Links and Comments: Psychology and Economics; SF and Fantasy

Several items from Sunday’s NYT.

First a review of a new book by Steven Johnson, FARSIGHTED: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most; the review is by Adam Grant: How Do We Make the Long-Term Decisions That Matter?.

The reviewer notes the popularity of the science of decision-making, in books by Thaler, Kahneman, and Gladwell; but this book isn’t about snap decisions, but about long-range ones, the ones that shape our futures. A couple interesting points:

What are the habits of people who excel at long-term thinking? One of Johnson’s thought-provoking points is that they read novels, which are ideal exercises in mental time travel and empathy. I think he’s right.

And his conclusion:

Since you’ll never have enough information to make the best choice, all you can do is make the best of the choice you’ve made.

Yet maybe that’s the point. As a species, we’re wired to be nearsighted. Flipping to farsighted requires peering into a crystal ball. Your vision will always be blurry. But there’s no better corrective lens than a clear diagnosis of just how myopic you are. If you want to improve at predicting the future, start by recognizing how unpredictable it is.


In the Sunday Review section, a “Gray Matter” essay by David Gal, asking Why Is Behavioral Economics So Popular?.

Mentioning Michael Lewis and David Kahneman and Richard Thaler.

What is behavioral economics, and why has it become so popular? The field has been described by Richard Thaler, one of its founders, as “economics done with strong injections of good psychology.” Proponents view it as a way to make economics more accurate by incorporating more realistic assumptions about how humans behave.

Yet this triumph has come at a cost. In order to appeal to other economists, behavioral economists are too often concerned with describing how human behavior deviates from the assumptions of standard economic models, rather than with understanding why people behave the way they do.

And yet these themes of psychology, not only about behavioral economics, are a recurrent theme in many, many recent books, whether about the current state of American politics, or how to understand ancient wisdom in light of recent scientific discoveries. (To describe my recent reading.)


On another theme. The Book Review’s “By the Book” page this week features Andre Dubus III. A standard question in these Q&As is about which genres one enjoys, or avoids. Dubus:

I’m not proud of writing this, but I do avoid nearly all forms of fantasy. That’s not to imply that there are not great works out there in that form, only that I tend to lose interest just as soon as magic of any kind enters a story, for this strikes me as escapist, as a denial of the mortal hand we’ve all been dealt, and I prefer to read those works that confront our reality and limitations and thwarted longings head on.

I am increasingly sympathetic to this attitude; I’m impatient with fantasy because it indulges human illusions, whereas the best of science fiction tries to see around them and understand the real universe as it is, or might be.

And so I notice that the monthly SF/Fantasy book review page, lately by Amal El-Mohtar, is titled The Best New Fantasy Novels, and is all about fantasy novels. None of which I’m inclined to read.

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