Why de Botton (and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work)

Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work has two wonderful passages on page 27: the first, concerning ship spotters—or those who watch and log ships coming in and out of a harbor:

They behave like a man who has fallen deeply in love and asks his companion if he might act on his emotions by measuring the distance between her elbow and her shoulder blade.

The ship spotters focus on statistics in large part because statistics can be found more readily than, say, aesthetic theories, or meta ideas about why we like spotting, or statistics, or fountain pens. Why do some of our activities, like ship spotting, dwell in the countable, while others, like love, tend to dwell in most people’s minds in the land of emotion? I say “most people’s mind” because some writers, like Tim Harford in The Logic of Life, have brought game theory to bear on love in the group sense in order to see what one might see.

De Botton has a partial answer:

It seems easier to respond to our enthusiasms by trading in facts than by investigating the more naive question of how and why we have been moved.

He’s right, and I think this is why many book blogs tend pay disproportionate attention to, for example, the publishing industry or a writer’s habit than the works that the industry publishes or that the writer writes. It’s simply easier, to steal de Botton’s accurate word, to deal with systematic issues than to analyze why de Botton’s simile of the lover works so well, which at bottom might be simply “because it does,” or an unattractive analysis of how something is both like and unlike something else. Like explaining a joke, such an analysis might render the subject being analyzed dead, and thus no longer worthy of analysis.

Dan Ariely in Seattle

In addition to being an excellent economist and writer, Dan Ariely has among the best syllable-to-letter ratios for any last name I’ve heard. I only learned how to pronounce AR-EE-el-EE on Feb. 27, when he visited Seattle to discuss Predictably Irrational. He warmed the crowd with a visual illusion I fell for; this YouTube clip is a variation. Carefully count the number of one- versus two-handed passes in the video.

If you haven’t watched the clip, don’t read on. If you have, the question isn’t about passes: did you notice the guy with the cell phone walk up to the door behind the girls with the ball? Ariely’s video was more obvious: men in black and white shirts passed two basketballs and a guy in a gorilla suit walked through. Like most of the rest of the crowd, I didn’t notice the gorilla because I was busy counting passes (18 in all, though it depends on whether one counts a pass at the very end). To judge from the self-conscious laughter when Ariely pointed this out to us and the few hands that went up when he asked how many of us saw the gorilla, many others were in my situation. And with that, we were primed with a metaphor for the brain’s ability to create mental illusions.

Ariely gave many examples of such illusions and preferences. For example, opt-in versus opt-out retirement systems have widely varying degrees of participation, as do countries with organ donations, depending on whether people are enrolled by default or must opt-in. It turns out that we seem to have difficulty with multiple, complex choices and a tendency to fall back on defaults in the face of these choices. I’m reminded of Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which shows how otherwise normal people who receive arbitrary authority and limited oversight can do evil acts. That tendency might be an aspect of a default option: obeying perceived authority.

Both Zimbardo and, implicitly, Ariely, argue that by becoming aware of such tendencies we can better correct or fight them. The tendency towards defaults, initial choices, and authority might also explain why change in societal attitudes often happens slowly: it takes generations for tides to shift and first decisions to be made anew. Paul Graham says, “I suspect there is some speed limit to the evolution of an economy. Economies are made out of people, and attitudes can only change a certain amount per generation.” Ariely’s research supports that conclusion, but I can also see how and why change might be accelerating: as people become more accustomed to change as the norm and as the first choice, it becomes more natural for the individuals who make up societies to reorient themselves faster to new choices. This could also help explain some of the findings in Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, which argues that the Industrial Revolution took off more because of attitudes and culture in England than other conditions. England’s culture during the Industrial Revolution had finally reached a place where change and innovation became the norm, and where society could support that change rather than relying on defaults like superstition or religion to explain worldly phenomena. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, though off the top of my head I can’t immediately think of a clever way to test whether change becoming a default norm might help change in the future, perhaps explaining why I’m not a behavioral economics professor.

Ariely also showed how we’re constantly using imperfect and imprecise knowledge to make decisions, allowing first decisions their power to frame how we think about something. In an experiment, Ariely read poetry to students and then asked how much groups of students would either pay or agreed to be paid to hear him recite poetry again shortly. The group asked how much they would pay offered to pay to hear Ariely read, and the group that he offered to pay demanded money. It would appear that the way he framed the question caused them to offer or demand money—and offer more or demand more the longer the reading went on. I would also note that, although Ariely gave an excellent econ talk, I’m not sure I would go for his rendition of “Leaves of Grass.” But students who asked how much they would pay did offer money for it because of the way Ariely framed the question.

Now that I know, I wouldn’t pay to hear him read poetry regardless of whether he asked. But if he’s in town for economics, I’d see him, and so should you. You’ll laugh and learn, and the former might be the optimal way to induce the latter.

The Logic of Life on Marginal Revolution

I had mixed feelings about Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life, and the Marginal Revolution forum on the book has ended with this post. Among its observations:

But where do “geniuses” come from? Turns out, there is a fascinating literature on creativity and achievement. A few names: R. Keith Sawyer, a sociologist/psychologist, writes eloquently on the emergence of genius from networks and groups. Sociologist Randall Collins wrote a highly regarded book on prominent philosophers showing that “genius level” philosophers tended to be clustered in space and time, suggesting that genius is made possible by very specific kinds of “hot house” situations. Other research, pioneered by Florida State psychologist Anders Ericsson, shows that high level performance isn’t just a matter of talent. It’s also a matter of specific training techniques and immersion in a topic. Basically, it’s not just talent that leads to achievement, it’s also the right kind of social environment.

Fabio Rojas includes three links in that paragraph, but to get them you’ll have to see the MR post.

Oops, perhaps, and several points on The Logic of Life

* Carrie Frye quotes Neil Gaiman, who writes: “I think that rule number one for book reviewers should probably be Don’t Spend The First Paragraph Slagging Off The Genre.” I try not to but occasionally do, as with The Logic of Life. But maybe Gaiman and Frye are only carving out their rule for fiction, as with nonfiction it seems more appropriate to survey existing work to ascertain whether an author is merely duplicating what already exists. I’m also on the record agreeing with the gist of what they say.

* Two readers wrote to ask in effect why, if I didn’t like the idea behind The Logic of Life, I bought and read it. Several answers:

1) I haven’t read all the econ-for-dummies books I listed and so thought I would still benefit from another one.

2) I didn’t realize the problems with The Logic of Life until after I read it, at which point they became more apparent.

3) Tim Harford was visiting Seattle, and I wanted to have the background for his discussion before he arrived.

4) Some of the chapters are also helpful professionally because some topics Harford discusses are perennials in grant writing.

Without number three, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Number four is probably just a post-purchase justification.

* A friend who edited my post on Logic of Life said apropos of it, “Your beginnings are always very abstruse and hard to follow.” Really?

If I accept the premise that they’re harder-than-some-kind-of-average to follow, I would say that it’s because they often set up important context for what’s to follow. I’ll be more cognizant of this, especially because I began keeping a list a while ago of things reviewers often do that can annoy me. Number one, was, naturally:

1) Reviewing the author’s preceding ouevre before getting to whatever the reviewer is supposed to be reviewing or discussing the genre/similar books more generally. I did it in my discussion of Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers. This is essentially what Frye and and Gaiman were discussing.

2) Developing grand theories: I found myself writing about what makes a good history book when I really wanted to deal with The Pursuit of Glory.

3) Tangentially discuss a book while instead focusing on political or social commentary. This essentially describes The New York Review of Books, to the extent they still write about book, as opposed to galleries, political essays, movies, the universe, pornography, navel gazing etc. And yes, I’m a subscriber.

I’m sure other patterns exist, and I might start pointing out examples as I see them. All three have happened in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, I’m sure.

* Overall, the issue of context for reviews makes me think about why trusted criticism and publishing gatekeepers are so important: you’re more likely to read a book or review about a subject if you have a preexisting indicators that you aren’t wasting your time and that someone has vetted whatever you’re reading. This could be generalized to the chicken-and-egg problem of blogs more generally: you don’t have credibility until you have enough fame to generate credibility.

The Logic of Life and Tim Harford in Seattle

Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life is another book intended at least in part to capitalize on the success of Freakonomics, which has sold a bazillion copies and been translated into numerous languages (I saw its distinctive cover in Hebrew). Economics are at work: one thing sells, people realize that previously unrealized demand exists, and then rush into the market. “Rush” is a relative term for the publishing industry, as Freakonomics came out in 2005. Since then, you’ve heard the steady beat: Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist hit a few months ago, and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions is due February 19. I’m sure more will follow. The same thing happened with Da Vinci Code clones, and the fantasy section of the bookstore has novels like The Name of the Wind and worse lining itself shelves. Those comparisons aren’t entirely fair: there’ve been poorly executed books about conspiratorial secret societies for a long time, and if I recall correctly Edmund Wilson mocked one in a essay. Although Tolkien has inspired hundreds of thousands of lousy novels about Elves who speak as if coming straight from King Arthur’s Court, he is also partly responsible for His Dark Materials and The Earthsea Trilogy.

Maybe it’s unfair to describe so much of the apparatus around Harford’s book prior to the book itself, but all that digression sets up a point, which is that The Undercover Economist is interesting enough on its merits to check out from the library but not so interesting that it’s worth buying. The largest problem is that much of its content is already available online in one form or another: you can read Harford on his blog, or get similar stories from Marginal Revolution (Tyler Cowen, its author, also wrote Discover Your Inner Economist), or go back to Freakonomics or its blog. Plus there’s Steven Landsburg’s More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics and Robert Frank’s The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas. So we have three blogs and five books with overlapping content. The blog components are free: you don’t have to be an economist to begin asking the question, “If I’m interested in the subject, why am I buying the book?” A few days ago, Slate posted a Harford article called Amazing Racism that covers similar ground to “Chapter Six: The Dangers of Rational Racism.” Marginal Revolution is hosting a discussion on The Logic of Life, which you can read about here and here, for example. The combination of Harford’s website, Marginal Revolution, and Freakonomics don’t complement The Logic of Life—they substitute for it.

Overall, The Logic of Life is enjoyable enough but never mind-blowing, as something like A Farewell to Alms was—it reoriented the way I perceive aspects of the world. The Logic of Life just piled on the econ-for-dummies stack. Harford is a good writer but his style—pithy, and scattered, yoking together concepts like metaphysical poets but without their artistry—is better suited for the magazines and newspapers he usually publishes in than he is for a book. The magazine and newspaper articles are naturally short, pithy, and to the point, and Hardford is often very funny when he doesn’t have to extend humor that works well in 800 words to a book of more than 40,000. The book feels more like a series of blog posts than a book, which is yet another reason to read the econ blogs, because its chapters are held together only by the tenuous thread of finding something that appears “irrational” and then showing how it makes more sense than it might first appear. As an introduction to some aspects of game theory it’s okay, but the feeling of disjointedness persists even within sections: in Chapter Two: Las Vegas: The Edge of Reason, the narrative skips from a Las Vegas hotel dateline to a discussion of the history of math and game theory to Camp David in September 1961 to Thomas Schelling more generally. Yet those individuals threads aren’t fully developed and don’t come together well.

The two great heroes of this book are Thomas Schelling and Gary Becker. The latter has a blog whose general tone is modeled on the Congressional Budget Office annual report and both are Nobel Laureates. They both also blurb the book, as does Tyler Cowen and Stephen Dubner who co-wrote Freakonomics. Suddenly I find myself commenting on the material around the book more than the book itself yet again, but that’s because 1) I can’t escape the feeling of being pulled into a marketing ploy and 2) find the book largely made redundant by other available material. Consequently, I will reiterate that this isn’t a bad book, and it’s lively enough to keep the reader moving from one idea to the next, but it’s also not terribly original in content or in packaging. I mention “packaging” because that’s what the book essentially is: repackaging of academic work for a non-specialist audience. This is undoubtedly a useful service for those who, like me, are unlikely to read economics journals, but it’s not as useful for those who, like me, are likely to read economics blogs for laypeople. In fact, I must have read too many blog entries because I just used the term “laypeople.” Sorry for that, I’ll try not to let it happen again. It’s the sort of thing Harford avoids, but at the cost of depth—and the cost seems too high. The Logic of Life is too simple and the kinds of material it contains too readily available elsewhere to make it a good purchase.

If The Logic of Life does anything really well, it’s in Harford being a cheerleader for an important and too-often-overlooked field. He was a professor, cheerleader, and pub friend at the University Bookstore in Seattle on Jan. 30, where he told stories, acknowledged the weaknesses in trying to see a rational world when ours isn’t always, and questioned his own metaphors. As a speaker he was fun and also speculated that the the econ-for-dummies books I generally like have done well because “people feel like they’re learning something about the world without having to know hard maths.” Note the “s” on “maths”—Harford is British, and made a joke about how he’s been studying America since being here. I asked what he noticed, and he launched into a short and thoughtful response about how our presidential election system is more rational than he first thought because early voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have a great incentive to learn about the candidates, who in turn advise the rest of the country. I wonder if Harford has read The Myth of the Rational Voter. Its content hasn’t been replicated online.

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