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