Monday, May 30, 2011

Elliot McGucken's Hero's Journey Mythology video set to Beethoven!

Go to


It is filled with great pictures, music and interesting and inspiring quotes from many great philosophers and entrepreneurs. He is working on a book on this topic.

Elliot created the HERO'S JOURNEY ENTREPRENEURSHIP FESTIVAL: THE GREAT BOOKS RIDE AGAIN and like me he has related the work of Joseph Campbell on the hero in mythology to entrepreneurship.

Click here to go to Elliot's website

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

People Will Work For Purely Symbolic Rewards

See Week in Ideas: Christopher Shea from The Wall Street Journal, 4-30-11.

Thanks for Nothing

Awards that cost companies nothing to provide can pay dividends in productivity, a study finds.

Researchers in Switzerland hired 150 people to do two hours of real work for a nonprofit group. They were paid a flat rate of $37 to search the Web for information useful in fund-raising, namely, contact information for local-government officials who might be approached for grants. The nonprofit group made clear to the students that it had no jobs to offer them if they performed well.

The workers were assigned to small groups and given enough privacy that, if they chose, they could slack off at their computers. Eighty-three of the 150 were assigned to groups whose members were informed they'd be competing for a certificate of special thanks.

Despite the brevity of the job and the fixed wage, both groups were productive. More importantly, the workers competing for a frameable piece of paper gathered, on average, 12% more information than those that did not.

"Getting More Work for Nothing? Symbolic Awards and Worker Performance," Michael Kosfeld and Susanne Neckermann, American Economic Journal: Micro (forthcoming)"

This reminds me of a quote I once read that supposedly came from Napoleon: "The most amazing thing I have learned about war is that men will die for ribbons." (or medals as is sometimes reported) Click here for more info about the paper.

Even more info is at Meaningless Awards Spur Performance.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Legacies & Memories: A Company Devoted To Publishing The Stories Of Entreprneuers

See Legacies & Memories. I saw their ad in the WSJ on 4-20-11. The ad mentioned that entrepreneurs understand the value of having their life story told.. Of course, I have written about how entrepreneurs are like heroes. See my link on the side called "The Relationship Between Economics and Mythology." One of their books won an Axiom Award.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Are Myths And Stories A National Security Issue?

This may seem farfetched, but there are some links below on this. Recently I had a post called Being Able To Tell Stories May Help The Economy.

I came across this issue because neuroeconomist Paul Zak said he was going to a workshop on The Neurobiology of Narratives put on by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Those are the folks who brought us the internet. Here is a description of the workshop:

"The impact of narratives on human psychology ranges widely from what events we remember most easily to our choices about important foundational behaviors to include our degree of trust in others. Since the brain is the proximate cause of our actions, narratives have a direct impact on the neurobiological processes of both the senders and receivers of them. Understanding how narratives inform neurobiological processes is critical if we are to ascertain what effect narratives have on the psychology and neurobiology of human choices and behaviors, and can assist in everything ranging from exploring how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is influenced by event repetition to better understanding the thoughts and feelings of others.

To stimulate discussion and research on these issues, the Defense Sciences Office (DSO) of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is hosting a workshop, Narrative Networks (N2): The Neurobiology of Narratives. The workshop is intended as a sequel to one held February 28, 2011, which explored the nature of narratives, their role in security contexts, and methods for analyzing them quantitatively. This workshop will establish fertile ground for connecting our understanding of the neurobiology of narratives with models, simulations and sensors salient to security concerns. Accordingly, it focuses on surveying the neurobiological processes related to narratives, bridging the cognitive neurosciences and the story stimulus.

This workshop has five mutually reinforcing and overlapping goals:

To assay narrative effects on our basic neurochemistry

To understand narrative impact on the neurobiology of memory, learning and identity

To assess narrative influence on the neurobiology of emotions

To examine how narratives influence moral neurobiology

To survey how narratives modulate other brain mechanisms related to social cognition"

There is more at Your Brain on Stories. Here is an excerpt:

"We’ve only begun to understand what happens in the brain when we watch a movie or consume a story in any format. There’s much more to learn, and the implications are huge, if not controversial. Consider what William Casebeer says:

Casebeer notes that a compelling narrative can seal the resolve of a suicide bomber, and suggests that developing “counter-narrative strategies” could help deter such attackers. “It might be that understanding the neurobiology of a story can give us new insights into how we prevent radicalisation and how we prevent people from becoming entrenched in the grip of a narrative that makes it more likely that they would want to intentionally cause harm to others,”

Casebeer is the Air Force colonel who was in charge of the workshop. He has a Ph. D. in philosophy and cognitive science.

There is even more at Hooked on Stories. Here is an excerpt:

"Stories can also manipulate how you feel, as anyone who has watched a horror movie or read a Charles Dickens novel will confirm. But what makes us empathise so strongly with fictional characters? Paul Zak from Claremont Graduate University, California, thinks the key is oxytocin, a hormone produced during feel-good encounters such as breastfeeding and sex.

Taking this idea a step further, Read Montague of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg and William Casebeer of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia, have started using fMRI to see what happens in the brain’s reward centres when people listen to a story. These are the areas that normally respond to pleasurable experiences such as sex, food and drugs. They are also associated with addiction. “I would be shocked if narrative didn’t engage the same kind of circuitry,” says Montague. That would certainly help explain why stories can be so compelling. “If I were a betting man or woman, I would say that certain types of stories might be addictive and, neurobiologically speaking, not that different from taking a tiny hit of cocaine,” says Casebeer."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book Review On Business Fiction

See Workplace Fiction That’s True to Life from this past Sunday's New York Times by BRYAN BURROUGH. It is a review of the following book:

Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford.

Here is an excerpt from the review:

"I’VE often wondered why there aren’t more strong works of fiction dealing with the business world. Offhand, with the possible exception of Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” Richard Ford’s real estate dramas, or Michael Crichton’s forgettable “Disclosure,” I can’t think of many novels of recent years that grapple with the kinds of issues most business people encounter.

Invariably, what we get instead is the corporate thriller. You know, young Ned lands a job in the mailroom at Faceless Colossus Inc., climbs the ladder to middle management, then finds his boss in a pool of blood and balance sheets in the conference room, then uncovers a giant global conspiracy to subvert humanity in the boardroom, then goes on the run, where he is pursued by stern men in Joseph Abboud suits as he and the inevitable girlfriend scramble to save their lives, the world and, I don’t know, their 401(k)s. The villain is always the C.E.O.

The paucity of thoughtful business fiction, I surmise, has to do with the novelist’s preference for matters of life and death, or at least love. Writers yearn to put their characters in jeopardy, whether actual or emotional, and at first glance the main thing at stake in most corporate dramas, real or otherwise, is money. If the crucial issue is whether Faceless Colossus makes its earnings estimate for the quarter, or whether young Ned gets that bonus, well, not many novelists want to go there.

Which is kind of a shame. Television, after all, has set all kinds of excellent tales in the business world. “Mad Men” jumps to mind; it actually finds drama in the gritty realities of account management. “L.A. Law.” Heck, even “Ally McBeal” had its moments.

These shows also illuminate the lives that people lead in the workplace — another part of experience that is not especially well represented in fiction. Sloan Wilson (“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” published in 1955), Joshua Ferris (“Then We Came to the End,” from 2007) and Mr. Ford are among the few who have found fictional inspiration inside the office."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mythology, Ideology and Politics

That is the title of a paper I Presented at the annual meetings of The Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics in July 1994, in Paris, France. I found many parallels between ideology and mythology. Click here to read it. It is an MS Word file, so you might get a dialog box asking you if you want to open it. It is about 20 pages long.

I got started thinking about these parallels after seeing what Joseph Campbell said about the functions of myth and what economist Robert Higgs said about the functions of ideology. I saw some similaritiess.

The four functions of mythology according to Campbell are:

1. Mystical-Realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are and experiencing awe before the mystery. Myth opens the world to the dimension of mystery, to the realization of the mystery that underlies all forms.
2. Cosmological dimensions-This is the dimension with which science is concerned-showing you what the shape of the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery comes through.
3. Sociological-This supports and validates a certain social order. These myths vary from place to place.
4. Pedagogical-How to live a human life under any circumstances.

Although not identical to, these are similar to the aspects of ideology mentioned by Higgs. The sociological function is akin to Higgs's solidary aspect while the pedagogical function is akin to Higgs's programmatic aspect. The cosmological aspect can be seen as similar to the cognitive aspect in that they both aim at explaining why the world is as it is. The pedagogical function can also be seen as similar to the affective aspect of ideology in that it can communicate morals.

Given that the world is full of uncertainty, everyone has an ideology or lives by a mythology. One can never scientifically "prove" that their ideology is the correct one. Furthermore, how does one choose and then adhere to an ideology? There must be some emotional, irrational attachment to it. As mentioned earlier, people are swayed by the emotional and symbolic rhetoric of issue entrepreneurs. They often do this with poetry (as Higgs mentions) or stories. Every ideology has within it a myth or mythology. This provides it with the necessary emotional foundation, without which no political movement would be successful.

The following is a summary of how ideology works in politics according to Higgs:

1. There are few ideologies. This is because ideology has to be coherent and comprehensive.
2. They are produced by opinion leaders and the public or masses consume them. Most people get their ideas from reading or hearing politicians speak and we agree or disagree.
3. Ideologies constrain and propel change (political action)
4. Ideology becomes prominent during social crises.
5. Leaders cause consumers to act through rhetoric.

For Higgs, an ideology is successful because of its rhetoric.

"Ideological expression aims to persuade, but not in the cool dispassionate manner celebrated by the rational ideal of science and philosophy. Of course it may be rational, at least in part, and it may appeal to indisputable facts. But the persuasive power of ideological expression arises for the most part from neither logic nor facts. It arises mainly from the unabashedly polemical character of the rhetoric employed."

Here is more from Higgs on ideology:

Ideology has four aspects:

The first is the cognitive aspect, which determines our understanding and perception of the world.

The second is the affective aspect, which tells us what is good or bad in a moral sense.

The third and fourth aspects are the programmatic and solidary. These propel a person to "act in accordance with his cognitions and evaluations as a committed member of a political group in pursuit of definite social objectives." Higgs uses the last aspect, the solidary aspect, to justify the introduction of ideology into the standard utility function used by economists. These usually contain the commodities that people consume because of the selfish wants and desires that individuals are said to have according to neoclassical economic theory. But ideology is added because of two additional desires human beings have: the desire to belong to a group and to have a self image or identity that arises from group membership.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mythology Meets Game Theory

Game theory is used quite often in economics. The "prisoner's dilemma" is used to analyze many phenomena like collusion between oligopolists and trade negotiations.

What appears below is an excerpt from the 1991 book titled Prisoner's Dilemma by William Poundstone. When he refers to "Axelrod's findings" he means what Robert Axelrod found from staging a prisoner's dilemma tournament.

It turns out that the best strategy is called "tit-for-tat," meaning a player should cooperate or try to help the other player in the beginning. If the other player "defects" or tries to take advantage of you, then you punish him by defecting. If they start cooperating again, so do you. Without getting into too much detail, this is the best strategy in a multi-player tournament.

The passage below relates to international conflicts and the part about myth-making is in red. It refers to "chauvinist mythmaking" and how these local or national myths make it hard for the tit-for-tat strategy to work in international relations. I can't help recalling Joseph Campbell and his call for a world myth that everyone can believe in.


Many have expressed hope that Axelrod's findings might be applied
to human conflicts. One would like to think that statesmen and mili-
tary leaders would take a course in "practical TIT FOR TAT" and
suddenly much of the world's problems would be solved.

Axelrod himself downplays the idea. When I asked him if he
thought his findings could be translated into advice for statesmen, he
insisted that wasn't the goal. "I think the goal is to help people see
things more clearly, which is different. The value of any formal model,
including game theory, is that you can see some of the principles that
are operating more clearly than you could without the model. But it's
only some of the principles. You have to leave off a lot of things, some
of which are bound to be important."

Part of the problem with advising anyone to start using TIT FOR
TAT in foreign relations is that, in a sense, most reasonable people
already do it without knowing it. Responsible leaders don't start trou-
ble, and are provocable. The practical difficulty is not so much in
knowing when to cooperate or defect but to decide what is going on. In
the real world, it is not always obvious whether someone has acted
cooperatively or defected. Actions can fall somewhere between the two
extremes, and it is frequently unclear what one's adversary has done.
When one cannot tell what the other player has done, it is impossible
to use any conditional strategy.

Since the 1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union have used
a "tit-for-tat" policy-often called by that name, which predates Axel-
rod's studies-in granting travel permits to citizens of one nation resi-
dent in the other. This appears to be a genuine case of a TIT FOR TAT
strategy evolving spontaneously. In 1990, after a American diplomat
in Leningrad was denied permission to travel to Lithuania, the U.S.
State Department revoked a permit for Gennady Zolotov, Soviet dep-
uty consul general in San Francisco, to travel to give an unrelated and
uncontroversial speech at a small college in Nevada. State Depart-
ment spokesman Chuck Steiner explained, "It wasn't retaliation. It
was just an in-kind response. They denied our request, so we denied
theirs. It's been a long-held rule between the two countries."

In an uncertain world, TIT FOR TAT-like strategies may be as
much a part of the problem as the solution. It is an all too familiar
phenomenon of real conflicts that both sides claim the other started it
and that they were just giving a tit for a tat. Conflicts escalate mutu-
ally. A war of words leads to a war of gunfire and then of air raids.
Each side can truthfully cast the other as the side to cross the thresh-
old of war provided it gets to decide where that threshold lies. Ber-
trand Russell claimed that there was only one war in the history ofthe
world for which people knew the cause: the Trojan War. That was over
a beautiful woman; the wars since have lacked rational explanation
and have produced nothing, Russell said. In Axelrod's abstract game,
there is never any question about who was first to defect, and in this
sense it is unrealistic.

Writing in World Politics (October 1985) Stephen Van Evera consid-
ered whether TIT FOR TAT or a similar strategy might have pre-
vented World War 1. He concluded it could not. He said:

Tit-for-Tat strategies require that both sides believe essen- tially the same history; otherwise the players may be locked into an endless echo of retaliations as each side punishes the other's latest "unprovoked" transgression. Because states seldom believe the same history, however, the utility of Tit-for-Tat strategies is severely limited in international affairs. Strategies to promote in- ternational cooperation through reciprocity may therefore require parallel action to control the chauvinist mythmaking that often distorts a nation's view of its past .... In sum, because conditions required for successful application of a Tit-for-Tat strategy were missing in 1914, Europe was an infertile ground for Tit-for-Tat strategies. These conditions are often absent in international affairs; the syndromes of 1914 were merely pronounced varieties of common national maladies. It fol- lows that we will fail to foster cooperation, and may create greater conflict, if we rely on Tit-for- Tat strategies without first establish- ing the conditions required for their success.
How much is game theory presently used in diplomacy? The answer
appears to be very little. Axelrod speculated that "I think you can say
that [Thomas] Schelling's work is well known and was probably help-
ful in establishing some of the ideas we have on arms control. But at
the very top, you probably cannot find a secretary of state who can tell
you what a prisoner's dilemma is."

Axelrod finds game theory's influence more diffuse: "Some of the
ideas of game theory are in the public domain very much now, so that
somebody can be influenced by them. I think everybody really does
know what a non-zero-sum game is. You can use that term in News-
and not even explain it anymore. Just that is a major intellectual
advance because we're so prone to think in zero-sum terms."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Mind's Theatrical Show

See The Magical Mystery Show of Consciousness by Matt Ridely of the Wall Street Journal. It is a review of the book Soul Dust by Nick Humphrey.

The passage that really caught my eye was: "Mr. Humphrey's intriguing conclusion is that your mind does indeed stage "a theatrical show in order to influence the judgment of another part of your brain.""

Here are other excerpts:

"The genius of "Soul Dust" is to attempt an explanation of both how this is done and why it evolved. Mr. Humphrey's suggestion is that animals first acquired an ability to sense the world and to respond to sensations: When they felt pain (or pleasure), they withdrew (or extended) the affected body part. They then acquired the neural capability to monitor their own responses and, gradually, to produce a virtual internal representation of that response. Now there was an event in the brain called "paining," parallel to the real sensation of pain, or "redding," experienced when looking at a red tomato

So consciousness, Mr. Humphrey believes, comes from our way of mentally re-enacting what happens at our body's surface. Based on rhythmic patterns of activity in our neurons, he even tries to explain what the physical manifestation of this phenomenon might resemble in the brain."

"But why this show? What is the point of being conscious? Mr. Humphrey made his name many years ago with a famous essay on the evolutionary function of intelligence, arguing that it emerged through natural selection not to solve physical puzzles, as many assume, but to solve social ones—to read minds. Here he attempts a similar explanation for why the impartial spectator of consciousness is watching a magical mystery show. His answer sounds startlingly unscientific, even spiritual: to impress the soul.

What he means is that being enchanted by the magic of experience provides a reason to live. Rather than being an aid to survival, consciousness provides an essential incentive to survive. Enchantment is itself "the biological advantage of being awestruck.""

This last part reminds me of Joseph Campbell and "following your bliss," doing what you love because it electrifies you. Campbell also talked about seeing a work of art and being in a state of "aesthetic arrest." This sounds like being awestruck. The article also mentions Adam Smith (economist) and his theory of empathy. So being able to empathize might be tied to our ability to tell stories, which was forged by evolution.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Metaphors Can Affect What Policies People Like

See last Saturday's "Week in Ideas" in ideas from the Wall Street Journal by David DiSalvo. They have short abstracts of recent research. Here it is
"Metaphors Matter

Most of us think little of throwing around metaphors in conversation, but a study shows how powerful they can be.

Researchers at Stanford sought to demonstrate how metaphors can change the way we think about a problem like crime. They asked 1,482 students to read one of two reports about a crime in a particular city and to suggest solutions. In the first report, crime was described as a "wild beast preying on the city." The second report was identical, except it described crime as a "virus infecting the city."

After reading the first report, 75% of participants suggested law enforcement and punishment as the solution, including building more prisons and bringing in the military when necessary. Only 25% suggested social or economic reforms. After reading the second report, 56% suggested enforcement and punishment, and 44% suggested social reforms. Researchers found that if the metaphor appeared early in the report, and thus framed the content, it swayed opinion. Placed at the end, it had no effect.

"Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning," Paul H. Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky, PloS ONE (2011)"
Here is something Joseph Campbell said about myth and methaphor:
"...the word myth has come to mean lie -- because it is a lie to say that somebody has ascended to heaven. He hasn't. What is the connotation of that metaphorical image? That's a metaphor. And mythology is a compendium of metaphors. But when you understand a metaphor -- you know, just high school grammar language -- when you interpret the metaphor in terms of the denotation instead of the connotation, you've lost the message. That's like going into a restaurant and reading the menu and deciding what you're going to eat, and you eat that part of the menu. The menu is a reference to something transcendent of that piece of paper."
See UNDERSTANDING MYTHOLOGY with JOSEPH CAMPBELL, an interview with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Both Colleges And Their Prospective Students Seek To Impress Each Other With Their Mythic Images

I think most students go to college because, rightly or wrongly, they see the degree as a ticket to a better job. But much of what they and the colleges do is designed to impress the other with some kind of story about themselves. Here are some examples.

From A Craving for Acceptance,a book review in the WSJ. It is a book about his father taking one of his kids to visit different schools. Excerpts:

"Approaching the subject with genial savagery, Mr. Ferguson begins his journey by attending a meeting between a college consultant and a roomful of well-heeled Connecticut moms. The consultant charges—better sit down for this—$40,000 to shepherd a single kid through the admissions process and so naturally works only with, as her assistant says, "high net-worth individuals."

A series of enervating campus visits is marked by interchangeably chirpy undergraduate tour guides united by their ability to walk backward while extolling the school's a capella groups and reassuring parents about the high priority placed on security."

"...if anything he resents the way the admissions rat race warps them into becoming, or at least pretending to be, something else. We see, for instance, Mr. Ferguson's son agonizing to deliver the requisite self-revelation for a college application essay (the author calls this process "the Great Extrusion"). Burdened by a normal suburban teenage life and needing some drama to write about, the boy at first suggests that his parents divorce and then wishes that he'd been a drug addict. Finally he gets something down by inflating a minor personal episode into a transforming moment of illumination. The most darkly humorous aspect of this often hilarious book is its depiction of an admissions process that corrupts everything it touches.

It's a process that discourages reticence by requiring students to write revealing and disingenuous personal essays;..."

""the admissions process didn't force kids to be Lisa Simpson; it turned them into Eddie Haskell. . . . It guaranteed that teenagers would pursue life with a single ulterior motive, while pretending they weren't. It coated their every undertaking in a thin lacquer of insincerity. Befriending people in hopes of a good rec letter; serving the community to advertise your big heart; studying hard just to puff up the GPA and climb the greasy poll of class rank—nothing was done for its own sake.""

"This stressful process practically demands cynicism from all parties. To "climb the page" in the closely watched U.S. News & World Report rankings, schools solicit applications so that they can increase the numbers they reject, thereby appearing more selective. Elite institutions claim to be open to all but devote wide swaths of their entering classes to athletes, the offspring of donating alumni, members of minority groups and others with "hooks" that give them an edge."

"But the lack of specificity doesn't mar "Crazy U" because the book is otherwise wonderfully detailed in its reporting and because it is the story of countless parents and students across the land. Most of them, one infers, would do well to focus on state schools and avoid the siren call of gold-plated, "brand name" schools."

Then there was an article in the New York Times in 2009 about how schools tell prospective students how they are just like Hogwarts. It was Taking the Magic Out of College by By LAUREN EDELSON. Here are some things she mentioned about her visits to colleges:
"[at one school they play] a flightless version of J. K. Rowling’s Quidditch game — broomsticks and all."

"So I was surprised when many top colleges delivered the same pitch. It turns out, they’re all a little bit like Hogwarts — the school for witches and wizards in the “Harry Potter” books and movies. Or at least, that’s what the tour guides kept telling me."

"During a Harvard information session, the admissions officer compared the intramural sports competitions there to the Hogwarts House Cup. The tour guide told me that I wouldn’t be able to see the university’s huge freshman dining hall as it was closed for the day, but to just imagine Hogwarts’s Great Hall in its place."

"At Dartmouth, a tour guide ushered my group past a large, wood-paneled room filled with comfortable chairs and mentioned the Hogwarts feel it was known for. At another liberal arts college, I heard that students had voted to name four buildings on campus after the four houses in Hogwarts: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin."

"[In] Cornell’s fall 2009 quarterly magazine, [it says] that a college admissions counseling Web site had counted Cornell among the five American colleges that have the most in common with Hogwarts. Both institutions, you see, are conveniently located outside cities. The article ended: “Bring your wand and broomstick, just in case.”"

"I’m not the only one who has noticed this phenomenon. One friend told me about Boston College’s Hogwartsesque library, another of Colby’s “Harry Potter”-themed dinner party. And like me, my friends have no problem with college students across the country running around with broomsticks between their legs, trying to seize tennis balls stuffed into socks (each one dubbed a snitch) that dangle off the backs of track athletes dressed in yellow.""

In the same issue of the NY Times, there was a review of a book by the famous psychologist Carl Jung. The review was titled The Symbologist by KATHRYN HARRISON. The book by Jung is titled THE RED BOOK: Liber Novus. One of the passages from the book was was about Jung's belief in the "deep subliminal connections between individual fantasies and world events."

Mixing fantasy and reality. Sounds like what these colleges and universities are doing by comparing themselves to Hogwarts.

Now let's look at an AP article from 2007. See Colleges Seek 'Authenticity' in Hopefuls. Its says that some students are encouraged to have a typo or two in their essays to make them seem authentic. Excerpts:

"The trend seemingly should make life easier for students _ by reducing the pressure to puff up their credentials. But that's not always the case.

For some students, the challenge of presenting themselves as full, flawed people cuts against everything else they've been told about applying to college _ to show off as much as possible.

At the other extreme, when a college signals what it's looking for, students inevitably try to provide it. So you get some students trying to fake authenticity, to package themselves as unpackaged.

"There's a little bit of an arms race going on," says Goodman, who is based in Washington. "If I'm being more authentic than you are, you have to be more authentic next month to keep up with the Joneses."

Colleges say what they want is honest, reflective students. As Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford College in Pennsylvania puts it, "everybody's imperfect."

"Since that's true for all (students), those that portray that aspect of themselves are that much more authentic."

How do colleges find authenticity? They look for evidence of interests and passions across the application _ in essays, interviews, recommendations and extracurricular activities.

"What we see are the connections," said Christopher Gruber, dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson College in North Carolina. If a student claims working in student government has been a meaningful experience, it's a more credible claim if recommenders have picked on that as well.

That, in my mind, gives authenticity to an application, when you're reading things more than once," Gruber said.

But in the age of the hyper-achieving student, authenticity doesn't always come easy. Some schools, such as MIT, now specifically ask students to write about disappointment or failure. Many can only come up with a predictable and transparent answer: perfectionism.

The challenge for students is a tough one to get your mind around: If you're authentic, you feel pressure to rise above the fakers. But try too hard to do that, then you just appear to be, well, inauthentic.

Dix summarizes the logical muddle the student is in: "As soon as you ask someone to be authentic it's impossible to be authentic."

Goodman, the independent counselor who advises making a small mistake to look authentic, unapologetically tries to hit the right note of authenticity: be true enough to make the full application consistent and credible, but also give colleges what they want to hear. He compares it to a politician who has learned to give a stump speech that makes every audience feel like it's new.

And he defends the tactic with a point that several admissions deans frankly acknowledge: Colleges are guilty of playing games with authenticity, too.

"They soften their image with pictures of kids under trees, smiling in front of the library, engaging with a professor in a small group discussion," Goodman says. What's the difference between a college trying to look good to students and the reverse?"

Finally, it seems sometimes everyone writes the same essay. See Cheats 'taking internet route to university'. Excerpt:

"The study found that nearly 800 medical applications had personal statements containing phrases directly taken from three online example statements.

Ucas said 370 applications contained a statement starting with "a fascination for how the human body works".

A total of 234 included a statement relating a dramatic incident involving "burning a hole in pyjamas at age eight", and 175 candidates wrote about "an elderly or infirm grandfather".

Ucas said the number of plagiarised applications increased as the deadline for completing the forms grew closer.

Borrowed material was most likely to appear at the end of the statement or where an applicant describes why they want to study a subject."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Economists Love Fables And Parables (Or, What Is The Essence Of Economic Analysis?)

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman wrote the following in Slate magazine back in the 1990s:
“Economic theory is not a collection of dictums laid down by pompous authority figures. Mainly, it is a menagerie of thought experiments--parables, if you like--that are intended to capture the logic of economic processes in a simplified way. In the end, of course, ideas must be tested against the facts. But even to know what facts are relevant, you must play with those ideas in hypothetical settings.”

Here is the link to the article the quote is from: The Accidental Theorist. He has a brilliant example of how labor saving technology does not increase unemployment.

University of Rochester economist Steven Landsburg wrote the following in his book The Armchair Economist: Economics & Everyday Life:
“But as Aesop discovered some time ago, the details of reality can disguise essential truths that are best revealed through simple fictions. Aesop called them fables and economists call them models." (p. 34)

"Economists love fables. A fable need not be true or even realistic to have an important moral. No tortoise ever really raced against a hare, yet “Slow but steady wins the race” remains an insightful lesson.” (p. 40)

So when you see an economics professor draw PPFs on the board which show the tradeoff between houses and cars or when we draw supply and demand curves, we know that these are "simple fictions." But, by assuming, for example, that there is a society that makes only two goods and has one resource (labor, say), we can learn something important, like the The Law of Increasing Opportunity Cost.

Adam Smith used literature, too (even though his personal library contained no prose fiction). See the book Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life by Nicholas Phillipson. The book mentions that Smith thought that fiction would help develop a "science of the heart." Here is a passage from a podcast by Phillipson:

"The Theory of Moral Sentiments does not appear to be written by a shy man. It's an aggressively, as you say, authoritative, set of fascinating observations about all kinds of people. Certainly people that Smith knew. But, you'd think he'd know them pretty well, and for a shy person, it's a little bit shocking. It is. He goes far more deeply into the process of how the human personality is made, how we acquire a sense of identity, than virtually anyone else, apart from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with whom he had lot of awkward relationship--a literal relationship--that is to say, throughout his life. He is a very, very revealing person. For a shy person, that's intriguing. One of the things that's fascinating about the Theory of Moral Sentiments in that context is to look at the examples he gives of how he responds to different sorts of social pressures, social circumstances. The examples very often seem rather dated to us. The thing I found interesting was just how much he was drawing on what, in contemporary terms, were conventional examples. In literature, in 18th century moral journalism, and so forth, examples his contemporaries and students would have recognized the moment they heard them. He takes these familiar examples that by and large people know about and then presses them harder. It's the way in which this intelligence takes ordinary experience, in the ordinary world in which we live and presses these examples further and invites us to think more and rather more clearly about the implications. To us, some of the examples are a bit obscure; some of the philosophy that a person today is not as familiar with. On the other hand, there are many examples in the book of social phenomena that are timeless. Guilt, shame, pride, the pursuit of money, dignity, integrity--these are the themes that run through the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) that are timeless."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

One Significant Thing About David Brooks' New Book Might Be That It Is A Work Of Fiction

It is called The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.

Here is something he wrote in his blog recently

"Scientists and researchers in a range of spheres, from neuroscience to psychology to behavioral economics to sociology, are delving deeply into the human mind and giving us new information and insights into human nature.

In my book, “The Social Animal,” I try to harvest and celebrate a lot of their work."
He chose to write about these issues in a novel or story form, rather than as a factual analysis. Maybe he thought it would go over better that way.

Here is one article from Scientific American that suggests that human beings might be hard wired by evolution for story telling: The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn: Our love for telling tales reveals the workings of the mind. Below are some excerpts. I think it is interesting that the phrase "social animal" is used and that some of the research involves neuroscience, an issue that Brooks is interested in. Also, it mentions how advertising sometimes works better if it is told as a story (another intersection of economics and mythology).

"Popular tales do far more than entertain, however. Psychologists and neuroscientists have recently become fascinated by the human predilection for storytelling. Why does our brain seem to be wired to enjoy stories? And how do the emotional and cognitive effects of a narrative influence our beliefs and real-world decisions?

The answers to these questions seem to be rooted in our history as a social animal. We tell stories about other people and for other people. Stories help us to keep tabs on what is happening in our communities. The safe, imaginary world of a story may be a kind of training ground, where we can practice interacting with others and learn the customs and rules of society. And stories have a unique power to persuade and motivate, because they appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy."

"Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across culture and through all of known history. Anthropologists find evidence of folktales everywhere in ancient cultures, written in Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Chinese, Egyptian and Sumerian. People in societies of all types weave narratives, from oral storytellers in hunter-gatherer tribes to the millions of writers churning out books, television shows and movies. And when a characteristic behavior shows up in so many different societies, researchers pay attention: its roots may tell us something about our evolutionary past."

"Advertisers have long taken advantage of narrative persuasiveness by sprinkling likable characters or funny stories into their commercials. A 2007 study by marketing researcher Jennifer Edson Escalas of Vanderbilt University found that a test audience responded more positively to advertisements in narrative form as compared with straightforward ads that encouraged viewers to think about the arguments for a product. Similarly, Green co-authored a 2006 study that showed that labeling information as “fact” increased critical analysis, whereas labeling information as “fiction” had the opposite effect. Studies such as these suggest people accept ideas more readily when their minds are in story mode as opposed to when they are in an analytical mind-set."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"The Social Network" (Facebook) As “Das Rheingold”

See Lord of the Internet Rings by Maureen Dowd, from the NY Times, Oct. 9, 2010. She says that the movie about the creators of "Facebook" closely parallels the Wagner opera “Das Rheingold,” which is based on German and Nordic myths. She even throws in a funny line about contractors: "Never mess with your contractor, the contractor always wins," a moral lesson from the story. How's that for blending economics and mythology!

Here are two other key lessons:

"We are always fighting about social status, identity, money, power, turf, control, lust and love. We are always trying to get even, get more and climb higher. And we are always trying to cross the bridge to Valhalla."

"But the passions that drive humans stay remarkably constant, whether it’s a magic ring being forged or a magic code being written."

Here is her summary of the story:

"It didn’t take long, sitting with an enthralled audience and watching the saga of the cloistered jerk who betrayed those around him and ended up unfathomably rich and influential, to understand why it has been hailed as a masterpiece.

They had me at the mesmerizing first scene, when the repulsive nerd is mocked by a comely, slender young lady he’s trying to woo. Bitter about women, he returns to his dark lair in a crimson fury of revenge.

It unfolds with mythic sweep, telling the most compelling story of all, the one I cover every day in politics: What happens when the powerless become powerful and the powerful become powerless?

This is a drama about quarrels over riches, social hierarchy, envy, theft and the consequence of deceit — a world upended where the vassals suddenly become lords and the lords suddenly lose their magic.

The beauty who rejects the gnome at the start is furious when he turns around and betrays her, humiliating her before the world. And the giant brothers looming over the action justifiably feel they’ve provided the keys to the castle and want their reward. One is more trusting than the other, but both go berserk, feeling they’ve been swindled after entering into a legitimate business compact.

The antisocial nerd, surrounded by his army of slaving minions, has been holed up making something so revolutionary and magical that it turns him into a force that could conquer the world.

The towering brothers battle to get what they claim is their fair share of the glittering wealth that flows from the obsessive gnome’s genius designs.

The gnome, remarkably, invents a way to hurl yourself through space and meet up with somebody at the other end."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Metaphors And How The Brain Works

There was book review in the WSJ last week called Beyond Compare: Metaphor is crucial to the way the brain works. Is it also dangerous? by Eric Felten. He reviewed the book I is an Other by James Geary. This is important because metaphors are important in mythology (see below). The books says that:

"Metaphor works, most obviously, when we recognize a similarity between two different things. It is a matter of "pattern recognition," which may be more important in the working of the brain than logic. "Early human thought proceeded by metaphor," according to Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Gerald Edelman. And this imprecise sort of figurative thinking is "a major source of imagination and creativity in adult life.""

"He [Geary] is impressed with research demonstrating that, in laboratory experiments, people exposed to certain metaphors were more open to certain behaviors, an effect called "priming." "Subjects primed with words relating to cooperation," Mr. Geary says, "cooperated more on test tasks than those who were not primed.""

Now here is something about metaphors from the Wikipedia page on Joseph Campbell:

"Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (2001) — An exploration of the myths and symbols of the Judeo-Christian tradition

The first title in the series, this book compiled many of Campbell's ideas on the mythic underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In it he writes, "Mythology is often thought of as other people's religions, and religion can be defined as mis-interpreted mythology." In other words, Campbell did not read religious symbols literally as historical facts, but instead saw them as symbols or as metaphors for greater philosophical ideas. Campbell had previously discussed this idea with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth:

CAMPBELL: That would be a mistake in the reading of the symbol. That is reading the words in terms of prose instead of in terms of poetry, reading the metaphor in terms of the denotation instead of the connotation.

MOYERS: And poetry gets to the unseen reality.

: That which is beyond even the concept of reality, that which transcends all thought. The myth puts you there all the time, gives you a line to connect with that mystery which you are."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fake Authenticity

See 'Fake Authenticity' for Sale by Eric Felten. From the WSJ, 1-28-11. Below are the key passages. This reminds me a post from last December called The Myth of Authenticity Or The Story Behind Products. That was based on a BusinessWeek article about products like Bailey's Irish Cream. Here are some passages from that article

"Working the link between place of origin and product quality is the oldest trick in the brand book. It milks our thirst for mythology and plays mercilessly on our superstitious hope that special places have the power to revitalise and transform."


[some]"...brands that mingle fact and fiction in an imaginative fusion of make-believe and authenticity."
There was no Mr. Bailey who started the company. The founders just wanted to make it sound authentic and they were near the Bailey Hotel. There is a story behind the product that people buy into. It is made in Ireland, which has higher costs. But people are willing to pay extra for a good story. Same thing here in the WSJ with blue jeans. Now those excerpts:

"The main thing that distinguishes the Brooks Brothers 501s, besides their price, is that they are made in the U.S. No doubt the labor costs are higher, but I suspect the real reason for the inflated price is to create the impression that the jeans are somehow superior. This is the quirky luxury phenomenon that economists call a "Veblen good"—a product that is valued and desirable simply for being more expensive.

Making the jeans in the U.S. is also key to the marketing proposition behind the Brooks Brothers and Levi's partnership—that both brands are "staples of American menswear." Alas, Levi's doesn't have any U.S. factories anymore. It contracts with manufacturers around the world, and its list of suppliers, with one company to a line, goes on for 25 pages. The handful of factories Levi's still operates are in Poland, Turkey and South Africa. And so Levi's hired a shop in Los Angeles to cut, sew and finish the Brooks Brothers jeans. Such are the times that a "staple of American menswear" now has to outsource production even in the U.S.

The marketing materials proclaim Brooks Brothers and Levi's share a commitment to authenticity. Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer for Brooks Brothers, touts the combination: "For generations nothing has conveyed the image of iconic American style more than a pair of Levi's jeans worn with a Brooks Brothers button-down shirt." An admirable combination indeed, an honest expression of America's democratic penchant for mixing high and low—and one that has the advantage of coming about organically over the years. But once you start talking about "conveying images" you are no longer offering authenticity, but what has been delightfully dubbed "fake authenticity."

"Whenever you find something described as authentic, you know that you are already in the realm of fake authenticity," says Andrew Potter in his recent book "The Authenticity Hoax." It's not unlike the "right stuff" Tom Wolfe described: No fighter pilot who had that elusive quality would ever think to say so. "Authenticity is like authority or charisma," Mr. Potter writes. "If you have to tell people you have it, then you probably don't.""

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Economists And The Holy Grail

Ben Benanke says finding the true cause of the Great Depression is the Holy Grail of macroeconomics. The Wall Street Journal had an article called Economists' Grail: A Post-Crash Model.

A paper I wrote called Economists, Parsifal, and the Search for the Holy Grail that was published in the Journal of Economic Issues.

A longer version of the Journal of Economic Issues article

A Spanish version that was published in Colombia

Here is the abstract:

"Modern economists behave like Parsifal. He is a poor and innocent boy who becomes a knight for King Arthur, finds the Grail Castle and eventually replaces the Fisher King as the guardian of the Holy Grail. He has to widen his consciousness and travel beyond his station as a naive fool to discover himself and to reconcile the conflicting aspects of his psyche. Economists should take Parsifal as a model and expand their consciousness to remedy their cynicism and despair, and enliven their field."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Myths Can Teach Us Self Control

A new book agues that many of our personal failings are because we lack self-restraint. See The Wall Street Journal Book Review Saying Yes to Saying No: Surrounded by excess, we seem to have forgotten how to exercise self-control by MEGHAN CLYNE. The book is by Daniel Akst. Click here to go to the Amazon link.

And why do we lack self-restraint?

"... new technologies have removed the built-in delays that gave reason time to tame our baser instincts. Meanwhile, the erosion of community and hierarchy, of church and family, has robbed us of the external supports we relied on to keep ourselves in check. And while democracy and capitalism both demand and nurture self-mastery, they can also corrode it."

What is the solution? Where might we find an answer to this problem?

"Any inquiry into self-control also needs a standard, some ideal balance between severe self-denial and wretched excess. For his model, Mr. Akst chooses Odysseus from Greek mythology. Though Odysseus does occasionally yield to temptation—his interlude with Circe is one example—he mastered enough self-command to return to Ithaca. "When it counts," Mr. Akst notes, "he can resist." Readers may be less able to resist thinking of Odysseus' faithful wife, Penelope, as an even better exemplar of self-command."

Odysssues had his sailors tie him to the mast as their ship passed near the Sirens. Their song normally dangerous and would cause ships to be destroyed on the rocks. But his crew plugged their ears. So they were able to sail through without being destroyed.


Freakonomics says commitment devices are "tools that hold you to your promises, like putting a replica glob of human fat on your kitchen counter to remind you to keep to your diet, or signing a contract to have yourself fined each time you smoke a cigarette."