My boxing coach training his son:
Sunday, September 22, 2013
I contend that there are a handful of intellectual disciplines which, employed properly, can enhance a student's insights into human social interactions and the changing dynamics and incentives which swirl within them. I try to embed these disciplines---the "Universal Acids"---within all of the undergraduate classes that I teach (although different courses will tend to highlight a couple of them more than the others), and have found that they tend to be the launch pads from which many students embark on paths of deeper, highly motivated individual study.
The five Universal Acids:
1. Evolutionary Psychology
2. The Austrian School of Economics
3. Public Choice Theory
4. "Worldly" Philosophy (examples including the works of Castiglione, Montaigne, Gracian, La Rochefoucauld, Mencken, Taleb)
5. Canonical Works of Military Strategy (from both East and West)
The five approaches tend to combine in interesting ways and to lead to accurate---if frequently unromantic---perspectives on human nature.
This particular mix no doubt reflects my own sociopolitical biases towards free-market libertarianism and to areas of study that I personally find exciting. To me, they offer different vantage points from which to look at the same landscape and to develop a fuller picture of a social phenomenon.
As might be expected, some students will find one or more of the disciplines on my little list to be less than compelling, and they will usually trade those out and import some of their own preferences. I think that this is deeply satisfying as it means that the student is internalizing the broader, more important lesson of creating a model or analytical framework from which to meditate on observed social dynamics.
The particular subdisciplines used are less important to me than is the honest attempt to integrate enduring ancient wisdom with modern, cutting-edge paths to knowledge...for the students to begin building their own working libraries that will support lifelong individual learning.
One of the most esteemed evolutionary psychologists, Doug Kenrick, directs fascinating research efforts which seek to place departures from microeconomic notions of rationality within their evolutionary context. Frequently these scientists find that biases in human judgment that behavioral economists tend to see as episodes of oafish "irrationality" may make a lot more sense when viewed from the perspective of a human being attempting to make decisions under harsh, dangerous field conditions. Here is a brief clip of Prof. Kenrick's take on social contexts that can modify "loss-aversion"-oriented behavior, particularly in males: