Psychology

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Read: Stuffocation

A downside of reading ebooks is that you cannot briefly skim the whole book to get an idea about its content, the argument the author wants to make. Yes, the table of contents can still give a clue about this. Yet, somehow with an ebook it is less likely that I will consult the table of contents (again) once I have “turned” the pages.

Hence, while reading Suffocation (as an ebook) I often wondered why the author would now discuss things like the Streisand effect, or whether he sees a future in our society for whatever he was discussing at the moment.

Wallman builds his argument slowly, carefully. Yet, without telling his reader the big picture up front. Only after a chapter, at the end of it, or even only after several chapters, it becomes clear what Wallman wants to say, why he tells what he just told, what the purpose of all the (anecdotal) evidence is. At the end, everything is obvious.

Wallman identifies a problem: Stuffocation. Materialism in the sense of buying (too much) stuff, conspicuous consumption. After the all the unclutter and simplify-your-life books and articles that seem legion nowadays he does not need to spend too much time and effort to make and explain this point. He then discusses three potential solutions: minimalism, regression to simple living, and medium chill (a result of satisficing with rather modest aspirations). They all ain’t it.

So, he identifies a common core and a less anti-materialist solution to Stuffocation, all the stuff that clutters our homes and makes us miserable, that seems more likely to catch on. Experientialism, conspicuous spending not on lots and lots stuff but lots and lots of memories (and some high-quality stuff that helps to have a great experience).

All in all, this conclusion does not seem to be very controversial. Or original. Psychologists like Gilovich and Dunn arrived at the conclusion that spending money on experiences is making people happier than spending money on consumer goods much earlier. On the other hand, Wallman asks (and answers) whether this shift in spending on goods to experiences would be viable, whether people would change their behavior in large numbers to have a lasting effect on the economy. Of course, the anecdotal pieces of evidence still hint a the current stage of this idea’s dissemination and adoption: It’s still very, very early. Right now, experientialism seems something that is mostly for the financially (very) well off. Though, of course, these may be exactly the people who feel the most “stuffocated”, who have reached the end of material scarcity, and for whom time has become the ultimate scarce resource.

So, despite all the shortcomings there were a few parts of the book and ideas for which I am happy to have read Stuffocation.

For instance, I was surprised to find a(n interesting) discussion of the economic concept of GDP in the book. While Wallman’s perspective seems to be rather anti-business (“captains of consciousness”) he quite correctly points out: (only) what gets measured gets managed. Hence as long as there is no widely accepted replacement (or at least complement) for GDP that captures well-being the progress of society will be measured as the increase of the monetary value of the goods and services produced and sold and not as the increase in its citizens’ well-being, their quality of life.

And, Wallman gave a nice summary of why conspicuous spending on experiences is better in the sense of likely to make people happier than conspicuous spending on stuff. With stuff, it is almost always easy to rank what is the better (as a proxy the more expensive) thing. With experiences the cost may not serve anymore as a proxy for the quality: a “cheap” experience may still be great. Hence, there is less of a feeling of being behind, less pressure to upgrade and spend more.

Read: Misbehaving

Thaler’s Misbehaving is a personal account of the development of modern behavioral economics. It is not the history of behavioral economics. It is a (part of the) history of behavioral economics. Thaler is a contemporary witness, and at the same time one of the major figures in modern behavioral economics.

I like Misbehaving for (at least) two reasons.

First, Thaler establishes very early and often reinforces later that standard economic [consumer / decision] theory, rational choice theory is a normative theory. It describes how people should behave if they were to optimize their utility. It (often) does not describe what they really do. Rational choice theory is based on mathematical axioms, not true human behavior. For many purposes, this is absolutely fine. In many contexts, the observed aggregate behavior is driven more by the institution than the individual. For describing human decision making, for predicting an individual’s choices it is not. This is where we need a positive, descriptive theory.

Human cognition is bounded. Full rationality (in its mathematical definition) is, therefore, impossible. Bounded rationality is the best we can hope for. And this is the core of behavioral economics.

Without a pre-existing unifying model to compete with the dominant Rational Choice Theory research had to start with identifying “anomalies.” Thaler did exactly this. He reports many of the initial hostilities and criticisms against his heretics, the abandoning of the dominant doctrine. Sometimes he also reports a researcher’s conversion as a result to economics becoming a more empirical science. Nevertheless, still today some colleagues, and even colleagues among the experimental economists, would start to defend Rational Choice and Expected Utility Theory even if I just described it as a normative and not a positive theory.

The still standard normative economic theory approach can serve many purposes well and is often easier than more realistic approaches. As-if utility maximization has its purpose. Yet, as the sole policy analysis tool it may lead to the wrong conclusions and should, therefore, be augmented with the many insights we have gained from neighboring fields and the empirical economic research of the decision maker. A recommendation that, obviously, also Thaler advocates and has already helped to implement on several occasions.

Second, somewhere in the middle of the book Thaler alerts,

Tempering expectations about the magnitude of the sizes of effects that will be obtained is important because the success of […some nudges…] can create the false impression that it is easy to design small changes that will have big impacts. It is not.
It is also crucial to understand that many improvements may superficially appear to be quite small: a 1 or 2% change in some outcome. That should not be a reason to scoff, especially if the intervention is essentially costless. […] A 2% increase in the effectiveness of some program may not sound like a big deal, but when the stakes are in billions of dollars, small percentage changes add up. As one United States senator famously remarked, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

I believe this statement is more important than its place in the book and its extent of the discussion in the book implies.

In the laboratory, we are used to large effects. Experiments are often designed such as to generate as large an effect as possible. Even though the lab is the real world with real world incentives and real world decision makers, decisions outside the lab are made in a context that matters, after a series of other different decisions that matter, by more heterogeneous decision makers what matters, too. This is not just additional noise. These factors need to be investigated as well. Yet, this means that an effect in the field of maybe 2% when standard theory would predict none is huge.

Of course, this also has implications for research. Experimental results obtained under “clean” conditions with small samples in the laboratory will not always translate to similar effects outside the laboratory. The small samples imply that statistical significant effects may be over-estimated. The “clean” lab environment may lack moderating factors. Hence, large-scale field studies will become more and more important as the basis for evidence-based policies. We have already begun to see this.

Read: The Calculus of Selfishness

Karl Sigmund’s The Calculus of Selfishness applies basic evolutionary game theory to the analysis of cooperation in strategic interactions. Though it is published in the Princeton Series in Theoretical and Computational Biology it is rather addressed to social scientist, economist and psychologist, and in particular undergraduates.

The Calculus starts simple enough and Sigmund introduces whatever mathematics he needs without being too formal in his approach. For a text in applied math the book reads surprisingly well. However, it is still a book in applied math and I fear it is as such not really appealing to an undergraduate in the social sciences. Indeed, I do not believe there are many undergraduate economics students who would enjoy this book and not put it aside after the first few pages, the first chapter at the latest. While this may be a good example of a text in applied math it is not ”good enough” for the nascent social scientist.

On the other hand, it is an excellent introductory text on the evolutionary game theory of cooperation, direct and indirect reciprocity, fairness, reputation, and trust. I only wished Sigmund would have expanded on structured interaction and the co-evolution of subpopulations. He only hints at what results would be obtained when one would look at these things more carefully.

I also particularly appreciate that each chapter ends with a briefly annotated list of references for further, in more depth, reading on the topic and the game theoretic approach that was introduced in the respective chapter. While the terse exposition of the chapter can only serve to raise one’s interest these references are the real treasure trove of The Calculus of Selfishness.

Hence, while I would not recommend the book to any of my undergraduates in economics or social sciences I would happily point any graduate student in its direction.

Read: The Art of Choosing

It really seems to become a popular exercise, writing up your research in a format suited for the mass market, writing a popular science book. While the secret to success for science journalists is to cram as many anecdotes as possible in a more or less organized way in between the covers of their book those original researchers that get noticed add a little of a personal touch, some private details to the mix. Or, if they are really successful they add a lot of personal stuff to complement their research results, to enlighten the reader with regard to their motivation and their personal process of doing research.

Sheena Iyengar of jam-sampling fame (PDF) belongs to this last group. Her The Art of Choosing is a remarkable re-telling of her research hand in hand with a telling of her story. Not only is her book, that is the chapters in her book more cast from the same mold as, for instance, Ariely’s The Upside of Irrationality, also her philosophy, her world view, and her conclusions from her research are much more appealing to me. Hence, she tells not just about the Art of Choosing, she tells about seeing choice where others may see only fate, destiny, or a pre-selected path. She writes about “freedom-to” and personal responsibility. Yet, at the same time, she also writes about (optimal) limits to choice, the need to delegate decisions in certain situations, and cultural differences in the benefits of choice.

This book is highly recommended.

Read: Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of it)

Just looking at the title and subtitle, it is not obvious that Priceless is another popular behavioral economics book. And yes, I indeed expected something a little bit more (different) than the standard enumeration of cognitive biases, preference reversals, and priming effects that Priceless actually contains.

Though, I have to admit that Priceless also stands out. Additionally, it offers a historical perspective on behavioral decision theory. It is rather focused as it links everything to the perception of prices and choice behavior. And the more than 50 chapters are rather coherent and connected as opposed to some of the other pieced together collections of anecdotes that are currently available.

There is one thing I did not like. In the book, Poundstone makes an implicit assumption – or the original researchers made it and Poundstone just adopted it – prices have an absolute, intrinsic meaning. They have not. In a free market economy prices are just an indicator of relative value (as implied by relative scarcity).

When people are asked to attach values to different objects these values are not even (market) prices. They are just valuations. Therefore, it is absolutely no surprise when people are asked to attach values to different objects that these valuations, i.e. the absolute numbers, differ across different people. And, it is no surprise that when people have an idea about the relative scarcity of the objects that the ratios of valuations are relatively stable over different individuals. If they have no idea, or a different idea due to different environmental cues, the valuations will of course differ. This is how prices are defined, they (their ratio) describe the rate of exchange in a market, they are only unique up to a scaling factor. You need an anchor (a numeraire good) to get absolute prices in some specific units. The reported studies show exactly that. Further, there is no irrationality or cognitive deficit if individual valuations of a non-standardized good (may that be an apartment or an used car) in an experiment differ from a market price and are influenced by environmental cues.

Nonetheless, there are of course many factors that have an unduly influence on individual valuations. Many of these are discussed. What, in the end, makes Priceless a well written, instructive lesson on consumer psychology and initiation into modern price setting strategies.

Some of the material in book was also published in a (short-lived) blog. The author’s heart is, however, somewhere else. The last entry is already one year old by now. The blog thus served only as a pre-release promotion tool.

Read: Why We Make Mistakes

Here is another book that while discussing topics related to cognitive psychology will be attributed to the wildly popular meme behavioral economics. It is not reporting the author’s original research. Indeed, much of the observations that Hallinan illustrates with well chosen examples are pretty old. Nevertheless, the book is entertaining as well as instructive. There is a central theme, everything seems to fit well to it and the material is well arranged. Not the messy clutter of unconnected anecdotes that you will find in some other books of the same genre.

Yet, of course, there are shortcomings. Most importantly, the book does not answer to its title. The “why” is not really discussed. At least not up to the level of detail where is would get interesting. Hallinan illustrates a number of cognitive biases that will lead to sub-optimal decisions. Why we show these systematic biases is a question that remains unanswered.

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