We're Not Dopes

Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview
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We're Not Dopes


I share much of the communitarian emphasis and values that Amitai Etzioni has capably expressed in numerous writings. I also share Etzioni's critical stance toward rational choice theory. That said, I find his article "The Limits of Knowledge: Personal and Public" (Issues, Fall 2012) disappointing.

The article begins by noting that one of the basic assumptions underlying much of Western thinking is that individuals are rational beings. Etzioni then introduces the relatively new field of behavioral economics, arguing that this field "has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that people are unable to act rationally and are hardwired to make erroneous judgments."

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I think Etzioni is too eager to throw the baby out with the bathwater (although imperialist rational choice theorists might need to take a bath of bounded rationality). The many laboratory experiments he cites of Kahne-man, Thaler, and Ariely of course indicate limitations on the pure tenets of rational choice theory. When it comes to "real-life" studies, it is harder to interpret a finding: So on page 53, the case of Israeli parents arriving late to pick up their children at a daycare center with a 10-shekel fine might well be a rational action of having decided that their time was worth more than the price of the fine; similarly for the next example of the majority of participants turning down an annuity (depending on the costs of the annuity, a lump sum payment might be more advantageous).

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