Monday, December 15, 2008

The Illusion of Irrationality: Free Is Fun

A friend loaned me his copy of Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely. Ariely's a behavior economist, exploring all the ways people don't react in quite the same ways theory predicts. It's a fascinating area of research, a blending of economics and psychology. The book itself is well written and the content makes you think. But it goes way too far.

Because people don't act as theory predicts, Ariely proclaims they are irrational. In reality, the theory doesn't capture all the elements in play (or Ariely's not acknowledging they do). For example, Ariely dedicates chapter three to how people will get something just because it's free, even if it's not the better deal. They'll choose the free $10 gift certificate over a $20 gift certificate which costs seven dollar (effectively choosing $10 over $13). But people like getting things for free. Even if it's not really free, even if we know it's not really free.

Ironically, Ariely said it best: "FREE! gives us such an emotional charge that we perceive what is being offered as immensely more valuable than it really is." (p54) If it gives us that emotional charge, it really is more valuable. People also gamble though few will think they actually come out ahead. The joy comes from those few times you win. That joy, that emotional charge of getting something for nothing, is valuable to people and they'll gladly pay for it in the form of a lost opportunity.

My theory is easily testable (though expensive). Start by offering the $10 gift certificate versus $20 certificate for $7. Then increase that value from $20 to $30 then $40 then $50, steadily increasing the (opportunity) cost of the indulgent from $3 to $13 to $23 to $33. I'll bet you'll see more people start grabbing for their wallets, rationally determining that the joy of FREE! isn't worth the cost.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Comma Marries And

Writing out lists in writing is rather straight forward, but a simple mistake makes the list confusing. One of the easiest ways to keep it clear is to be consistent with commas. Consider the following sentence:
My favorite types of yogurt are orange creme, pineapple, strawberry and banana and vanilla.
Are there three flavors? Four? Two? Is strawberry and banana one flavor or is banana and vanilla one flavor? It's not clear. It's also awkward because the reader doesn't know when to finish the sentence. Now consider the same sentence with one more comma.
My favorite types of yogurt are orange creme, pineapple, strawberry and banana, and vanilla.
Much clearer, isn't it? A friend of mine once told me that commas separate each idea in a sentence as if they were the gaps between cars of a train. It's a pause to signal a slight change in thought. Don't treat it like a period (i.e. watch sentence length) but use it right in a list.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Questionable Writing

It's natural for people to ask questions in their writing, likely because those very questions are running through the writer's mind as they type. I saw this style many times while grading rough drafts my students submitted last week. It's not inherently bad writing. But like quoting, it should be used sparingly with two rules in mind.

1. If you're going to ask a question, ask only one and then immediately answer it. If it has a long answer (i.e. it introduces a section), then answer it in a way that summarizes the section. Asking a whole bunch of questions at once confuses the reader and wastes her time. It also robs you of authority; the reader might ask "Why is he asking so many questions? Does he not know the answer?"

2. You can also ask several questions to illustrate the extent of the difference of alternatives, alternating between one side and the other. Make sure you summarize at the end, of course. Virigina Postrel does this very well in her book The Future and Its Enemies:
How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis--a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism--a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare with Appelo that "we're scared of the future" and join Adams in decrying technology as "a killing thing"? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future. And that question creates a deep divide. (p xiv) [Original Emphasis]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Newsflash: Big Plans Are Complicated

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez commented on CNBC today arguing if the government loan goes though, the government will only manage the big involving their balance sheet. He insists politicians are capable of doing this well.
What we're talking about here is not the running of the auto company. We're saying someone who can evaluate whether they are making the tough calls and whether they are restructuring and whether the numbers suggest they are making the tough calls...We're talking about a big picture of what needs to be done to restructure these companies based on what the executives will bring forward.
This is a lot like saying "I'm not going to tell you how to drive because I'm not an expert. But I will tell you how to make your Civic do tricks out of a James Bond movie." These big picture changes are immensely complicated, filled with nuanced information no one in Congress or the Commerce Department has. They are precisely the things outsiders should not micromanage.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Quote With Caution: Leading and Following

With my development students feverishly working on their final drafts, I want to take some time passing on some writing advice. Today we discuss quoting.

While I've mentioned it before, it's worth repeating. There's only two reasons to quote: (a) convincing the reader that someone believes something (usually something the quoted may not freely admit) and (b) repeating an idea illustrated so well, you can't possibly say it better.

But knowing when to quote is not the same as knowing how to quote. I've witnessed many papers where the writer will quote without comment. Their lead in will be bland and their follow up will be nonexistent. I read phrases such as "Paul Collier says," "Jared Diamond writes," "William Easterly argues," with barely a hint of what they are going to say.

Instead, try something more tailored. Paraphrase the author's idea in the context of the subject of the paper. Then, indicate to the reader why you are bothering to quote. (i.e. "Friedman said it best: 'If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there'd be a shortage of sand.'")

Other times, the writer will quote and simply move on. If you going to bother quoting, add context to the quotation. Comment on it (but don't repeat yourself from the lead in). Reference an idea or phrase from within the quote and connect it back to your paper. Quotes are supposed to complement your writing, not replace it.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Don't Celebrate Yet

A surprising 61% of Americans oppose the Detroit bailout of the big three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler). This is hard to explain, given the populace's distaste for seeing big employers go under.

I wish I could say the results are due to people understanding growth doesn't come from preserving failures. Or a realization that there are some things Americans shouldn't do. But while the big picture's the same, the reasoning's likely much more nuanced. Quick depreciation of American cars, declining sales in SUVs, and the rise of the foreign-made hybrid are everyday examples of a poorly performing sector of the economy. Now if only people would take the essence of the argument and apply it consistently.

Paradoxically, the results are also low. Despite the repeated failures of the auto industry, despite the everyday logic that if something doesn't perform you shouldn't work to preserve it, despite the fundamental reality that letting something go away allows us to do something else, nearly forty percent of Americans are not against a bailout.

And then things make sense again.