Happy Capybara Day! Or the power of culture

JDN 2457131 EDT 14:33.

Did you celebrate Capybara Day yesterday? You didn’t? Why not? We weren’t able to find any actual capybaras this year, but maybe next year we’ll be able to plan better and find a capybara at a zoo; unfortunately the nearest zoo with a capybara appears to be in Maryland. But where would we be without a capybara to consult annually on the stock market?

Right now you are probably rather confused, perhaps wondering if I’ve gone completely insane. This is because Capybara Day is a holiday of my own invention, one which only a handful of people have even heard about.

But if you think we’d never have a holiday so bizarre, think again: For all I did was make some slight modifications to Groundhog Day. Instead of consulting a groundhog about the weather every February 2, I proposed that we consult a capybara about the stock market every April 17. And if you think you have some reason why groundhogs are better at predicting the weather (perhaps because they at least have some vague notion of what weather is) than capybaras are at predicting the stock market (since they have no concept of money or numbers), think about this: Capybara Day could produce extremely accurate predictions, provided only that people actually believed it. The prophecy of rising or falling stock prices could very easily become self-fulfilling. If it were a cultural habit of ours to consult capybaras about the stock market, capybaras would become good predictors of the stock market.

That might seem a bit far-fetched, but think about this: Why is there a January Effect? (To be fair, some researchers argue that there isn’t, and the apparent correlation between higher stock prices and the month of January is simply an illusion, perhaps the result of data overfitting.)

But I think it probably is real, and moreover has some very obvious reasons behind it. In this I’m in agreement with Richard Thaler, a founder of cognitive economics who wrote about such anomalies in the 1980s. December is a time when two very culturally-important events occur: The end of the year, during which many contracts end, profits are assessed, and tax liabilities are determined; and Christmas, the greatest surge of consumer spending and consumer debt.

The first effect means that corporations are very likely to liquidate assets—particularly assets that are running at a loss—in order to minimize their tax liabilities for the year, which will drive down prices. The second effect means that consumers are in search of financing for extravagant gift purchases, and those who don’t run up credit cards may instead sell off stocks. This is if anything a more rational way of dealing with the credit constraint, since interest rates on credit cards are typically far in excess of stock returns. But this surge of selling due to credit constraints further depresses prices.

In January, things return to normal; assets are repurchased, debt is repaid. This brings prices back up to where they were, which results in a higher than normal return for January.

Neoclassical economists are loath to admit that such a seasonal effect could exist, because it violates their concept of how markets work—and to be fair, the January Effect is actually weak enough to be somewhat ambiguous. But actually it doesn’t take much deviation from neoclassical models to explain the effect: Tax policies and credit constraints are basically enough to do it, so you don’t even need to go that far into understanding human behavior. It’s perfectly rational to behave this way given the distortions that are created by taxes and credit limits, and the arbitrage opportunity is one that you can only take advantage of if you have large amounts of credit and aren’t worried about minimizing your tax liabilities. It’s important to remember just how strong the assumptions of models like CAPM truly are; in addition to the usual infinite identical psychopaths, CAPM assumes there are no taxes, no transaction costs, and unlimited access to credit. I’d say it’s amazing that it works at all, but actually, it doesn’t—check out this graph of risk versus return and tell me if you think CAPM is actually giving us any information at all about how stock markets behave. It frankly looks like you could have drawn a random line through a scatter plot and gotten just as good a fit. Knowing how strong its assumptions are, we would not expect CAPM to work—and sure enough, it doesn’t.

Of course, that leaves the question of why our tax policy would be structured in this way—why make the year end on December 31 instead of some other date? And for that, you need to go back through hundreds of years of history, the Gregorian calendar, which in turn was influenced by Christianity, and before that the Julian calendar—in other words, culture.

Culture is one of the most powerful forces that influences human behavior—and also one of the strangest and least-understood. Economic theory is basically silent on the matter of culture. Typically it is ignored entirely, assumed to be irrelevant against the economic incentives that are the true drivers of human action. (There’s a peculiar emotion many neoclassical economists express that I can best describe as self-righteous cynicism, the attitude that we alone—i.e., economists—understand that human beings are not the noble and altruistic creatures many imagine us to be, nor beings of art and culture, but simply cold, calculating machines whose true motives are reducible to profit incentives—and all who think otherwise are being foolish and naïve; true enlightenment is understanding that human beings are infinite identical psychopaths. This is the attitude epitomized by the economist who once sent me an email with “altruism” written in scare quotes.)

Occasionally culture will be invoked as an external (in jargon, exogenous) force, to explain some aspect of human behavior that is otherwise so totally irrational that even invoking nonsensical preferences won’t make it go away. When a suicide bomber blows himself up in a crowd of people, it’s really pretty hard to explain that in terms of rational profit incentives—though I have seen it tried. (It could be self-interest at a larger scale, like families or nations—but then, isn’t that just the tribal paradigm I’ve been arguing for all along?)

But culture doesn’t just motivate us to do extreme or wildly irrational things. It motivates us all the time, often in quite beneficial ways; we wait in line, hold doors for people walking behind us, tip waiters who serve us, and vote in elections, not because anyone pressures us directly to do so (unlike say Australia we do not have compulsory voting) but because it’s what we feel we ought to do. There is a sense of altruism—and altruism provides the ultimate justification for why it is right to do these things—but the primary motivator in most cases is culture—that’s what people do, and are expected to do, around here.

Indeed, even when there is a direct incentive against behaving a certain way—like criminal penalties against theft—the probability of actually suffering a direct penalty is generally so low that it really can’t be our primary motivation. Instead, the reason we don’t cheat and steal is that we think we shouldn’t, and a major part of why we think we shouldn’t is that we have cultural norms against it.

We can actually observe differences in cultural norms across countries in the laboratory. In this 2008 study by Massimo Castro (PDF) comparing British and Italian people playing an economic game called the public goods game in which you can pay a cost yourself to benefit the group as a whole, it was found not only that people were less willing to benefit groups of foreigners than groups of compatriots, British people were overall more generous than Italian people. This 2010 study by Gachter et. al. (actually Joshua Greene talked about it last week) compared how people play the game in various cities, they found three basic patterns: In Western European and American cities such as Zurich, Copenhagen and Boston, cooperation started out high and remained high throughout; people were just cooperative in general. In Asian cities such as Chengdu and Seoul, cooperation started out low, but if people were punished for not cooperating, cooperation would improve over time, eventually reaching about the same place as in the highly cooperative cities. And in Mediterranean cities such as Istanbul, Athens, and Riyadh, cooperation started low and stayed low—even when people could be punished for not cooperating, nobody actually punished them. (These patterns are broadly consistent with the World Bank corruption ratings of these regions, by the way; Western Europe shows very low corruption, while Asia and the Mediterranean show high corruption. Of course this isn’t all that’s going on—and Asia isn’t much less corrupt than the Middle East, while this experiment might make you think so.)

Interestingly, these cultural patterns showed Melbourne as behaving more like an Asian city than a Western European one—perhaps being in the Pacific has worn off on Australia more than they realize.

This is very preliminary, cutting-edge research I’m talking about, so be careful about drawing too many conclusions. But in general we’ve begun to find some fairly clear cultural differences in economic behavior across different societies. While this would not be at all surprising to a sociologist or anthropologist, it’s the sort of thing that economists have insisted for years is impossible.

This is the frontier of cognitive economics, in my opinion. We know that culture is a very powerful motivator of our behavior, and it is time for us to understand how it works—and then, how it can be changed. We know that culture can be changed—cultural norms do change over time, sometimes remarkably rapidly; but we have only a faint notion of how or why they change. Changing culture has the power to do things that simply changing policy cannot, however; policy requires enforcement, and when the enforcement is removed the behavior will often disappear. But if a cultural norm can be imparted, it could sustain itself for a thousand years without any government action at all.

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