Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.

Anderson: How’s it going? 

Saul: Not bad, not bad. How about yourself?

Anderson: Doing alright. I’m in Los Angeles now, get­ting ready to talk to Colin Camerer. 

Saul: Congratulations on the sec­ond, and I’m sor­ry about the first. How is LA treat­ing you?

Anderson: You know, it’s real­ly phe­nom­e­nal­ly spe­cial traf­fic, and the trek out here on the motor­cy­cle was more excite­ment than I need­ed. So I’m thrilled to be off the bike and talk­ing to Colin.

Saul: So, Dr. Colin Camerer. Let’s talk.

Anderson: We can’t start this with­out say­ing that he start­ed a punk label in the 80s and signed The Dead Milkmen.

Saul: Which is not what you expect from a pro­fes­sor of economics.

Anderson: No, and cer­tain­ly not from one of the pio­neers of neu­roeco­nom­ics, which is the actu­al rea­son we’re talk­ing to him, how­ev­er cool the punk label was. Basically what neu­roe­co­nom­ics is, is it’s apply­ing a lot of these prin­ci­ples of neu­ro­science and psy­chol­o­gy to clas­si­cal eco­nom­ic theory.

Saul: This is now our fourth inter­view. Let’s talk about some of the oth­er themes from pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tions that might be worth try­ing to weave in here.

Anderson: Well, I think there’s some­thing that I real­ly want to go after, and that’s some­thing that we haven’t got­ten to do before, at least not in any detail. But I would real­ly like to pur­sue the idea of com­mu­ni­ty more this time. We real­ly should’ve gone there a lit­tle more with Dr. More. We got a lot more of that talk­ing to Peter, with Malpai. And I’d like to pur­sue that again with sort of eco­nom­ic mod­els and dis­cuss what the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of our eco­nom­ic mod­els are on the way we think about com­mu­ni­ty. And who knows, maybe we won’t talk about neu­roe­co­nom­ics that much, but we’ll talk about oth­er things, oth­er ways of think­ing that’s led Dr. Camerer to.

Saul: I think if there’s any­thing I’ve dis­cov­ered so far, it’s that the con­ver­sa­tion nev­er quite goes where you think it’s going to.

Anderson: No, and it’s been fun. The very first con­ver­sa­tion with the Reverend Fife, I brought in a sheet of ques­tions, which is some­thing I…never do. Interviews, I like to wing them. And I did­n’t look at them one. And after that, I’ve been think­ing I’m just going to do all of these with­out any ques­tions, hav­ing done my read­ing, but to real­ly try to give them rein to go to unex­pect­ed places. And as we go through, I think we’ll see whether or not this is work­ing for us. We can revise it, and I can be more direct­ed, if need be. It’s cer­tain­ly gives this a dif­fer­ent sound than a con­ven­tion­al inter­view, and as this project is kind of weird, I kind of want it to have that dif­fer­ent sound.

Saul: Yeah. Totally. I ful­ly agree. I say let’s keep doing it the way we’re doing it.

Anderson: Cool. Well, I’m going to be hop­ping on the motor­cy­cle and rid­ing up to Pasadena, and then go find Dr. Camerer. I’ll talk, and then I’ll send you some audio, and we can do our recap.

Saul: Have a good ride. Good luck. I guess, talk to you afterwards.

Anderson: Okay.

Saul: Cheers. 

Anderson: Bye.

Anderson: For peo­ple who don’t know, what’s the five-minute run­down of what neu­roe­co­nom­ics is?

Colin Camerer: Okay. I’m going to give you an aer­i­al view and then hone in. So, in the 1920s, econ­o­mists became very skep­ti­cal, around the same time that psy­chol­o­gists doing behav­ior­ism did, that we could real­ly under­stand the details of how the brain or peo­ple were fig­ur­ing what they want or how much to buy, or save for the future. And so there was a kind of con­scious move to what’s some­times called as-if mod­el­ing,” which means we don’t know what the brain is real­ly doing when you’re choos­ing choco­late or vanil­la or straw­ber­ry ice cream at the ice cream stand, but we’re just going to infer from the choic­es we see you make what pref­er­ences you seem to be reveal­ing, and we’ll guess that’s telling you some­thing about the under­ly­ing system.

And so from the 20s until recent­ly, the view was we don’t real­ly need to under­stand what’s in the brain. It’s prob­a­bly too com­pli­cat­ed. If some­body could fig­ure it out it’s real­ly not our job, it’s up to neu­ro­sci­en­tists. And eco­nom­ics is doing fine with­out a more pre­cise idea of what’s being computed.

So neu­roe­co­nom­ics is a com­plete refu­ta­tion of that view­point. The idea is to say that econ­o­miz­ing agents—people—are bio­log­i­cal enti­ties. And so the mod­el sci­ence for eco­nom­ics as it was being devel­oped and became very math­e­ma­tized, the mod­el sci­ence was physics. The idea was math­e­mat­i­cal mod­els of the econ­o­my should be like equa­tions that’re going to fit on a t‑shirt. As opposed to biol­o­gy, which has hard­ly any equa­tions and just an extreme­ly pow­er­ful prin­ci­ple, which is evo­lu­tion, and extreme­ly care­ful obser­va­tion of what ani­mals do in the wild and lab.

So our big goal was real­ly to shift the fun­da­men­tal guid­ing ana­log­i­cal sci­ence for eco­nom­ics away from physics to biol­o­gy. And the neu­roe­co­nom­ics comes in because the ner­vous sys­tem, par­tic­u­lar­ly the brain but also body sen­sa­tions, are the things that are kind of encod­ing what’s going on in the world and mak­ing fore­casts and lead­ing to choic­es. So that’s sort of the philo­soph­i­cal idea.

Part of it is also just sci­en­tif­ic oppor­tunism, that the fMRI, mean­ing Funtional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, look­ing at real-time activ­i­ty in the brain, that’s some­thing that real­ly was­n’t devel­oped until the mid-90s. So it’s a pret­ty new tool. But in addi­tion there are break­throughs real­ly in almost every field. In genet­ics, for exam­ple. And then the com­bi­na­tions of these things become very pow­er­ful tools. So you can clas­si­fy peo­ple by their genet­ic vari­a­tion and then see by scan­ning their brains what those genes are doing in dif­fer­ent brains, which is what the genes are real­ly kind of designed to do.

So some of it was econ­o­mists like me who were inter­est­ed in psy­chol­o­gy and behav­ior think­ing here’s a new tool that peo­ple are using and we can share.

Anderson: What does that mean for economics?

Camerer: I think what it means is that there are a num­ber of obvi­ous con­cepts that are impor­tant in human rea­son­ing and human nature and choice that are kind of left out of the book. That are hard to for­mal­ize, and they’re hard to trans­late into the stan­dard build­ing blocks of eco­nom­ics, which are pref­er­ences (what peo­ple want), beliefs (what oth­er peo­ple are going to do; what’s going to hap­pen in the future), and con­straints (how much mon­ey do I have?) You have to map every­thing into those words, or else you’re not going to be in the 800-page the­o­ry book. 

So, things like emo­tion are not in the 800-page book. Addiction, con­sumer con­fi­dence. These are things that peo­ple talk about, clin­i­cians think about, doc­tors think about, and they don’t grace­ful­ly map into pref­er­ences and beliefs and con­straints. So the neu­ro­science will give us a kind of empir­i­cal, sci­en­tif­ic way to think about those things, and it’ll kind of force flex­ing the mod­el and adding in some new pieces to explain things. So that’s num­ber one.

Number two… It’s increas­ing­ly obvi­ous to any­body who reads the news­pa­per or stands on an unem­ploy­ment line that the ratio­nal eco­nom­ic mod­el, that peo­ple are mak­ing the most of their mon­ey because they know what they want and how to plan for the future, just does­n’t fit lots of things. So the argu­ment that the con­ser­v­a­tive (ortho­dox econ­o­mists, I should say; intel­lec­tu­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive) have made is that eco­nom­ics is doing fine, if it’s not broke don’t fix it, we don’t need your brain science. 

But it’s not doing fine. We know very lit­tle about com­plex finan­cial sys­tems and how sys­temic risk, as it’s called, is com­put­ed, and how you would man­age poli­cies. And if you look back at the finan­cial cri­sis, you can either say, as many econ­o­mists do, It all had to do with badly-designed rules,” which may be part of the sto­ry; it’s cer­tain­ly part of the sto­ry. Or it may have to do with the inter­ac­tion of those rules and human nature, like mort­gage bro­ker greed, opti­mism… And you see it not just in indi­vid­u­als who now have hous­es and fore­clo­sure, but at the high­est lev­els. So, Jamie Dimon from JP Morgan Chase tes­ti­fied before Congress and said, Well, I guess we did­n’t real­ize that house prices can go down.” And I think he was kind of being folksy hum­ble. But I think that’s real­ly what hap­pened, right.

So the idea that large cor­po­ra­tions, or even maybe gov­ern­ments, will solve these prob­lems for us by pulling togeth­er the best and the bright­est is a thing to hope for and to ana­lyze. But Jamie Dimon and the peo­ple who run JP Morgan Chase, they have brains too, and their brains maybe work in a very sim­i­lar way to the brains of peo­ple who are get­ting Alt‑A liar loans by exag­ger­at­ing their income.

Anderson: Yeah. It’s fun­ny. One of the cri­tiques of neu­roe­co­nom­ics that I was read­ing was talk­ing about how basi­cal­ly it’s a vehi­cle for large bankers to under­stand and per­pet­u­ate irra­tional­i­ty in the mar­ket. I was think­ing that’s kind of odd because it seems to ignore the impli­ca­tions that they too might also not be per­fect­ly rational.

Camerer: Yeah. Like any sci­en­tif­ic tech­nol­o­gy like nuclear weapons and virus­es that have some ben­e­fi­cial advan­tages, there’s the capac­i­ty to use neu­ro­science to get con­sumers to buy stuff they don’t want. And the sci­en­tists like myself work­ing in uni­ver­si­ties are not par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in doing that. If some­body else does it, we prob­a­bly will have the capac­i­ty sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly to also tell con­sumers how to resist brain­wash­ing. But there is a capac­i­ty for using things in an uneth­i­cal way, conceivably.

So the neu­ro­science will kind of lay bare the more we under­stand about peo­ple the more we have the capac­i­ty to make them do things that aren’t good for them, and the capac­i­ty to help them make bet­ter deci­sions. We kind of feel like it’s out of our hands, which is a lit­tle bit of a cop-out. But mostly…it is.

Anderson: This is sort of tan­gen­tial, but I’m just think­ing about gen­er­al sci­ence. To what extent can the peo­ple cre­at­ing it be respon­si­ble for think­ing about the good or the bad or the eth­i­cal implications?

Camerer: It’s such a com­pli­cat­ed thing that I don’t think you can real­ly stand back and remain silent. For exam­ple, if I thought com­pa­nies were using non-obvious ideas from neu­ro­science to say, mar­ket things to chil­dren that are real­ly bad for chil­dren and which par­ents can’t nec­es­sar­i­ly keep the kids from devel­op­ing a taste for, then some­body seems to be oblig­at­ed (whether it’s nation­al health or some reg­u­la­to­ry agency that’s fund­ing research or a pri­vate foun­da­tion which has the size to go in there with a lot of mon­ey) to fig­ure out what the anti­dote is. And the sci­en­tists will have to be involved. I mean, not every­one will choose to be, and… It could be a rel­a­tive­ly mild thing, like the Society For Neuroeconomics, which is a recently-formed group of a cou­ple hun­dred peo­ple doing this basic sci­ence, issues a state­ment to some effect or forms a com­mit­tee to say some­thing about it.

Anderson: This is actu­al­ly mak­ing me think of a con­ver­sa­tion I had last week, with Max More. I asked him first about the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple; with any sort of sci­en­tif­ic advance­ment is the bur­den of proof to show that it’s safe or good on the cre­ator? And he’s espoused a proac­tionary prin­ci­ple, encour­ag­ing devel­op­ment and try­ing to assess all of the risks ahead of time but always sort of hav­ing a focus on new ideas and new devel­op­ment and assum­ing that you can’t real­ly know any of the impli­ca­tions. How do you feel about approach­es like those?

Camerer: I kind of agree with him. One thing that comes out of a com­bi­na­tion of com­put­er sci­ence and neu­ro­science a lit­tle bit, and applied math­e­mat­ics, is what’s called an explo­ration bonus. If, for exam­ple, you’re an ani­mal look­ing out in the jun­gle and there’s a tree that has fruit that you know tastes good, and then in your wan­der­ing you stum­ble upon a new plant, what the explo­ration bonus is, it says that even if you think that new plant won’t be nutri­tious, you should try it. And it’s relat­ed to what’s called infor­ma­tion val­ue or option val­ue. The idea is if you don’t try that plant, you’ll nev­er know. And if you try it, it might be fan­tas­tic. And then you can keep doing it. But if you try it and it’s awful, you don’t have to keep doing it.

Anderson: And if you try it and it kills you—

Camerer: Well, cor­rect. So, there’s a kind of lim­it to the explo­ration bonus, right. In fact, that’s sort of the rub, which is if you explore these new things and there’s an irre­versible ter­ri­ble out­come, then you’re in big trou­ble. This isn’t typ­i­cal­ly mod­eled in the lit­er­a­ture because you’re usu­al­ly not think­ing about things that’re com­plete­ly tox­ic, but it does mean that you need to have a sense of at least maybe rough­ly the mag­ni­tude of the down­side risk in try­ing some new thing.

On the one hand, a lot of peo­ple are I think appro­pri­ate­ly para­noid or fear­ful about ter­ri­ble things hap­pen­ing that you can’t put the genie back in the bot­tle or undo it, like a pan­dem­ic, which could nowa­days with air trav­el and oth­er things cir­cle the globe so rapid­ly that the World Health Organization just can’t beat it. I mean, we sort of have the capac­i­ty to mis­tak­en­ly destroy ourselves.

On the oth­er hand, we real­ly need to explore (and econ­o­mists have an inter­est­ing view­point in this which I think is worth respect­ing but not bet­ting the fate of the plan­et on) which is that if there’s a ter­ri­ble prob­lem and you can make a lot of mon­ey fix­ing it, some­one will fig­ure out a way to fix it. This is their view on…even prob­a­bly many peo­ple, on things like cli­mate change. The idea’s that there may be some solu­tion out there that has­n’t been invent­ed yet, and neces­si­ty is the moth­er of inven­tion, so if the times comes— For exam­ple, this is a com­mon doc­trine of think­ing about ener­gy depen­dence and oil. The idea’s well, maybe we’ll run out of oil, but that won’t hap­pen for a cou­ple decades or a hun­dred years, and in all that time, some chemist or geol­o­gist will fig­ure out some­thing bet­ter and they’ll become spec­tac­u­lar­ly wealthy.

Anderson: So, bank­ing on advances in technology.

Camerer: Exactly. So, there’s a cer­tain amount of almost reli­gious blind faith that some­body will step up to the plate and do this. And I hope it’s true for say, a pan­dem­ic. But often, the dra­mat­ic things that would be need­ed just take time, and they’re hard to scale up. If you’re wor­ried about some­thing that’s going to wipe out a large chunk of pop­u­la­tion in six weeks, you can’t form a $10 bil­lion grant and hire two thou­sand top epi­demi­ol­o­gists and assem­ble them fast enough to real­ly solve that prob­lem. Things that are kind of slow-moving crises are things that the eco­nom­ic approach…that’s some­thing that we can hope for, and…I would­n’t say count on. And I think these his­tor­i­cal exam­ples are prob­a­bly pret­ty good about that sort of thing.

Anderson: Something that got me into this project is sort of the notion that things are chang­ing very rapid­ly now, in a way that is his­tor­i­cal­ly unprece­dent­ed. And they’re hap­pen­ing in so many dif­fer­ent fields, and it seems like there are choic­es that we’re mak­ing now that are going to have absolute­ly tremen­dous import. So one of the things I’ve want­ed to ask every­one is sort of what is the biggest issue of our era that we need to be think­ing about?

Camerer: Of course that’s a very good ques­tion. I think cli­mate change is part of it. Partly because you don’t want to burn up the plan­et. But also part­ly because it’s kind of a test case for how much faith peo­ple have in sci­ence, how well insti­tu­tions could respond to these dramatic-scale, slow-moving threats. Like, if we can’t do this, then pan­demics or oth­er dra­mat­ic things that could hap­pen we’re real­ly in big trou­ble on. So this one appears to be some­thing that should be man­age­able. If we can solve this, a lot of oth­er things might work very effortlessly.

At one lev­el, it’s just a ques­tion of sci­ence. Is there cli­mate change, where is it com­ing from? On anoth­er lev­el, it’s polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic. And it’s transna­tion­al because the lion’s share of growth in ener­gy use is cer­tain­ly going to come from the so-called BRIC coun­tries, par­tic­u­lar­ly China and India with huge pop­u­la­tions. You don’t want to deny them the fruits of devel­op­ment, you know. So their view is, You guys did this, why close the door on us?” That’s a rea­son­able view­point. At the same time, there’s got to be some kind of com­mu­nal deci­sion on what to do.

Anderson: It makes me think of choic­es and the neu­ro­science of choice, because it’s a ques­tion like, we can see this. We know this is some­thing we need to be talk­ing about. And to some extent, we can antic­i­pate it and we could con­ceiv­ably change pat­terns of what we’re doing now. Do you think we’ll be able to do it with­out the sort of cri­sis that we were just talk­ing about? Like, do we need to have that point where it becomes eco­nom­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble to address the issue?

Camerer: Yeah, I’m pret­ty opti­mistic about this one. Partly because there could be a few sub­stan­tial break­throughs on the tech­nol­o­gy side and maybe consciousness-raising about how peo­ple orga­nize their lives. And also, there are just quirky things that are unique to these sit­u­a­tions that don’t fol­low the mold. For exam­ple, my read on China is that they don’t want to spend a lot of mon­ey for all that oil. Oil’s too expen­sive. So if you did­n’t want to spend tons of mon­ey in oil, what you would do is devel­op alter­na­tive cheap ener­gy, like solar. So as I under­stand it, the Chinese are way out ahead in devel­op­ing solar ener­gy, and that’s the kind of thing that may ben­e­fit quite a lot from large-scale gov­ern­ment sub­sidy from a gov­ern­ment forc­ing peo­ple to do some­thing that they would­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly vol­un­tar­i­ly do, in the hopes that in the long run it will turn out to be a fan­tas­tic invest­ment. So there may be a few things like that were a part of the solu­tion will come kind of out of the wood­work in a very strange way.

Anderson: And I won­der about the rela­tion­ship between our abil­i­ty to address and antic­i­pate a prob­lem and dif­fer­ent eco­nom­ic sys­tems in use. You know, with that exam­ple in China, it’s not entire­ly a free mar­ket, so the gov­ern­ment can say, We’re going to do solar,” and they’ll do solar.

Camerer: Correct.

Anderson: Do you think in a sys­tem like ours, it would be hard­er to antic­i­pate some­thing like that until the cri­sis hap­pened and then the eco­nom­ic incen­tive is there?

Camerer: Almost cer­tain­ly it would be more dif­fi­cult to say, coor­di­nate on a polit­i­cal solu­tion, if you have sort of a divid­ed American Congress. But I think the ear­ly warn­ing sys­tems that kind of gath­er infor­ma­tion and think about it, between sci­en­tists, sci­ence jour­nal­ism, blogs, the kind of ecosys­tem of ideas and facts, is pret­ty respon­sive. That’s the good news, right?

The bad news is things are chang­ing extreme­ly rapid­ly, so we have to respond very quick­ly. The good news is we can find things out real­ly fast, and poten­tial­ly respond very quick­ly. But I think your point is very well tak­en. It might be that the imped­i­ment is not how fast you can get infor­ma­tion over the Internet, but whether a polar­ized pop­u­la­tion, half of whom might not want to do any­thing, and the oth­er half wants to do a par­tic­u­lar thing or three par­tic­u­lar things, can decide if it’s stuff that requires col­lec­tive action.

Anderson: Something that comes through in all of the con­ver­sa­tions I have is sort of an idea of what’s good. We have all of these com­pli­cat­ed things that are hap­pen­ing in the present and these dif­fer­ent ways of know­ing the world, and… I mean, you’re study­ing how we make choic­es, but how do we deter­mine which choic­es are good and which choic­es we want to make that lead us to a future that we think is good?

Camerer: I’ll tell you the par­ty line in eco­nom­ics, which I kind of agree with in this case, which is if peo­ple pick some­thing, unless they were active­ly mis­in­formed about qual­i­ty or what the long-run con­se­quences will be, if they pick some­thing it must be good for them. Who are we to judge? De gustibus non est dis­putan­dum.” There’s no argu­ing with taste.

That’s a pret­ty use­ful prin­ci­ple, because it per­mits tol­er­ance of a lot of things like gay mar­riage and using ecsta­sy to treat men­tal ill­ness. In oth­er words, you’ve got to be real­ly care­ful to ban things (that’s our view from eco­nom­ics) and tell peo­ple they’re doing some­thing that’s bad for them. 

But what’s good? I don’t know. I think the hard­est issue there has to do with cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences. There are very fun­da­men­tal issues about social val­ues that may cut across cul­tures and even with­in coun­tries that are dif­fi­cult to say any­thing about. I will say one thing. There’s been a big boom in hap­pi­ness research, and a cou­ple of things come out of that which I think are pret­ty unde­ni­able. Friends make you hap­py. Correlation is not causal­i­ty, right? So it may be dif­fi­cult to show or know whether that means that some­body who’s a lon­er would be much hap­pi­er with more friends. But it does mean that if we get caught up in aspects of our dai­ly life that end up shov­ing friend­ship encoun­ters to the side, that’s prob­a­bly a mistake.

Anderson: It’s inter­est­ing to think that there’s research on this sort of stuff now. Maybe we can actu­al­ly come to the idea of hap­pi­ness or the val­ue of the col­lec­tive or the val­ue of a social net­work, and know that with some empir­i­cal data. Do you think the tra­jec­to­ry that we’re on cur­rent­ly in terms of our advanc­ing sci­en­tif­ic infor­ma­tion and our…whatever eco­nom­ic sys­tem we cur­rent­ly have now (that I won’t try to define), does that encour­age com­mu­ni­ty? Does that discourage com­mu­ni­ty? Or does it actu­al­ly have no effect on it at all?

Camerer: One way to think of this, this is an evo­lu­tion­ary view, not exact­ly a neu­ro­sci­en­tif­ic one, but neu­ro­science is sort of enslaved by evo­lu­tion because that’s where the neu­ro,” the brain, came from. A cer­tain amount of com­mu­ni­ty is so basic to us as humans, and oth­er species too, that it’s just a ques­tion of what form it will take. So it may be that for exam­ple, peo­ple don’t gath­er in pub­lic parks any longer like in Italy to play boc­ce and smoke and drink espres­so after din­ner. Maybe they don’t do that, but they all go to their soli­tary rooms and do the same thing on Facebook. So, I think there are prob­a­bly a lot of won­der­ful things about face-to-face com­mu­ni­ty that online com­mu­ni­ty does­n’t quite repli­cate. But maybe not. And the oth­er thing that’s going to be new is that the geo­graph­i­cal extent of com­mu­ni­ty is obvi­ous­ly much big­ger than it ever was, by almost a saturation.

Anderson: Does that give us sort of a glut of a cer­tain type of com­mu­ni­ty? Is it so many that you can’t relate to them in the same depth that you could almost if you were thrown togeth­er in your neighborhood?

Camerer: Yeah, that’s a real­ly inter­est­ing idea. I think the big win­ners will be peo­ple who were ostra­cized for cul­tur­al rea­sons and oth­ers, who now can reach out and find com­mu­ni­ty. So if you were a gay teen in a small town in Oklahoma in 1950, your life is pret­ty awful. And so you move to San Francisco, or com­mit sui­cide, or get mar­ried and pre­tend. Now, if you’re that same gay teen, your life in Oklahoma, it’s a lot bet­ter. And it will get bet­ter in the future. So I think peo­ple who weren’t quite wel­comed as mem­bers of small com­mu­ni­ties before now have a chance. So that kind of com­mu­ni­ty will be very helpful.

Anderson: Are you opti­mistic about the future?

Camerer: Yes. Economists by train­ing and nature are opti­mistic. Our view is that when things change and every­body agrees on allow­ing them to change, it’s because things are get­ting bet­ter. There are some excep­tions. But even then one of those I think is instruc­tive; I’ll come back to it in a minute. But if you look at almost the crud­est mea­sures of hap­pi­ness and things that are good for peo­ple like longevi­ty, the abil­i­ty to get out of bad rela­tion­ships, like divorce for women has been gen­er­al­ly lib­er­at­ing. A tremen­dous num­ber of dis­eases have either been erad­i­cat­ed or con­trolled. So by most stan­dards, things are real­ly good.

What’s drag­ging is the real­ly impov­er­ished part of the world, and the awful part is that many of the poor­est places on Earth also have incred­i­ble nat­ur­al resources. And so if you have extreme pover­ty in a place full of oil, some­thing is seri­ous­ly wrong. And we kin­da know what it is. It’s what econ­o­mists usu­al­ly call bad insti­tu­tions. But part of it is human nature, too. It’s that you have lead­ers who would much rather have a $10 mil­lion vil­la in Europe than feed their cit­i­zens. And I don’t know what the solu­tion to that is.

Anderson: All of these things are sort of materially-rooted improve­ments that then have dif­fer­ent ram­i­fi­ca­tions to peo­ple’s per­son­al lives and how they actu­al­ly relate. Do you think we are hav­ing sim­i­lar improve­ments in ways that make peo­ple’s lives actu­al­ly rich­er? Or is mate­r­i­al the only way to mea­sure that?

Camerer: I’m a big believ­er that it’s a big mis­take to just stop at mate­r­i­al. Now, first of all, if you’re poor and sick, and I give you some mate­r­i­al help and you’re less poor and not sick, you’re much hap­pi­er, right? So, get­ting from extreme pover­ty to con­tent­ment and rel­a­tive safe­ty and secu­ri­ty is the num­ber one step. And a lot of that does seem to have to do with mate­r­i­al allo­ca­tions. Prayer and com­mu­ni­ty is not going to solve your prob­lem as opposed to mon­ey. And it real­ly is sort of a tragedy that there’s any pover­ty in a world in which there’s a tremen­dous amount of wealth at the top. But things are mov­ing in a pret­ty good direction. 

But back to your ques­tion, is mate­r­i­al goods enough? I mean, one thing which will be a chal­lenge and an oppor­tu­ni­ty is, as peo­ple’s mate­r­i­al needs get sat­is­fied, what’s next? Is it com­mu­ni­ty? Is it leisure? There’s an idea from psy­chol­o­gy called the hedo­nic tread­mill, that what peo­ple real­ly like is new expe­ri­ences that’re kind of mem­o­rable and excit­ing. Once you’ve bought your four­teenth Ferrari, the fif­teenth I don’t think is gen­er­at­ing much of a dopamin­er­gic surge.

Anderson: We’ve just been talk­ing about chal­lenges, but real­ly briefly here, what do you think is our great­est chal­lenge going forward?

Camerer: I think the infor­ma­tion one is the key one. Because a lot of oth­er things all come from that. Despite all the things we’ve talked about that peo­ple think about, if you look at a 1970 world to a now world, post-Internet, that’s real­ly the big change. Because the pace is so fast. And it forces every sin­gle insti­tu­tion to shift some­how. Universities have to fig­ure out what to do with all this stuff. If their job is to con­vey what’s true to stu­dents. Like, every ten years we might have a new what’s true. It changes these ideas of who’s friends and com­mu­ni­ties and how things interact.

Anderson: I do won­der, are there bio­log­i­cal lim­its to what we can know? Do we hit a point at which we can’t self-govern because there’s too much stuff com­ing at us to decide?

Camerer: Yeah, I think there is. That’s sort of the chal­lenge, which is that the human brain is basi­cal­ly the chimp brain plus some neo­cor­tex. And the neo­cor­tex, we think, is large­ly devot­ed to under­stand­ing social life, and is involved in what some of us call gene cul­ture coevo­lu­tion, which is the idea that the way human groups got so suc­cess­ful com­pared to oth­er species is that we have all these genes that sup­port trans­mis­sion of knowl­edge from the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion to us. Tool use, books, dadada.

We’re real­ly pret­ty good at doing that. We’re the kings of the jun­gle com­pared to oth­er species. But, the cul­tur­al absorp­tion rate was not designed to soak up all the amount of infor­ma­tion that a par­ent and chil­dren in school and TV have avail­able. So I think the answer will be some form of the fol­low­ing, which is that knowl­edge is not locat­ed real­ly in indi­vid­u­als but in some sense is a prop­er­ty of the sys­tem in kind of an emer­gent way. So when we say things like, What do peo­ple know?” the cor­rect answer will be it’s not what any indi­vid­ual knows, it’s what’s locat­ed in this kind of social network. 

What to do with all this infor­ma­tion we have, to orga­nize it, make sense of it, is an extreme­ly inter­est­ing ques­tion, and it has lots of ram­i­fi­ca­tions. One is for his­to­ry. For exam­ple, in sci­en­tif­ic cita­tion, I think there’s… I don’t know that there’s good evi­dence on this, but there’s a feel­ing that there’s an inad­ver­tent amne­sia in remem­ber­ing not real­ly old dis­cov­er­ies that were sem­i­nal, but recent dis­cov­er­ies that weren’t so sem­i­nal. So, I have a col­league at anoth­er uni­ver­si­ty who said, I don’t read any­thing that was pub­lished before 1985.” As a his­to­ri­an, that’s kind of horrifying.

Anderson: Yeah. And as a his­to­ri­an of sci­ence, there’s an inter­est­ing cul­tur­al thing that’s going on there. So you look at the his­to­ry of sci­en­tif­ic prac­tice and how that amne­sia actu­al­ly affects what sci­ence is doing.

Camerer: Correct.

Anderson: You can look at it from the out­side and sort of his­tori­cize it.

Camerer: Yeah yeah yeah. And it’s nuts, right, because the abil­i­ty to look back at dis­tant things is bet­ter than ever. But at the same time, his point is basi­cal­ly just keep­ing up with post-1985 is a full-time job and so I’m going to arbi­trar­i­ly just ignore this oth­er thing. What sort of gate­keep­ing process will pick out the right ideas and kind of aggre­gate them and get them into the pub­lic mind is an extreme­ly inter­est­ing ques­tion. That one, I’m very opti­mistic [crosstalk]

Anderson: Oh, you are?

Camerer: because I think there will be lots of insti­tu­tions and things pop­ping up that are going to be real­ly won­der­ful improve­ments. The chal­lenge now is real­ly in data col­lec­tion and analy­sis, now that it’s cheap enough to know every­thing. But again, it’s kind of a metaphor for all the things that’re going on in the world. Information is free, and think­ing about it is not.

Aengus Anderson: Well, how goes it?

Micah Saul: Excellent. How about yourself?

Anderson: Doing well, yeah. Just wrapped up the con­ver­sa­tion with Colin Camerer.

Saul: Yep. Just lis­tened to it. It’s awesome.

Anderson: I’m glad you like it. It took some unex­pect­ed twists and turns.

Saul: It was so clear from lis­ten­ing to the inter­view that Dr. Camerer is very much just inter­est­ed in the world. This is a true polymath.

Anderson: Yeah.

Saul: You talked about eco­nom­ics, but then from there you jumped off into so many dif­fer­ent themes. 

Anderson: In this case, we only had an hour, and I could’ve had fun talk­ing to Dr. Camerer for…lots of hours. It’s like I hope I will get to talk to him again at some point in life. It was just real­ly a fun con­ver­sa­tion. What was a theme that you found par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing that con­nect­ed up with some of our oth­er inter­vie­wees, or some­thing that you’d want to devel­op more?

Saul: Well, absolute­ly the first thing that jumped out at me was, I think Reverend Fife talked a lit­tle bit about the Internet and sort of the glut of infor­ma­tion that we have. But I think that’s going to be a theme we’re going to be com­ing back to a lot, and Dr. Camerer was def­i­nite­ly the first to real­ly go into that, I thought.

Anderson: I liked his approach as sort of com­ing from biol­o­gy and neu­ro­science to real­ly think­ing about, what are the brain’s limits?

Saul: …actu­al­ly handle?

Anderson: Yeah. And as a guy who stud­ies choice, it’s real­ly intrigu­ing to talk to him about that. So from this con­ver­sa­tion, what are things that you’d want to pur­sue in anoth­er direction?

Saul: The con­cept of infor­ma­tion over­load is some­thing that I’m expect­ing to see a lot in our con­ver­sa­tions, and now that it’s been brought up I think that is some­thing that we need to be think­ing about. We have so much infor­ma­tion avail­able, it’s real­ly hard to look at any­thing oth­er than the imme­di­ate.

Anderson: Yeah. So we run into both the lim­its of biol­o­gy and also the social impli­ca­tions, maybe bio­log­i­cal/social impli­ca­tions, of our media technologies.

Saul: That’s some­thing that we def­i­nite­ly need to be talk­ing about. That’s the beau­ty of this project. We can now just car­ry that theme forward.

Anderson: Well, let’s think about those things, and let’s also try to get some more lis­ten­ers on the web site.

That was Dr. Colin Camerer, record­ed on the CalTech cam­pus in Pasadena, California, on May 112012

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This inter­view at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.