling insight into human economic behavior.

  8. Tracy W said,

    December 30, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

    Keith: rationality in neoclassical economics is generally agnostic about people's motivations. After all, there's nothing in logic alone to make me take a single step to get out of the path of an oncoming train, I have to add in some goal like not wanting to die. But, no matter how complex and arational my motives behind "not dying" I pursue this goal fairly rationally, eg I don't stand on train tracks casually eyeing incoming trains, I steer a middle ground between starving to death and eating until my stomach bursts, etc.

    The behavioural economics work is about things like time-inconsistency (eg repeatedly setting your alarm clock each night, then each morning hitting snooze until you're late).

    The trouble with departing from the assumption of rationality is knowing when to do so. If I see someone doing something that appears to me to be irrational, there's the possibility that there's some detail of their situation I don't know that makes their behaviour rational and there's the possibility that I'm the one that's irrational. So it's hard work to pin down irrational behaviour in a way useful for economics. Which is why behavioural economics is a big deal.

  9. Milan N. said,

    December 31, 2012 @ 6:18 am

    Maybe human here is meant in the way the Oxford Dictionary glosses as "of or characteristic of people as opposed to God or animals or machines, especially in being susceptible to weaknesses" and human behaviour thus implicitly opposed to "rational behaviour" attributed to machines (or God)?

  10. leoboiko said,

    January 1, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    Since the contrast here is between "Economics" and "Shakespeare", isn't the latter standing metonymically for, you know, literature, art, and other humaninities—those soft, squish things that the exact sciences oftentimes would rather hold at arm´s lenght? (Ok, Economics isn´t exactly "exact", but they would like to be in the club).

    In other words, I think "human behavior is behind so much of what we do in our lives" here means, roughly, “mathematical theories of rational agents and other hard-science models can only make sense of a small part of our behavior; therefore, it's useful to look at the broader descriptions presented by specialists of the 'human' areas (='artists'), such as Shakespeare".

    [(myl) This can't be true in general, since there are plenty of hard-science studies and models of addiction, jealousy, lust, depression, infatuation, and other "human behavior" categories.

    And as several commenters have observed, if you just change your definition of "utility" in appropriate ways, even rational choice theory can be persuaded to give an account of such behaviors.

    You might be right about how certain economists think, though.]

  11. David M said,

    January 3, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

    @Myl: "As a result of decades of such use in academic contexts, it seems that for some people, the phrase 'human behavior' has come to mean something like 'psycho-social analysis of motivation and interaction'."

    Which people are "some people"? The interview that spawned this discussion was with an academic (whose use of academic jargon shouldn't surprise us, however unclear it may be) but if "some people" meant laymen, I'd doubt it, I'd guess that most laymen mean "how people act" when they say human behavior, if they use the term at all.

  12. Richard Wein said,

    January 5, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

    I suspect what's meant is that common patterns of behaviour (and their causes) are behind so much of our specific behaviour. While the specifics of our behaviour may have changed since Shakespeare's day, the underlying patterns remain much the same.

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