by Roger Koppl
Jake Young of Pure Pedantry has a nice post using the neuroscience of preconscious processing to address the issue of Kirznerian alertness. He was responding to Sandy’s post, “Stumbling on Profit Opportunities.” Jake gives a negative reply to Sandy’s conjecture that preconscious processing, whereby we leap away from a snake before processing that it was a snake, might be an example of Kirznerian entrepreneurship.
I think it’s a mistake to look for “the” neuroscience correlate to entrepreneurial alertness. The praxeological categories of “entrepreneurship,” “alertness,” and “discovery” were constructed for use in social science, not neuroscience. It would be a surprise if there were precisely one process identified in neuroscience that covers all and only cases of entrepreneurial alertness in social science. More likely, several processes that are considered distinct and unrelated in neuroscience would all be examples of entrepreneurial alertness and discovery. And the neurological processes generally corresponding to entrepreneurial discovery might sometimes be activated when there is no entrepreneurial discovery. Why should social science and neuroscience carve up the world in the same way?
Having said all that, it seems to me that preconscious processing fits entrepreneurial discovery quite nicely in at least some cases, including the snake example. In “What is Alertness?” I explore the concept of alertness using a similar example from Schutz and Luckmann (The Structures of the Life World, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1973, p. 185). In their example, a man enters an ill-lit room and must decide whether the coiled structure in the corner is rope or a snake. The example comes from Diogenes’ student Carneades.
Kirznerian entrepreneurship is a human universal. Basically, it’s our capacity to change plans. Thus, the context is not always markets and the “profit opportunity” is not always money. The “profit” may be gaining a reward or avoiding a loss. Jumping away from a snake fits perfectly, IMHO. You’re executing your plan to walk down the trail. You see the snake and change plans by leaping away. You weren’t looking for the snake; you discovered it.
The snake example has an interesting dimension that Carneades, Schutz, and Luckmann are not likely to have considered. We are probably pre-programmed to be afraid of snakes or to easily acquire such a fear through social conditioning. Thus, you know to leap out of the way because in some sense you were already expecting snakes to threaten you. We are more alert to the danger of snakes than to many other threats and opportunities because our biological programming (perhaps aided by social conditioning) puts us on alert to that danger. More generally, we are predisposed to notice some opportunities and not others. In this sense we are alert only to that which we already expect in some broad sense. Hayek’s treatment of “attention” in The Sensory Order (p. 139) fits. “Attention is . . . always directed, or confined to a particular class of events for which we are on the look-out and which, in consequence, we perceive with greater distinctness when one of them occurs.”
I think Sandy was right to conjecture that preconscious processing may often be a form of entrepreneurial alertness. More generally, I really liked Sandy suggestion that we should think about how to link Kirznerian entrepreneurship to neuroscience and empirical psychology.