Tag: trust

On a trillion dollar platinum coin

Jan 19

This week I also got a question about the “trillion dollar platinum coin.” Sadly, we did not have space to put it in the WSJ column, so here it is:

Hi Dan,

Yet another random person on the internet who finds your research interesting and illuminating.

The current bit of economics controversy in the news left me wondering about your take on the trillion dollar platinum coin as a means for avoiding a US default via the debt ceiling. There’s debate on the legality, but there’s also the broader political question of whether or not it’s a “good idea” — which depends on what principles you work from to measure how “good” a consequence is. This leaves me wondering about YOUR expectation about the possible outcomes of such a move.

—abb3w

In my mind, the real issue here is trust. After all, with the amount of debt that the US has right now, we are at the hand of our creditors. If one day they decided to knock on our proverbial door and ask for their money back, we would be in deep trouble. From this perspective, the question is whether such a “trillion dollar platinum coin” would make us appear more trustworthy (as a creative nation that comes up with innovative solutions), or less trustworthy (as a nation that has to resort to shady maneuvers to manage its internal debates). If I had to bet, I would guess that other countries would take the less favorable interpretation of such a move. Moreover, as we know, ones’ initial perspective colors the interpretation of new data, and given the economic hernia that the US has created or contributed to, my guess is that trust in our financial system is not something to write home about.

With all of this in mind, I would try to make the next financial deal one that improves the way that the world looks at our financial health.

(Plus, you can buy a trillion dollar platinum coin for $19.95 on ebay)

NYT Year In Ideas

Dec 15

The New York Times Magazine publishes once a year the “years in ideas.”

This is the third year in a row that they are picking one of my papers, which is very nice of them.

It is also particularity nice of them that this year they picked two papers I am a part of.

One of the papers they picked this year is: The Counterfeit Self

Her is their report:
Wearing imitation designer clothing or accessories can fool others — but no matter how convincing the knockoff, you never, of course, fool yourself. It’s a small but undeniable act of duplicity. Which led a trio of researchers to suspect that wearing counterfeits might quietly take a psychological toll on the wearer.

To test their hunch, the psychologists Francesca Gino, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely asked two groups of young women to wear sunglasses taken from a box labeled either “authentic” or “counterfeit.” (In truth, all the eyewear was authentic, donated by a brand-name designer interested in curtailing counterfeiting.) Then the researchers put the participants in situations in which it was both easy and tempting to cheat.

In one situation, which was ostensibly part of a product evaluation, the women wore the shades while answering a set of very simple math problems — under heavy time pressure.

Afterward, given ample time to check their work, they reported how many problems they were able to answer correctly. They had been told they’d be paid for each answer they reported getting right, thus creating an incentive to inflate their scores. Unbeknown to the participants, the researchers knew each person’s actual score. Math performance was the same for the two groups — but whereas 30 percent of those in the “authentic” condition inflated their scores, a whopping 71 percent of the counterfeit-wearing participants did so.
Why did this happen? As Gino puts it, “When one feels like a fake, he or she is likely to behave like a fake.” It was notable that the participants were oblivious to this and other similar effects the researchers discovered: the psychological costs of cheap knockoffs are hidden. The study is currently in press at the journal Psychological Science.

Could other types of fakery also lead to ethical lapses? “It’s a fascinating research question,” says Gino, who studies organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina. “There are lots of situations on the job where we’re not true to ourselves, and we might not realize there might be unintended consequences.”

The second paper they picked this year is: The Drunken Ultimatum

Her is their report:

The so-called ultimatum game contains a world of psychological and economic mysteries. In a laboratory setting, one person is given an allotment of money (say, $100) and instructed to offer a second person a portion. If the second player says yes to the offer, both keep the cash. If the second player says no, both walk away with nothing.

The rational move in any single game is for the second person to take whatever is offered. (It’s more than he came in with.) But in fact, most people reject offers of less than 30 percent of the total, punishing offers they perceive as unfair. Why?

The academic debate boils down to two competing explanations. On one hand, players might be strategically suppressing their self-interest, turning down cash now in the hope that if there are future games, the “proposer” will make better offers. On the other hand, players might simply be lashing out in anger.

The researchers Carey Morewedge and Tamar Krishnamurti, of Carnegie Mellon University, and Dan Ariely, of Duke, recently tested the competing explanations — by exploring how drunken people played the game.

As described in a working paper now under peer review, Morewedge and Krishnamurti took a “data truck” to a strip of bars on the South Side of Pittsburgh (where participants were “often at a level of intoxication that is greater than is ethical to induce”) and also did controlled testing, in labs, of people randomly selected to get drunk.
The scholars were interested in drunkenness because intoxication, as other social-science experiments have shown, doesn’t fuzz up judgment so much as cause the drinker to overly focus on the most prominent cue in his environment. If the long-term-strategy hypothesis were true, drunken players would be more inclined to accept any amount of cash. (Money on the table generates more-visceral responses than long-term goals do.) If the anger/revenge theory were true, however, drunken players would become less likely to accept low offers: raw anger would trump money-lust.

In both setups, drunken players were less likely than their sober peers to accept offers of less than 50 percent of the total. The finding suggests, the authors said, that the principal impulse driving subjects was a wish for revenge.

Lets see if this trend continues….

Are We More Rational Than Our Fellow Animals?

Aug 20

We usually accept without argument the notion that man is at the top of the animal hierarchy. After all, only mammals have a neocortex – the most recently evolved part of the brain and the center of higher mental functions – and ours is the most advanced variation, so it makes sense that we’d be at a higher stage of development.

But is this true? Does the neocortex always make us more rational than other animals?

Most of the time, the answer is yes. For instance, it’s thanks to our neocortex that we are able to plan for the future, something that animals have a hard time doing. (They are even worse at saving than we are!)

Still, this isn’t always the case, as the following chimpanzee experiment suggests. In “Chimpanzees are rational maximizers in an ultimatum game,” researchers Keith Jensen, Josep Call, and Michael Tomasello looked into how chimps fare at one of the classic tests of human rationality, the ultimatum game.

In the human version of this game, a “proposer” is handed some money, say $10, and must suggest a division of the sum for himself and another participant. This other person, the “responder,” can then either accept or reject the offer. If he chooses to accept the division, both participants receive their share; if he opts to reject it, neither gets compensated.

Now, if we were to go by the traditional economic model of man as a self-interested rational maximizer, we would suppose that the proposers would always suggest a division that maximized his self-interest (an $9/$1 division) and that the responders would always accept a nonzero offer ($1 may not be $9, but it’s still better than nothing).

Except, this is not what happens. Research has shown that we human beings not only consider how best to maximize our compensation, but we also factor in such notions as cooperation and fairness when we make our decisions. For example, responders in the ultimatum game will often reject a monetary division that is particularly unfair for them (such as a $8/$2 division) – even when this comes at their own cost (they lose the $2, after all). This behavior is of course wonderfully human — but it is not part of the standard rational model.

Chimpanzees, however, go about the ultimatum game (which involves divisions of raisins in their case) without giving fairness any thought. In this experiment, the researchers found that the chimp responders tended to accept any nonzero offer, however unfair. And conversely, the chimp proposers rarely suggested a fair division, choosing instead to maximize their own share.

In this case, then, animals are more rational than we are. Whereas we’re willing to lose a couple bucks so that the other guy gets punished for his inequitable offer, chimps only act according to what will guarantee them the most raisons.

This curious turning-of-tables suggests that we might want to think differently about the neocortex. Overall, we’re better off having it, as without our sense of right and wrong, we would lack empathy and the ability to reinforce societal rules. Yet, in certain contexts, the neocortex can cause us not to maximize our self-interest. Evolution, then, is a mixed blessing: it makes us better some things, and worse at others.

Why Bankers Would Rather Work for $0.00 Than $500K

Apr 17

Sometimes asking someone to do something for nothing is more powerful than paying them.

In a research paper entitled “Effort for Payment: A Tale of Two Markets,” James Heyman and I that people are willing to help move a couch or perform an experiment just by being asked. Moreover, these individuals feel good about their “gift”. Most interestingly, the experiments show that contrary to standard economic theory, paying a small incremental incentive does not increase effort, but actually lowers it — because meager compensation profanes the gift effect and disincents the giver.

Bringing money into the relationship takes the giver’s work out of “gift” market, and brings it into the “pay-for-effort” market. When it was done for nothing, the protagonist was a “donor.” When small money was on the table, he or she became an underpaid employee. The easiest way to think about this is to imagine if at the end of Thanksgiving dinner you asked your mother-in-law how much you owed her for cooking such a wonderful meal. Would that increase or decrease her effort the next time you came by? (Assuming, of course, she would still invite back you after such an insult.)

In this financial crisis, there has been much discussion about banker’s pay. We think that if President Obama had asked for a group of bankers to take $0, and paid expenses only, it would have brought the discussion back into the gift economy. $500,000 is just low enough to bruise the banker’s egos (after all, they got used to much higher salaries for a long time, higher salaries we can be pretty certain they feel they deserved), but $0 is something to be proud of! In fact, paying these CEOs nothing might remind them about the responsibility they have to the banks they are leading and to the rest of society. The CEO of AIG Ed Liddy is already only taking a one-dollar salary and donating his time to this worthy effort. But his gift is isolated, a drop in the bucket — not part of an overall “corps” of senior financial executives acting in unison to help fix the mess.

Would the best people be willing to work for free? Not all capable bankers could afford it, but many could. We think there would be many willing to pitch in…if asked in the right way. After all, this gift idea was at the core of John F. Kennedy’s brilliant notion, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” By eliminating pay altogether, these leaders would be giving the nation the donation of their time and skill, improving their level of motivation. Instead of accusing them of being greedy and self interested, people could see them as important actors playing key roles in the stability of our entire economy. This in turn would probably encourage more bankers to see the power of a collective gift and the joy they could feel in donating something so important.

As it stands now, the many good people who are trying to improve things for little or no pay are isolated, their effort drowned out by the outrage over bonuses and salaries. Hence we have the Congress and President involved in legislating the level of executive compensation all the way down to its structure and timing! Congress should not be mired in the details of compensation design. Not only are they bad at it, but the beleaguered public — whose median household income is less than 1/10th of $500,000 — is watching the pay ping pong with collective disgust. The knee-jerk reaction to create a confiscatory 90% tax on the AIG bonuses makes the conservatives among us think we are killing capitalism itself.

When individuals commit acts of personal generosity, it sparks a gift culture that replenishes a store of trust — a resource as multiplicative as any Keynesian monetary policy. This sharing is not done in a communist, carving-up-the-spoils manner, but rather in the tradition of bravery and sacrifice for our collective benefit. When those in power act within a gift culture guided by a spirit of generosity for common cause, it creates a tangible trust asset that supports the flow of credit, money, and markets. By focusing on limiting executive pay, President Obama did the political equivalent of asking his mother-in-law how much he owed her for Thanksgiving dinner — and moved the discussion away from social responsibility, and into the pay-for-effort market, where the negotiations for spoils now dominate the discourse.

We think our bold young President has to improve his request. A gift culture — created at the top — will benefit all of us; and, strangely, will also help strengthen the rapacious markets where self-interest reigns supreme. The good news is, it’s not too late.

By John Sviokla and Dan Ariely

   

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