Immutable preferences, economics, social media and algorithmic recommendations

One of the things that encouraged me to leave economics after doing a PhD was that – at the time, and still in textbook microeconomics – the model of a person was so basic it could not encompass wants and needs that change.

You, to an economist, usually look like this:

“Indifference Curves” over two goods by SilverStar at English WikipediaCC BY 2.5

You have (mathematically-defined) “rational” preferences between goods and services, and these preferences are assumed to stay the same. Since I’d done a degree which encompassed philosophy and politics as well as economics this annoyed me tremendously. What about politics? arguing? advertising? newspapers? alcohcol? moods? caffeine? sleepiness? Economics works by using simplified models, but the models were far too simplistic to encompass effects I thought were interesting. The wonderful, now-dead M. O. L. Bacharach helped me understand game theory which had a more sophisticated model of interactions and behaviour. Eventually I found Kahneman and Tversky‘s work on bounded rationality. As part of my PhD I came across the person-time-slices work of Derek Parfit and the notion of discontinuous personhood.

Ten years after I left the Economics, behavioural economics (which spawned Nudge, advertising principles applied to behavoural change) became mainstream. Scroll forward twenty years and I can see a simplistic view of the things that people want appearing again, but this time as media recommendations and social media content-stream personalisation. Once again there’s an underlying assumption that there’s something fundamental to us about our superficial wants, and that these “preferences” are immutable.

It’s naive to assume that because I have bought a lamp that I’ll want to buy more lamps and therefore lamps should follow me across the internet. It’s silly to assume that because I watched Midsomer Murders repeats last night while programming I’ll also want to watch it this evening with my partner. It’s against the available evidence to assume that my preferences will not change if I am constantly subjected to a stream of people or other sources expressing particular views. It’s cynical to base a business model on advertising and simultaneously claim that filtering algorithms used in social media do not affect behaviour. My options and wants are not immutable: they depend on the media I see and hear, as well as how I feel and who I’m with, where I go, and who I talk to. It’s not just about variations on a theme of me either: they can and will change over time.

I’m looking at the media side of this in my day job. I think personalised media recommendations are wrongheaded in that they assume there’s a fundamental “me” to be addressed; and I think that hyper-personalised recommendations can be hugely damaging to people and civic society. I think that negotiated space between people of different options is an essential component of democracy and civilised living. I think a part of this is giving people the opportunity and practice of negotiating their shared media space by using media devices together. So that’s what we’re doing.

Anyway. Rant over. Back to libbybot.