Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Zatanna and Behavioral Economics

Zatanna discusses her fear of puppets
Zatanna #8 by Paul Dini and Cliff Chiang, DC Comics (2010)

In a recent issue of Zatanna, we learn that our hero has been struggling with a paralyzing fear. A fear of puppets. This is due, for the most part, to childhood trauma with puppets (plus, they really are scary as all hell. See the classic Goosebumps story on the subject).

Zee has been largely unsuccessful in dealing with her fear throughout her adult life. However, as she points out, in situations where the stakes were high enough, she has been able to temporarily overcome her fear in order to realize greater social benefits. A specific example includes a recent adventure alongside Batman, wherein she helped the caped crusader defeat the second Ventriloquist and a revamped Scarface.

This beautifully illustrates how certain incentives and rewards can motivate individual behavior towards outcomes that our socially optimal, even when those outcomes come at their own expense. The right incentives can even cause Zatanna to overcome a crippling fear.

Guiding behavior through incentives is a big topic in behavioral economics. Most of these occur to minimize behaviors that pose a significant negative externality on society. We see it all the time. For example, "sin taxes" on cigarettes are designed to curb a habit which has plenty of external consequences, including second-hand smoke, higher utilization of medical services, increases in medical care and insurance costs, etc.

However, even mechanisms like sin taxes raise the stakes in terms of costs for the individual committing the behavior (not the social cost). The government, to my knowledge, doesn't generally come in and say, "Hey you better stop smoking or else 30 people will die tomorrow from second-hand smoke." Where Zatanna's situation differs is that the stakes in her situation actually refer to these social costs. She's motivated by the potential death of a large number of people that would result from her inaction to stop a bunch of puppets.

This gets us into the notion of altruism. Is Zatanna behaving altruistically here by having her behavior be so amenable to social stakes? I would argue that this is not the case and that she actually reaps many hidden benefits that lay beneath the surface (though, no doubt, she is aware of).

For one thing, if Zatanna had bailed on Batman because of her inability to face a puppet, she would have likely been ostracized from the superhero community. Well, probably not actually, since her and Batman have a kinda-sorta love thing. But she would have certainly been embarrassed enough to think this would be a potential consequence.

Second, and on a related note, she is aiding one of the top superheroes of the DC Universe. There are definitely benefits to helping Batman. He is more likely to return the favor in the future and recommend Zatanna for future missions with the Justice League. So, her being able to shape up and spring to action regardless of the circumstance has professional implications.

Third, she is saving herself the guilt of living with the knowledge that innocents may have died as a result of her hesitation.

So, selfless superhero or not, it would appear there are plenty of personal benefits for Zatanna here. In fact, if one of her reasons is indeed reciprocity from Batman and the Justice League, there is a related concept in behavioral economics and evolutionary biology known as "reciprocal altruism" that deals with this idea. Reciprocal altruism basically refers to an act of selflessness towards another with the anticipation that the recipient of the benefit will one day return the favor.

This can be thought of in the context of the famous Prisoner's Dilemma. Recall that the basic lesson of this exercise is that the rational choice for the players was to defect, even though the pareto optimal strategy for each was to cooperate. There is, however, an alternative version of the prisoner's dilemma that is repeated infinitely, rather than played only once. In a repeated game, the Nash Equilibrium would still be to defect every round. However, in actual experiments, it has been shown that if players remember the actions of past rounds, cooperation fared as a potentially good strategy. The reason? Players would punish each other in subsequent rounds for defecting. In order to avoid this punishment, people would cooperate.

Thinking back to Zatanna's situation, she might be doing something similar. The knowledge that her actions would determine future treatment towards her could be guiding her incentive to help Batman, and thereby face her fear of puppets.

Of course, this isn't easy to hear. Sure the stakes of having innocents die on her watch is a big motivator. But it's not entirely altruistic. I'm betting that if Batman suddenly declared that she would be severely punished for inaction, while she would be handsomely rewarded for puppetry, Zatanna might become a great ventriloquist. Great strategy for dealing with fear.

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Puppets? Therapist? Zatanna's too sexy for Prozac, too sexy by far.

Although if SSRIs could help with my lifelong fear of pop-up books, maybe I'd reconsider.

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