The greatest challenge is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

Monday, January 30, 2012

This column will change your life

The artful economist

Recently, I made the foolish error of telling an art collector friend that often, in art galleries, I feel suffocatingly bored, as if the air were being extracted and replaced with boringness. She was sufficiently appalled that I decided not to add that this sometimes happens at the theatre, too. Next time anyone objects to my philistinism, though, I'll refer them to an extraordinary new book, Discover Your Inner Economist, by the US academic Tyler Cowen, a guide to applying the principles of economics to culture, relationships, parenting and more. At a museum, Cowen notes reassuringly, my attention is a scarce resource, which the institution - not being mainly funded by the admission price - isn't incentivised to exploit wisely. I, however, can treat myself with more respect. At galleries, Cowen suggests, pretend you're a thief deciding what to steal. Childish though that sounds, this works, not least because it panders to our interest in ourselves. If you're bored, you're already self-absorbed; the trick is to put self-absorption into the service of enjoying art.
There's nothing new about thinking like an economist in personal matters. If you've ever read a book on procrastination, you'll have been told to reward yourself for getting things done. Machiavellian books on dating urge you to exploit the link between scarcity and value by pretending to be busier than you are, not calling him back for at least three days, and so on. All wrong, says Cowen. The artful approach is to figure out when treating life like a market really works, because frequently it doesn't.

Rewards can backfire. Cowen's stepdaughter was washing up less frequently than he wanted, so he reached for the classic last resort of parenting, and offered to pay her. "For three or four nights, she did it perfectly," he told me, "but it then dropped to zero, and after that it was hard to get back even to the level it was at before." Feeling that you ought to do the dishes is a powerful internal motivation, even if it motivates you only to occasional action. But establishing a market relationship erodes that: "The parent becomes a boss, rather than the object of deserved loyalty." (You may also suspect Dad is using you as an experiment for a forthcoming book.)

Or take dating: adopting a pure strategy of "playing hard to get" won't work, because - as your date will doubtless be fascinated to hear you explain - it fails to satisfy a "separating equilibrium". In other words, anyone can do it, so it doesn't distinguish you attractively from everyone else. "I've played 'hard to get' with Salma Hayek for years," he writes. "Yet this reticence has paid few dividends, not even a courtesy email or party invitation. If she responds, I am ready to 'back off', but with her I am going nowhere fast."
Cowen's perspective leads him to some fascinating conclusions. The book explains why countries with large gaps between rich and poor have the best restaurants; why you shouldn't give money to beggars who demand it, but to the destitute who are expecting it the least; and why, when buying a gift for a spouse, it can be wise specifically to choose something you'd never want yourself. Actually, the next time I visit an art gallery, maybe I'll just take his book.