Memento mori

“Memento mori – remember you are mortal.” This is really not big news, all our lives will end. But we are most of the time too good at ignoring it.

See, I have to write about death and mortality today because I am seeing too much of it. The Brussels and Ivory Coast hate attacks, people surprised by a diagnosis of terminal illness, young top-of-the-crop talents taking their own lives, car accidents, and again, diverse health struggles lost, heroically. Always untimely. Sorry for not coming up with a more uplifting topic, but bear with me. Because first, it is Good Friday and death is for a while the theme, and second, because by the end of this blog, I will try to extract some beauty from the setting. Somewhere.

Likely, none of us knows for when God has ordered the taxi, or who the driver is. And we repress thoughts about it successfully. We live as if we live forever. We love as if our relationship will last forever and beyond. It is easy to value today as if we had lots more of them coming, and value it barely more highly than tomorrow. Economists call this intertemporal preferences, or discount rate. For example, with a low rate we don’t discount the future strongly because we are convinced we have lots left. Or we are good at waiting. There are advantages to a low personal discount rate, such as willingness to save, invest, delay gratification, to work hard today for a better tomorrow. Most education aims at instilling these values in children.

But they may not be entirely realistic. In the long run, we are all dead, as Keynes wisely observed. We live moving towards death.
Some people get the news about God’s taxi, its driver and the approximate departure years in advance. It is still shocking news. It changes one’s outlook completely, and often quite painfully. Arguably the more painfully, the less prepared one is. There is a sudden realization of the strength of the will to live. An anger with fate or a higher power, sometimes turning one’s faith bitter. And the fear that the driver may be really unpleasant. And of the radical good-byes. (Radical, but not terminal, I believe.)
Even when the taxi is announced at a point in life that one could consider rich in years, and fulfilled, more often than not it pulls the emotional rug from under people.

My lesson from observing this is to get prepared. To live life, love, friendships, faith and work knowing the road will once end. To cherish every day, to worry a little less, to breathe more deeply, to savor food more, to spend more time with your kids, to give more and hoard less, to hold on to good memories and let go of grudges, to care for one’s time wisely and abstain from things, people and situations that drag.
To take liberties and forget others’ approval. To indulge all those who don’t know this. Simply, to put things into perspective. Many annoyances lose their weight in front of the fact that our stay on earth has an expiry date.

It is still fine to work hard and invest in tomorrow. But it is wiser to plant Lutheran apple trees and take joy in the planting rather than doing it only for the harvest. The apples may well be our offspring’s to enjoy without us, which is also worth it.

The Growth Mindset for Relationships

These days, The Growth Mindset is all the rage as a recipe for success, and for raising successful children. What does it mean?

A Growth Mindset, as discovered by Stanford professor Carol Dweck, is the inner belief that intelligence and talents can grow by effort. A Growth mindset lived out in practice means attributing successes and failures to one’s actions and effort rather than one’s fixed abilities. The opposite would be a fixed mindset.  In education, it means praising children for effort rather than ability such as smartness. A child that is praised for effort will invest in effort. A child that is praised for smartness will stagnate and rely on existing abilities only.

What use is this for relationships? Well, I would like to think that a Growth mindset can be applied to about everything. For example, to the extent to which partners are well suited to each other. A fixed mindset would take this as given, a  growth mindset would believe that a couple can be well matched today and better matched tomorrow. Personal affinity can grow. So can closeness.

On a sidebar, shhh, it can be a good way to influence your spouse. Praising his or her efforts…

For now, this is all theory. I challenge economists and other empirical researchers to test the effect of a growth mindset on relationships. Let me know what you found.

 

New Year Special: 6 Things To Make The Joy Last


Do you still feel the holiday warmth? Our house for sure still breathes hot chocolate, cookies, spiced goose, gifts, generosity and good company. I love it, and would like it to linger.

Can it? Over the years I have found that what can last without boredom is the inner part, the family ties, the altruism, the generosity – non-material would be too simple an expression; family ties can be very material. But transcendental nonetheless. The consumption aspects grow stale far too quickly. I mean I lurrve chocolates. Really. But I can’t look at them right now. Not even the finest brands – which I usually crave all year.

Another phenomenon came up this holiday, and everyone, including president Obama apparently, is going gaga about Fates and Furies. I also enjoy the read. Being still in the first quarter of the book, it’s kooky and a little bit crazy, a tasty and lighter bite after Crime and Punishment, which my book club wormed through earlier.

The new book, as many of you may know, dwells on marriage. How it can be something altogether new even after a string of relationships. The book marvels, almost like a distant perplexed observer, about how marriage can last, about passion that lasts.

But it can. Yes it can.

Psychologists have found that the kind of passion that typically a new love brings can indeed last decades. In very long-term couples that report still being madly in love, MRIs find brain activity that suggests new love next to other feelings commonly found in older companionate marriages, such as trust, familiarity and a feeling of kinship.

I am actually not surprised. In fact, I am rather happy that someone else provides a good argument-ology to my anecdotal observations and doesn’t let me look like a doe eyed dreamer when I claim the same.

So what makes the joy of marriage last? There are six attitudes you need to hold on to and cultivate, according to this research. Hint, we are onto our seasonal theme again: inner values matter. Intentionality matters. Having friends matters.

So here you go:

  1. Have some money, but spend it frugally and don’t care if your partner is rich. The couple should have solid earnings (i.e. more than $125k for the household). But only little should be spent on the engagement ring and the wedding, and neither partner should care if the other is rich.
  2. Don’t care too much about looks either. People who report caring about the looks of their partner are more likely to divorce.
  3. Go to religious worship regularly. This one is now well established in the research, and no wonder. Common values bond, a network of friends with the same values supports, and the whole thing is transcendental and non-consumerist = the essence of durability.
  4. Date 3 or more years before engagement. It sure helps to know each other well, to weed out any remaining information asymmetry, and to have weathered some ups and downs together. But to be honest, this one is a bit of a trade-off with the previous habit. The religiously observant, for whom ‘time before engagement’ often means abstinence, will not be thrilled by the length of this time. Religious people tend to have shorter pre-engagement and pre-marriage times.
  5. Have lots of friends at the wedding. People with bigger (but not more expensive) weddings are less likely to divorce. This one may be a proxy for ‘have lots of friends’ generally. People with lots of friends are probably not dramatically difficult to get along with, plus they have networks for help (with kids, the house) and emotional support. The appreciation of friends for the bride and groom is essential also because its absence would mean that partners would sometimes have to choose whom to spend time with, friends or spouse.
  6. Go on honeymoon. People who went on honeymoon are significantly less likely to divorce than people who did not. This probably means, don’t be too stressed or too workaholic to have a honeymoon at all. Or, in other words, be able to rank your relationship more highly than any other gainful occupation.

In the hope that every reader’s joy may last during 2016 and beyond. Happy New Year!

 

Happy Halloween – Why A Little Thrill Is Good For your Love Life

In the early 70s (probably bored by the first oil price crisis) psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron conducted a series of experiments. First, they sent a group of men down a rickety, wobbly bridge across a scary river. On the bridge, a woman asked them to complete a projective test that involves making up narratives about ambiguous pictures. A similar group of men was sent across a safe and sturdy bridge across a small creek and presented with the same test.

Guess what. The men who experienced the scary bridge produced narratives that were much richer in sexual content than the men on the safe bridge. Also, they called the female researcher back much more often (9 out of 18 vs. 2 out of 16 men). The results were corroborated in a laboratory setting with scary shocks, where the men anticipating shocks produced more sexual narratives and reported being more attracted to a female also present.

Hm. It looks like our hearts and minds are not very good at distinguishing where flutters and butterflies come from. Scary can mean hot. The nearest potential partner becomes more attractive. Feelings get a boo – st.

What can we do with this? Well, as wobbly bridges are rare these days, I would advocate you ride a roller coaster with your love at least once a month. And take advantage of the current season: check out the neighborhood’s scariest displays. No dodging the haunted houses…

Mothers In Law Are The Best Thing For Marriage

How the emergence of grandmothers helped build monogamy

You may remember the saving moment when granny arrived on the scene, a few days after the first baby decided (your) sleep was overrated. Grannies still know how to hold and soothe a baby, and many of them cannot think of anything that makes them happier. Grannies also, conveniently, biologically need sleep a little less than younger women.

While in modern times it can feel like they save young parents’ lives, in ancient times, they actually did save lives. Families who had a grandmother around, that is, a woman who would no longer bear children but could look forward to another twenty-odd years of life, had better survival chances. Granny could look after older children while mummy had a new baby at the breast, and daddy was free to go hunting. Families whose genes supported such a lifecycle, i.e. the end of female fertility during healthy years, were favored by evolution.

A recent PNAS article explains in more detail that an increase in life histories involving grandmothering had another beneficial side effect. In societies with active grandmothers as described above, fertile males would naturally outnumber fertile females. And as mentioned previously here and here, this also means, (fertile) women had higher bargaining power than men. Men needed to compete for fertile females; the latter could choose and thereby call the shots.

In a world where women call the shots (also see here), a couple of things happen to relationships and family life. You have empirically a higher incidence of monogamous marriage, higher earnings for men and higher wealth for young parents. – All symptoms of men working hard to obtain the favors of women.

In short, the emergence of grandmas has very likely helped couples form a strong and stable bond (as desired by -the newly powerful- women.)

With this in mind, a warm thanks to all grandmothers, and well wishes to all grandparents, on the occasion of National Grandparents’ Day, 13th September!

How To Heal A Broken Heart? A 5-Step Program

“We broke up”. “It’s over.” “No more.” It can sound so easy. But the hard work sometimes begins right there. If you are done with listening to Sinead O’Connor and a good dose of mourning, and can suffer some humor again, and maybe a fresh outlook, then this article is for you.

What on earth would economists know about this, you may be asking. I must admit, a broken heart is not a topic I would have thought of by myself, but it is one that many friends bring to me these days. So I dug around in the treasure chest of empirical literature and found a few tissues helpful pointers. (Most of them come from Daniel Kahneman’s seminal article in the AER (2003)).

1 Gain perspective. It is not quite as bad as it seems. Human beings experience loss aversion. I.e. we feel a loss of a certain importance more strongly than we would feel a gain of equal importance. In plain English: your sadness without her is bigger than your happiness with her would have been. (Sounds about right?) This is how we humans work.

2 While an end with pain is better than pain without end, your perception may get this wrong. I know it’s hard to believe, but empirically, patients judge the pain of a procedure by the pain they feel at the end. A short procedure that ends with a sharp sting of pain is judged as worse than a much longer procedure with several stings of pain and two sharp stings in the middle. Look back critically: how much *pain* was there already in your time together, which your memory now tries to dismiss?

3 Good riddance indeed. You know, the opportunities you missed while dating your now lost love are likely a bigger loss than losing him now. It will not feel like it. But this is just another way our intuition plays tricks on us. Economists would coldly say ‘out of pocket expenditures are more painful than opportunity costs’. What it really means is that it hurts more to lose an actual mate than missing a good potential mate – even if objectively the latter is the bigger loss. Bottom line: rejoice; you are free to revive the opportunities you had missed in the meantime.

4 Replace the adrenaline and cortisol with endorphines. This advice is not from behavioral economists, but from doctors and experience. Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones caused by stress, such as fear or anger or sadness. Exercise can reduce their levels. Physical activity makes you less stressful. Difficult issues are easier to handle. What is more, exercise produces endorphines that create a sense of peace and pleasure. (Some people call this “runner’s high.”) To be precise, endurance sports are best for this effect: running, rowing, biking, aerobics, for example. For good balance, you may want to throw in something to wind down every other day, such as yoga or pilates.

5 Keep trying. Your past loss has no control over your future success. Meeting good people is a bit like waiting for a taxi, don’t you find? They pass by at rather random intervals. Sometimes you wait and none arrives, sometimes there are lots in parallel lines. The only thing you can predict is that the arrival and departure of one taxi is completely unrelated to the next. In nerdy terms, taxi arrivals follow a Poisson distribution. One arrival (or departure) is no predictor whatsoever of when (or how) the next one will arrive. I would venture that it’s quite similar with dates. Let go of your current pain; it has nothing to do with the next mate.

Love Advice from A Beautiful Mind – 5 Rational Dating Strategies

Rest In Peace, John Nash, hero of the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ and of many an economics student’s a-ha experiences, who died end of last month. Nash received the economics Nobel Prize in 1994 for his findings in game theory. Game theory, which studies interaction and negotiation, is one of the best fields within economics to consult for dating. I thought, within the wealth of Nash’s publications, his paper on “Two-person Cooperative Games” sounded about right for our theme; and indeed it offers a wealth of lessons from both its assumptions and conclusions. While his assumption that people are rational gave me pause, it actually turns out very useful if you wish to err on the side of caution in your strategies.

But let’s begin. Here are 5 essential lessons from Nash’s work for daters.

  1. Make sure you can talk honestly with your date about everything of importance to you. If you want to cooperate at all, if you want to negotiate a good time together and maybe make some agreements, it is indispensable that the communication is open and honest. Otherwise, your agreements will be incomplete, or shaky, i.e. unreliable.
  2. It is important that you can make agreements that work for both. It almost goes without saying, but after all I hear and see happening to many friends that are dating, I am not sure we can take this one for granted. Nash himself felt he needed to point it out as a key assumption before modeling cooperative games. You need to be able to agree on something, so that both of you understand what is meant by the agreement, and understand it in the same way. You also need to able to comply with and fulfil any agreements made. Given that we are talking dating, these agreements can range from the light (like, agreeing on a time to meet to go to the cinema) to the serious (agreeing to go exclusive, or, eventually, marry…). The ability to fulfil agreements implies:
  3. None of you should have outside commitments that interfere with the relationship. Again, it should go without saying, but I am writing up some rational strategies here, based on a level-headed rational economist’s work. And from that perspective, anything can happen. Better check that your date does not come with baggage none of you is able to deal with. Neither should you. Incompatible outside commitments include, for example: being married, having another exclusive dating relationship, or having existing financial or time commitments that leave no money or no time worth mentioning for a new relationship.
  4. Don’t take altruism for granted. It is safer to assume that your counterpart will go as far as he/she can without losing you. Better assume this first and assess any degree of altruism well before agreeing to, like, go steady. (Hint: you want a lot of altruism, while being mindful that all that looks too good to be true probably is.)
  5. You may need an accountability framework. It is great if you can just blindly trust yourself and each other. But this is neither granted nor, possibly, as frequent as we’d like it to be. Nash suggests ‘something like an umpire’ to enforce agreements. Now, as this can prove complicated in dating, what about the following proxies: (i) a joint network of friends that knows or gets to know both of you well, and with whom you are willing to share where you stand dating wise; and (ii) for the younger or the more conservative among us: parents who are kept abreast of essential agreements. The accountability thing is naturally a small circle affair; I don’t advise publishing on facebook. It also should not be something that locks you into a relationship, but rather a trusted group that is in the know but otherwise neutral.

If this sounds too businesslike for love, ask yourself when you last held someone to these standards? If anything, your dating life deserves much more.

All this with the grain of salt that we are sometimes too irrational to apply the rationally obvious. But try and let me know how it goes!

 

‘Darling, I don’t have time’. – Dating in the times of Piketty , part III

I have already speculated about the trends that Thomas Piketty is foreseeing, here and here. More precisely, about their impact on our private and love lives.
It does not look good.
But several of the things I am gloomily musing will come from the inequality gap opening will unfold gradually, slowly. They will probably take a bit of time to manifest themselves globally.

Here’s a third impact that we are already feeling.

Couples today spend an average of two and a half hours a day together, including on weekends, according to a time use survey from the UK. And what do we do when we’re alone with our loved ones? Watch TV (one third of all the time spent together), eat (30 minutes) and do housework together (24 minutes). Ouch. We don’t have time to date. If we have a relationship, we don’t have time for it. And we fill the time together with must do-s or a complete intellectual switch-off (TV).

What does that have to do with Piketty’s findings. Let’s see.
The global wage bill is shrinking. This is one result of capital harvesting more of the available growth returns than labor. It means people need to work more to make ends meet. The self employed need more hours, part timers need to go full time, potential retirees need to keep working. What about those on a fixed salary, where hours’ relationship to salary is not straightforward?

Here a second time trend is relevant and interacts with Piketty’s predictions. Unionization is decreasing. Employers are gaining in relative power. They have an incentive to widen working hours beyond what is contractually agreed. And some people feel obliged to do this on their own, setting new (non-contractual) standards for all. This latter one is already happening and has been happening for a while, across the economy. Do you know anyone that works the 45 hours stated in their contract? I struggle to think of a single one. Everyone works more. It has been so ingrained in the culture that it makes people smile if you think aloud about it. Your commuting time is your leisure, even if you are on a device for work. Should it be?

Our hope is that the millenials will take the role of unions and negotiate for good working hours. Arianna’s Thrive movement is also promising.

For the time being though, I am just watching and wondering.

About that Pay Gap….The Dark Side

I wrote previously about the gender pay gap, the difference of women’s and men’s earnings, here.

That’s enough of a dark side you may think. But trust me, it gets darker.

Admittedly, the current discussion of That Pay Gap in the media is taking place largely among fairly powerful women; women who earn well enough to sustain themselves and more. The headline grabbing lawsuits on that matter usually concern women in, or just one step away from, executive leadership in profitable corporations.

What does the situation look like at the margin of empowerment, and, at the margin of poverty? To start, let’s think about a fundamental difference between men and women that is a bit uncomfortable to consider: women, also very poor women, always have a currency to pay in. There is always one thing they can offer and it’s usually worth money. Do you see where I am going? There is a huge market out there for female straight sex, and such a market does not exist for male straight sex. I am not saying this is an advantage – right now in the world it does not play out as one.

This paper by Damien de Walque and others shows that conditional cash transfers can get men and women to lead healthier sex lives and reduce their risk of contracting HIV substantially. Once the cash transfer is taken away, the behavior change persists among men but not among women.

Ouch.

Here is what happens: when the money is lacking, women need to pay with sex. Riskier sex pays better. This is not a lifestyle choice; it is a survival necessity. Men cannot do this, on the one hand; and do not need to do it on the other: they likely earn more than women anyway.

At the margin of empowerment, the gender pay gap forces women to be more available for sex.

Three Theories About That Pay Gap

It is no news. Women, the world over, earn less than men. Some of the famous gender pay gap is due to women’s professional choices, and to baby breaks. But this paper by Gillian Paull shows that, even when you carefully account for baby breaks, education and sector (and more), there still is a gap left.

What. The heck. Is That Gap??

Theory Number 1

Women don’t negotiate – at all, or don’t negotiate well. Employers know this, and rationally, take advantage of it by paying less than they would to a man (who can be expected to negotiate). A lot of popular books look into this, and its potential remedies, like Know Your Value by Mika.

I am sure this explains part of it, but not all. How about

Theory Number 2

Women are not allowed to signal success. This one is my favorite, and the one of which I seem to have most anecdotal evidence. Time and again I see men recount their successes. Not offensively so, but certainly confidently, and always attributing success to their own achievements. Never, really never, have I seen a man in the workplace attribute his success to luck or fate. When women signal their own success, it provokes smirks, mockery, or criticism. Cohorts of middle management feel entitled if not right-out divinely called to chip away at that evil woman’s assertiveness.

The women in my sample have ended up with one of three results: (i) They stop signaling. Their assertiveness leaves them never to return, and they go on producing successes no one ever attributes to them. This is the most frequent outcome, which naturally also results in lower wages. (ii) They withdraw and leave jobs until they find an environment that is fairer in its assessment, or they create it themselves in a start-up. This is somewhat rarer and can take a long time. And the rarest outcome is that (iii) women stay where they are, put their chin up and face the criticism right on. Those that are successful with it sometimes have an older male supportive colleague that negotiates their fate like an old-testament dad would the future of his daughter.

Some women have looked through the dynamics of i-iii and made a conscious effort to stay at iii. Several of them are very senior.

Theory Number 3

Women do not know their value. And they don’t know that they don’t know it. The most striking example I read about is this one. In the world of fashion and fast cars, models and women with similar exceptional beauty attend VIP parties without charging for their presence, while the VIP ‘friend’ that brokered their attendance gets a juicy commission.

Before I write myself into a complete rage, let’s spend that energy on a solution.

# 1 Remedy

Wake up, and sisterize. What about the following strategy, ladies: (i) realize that in many situations you are not paid (enough) when you should be, (ii) act in solidarity with each other and enlist as many friends as possible when making your claim for higher pay. The good old fashioned trade unions have been shown to work some way towards reducing gender pay gaps. But even without formal unionization, an informal united front of women (let’s call it sisterization) that share information and claim payment at value should go a long way.

This takes the humble realization that we are replaceable. Whenever we are not, we can negotiate as monopolists. But when we are, it takes a sisterhood.