Pop lyrics and cognitive biases

There is an excellent post from Stumbling and Mumbling on this issue, it can be found here.  I love the conclusion:

Now, I don’t want to claim that all of this year’s most popular songs contain howling irrationalities. The mighty Lady Gaga passes muster. But could it be that such irrationalities – as distinct from plain nonsense – are more common now than years ago? If so, isn’t this yet more evidence of the decline of civilization? And what hope is there of people becoming properly educated if they are exposed to such cognitive errors? Will no-one think of the children?

In the comments someone suggests that the lyrics of the Beatles were more rational, and that the rationality of pop singers is declining over time.  However, I’m not convinced that is the case.

For example, in the the “The End” Paul states (and John heartily agreed with) that “the love you take is equal to the love you make”.  Now this is true on average, but I doubt there is any behavioural rule that ensures this occurs for every person.  Such a rule could lead to people “over-investing” in love, in the belief that any they give will be returned to them.

  • Well, if it’s true in the aggregate then a person with no experience might reasonably expect it to be true for them as a prior belief. They then update that belief as they experience love.

    I think Paul and John were being eminently rational by suggesting that a Bayesian thinker should draw sensible priors by looking at the experiences of others.

  • @rauparaha

    Surely it would be more reasonable to form beliefs on reciprocal love on the basis of behavioural responses. I don’t see any reason why providing an arbitrary level of love at any point in time would yield a return of exactly the same level of love over your lifetime.

  • @Matt Nolan
    If I can’t observe behavioural responses then I might believe that the aggregate outcome will hold at an individual level. Of course, as you point out, that’s a point estimate not a function. However, without further knowledge about the function, only panel ‘data’ showing that love taken and made is equal over time, there is no reason to prefer a function that shows love taken ever being unequal to ove given.

    Once I have knowledge of behavioural responses then I might update my beliefs about that function, of course.

  • @rauparaha

    Hmmm, there are two issues here though.

    The first, which you also raise, is that after the initial period of providing love you will get some genuine information on how this feeds into the return of love in future periods – which would give you a more genuine idea of the trade-off.

    But secondly I am not convinced that, in the absence of behavioural knowledge the best guess is to assume that any love given will be returned by exactly the same amount.

    Surely it is possible to look internally in order to discover how much love you would respond to if given a unit of love by another individual. Given this knowledge, you could form a reaction function for everyone else on the basis of your own knowledge of self.

    Now in this case you are assuming agents are homogeneous, so you will still have that the result that these are equal – but once you begin to observe the heterogeneity of other agents you will be able to figure out how they differ. Furthermore, even though at first love given and taken will be equal by assumption, you do not have the spurious result that the investment of 1 unit of love will ALWAYS provide a return of 1 unit of love – which is the intent of the lyric in the song.

    As a result, unless the individual decides that they would respond to the provision of 1 unit of love with 1 unit of love in return, I do not find the assumption that “the love you make is equal to the love you take” is reasonable as a behavioural relationship.

    However, I will concede that given no experience with other people it is a result that will occur when the individual decides on how much love to provide given their own assumption that all agents are homogeneous.

  • @Matt Nolan
    I think it would be unfair to ask the song to provide a full specification of the reaction function. At most I think the song can be intepreted as suggesting that the love you receive is an increasing function of the love you give, with a local approximation of equality over some modal values. Suggesting that it means an equality between the two over all states takes the lyrics too literally, in my opinion.

    Furthermore, I’m not convinced that people know their own reaction function until they have experience. My own experience has been that such introspection can produce inadequate forecasts of future feelings. Consequently, taking the aggregate as a forecast of personal outcomes may still be rational, even when introspection is available.

  • @rauparaha

    “At most I think the song can be interpreted as suggesting that the love you receive is an increasing function of the love you give. Suggesting that it means an equality between the two takes the lyrics too literally, in my opinion”

    Paul and John both said the lyric was about Karma, and that the love you give will be returned to you equally, so I think the interpretation is fair 😉

    I do agree that love received is an increasing function of love given myself – but they believe there is a “social consciousness” that forces them to equality. I simply believe they have taken too much acid.

    “Furthermore, I’m not convinced that people know their own reaction function until they have experience. My own experience has been that such introspection can produce inadequate forecasts of future feelings. Consequently, taking the aggregate as a forecast of personal outcomes may still be rational, even when introspection is available.”

    Big call. If we don’t know our own set of preferences we have a whole lot of other issues.

  • @Matt Nolan
    Haha, that contextual information certainly detracts from my argument for their rationality!

    I didn’t intend to suggest – although, carelessly, I may have done so – that we don’t know our own preferences. I would contend that our preferences are non-stationary and influenced by our experiences. Further, I’m not convinced that we can forecast our own preference shifts accurately. If we could then we wouldn’t exhibit time inconsistency. As a pertinent example, how often do you hear people say “I thought I could cope with his emotional detachment, but ultimately it drove us apart”?

    If we have no experience of a particular ‘good’ then we have preferences across it, but no data to rely on. Our preferences really depend on our forecasts of future emotions. If those forecasts turn out to be erroneous then our preferences are likely to change to reflect our changed expectations. My argument is that we cannot accurately forecast our feelings across situations that we have never encountered. Our preferences are likely to be informed by expectations that are founded in the reported feelings of others. Thus our initial preferences may reflect the aggregate societal outcomes. As we gain experience, those preferences will update.

  • @rauparaha

    “I would contend that our preferences are non-stationary and influenced by our experiences. Further, I’m not convinced that we can forecast our own preference shifts accurately”

    I agree. And I agree with all you said.

    However, even given this I still view looking internally and forming a reaction function as superior to assuming the reaction function is globally 1 for 1. Why? Because I think the idea of diminishing marginal benefit and increasing marginal costs, both from the giving of and receiving of love, dictate this is true.

  • @Matt Nolan
    Yes, I agree. That’s why I prefer to interpret the Beatles as claiming that the reaction function is locally approximated by a 1 for 1 relation around the mode. That may still be true even with DMR.

  • @rauparaha

    That could be true if agents are sufficiently similar, indeed. And an initial guess with introversion and homogeneous agents would give a similar result. Agreed.

    However, I still see this claim as both poor as a global first approximation and undeniably false as soon as individuals get some idea about the heterogeneity of agents.

    Furthermore, the statement “in the end” seems to be discussing this issue ex-post. I find it implausible that “in the end” we will find that the love given by each individual is equal to the love they have received.

  • @Matt Nolan
    As a global approximation I agree that it’s likely to be poor. However, I think you are overestimating the problem of heterogeneity. Matching between individuals may result in 1 for 1 relationships being more likely than one would expect. I hypothesise that those which do not exhibit something approximating 1 for 1 are more likely to fail. Thus, ‘in the end’ we may find that more relationships than you expect are covered by The Beatles’ approximation.

  • @rauparaha

    Hmmm, I think we need some sort of study to capture this. I am not convinced that the majority of people could invest 1 unit of love and expect exactly 1 unit in return.

  • @Matt Nolan
    It would certainly be very interesting to see a study on it. I’d be really curious to know how much love can be offset by other characteristics. For example, if someone is in a relationship with a particularly beautiful person, will they be willing to accept a return of less than 1 for 1 love and by how much? Perhaps adaptation to the beauty means that their willingness to accept a lower return declines over time. Either way, it’s far more interesting and entertaining than estimating fiscal multipliers 😉

  • @rauparaha

    I think most things are more interesting than fiscal multipliers 😉

    “For example, if someone is in a relationship with a particularly beautiful person, will they be willing to accept a return of less than 1 for 1 love and by how much?”

    Indeed. How do we measure a “unit” of love. Different people will value a unit differently, both in terms of the cost of giving and the benefit of receiving. Objectifying love – economics does it all 😛

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