Did the economists miss the cognitive revolution?

I am currently reading a fascinating book, “The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology” by Bernard J. Baars (1986).

With a long introduction, it provides informative material for an outsider like me on how the cognitive turn played out in psychology, and presents a clear historical background getting back to Wundt and the early experimentalists, and the origins of the behaviorist revolution. Then it is followed by a series of interviews of participants in the cognitive revolution: from the opponents (Skinner and others) to the enthusiasts, and the followers.

Baars (1986)

On the substance, I was struck by how much behaviorism, which is the methodological orthodoxy that was overthrown by cognitive psychology, shares features with today’s textbook economics. Both share the status of a well-guarded orthodoxy: in their interviews, psychologists remember that behaviorism in psychology was exclusive, displaying a “nothing but” attitude: variables should be related to nothing but observable behavior, which disqualified the discussion of concepts like “memory” or “representations” ! Those words were taboo in psychology at least until the mid-1950s.  Looking back, psychologists consider that the methodological rigorousness of behaviorism, which insisted that each concept be operationally defined and testable, had the effect to strip psychology from its substance: the study of cognition, consciousness,  emotions and rational behavior were discouraged, virtually banned indeed, because these concepts did not readily translate into tightly defined behavioral variables that could be observed in an experimental setting.

I could not help but be reminded of a similar taboo in today’s economics, where the formation of preferences, or how the process of choice unfolds, is declared “out of bound” right from the introductory chapters in microeconomic textbooks: only an individual’s observable behavior, as it is instantiated in the outcome of the choice it performs, is to be taken into account.

The cognitive revolution in psychology crystallized around the mid-1950s, early 1960s. Forty years later, nothing of that sort happened in economics, it seems to me. With behavioral economics and neuroeconomics, maybe that economics will jump directly to the next train: the neurocognitive turn. Or will it miss that one also?

Post-script: on an approaching topic, Wade Hands has a paper forthcoming in the CJE, which is a nice read.

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