Monday, September 10, 2007

Sounds nuts, but it makes perfect sense

09 Sep 2007, ST

By Janadas Devan, ON WORDS

WHY do bars give away peanuts for free, but charge for bottled water? After all, peanuts are more expensive than water.

Well, because 'nuts and alcoholic beverages are complements. Someone who eats more nuts will demand more beer or mixed drinks... In contrast, water and alcoholic beverages are substitutes. The more water bar patrons drink, the fewer alcoholic beverages they will order'.

Another question: 'Why do female models earn so much more than male models?'

It is not because female models are intrinsically lovelier than male models. It is 'because women's fashion is a vastly bigger business than men's fashion. Women in the United States, for example, spend more than twice as much on clothing each year as men do, and the difference is even more pronounced in other countries'. Thus, beautiful women, modelling beautiful clothes, who can catch the eyes of consumers are highly prized.

Yet another puzzle: Why do women wear high heels, despite the discomfort, even harm, they cause?

That seems like a no-brainer. Tall women seem more striking. Also, 'in addition, to making women taller, high heels force the back to arch, pushing the bosom forward and the buttocks rearward, thus accentuating the female form. 'Men like an exaggerated female figure,' writes fashion historian Caroline Cox'.

So far so good. But the problem is if all women wore high heels, such advantages would cancel out. Surely, it would make more sense for all women to collectively agree not to wear high heels. 'But because any individual can gain advantage by wearing them, such an agreement would be hard to maintain.'

All of the above questions-and-answers derive almost verbatim from a wonderful new book by Cornell University economics professor Robert H. Frank, titled The Economic Naturalist: In Search Of Explanations For Everyday Enigmas. Prof Frank is the co-author with the current Federal Reserve Chairman, Mr Ben Bernanke, of a well-regarded economics textbook. Quite apart from its diverting content, The Economic Naturalist is interesting for another reason: Most of its questions as well as answers were provided by Prof Frank's students at Cornell.

Standard economics courses, the professor believes, are too theoretical. 'When students are given tests designed to probe their knowledge of basic economics six months after taking the course,' he found, 'they do not perform significantly better than others who never took an introductory course.' He hit upon a more effective method of teaching economics through - wait for this - a writing course!

Cornell has a writing programme 'inspired by research showing that one of the best ways to learn about something is to write about it'. Informed by 'the narrative theory of learning' - which holds that human beings have a universal predisposition... to impose a narrative interpretation on information and experience', as two educationists Walter Doyle and Kathy Carter put it - Prof Frank had his students write narratives explaining everyday economic phenomena.

They were asked to pose themselves the most interesting questions they could think of - 'Why did kamikaze pilots wear helmets?', for instance, or 'Why do 'almost new' used cars sell for so much less than brand-new ones?' The very act of thinking up these questions was useful, for the students had to consider many preliminary questions before arriving at the final one.

More importantly, precisely because the questions were their own - and were prompted by everyday puzzles in the real world that had struck them personally - they were motivated to take ownership of their questions. That motivation extended to their answers as well, for students with especially interesting questions felt a need to communicate their answers to others.

'Hey, do you know why A occurs? Well, it is because of B, C and D, you see. Let me tell you how it is' - and they formulated their own narrativised answers to their own questions.

They wrote because they had something to write about; they communicated because they had something which they wished to communicate. Learning how to write effectively and well became a function of wanting to communicate something specific - a thought, an answer to a precisely formulated question - effectively and well. Writing is a tool; one cannot learn to wield it without finding nails to hit.

In the process, Prof Frank's students learnt, too, how economic principles worked in the real world. His course opened his eyes 'to the remarkable effectiveness of the less-is-more approach to learning', as he put it - or, as Singapore's educationists have taken to saying, the 'teach less, learn more' approach.

I don't suppose that means Prof Frank's students won't have to, at some point in their educational careers, mug up on the more formal aspects of economic theory. But as an introductory course, his approach seems to have worked wonders.

The Economic Naturalist is one of the most delightful books in the dismal science that one can find in the market today - and it is almost wholly the product, not of a distinguished professor's ideas, but of his students'.

This is a technique of teaching writing that can be applied widely. Lecturing students endlessly on the principles of good writing does almost no good. Nobody in the history of the universe has ever produced a fine piece of writing without wanting to communicate something specific.

It would be far more productive to train students to formulate interesting questions for themselves and to write so as to communicate their findings to others. Prof Frank's approach can work in literature classes as well as GP, in history as well as economics.

'Why are whales in danger of extinction, but not chickens?' That, believe it or not, is an economics question that elicited a neat piece of writing. So, too, did the following: 'If attractive people are more intelligent than others, and if blondes are considered more attractive, why are there so many jokes about dumb blondes?'

My favourite in Prof Frank's book was this: 'Why do humanities professors, who should be more adept than most in their use of language, often write so unclearly?'

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