… is from page 309 of the 3rd edition (1976) Herbert Simon‘s pioneering 1945 volume, Administrative Behavior. (Back in the mid-1980s when my interest was focused on the theory of the firm I read a lot of Herbert Simon’s work. I’ve forgotten most of what I’ve read, but enjoyed perusing this morning my seriously marked-up copy of Administrative Behavior.) This quotation originally appeared in a 1958 paper in Sociometry co-authored by Simon and DeWitt C. Dearborn:
Presented with a complex stimulus, the subject perceives in it what he is “ready” to perceive; the more complex or ambiguous the stimulus, the more the perception is determined by what is already “in” the subject and the less by what is “in” the stimulus.
Social ‘facts’ – including economic reality – are extraordinarily complex phenomena. There is no such thing as simply observing “the” facts and then coming to some understanding of reality. All observations, even the simplest, must be filtered through our mental categories in order for us to make sense of them. And the role of mental categories – priors and implicit burdens of intellectual proof; hypotheses; theories – in deciphering social reality is especially great.
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), everyone is under the strong influence of priors and theories. Stalinists, Hayekians, Randians, Georgists, market monetarists, Keynesians, “Progressives” – you name it, none of us derives our understanding of reality simply by observing reality. Therefore, it is especially important in the social sciences to get the theory right.