How Fine Literature Makes Us Humaner (and Betterer)

Yesterday I got into some Facebook sparring with a good friend, whose “sin” was to cite a new novel as evidence that the world was getting worse. I was pretty dismissive. Fiction, Richard??? I told him.

Well, Robert Sapolosky just put me in my place. Sapolsky, a Stanford professor (and hilarious lecturer), is one of my favorite scientists.  At some later date I’ll discuss his “A Natural History of Peace” essay that demonstrates that even male baboons can be pacified (and that’s saying a lot given their NYC-taxi-driver-on-crystal-meth temperament). Anyway, check out his Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s LA Times about how fine literary fiction can develop theory of mind, a critical component of empathy.,0,2431766.story#ixzz2otWelVB8

Is there a work of literature that had a particularly strong impact on you, especially vis a vis how you see the world through someone else’s eyes? My first thought is The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. It’s funny that I’ve picked Mayor as it is a typically tragic Hardy novel. Despite his good intentions, Michael Henchard (the main character) spirals downward. I hated the good-natured Donald Farfrae and preferred the doomed Henchard. I read the book during the summer before senior year in high school, and it gave me some inkling of how decisions in adulthood (which was fast approaching) could have life-altering, inevitable consequences.  Quite depressing stuff, but it stuck with me.

Taking Nudges

We all hate it when someone tells us what to do, even if “it’s for our own good.” But what if it is for our own good? We’ve all experienced or seen “penny wise, pound foolish” thinking and behavior. It’s easy and satisfying to save 50 cents on a can of green beans at Safeway, but it takes more effort to make sure your will is up to date and that you have enough life insurance. Humans have a stubborn habit of focusing on easy, salient, and low-stakes decisions, while overlooking the more effortful but important high-stakes decisions (like end-of-life planning and shopping for insurance). I’m definitely guilty of this. When my retirement funds needed tweaking, I told myself “You’ll make money either way.” This is clearly pound foolish thinking.

In the book Nudge, written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008), the authors want people to do things for their own good by setting up “nudges” so that default decisions are the optimal ones. They argue that every decision is nestled in “choice architecture”–essentially, how the choice is framed. The choice architecture of each decision nudges the decider into a more likely  decision outcome. One example they give is organ donation. In many countries, the default option for organ donation is to donate. In the US, the most common default is “no donation.” What if we were to change the choice architecture so that the default is “donation” and those who don’t want to donate have to opt out?  Organ donations would skyrocket and many lives would be saved.  This still gives us Americans our “precious” freedom but improves the outcome.

Nudges go to the heart of the “homo economicus” vs. behavioral economics models of economic decision making. Man as “homo economicus” rationally makes a choice in an effort to maximize utility. The more realistic behavioral economics model says humans often don’t maximize utility because their “rational” behavior is colored by cognitive biases and sub-optimal heuristics. In short, we humans often make bad decisions even when the facts are all available.

The British government has gotten into the nudging act. Here is a list of things they have done to nudge people into “better” decisions (from New York Times):

Retirement Savings

Since the government switched pension plans from opt-in to opt-out at large companies, the proportion of employees with a workplace pension has risen to 83 percent from 63 percent.

Organ Donation

The most effective question to nudge people to join the organ-donor register is: “If you needed an organ transplant, would you take one?” Scaled up to the whole population of Britain, this could add 96,000 extra organ-donor registrations a year.

Court Fines

Sending a letter to people who haven’t paid court fines gets a compliance rate of only about 5 percent. A personalized text message raises the amount they pay by more than 40 percent.

Charitable Giving

Simply asking people whether they want to leave money to charity when they are drafting their wills doubles legacy giving. First telling them that many people do leave money to charity, and asking what causes they care about, triples it.

Most of us set up nudges to help us do want we need to do but may not want to. I set up my tax appointment with my accountant as early as I can to nudge me to do my taxes ASAP. At night I put out my workout clothes to nudge me to go to the gym when I wake up. I keep the healthy food out on the counter and stow away the candy and chocolate. These nudges don’t determine my behavior, but they do make it more likely I’ll make a better decision.

Nudges have the capacity to bring about positive changes at the personal, national and international levels.

Bill Gates’ view of progress in 2013

In his year-end reflection on progress made in 2013, Bill Gates zoomed in on several positive health trends, including  response to polio outbreaks, reduction of poverty, and falling child mortality. He also mentioned an interesting website, Global Burden of Disease. I plan to check this out more carefully.

Here’s the link to Gates’ year-in-review letter:

2013: The Best Year Ever?

If I were to tell you that 2013 was the best year ever, would you believe me? Most people would think it a sick joke, maybe pornographic. What great event happened in 2013?

In this blog I will often point to “smaller” indicators that point to brighter things. In 2013, there was no Battle of Marathon, Emancipation Proclamation, or Stalingrad–no event that changed the course of history for the better. However, many seemingly unrelated trends “got better” as they have in previous years. The following article from goes into five of them: mortality, poverty, war, violent crime and discrimination.

Now if you asked people on the street “Do you think that rates of death, poverty, violence and discrimination are all trending down?” do you think they’ll agree? Most would not, I think.

One theory why is that crime is reported more and more frequently and thoroughly. And since everyone has a camera in his pocket now, many crimes and most catastrophes get filmed and photographed. We see more bad things on TV and computer screens, even as they are decreasing.