How can we predict the economic behaviour of unpredictable people?
Predictions of Randomness
We can reliably predict that London is going to be colder and wetter than Arizona. We can do this despite weather factors that are notoriously complicated and finely inter-balanced, where even the slightest change in any given parameter causes potentially enormously different outcomes. If we look at individual weather drivers in isolation - the effect of sun, pressure, wind, proximity to moisture - we would not be able to predict the weather any one point in time with reliability. It is only when looking at combined factors and patterns - historic patterns, patterns of global pressures, temperatures and wind systems - that we can get a more reliable feel for what is going to happen over a period of time. On any one day, that prediction may not be especially reliable, but over a year it can be.
Humans are every bit as complicated and finely inter-balanced as the weather. We are seven billion people, each of whose behaviour is driven by a unique mix of abilities, dispositions, understanding, intelligences, beliefs, values, attitudes, experiences, circumstances, preferences, traits and characteristics. How can we predict any given reaction on any given day to any given stimulus, such as personal interactions, mental state, weather, incentivisation, coercion, adverts, personal needs. How can we predict who will spend how much money or effort on any given product or service?
Patterns of Society
There is a complex variety of societal patterns that can aid our predictions, similar to the way weather forecasters use weather patterns. They are created by any number of social groupings, such as families, communities, cultures and nations. We continually devise unstable patterns. More often than not, they will neutralise as fading ripples in a pond, or occasionally explosively. More useful for prediction is the variety of stable patterns that are shaped from one or more of the unstable ones. Unlike our use of weather patterns, understanding societal patterns empowers us to influence them.
One of the simplest patterns of stability is the cultural value of "an eye for an eye". Cultures that adopt this value have a disproportionate number of half or fully blind people. Its stability is the simple logic that once one person in a community has been injured or deprived of something, the community has the right to injure or deprive the other community in equal measure. Within this system of justice, as soon as one community perceives it has been unfairly treated or deprived where the other community does not, the first retribution sparks a never ending series of mutual attack and revenge. It is stable in the sense that it is self-perpetuating. It stops only when one of the groups is willing to act on its empathy with the injustice perceived by the other group. This is not to judge whether the system of justice is better or worse than other systems, it is merely to observe the behavioural pattern, and to use it as an aid to predict comparable level of blindness over time between communities.
Another example of a stable pattern appears to be the use of shame by the wealthy to perpetuate poverty. Society controls access to resources. It does so in a way that there are winners and losers. On balance, society itself will be unstable if the sum of the individual gains and losses is negative. It is also unstable if the winners do not adequately compensate the losers for their disproportionate loss of access to resources. Why would the losers accept their injustice? One way to ensure they do is to put them to shame. Stability is re-established if the person in poverty is to made to feel ashamed, that the loss is caused by their own failure or inadequacy, and not by their deprivation of access to resources.
The Pattern of Values
Perhaps the most pervasive stable pattern we have is our values. It is a pattern that is clearly significant in our ability to predict and influence behaviour. Depending on circumstances - including cultural, historic, economic, geographic - any given combinations of values that drive behaviour can have either a cohesive (or progressive or positive) impact, or divisive (or limiting or entropic) impact on how effectively we collaborate for mutual benefit.
The good news is that we have many millennia, if not millions of millennia of experience and evolution of values to be able to judge which have the most cohesive influence on our human nature. A number of cohesive values are embedded in fairly close to 100% of individuals. Values such as respect, truth, freedom, fairness, empathy, joy and patience are universal values, shared by well over 95% of people in every part of the world. Others are much more nuanced, such as honour, persistence, greed, and aggression.
Our engagement with values is likely to be a useful tool in predicting aspects of behaviour that profoundly shape the economy and society. As an aside, values are also well demonstrated to influence human behaviour. Whether the influence turns out to be for the good of society as a whole or not depends, as with all tools at our disposal, on how we choose to use it.