Friday, July 24, 2009

Lost River Preparation: Read this tonight to help you get to sleep

As Sigberto and KOA and even yours truly note, racing can sometimes feel like a compulsion rather than a pleasure. So why do we keep doing it?

An answer to this question, if there is any beyond male obsessive/compulsiveness, can be found in events which transpired at an Israeli daycare center, described by Dan Arielly in his book, Predictably Irrational.

It started with an attempt to change behavior. The daycare center wanted parents to be more prompt picking up their children. Initially, they posted a personal plea from the director. Parents responded, became slightly more prompt.

Unsatisfied with the improvement, the center took more draconian action. They announced tardy parents would have to pay a fee, but parents did not respond to the monetary incentive. To be more precise, parents responded in exactly the opposite way that the daycare center--and standard economic theory--predicted: parents began showing up later than ever.

Feeling frustrated, the daycare owner relented and stopped charging a late fee, but at this point parents continued showing up late, and did not revert to their earlier (relatively) prompt behavior.

How to explain this apparent irrational behavior?

According to Arielly, their are two general modes of all human transaction: the social and the economic. Social transactions, like those that occur between friends and family members, are built on social capital. After your grandmother cooks a lovely Thanksgiving dinner, you don't hand her a fifty and head on your way. Neither do you give your waitress at Denny's a hug and praise her for making a wonderful tuna melt and leave without paying. To do either of these things would be to ignore the distinction between social and economic exchanges.

Parents responded to the plea from the daycare center because it was a transaction in the social realm. When the center announced late fees, however, the realm switched from the social to the economic. Parents began viewing being late merely as a loss of cash rather than an offense committed against a friend.

Amateur racing, for the most part, exists entirely in the social realm (every cyclist I know is poor--and probably because they cycle).

You can't understand bike racing rationally, through economics.

Winning in amateur cycling means winning social capital and social capital is built on a society, a group of people with standards and values, and of course the beauty of amateur cycling is this necessary social quality to it. Despite the sponsors on our jerseys and the primes and cash prizes, we're not in this for the cash (our sponsors probably aren't either, bless them).

But if we are in this for social reasons, who are we in this for (yeah, yeah, dangling preposition)?

I was going to say, like Lance, "I'm not in this for them [the haters]." Flash to scenes of cancer patients. Unlike Lance, I'm not in this for cancer patients, although I have lost a few loved ones to cancer, and my cousin, like Lance, is a survivor of testicular cancer. My cousin doesn't give a shit if I'm on my bike, and neither does any other cancer survivor or unfortunate soul.

Cycling's a communal thing, something to be done necessarily in a club and with others. Maybe that's why I'm drawn back into it, and why I can't stop thinking about it, doing it, trying to understand it--or trying to write about it.

1 comment:

qualia said...

I heard this guy on the radio the other day, but first read about that study in a book by a GMU prof. years ago.

Now that Levitt has a bestseller and an NYT column and Schiller has called another bubble, behavioral econ is cool, and lots of this stuff is fascinating. But some of it is a real yawn. Really... it is only news to the autistic collection of math freaks within econ itself that:

social approval and disapproval provide a separate, and sometimes opposing, incentive structure to cold hard cash;
that you can't buy happiness;
that people highly discount future gains;
that people do not always maximize utility;
that they refuse "unfair" trades where everyone comes out better off just to send a message.

Economists need an explanation for why Julia Roberts is insulted when Richard Gere pays for her services in Pretty Woman. Then they get all excited when they figure it out. Newsflash! Economists locate 2nd incentive system: social capital! Ms. Roberts' character is rewarded on the one system (monetary) but thereby docked on the other (prostitutes, for some arbitrary reason, have low social standing). Given the relative weighting of the two systems, she registers a net loss. Hooray!

Good for you, Martian anthropologists. None of us Earthlings needed that explanation in the first place.

Governments can work the social capital thing too: that's how China gets things done. But here, traditional economists have won the day: with few exceptions, we only use monetary incentives to motivate the citizenry.