Monday, October 1, 2007

The Economist's Weird Mind

Much like my promise to bring you all the news about signs I could possibly find, if there is a mention of economics anywhere in my sphere of influence, you can bet that it will show up on these glamorous, highly-read pages. In fact, if it weren't for some dumb luck and the catchy ad slogan "Keeping the Hot Girls Happy and the Fat Boys Full", my catering career would not be where it is, and I would spend my Friday nights trying to understand why the dollar has sustained relative undervaluation and why a monopoly's marginal revenue curve is precisely twice the slope of the demand curve.

Scott Adams, the writer of Dilbert, used his blog to make some remarks about this particular discipline:

I studied economics in college.

Me too!

One thing I’ve noticed is that other people who have studied economics tend to think a similar way. Some of the similarity is probably because it takes a certain kind of person to be interested in economics in the first place.

The type of person that it takes to study economics can be politely described as open-minded, but probably more accurately described as emotionless and at least slightly geeky. Economics explains all decisions as functions of incentives. It tries to figure out how many people would change a particular decision they make in response to a certain incentive with which they are faced. The majority of man-kind is bored with such exercises, but economists are different. We (I am including myself) are motivated by an intense desire to understand the way things work, and be able to predict how they will work in the future. In other words, it may seem that people do illogical things, but we try to understand the rationale.

But I’m convinced that the study of economics changes brains in a way I can identify after about five minutes of conversation.

This is true, and I can give you a perfect pop-culture example. In the movie A Beautiful Mind, Russel Crowe is a young John Nash at a bar in Princeton. Several attractive females enter the bar. Rather than getting rowdy, buying drinks, etc., Nash--who propagated one of the most influential economic theories in the last half of last century--calculated that his best chance of courting any girl was to ignore the prettiest girl. He then immediately left all the girls in favor of modeling his findings mathematically.

In particular, I think the study of economics makes you relatively immune to cognitive dissonance.

(I had to look up what Cognitive Dissonance means. Basically its the uneasiness you feel from experiencing two apparently conflicting phenomena, or being dumbfounded that you can't understand data that conflict with each other.)

The primary skill of an economist is identifying all of the explanations for various phenomena. Cognitive dissonance is, at its core, the inability to recognize and accept other explanations. I’m oversimplifying, but you get the point. The more your brain is trained for economics, the less it is susceptible to cognitive dissonance, or so it seems.

He is right. In fact, I would imagine that observing two apparently conflicting facts is a fantastic surprise for research economists. Because it means that there is an explanation of life that they don't know about yet, and they can spend the next year, up to a lifetime, trying to figure it out.

The joke about economists is that they are always using the phrase “On the other hand.”

Believe you/me, this is not the joke about economists. There are many more.

Economists are trained to recognize all sides of an argument. That seems like an easy and obvious skill, but in my experience, the general population lacks that skill. Once people take a side, they interpret any argument on the other side as absurd. In other words, they are relatively susceptible to cognitive dissonance.

Now this is a great point to make, and it's one that AP has made before. People argue based on emotions. They draw a line in the sand, and refuse to accept any other explanation of whatever event people are trying to analyze. I would say that in most cases, the people arguing the most violently have the most common ground in their beliefs.

Taking this point a step further, ideological political arguments are very rare in city politics. I caution you: when observing city politics, do not place too much emphasis on party affiliation. Avoid the temptation to say "he's a democrat and she's a republican, so they won't get along on anything", because the truth is the things that really matter on the local level have little to do with the sweeping philosophies that are supposed to be rivaled in republican and democrat platforms.

So 2 concluding points.

1. If you find yourself speaking with an economist, listen. (For credibility purposes, I will exclude myself from the following claim). They probably know what they are talking about, and they will probably give you the a fairer and less biased explanation of something than you could get anywhere else.

2. Analyze the people, not the party, in city politics.

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