Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rational (Beauty) Expectations

Rational Expectations (RE) on a Post-It Note is a behavioral conjecture: people aren't systematically fooled. Folks can make honest mistakes given available evidence, but if you collect the random errors and average them, you arrive at the underlying Platonic Truth.

Mind you, when economists use RE as an analytical tool, they're making claims about economic variables (usually future prices), but the idea should extend well to anything with sufficient salience. If it's important enough to worry about, it's important enough to think clearly about.

The following video is evidence against everyday RE.

Photoshop (or even its predecessors, airbrushing, soft focus, lighting tricks et al) is no secret. The Internet-old "I can tell from the pixels" meme is laughably tired. Of course we all know that advertisers attempt to trick the eye, so we should be able to seamlessly ignore or discount the false evidence presented in print ads.

Right? Hello? Is this thing on?

It's "there ain't no way to hide your lyin' eyes", not "there ain't no way to digitally manipulate your lyin' eyes." Advertisers should be able to make entirely credible disclaimers that their altered photographs do not constitute fraud, since 1) everyone knows about Photoshop and 2) no explicit claims of "use our products to look like this" appear in beauty ads. It's up to the viewer to make the connection.

Is Photoshop coercive?

More interestingly, how the heck can it work? Not in the "lighten and smooth the skin, lift the breasts, tuck the tummy" sense, but how in the heck can ordinary folks fall for its obvious duplicity? Are the social tuning forks in our heads so easily warped that we set standards based on bs images in glossy magazines?

It sounds absurd to me when I think about it, but maybe that's just because my appearance occupies a relatively small sliver of my attention (as those of you who know me in person can attest). Perhaps if I identified more closely with beauty, I'd be singing a different tune.

But it's still unlikely that the refrain would include censorious intent. I'd prefer to encourage folks to be better Bayesians.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?