Political Science, Faculty

Faculty Profile: Political Science Professor Andy Hira Reaches Across Academic Disciplines

November 06, 2015
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Andy Hira’s idea for his latest book crystallized while talking with a tour guide on the Cape of Good Hope. Hira explains, “We were killing time and the tour guide asked me: you’re a professor, why do people make bad decisions?” As Hira thought about the ideas he had been exploring in classrooms for a few semesters, he realized he had a “common sense” explanation for how our society works.

Hira’s new book, Three Perspectives on Human Irrationality: The Book of Rules, lays out three rules that explain seemingly inexplicable individual and group behaviour. Rule one is that “our social structures have evolved over time,” and ideas and cultures are inherited from along the evolutionary chain. But, as Hira explains, “It’s not that easy to separate reason and emotion,” so rule two is that “a lot of what passes for reason is actually rationalization.”

And rule three is that we are not just individuals. Rather than seek the agency of liberal individualism, Hira argues, “It’s better to think about identity and individuals as a complicated and shifting network.” This doesn’t mean we have a hive mind but that, “Our brain pathways are changeable by the environment we find ourselves in, by social conventions, as well as by our own personal experiences, among other things.”

His rules chart a way between binary interpretations of society. He suggests the “mainstream economics and political science perspective is dominated by the view that we are atomistic individuals who use cost-benefit analyses” that are largely rational. On the other hand, he explains, “the opposite of the economics perspective is the literary theory and cultural studies perspective telling us that everything is ultimately subjective,” such as that consumption is driven only by desire for the cultural meaning of objects. Hira's book arose from the conclusion that neither economic rationality nor cultural feeling tell the whole truth.

The questions and anecdotes Hira uses to illustrate his case range from the banal to the dramatic, including why women wear high-heeled shoes, whether crime is a rational choice for someone who grows up without decent education opportunities to why people invest in the Vancouver condo market when it seems clear the housing bubble will inevitably burst, and why people spend so much of their energies trying to find a mate.

“The scientific method is based on the fact that the laws of the universe do not change over time, but human behavior changes” Hira asserts, but at the same time, “for the most part there is a lot of uniformity across our social structures.” He argues, “To really analyze something you need to know the context,” and this context must be “holistic,” including historical, economic, anthropological, and evolutionary-biological information. This is something he thinks the academy, with its distinct specialized fields, is not well equipped to do.

While Hira has not abandoned his academic colleagues, Three Perspectives does not directly take up debates in Political Science circles. Rather than engage specialized academic debates he says, “I’d rather put forward an alternative perspective.” Hira published his previous books with academic presses. To make his insights in this book more accessible, and to be able to develop them outside the confines of a single discipline, he opted for a non-academic commercial publishing route.

He hopes Three Perspectives’ focus on the “practical impact” of new theories developed in the academy through diverse sources such as neuroscience, evolutionary and animal psychology, and epigenetics as applied to human behaviour will make their implications accessible to non-academics: “I’m hoping that in fifteen or twenty years my kids will pick this book up and say ‘I’m kind of struggling with this relationship,’ or ‘I’m trying to understand why climate change is happening and no one is doing anything about it’…maybe they’ll pick this book up and find some folk wisdom that is backed up by evidence and experience that will help guide them through the puzzles of life.”

Three Perspectives on Human Irrationality was published this August but Hira has already done interviews with the Vancouver Sun and Vancouver Magazine so it appears his popular approach is resonating. He says, “I’ve never been in the popular media before, so it is interesting to see a response from this world to my work.” If the insights in this book are taken up in public discourse, Hira thinks the “implications for social policy are going to be pretty profound” because alongside a feeling of growing social atomization there is also a curiosity about the social life of individuals, about “the extent to which the individual is responsible and the extent to which society, environment, and chance are responsible” for the making of ourselves and our decisions. For his kids in the future (and for the rest of us) Professor Hira hopes his three rules might provide a starting point to address such problems.

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