Saturday, January 23, 2016

David Hume on Present Bias

The Scottish Enlightenment is a historical antecedent to the development of a wide range of modern thought. Ashraf, Camerer and Loewenstein's "Adam Smith, Behavioral Economist" provides an account of the ideas of one of the era's main figures. David Hume also anticipates many of the key ideas in modern behavioural economics. See below for a particularly illustrative passage (the full chapter here) from his Treatise of Human Nature, in which Hume provides an elegant account of present-bias, one of the key concepts in modern behavioural economics. Hume's work, in general, was dense in economic and psychological intuition, with many insights relevant to the types of literature we discuss on this blog. 
"In reflecting on any action, which I am to perform a twelve-month hence, I always resolve to prefer the greater good, whether at that time it will be more contiguous or remote; nor does any difference in that particular make a difference in my present intentions and resolutions. My distance from the final determination makes all those minute differences vanish, nor am I affected by any thing, but the general and more discernible qualities of good and evil. But on my nearer approach, those circumstances, which I at first over-looked, begin to appear, and have an influence on my conduct and affections. A new inclination to the present good springs up, and makes it difficult for me to adhere inflexibly to my first purpose and resolution. This natural infirmity I may very much regret, and I may endeavour, by all possible means, to free my self from it. I may have recourse to study and reflection within myself; to the advice of friends; to frequent meditation, and repeated resolution: And having experienced how ineffectual all these are, I may embrace with pleasure any other expedient, by which I may impose a restraint upon myself, and guard against this weakness."
There is a great deal of interest  in Scotland in behavioural economics and the related, developing literature on behavioural science, with research ongoing in these areas in most of the Universities here. It would be worth thinking about recognising, through various means, these historical linkages.

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