The Situationist

Deep Capture – Part V

Posted by Jon Hanson on December 10, 2007

“Blind Faith” - Image by Marc Scheff at is the fifth of a multi-part series on what Situationist Contributor David Yosifon and I call “deep capture.”

The most basic prediction of the “deep capture” hypothesis is that there will be a competition over the situation (including the way we think) to influence the behavior of individuals and institutions and that those individuals, groups, entities, or institutions that are most powerful will win that competition.

Part I of this series explained that our “deep capture” story is analogous to the (shallow) capture story told by economists (such as Nobel laureate George Stigler) and public choice theorists for decades regarding the competition over prototypical regulatory institutions. Part II looked to history (specifically, Galileo’s recantation) for another analogy to the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves. Part III picked up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has implications far broader and deeper than he or others realized. Part IV examined the relative power (measured as the ability to influence situation) of large commercial interests today, much like the power of the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day. This part describes other parallels between the Catholic Church and geocentrism, on one hand, and modern corporate interests and dispositionism, on the other.

(Situationist artist Marc Scheff is providing the primary illustrations in this series.)

* * *

Fundamental attribution errors

The second major parallel between our world and Galileo’s is the existence of a widely held attributional intuition that is false, but generally viewed as a “truth”–and an obvious one at that. At that time, it was about what, if anything, moved the Earth and the celestial bodies “above” it. Now, it is about what moves us and our institutions.

Incentives to deeply capture

The third parallel is that in our world, too, those in power have a stake in maintaining the apparent veracity of that “truth” and, thus, in heavily promoting it. Instead of the Catholic Church sustaining geocentricism and dismissing Galileo’s observations regarding the role of astronomical situation, today, in our world, it is large corporate interests promoting dispositionism and dismissing observations regarding the influence of exterior and interior situations on behavior.

i. The stakes of geocentricism

To the Catholic Church, maintaining an allegiance to the biblical account of astronomical structure, no matter how logically dubious, was extremely important. Although Galileo himself saw no tension between his scientific findings and his Catholic faith, portions of the Catholic hierarchy saw in his discoveries the direct contradiction of several theological tenets. In their eyes, such weakened links threatened to destroy a whole chain of logic upon which the Church relied.

The insistence on intellectual conformity in scientific and philosophical subjects was intimately connected to the Church’s reaction to a farGalileo by Marc Scheff more fundamental challenge to its authority, that of the Protestant Reformation. That Galileo was linked in the minds of many Catholic Church leaders to the Protestant Reformation is ironic, since Galileo probably objected to the Protestant’s literal interpretations of the Bible, if not their reformist spirit, even more than he did to Catholic orthodoxy. At the same time, Protestantism seemed to be advancing the same kind of challenge to core Catholic beliefs that Galileo’s scientific approach posed to Aristotelian naturalism. On a broader level, at its inception, Protestantism was fundamentally anti-authoritarian in the sense that its leaders, beginning with Luther, encouraged the radical decentralization of religious authority and the rationalization of scriptural interpretation. The result was a more personal, individualized experience and interpretation of the scriptures. To the Catholic hierarchy, this was the work of the devil. And maintaining a strict biblical understanding of astronomy was of critical importance in their broader battle against diabolical corruption of Church dogma.

ii. The stakes of dispositionism

Similarly, today, large corporate interests have a great deal at stake in maintaining and promoting a dispositionist worldview. As we argued earlier, it is possible to speak of a “corporate interest” in maximizing profit not because corporations are dispositionally motivated, but because there are robust and stable situational pressures encouraging corporations to act “as if” they want to pursue that end.

And, in a similar vein, just as one can speak of corporations’ individual interests, one can also speak of their shared or collective interest. Although corporations are often in direct competition with one another, they share a collective interest in maximizing profits–which translates to an interest in maximizing available markets and minimizing profit-reducing regulation. Phenomena such as trade associations for lobbying, industry- and sector-wide advertising and public relations, and illegal collaborative activities such as price-fixing, evince these shared interests amongst competitors. Coordinated lobbying efforts for policy initiatives like NAFTA and for one-or-another political candidate, demonstrate a shared corporate interest across markets. But corporations share an interest in more than just promoting, for example, global trade policy. They also share a deeper interest in promoting certain perceptions of global trade policy, and of many other issues that can influence their common pursuit of profits. It is our contention that a dispositionist worldview benefits both individual corporations and the shared corporate interest, and that corporations therefore individually and jointly will act situationally to promote it. Because this claim is a major feature of our larger thesis, and because defending it is somewhat complex, it will be the topic of . . . [separate work]. We urge the reader to accept, or at least suspend disbelief in, this claim until we can flesh it out and (we hope) thoroughly substantiate it. For now, we will only cursorily highlight portions of that [work].

One important reason that corporations have a stake in dispositionism is that it is the dispositionist perspective that largely justifies their profit-seeking behavior as socially beneficial. If consumers are assumed to be dispositional–that is, if they act according to a stable set of preferences that only they can access directly–then it plausibly follows that the best way to maximize welfare is to allow consumers to satisfy their preferences through free-market transactions. It is through free markets that otherwise invisible preferences are satisfied (and revealed) through mutually beneficial transactions that enhance overall social welfare. As profit-maximizing entities, corporations act to maximize social welfare by serving consumers’ supposed dispositional preferences. Profit is the substantiation of those welfare-enhancing transactions and is therefore, by definition, good. In short, profit-maximizing corporations act in the public interest.

A dispositionist worldview is similarly valuable to the corporate interest because it helps minimize profit-reducing regulation. Markets, which allow the free exercise of dispositions, are understood as more responsive to consumer preferences than regulators who lack good information and the appropriate incentives. The dispositionist presumption translates to a presumption against regulatory intervention even against visible harms, for the actors involved are presumed to be choosing the inevitable risks that gave rise to those harms. Regulatory intervention is warranted only in circumstances in which markets demonstrably fail to respond to consumer dispositions–for instance, when consumers clearly lack information or when a transaction creates significant negative externalities. But, even in the presence of such market imperfections, calls for regulation may be rebutted on the grounds that imperfect markets might be preferable to imperfect regulations. Expressions like “the nirvana fallacy” and “the law of unintended consequences” have been coined to capture this fallback defense of markets.

Dispositionism also helps support common arguments for why regulators cannot be trusted. Regulators, like the rest of us, are presumed to be motivated to satisfy their self-interest, an end that is often in tension with their purported goal of serving the public interest. Regulators are often depicted as concerned with job security, career advancement, and larger budgets, as well-meaning but ill-informed bunglers, or as zealous intermeddlers seeking to impose their visions of society upon otherwise free consumers. Such dispositions are likely to lead to wrongful interference in free choices and, consequently, inefficient outcomes–the apparent dispositional mechanism behind Stigler’s findings.

Another benefit of dispositionism is that it helps to preserve and legitimate the status quo, in which corporations are the wealthiest and most powerful entities. Dispositionism places consumers, not corporations, in the driver’s seat. Corporations are viewed as competing to fulfill consumers’ desires in a fair competition; they are viewed as having no role in creating or influencing consumers’ behavior. If consumers are unhappy with one or another outcome of that competitive process, they dc-v-quotation.pngare rebuffed with the observation that the process is fair and that consumers have no one but themselves to blame. If consumers claim not to like a given market outcome, they can be told to change their consumption choices, reexamine their perceived preferences, or take it up with their fellow consumers.

In addition, corporations gain in innumerable ways from the general human tendency–reflected in the fundamental attribution error–to attach disproportionate weight to what we see and to see only a small, salient subset of our environs and interiors. This phenomenon has many manifestations that tend to benefit large commercial interests. For example, when the situation is not obvious (as is generally the case), people believe they are acting autonomously when they are actually responding to unseen situational cues. Not only do they miss the situational influence, they don’t believe there is a situational influence. Consumers are like competitors in a sprint, who, not seeing the track, presume that it is flat and fair. The runners measure their dispositions–talent and drive–according to the outcome of the race, without regard to its situation. In such a setting, corporations can camouflage their situational manipulations behind reassurances that those subject to them are, in fact, dispositionally moved. That same tendency permits corporations to attribute particularly egregious corporate activities to the dispositions of the handful of human actors involved or the rather unique corporate disposition (culture) of one corporation, and not to larger situational influences that might implicate, say, all corporations or all of corporate law.

Galileo’s conflict with the Church was not a neutral scientific debate. It had profound implications for power–who would have it and how it would be wielded–in seventeenth-century Europe. Similarly, the divide between dispositionism and situationism is not an academic point. It has profound implications for the distribution of power in our society. Large corporations have a stake in a dispositionist worldview because it helps them create and maintain vast situational power. Indeed, by promoting a lopsided worldview, based on individual stable preferences and autonomous individual choices, corporations can actually curtail individual autonomy and alter perceived preferences. That is possible, we assert, because of dispositionism.

* * *

This post, like the others, is drawn from our 2003 article, “The Situation” (downloadable here).

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6 Responses to “Deep Capture – Part V”

  1. Grue said

    Again with the Galileo example… If the church was so successful at supressing his ideas, why did they commission and then support the publication of his most successful anti-Aristotelian work (the Dialogues)? And why was everyone convinced by Galileo pretty quickly?

    Also, it’s not as if the Church was the only thing making Galileo’s theories look implausible. Galileo said that the earth was moving! And quickly! That’s pretty ridiculous prima facia—even without the church that seems like contradicting the one thing that everyone just knows must be true.

    So, maybe you’re on to something with this deep capture stuff, but simply speaking in vague terms and using the same bad example over and over isn’t very convincing. Are there real cases of this? Maybe with cigarettes, or environmental damage, or heath care?

  2. Mark Brandt said

    The Galileo example works if only as an illustration of the Churches immediate and excessive response to Galileo’s philosophy and science. Institutions can change their collective minds, just like individual’s can.

    An idea put forth by a person of lower status can become the ideology of a higher status group, especially if the idea presented effectively threatens the dominant nature of the high status group. I think it could be argued that the Catholic church accepted Galileo’s ideas as a way to save face and save their status. Perhaps scholars of religious history have already examined this argument.

  3. Are you planning on going one very big step further? If the dispositional theory is false and the situational true, then hasn’t the chain of situational outcomes that brings us to this historical point necessarily selected the dispositional fallacy? Why is the Consensual Reality of “disposition” better or worse than another? If you are trying to take a totally neutral/scientific position I wonder if you have maintained the necessary tone. Even some of the substance seems less than perfectly neutral.

    There are potentially objective qualms with such extreme market domination as we have collectively chosen at this point. One might objectively say: “Extreme market orientations such as we are presently experiencing can only end in ‘overgrazing,’ and, like the saber-toothed tiger, the society can only end in extinction by virtue of its own success. For this reason we must overthrow the dispositional theory…” Now that might support your Galileo identification: begins to be on a par with Neppure si muove. Still, there is a great deal to the idea of establishing the behavioral facts, with no more context than is required to observe and interpret those facts, and letting them play out as they will in the society as a whole.

  4. [...] of large commercial interests today, much like the power of the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day. Part V described other parallels between the Catholic Church and geocentrism, on one hand, and modern [...]

  5. [...] of large commercial interests today, much like the power of the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day. Part V described other parallels between the Catholic Church and geocentrism, on one hand, and modern [...]

  6. [...] Don’t forget the Deep Capture of it [...]

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