Friday, October 8, 2010

Difficult questions Part IV: Do people suffering from DIP have identity issues?

In the preceding post I suggested that identity economics may help us to understand teenage drug use. Ruth, a nurse who has worked in psych wards has responded with some encouraging comments about the potential for identity economics to help in exploring the drug-using phenomenon.

Ruth writes:
In my experience there are different aspects involved.
Some use drugs to escape their thoughts. (I suspect this is the largest group.) Those thoughts invariably include memory (what went before) and fantasy (what may come). The nature of those thoughts are hugely varied and may or not be based on shared experiences. They are not the same as delusions. Instead they are the result of a person trying to explain where he fits in his world, within the (limited) knowledge he has accrued in his life thus far. And the results are a distorted view of what's so, of where they fit, of what they mean to others, of how the world around them works, of the possibilities still awaiting them in life. The younger kids are when they start taking drugs, the more limited this knowledge is likely to be. The thoughts these people experience are particularly painful and cannot be mitigated easily through the usual counselling techniques.

A second group identifies their personalities as predominantly risk taking and therefore actually experience the need to arouse angst in those closest to them. This provides the sense of being cared about by those people. The more they upset the people around them the more evidence they have that they are loved - which of course sets up the adrenaline response very frequently (with every associated thought). Adrenaline in itself is a highly addictive drug - one that many very healthy non drug users like me are quite unashamedly addicted to.

Another group simply start experimenting with 'soft drugs' and end up with physical addictions requiring servicing at every opportunity. These people are the easiest to help as they are generally most motivated at the emotional level.

Ruth continues:
I think it's easy to get mistaken between the view looking in and the view looking out. Those close to the problem emotionally don't see through the same lens as those with an objective (professional) filter. The greatest mistake I see day in and day out is people - sufferers, family, researchers, medics, friends, observers - categorising the problem and therefore the sufferer.

The real answer - in my experience - is to take one person at a time and simply listen to them for quite some time before even attempting to think or consider what to do to help. The person themself inevitably can reveal the true cause of the problem and only then can a useful - long term effective - solution be proposed.

Short term solutions that deal with immediate symptoms such as aggression, depression
and side effects of drugs must of course be dealt with. But it is in the listening that the true cause of the problems are found. And listening is such an underrated skill; it hardly features amongst the more 'sophisticated' skills.

True therapeutic listening puts the practitioner in a place of nothingness, conscious only what is occurring in the room in each moment as it transpires. As the person speaks, the truly listening 'other' feels the person's psyche and is able to communicate in such a way that the person actually experiences a healing feeling without any recommendations or solutions or questions being offered. This is the beginning point for the journey to wellbeing for everyone. It is especially important for kids using drugs.

Ruth obviously feels passionately about therapeutic listening. Her views on this seem to me to make a lot a sense (but I can’t claim any expertise in that area). I would like to round off this discussion by pointing to possible implications of Ruth’s observations for use of identity economics to understand teenage drug use. The important point is that the people who end up in hospital as a result of drug taking do seem to have some particular identity characteristics that may help to explain why they got involved with drug taking in the first place. Ruth sees people making mistakes when they look in from the outside and attempt to categorize individuals. This suggests to me that there may be a need for better research instruments that will enable researchers to get a better understanding of individual behaviour by learning how individuals categorize themselves. In other words, if we are to understand the choices that the person makes it might help to know why the person perceives himself or herself as the kind of person who would obtain satisfaction from that kind of behaviour.

To be continued.

Difficult questions Part III: Can identity economics help us to understand teenage drug use?

This post continues the discussion in some previous posts about understanding teenage drug use. In the first post Ruth, a nurse who has worked in psych wards and prisons, illustrated the nature of the problem by telling the sad story of a man who has been suffering from drug induced psychosis (DIP) over a long period following an incident just before his 18th birthday. In the second post we explored whether viewing drug taking as a rational choice helped us to understand the problem. I concluded that it tended to put the problem back into the too hard basket.

I think the best way to try to understand complex issues is to begin by asking naive questions that help to define the problem. (The down-side of this approach is that it reveals my ignorance.) What kind of problem is this? Is it primarily genetic/neurological, psychological, sociological or economic?

Some papers suggest that genetics and neurology may be important. DIP is linked to childhood experience of attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder and a family history of psychiatric illness. Ruth’s response on the basis of her experience in psych wards is that there is no family history of mental illness for the great majority of those with DIP.

I think there are also problems with both psychological and sociological explanations of why some teenagers are take the risks associated with drug use. It is reasonably clear that psychological issues e.g. self esteem are often involved. Yet, some kids who get involved seem to popular among their peers and achieve to a high level academically or on the sporting field.

Similarly, while incidence of drug abuse is higher among some socio-economic groups, some kids don’t adopt the culture of the socio-economic groups to which they belong. In any case, it isn’t very enlightening to answer questions about why individuals behave the way by saying, ‘Well, how would you expect someone with that cultural or environmental background to behave’. If we are attempting to explain individual behaviour we need to recognize that individuals make choices.

Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-BeingThat brings us back to economics. The field of economics that seems to me to be most relevant is identity economics, which has recently developed by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton (who have recently written a book about it). The basic idea is that individuals gain satisfaction when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity as well as from their consumption of goods and services. Identity can be considered as an objective social category (e.g. gender, race, social class, age group) but in this instance I think it makes more sense to view it as a subjective identification with a particular group (e.g. insiders or outsiders; conformists or non-conformists) or with a particular set of attitudes. (I have previously written about identity economics in different contexts, here and here.)

So, if you want to understand why people behave the way the do it may help to know how this behaviour relates to the way they think of themselves. Kids who engage in particularly risky thrill-seeking or escapist behaviour possibly obtain some satisfaction from thinking of themselves as the kinds of people who do that kind of thing.

Ruth has responded with some encouraging comments about the potential for identity economics to help in exploring the drug-using phenomenon. Her response is in the following post.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Is free choice an illusion?

I am sometimes asked questions like: What is so wonderful about the free market? My answer is that the free market is about choice. You choose what you want to buy. The choices you make send signals through the market to huge numbers of people involved in retailing, manufacturing and production of raw materials. A lot of these people live in different parts of the world. They don’t even know each other – they are just responding to market opportunities. It is inspiring to think that this whole system responds to individual choice.

However, some people argue that free choice is just an illusion. These people include some famous economists, such a J K Galbraith, who wrote ‘The Affluent Society’ in the 1950s. He argued that your choices are manipulated by advertisers, who sell you things that you may not really need. Others argue that modern economies are geared to selling things that are bad for us – food full of fat and sugar; fuel guzzling cars; new fashions in clothes that serve no obvious purpose – often funded with credit that consumers have difficulty repaying.

How has the economics profession responded to this challenge? Over most of the last 50 or so years I think it is fair to say that the profession has largely ignored the challenge. That was easy to do because there was never any serious suggestion that advertising should be banned. Advertising of some addictive products that are harmful to health has been restricted and there has been some regulation to shield children from exposure. Everyone agrees, however, that it would be silly to discourage informational advertising about store locations, products sold and prices. As for more subtle forms of advertising, it is difficult to define activities that should be discouraged without infringing the rights of individuals to engage in persuasive communication with each other.

Much of the economic research that has been undertaken on the effects of advertising has suggested that they are small and do not last long. However, such findings raise more questions than they have answered. Why would firms spend large amounts on advertising if it has little effect on sales?

The findings of some recent studies on the evolution of brand preferences are consistent with Israel Kirzner’s view that it is the entrepreneur’s function not only to make the product available, but also to ensure that the consumer’s attention is attracted to the opportunities that the product provides (‘Perception, Opportunity and Profit’, 1983, p 10). These studies have shown that:
• brand loyalty tends to be a very important factor - many people prefer to buy a leading brand product, even though a less expensive product is indistinguishable when packaging is not visible;
• the first brand that becomes established in a market tends to maintain a substantial advantage over those that come later; and
• this advantage is greatest for products that are heavily advertised.
(For example, see “The marmite effect’, ‘The Economist’, Sept. 23 2010 and Bart Bronnenburg, Jean-Pierre DubĂ© and Matthew Gentzkow, ‘The evolution of brand preferences’, NBER Working Paper 16267.)

Marketing experts have a great deal to say about how brand loyalty is established. Conventional branding models assume that the purpose of advertising is to influence consumer perceptions about the brand (e.g., associations tied to quality, benefits, personality, and aspirational user imagery). In cultural branding, however, advertisers seek to establish a story about the kind of people who buy the product they are selling and how it fits into their lives. The product is simply a conduit through which customers can experience the stories that the brand tells. (see: Douglas Holt, ‘How Brands Become Icons’, chapter 2). Some people identify strongly with the brand’s story, some may see it as saying something relevant to themselves, others see it as irrelevant.

One of the most interesting marketing exercises in Australia is the advertising of Victoria Bitter. For a long time the story was about ‘Vic’ as a reward for a hard days work - the ‘hard-earned thirst’. It was the working man’s beer. Over the last couple of years the advertising has moved up market. Last year, the story suggested that VB was every man’s beer. The most recent advertising seems to be aimed at young men who sees themselves as a ‘authentic Aussie blokes’. (The latest ad is here). If you buy the story, you may buy the product and make a statement about how you see yourself and how you want to be seen by others.

Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-BeingHow can an understanding of the role of story-telling in marketing be incorporated into economics? There is a relatively new brand of economics developed by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton that is helpful. Identity economics recognizes that people gain satisfaction from acting in accordance with their identity – how they perceive themselves – as well from the goods and services they consume. This explains why some people would prefer to buy the branded product they usually buy rather another product that is a lot cheaper and is indistinguishable in all respects when taken out of its packaging. They get satisfaction from being the kinds of people who use that brand. The satisfaction they get from acting in accordance with their identity – the story associated with the brand – may exceed the satisfaction they would get from paying a lower price.

Summing up then, advertising does not make consumer choice an illusion. Advertisers are often trying to sell you a story. If you don’t identify with the story they are telling, you don’t buy their product. It’s your choice.

Note: This post is based on a speech I gave recently at Nowra Toastmasters.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Why don't the anti-Collingwood mob lighten up?

I’m not a football fanatic. I watch a game on TV now and then during the season, but I don’t really get interested until the finals are on.

After watching both the AFL and Rugby League grand finals this weekend I couldn’t help notice that the losers of both contests looked as though they were about to go to the gallows. Perhaps they were worried about how their fans would react. Why don’t they – the players and fans - just lighten up? After all, football is only a game!

There is research suggesting that a lot of fans take losing very seriously. Researchers discovered that fans of a men’s basket ball team were more depressed after a loss than happy after a win. Compared to the winners, those who watched their team lose had darker moods, they were more pessimistic when rating their mental ability; and they predicted that an attractive person would be more likely to reject them.

I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the St Kilda and Roosters supporters who had high hopes for the victory of their teams. But I admit to some schadenfreude about the other people who wanted Collingwood to lose. This year supporters of Collingwood’s traditional rivals, Carlton and Essendon, seem to have been joined by a motley crew of supporters of other clubs to form an ABC (Anyone But Collingwood) brigade, consisting of people who have nothing in common except their desire for Collingwood to lose the grand final.

One example of the attitude I am writing about will suffice. For reasons best known to herself, Judith Sloan began an otherwise sensible article published on Saturday in ‘The Australian’ about the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) by suggesting that Collingwood supporters have a psychopathology which causes them to be one-eyed, irrational and rabid. Perhaps she thought that all Collingwood supporters had already cancelled their subscriptions to ‘The Australian’ after reading the attempt at humour at Collingwood’s expense in the lead article on page one the previous Saturday.

I find it difficult to understand why Collingwood supporters arouse so much antipathy. It can’t be because we win too often. After all, our last premiership was 20 years ago. Perhaps it has to do with the ability of supporters to remain enthusiastic despite all the defeats of the past couple of decades. But who could resist being enthusiastic about a young team that plays as though they really want possession of the ball and whose hand-passing leaves opponents flat-footed.

Winners are grinners. Photo by Sebastian Costanzo published in ‘The Age’, here.

Some might suggest that the anti-Collingwood mob don’t like us because they think we like being disliked. Ugh! That doesn’t make sense to me. But Collingwood supporters can sometimes appreciate a joke against themselves. This is probably because we get plenty of practice. The best anti-Collingwood joke I heard this week is this one. Question: ‘What do you call a Collingwood supporter in a suit?’ Answer: the defendant.