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.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Externalities: Invincible Iron Man 33 Edition

Superheroes fight crime and save lives. But by doing so they impose certain costs on people not directly involved. These are superhero externalities.

At least Tony Stark knows his recklessness causes damage.
The Invincible Iron Man #33 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca
Marvel Comics (2011)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Comics Professor

Here's a blog written by one of the editors of Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series (including books such as Batman and Philosophy, Watchmen and Philosophy, and others). It features news, commentary, and reviews of current superhero comics, as well as insightful philosophical analyses. I've personally read the Batman and Philosophy book and learned a great deal about his deontological and utilitarian bents.

Here's a snip from a recent post about whether superheroes should take political positions

Why did this concern me so? Contrary to what Mr. Rucka says, I don't think defining a superhero as liberal or conservative would imply that he or she would help some people and not others in an emergency (though examples do exist, such as Ollie early in O'Neil's run), but making a hero's politics explicit does reduce the appeal of that character to a significant portion of the fanbase.

Furthermore, it contributes to the perception that our political affiliations define us. If Superhero A is conservative and Superhero B is liberal, many people will take those facts to determine much more about their characters than seems appropriate. There's a lot of room for widely different types of liberals and conservatives in this world (not to mention all the people who reject both labels). And I like to believe that most liberals and conservatives (excluding the ones on the extreme fringe of each group) have more in common than not.

More at the blog.

More Wasted Tax Dollars

With great power, Spidey
"Another Door" in Amazing Spider-Man #647 by Fred Van Lente
and Max Fiumara, Marvel Comics 2010

I've been saying for years that the United States government should stop funding the Smithsonian. It poses an extreme risk to the taxpayers.

Also, when did the Spidey mobile get in there?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Irredeemable #19 by Mark Waid and Peter Krause, Boom! Studios 2010

Another example of technology that's being kept from the general public. Innovation economists would accuse Qubit here, who seems aware that this technology existed and still hasn't shared this information, of hindering economic growth.

Aliens get all the cool weaponized teleportation devices, while we here on Earth still have to make due with nothing but fancy toilets.