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.

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!


Germany: Flirt like Champions

3 Teutonic Techniques To Consider

The soccer championships were a joy to behold. Well, mostly. And most media outlets agreed that the right team won in the end, pointing out new and old reasons that might have made the German Mannschaft strong. The media’s love affair with Germany is not yet over; suddenly the country is supposed to be good at about anything. So what about dating?

A solid tradition of romanticism not withstanding, Germans aren’t exactly famous as lovers. One reason may be that they don’t really flirt. It may feel too light weight in a country where every puddle has depth. So this is what Germans do when approaching a relationship. (Caution, the claims of this entry are based on a selected sample of barely 30, including interviewed friends and personal anecdotes. My own passport confirms the qualification to comment, by the way.)

  1. Be an open book. As the Spiegel once eloquently analyzed, Germans signal interest by opening up about themselves, their experiences and views – the more personal the better. This can happen pretty fast, also in completely sober persons, and strike the uninitiated as emotionally incontinent. But Your Economist approves. It cleans up the information asymmetry early on and lets you know what you are in for.
  2. Expect mutuality, and forget double standards. If you want to date a German, you need to e.g. let go a little of the ‘man pursues, woman responds’ notion. German men will expect women to call or write about as regularly as they do, or otherwise assume there is no interest. Your Economist approves. Mutuality makes for a well negotiated pareto optimum.
  3. Prefer action over words. When the time is right to initiate the relationship, most cultures use some form of declaration, i.e. one side or both put their feelings into words. This is true for most Latin cultures, both of the Americas and even Scandinavia if you believe Knausgaard. But not Germany. Most Germans reveal their feelings as (subtle) actions first.  – From the Economist’s perspective, this is a double-edged sword. It is efficient, for sure. But actions can carry many meanings and thus be misunderstood, probably to a higher extent than language. The more transparent contract may be the one with words.

Bottom line, these three principles will help you score a few goals. But improvement is always possible.

Who tells the truth, husbands or wives?

Scientists who collect survey data talk to a lot of people and ask them a lot of questions. That includes a lot of husbands and wives. Sometimes they ask the same question to both, but in separate meetings. For example about what the couple own, how they spend their time, how many kids they have and how many more they want.

What is reassuring is that husbands and wives give mostly the same answers. For nearly any question, 100% of husbands and wives agree on what is going on (says some recent research on this).

On some questions however, husbands and wives disagree more. Some of these are on opinions, like ‘how big do you want your family to be?’ It’s quite possible that couples do not agree. Or maybe they don’t talk much about it. But others are about clear facts, as in: do you use contraception? In the cited research, men tended to paint a more socially popular picture than their wives, on questions related to family planning and sexual health.

Hm. Maybe due to context. Or maybe not.

What can be done? Well, the effect was actually more marked in areas where women had lower status relative to men. Areas with more equity between men and women showed more consistency.

What are good things to talk about on a first date?

Dear Economist,
it’s all very well identifying women you could be interested in. The problem is when you managed to get to the first step, i.e. the first date. What to do next? What are good things to talk about on a first date?
Sincerely, Nithin

Dear Nithin,excellent question. What you want are themes that give you valuable information about your date, but are not boring or scare her away. What does that mean? You actually want to ask questions that are easy maybe even fun to answer, yet relevant and substantial.

Economists have called this ‘ascertaining full information about easily researchable traits’. In a 1970 paper in the American Economic Review, Dale Mortensen suggested that relationship decisions are best taken by concentrating efforts on ‘easily researchable traits’, like education, intelligence, physical appearance, and family background. It’s better to spend much dating dialogue on these topics, rather than fuzzier ones, like for example ambition, resilience under pressure and potential for growth. How do you want to pin these down anyway?

Whatever you ask, finding out things is difficult (economists would say ‘costly’) so you need to think about where to spend your effort. You don’t want to spend it on stuff that’s a pain to see clearly about. In other words, stick to the easy and transparent stuff, stay away from the murky. If not you’ll spend much time and effort and be none the wiser.

Best of luck, and do check back in.

Dr De Bergerac