An Atheist’s Defense of Rituals: Ceremonies as Traffic Lights

BarMitzvahThe idea of a coming-of-age ceremony has always been a bit strange to me as an atheist. Sure, I attended more than my fair share of Bat and Bar Mitzvahs in middle school. But it always struck me as odd for us to pretend that someone “became an adult” on a particular day, rather than acknowledging it was a gradual process of maturation over time. Why can’t we just all treat people as their maturity level deserves?

The same goes with weddings – does a couple’s relationship really change in a significant way marked by a ceremony? Or do two people gradually fall in love and grow committed to each other over time? Moving in with each other marks a discrete change, but what does “married” change about the relationship?

But my thinking has been evolving since reading this fantastic post about rituals by Brett and Kate McKay at The Art of Manliness. Not only do the rituals acknowledge a change, they use psychological and social reinforcement to help the individuals make the transition more fully:

One of the primary functions of ritual is to redefine personal and social identity and move individuals from one status to another: boy to man, single to married, childless to parent, life to death, and so on.

Left to follow their natural course, transitions often become murky, awkward, and protracted. Many life transitions come with certain privileges and responsibilities, but without a ritual that clearly bestows a new status, you feel unsure of when to assume the new role. When you simply slide from one stage of your life into another, you can end up feeling between worlds – not quite one thing but not quite another. This fuzzy state creates a kind of limbo often marked by a lack of motivation and direction; since you don’t know where you are on the map, you don’t know which way to start heading.

Just thinking your way to a new status isn’t very effective: “Okay, now I’m a man.” The thought just pings around inside your head and feels inherently unreal. Rituals provide an outward manifestation of an inner change, and in so doing help make life’s transitions and transformations more tangible and psychologically resonant.

Brett and Kate McKay cover a range of aspects of rituals, but I was particular struck by the game theory implications of these ceremonies. By coordinating society’s expectations in a very public manner, transition rituals act like traffic lights to make people feel comfortable and confident in their course of action.

The Value of Traffic Lights

Traffic lights are a common example in game theory. Imagine that you’re driving toward an unmarked intersection and see another car approaching from the right. You’re faced with a decision: do you keep going, or brake to a stop?

If you assume they’re going to keep driving, you want to stop and let them pass. If you’re wrong, you both lose time and there’s an awkward pause while you signal to each other to go.

If you assume they’re going to stop, you get to keep going and maintain your speed. Of course, if you’re wrong and they keep barreling forward, you risk a deadly accident.

Things go much more smoothly when there are clear street signs or, better yet, a traffic light coordinating everyone’s expectations.

Ceremonies as Traffic Lights

Now, misjudging a teenager’s maturity is unlikely to result in a deadly accident. But, with reduced stakes, the model still applies.

As a teen gets older, members of society don’t always know how to treat him – as a kid or adult. Each type of misaligned expectations is a different failure mode: If you treat him as a kid when he expected to be treated as an adult, he might feel resentful of the “overbearing adult”. If you treat him as an adult when he was expecting to be treated as a kid, he might not take responsibility for himself.

trafficlightA coming-of-age ritual acts like the traffic light to minimize those failure modes. At a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, members of society gather with the teenager and essentially publicly signal “Ok everyone, we’re switching our expectations… wait for it… Now!”

It’s important that the information is known by all to be known to all – what Steven Pinker calls common or mutual knowledge:

“In common knowledge, not only does A know x and B know x, but A knows that B knows x, and B knows that A knows x, and A knows that B knows that A knows x, ad infinitum.”

If you weren’t sure that the oncoming car could see their traffic light, it would be almost as bad as if there were no light at all. You couldn’t trust your green light because they might not stop. Not only do you need to know your role, but you need to know that everyone knows their role and trusts that you know yours… etc.

Public ceremonies gather everyone to one place, creating that common knowledge. The teenager knows that everyone expects him to act as an adult, society knows that he expects them to treat him as one, and everyone knows that those expectations are shared. Equipped with this knowledge, the teen can count on consistent social reinforcement to minimize awkwardness and help him adopt his new identity.

Obviously, these rituals are imperfect – Along with the socially-defined parts of identity, there are internal factors that make someone more or less ready to be an adult. Quite frankly, setting 13 as the age of adulthood is probably too young.

But that just means we should tweak the rituals to better fit our modern world. After all, we have precise engineering to set traffic light schedules, and it still doesn’t seem perfect (this XKCD comes to mind).

That’s what makes society and civilization powerful. We’re social creatures, and feel better when we feel comfortable in our identity – either as a child or adult, as single or married, as grieving or ready to move on. Transition rituals serve an important and powerful role in coordinating those identities.

We shouldn’t necessarily respect them blindly, but I definitely respect society’s rituals more after thinking this through.

To take an excerpt from a poem by Bruce Hawkins:

Three in the morning, Dad, good citizen
stopped, waited, looked left, right.
He had been driving nine hundred miles,
had nearly a hundred more to go,
but if there was any impatience
it was only the steady growl of the engine
which could just as easily be called a purr.

I chided him for stopping;
he told me our civilization is founded
on people stopping for lights at three in the morning.

Will moving to California make you happier?

I pass dozens of brilliantly-colored flowers like this on my daily walk to work. (Photo credit: B Mully, Flickr)

I might have to disagree with a Nobel Laureate on this one.

According to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize-winning psychologist and author of the excellent Thinking Fast and Slow, the answer is “No.” A recent post on Big Think describes how Kahneman asked people to predict who’s happier, on average, Californians or Midwesterners. Most people (from both regions!) say, “Californians.” That’s because, Kahneman explains, the act of comparison highlights what’s saliently different between the two regions: their climate. And on that dimension, California’s a pretty clear winner.

And indeed, Californians report loving their climate and Midwesterners loathing theirs. Yet despite that, the overall life satisfaction in the two regions turns out to be nearly identical, according to a 1998 survey by Kahneman. Climate just isn’t that important to happiness, it turns out. The fact that it greatly influences people’s predictions of relative happiness in California vs. the Midwest stems from something called the “Focusing illusion,” Kahneman explains – a bias he sums up with the pithy, “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.”

So far, I have no beef with this interpretation. What I *do* object to is the conclusion, which Kahneman implies and Big Think makes explicit, that “moving to california won’t make you happy.”

I moved from New York, NY to Berkeley, CA, earlier this year, and — having read Kahneman — I didn’t expect the climate to make a noticeable difference in my mood. And yet, every day, when I would leave my house, I found my spirits buoyed by the balmy weather and the clear blue sky. I noticed, multiple times daily, how beautiful the vegetation was and how fresh, fragrant, and — well – un-Manhattanlike the air smelled. It made a noticeable difference in my mood nearly every day, and continues to, six months after I moved.

I was a little surprised that my result was so different from Kahneman’s. And then I realized: Most of those Californians in his study have always been Californians. They grew up there; they didn’t move from the Midwest (or Manhattan) to California. So it’s understandable that their climate doesn’t make a big impact on their happiness, because they have no standard of comparison. They’re not constantly thinking to themselves — as I have been — “Man, it’s so *nice* not to have to shiver inside a bulky winter coat!” or “Man, it’s such a relief not to smell garbage bags sitting out on the sidewalk,” or “Wow, it’s quite pleasant not to be sticky with sweat.”

I’m only one data point, of course, and it’s possible that if you studied people who moved from the Midwest to CA, you’d find that their change in happiness was in fact no different than that of people who moved from CA to the Midwest. But at least, I think it’s important to note that that’s not the study Kahneman did. And that, as a general rule in reading (or conducting!) happiness research, it’s important to remember that the happiness you get from a state depends on your previous states.

How rationality can make your life more awesome

(Cross-posted at Rationally Speaking)

Sheer intellectual curiosity was what first drew me to rationality (by which I mean, essentially, the study of how to view the world as accurately as possible). I still enjoy rationality as an end in itself, but it didn’t take me long to realize that it’s also a powerful tool for achieving pretty much anything else you care about. Below, a survey of some of the ways that rationality can make your life more awesome:

Rationality alerts you when you have a false belief that’s making you worse off.

You’ve undoubtedly got beliefs about yourself – about what kind of job would be fulfilling for you, for example, or about what kind of person would be a good match for you. You’ve also got beliefs about the world – say, about what it’s like to be rich, or about “what men want” or “what women want.” And you’ve probably internalized some fundamental maxims, such as: When it’s true love, you’ll know. You should always follow your dreams. Natural things are better. Promiscuity reduces your worth as a person.

Those beliefs shape your decisions about your career, what to do when you’re sick, what kind of people you decide to pursue romantically and how you pursue them, how much effort you should be putting into making yourself richer, or more attractive, or more skilled (and skilled in what?), more accommodating, more aggressive, and so on.

But where did these beliefs come from? The startling truth is that many of our beliefs became lodged in our psyches rather haphazardly. We’ve read them, or heard them, or picked them up from books or TV or movies, or perhaps we generalized from one or two real-life examples.

Rationality trains you to notice your beliefs, many of which you may not even be consciously aware of, and ask yourself: where did those beliefs come from, and do I have good reason to believe they’re accurate? How would I know if they’re false? Have I considered any other, alternative hypotheses?

Rationality helps you get the information you need.

Sometimes you need to figure out the answer to a question in order to make an important decision about, say, your health, or your career, or the causes that matter to you. Studying rationality reveals that some ways of investigating those questions are much more likely to yield the truth than others. Just a few examples:

“How should I run my business?” If you’re looking to launch or manage a company, you’ll have a huge leg up over your competition if you’re able to rationally determine how well your product works, or whether it meets a need, or what marketing strategies are effective.

“What career should I go into?” Before committing yourself to a career path, you’ll probably want to learn about the experiences of people working in that field. But a rationalist also knows to ask herself, “Is my sample biased?” If you’re focused on a few famous success stories from the field, that doesn’t tell you very much about what a typical job is like, or what your odds are of making it in that field.

It’s also an unfortunate truth that not every field uses reliable methods, and so not every field produces true or useful work. If that matters to you, you’ll need the tools of rationality to evaluate the fields you’re considering working in. Fields whose methods are controversial include psychotherapy, nutrition science, economics, sociology, consulting, string theory, and alternative medicine.

“How can I help the world?” Many people invest huge amounts of money, time, and effort in causes they care about. But if you want to ensure that your investment makes a difference, you need to be able to evaluate the relevant evidence. How serious of a problem is, say, climate change, or animal welfare, or globalization? How effective is lobbying, or marching, or boycotting? How far do your contributions go at charity X versus charity Y?

Rationality shows you how to evaluate advice.

Learning about rationality, and how widespread irrationality is, sparks an important realization: You can’t assume other people have good reasons for the things they believe. And that means you need to know how to evaluate other people’s opinions, not just based on how plausible their opinions seem, but based on the reliability of the methods they used to form those opinions.

So when you get business advice, you need to ask yourself: What evidence does she have for that advice, and are her circumstances relevant enough to mine? The same is true when a friend swears by some particular remedy for acne, or migraines, or cancer. Is he repeating a recommendation made by multiple doctors? Or did he try it once and get better? What kind of evidence is reliable?

In many cases, people can’t articulate exactly how they’ve arrived at a particular belief; it’s just the product of various experiences they’ve had and things they’ve heard or read. But once you’ve studied rationality, you’ll recognize the signs of people who are more likely to have accurate beliefs: People who adjust their level of confidence to the evidence for a claim; people who actually change their minds when presented with new evidence; people who seem interested in getting the right answer rather than in defending their own egos.

Rationality saves you from bad decisions.

Knowing about the heuristics your brain uses and how they can go wrong means you can escape some very common, and often very serious, decision-making traps.

For example, people often stick with their original career path or business plan for years after the evidence has made clear that it was a mistake, because they don’t want their previous investment to be wasted. That’s thanks to the sunk cost fallacy. Relatedly, people often allow cognitive dissonance to convince them that things aren’t so bad, because the prospect of changing course is too upsetting.

And in many major life decisions, such as choosing a career, people envision one way things could play out (“I’m going to run my own lab, and live in a big city…”) – but they don’t spend much time thinking about how probable that outcome is, or what the other probable outcomes are. The narrative fallacy is that situations imagined in high detail seem more plausible, regardless of how probable they actually are.

Rationality trains you to step back from your emotions so that they don’t cloud your judgment.

Depression, anxiety, anger, envy, and other unpleasant and self-destructive emotions tend to be fueled by what cognitive therapy calls “cognitive distortions,” irrationalities in your thinking such as jumping to conclusions based on limited evidence; focusing selectively on negatives; all-or-nothing thinking; and blaming yourself, or someone else, without reason.

Rationality breaks your habit of automatically trusting your instinctive, emotional judgments, encouraging you instead to notice the beliefs underlying your emotions and ask yourself whether those beliefs are justified.

It also trains you to notice when your beliefs about the world are being colored by what you want, or don’t want, to be true. Beliefs about your own abilities, about the motives of other people, about the likely consequences of your behavior, about what happens after you die, can be emotionally fraught. But a solid training in rationality keeps you from flinching away from the truth – about your situation, or yourself — when learning the truth can help you change it.

What’s so special about living longer?

Atheist death panel: Red America's suspicions confirmed.

After reading about the death panel we held at Skepticon IV last week, a very clever philosopher friend of mine named Henry Shevlin wrote to me with a challenge to the transhumanist perspective. The transhumanist argument, which Eliezer made eloquently in the panel, is that death is a terrible thing that we should be striving to prevent for as long as possible.
Henry asks:

“Is death a tragedy because it involves a possible loss of utility, or because there’s some special harm in the annihilation of the individual? So consider two scenarios… Earth 1B and Earth 2B. Both of them have 100 million inhabitants at any one time. But Earth 1B has a very high life expectancy and a very low birth rate, while Earth 2B has a lower life expectancy and a very high birth rate. Otherwise, though, the two worlds are very similar. Which world is morally superior, by which I mean, generates more utils? “

Good question. Why, exactly, is prolonging existing lives better than creating new lives?

Let’s start with Henry’s Option 1 — that a person’s death is a tragedy because of the loss of the utility that person would have had, if he hadn’t died. Starting with this premise, can we justify our intuition that it’s better to sustain a pre-existing life than to create a new one?

One possible tack is to say that we can only compare utilities of possible outcomes for currently existing people — so the utility of adding a new, happy person to this world is undefined (and, being undefined, it can’t compensate for the utility lost from an existing person’s death). Sounds reasonable, perhaps. But that also implies that the utility of adding a new, miserable person to this world is undefined. That doesn’t sound right! I definitely want a moral theory which says that it’s bad to create beings whose lives are sheer agony.

You might also be tempted to argue that utility’s not fungible between people. In other words, my loss of utility from dying can’t be compensated for by the creation of new utility somewhere else in the world. But that renders utilitarianism completely useless! If utility’s not fungible, then you can’t say that it’s good for me to pay one penny to save you from a lifetime of torture.

Or you could just stray from utilitarianism in this case, and claim that the loss of a life is bad not just because of the loss of utility it causes. That’s Henry’s Option 2 — that death is a tragedy because there’s some special harm in the annihilation of the individual. You could then argue that the harm caused by the death of an existing person vastly outweighs the good caused by creating a new person. I’m uncomfortable with this idea, partly because there doesn’t seem to be any way to quantify the value of a life if you’re not willing to stick to the measuring system of utils. But I’m also uncomfortable with it because it seems to imply that it’s always bad to create new people, since, after all, the badness of their deaths is going to outweigh the good of their lives.

ETA: Of course, you could also argue that you care more about the utils experienced by your friends and family than about the utils that would be experienced by new people. That’s probably true, for most people, and understandably so. But it doesn’t resolve the question of why you should prefer that an unknown stranger’s life be prolonged than that a new life be created.

Pain Research: Not Minding That It Hurts

How well can we adapt to pain in the long run? Since pain is such a source of disutility, it’s important for us to learn as much as we can about managing or reducing its impact on our lives. One researcher studying the issue is Dan Ariely, who has a rare perspective after suffering major burns at a young age. He describes some fascinating findings at the beginning of one of his TED Talks (before moving on to his research on cheating), but he devotes a whole chapter to adaptation in his recent book, The Upside of Irrationality.

I haven’t read the book quite yet, but Ariely has posted videos of himself discussing the first few chapters:



Besides being flat-out interesting, pain research could have public policy implications. The current laws tightly regulate the most effective drugs at treating chronic pain, and often discourage doctors (read: scare doctors away) from prescribing them. Earlier this year, Matt Yglesias referenced this kind of research to evaluate some of the costs and benefits of the war on drugs.

This is terrible. One of the most interesting findings from the happiness research literature is that human beings are remarkably good at adapting to all kinds of misfortunes. Chronic pain, however, is an exception. People either get effective treatment for their pain, or else they’re miserable. Adaptation is fairly minimum. The upshot is that from a real human welfare perspective, we ought to put a lot of weight on making sure that people with chronic pain get the best treatment possible. Minimizing addiction is a fine public policy goal, but the priority should be on making sure that people with legitimate needs can get medicine.

Policy decisions require us to weigh the interests of different segments of the population. If we’ve been underestimating the suffering of those in chronic pain, it might be best if we made a shift toward supporting them more and found other ways to offset our worries about addiction.

Another one of Ariely’s suggestions interested me – that events can change the associations we have with pain. I hadn’t given much thought to the dual nature of pain as a physical sensation and an emotional reaction to the sensation. I had always viewed it as a useful but necessarily unpleasant signal that someone is wrong with our bodies. Sure, it’s no fun to experience, but we need to know that we’re putting weight on a fractured bone, right? However, if it’s possible to have that physical alert without the mental anguish, we could get the best (well, the slightly better) of both worlds: notification of problems but not the accompanying distress. As Peter O’Toole said in Lawrence of Arabia: “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

There would be downsides, of course. Pain isn’t just an immediate reaction, it helps shape our future behavior. The emotional component to pain might be important in training ourselves to avoid harmful situations. If we “don’t mind that it hurts” we would probably be more prone to do stupid things.

At the moment, it’s fairly theoretical to me anyway. If we need to go through acute injuries to get to the tolerance Ariely has, count me out – it’s not worth it to me. But we need to understand suffering in order to reduce it, and research like Ariely’s will help.

(Sidenote: I hear Julia will have a chance to meet Dan Ariely at Burning Man this weekend. I couldn’t go because I’ll be on a business trip to Dragon*Con [I know, no sympathy for me] but I hope she has a fantastic time! I’m not envious or bitter at all… )

The darker the night, the brighter the stars?

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars” always struck me as a bit of empty cliche, the sort of thing you say when you want to console someone, or yourself, and you’re not inclined to look too hard at what you really mean. Not that it’s inherently ridiculous that your periods of pleasure might be sweeter if you have previously tasted pain. That’s quite plausible, I think. What made me roll my eyes was the implication that periods of suffering could actually make you better off, overall. That was the part that seemed like an obvious ex post facto rationalization to me. Surely the utility you gain from appreciating the good times more couldn’t possibly be outweighed by the utility you lose from the suffering itself!

Or could it? I decided to settle the question by modeling the functional relationship between suffering and happiness, making a few basic simplifying assumptions. It should look something roughly like this:

Total Happiness = [(1-S) * f(S)] – S

where*
S = % of life spent in suffering
(1-S) = % of life spent in pleasure
f(S) = some function of S

As you can see, f(S) acts as a multiplier on pleasure, so the amount of time you’ve spent in suffering affects how much happiness you get out of your time spent in pleasure. I didn’t want to assume too much about that function, but I think it’s reasonable to say the following:

  • f(S) is positive — more suffering means you get more happiness out of your pleasure
  • f(0) = 1, because if you have zero suffering, there’s no multiplier effect (and multiplying your pleasure by 1 leaves it unchanged).

… I also made one more assumption which is probably not as realistic as those two:

  •  f(S) is linear.**

Under those assumptions, f(S) can be written as:
f(S) = aS + 1

Now we can ask the question: what percent suffering (S) should we pick to maximize our total happiness? The standard way to answer “optimizing” questions like that is to take the derivative of the quantity we’re trying to maximize (in this case, Total Happiness) with respect to the variable we’re trying to choose the value of (in this case, S), and set that derivative to zero. Here, that works out to:

f’(S) – Sf’(S) – f(S) – 1 = 0

And since we’ve worked out that f(S) = aS + 1, we know that f’(S) = a, and we can plug both of those expressions into the equation above:

a – Sa – aS – 1 – 1 = 0
a – 2aS = 2
-2aS = 2 – a
2aS = a -2
S = (a – 2) / 2a

That means that the ideal value of S (i.e., the ideal % of your life spent suffering, in order to maximize your total happiness) is equal to (a – 2)/2a, where a tells you how strongly suffering magnifies your pleasure.

It might seem like this conclusion is unhelpful, since we don’t know what a is. But there is something interesting we can deduce from the result of all our hard work! Check out what happens when a gets really small or really large. As a approaches 0, the ideal S approaches negative infinity – obviously, it’s impossible to spend a negative percentage of your life suffering, but that just means you want as little suffering as possible. Not too surprising, so far; the lower a is, the less benefit you get from suffering, so the less suffering you want.

But here’s the cool part — as a approaches infinity, the ideal S approaches 1/2. That means that you never want to suffer more than half of your life, no matter how much of a multiplier effect you get from suffering – even if an hour of suffering would make your next hour of pleasure insanely wonderful, you still wouldn’t ever want to spend more time suffering than reaping the benefits of that suffering. Or, to put it in more familiar terms: Darker nights may make stars seem brighter, but you still always want your sky to be at least half-filled with stars.

* You’ll also notice I’m making two unrealistic assumptions here:

(1) I’m assuming there are only two possible states, suffering and pleasure, and that you can’t have different degrees of either one – there’s only one level of suffering and one level of pleasure.

(2) I’m ignoring the fact that it matters when the suffering occurs – e.g., if all your suffering occurs at the end of your life, there’s no way it could retroactively make you enjoy your earlier times of pleasure more. It would probably be more realistic to say that whatever the ideal amount of suffering is in your life, you would want to sprinkle it evenly throughout life because your pleasures will be boosted most strongly if you’ve suffered at least a little bit recently.

** Linearity is a decent starting point, and worth investigating, but I suspect it would be more realistic, if much more complicated, to assume that f(S) is concave, i.e., that greater amounts of suffering continue to increase the benefit you get from pleasure, but by smaller and smaller amounts.

RS#37: The science and philosophy of happiness

On Episode #37 of the Rationally Speaking podcast, Massimo and I talk about the science and philosophy of happiness:

“Debates over what’s important to happiness — Money? Children? Love? Achievement? — are ancient and universal, but attempts to study the subject empirically are much newer. What have psychologists learned about which factors have a strong effect on people’s happiness and which don’t? Are parents really less happy than non-parents, and do people return to their happiness “set point” even after extreme events like winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed? We also tackle some of the philosophical questions regarding happiness, such as whether some kinds of happiness are “better” than others, and whether people can be mistaken about their own happiness. But, perhaps the hardest question is: can happiness really be measured?”

An economist’s tips for dining and cooking

Just finished Tyler Cowen’s latest book, Discover Your Inner Economist, which is full of tips for applying the principles of economic reasoning to your everyday life. One of my favorite things about Tyler is that he’s even more obsessed with food than I am — check out this Washington Post article about his twin passions for food + economics. (And if you live in the DC metropolitan area, you should read his detailed and insightful “Ethnic Dining Guide” to the area.)

Tyler also shares my passion for maximizing utility in clever ways. So my favorite part of the book, unsurprisingly, was his section on how to get as much enjoyment as possible from dining out and cooking. Below, I’ve culled a few of Tyler’s best tips:

Tip #1: Pay attention to relative rents. Want to eat out in your city? Your best bet is to look for restaurants in low-rent neighborhoods that are near high-rent neighborhoods. Their costs are lower, but they’re close enough to where foodies live that they’ll be catering to foodie standards. There are better restaurants on 9th avenue (on the West side of Manhattan) or 1st avenue (on the East side of Manhattan) than there are on 5th avenue.

Even turning the corner can make a difference. In Manhattan, the avenues are generally busier than the cross-streets, and have correspondingly higher rents, so if you look for restaurants on cross-streets you’re likely to find a better deal. You’re also likely to find better food. Restaurants in high-traffic areas can thrive just by attracting a lot of first-time customers who happened to be passing by, so they have less of a need to make their food good enough to attract repeat customers.

Tip #2: Avoid “ingredient-intensive” dishes at ethnic restaurants. Eating at an ethnic restaurant in the US? Avoid simple dishes that succeed or fail on the quality of their raw ingredients, like a steak at a Peruvian restaurant. Because raw ingredients are mass-produced in the US, they’re generally inferior to their counterparts in the home country, so those dishes are at a comparative disadvantage when you order them in the US. Look instead for dishes that rely on a skillful preparation with lots of different ingredients and complex sauces and flavorings. (Or as Tyler puts it: look for dishes that are “composition-intensive,” rather than “ingredient-intensive.”)

Tip #3: Don’t trust pretty dishes. This is one that I came up with on my own, and I was both gratified and kind of bummed to read it in Cowen’s book: When you’re dining at a nice restaurant, go for the dish that sounds the least appetizing. Why? Because dishes that sound delicious can retain their place on the menu just by attracting a lot of first-time orderers. Even if most people who order that dish are disappointed with its taste, there’ll always be a steady stream of new people who want to try it because it sounds good. Same for dishes that sound familiar (think “roast chicken”). Because there are a lot of people who aren’t adventurous eaters, those dishes will always have an audience even if they’re not very tasty. If you’re an adventurous eater whose main priority is tastiness, you should look instead for the dishes that have to be tasty in order to stick around.

(My original formulation of this principle was with regards to desserts: I don’t trust pretty desserts. Those adorable petit-fours in the display case, all decorated with pastel-colored flowers? They’re likely to be dry and bland. But they stick around because so many people order them for the first time thinking “That looks so good!” Meanwhile, the homely pan of lumpy brown bread pudding or cobbler isn’t going to catch as many people’s eyes, so if it’s still on the menu, it must taste divine.

Tip #4: High inequality is the foodie’s friend. If you’re planning a “food tourism” trip, aim for countries with high inequality. It’s sad, but true: to support an amazing cuisine, it helps to have a wealthy upperclass willing to pay for it, and a poor underclass willing to work for relatively low wages preparing and serving the food. Cowen recommends both Mexico and Haiti as exemplars of haute cuisine in the Western hemisphere. By contrast, France has been gradually slipping from its spot at the top of the fine dining hierarchy, because the high wages and strict labor laws there have pushed up the costs of running a restaurant.

Tip #5: Read cookbooks with a grain of salt.  Every home cook has some rough, implicit exchange rate between the cost she’s willing to pay (in terms of money, time, calories, etc.) for a given level of deliciousness of the dish. But the recipes in your cookbook might not be calibrated to your preferred exchange rate. In fact, there are a number of ways in which the implicit exchange rate assumed by your cookbook is likely to systematically diverge from your own.

For example, older cookbooks were written during an era when the value of the cook’s time was low. Meals were prepared either by professional cooks or by wives, both of whom were pretty much expected to be cooking all day long. So if there was a modification to a recipe that would cost you an additional 2 hours of time and improve the dish only slightly, an old recipe might well recommend that you do it. By contrast, you probably value your time a lot more highly than the cooks of previous generations, so that tradeoff might not be worth it to you.

Relatedly, cookbooks published by famous chefs are likely to recommend high levels of elaborateness that pay off only in small improvements in taste. That’s because the goal of a famous chef in publishing a cookbook isn’t solely to help you make delicious food, it’s to bolster that chef’s reputation as a virtuoso. So he has an incentive to recommend recipes that are more time-consuming, difficult, and involve more ingredients than absolutely necessary for maximizing the deliciousness of the final dish. In other words, don’t be afraid to take shortcuts — just because some step is recommended in a recipe, that doesn’t mean it’s a “good deal,” in terms of the ultimate taste of the meal.

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