Economics and the mid-life crisis have much in common: Both dwell on foregone opportunities

C'est la vie; c'est la guerre; c'est la pomme de terre . . . . . . . . . . . . . email: jpalmer at uwo dot ca

. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Testosterone, Head-butting, and Suicide.
Men: Reduce Those Negative Cross-Partials!

What happens to male lions who are not king of the pride?
What happens to male muskox who do not win the head-butting contests for dominance of the herd?
What happens to boxers who do not become champions?
What happens to students who do not become National Merit Finalists?

What happens to people in general, but especially men, who have high expectations that they are incapable of meeting?

It is possible that when expectations are out of line with reality, the pain felt when reality strikes is quite severe.

Among some types of animals, males seem genetically coded to expect to be number one in the group. Those who lose are banished from the group and die at a young age.

It should not be surprising to learn that for human suicides, then,

Men with low IQ scores and only a primary education were no more likely to kill themselves than men with high IQ scores and a higher level of education. But men with low IQ scores and higher education were at a greater risk of suicide. And men with low IQ scores and highly educated parents were at the highest risk of all.

''If you can't live up to the expectations of well-educated parents,'' said [researcher Finn] Rasmussen, ''it could make you more vulnerable.''

For the story, click here [link courtesy of Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution].

One possible suggestion for reducing suicide follows immediately: lower people's expectations, especially in a relative sense, and especially for people whose expectations are higher than their abilities. But that solution gives rise to some disturbing thoughts.

1. Who gets to decide whose ability is well-below their expectations?

2. What effect would this strategy have on entrepreneurship and growth? If economic growth is the result, in part, of competition to make oneself better off relative to some reference group, i.e., if we have interdependent utility functions (with negative cross partials with respect to a broad reference group even if we have positive cross partials with respect to those we love), then if we induce people to compete less (develop smaller negative cross partials!), we might end up with fewer suicides but also lower economic growth. Perhaps this is what Bob Frank wants and what Tibor Scitovsky wrote about in his classic piece, The Joyless Economy.

3. Ohmygod. Does this mean all that self-esteem stuff might be important after all?
More seriously, focusing on lowering peoples expectations doesn't make much sense if doing so doesn't ask them to deal with the realities they face.

For some of my earlier thoughts on economics, evolution, and suicide, see here and here.
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