The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'behavioural economics'
A behavioural economist from Yale has posited the theory that how one's primary language handles the future tense influences the amount of planning one does for the future, with one consequence being that English speakers save less for their old age than speakers of languages such as Mandarin and Yoruba, which lack a separate future tense and instead treat the future as part of the present. Professor Keith Chen's theory is that, in doing so, such languages encourage and entrench habits of thought more conducive to mindfulness of one's future than languages where the future is hived off into a separate grammatical tense:
Prof Chen divides the world's languages into two groups, depending on how they treat the concept of time. Strong future-time reference languages (strong FTR) require their speakers to use a different tense when speaking of the future. Weak future-time reference (weak FTR) languages do not.
"The act of savings is fundamentally about understanding that your future self - the person you're saving for - is in some sense equivalent to your present self," Prof Chen told the BBC's Business Daily. "If your language separates the future and the present in its grammar that seems to lead you to slightly disassociate the future from the present every time you speak.The effect is not limited to exotic non-European languages; similar differences are present in European languages to an extent (for example, one often uses the present tense in German to refer to events in the future, which is not the case in English, French or Italian; whether this has any causal relationship with the higher rate of personal saving in Germany remains to be determined).
Professor Chen's paper, The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets, is (here), in PDF format.
If this effect holds true, all may not be lost; one could consciously intervene in English to an extent without breaking too much, by forcing oneself to say things like “I'm going to the seminar” rather than “I will go to the seminar”. Further flattenings-out of the future tense, however, get more awkward; saying, at age 29, “I'm retiring to the south of France” could raise a few eyebrows.
Peter McGraw, a behavioural economist from Colorado, has a grand unified theory of humour: he calls it the Benign Violation Theory; the gist of it is that, for something to be amusing, it has to involve a violation of norms, albeit one in which nobody is actually harmed.
Every kind of humor McGraw and Warren could think of fit into the BVT. Slapstick worked: Falling down the stairs, a physical violation, is only funny if nobody's actually hurt. A dirty joke trades on moral or social violations, but it's only going to get a laugh if the person listening is liberated enough to consider risqué subjects such as sex benign. Puns can be seen as violations of linguistic norms, though only cerebral types and grammarians care enough about the violation to chuckle.
McGraw believes the BVT may even help explain why, biologically, humans evolved with the ability to laugh. It is clearly a beneficial trait to be able to correctly perceive when a violation is benign and communicate that to others via laughter, he points out. Early humans who were afraid of every apparent violation, real or not, weren't going to last long — nor were those who took one look at a woolly mammoth charging their way and did nothing but bust a gut.Which more or less makes sense, though McGraw's attempt to explain laughter as a reaction to being tickled by this theory seems to be grasping at straws. (I'd be more inclined to believe that the internal state arising from being tickled is quite different from that arising from perceiving a joke, even though they have the same external symptom.)
A theory of humour I once saw elsewhere suggested that laughter was a reflexive reaction to a frame of reference suddenly and abruptly being changed, and to being suddenly faced with the need to reevaluate an entire story, scene or proposition, especially if it has become more exciting or unusual in doing so. Of course, this is biased towards conceptual humour, such as a told joke in which a sudden wordplay causes the carefully constructed word-picture to come crashing down (take, for example: "When I die, I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming like the passengers in his car"), or else stepping out of the frame and wantonly changing the (implied) terms of reference of the text of the first part of the joke ("What's orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot"). This act of conceptual violence triggers a minor earthquake in the listener's mind, which manifests itself as laughter (or a groan of disapproval if they've heard the joke before). Slapstick (and the bodily-function gross-out gags on which current Hollywood comedies are founded) are basically this for people who'd rather not mess with ideas. But both seem to be encompassed by the benign-violation framework.
Of course, the benignness is a negotiable point. One can tell a joke in which people die horribly (or worse), if the people are clearly hypothetical, stuffed straw dummies whose only purpose is to be sacrificed in a joke. Among bigots, jokes at the expense of out-groups also work because, by being dehumanised, the outgroup don't count as actual people. (A popularly tolerated echo of this are things like lawyer jokes, because nobody really believes in the possibility of exterminating all members of a profession.)
The tragedy of the commons occurs when there is insufficient ownership of common assets, which, as a result, become overused. But now, in the age of monetisation, copyright expansionism and corporate legislative power grabs, we are seeing the opposite: the tragedy of the anticommons, where there are too many rightsholders needed to negotiate with and pay off (each doing their duty to their shareholders by being as greedy as they can be), and many endeavours are no longer viable:
The commons leads to overuse and destruction; the anticommons leads to underuse and waste. In the cultural sphere, ever tighter restrictions on copyright and fair use limit artists’ abilities to sample and build on older works of art. In biotechnology, the explosion of patenting over the past twenty-five years—particularly efforts to patent things like gene fragments—may be retarding drug development, by making it hard to create a new drug without licensing myriad previous patents. Even divided land ownership can have unforeseen consequences. Wind power, for instance, could reliably supply up to twenty per cent of America’s energy needs—but only if new transmission lines were built, allowing the efficient movement of power from the places where it’s generated to the places where it’s consumed. Don’t count on that happening anytime soon. Most of the land that the grid would pass through is owned by individuals, and nobody wants power lines running through his back yard.
Recent experimental work by the psychologist Sven Vanneste and the legal scholar Ben Depoorter helps explain why. When something you own is necessary to the success of a venture, even if its contribution is small, you’ll tend to ask for an amount close to the full value of the venture. And since everyone in your position also thinks he deserves a huge sum, the venture quickly becomes unviable. So the next time we start handing out new ownership rights—whether via patents or copyright or privatization schemes—we’d better try to weigh all the good things that won’t happen as a result. Otherwise, we won’t know what we’ve been missing.This effect is the subject of a new book, The Gridlock Economy, by Michael Heller, a law professor at Columbia University.