07 Apr 2009

I just watched the first part of "The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?" by Adam Curtis. He claims that our basic notion of human behaviour has been crooked ever since the cold war, leading to inhumane psychology and selfish politics.

His main starting point is that in the cold war, the two big military forces faced the double contingency problem of how the other party might think of what they were thinking of them themselves (and so on) - all in the realm of nuclear destruction. The USA threw a lot of scientists at the problem and they invented Game Theory. This concept, in which people are regarded as only selfish and numbers can be put on behaviour, got picked up by psychologists, economists and politicians, slowly taking over the way society looks at human nature.

I don't disagree fundamentally with the basic historical notion here: In the 50s and 60s, Game Theory still had a rather simplistic view on human behaviour, portraying humans as only self-interested. Later, western societies went through a lot of change but left the discussion what constitutes freedom in the realm of rationalism. I hope we're making some progress to develop this idea of what makes us happy and free, but this discussion has been stuck for some years now. In the meantime, societies changed a lot, sometimes built on a much too strong view of humans as being rational. It makes sense to discuss what went wrong because of this.
I agree with that, but I think, Curtis overshoots with this movie. Here are some points of criticism:

No History context
For starters, Curtis bends history so that it fits his story. Game Theory wasn't invented during the cold war, but already in the 1930s. The view that humans are rational beings is also much older.
More on context: Curtis recognizes that western societies needed to change in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Psychology until then was really, really inhumane, Families were often little dictatorships and government bureaucracies (in his movie the British) desperately needed reform. Curtis never addresses the view on human behaviour that was in place until then (I think it was close to the view that you can make people do whatever you tell them to).

But any new concept should be explained in the light of the concepts it was made to replace. What was the general idea that the rational model replaced? Were there other good solutions on the table at the time than to try to view people as rational? Maybe it wasn't only scientists who placed this concept in the mind of society. Maybe it was time to look at people that way and maybe this was already much better than the view before.

Crazy Scientists
Curtis portaits proclaimers of Game Theory ideas (in which people are only selfish) as crazy and old. That is necessary, because today, everyone younger than 70 who works Game Theory wouldn't look at things in this one-headed way. For instance, when using the Prisoners Dilemma, the only modern models I have seen ask the question: In what settings does cooperation emerge? (Axelrod first made this new notion public 29 years ago). It's always some crazy scientists misleading everyone else. For example: Buchanan, an economist, is guilty for Thatchers politics because she invited him to talk once.

I understand that you can't show all context when you shoot a documentary, but Curtis is destined to blame a dozen people for all that went wrong regardless of what was there before, and that smells of conspiracy nut.

He claims causal links that I can't follow. For instance, here is the gist of 10 minutes of the movie: The psychologist Laing critized old-school Psychology in America  (somehow, hew was of course inspired by Game Theory in the beginning of his work). As a consequence, American Psychology turned to using automated, oversimplistic questionaires and tested a lot of people for mental problems. Then, it turned out that every second American has some history of mental problems. As a consequence, Americans were oversensitive for the idea of what "normal" is and since then ask their Analysts to turn them into this new strange notion of normality. That is one hell of a causal chain, proving that Americans running to Analysts is also a consequence of Game Theory.

Here is my theory: Society is a complicated organism. Sadly, things take time. Good ideas take decades to develop into mature concepts that everyone has understood.  And it seems to be a pattern that they  cause a lot of damage when people carry early versions of them into the real world. See Game Theory or also the influence on early physics ideas on economics. That doesn't mean you can't make the theories better, like it happened to Physics and I believe, also Game Theory. Of course, if certain people already are happy with the dangerously simple ideas and cause damage, we sometimes have to wait until they are somehow out of power. They say that old ideas are only gone when all of their proponents are dead.

But enough of that - back to Curtis. Sometimes, I got the feeling that he really agitates against using numbers for anything that could describe human behaviour. Fine, that is something to discuss, but then he made the wrong movie.

P.S. This critique makes some of the points I made more clearly.

# lastedited 23 Aug 2012
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