Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Man With the Plan (JM)

My plan to raise £1 billion

Never, in the history of humanity has their been a title to an article that has left me tingling with anticipation. Just knowing that Lord Finkelton has some sort of wacky scheme to raise £1 billion is enough to warm my cold, cold heart. In fact, I wish I could stop here, preserving in amber the craziness potential of what I am sure is about to occur.

We humans have a tendency to follow the herd - and that need not be a bad thing

Daniel Finkelstein

I want to introduce you to my plan. My latest wheeze. I am going to raise one billion pounds for charity. A year. Every year. For the rest of my life. Well, not exactly me, all by myself. That would take ages. I am going to do it with a mate.

Right now, I promise, I would pay the required £1 billion if I could hangout with Daniel Finkelstein and his mates for a week or two. Just sitting around and talking about crazy schemes to cook up large sums of money and calling them wheezes… it’s just too adorable for words.

And now I am going to tell you how.

You sir, are the king of the transitional paragraph sentence.

Let's begin in Bridgend and the sad story of baffling teenage suicides. Can it really be true that these young people took their lives in order to imitate each other? Unbelievably, it could be. It is impossible to know exactly what motivated these particular individuals. Yet if these were copycat deaths it certainly wouldn't be the first time such a thing has happened.

Business model: Teenage suicides… you, sir, have exceed expectations. By a lot.

In his book The Copycat Effect, the suicide prevention expert Loren Coleman records numerous occasions over the past 300 years when the suicide of a prominent public figure has been followed by a bulge in the number of suicides. Coleman records, for instance, that there was a 12 per cent rise in suicides in the month after the death of Marilyn Monroe. And this was not followed by a matching decrease later. The total went up.


One other feature of this increase is particularly striking - the similarity of many of the deaths to Monroe's own. There were 197 suicides in that month in the US that corresponded closely to that of the film star. Here's the thing - mostly young blonde women.

If I were more apt to make an effort I would include here a Midi clip of that music that plays in movies when something really dramatic happens. You know: “Dunt, dunt duuuuun…” Anyway, a sarcastic Midi clip to you, Lord Finkelton!

This is the reason why in the internet age we might see more of this sort of behaviour. In the past, young people might imitate a celebrity suicide - Monroe or, say, Kurt Cobain - that they read about in the newspaper. That is because they relate to these public figures, feel they are just a little bit like them. But think how more powerful the impact might be when the death is of one of their peers, someone more like them. The internet allows peers to publish - it spreads information among members of the same social group. In these circumstances we are almost bound to see an increase in copycat behaviour.

I think this analysis is just wrongheaded. I would argue that the copycat effect would be inherently less likely in the internet age. Consider that one of the major reasons that copycat suicides happen, is that these people are role models and pretty much the only peers to whom individuals really had exposure. Consider that the reason a Marilyn Monroe suicide would be so influential is that she was a paragon and her exposure made her so. In the internet age, however, there is something of a diffusion of idolatry. With so many sources and so many connections it is much easier to see counterexamples to tragic role models. In fact, it is easy to see your place within peer groups. Essentially, the internet has created a much more organic universe where it is far easier to find ones’ niche and forgo the isolation and liminality that often results in suicide.

Emile Durkheim, in his masterwork Suicide argued that the increase in suicides rates has much to with the loosening of the social strictures of society, resulting in anomie. Essentially, the lack of social binding leads to feelings of alienation and purposelessness. Thus, when someone who seems to be at the top of the social hierarchy, Marilyn Monroe, kills herself it almost has a trickle down effect. However, I would argue the internet has made some fundamental changes in the picture of modernity. By collecting people together in networks of great and greater specificity it helps gives people a feeling of place and identity even without the norms that previously bound us all in premodern society.

Also wasn’t this article supposed to be about some crazy, Ralph Kramdenesque scheme to make £1 billion, because, if so, I am not sure I like where this is going…

Fortunately, people won't generally be copying each other's suicides. Much of the time we follow each other in small ways, and don't even realise we are doing it. In his interesting book Herd - a study of our behaviour as a group - Mark Earls notes the evolution of informal rules guiding where to stand in the men's urinals. If a man is able to, for instance, he will always leave a one urinal space between himself and the next man. And he will stand one metre behind the stall while waiting to use them. Nobody has ever discussed this, we simply watch each other and do as others do.

I agree, social conventions evolve from social habits. Also, people tend to find standing next to others who are expelling waste product, distasteful. Either way, what’s your point?

The more we know about the behaviour of others, the more we are likely to follow it. A famous experiment conducted by the social psychologist Solomon Asch shows this clearly. Individually his subjects managed to answer a simple test question correctly. But when told that most others had given a different (and incorrect) answer more than one third of them changed their minds and copied the error.

Do you have no idea what this article is about?

It is always said that we love an underdog. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We love the favourite. We move over to be on the favourite's side as quickly as we can. Politicians are familiar with this. That's why they spend so much of their campaigning time saying that they are winning. The teams behind Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both tell journalists that they relish underdog status. But it's pretty impressive how much energy they devote to showing that they are really on top, now isn't it?

This happens sometimes. Other times campaigns downplay expectations. There’s a distinct political advantage to being the underdog because any win is that much more potent when it happens. Also, is your plan to make £1 billion to distract us with pointless arguments while your mate steals our wallets? Clever…

There are two implications of all of this for public policy. The first is to stop doing harm. What do you think happens when you announce that teens are all out on the street binge drinking? Asch gives you the answer. More binge drinking. You are normalising a behaviour you should be isolating.

A Play

Lord Finkelton: Welcome to the Dept. of Harmless Statistics, Sec. Finkelstein at your service.

Cockney Joe: ‘Ello, guvnor, me and my mates were wondering if we might see the latest statistics on British death in Iraq?

Lord Finkelton: My heavens, no! Do you think I want you and all your friends to go out and die in Iraq! That’s crazy, sir!

Cockney Joe: Umm, alright then… how about rates of teenage alcoholism. I was gonna share with me son exactly how big a problem it is.

Lord Finkelton: No dice! We in the British government are not in the business of promoting accurate information about teenage drinking. Sir, do you recall when we released the statistics on immigration rates last year? Once people saw the rates had increase why everyone just had to be an immigrant. Statistics are too dangerous for the likes of you.


What happens when you announce that there is an obesity epidemic and that everyone is getting fatter? That's right. People learn that if they put on weight they are far from alone. Jamie Oliver's school dinners television programme lambasted Turkey Twizzlers, making them infamous. Sales promptly rose by 32 per cent.

And now, sir, thanks to your callous mentioning of that statistic I just looked up Turkey Twizzler on the internet and ordered a whole bunch of them. Also your statistical analysis is spot on, why control for a variable when you let it roam off its own. Daniel Finkelstein: Promoting free range variables.

The idea that we need to understand social norms and stop doing harm formed the centrepiece of a recent speech by the Shadow Charities Minister, Greg Clark. And he is the mate with whom I intend to raise the billion pounds a year.

Oh good… Also Shadow Charities Minister sounds like the greatest sinister position of all time. For every dollar you give to the ADL, he makes sure a dollar is given to a Neo Nazi organization. A dollar for Planned Parenthood, a dollar for the National Right to Life Foundation. Anyway, I’m amused.

At a conference organised by the Centre for Policy Studies, Greg asked the audience how much they thought it appropriate to leave as a tip in a restaurant. Everyone had a view - answers ranged from 10 to 15 per cent. Leaving a tip in an eaterie to which we may never return is an odd thing to do really, but we all acknowledge the social norm and almost all abide by it, even when no one else is looking.

Seriously, what an odd thing to do. Why would you ever reward someone for service if you’re not going to see them again. Also, British people are quite cheap, no?

Then Greg asked this - what proportion of your salary should you give to charity? There was a confused silence. Nobody knew. There isn't a social norm.

Yes, well by all means let’s start creating social norms. That’s always a plan that leads to greatness.

Now estimates of how much we do give to charity vary. One survey suggests it is as low as 0.5 per cent on average. But the most widely accepted figure is that provided by the Charities Aid Foundation - 0.73 per cent. Greg provided the audience with the result of a simple calculation. If the average could be raised to 1 per cent it would bring £4 billion a year into the coffers of charities.

That would be far more useful to charities than anything that could be achieved through politics or changing the law.

A) What kind of crazy, social norm changing scheme do you have in mind? B) Not to nitpick, but doesn’t it seem like it would be a better social norm if were progressive. Secretly this is just a way of creating a socially mandated flat tax. C) Not all charities are created equal, it doesn’t have the same net positive benefits as taxation both in terms of collective spending and directed public purpose.

So the idea, the wheeze, is this - to create a new social norm, in which people feel they should give at least 1 per cent of their income to charity. Even if it only partly succeeds, it could raise £1 billion a year at least.

That’s not an idea! No more than my saying, we should create a social norm whereby people don’t ever kill each other. There we go, millions less dead in the space of a year. Bring me my Nobel Peace Prize, MacArthur Genius Grant and the 1992 Tony for Best Performance in a Musical.

This isn't about persuading people to give money in the usual way - through exhortation and so on. It is simply about spreading the idea from peer to peer that decent people, people like you, people in your circumstances, people you admire are all giving at least 1 per cent. And if you wondering how much you should be giving, that's roughly the right amount.

I’m on it! Everyone who hears this, one percent, this year… I would quite admire that. Also don’t kill people, as I do not find murder admirable. Also, it would be good if you sent gifts to me, social norm that shit up.

It could work, couldn't it?



Loren Coleman said...

Actually, I recommend you read my book, The Copycat Effect before discounting the centuries of evidence from the 4th century of Greece to the Bridgend, Wales suicides and the NIU shootings that behavior contagion is a factor.

My research was tied to this "man with the plan" without my knowledge, but please consider the copycat effect separately.

The "media" is the message, and the message is a model for dealing with the pain that some vulnerable people feel. It comes via wall-to-wall cable news coverage more than newspapers and books today. The internet, as you mention, is there, but most people are multifaceted in what electronically is influencing them.

Keep an open-mind, and be alert, be careful, be prepared.

Take care.

Jonathan said...

To be fair, I have not yet, but will read The Copycat Effect. If you see this post, I would be curious to know if you have done any contemporary statistical studies on this effect to control for time period. I am curious to see if there might actually be a change in trend or if the more media exposure we have has simply lead to more copycatting. In fact, I would think that the number of copycat incidents would increase substantial given the absolute increase in exposure we are getting. I am not positive of this, I would be interested in seeing the data, that the increase has not been nearly as high as one would expect. I would argue, perhaps, that this is an effect of the connectedness established by media saturation, counteracting the increase exposure. Anyhow, I will gladly read your book before making further comments.