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There's a Theory for Everything

Posted by: Jena McGregor on March 19, 2008

I couldn’t help but chuckle at the “Columbia Ideas@Work” newsletter that crossed my desk this week. The newsletter, put out by Columbia Business School and featuring its professors’ research, includes a snapshot of a study by Nachum Sicherman, professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School. The headline, “Why do Dancers Smoke?” was followed by a tagline: “Using smoking as a proxy for time preference may help explain why some workers invest more in career development than others.”

Nachum, a labor economist, was curious to see dancers standing around smoking after a performance he attended. He wondered if smoking “could serve as a proxy for time preference, the degree to which a person is oriented to the present or the future,” the article reports. Because dancers have short careers, he thought, this suggested the dancers “were perhaps more present-oriented than future-oriented.”

The article goes on to a discussion about the implications for behavioral economics, why nonsmokers’ wages increase dramatically more than smokers during their first decade of employment, and the concept of “time preference,” which is “not a trait you can observe in a direct way, so we hypothesized that an indirect way to observe it is to assume that, on average, people who smoke place less value on teh future than people who do not smoke.”

Hmmm. Maybe there’s some truth to the whole time preference issue. But as a former ballet dancer myself, I had to laugh at how business school researchers can become so theoretical about the simplest things. Dancers smoke to keep from eating during long breaks. Quite simply, they don’t want to gain weight.

Reader Comments


March 21, 2008 4:25 PM

I also laugh at how many theories an economist can conjure up about the simplest little tidbit of information or a few seconds of observation. And I'm a little alarmed how much their theories can snowball to the point where they become semi-incoherent and loose context. Theories are great, but they should be focused and repeatable, not a voluminous, meandering grab bag of data snippets.


October 7, 2009 11:19 AM

Economists like many other professionals reach for their familiar tools first.

A hammer (i.e. theory of differential time-preferences) is a really handy tool -- it might not make a lot of sense to use a hammer on a ballet dancers or their time preferences ... hammering and bending a ballet dancers' preferences in wierd directions angers the ballet dancers AND really does not drive the point home...

Of course, the same critique applies to commenters to who feel that they must use their favorite hammer metaphor to explain all behavior ... having a really big hammer available can obscure a lot of the subtle issues, but smashing stuff has its own rewards.

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