Barbie Does Economics

Great quote from one of our favorite authors, now a member of the asset allocation team at GMO, after taking a two year blogging sabbatical.  You can access James Montier’s blog directly at Behavioural Investing.

“In many ways economics as it exists today is largely a victim of learned helplessness – a phenomenon was first documented by Martin Seligman in the 1960s. He was working with dogs (dog lovers look away now) and studying conditioning when he came across something interesting. Seligman was subjecting pairs of dogs to nondamaging but painful electric shocks. However, in each pair of dogs one animal could put an end to the shock by simply pressing the side panels of its container with its head. The other dog was unable to turn off the shock. The electricity was synchronized, starting at the same point for both dogs, and obviously ending when the dog with the control turned off the power.

This gave the each of the pairs of dogs a very different experience. One experienced the pain as controllable, while the other did not. The dogs which had no control soon began to cower and whine (signs of doggy depression) even after the sessions had stopped. The dogs which could control the shocks showed no signs of this behaviour.

In the second phase of the experiments dogs were placed in box with a low wall separating the container into two. One side (the side on which the dog started) was electrified. To avoid the pain the dog simply had to jump the low wall. The dogs which had controlled the shocks in the first round quickly learned to jump the wall. However, the around two-thirds of the dogs who had no control in the first round, simply laid down and suffered the pain, they had learned to become helpless.

Modern day economics is much like these poor animals. Many economists have learnt to become helpless. They would rather lay down and whimper and whine about how unfair the world is, and mutter that everything would be alright if only people behaved like their models, than seek to look outside the narrow confines of their obsession with rationality and mathematics to see if others might just have some useful insight.

The age of the specialist (people who learn more and more about less and less, until they know absolutely everything about nothing) has proved to have some fundamental flaws. Three cheers for the generalists!”