Writing the Rich: What Is it Like to Be a Banker?

Christian Lorentzen makes an excellent point excellently:


Tougher for the novelist are the tasks of rendering convincing characters across the class spectrum and capturing economic intricacies in a way that’s both cogent and readable. I’ve not heard of any institutions that offer joint MFA-MBA degrees.

The impulse to become a writer suggests a fundamental fiscal incompetence. Fiction writers, often deriving their income from their status as writers (by teaching) rather than from their actual writing, tend to carve out lives somewhere within the middle class but find themselves at a remove from the higher and lower echelons of economic activity. The campus—a zone that encourages all participants to make a pretense of classlessness—has become the default home of most novelists, and this may partly explain why class is an easier subject to avoid now than in the days of Wharton, Fitzgerald, or Ellison. The love triangle in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot tilts not according to a geometry of class but according to the characters’ reading tastes. In any case, authors’ actual relationships to money don’t make for thrilling plot twists. Nobody wants to read a novel that climaxes with a successful book deal. There might, however, be a decent conceptual fiction to be written under the title A History of My Student Loans.

Milo Burke, the narrator of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel, The Ask, makes a useful class distinction after an encounter with a governor’s daughter: “She was from the people who kept everything. I was from the people who rented some of everything for brief amounts of time. I knew I deserved no pity, would get none from the people who kept everything. They only pitied the people with nothing at all.” I don’t think it’s rash to assume that most American fiction writers come from and remain the people who rent things, and it’s worth considering how much sympathy they extend to people wealthy enough to keep things. So pity the novelist who sets out to write about the rich: Demonizing bankers may be an effective political tactic, but it’s not an option for a novelist trying to draw well-rounded characters, or for one who wants to offer an understanding of contemporary society that becomes more than a class grievance.

That passage in The Ask hurt when I read it. Anyway, the problem Lorentzen identifies is real, and he ably adduces evidence of it in a number of recent novels. Lorentzen's mention of "class grievance" called to mind Robert Nozick's account of "wordsmith" intellectuals' attraction to socialism and hostility toward capitalism. According to Nozick:

In the currency the schools had to offer, the smartest constituted the upper class. Though not part of the official curricula, in the schools the intellectuals learned the lessons of their own greater value in comparison with the others, and of how this greater value entitled them to greater rewards.

The wider market society, however, taught a different lesson. There the greatest rewards did not go to the verbally brightest. There the intellectual skills were not most highly valued. Schooled in the lesson that they were most valuable, the most deserving of reward, the most entitled to reward, how could the intellectuals, by and large, fail to resent the capitalist society which deprived them of the just deserts to which their superiority "entitled" them? Is it surprising that what the schooled intellectuals felt for capitalist society was a deep and sullen animus that, although clothed with various publicly appropriate reasons, continued even when those particular reasons were shown to be inadequate?

[...]

It is not surprising that those successful by the norms of a school system should resent a society, adhering to different norms, which does not grant them the same success. Nor, when those are the very ones who go on to shape a society's self-image, its evaluation of itself, is it surprising when the society's verbally responsive portion turns against it. If you were designing a society, you would not seek to design it so that the wordsmiths, with all their influence, were schooled into animus against the norms of the society.

So, if Nozick's right, it's not only ignorance of the inner workings of business, and of the money-making classes, which leaves fiction writers unable to write insightfully about the commanding heights of the economy. Simple innocence would not explain the urge to demonize bankers Lorentzen warns writers against, but Nozick's conjecture might.

I think Lorentzen is right that "The campus—a zone that encourages all participants to make a pretense of classlessness—has become the default home of most novelists...," and he's also right to suggest that on campus classlesness is pretense. Because, of course, Eugenides' Brown is a place where class distinction is reinforced and rehearsed -- especially among the wordsmiths.

Steven Johnson (Sam Lipsyte's roommate at Brown!) wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times, coinciding with the release of Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, about the Brown semiotics scene in the 80s:

The obscurity of the field was partly the point. In Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel, “The Marriage Plot,” which takes place in part at Brown in the early 1980s, the heroine first stumbles across the semiotics program when a friend comes home with a copy of Jacques Derrida’s “Of Grammatology”: “When Madeleine asked what the book was about, she was given to understand by Whitney that the idea of a book being ‘about’ something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was ‘about’ anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.”

Greek for the “science of signs,” semiotics as a field dates back to fin de siècle philosophers and linguists like C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand De Saussure; in modern times it is most commonly associated with Umberto Eco. The general thrust of pure semiotics is a kind of linguistics-based social theory; if language shapes our thought, and our thought shapes our culture, then if we are looking for a master key to make sense of culture, it makes sense to start with the fundamental structures of language itself: signs, symbols, metaphors, narrative devices, figures of speech. You could interpret a Reagan speech using these tools as readily as you could a Nike ad.

A master key to the culture: a pretty powerful thing to have. And then there's this:

“Going to college in the moneymaking ’80s lacked a certain radicalism,” Eugenides writes. “Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism — with sex and power.”

So we have a sophisticated, worldly elect among all that Ivy League classlessness. And it was already attracted to "revolution" (against what?!) and allergic to "moneymaking." Not that the elect has fared poorly:

[A] striking number of semiotics students have gone on to influential careers in the media and the creative arts. ... NPR’s Ira Glass, the novelist Rick Moody, the filmmaker Todd Haynes, Eugenides himself — all spent their formative years in the semiotics program. The antihero of Sam Lipsyte’s hilarious 2010 novel, “The Ask,” takes theory classes at a college clearly modeled on Brown. (Lipsyte was in fact my roommate for most of my college career; I like to think the stinging parodies of semio-babble in that book were modeled on his other friends.)

This is a pretty impressive set of white guys. They are indeed, as Nozick puts it, "the very ones who go on to shape a society's self-image, its evaluation of itself." But Ed Conard probably spends more renovating a bathroom than their combined net worth, and that's got to rankle. What does Ed Conard know about Saussure?!

All that said, Nozick's explanation is a bit too sociological for me. Perhaps it's true, as Lorentzen says, that "The impulse to become a writer suggests a fundamental fiscal incompetence." But what stands behind the impulse to become a writer? Whatever it is, maybe it also predicts relatively weak pecuniary motivation. I'd guess a largely native strain of personality has a good deal to do with literary aspiration. If I were to go over to the Dey House and force the fiction MFA students take a Big Five personality survey, I'm confident I'd find a group almost uniformly super-high in "openness to experience." By itself, high openness predicts left-leaning politics. Indeed, as Jost and colleagues have argued, personality is fairly ideological. This is important.

If the personality traits that generate liberals are also a goodly part of the recipe for making literary novelists, then "write what you know" is, in effect, instructions to remain inside a left-leaning mind's experience or the world. Now, high openness is very strongly correlated with curiosity and empathy. So high-openness novelists may want to understand the subjectivity of bankers. Bankers, on the other hand, probably couldn't care less about the rich inner world of writers. But the motivation to enter into a foreign perspective doesn't guarantee success. It can be exceedingly hard for a super-high openness, super-low conscientiousness (and thus super-liberal) writers (like me) to imagine, must less connect sympathetically with, the motivation of super-low openness, super-high conscientiousness (and thus super-conservative) business-folk. Mostly, we do a terrible job. In some ways, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.

So that's three things. First, novelists just don't know enough about business or people in business to write about them well. Second, novelists are wordsmith intellectuals who feel poorly treated by the distributive principles of market societies and tend to resent those who thrive in its non-semiotics-based class structure. Third, novelists have left-leaning ideological personalities that, on the one hand, make them curious and empathetic, but, on the other hand, make it hard for them to imagine what it's really like to experience the world as a right-leaning ideological personality.

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

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Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.

Lapses

Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.