What Can Economics Teach Us About Gift-Giving?

santa-12-20-11-lgFrom George Loewenstein and Cass Sunstein writing at The New Republic:

Behavioral research on perspective-taking provides some explanations for why gift-buying is often such a waste of money. When people try to predict how another person will respond to a certain situation, they begin by imagining how they themselves would respond, and then they make adjustments for differences between themselves and the other person. At both stages, they make big mistakes….

Luckily, behavioral economics provides some straightforward lessons for gift-givers. Don’t assume that other people like what you like. Beware of projecting your current mood onto your purchasing decisions. Avoid unrealistic optimism: People probably won’t react as enthusiastically as you expect. Focus on gifts that will get frequent use, rather than immediate applause, only to disappear into holiday-season purgatory. And unless you are dealing with people very close to you, don’t assume that the gift will matter a whole lot. You’ll probably remember it better than they will.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: The Meals We Eat

Photo credit: Jer Thorpe

Across the country yesterday, Americans engaged in a massive coordination game. Most people in the US took the opportunity to spend time with friends and family during the one of the busiest travel periods of the year. Expectations about the meal varied from the tried and true (Turkey, pumpkin pie) to the exotic, but most Thanksgiving dinners were high calorie affairs in the late afternoon or evening. This break from the usual three meals a day pattern offers a chance to ask: how long has the breakfast-lunch-dinner schedule been the norm?

Not that long, as it turns out. Eating patterns in history have often been shaped by three factors: politics, economics and religion. Take breakfast, for example. Food historian Caroline Yeldham reports it was not always seen as the most important meal of the day:

“The Romans believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day,” she says. “They were obsessed with digestion and eating more than one meal was considered a form of gluttony. This thinking impacted on the way people ate for a very long time.”

Certain religions are known for dictating what you can and cannot eat, but they also influence the time of day that meals are consumed:

In the Middle Ages monastic life largely shaped when people ate, says food historian Ivan Day. Nothing could be eaten before morning Mass and meat could only be eaten for half the days of the year. It’s thought the word breakfast entered the English language during this time and literally meant “break the night’s fast”.

Religious ritual also gave us the full English breakfast. On Collop Monday, the day before Shrove Tuesday, people had to use up meat before the start of Lent. Much of that meat was pork and bacon as pigs were kept by many people. The meat was often eaten with eggs, which also had to be used up, and the precursor of the full English breakfast was born.

Economically speaking, eating patterns often “trickle down” from the wealthy to the poorer classes:

In about the 17th Century it is believed that all social classes started eating breakfast, according to chef Clarissa Dickson Wright. After the restoration of Charles II, coffee, tea and dishes like scrambled eggs started to appear on the tables of the wealthy. By the late 1740s, breakfast rooms also started appearing in the homes of the rich.

Industrialization also shaped the way we think of midday eating:

Middle and lower class eating patterns were defined by working hours. Many were working long hours in factories and to sustain them a noon-time meal was essential….

The ritual of taking lunch became ingrained in the daily routine. In the 19th Century chop houses opened in cities and office workers were given one hour for lunch. But as war broke out in 1939 and rationing took hold, the lunch was forced to evolve. Work-based canteens became the most economical way to feed the masses. It was this model that was adopted by schools after the war.

The last meal of the day, dinner, has a longer pedigree but has been powerfully influenced by two more recent innovations: electric lighting (which made it possible to eat later) and television (which popularized cooking shows). There is more at the BBC, from which the quotes above are taken.

Patterns of daily life that we take for granted are often shaped by much larger factors–more evidence for a politics of everyday life.

Wednesday Nerd Fun: The Sounds of America

DARE’s Linguistic Map of the US

The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is a project initiated almost 50 years ago to document “words, phrases, and pronunciations that vary from one place to another place across the United States.” The map at the right gives a sense of how much variation field interviewers found between 1965 and 1970. Beginning with those interviews DARE has grown to five volumes, the last of which is now available.

One technique that the interviewers used to record regional dialects was a story called “Arthur the Rat.” The story’s main purpose was to include almost all of the sounds of American English when read aloud. A sample recording includes speakers from Brooklyn, Boston, Memphis, and rural areas across the country. Over 800 recordings were made, all of which have been digitized in a collection at the University of Wisonsin.

The DARE website also includes features such as quizzes to test your knowledge of American English and a word of the month. Did you know google dates back to 1859? Happy 4th of July!

Why Are Hot Dogs So Inexpensive?

Photo credit: Carpe Durham

Memorial Day is the unofficial start of grilling season. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (yes, it exists), Americans will consume about 7 billion hot dogs between now and Labor Day–that’s about 818 per second! The estimated cost of all this is about $1.7 billion, or less than 25 cents per serving.

A large part of this low price is probably due to the quality of the ingredients, but I want to focus on hot dogs purchased from vendors rather than at supermarkets. Street corner hot dog stands have been cropping up around Durham for the last several weeks, and while I haven’t purchased from any, I get the impression that they are quite inexpensive.

A nice stylized example for us to consider comes from a new book entitled X and the City: Modeling Aspects of Urban Life by John Adam. In chapter 4, “Eating in the City,” Adam models how much of a hot dog is meat (which we have already seen is very inexpensive) versus bun:

Consider a cylindrical wiener of length L and radius r surrounded by a bun of the same length and radius R = ar, where a>1. If the bun fits tightly then its volume is

V_b = \pi L (R^2 - r^2) = \pi L r^2 (a^2 - 1) = (a^2 - 1) V_m,

where V_m is the volume of the wiener. If a=3, for example, then V_b=8V_m. But a cheap hotdog bun is mostly air; about 90% air in fact!

When we put the wiener into a bun, its volume is increased dramatically even though the radius is increased only modestly. This is closely related to the reason that many of your desired destinations will be found near the edge of a map (chapter 2) or why frames can so easily dominate a painting.

If you enjoyed this post, you may see more examples from Adam’s book in the coming weeks. Happy Memorial Day!