I only know the one Georges Brassens song. But that one song, La ballade des gens qui sont nés quelque part (ahem, roughly translated: The ballad of those who are born somewhere), sprang to mind the other day, and I can’t shake it off. It is a satire on chauvinism in general, and tells the story of those who get too excited in relating the merits of their particular locale.

So it could be about me. I live in Bath, a World Heritage City, don’t you know. Beautiful stone buildings, wonderful museums, great shopping, and don’t get me started on the music festivals. Have I mentioned the Children’s Literature Festival?… I did? You’ll not be surprised then that, happy fool that I am, I think Bath is different!

Well, not really. Closer to the truth may be that the Knackered Hack’s somewhat nomadic path thus far is more characteristic of the Beatles’ Nowhere Man.

But the reason why we live in a place now has scientific form, according to researchers at Cambridge University:-

The authors of the new study argue that the strongest personality traits within a given population become self-reinforcing by influencing the region’s life and culture.

For example, where the population is creative, imaginative and intellectual (as was found to be the case in states including New York and California), one might expect to find people who are interested in art, literature and science. This may in turn lead to the establishment of institutions such as universities and museums. These institutions then influence the views and values of the local populace, encourage more creative and imaginative people to move to the region, and give people who do not fit that profile less reason to live there.

Dr Jason Rentfrow, who was also behind a recent paper The content and validity of stereotypes about fans of 14 music genres, is cautious but nevertheless fairly confident that the findings stack up:-

Obviously it’s not as simple as saying that a person is guaranteed to be more anxious if they come from West Virginia or more religious because they happen to live in New Mexico; but we did find pretty clear signs that there are meaningful differences in the personalities of people living in different areas of the United States.

What is particularly impressive is that the results show the effects of personality on people’s social habits, values and lifestyles are so pronounced that they have an impact on much bigger social forces.”

I wonder if this is specific to the US, where population migrations and the evolution city identities might be a little more recent. About Bath–joking aside–I’ve tended to think that it has historically sat at the cross-roads between “mainland” England and the more independent and remote Celtic parts of the British Isles, making it a kind of cultural cross-roads, where metropolitan money meets Glastonbury grunge. And that this probably goes way back.

Before you think this is all hokum, a little more about the methodology:-

Using an established framework called the “Five Factor Model” they divided personality types into five broad categories: “Extraversion” (sociable, energetic, enthusiastic people); “Agreeableness” (warm, friendly, compassionate); “Conscientiousness” (dutiful, responsible, self-disciplined); “Neuroticism” (anxious, stressful, impulsive); and “Openness” (curious, intellectual, creative).

Over six years, 619,397 people from across the US took part in an online test in which they were asked to read 44 short statements, such as “I see myself as someone who is outgoing” and “I see myself as someone who is very religious”. The respondents had to mark their level of agreement with each statement on a scale of one to five.

When I’m next in the States, I’ll have to consider carefully how to plan my trip around the geographical clustering of personality traits that the study revealed. Turns out it’s not random:

“Neuroticism” was, for instance, highest in the east along a line stretching from Maine to Louisiana, and lowest in the west, suggesting that the country has an identifiable “stress belt”.

The Wall Street Journal has more here (possibly behind the subscription wall). Below is Georges Brassens. Lyrics (in French) are here, including a reference to Montcuq, which I think is now a legal requirement of the Académie Française. Loosen your ceinture a notch, crack open a bottle of red, strike up a Gauloise, kick back and enjoy.

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pop finance

21Apr08

Tweet The RSA Lecture by Brooke Harrington last Thursday was a great deal of fun. In a few weeks the RSA will put up a full video on their soon-to-be relaunched website, so when I see that I’ll publish the link. As I mentioned before, Brooke’s work on diverse perspectives overlaps somewhat with that of […]

Tweet Brooke Harrington of the Max Planck Institute will be speaking at the RSA on Thursday 17th April, 1 pm, about the subject of her new book Pop Finance. Anyone hearing the news reported this morning about hormonal excess leading to bad risk-taking in trading will be interested in this from the synopsis of Brooke’s […]

The Knackered Hack office window looks out onto Solsbury Hill (or more precisely Little Solsbury) made famous by our local bard, one Peter Gabriel.

If you strip Gabriel’s song down, it tells a story about options and decision-making, and a powerful one at that. It alludes to the turmoil the lead-singer of Genesis went through after he left that iconic band. He got out in 1975, just before punk arrived, though that was not his motive: more creative exhaustion, as I understand it (one of our broken things, you could say).

If you are my age, you’ll know that admitting to liking Genesis as a teenager amounted to what kids these days call “social death.” However, in our modern eclectic world, all the sins of the past are forgotten; my friend Andy (see Journey of a Lifetime) even went to the Led Zep concert, and he was a dyed-in-the-mohair punk, if ever there was one.

solsbury hill

Solsbury Hill (Looking down on)

I doubt that the world of decision-making research is going to anoint Gabriel with any honorary degrees, and it’s a long shot that he might be considered for a Nobel Prize in Economics. But why not? Perhaps he could share it jointly with Paul Simon, who did pioneering work in spreading the understanding of the confirmation bias through the song The Boxer, with what I consider one of the best lines in pop:-

Still, a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest”

But anyway, our options, and how we exercise them are really fundamental to success, or the avoidance of failure. So I was delighted when the Knackered Hackette’s cousin, Greg, brought to my attention the following New York Times story on Dan Ariely’s new book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, because it shows our aversion toward losing options — even when logic dictates that they will have no value to us. Ariely constructed a game to test how we respond to particular pay-offs. Players had to click on doors with rewards behind them:-

As each player went through the 100 allotted clicks, he could switch rooms to search for higher payoffs, but each switch used up a click to open the new door. The best strategy was to quickly check out the three rooms and settle in the one with the highest rewards.

Even after students got the hang of the game by practising it, they were flummoxed when a new visual feature was introduced. If they stayed out of any room, its door would start shrinking and eventually disappear.

They should have ignored those disappearing doors, but the students couldn’t. They wasted so many clicks rushing back to reopen doors that their earnings dropped 15 percent. Even when the penalties for switching grew stiffer — besides losing a click, the players had to pay a cash fee — the students kept losing money by frantically keeping all their doors open.

According to the report, what seemed to motivate was not the desire for future flexibility, but the pain of watching a door close.

“Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss,” Dr. Ariely says. In the experiment, the price was easy to measure in lost cash. In life, the costs are less obvious — wasted time, missed opportunities. If you are afraid to drop any project at the office, you pay for it at home.

In my experience too, there is a lot of mental accounting that goes on just as the NYT says, and it takes real effort, or the words of a poet, to provide a consolidated view.

And because anywhere that the words diversity and complexity appear together Knackered Hack alerts go off, this is a treat for the weekend from a group called Hyannis Sound:-

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