Psychology, economics, fantasy, and the funnies all agree about making life choices

Almost ten years ago, I was working at the RAND Corporation, and I received an offer from the World Bank to be a consultant evaluating education programs around Sub-Saharan Africa. I was torn: I had a great job at RAND, and I lived in paradise (a.k.a Santa Monica, California). But I wanted to focus my research fully on international development, which would be easier at the World Bank, and the consultancy seemed really exciting.

As I was mulling it over, I heard this finding in Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness: “In the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did.” That significantly contributed to my decision to make the move, and I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve been able to do so far at the World Bank.

Of course, it’s tough to interpret the findings Gilbert is reporting causally: It could be that the kinds of people who are more likely to make changes are happier people. This summer University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt put out a paper that adds some causal evidence to this:

This paper reports on a large-scale randomized field experiment in which research subjects having difficulty making a decision flipped a coin to help determine their choice. For important decisions (e.g. quitting a job or ending a relationship), those who make a change (regardless of the outcome of the coin toss) report being substantially happier two months and six months later…. To assess causality, I use the outcome of a coin toss. Individuals who are told by the coin toss to make a change are much more likely to make a change and are happier six months later than those who were told by the coin to maintain the status quo. The results of this paper suggest that people may be excessively cautious when facing life-changing choices.

A comic that I saw today from xkcd provides a little more anecdotal support:


I thought of Levitt’s paper as I listened to Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel American Gods recently. Shadow, the protagonist, agrees to work for an unknown but persistent employer — Wednesday — based on a coin toss:

     Shadow took a quarter from his pocket, tails up. He flick it up in the air, knocking it against his finger as it left his left hand to give it a wobble that made it look as if it were turning, caught it, slapped it down on the back of his hand.
     “Call,” he said.
     “Why?” asked Wednesday.
     “I don’t want to work to work with anyone with worse luck than me. Call.”

In the short run, Shadow takes the job and his life erupts into chaos and (spoiler alert!) death — but that’s not the half of it, so I partially retract the spoiler alert. But my best guess at the counterfactual (what would have happened if Shadow hasn’t taken the job) is that his life would have been the worse for it.

So the takeaway from psychology, economics, fantasy, and the funnies is that if you’re having trouble deciding whether to make a change, maybe that means you should. Or you could just flip a coin.

Bonus reading: You can read about the evaluations I did in those early World Bank days in the Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania, or about the work that I was doing on cost-effectiveness of education interventions and higher education in Korea while at RAND.

9 languages for 90% of the world’s population

"To engage with all but a tiny fraction of people in the world, you definitely do not need to learn all their first languages. You need to learn all their vehicular languages – languages learned by nonnative speakers for the purpose of communicating with native speakers of a third tongue. There are about eighty languages used in this way in some part of the world. But because vehicular languages are also native to some (usually very large) groups, and because many people speak more than one vehicular language (of which one may or may not be native to them), you do not need to learn all eighty vehicular languages to communicate with most people on the planet. Knowing just nine of them – Chinese (with 1.3 billion users), Hindi (800 million), Arabic (530 million), Spanish (350 million), Russian (278 million), Urdu (180 million), French (175 million), Japanese (130 million), and English (somewhere between 800 million and 1.8 billion) – would permit effective everyday conversation, though probably not detailed negotation or serious intellectual debate, with at least 4.5 billion and maybe up to 5.5 billion people, that is to say, around 90 percent of the world’s population." (David Bellos, Is that a fish in your ear? Translation and the meaning of everything, p14)

book review: Storyteller, the Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, by Donald Sturrock

the fabulous story of a fantastic storyteller

I grew up hearing and reading the stories of Roald Dahl. From the novel Charlie & the Chocolate Factory to the short story The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar to the memoir Boy. I loved them all!

In this wonderful and compelling biography, Donald Sturrock rises to the challenge of writing a biography almost as interesting as the stories of its subject. Dahl apparently found biographies boring. “Why on earth would anyone choose to read an assemblage of detail, a catalogue of facts, when there was so much good fiction around as an alternative?” (p6). I loved many elements of this book; among my favorites are the following:

  1. While Sturrock is clearly a friendly biographer, he paints no picture of a saint, demonstrating how much previous biographical work on Dahl is rose-colored, how Dahl was mercurial – by turns generous and kind and then rude and judgmental, sometimes (later in life) making unfortunate public statements.
  2. Dahl was a storyteller through and through: many stories from his own memoirs was fictionalized. “I don’t lie. I merely make the truth a little more interesting…” (p4)
  3. In the wake of a tragic accident that left Dahl and Patricial Neal’s son Theo with serious head wounds, Dahl teamed up with a craftsman to develop a special valve that would drain excess fluid from the head which was effective and very cheap (as a result of neither inventor gaining from it), the valve “was used successfully on almost three thousand children around the world” (p392). Likewise, after his wife Patricia Neal suffered a serious stroke, Dahl took an intensive rehabilitation approach which led to a very rapid recovery and return to acting for Neal, ultimately “revolutioniz[ing] treatment for future stroke victims” (p444).
  4. Hearing how long Dahl struggled to achieve professional success is inspiring.

But without doubt my favorite part was the story of the stories:

  1. How Dahl’s agent, for years, encouraged him to try children’s fiction;
  2. How James & the Giant Peach came to be the first children’s book;
  3. How Charlie and the Chocolate Factory evolved dramatically in plot;
  4. Tidbits such as how the NAACP forced the change of the name of the first chocolate factory movie to “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (because they thought the book was racist and didn’t want the movie to support book sales), and how Dahl disliked the original movie: He preferred Peter Sellers for the role over the chosen Gene Wilder, who he found “pretentious” and “insufficiently gay [in the old-fashioned
    sense of the word] and bouncy” (p513).

I just loved this book. It is well written, easy to read, and meticulously documented. I’m glad to have it in my library.

what I read and saw in May 2011


15. Mortal Stakes, by Robert Parker (audiobook) – Third Spenser detective novel. Wittiest detective I know. 7/10

14. Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin [translated by Chi-Young Kim] (audiobook)


20. The Time Traveller’s Wife (DVD) – I enjoyed this love story. Also had enjoyed the book. 7/10

19. Get Low (DVD) – Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek star in this redemption tale about holding onto guilt and then letting it go. Low key. I really enjoyed it. 7/10

18. Gnomeo & Juliet – Animated garden gnomes and the music of Elton John, in the same movie. Don’t go breaking my heart! 6/10

17. Os Muppets Conquistam Nova Iorque [The Muppets Take Manhattan, dubbed into Portuguese] (DVD) – I love the muppets, but this was not their strongest outing. Still, the Portuguese was fun. 5/10

how the first draft of Charlie & the Chocolate Factory was wildly different (including that Charlie was black)

from Storyteller, by Donald Sturrock, p415 – I am loving this book.

"At the beginning, there were no Oompa-Loopa factory workers and no Grandpa Joe to look after Charlie. Nor were any of the child grotesques present in their final form. Characters who were eventually eliminated from the adventure or substantially altered included Elvira Entwistle (the prototype of Veruca Salt), Miranda Grope (who fell into the chocolate river), Tommy Troutbeck (who disobeyed Wonka and ended up in the Pounding and Cutting Room), Bertie Upside (who overheats after eating too many warming candies), Marvin Prune, Violet Stabismus and Herpes Trout. The plot, too, was quite different. It was a detective story in which Charlie strayed from Wonka’s gaze long enough to be accidentally coated in quick-drying chocolate. Mistaken for one of Wonka’s giant ‘chocolate boys,’ he is delivered as an Easter present to Wonka’s son, Freddie. Trapped inside his chocolate shell, and left overnight in Wonka’s home, Charlie witnesses a burglary. The following morning, when he has been liberated from his cocoa prison, he helps identify the thieves and is rewarded by Wonka with a huge sweetshop of his own. … Most strikingly perhaps, in the early drafts, Dahl described Charlie as a ‘small NEGRO boy,’ who boldly confronts Wonka…"

why to give your children Mini Giant Trees instead of Broccoli to eat

Okay, I’m a big fan of research, but wasn’t this kind of obvious? Anyway, now we know for sure.

Emerald dragon bites vs veggie beans: Fun food names increase children’s consumption of novel healthy foods
by Musher-Eizenman et al

Caregivers often struggle with food neophobia on the part of young children. This study examined whether labeling novel healthy foods with fun names would increase children’s willingness to try those foods and encourage them to eat more of those foods in a child care setting. Thirty-nine toddler and preschool age children (mean age = 3.9 years) were served each of three foods twice, once labeled with a fun name and once with a healthy name. Percentage of the food consumed by each child was recorded. Overall, children ate a greater percentage of the target foods when they were labeled with fun names. Also, a larger percentage of the children tasted the foods when they were labeled with fun names. This simple strategy could be effective for increasing consumption of healthy foods among young children.

from the Journal of Early Childhood Research, May 2011

what I read and saw in April 2011


13. *** Save the Child, by Robert Parker (audiobook) – The second Spenser novel, much better than the first (The Godwulf Manuscript). Suspense, excitement, romance.

12. Gems for the Young Folks: Fourth Book of the Faith-Promoting Series, by Benjamin Brown et al (published 1881) – This collection of stories is both historically fascinating and spiritually inspiring. I especially enjoyed the last portion of the book, called Testimonies for the Truth, by Benjamin Brown. Overall there are stories of emigrants across the U.S. plains, coming from the U.K., and much more. Highly recommended! As an example, here is one of my favorite stories. The whole book is available at Google Books for free, here.


Low movie month!

14. El romance de la esmeralda [Romancing the Stone, dubbed into Spanish] – Great action comedy, holds up pretty well. (Definitely a PG that would be PG-13 now, mostly for one scene.)