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Kafkaesque: How Franz Kafka’s books reveal a real-life dystopia
Unstable politics and virtue signaling are responsible for creating bureaucratic nightmares.
- In Franz Kafka's works, we meet a world clogged with an absurd and soul-destroying bureaucracy that no one understands nor bothers to challenge.
- When a country experiences political instability through a high turnover of its elected representatives, there is a marked increase in ineffective legislation.
- Democratic reform and a change in culture is needed to give our politicians space to pass thoughtful laws.
You have been queueing for three hours and are already pretty annoyed when the clerk calls you forward. He first asks for your P445b form — all 12 pages of it. After an insultingly brief look, he dots the form with random whacks of his stamp. Next you present the R45c form, another 12 pages, half of which are the same as the P445b. Another glance, more stamps.
Now you have to hand over five passport-sized photos with no neck showing and both eyes at least 84 percent open. On and on it goes for half an hour. Form, glance, stamp. Then, just as you are about to be done, the clerk asks for your Form Documentation Wallet.
"The what?!" you ask, trying to keep your voice steady. The man rolls his eyes.
"The FDW? It's a law passed yesterday. If you've no FDW, I can't help you."
You leave and book another appointment in two months' time.
Welcome to the all-too-familiar world of 21st century bureaucracy — a monstrous, lumbering maze of forms, stamps, and writing letters in tiny boxes. A world that is, frankly, Kafkaesque. And now, a forthcoming paper authored by a team led by Gabriele Gratton to be published in the American Economic Review, argues that political instability propagates this kind of inefficient bureaucracy, thereby clogging and choking economic output.
Max Weber's ideal bureaucracy
Laws and reforms ought to make life easier or better. The philosophical ideal of this was presented by political theorist Max Weber. The Weberian model is one in which bureaucracy "guarantees order and maximizes efficiency" and with "few useless reforms."
A new and exciting law might make a politician famous, but long after they are gone, society will pay the price.
In short, it's a society that has competent politicians who have done their research and who pass laws that serve a practical purpose. For this to happen, a government needs elected representatives who are in office long enough to do the hard work of drafting legislation and must not worry (too often) about losing their job. In other words, a country must have political stability.
The opposite of this is when a political system is so unstable that it "shortens the horizon of less competent politicians," who therefore insist on passing ill-considered and knee-jerk legislation for which they will not have to be accountable anyway. An unstable political body with a high turnover is associated with an increase in ineffective reforms that lead to a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. A legislature filled with one-term legislators simply is not invested in what its laws will do.
In Kafka's works, especially The Trial, the reader experiences a claustrophobic and absurd dystopia, weighed down by a pointless and relentless bureaucracy. This is not just the kind of petty nuisance of a passport renewal; instead, it is an illogical and arbitrary system that is soul-crushing. It is waiting months for an application to be approved, only to be rejected by some faceless bureaucrat without any guidance as to why. It is being judged suitable or not without any idea of the criteria you ought to satisfy. It is filling out forms or getting licenses that not only don't make sense to you but don't make sense to anyone. It is the drip, drip, drip of nonsense legislation that makes up a swamp, and wading through it saps and destroys you.
According to the aforementioned study, political instability provides fertile ground for this kind of Kafkaesque system. For instance, the fall of the USSR caused huge political instability across much of Europe. In Italy, there was "an increase in the production of new laws, a deterioration in their quality, and a progressive fall in the efficiency of its bureaucracy." In comparison, Germany, which kept true to the Weberian ideal, remained stable and therefore efficient.
Laws are now a form of virtue signaling
Even politically stable countries can't escape the Kafka curse. Gratton and her colleagues make the point that many of the world's democracies are witnessing a trend toward laws being used as a form of virtue signaling. Instead of addressing practical matters, politicians use legislation as a form of political activism and as an appeal to their supporters. Often through media coverage, there is a "reputational pay-off" for passing laws, no matter how ineffective or ill-considered they are. Basically, it's all a performance.
One way that this kind of performative legislation can be minimized is through certain reforms, exemplified by the U.S. House of Representatives' rules on "co-sponsorship." In the 1960s and early 1970s, the House capped the number of legislators allowed to co-sponsor a bill (which is essentially a public sign of support) at 25. If a legislator could not become a sponsor, they would write another similar or even identical bill.
Unsurprisingly, the number of bills in the House skyrocketed to roughly four times the number in the Senate (where legislators are in office for six years and potentially less concerned about performative bills than the House legislators who serve only two years). When the cap was lifted, the number of pointless, Kafkaesque, bills dropped to being equal with that of the Senate.
Politicians need room to do their job
The paper by Gratton et al. reveals to us a new but important issue: the value in giving politicians room to do their job. Inevitably, politicians always will have one eye on the next election, but when this is taken too far, it leads to short-termism, performative action, and woefully ineffective legislation.
This is far from harmless. Kafkaesque bureaucracies clog the economic system. When businesses and individuals have to waste time and money on pointless box-ticking, everyone is affected. A new and exciting law might make a politician famous, but long after they are gone, society will pay the price.
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Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."
Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- "We love to think of ourselves as rational. That's not how it works," says UPenn professor Americus Reed II about our habits (both conscious and subconscious) of paying more for items based primarily on the brand name. Effective marketing causes the consumer to link brands like Apple and Nike with their own identity, and that strong attachment goes deeper than receipts.
- Using MRI, professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and his team were able to see this at play. When reacting to good or bad news about the brand, Samsung users didn't have positive or negative brain responses, yet they did have "reverse empathy" for bad news about Apple. Meanwhile, Apple users showed a "brain empathy response for Apple that was exactly what you'd see in the way you would respond to somebody in your family."