Sunday, June 19, 2005

Simple Models of Motivation Don't Help Understanding Complex Behavior

I heard Bruce Craig discussing his book on Harry Dexter White on CSPAN the other day. It made me think about categories and knowledge.

White was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the 1940’s. He played an important role in U.S. international economic policy, in the economic support of Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion of China, and in the creation of the World Bank and IMF. The question Craig addresses is whether White was also a Russian spy. That seems an factual question, but Craig suggests that it is actually more complicated. Thus, Craig suggests that under current U.S. laws, White could be convicted of espionage, but that under the U.S. laws that existed in his time, White would not have been guilty of espionage. Moreover, Craig suggests that while White appears to have passed information to the Soviet government and to have promoted U.S. policies sought by the Soviet government, he probably did not perceive himself to be an agent of the Soviet government.

One of the key questions for Craig is the intentions that motivated White’s actions. Clearly criminal intent is an important legal determinant of culpability. But how can we be sure of the intentions of another. Indeed, it seems likely that White was balancing many factors in making his decisions. How would one weigh the importance of each? Some were undoubtedly benign – helping win the war, implementing the policies of the Administrations he served, advancing the cause of peace, doing his job, advancing his career. Others may have been more suspect. How would one weigh the relative merit of the overall balance?

This brings to mind several recent news stories. Perhaps the most topical is that of the run-up to the war in Iraq. What were the motives of the key players in Washington and London? The disclosure of Mark Felt as "Deep Throat" in the Watergate affair has also raised considerable discussion about his motives. In both cases, the prevailing idea seems to be that there is a simple, overvailing motive that explains the decisions. (In these cases, a reading of Graham Allison's book on the Cuban Missle Crisis might be helpful. He explains that the model of an individual making rational decisions does not accurately reflect the way decisions grow out of bureaucratic and political processes.)

The Terri Schiavo case, more recently, revolved around a "fact", whether or not she was in a permanent vegitative state as defined by the law, and around the perceptions of the motivations of her family members, the medical community involved in her treatment, of advocacy groups seeking one or another disposition of her case, and of politicians. Knowledge was hard to come by, and understanding apparently even more scarce.

Thinking about the field of Knowledge for Development, I wonder if too simplistic a view of human motivation and actions is often a problem. We may come to know what someone has done, but we can only seek to understand why he has done it. Again, going back to a theme of some recent postings, “understanding for development” may be a more critical element than K4D.

Moreover, it may be useful to have a binary decision but it may be more useful to understand the complex spaces of the real and the mental world. Thus, I assume in the case of White, it is important to have a way to decide whether or not he broke the law. Even in that case, however, I would prefer to make the sentence for a crime when one is adjudicated to have occurred, determined by a judge and jury rather than set in stone by mandatory sentencing rules in the law. Ultimately, the understanding of human motivation is weakened by the assumption that people do something for a single reason, or even that they can fully articulate the motivation behind their complex behaviors.

1 comment:

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