Wednesday, October 7, 2015

PR-to-scientific sentiment ratio for products

In high school economics we learn that 20th century economic theory was more-or-less based on the assumption of rational actors: people and corporations allocate assets such that overall utility is maximized. A more recent vein of research, behavioral economics, makes an argument that feels self-evident in hindsight: people don't make rational decisions at all times, but are in fact often motivated by completely irrational internal or external factors.

In their recent book (reviewed here), Akerlof and Shiller go further to suggest that people are not only making sometimes irrational decisions but that they are beguiled into thinking they need things they don't. More than that, they argue that the very nature of capitalism guarantees this kind of behavior from companies.
Phishermen know how to give rise to temptations, thus generating novel “needs.”
This has to be a disturbing thought to anyone in the technology industry. Are we fulfilling actual needs people have, or monkey-on-the-shoulder needs invented out of whole cloth?

I think we can safely say that we do need more products that help consumers make better decisions about purchases. One somewhat snarky app I'd like to have would scan a product barcode and do a quick calculation of a lobbyist/PR-to-scientific research sentiment ratio. The higher the ratio the more suspicious the product: a company that spends tons on PR and lobbyists but which scientific research has found to be problematic is probably pushing something that is not in the public's best interest.

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