Economic Man’s Guilty Pleasures

By Peter Hulm

Peter Hulm is a former Guardian correspondent now living in Switzerland. An advisor to the European Graduate School on innovative journalism, he specializes in the postmodern aspects of media and advises international development organizations.

Zurich must be one of the few major cities where you can get a tram at 8.15 in the morning and see nothing (well almost nothing) but guilty faces for going to work so late.

Switzerland’s business and intellectual capital, Zurich is the obvious place for a high-powered symposium on the “current conceptual crises” in economic theory.  To judge from those faces in the tram, homo economicus and his working partner are not happy, particularly after 8 am. I did sit next to a man humming to himself and chuckling over the newspaper, but who in their right mind laughs at newspaper stories any more?

The Geneva-based Latsis Foundation and Zurich’s equivalent of the MIT, ETHZ, staged a three-day conference on 12-14 September 2012 with Nobel Prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz as its star, preceded by a one-day workshop on 11 September. The main focus of “Economics on the Move” was behavioural economics, systemic risk and economic networks. The major question posed was: “Can economics […] benefit from concepts, methods and insights developed in other disciplines, notably the natural sciences?”



Give in to temptation

The first lesson I learned is that “in work environments controlling one’s short-run desires can have a detrimental impact on subsequent productivity”. Daniel Houser of George Mason University started with a group of children at summer camp in Padua, Italy, and 1962 findings that children who resist (food) temptation show a diminished capacity to restrain themselves in other situations. You could call it the Homer Simpson syndrome (Homer was prominently displayed on the powerpoint Hauser showed his economist audience).

The kids had to fold a sheet of paper while fighting the food temptation. The under-nines performed 21% worse if they did not take the coffee and a snack bait. For over-nines it didn’t matter.


Mr Bean does science

So Houser moved on to other distractions. One group had to watch a series of one-minute videos of people passing a ball to each other and count the number of passes, with a reward for getting the right number. They were also shown a Mr Bean video as entertainment. The
“lab rats” could hear the Mr Bean video but not see what has happening. All they saw was a red button that said something like “press to see video”.

Houser confessed that he stole the idea from Family Guy, who could be seen standing by a red button that said “Do not push the button”.  The button pressers did much better on the competition. “Those resisting temptation did worse.”

So the George Mason professor suggested that companies should not stop their employees from using the Internet at work. They could remove the temptation (very difficult to do) or provide for breaks/vacations “to give people a chance to indulge in their temptations”.


The game theory of turning up late

Roberto Weber of the University of Zurich, a specialty in game theory, pointed out that current economic theory has a hard time figuring out different cultural standards affect the way people behave. For example, people in Switzerland would normally consider being late for work as definitely wrong, he said. In other countries, being late might even be considered good (presumably giving people time to get ready for you).

In the interests of full disclosure, I must reveal that I gave in to the temptation to turn up late for the opening when I passed a coffee shop on the way to the symposium. Maybe it strengthened my ability to sit down later during coffee break and work on this article.

Houser did not seem to have yet tested for the productivity of people like myself who always give in to temptation. Weber noted that the best game theorists have suggested poets can do better than logicians at working out how people behave, and Oscar Wilde noted: “I can resist everything except temptation.”  My solution is only to be tempted by things I want to do.


Sheldon Cooper rules – OK

The conference took place in the ETHZ Computer Building, which offers enough Big Bang Theory moments to make you believe Sheldon Cooper is alive and kicking in Zurich. The massive main door opens and shuts automatically at unpredictable moments when you approach it. The imposing steps up to its main floor seem to offer no alternative of a lift (elevator). I carefully put my coffee cup on an empty bank two minutes before a student with a rucksack sat down and knocked it over with his bag and didn’t even notice.

And the coffee area has a video wall about its “solar plant” on the roof, along with an electronic legend proclaiming: “Currently, the solar plant electricity production is less than the energy consumed by this video wall.”  What was I to do? Not look? I couldn’t help myself.

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