|The logic of inappropriateness|
Below, Scott Weiner argues that Carly Rae Jepsen’s song “Call Me Maybe” is an illustration of the dynamics of standard game-theory models, specifically the prisoner’s dilemma and stag hunt. Weiner assumes that Jepsen is a rational actor, that both Jepsen and her beau are better off being together than being apart or with different partners, and that Jepsen is rationally choosing to communicate her availability to facilitate their coming together. I share these assumptions, but as I demonstrate Weiner misses the key points of the song. If, as Weiner suggests, both Carly and the boy are better off together than apart, then why signal that “this is crazy”? And why is the song called “Call Me Maybe” instead of “Call Me Right Now So We Can Be Together”?
The answer is that Carly is trying to communicate that, despite her forward approach to the boy, she is nevertheless suitable for him. Sometimes, disclosing more information hurts rational actors, and for Carly to disclose that she is interested in the boy after having just met him could signal to the boy that she is an undesirable partner—not just because of old-fashioned notions (“she’s not wife material“) but also because an aggressive partner of either sex might not be interested in a long-term relationship (Hall and Oates, 1982).
So we are left with a puzzle. If Jepsen is rational and can assume her potential partner is as well, why pursue a strategy that both stresses her availability (“call me!”) while highlighting her ambiguity (“maybe?”) and stressing that the situation is causing her to behave in an unusual way (“and this is crazy”)? The answer lies in the fact that dating is a game played under asymmetric information, which changes the dynamics of the interaction in ways Weiner does not appreciate. I provide an informal treatment below.
Assume there’s some distribution of types of potential dating partners in the world, “worthy” and “tragic.” (We assume that the dating game is multiple-shot; as is well understood, one-shot romantic games have dramatically different properties.) The preference of each player, worthy or tragic, is to find a worthy partner and to avoid ending up with a tragic partner. Worthy partners would rather be alone than with a tragic partner; tragic partners would rather be with a tragic partner than alone.However, although every player knows his or her type (that is, whether they are themselves tragic or worthy), they can’t know with certainty whether other players are. Consequently, players who advertise themselves as worthy may be lying, and there’s no way to tell in advance.
How, then, for worthy partners to advertise themselves as being worthy? As Schelling and others would point out, there has to be some sort of credible signal. This, however, is likely to be reticence, since tragic partners are made much better off by being with anyone than by being with the right partner. Consequently, the dating scene is likely to be made up of tragic partners pretending to be worthy ending up with each other. (Game theory is often realistic that way.) This is a perverse equilibrium: The only players left on the scene are the ones who shouldn’t be dating anyone, because all the worthy partners know that trying too hard puts off other worthy partners.
Let’s assume, however, that Carly and her boy are both worthy. If Carly comes off too strong, then the boy may assume that she is tragic. So she instead engages in signaling by saying that she’s not normally this way, that the situation is highly unusual, and that she’s putting off all the other boys who are interested in her to talk to the boy–all signals that she is interested but not tragic.
Unfortunately for Carly, the ploy is unlikely to work if the boy is a worthy partner. While Weiner does not provide an independent assessment of how likely Carly and her object of attraction are to end up together, his analysis suggest that they will be happy together because they are better off together. Alas, my analysis suggests instead that all such posturing will be dismissed as merely cheap talk.
This is a guest post by Scott Weiner, a PhD student in Political Science at George Washington University.
One of this summer’s most popular hit singles is “Call Me Maybe” by pop artist Carly Rae Jepsen. In the song, Carly attempts to score a date with an attractive male by giving him her number and asking him to call her in order to set up the outing. This strategy is eventually successful, and while the male “took his time with the call,” Carly “takes no time with the fall.” This outcome is puzzling given that existing accounts of the scenario might predict a sub-optimal outcome given Carly’s strategy. Why does Carly Rae Jepsen give the boy her number despite her own realization that “this is crazy?” Why does Carly Rae Jepsen tell the boy, ambiguously, “call me, maybe” when her preferences are not at all ambiguous given that she very much wants him to call her? How can scholars understand the successful outcome of this strategy?
Existing literature understands the basic scenario presented in “Call Me, Maybe” as a prisoner’s dilemma. In the prisoner’s dilemma, two rational actors who cannot communicate with each other are given a choice of cooperation with each other or defection, with a system of rewards and penalties for each:
For the purposes of this model, we can assume Carly Rae Jepsen is a rational actor. She begins the song with the words “I threw a wish in a well / don’t ask me I’ll never tell.” This indicates a clear set of preferences. The fact that she will not reveal her wish under any circumstances indicates that these preferences are constant throughout the game. Carly also sets up a ranked order of preferences, noting “I’d trade my soul for a wish / pennies and dimes for a kiss.” This monetization of kisses indicates her ranking is in fact quite sophisticated.
However, assuming the boy is a rational actor as well (which Carly does) the prisoner’s dilemma would predict that her optimal strategy is to defect. Since she cannot guarantee the boy will call her, the prisoner’s dilemma predicts she should not give him her number, and that her actions are, in fact “crazy.” What accounts for not only Carly’s actions, but also the success of her strategy? To answer this question, we must look beyond the constraints of the prisoners dilemma. Other models may in fact lend more explanatory leverage on the issue.
I. A Shadow of the Future
One of the most important rules at play in a classic prisoner’s dilemma is that it is a one-shot game. However, if the game is played over and over with the same actor, this is known as an “iterated prisoner’s dilemma.” In this case, since the game is repeated, each actor will have to live with the consequences of his actions after the first round is over. This added condition is called the “shadow of the future.” When a shadow of the future is present perpetually (i.e. the game does not have a set end point), the optimal strategy ceases to be one of defection and instead becomes a “tit-for-tat” strategy, in which the actors try to mirror each other’s actions (see Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Strategies in the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma“)
Carly opens the game by giving the boy her number, which is cooperation. Since if they were to date the game would repeat without a definite end-point, Carly calculates that it is in the boy’s rational interest to call her. Until the point that either Carly or the boy defect from the game, cooperation is the optimal strategy according to the model.
However, the reality is not quite so simple. Rationally, Carly should signal every intent to cooperate to the boy in order to maintain her credibility. Yet she deliberately tells him “Hey, I just met you / and this is crazy.” What explains this puzzling signal?
II. Signaling Intentions In The Stag Hunt
Carly’s predicament could also be explained via a model known as the stag hunt. Originally developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the stag hunt involves two players who get a small payoff from hunting two rabbits separately but a large payoff from hunting one large stag together. Hunting stag requires a different weapon than hunting rabbit, however, and the weapon choice of the other player is unknown.
In a sense, Carly and the boy in question are in a sort of stag hunt. We assume for the purposes of the game that both Carly and the boy would prefer to go on a date over not going on a date (“Before you came into my life / I missed you so bad”). However, they also do not want their time wasted by trying to score a date with someone who is uninterested in going out with them. We can model the payoff structure of the game as follows:
As the matrix reveals, there are two equilibria in the game, but one has a higher payoff than the other. When such a payoff structure exists, actors will try to communicate their intention to cooperate (ie, go on a date) in order to try to induce cooperation from the other party. Communication is a highly theorized area of international relations, which involves signaling capability, resolve, and credibility. How can we understand Carly’s communication in this regard?
Carly’s statement “Hey, I just met you / and this is crazy” is an attempt to communicate both intentions and resolve. In particular, both statements are intended to highlight the costly signals Carly is giving of her intentions. Were Carly not interested in the boy, giving him her number after having just met him, an admittedly “crazy” action, would incur significant costs. By doing so regardless, Carly is communicating that she is in fact interested in having him call her. Her willingness to challenge social norms is an attempt to communicate resolve, especially given communication difficulties implicit in the situation at hand (“It’s hard to look right / at you baby”). That is, she is in fact interested in the boy and does in fact want the boy to call. Carly supports this signaling regime by noting that “all the other boys / try and chase me” a statement that she is committed to exclusive cooperation with the boy at hand.
The addition of the word “maybe” at the end of her signal is a tactic designed to highlight the choice which the boy now has to make between calling and not calling. Schelling would categorize “maybe” as as a “trip-wire,” in which one actor sets up an automated series of events which the other actor will trigger with a certain action. Since the first actor, Carly, has already chosen a risky course of action and the decision is out of her hands, it falls to the boy to pursue a strategy with the lowest risk for himself. This also turns out to be the one with the biggest payoff for Carly as well. As it happens, the boy does eventually call, and both Carly and the boy achieve their Pareto-efficient equilibrium.
In conclusion, Carly’s strategy is actually a rational one given the payoff structure she faces in the given situation. While such an explanation cannot explain her decision in the music video to wash a car in 5-inch heels, it can explain her actions as the outcome of a rational strategy. Further research should examine the generalizability of the argument by accounting for critical cases such as “Payphone (explicit)” by Maroon 5 (ft. Wiz Khalifa) and “Wide Awake” by Katy Perry. Ultimately, such inquiry serves to provide scholars with a deeper understanding of the complex world of interpersonal relations as relayed through pop songs.
UPDATE: Duck contributor PM provides an an alternate model of Carly Rae Jepsen’s song.
Cello/sci-fi/heavy-metal nerds, all my favorites rolled into one.
Some late Friday night blogging… Music tells us a lot about different places around the world and I love to collect it from my students and use it in the classroom. Worth noting that Ivory Coast has long had a great, socially aware, music scene. Zouglou started during the student protest movements in the 1990s (the protests initially began over the rolling electrical blackouts during the exam periods but spread to broader political demands). The music genre has gained widespread following in Europe especially with the popularity of Magic System. Soum Bill and Les Salopards may be a bit less well known but their music is edgier and more overtly political. The music video last year from their song, Vive le maire, blended satire with criticism of the socio-economic injustice and corruption. Here’s Soum Bill’s solo Qui Saura — a hard hitting social commentary:
For those interested, Tinariwen was profiled in Steve Chandra Savale’s six-part documentary on Music of Resistance that aired on AlJazeera English back in 2009. It provides a brief history of the Tuaregs and of the band:
Many of the “mercenaries” fighting on behalf of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya are ethnic Tuaregs who fled conflicts in Mali and Niger in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1980, Gaddafi began encouraging the young Tuareg men — illegally residing in Libya — to join military service as “African regiments” within the Libyan military. The general reputation of the Tuareg are as fierce and brutal fighters and they appear to be the “foreign mercenaries” in many of the eyewitness reports of brutality in Libya.
My first exposure to Tuareg peoples and their relationship with Gaddafi came several years ago when I started following Tinariwen — a group of former Gaddafi-trained rebels who floated for years from the refugee camps of southern Algeria to the deserts of Libya and Mali. Unlike the fighters in Libya today, this group of men put down their guns and picked up their musical instruments. The result is a special eclectic blend of North African folk, American blues and reggae.
After hearing that former Fugee and musical star Wyclef Jean is running to be the President of Haiti (despite not having lived there for decades and apparently not actually speaking French very well), I got to thinking – what other musical super stars could run as leaders to help fix the nations of the world? In what way could Lady Gaga help with nation-building projects? Could Paul McCartney advise the World Bank in any way (other than being able to possibly fund a small third world nation by himself for a year)?
(Alternate – Korean singing star Rain who will no doubt win over the ultra-Stalinist country with his keen dress sense and smooth dance moves – as he did with Stephen Colbert. And as this video suggests – he’s totally ready to make a nuclear holocaust/World War III pretty dang sexy.)
Who better to fix the chronic political instability, devastating poverty and colonial legacy than David Schwimmer? (We’ll prime them with a couple seasons of Friends first, obviously. I’m not so sure he can sing but that’s just details. At least the Lemur King-guy can.)
China – Beastie Boys
Perhaps after decades of fighting for their right to party, they could put their experience to use fighting for other rights. Like freedom of speech, assembly, protest, etc. Admittedly, songs about the freedom to form a union might not be as catchy.
Alternative: Wang Chung.
Libertarian wonderland! With no government to get in your way, or make you pay your taxes, surely this charming gentleman would fit right in!? Definitely no trouble carrying firearms there!
Sudan – Mel Gibson
Mostly because I’d just like to think of Mel Gibson in Sudan. The dangerous bit.
Canada – Michael Bublé.
These are just a few ideas. But I welcome any suggestions or alternates. There are thousands of singers and celebrities who could ever so usefully be deployed to harsh and inhospitable countries. Let’s not let Haiti have all of the fun!
Readers are invited to contribute their ideas – please, comment below or @StephanieCarvin on twitter. After all, it’s for the kids. .
Congratulations to Claus Wischmann, Martin Baer, and the performers of the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra for their work on the documentary of the “Kinshasa Symphony.” The film has been selected to premier at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival “Berlinale Special” on February 17th 2010, 21:45h (rerun February 18th, 18:00h, Cubix 8)
This is a beautiful project about the only symphony orchestra in central Africa – the “Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste.” The film will be shown in cinemas all over Germany later this spring. I hope it migrates over here to the US soon. Here’s a short clip of it:
Le seul Orchestre Symphonique de RDC à Kinshasa
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Although we just got the CD yesterday, I’d been listening to Neko Case’s new album (currently #2 in music on Amazon) pretty much non-stop via NPR for a bit. Quick and dirty: not as consistently good as Blacklisted, but an excellent album nonetheless.
On the surface Ms. Case’s songs qualify as alt-country or Americana. The production often harks back to 1960s and ’70s rock, backing her concise melody lines with finger-picked acoustic guitars or twang and reverb. But surreal, unexpected sounds — echoes, voices, noise — well up within those arrangements. Her version of Harry Nilsson’s whimsically fatalistic “Don’t Forget Me” becomes a lofty expanse of choral voices and multiple pianos.
Her own songs melt down structures. Instead of fixed verses or choruses there are two-chord patterns that run as long as Ms. Case wants, or as short; they might add or subtract a beat, suddenly switch chords or support an entirely new tune in mid-song. Subliminally that rhapsodic approach keeps the songs off balance and suspenseful, ready for every possibility of disaster or exaltation.
If you haven’t joined the Cult of Case, this album is a pretty damn decent introduction to its rewards.
And there’s also a promotional “making of” video to watch.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m kind of a sucker for the Decemberists. I rarely buy music anymore — money’s a bit tight while my wife is in school — but I still ordered The Crane Wife the day it was released. Any band that produces a video centered around a prep-school model UN (and spoofing so many different genres at once it will make your head spin) and could give us “The Mariner’s Revenge” deserves a great deal of academic-geek loyalty.
I posted recently that my opinion of The Crane Wife has gotten better with repeated listening, but I’m still not entirely sold. The three-part title track is beautiful and evocative; despite what some critics say, the placement of “The Crane Wife, Part 3” at the start of the album and “The Crane Wife, Parts 1 & 2” as the penultimate track makes perfect thematic sense.
But I thought Josh Love’s review pretty much nailed the problem with the new album:
And yet, these upgrades, impressive as they are, essentially are the equivalent of Kevin Smith deciding to throw all his efforts into special effects and costume design. As it is for Smith, the main draw with the Decemberists is the talking, and the talking on The Crane Wife often fails to meet the band’s infamously lofty standards.
Lazily derided for spinning the same silly and perversely arcane seafaring yarns throughout his career, Colin Meloy actually excels most at rendering tragic character sketches, imbuing wasted, shattered lives with grace and feeling no matter how insignificant or seedy they may on the surface appear to be. Think “Eli, the Barrow Boy,” “On the Bus Mall,” and “We Both Go Down Together.” Or “Billy Liar,” “Red Right Ankle,” and “The Chimbley Sweep.” The subjects may superficially seem static and unspectacular, but Meloy grants them a rich inner life and drapes their mundane tales in something heroic and sublime.
The Crane Wife, however, reveals a new and discouraging tendency towards boilerplate stories and lyrics that fail to penetrate. “Yankee Bayonet” features a lovely bridge and is ostensibly tragic, but its narrative, portraying lovers forever parted by the Civil War, is nonetheless unremarkable. Its resolution, with the fallen solider vowing to “come on the breath of the wind,” feels overly sentimental and pat, especially for a songwriter so comfortable with unhappy endings. Similarly, “O Valencia!” and “The Perfect Crime 2,” which treat star-crossed lovers and heists, respectively, offer nothing in the way of interior monologue to give individual resonance to shopworn scenarios (though the latter boasts some nicely Steely Dan-worthy funk while the former actually includes a reference to the existence of cars, a shockingly out-of-place acknowledgment in the Decemberists’ world).
The album lacks, overall, the rich narrative world of their previous offerings. It’s still a storng album — better than a “B-“, for sure.