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The Ig Nobel prizes for Economics

The Ig Nobel prizes for Economics
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First Published: Sat, Oct 08 2011. 12 51 AM IST

Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Updated: Sat, Oct 08 2011. 12 51 AM IST
Not all research has to be serious and solemn. The Ig Nobel prizes, a parody of the Nobel Prizes awarded each year by the scientific humour magazine, Annals of Improbable Research, chronicles some of the more bizarre scholarly efforts.
Unfortunately, this year they didn’t award an Ig Nobel for Economics, although I would argue that Mirjam A. Tuk, Debra Trampe and Luk Warlop’s paper, “Inhibitory Spillover: Increased Urination Urgency Facilitates Impulse Control in Unrelated Domains”, does have major economic implications.
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
The paper examines the kind of decisions that people make when their bladders are full and find, inter alia, that “higher levels of bladder control result in an increasing ability to resist more immediate temptations in monetary decision making”. Although the paper won the Medicine prize, it’s clearly very closely related to economics.
We would recommend further research on the subject by making well-known investors such as Warren Buffett and George Soros drink lots of water, wait till the pressure on their bladders builds up, and then ask them to pick stocks.
The 2010 Ig Nobel awards did have an Economics prize, which went to the executives and directors of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., American International Group Inc., Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch and Magnetar Capital Llc. The citation says the award is for “creating and promoting new ways to invest money—ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof”. That’s obviously a misprint—the prize is clearly for the discovery of financial products that maximize financial risk and minimize financial gain, an innovation that has been shaking the entire financial world for the last four years.
But in 2010, too, an Ig Nobel prize in another discipline had important implications for economics. This was the paper by Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda and Cesare Garofalo of the University of Catania, Italy, titled “The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study”, which won the Management prize. The researchers were able to demonstrate mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.
Obviously, such a finding has huge consequences for the economy. The present state of the Italian economy seems to indicate that almost any promotion policy would be better than whatever is their current one.
The 2009 Ig Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to the directors, executives and auditors of four Icelandic banks. The citation says the award is for “demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa—and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy”.
We also believe that Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, who received the Mathematics Prize for printing bank notes in denominations from 1 cent to 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollars, should actually have got the Economics award. It’s sad that we have to go back all the way to 2008 to find a proper research paper that won the Ig Nobel for Economics. In that year, Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tyber and Brent Jordan of the University of New Mexico won the prize for their paper on “Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus?”
“Estrus”, in case you didn’t know, is ‘a periodic state during which the female of most mammals is willing to mate with the male and is capable of becoming pregnant’.
The study found that lap dancers earned more in tips when they were ovulating. Here’s an extract that sums it up admirably: “Participants earned about S$335 per 5-h shift during estrus, US$260 per shift during the luteal phase, and US$185 per shift during menstruation. By contrast, participants using contraceptive pills showed no estrus earnings peak…. These results have clear implications for human evolution, sexuality, and economics.”
The same year, the Chemistry Ig Nobel was awarded to researchers from the US who discovered that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide and they shared the prize with researchers from Taiwan who discovered it is not. I’m sure this, too, has a strong connection with economics, although I’ve forgotten what it is.
Write to simplyeconomics@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Oct 08 2011. 12 51 AM IST