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On Wed, Feb 26, 2020 at 12:26 PM Kevin Lindemann and Cathy Campo <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/how-predictable-are-humans

Science and Society

How predictable are humans?

Why we can’t measure human behaviour outside of the ways capitalism forces us to behave, write ROX MIDDLETON, LIAM SHAW and JOEL HELLEWELL

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

AS COMPUTERS become more powerful, scientists are able to collect and examine ever larger databases of human behaviour, both across the world and over time.

They look for patterns in this data that may reveal how, despite our vast physical and psychological differences, we all share common behaviours. By understanding these patterns of behaviour scientists attempt to quantify how“predictable” humans are.

Often, researchers find that humans are more predictable than we would like to think we are, given how we value the idea of free will.

We like to imagine that our unique and undetermined futures can’t be summed up in statistical analyses. However, often common patterns are observed.

The conclusion that is usually drawn is that human beings must share some kind of intrinsic human decision-making procedure determined by evolution, which leads us to make the same decisions. Evolutionary psychology is invoked to explain human nature.

However, this conclusion relies upon the premise that everyone made their choices free of any compulsion.

From a Marxist viewpoint, under capitalism all areas of life are controlled and manipulated to best create (and recreate) workers that live in a way that is most amenable to the needs of the capitalist class.

One should be very careful to draw the conclusion that any human behaviour we witness is inherent to human life.

Instead, we may have just observed the way that humans are forced to behave on a planet that is nearly wholly run using the capitalist mode of production.

A simple example of this is research into human movement patterns. After analysing mobile phone data which tracks people’s locations, researchers concluded that human movement was “93 per cent predictable.”

That is, despite some differences between humans, an algorithm could predict your next movements based on your previous movements 93 times out of 100.

People showed a strong tendency to travel short distances to return again and again to places that they had been to before, with few people regularly covering lost distances.

It is helpful to know human mobility patterns for a range of problems. For example, planning transport connections or understanding how diseases such as Covid-19 may spread through a population.

However, this observation does not explain why human movement is so predictable. The idea that humans revisit a few places again and again might be used to imply that we have an innate preference for the unadventurous, that we might prefer our lives to be small and self-contained.

It might be used to justify policy that reinforces what it had claimed to measure.

But consider what those places might be that we visit repeatedly, as well as what barriers might exist that stop us from having a different pattern of movement behaviour.

For the vast majority of people in the world, two of their most frequently visited locations are their house and their work.

Ever since the enclosure of the common lands, people have moved into densely populated cities to find work so that they can survive. Housing for workers has been built near places of work to shorten commutes and provide a flexible, easily accessible workforce.

It is unthinkable for nearly everyone that you could quit your job and finance your way through life, travelling wherever you want to, for any considerable length of time.

The immediate reaction that most people have upon losing their job is trying to find another one, since they have bills to pay. A great deal of people moving around the world is driven by their need to find work, but access to other countries is heavily policed by borders and immigration controls.

Workers in countries exploited by imperialist nations are forced to remain where they are and take on whatever work is available, no matter how poorly paid it might be.

In reality then, the lack of large-scale movement by most people as we currently live is due to constraints that are placed on them by capitalist states.

With the other option to wage labour being poverty and starvation, at no point did individuals meaningfully choose this way of living.

It’s impossible to know for sure how much more people would move around if they no longer had the constant need to sell their labour to survive.

Society as it is now is built on the histories of people persecuted by large-scale co-ordinated policies to stop them moving around: vagrants during the transition from feudalism to capitalism and, in more recent times, the Conservative government extending the powers the police have to confiscate the homes of Gypsies, Travellers and Roma people.

Understanding the difference between the actions humans take in a system that compels them to act in certain ways and the actions that they would take if such a system didn’t exist is important.

One argument often deployed against socialism is that human beings are inherently selfish and thrive on competing against others to survive.

If economists observe that people compete against others to earn money in a world that forces you to compete against others to sell your labour so that you can eat, they should not mistake this for the natural condition of human beings.

Marx noted that the existence of a reserve army of workers that were unemployed kept competition for jobs high: “The overwork of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to overwork and to subjugation under the dictates of capital.”

When scientists observe patterns in human behaviour, they should try to understand these patterns in the context of what choices people could possibly make, rather than assuming that people acted as they did because of some innate human nature.

The diversity of forms of human society that have existed over history is powerful evidence that capitalism is not an automatic product of human behaviour.

Despite what some evolutionary psychologists might tell us, there is nothing inevitable about the misery that the majority of people on this planet are forced to live in.



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