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Tuesday, 11 August 2015
Learning in Action

Contemporary Social Psychological Theories,
Ed. Peter J Burke, Stanford University Press, 2006,
Chapter 4 "Rational Choice" (pp. 70-87), page 72

In a chapter about rational choice - why people make the decisions they do - Michael Macy (Professor of sociology at Cornell University) proposes, contrary to Rational Choice Theory, which is essentially forward-only-looking, that consequentialism ... looking backwards ... plays a significant role.

Learning alters the probability distribution of beliefs and behavioural responses competing for attention within each individual. Positive outcomes increase the probability that the associated behaviour will be repeated, while negative outcomes reduce it.

That seems both obvious and something we have always known: touching a flame burns your fingers and most people don't do that more than once; we very quickly get the hang of things that hurt. Good things sometimes take a little longer to learn. However, Macy continues:

The process closely parallels evolutionary selection, in which positive outcomes increase a strategy's chanes for survival and reproduction, while negative outcomes reduce it.

Isn't that a fascinating link to make? He expands the picture:

In evolution, strategies compete between the individuals that carry them, not within. Evolution thus alters the frequency distribution of behavioural responses competing for reproduction within a population. In biological evolution, these responses are genetically encoded in DNA; in cultural evolution, they are encoded in norms, rituals, routines, traditions, mores, protocols and the like.

I am greatly intrigued by this last point. Do our rituals and traditions encode lessons that we and our people have learned in the past and now act as a teaching mechanism to inform our choices today?

Posted By Jonathan, 8:00am Comment Comments: 0