Let’s Write a Zeitgeist Hit

February 21, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s easy to look back and see how a movie, TV show, or book was a massive hit because it fit perfectly with the spirit of its time. Maybe it expressed what we, all of us, were feeling, or maybe it gave us something we lacked. Think of those 1930s musicals, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, elegantly dressed and dancing their way through sets that dripped with luxury.  Perhaps they were so popular because “their musicals offered the purest form of escape from the woes of the Depression, a fantasy of the 1920s seen through the darker prism of the 30s.” (John Rockwell in the New York Times, “Escaping Depression? Just Dance Blues Away.”).

The implication is that there is a zeitgeist tide in the affairs of culture which taken at the flood leads on to fortune, or at least a 15 Nielsen. They’re pretty much the same thing. All you have to do is suss out the zeitgeist.

I had thought that people in the business would be skeptical about this way of thinking. Old Hollywood hands who have a lot of experience in actually making movies and TV shows know how hard it is to create a hit, to know what the public will respond to. Try to imitate a hit by incorporating those elements in it that seem to have resonated with the audience, and you often fail miserably. As screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote in 1983, “Nobody knows anything.”

I had thought that sociologists would be skeptical about this way of thinking. They would be familiar with Wendy Griswold’s 1981 AJS article showing that the content of novels published in the US in the late 19th century may have had more to do with the economics of publishing rather than with a supposed cultural transformation. It was the change in copyright laws, not the feminization of American culture.

Ken Levine (rhymes with divine) is an old Hollywood pro, mostly as a writer — Cheers, M*A*S*H, Frasier, Simpsons, and so on. He also does a weekly podcast (“Hollywood and Levine”). I hadn’t listened to it in a while, but the episode title “How SEINFELD Got on the Air”  made me curious. It turned out to be a conversation with another old Hollywood hand, Preston Beckman, whose metier is scheduling. He knows not only how Seinfeld got on the air but why it was on the air Wednesdays at 9:30. He used to blog anonymously as “The Masked Scheduler.” He also has a Ph.D. in sociology from NYU.*

The entire conversation is interesting. Here’s the part that includes the word zeitgeist. They are discussing the success of “American Idol” and “24."

Here’s a transcript, somewhat edited.

KEN LEVINE: Back in 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, the country needed something to get out of its funk. And the Beatles came along at just the right time a couple of months later.And in a sense I always felt that “American Idol” was similar in that it was after 9/11. It came along and we needed something positive to focus on. And that became the zeitgeist hit.

PRESTON BECKMAN: I totally agree with you. I totally agree. I don’t think anybody at Fox thought it was going to be what it was going to be.  And afterwards, thinking about it — and maybe my background as a sociologist before I went into this business. . . . I think the country needed something.

What was great about American Idol is that it put control of the process in the hands of the viewer. So after seeing the devastation and everything we had seen, it was like “OK, I have input into this. I have some control over this event.

The pilot episode of “24” was completed in time for the opening of the fall TV season in 2001 but was delayed because Fox was broadcasting the baseball playoffs. Then came 9/11. 

PRESTON BECKMAN:  We actually had to edit the pilot because there was a scene of a plane being blown up. That was another situation where we didn’t know whether this was going to be rejected because of what had happened or going to be embraced, and fortunately I think the casting of Kiefer Sutherland had a lot to do with the success of the show.

The Hollywood pro and the sociologist-turned-Hollyword-pro agree: It’s the zeitgeist — what the country needed. “American Idol” offered “something positive,” something that gave viewers control at a time when people’s sense of control over their lives and their country had been shaken. It was, says Levine, a “zeitgeist hit.” The zeitgeist was there; the Idolators just figured out a way to cash in on it. Apparently, William Goldman was wrong. Somebody knew something.

But Beckman, though he seems to be unaware of it, says something that’s much closer to Goldman’s view. Nobody at Fox expected “American Idol” to be such a huge hit. The same goes for “24.” Before the show aired, “we didn’t know” if it was going to be a hit. It’s only in retrospect that Levine and Beckman can construct the zeitgeist connection. Even then, Beckman seems to be giving greater weight to casting decisions than to the post-9/11 zeitgeist.  It’s only in retrospect that we can look at the attributes of these shows, match them up with elements of the zeitgeist, and then “predict” their success.

* The title of his 1981 dissertation is “Predicting Television Viewing: an Application of the Box-jenkins Methodology for Time Series Analysis to Levels of Television Usage in the United States (1966-1975).”

The Sorrows of Old Brooks

February 17, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In his Valentine’s Day op-ed bemoaning the supposed disappearance of romantic love, Arthur Brooks begins with Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. In that novel, the title character falls in love with a woman who is already engaged to someone else. She gets married. He commits suicide. Got it?

I wouldn’t pitch this plot to Netflix today if I were you, but in 1774 in Europe, it was a huge hit.  “Young men began to dress like Werther. Most alarming, the novel was said to have stimulated copycat suicides among brokenhearted lovers.” It was “Werther Fever.” And, says Brooks, it’s what we need more of in America today. I am not making this up.

What is the opposite of Werther Fever? Whatever it is, we’re suffering from it in the United States today. Particularly among young people, there is an increasing absence of romantic love.

I looked through the General Social Survey for data that would confirm Brooks’s idea about the withering of romantic love. The evidence was hardly convincing (see the previous post). But let’s suppose Brooks is right, that younger Americans are turning away from romantic love. If young Werther is our shining exemplar, maybe we should ask whether romantic love is such a good thing.

To begin with, romantic love has little connection to reality. Can one person satisfy all the emotional and erotic needs of another person? We know that this notion is unrealistic. That’s why romantic love is often likened to a dream state, with a “dream lover,” the “man of my dreams,” and so on. Even more unrealistic is the idea that only one person in the world can work this dream-like effect. For young Werther, it’s Charlotte, and if he can’t have this one person, there’s no point in living. Up close, it seems idealistic. But take a step back, and it looks pretty silly. As Philip Slater says, what would we think of a man who died of starvation because he couldn’t get any Brussels sprouts?

These stories also tell us, inadvertently, that romantic love is unsustainable. The lovers in these stories spend almost no time together. Instead, the plot focuses on the lovers’ struggles against the obstacles that separate them. Once these obstacles are overcome – or not – game over. Can these two people sustain romantic love over the long (or even not-so-long) course of a marriage?  Tales of romantic love dodge that question. They end either with the death of one or both lovers (Romeo and Juliet, Young Werther) or with their union. “They lived happily ever after. The end. Don’t ask what actually happened in that ever-after.”

The “ever after” is hard to imagine because romantic love is based on fantasy. You may fall in love with and pursue the “dream lover.” You may even wind up together. But in a sustained relationship (what is still often called a marriage), you have to live every day with a real person, not a dream.

Brooks is particularly concerned about the “precipitous decline in romantic interest among young people. . . . . While 85 percent of Generation X and baby boomers went on dates as high school seniors, the percentage of high school seniors who went on dates in 2015 had fallen to 56 percent.”

To which I am tempted to respond, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Maybe Brooks’s memories of dating in high school are sunnier than mine, but it seems to me that kids dated because there was no alternative. They felt they were required to pair off in some simulation of a romantic couple. Often, neither boy nor girl was comfortable with that arrangement — about what you’d expect with two people more or less forced together having to come up with the rules and roles in this new relationship. My impression is that for most kids, that relationship rarely achieved the romantic love that Brooks imagines.

Much more pleasant were the times I spent hanging around with groups of friends. And apparently that’s where teen-age culture is heading. Less dating, more hanging out and hooking up. It’s not perfect. The “hookup culture” among college students that Lisa Wade describes in American Hookup seems joyless and unsatisfying. But college students do go on dates, and most wind up in pair relationships. It’s just that these often develop out of and follow more casual relations and hookups.

Brooks thinks that this is a change for the worse. Me, I’m not so sure. When those baby boomers went to the high school prom, it was a date; they went as couples, two to a car, and if you didn’t have a date, if you were not paired off, you didn’t go. Today, they clamber into limousines as a group — as many as the limo will hold — some in couples, others not.  I don’t know why Brooks wants to re-impose the rigidities of dating. Maybe he misses those Werther-like sorrows.

Bye-Bye Love

February 15, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Arthur Brooks, in a Valentine’s Day op-ed in the Washington Post, brings us the sad news that the flame of romantic love is sputtering. “Particularly among young people, there is an increasing absence of romantic love.”

Really? To convince us, Brooks offers three bits of evidence.

1. While 69% of pet owners planned to give their pets a gift, only 61% of pet owners planned to give a gift to a spouse.

I’d put this in the “I am not making this up” category. Brooks really does offer it as evidence. The numbers are from VetIQ, a pet health company not widely known as a source of national survey data. Maybe he threw it in just to lighten the mood. Whatever. Brooks offers no information on planned Valentine gift-giving among the petless.

2. Surveys of kids show that the custom of dating is on the wane. Or as Brooks’s son, a college junior, says, “Nobody dates.”

3.  The General Social Survey. Now we’re getting serious.

from 1989 to 2016, the percentage of married people in their 20s fell from 32 percent to 19 percent. And lest you think they are forgoing marriage but not sex, note that the percentage of 20-somethings who had no sex in the past year rose by half over the same period, from 12 percent to 18 percent.

The decline in marriage and the increasing age for getting married may have just a wee bit to do with factors other than romantic feelings — things like the economy, the labor market, and the cost of having children. As for not having sex, if more 20-somethings are unmarried, more of them will be without sex partners. In any age category, the marrieds have more sex than do the unmarrieds.

So if we accept Brooks’s idea that no-sex is a good indicator of the lack of romantic love, we should look at just the unmarried. Here is the GSS data on 20-somethings.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

If you look only at the first and last years (the GSS did not ask this question before 1989), you see what Brooks pointed out.  No-sex  goes from 17% to 23%. But there’s no clear overall upward trend (the dotted trend-line in fact goes downward). Yes, the 2016 numbers were high. But that may be a statistical anomaly like the unusually low rates in 2012. It would help if we had 2018 data, but we don’t, not yet.

But let’s pretend that romantic love, as measured by no-sex, really is decreasing. The question is why?

“Kids, I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today.”

The father in “Bye-Bye Birdie” (1960) may not have known what’s wrong with these kids, but Brooks does. “The greatest culprit for the United States’ increasingly romanceless culture is fear.” Ya got trouble, my friends, right here in River City, with a capital F, and that stands for fear.

And how do kids come by this fear? From protective parents (known not long ago as “helicopter” parents.)

Children are discouraged from venturing alone out of the house by their parents, who also adjudicate their disputes with other children. The protection culture often deepens in college, with the proliferation of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to allow avoidance of hurtful ideas. As a result, many young adults enter their 20s with little experience in conflict and rejection — with the social equivalent of a peanut allergy. It is no surprise that love and dating would seem scary and foreign to so many.

If Brooks is right, we would expect to find that Americans brought up in less protective times and places are more daringly romantic. In addition, the upward trend towards less sex should be stronger among the children of protective, college-educated parents (Annette Lareau’s “concerned cultivators”) than among those whose less protective parents never got a college degree.

For the period 1996 - 2008, we see the difference Brooks would predict. The children of (presumably) protective parents are more likely to have been without a sexual encounter in the previous year. If Brooks is right about coddled kids, and assuming that protective parenting was still on the rise among educated parents in the 1990s, that difference should have grown even wider in the current decade. But it didn’t. Instead, it disappeared.

Protective parenting is relatively new, says Brooks, so we should also see a generational difference — a stronger trend towards no-sex among younger people.

(For both age groups, I excluded those who were married. For the older group 
I included the divorced and separated along with the never married.)

The older group, the ones raised before helicopter parenting, are more likely to have gone without sex. That’s the opposite of what Brooks would expect. Of course, it may have more to do with life circumstances and the ease of finding partners than with how protective their parents were. In any case, the trends in the two lines are not vastly different. 

Maybe Arthur Brooks is right, and America’s youth are the vanguard leading in the wrong (in his view) direction, away from romantic love. At least for the moment, I don’t find the evidence convincing. As listeners to the Annex Sociology Podcast might know, I tend to be skeptical about claims of social decline, especially those centered on young people. The two myths that I spoke about with host Joe Cohen on that podcast (here and here) are the decline of authoritarianism and the loss community. To this, we now add the fading rose of romantic love.

Billionaire? Moi?

February 4, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof had no problems with the word rich. He did not sing, “If I were a person of wealth, Ya da deedle deedle. . .” He laid it on the line.

Howard Schultz is more squeamish, especially about people saying how much money he actually has — i.e., at least a billion dollars.

The moniker “billionaire” now has become the catchphrase. I would rephrase that and say that “people of means” have been able to leverage their wealth and their interest in ways that are unfair, and I think that speaks to the inequality but it also speaks to the special interests that are paid for people of wealth and corporations who are looking for influence. [from an interview yesterday with Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times, emphasis added]

“People of means” sounds dated to my ear, especially for a guy running for president in 2020. Ditto “person of wealth.” So I went to Google nGrams to see how the frequencies of these terms had changed over the years, at least in published books. I threw in another term that could also be used to indicate someone with large amounts of money.

Schultz’s preferred terms are indeed a throwback. They were at their peak back when Sophie Tucker said, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and believe me, rich is better.” Or as Mr. Schultz might say, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been a person of wealth, and believe me, being a person of wealth is better. Rich makes me sound so greedy.”

These were also the years when you could still get a cup of coffee for a dime. Since then the popularity of “person of means” and “person of wealth” has been on the skids. As for the cost of that cup of coffee, maybe you should ask Mr. Schultz.

Today’s Big Match-Up

February 3, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s Superbowl Sunday, and this year we’re about to see a contest between two rivals that have met several times previously on this blog. No, not the Rams and the Patriots, not exactly. It’s The Wisdom of Crowds versus The Smart Money.

The theory of the wisdom of crowds says that the average guess of all the interested participants is better than the guesses of the experts. The full title of James Surowiecki’s 2004 book on the topic is The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. He begins with the famous anecdote of Galton at the fair. Here’s a summary from an earlier blog post on the topic.

Plymouth, England, 1906. On display is an ox, slaughtered and dressed. How much does it weigh? Fairgoers submitted their guesses. A statistician, Francis Galton, happened to be there and recorded the data. Galton was also a eugenicist, so he was certain that the guesses of the masses would be less accurate than those of the experts. But it turned out that the crowd, as a group, was far more accurate. The average of all the guesses (n=787) was within one pound of the actual weight (1,198 lbs). No individual guess came that close.

Surowiecki doesn’t say much about sports betting, unless you consider ox-weight estimation to be a sport. But my immediate reaction was that if Surowiecki is right, then bookmakers should be an endangered species, constantly paying out on many bets and collecting few. Not a good business model.

Sports books are experts. They set a line that they think will bring in an equal amount on both sides.* They often assume that the public will share their views on the abilities of the teams, and often they are right. But sometimes, the public thinks that the bookmakers are wrong and bet so much on one team that the books have to adjust the point spread to bring in more action on the other side.

This year, bookmakers judged the Rams and Patriots as evenly matched. The opening line on the Superbowl was pick-’em. Neither team was favored. (A small number of books had the Rams as a 1-point favorite, a few others had the Patriots by one.) The crowd roared in on the Patriots, and the books quickly raised the line to New England minus 2½. Bet the Rams, and you start the game ahead by that many points. Or bet them without points and get $120 for a $100.

Even that couldn’t attract enough money on LA.  Bookies are holding three times as much money on the Pats as on the Rams. On Thursday, a high roller bet $2 million on the Rams at the MGM, and that still didn’t offset the New England money. If the Rams win and MGM has to pay out that $2M, it will still finish well in the black from all the losing bets from Patriots backers.

It’s not just the oddsmakers who think the crowd is wrong. The “sharps,” professional gamblers who make a living from sports betting,** are also hitting the Rams — just not in large enough amounts to balance the millions of dollars coming in on the Pats.

I am posting this four hours before kickoff, and perhaps the crowd will move in with lots of money on the Rams, but I doubt it. If things stay as they are, today’s game is a good example of The Wisdom of Crowds vs. The Smart Money. (Of course, it is only  a single data point and by itself will prove nothing.)
UPDATE: The crowd was wise. The Patriots won 13 - 3. The crowd was also wise on the over/under which started at about 58, but the crowd, betting heavily on the under, brought it down a couple of points.

* Most point-spread bets are 11-10 — the bettor wagers $110 to win $100. If the action is evenly divided, the book makes money no matter who wins, paying out $100 to each winner and collecting $110 from each loser.

** The guy who made the $2M bet is not considered a sharp, even though he won a very large bet last year when he took the Eagles over the Patriots in last year’s Superbowl.

The First Derivative of the Wisdom of Crowds

February 2, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

If this is Superbowl weekend, then the Socioblog’s fancy must be turning to thoughts of the wisdom of crowds vs. the smart money.  It’s a question I have returned to several times since the first year this blog was on the field. (See. for example, this post about the 2010 Superbowl.)

The “wisdom of crowds” is like the Ask-the-Audience option in “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The “smart money” is like Phone-a-Friend — a friend who knows a lot about the subject.

The trouble with the wisdom of crowds is that sometimes the crowd is wrong, as it was in the 2007 NFC championship game between the Bears and the Saints that I blogged about at the time (here.)

Now, a trio of academics — John McCoy (marketing), Dražen Prelec (management), and  H. Sebastian Seung (neuroscience) — has a variation that allows you to derive the right answer from the crowd even when the crowd is wrong. You might call it the first derivative of crowd wisdom.

Is Philadelphia the capital of Pennsylvania? 

Suppose you don’t know, and you ask the crowd.

The correct answer is no. The capital is Harrisburg. But many people think it is, because Philadelphia is a large, populous city. Most people know about Philadelphia. When you ask that question to a crowd of people, as we did with MIT students, only about a third of the crowd gets the correct answer.*

Yes is the popular answer. The crowd, by two-to-one, says Yes, Philadelphia is the capital. The crowd is wrong. The capital of Pennsylvania is Harrisburg. So much for the wisdom of crowds.

Wait, not so fast, say McCoy and his colleagues. Let’s also ask another question: “What percent of people do you think will answer No to this question?” The average estimate is 23%. But in fact, 33% answer No. This makes No a “surprisingly popular” answer, surprising in that more people than expected say No. It’s as though you are taking the first derivative of crowd wisdom rather than the wisdom function itself.

If you went with the popular answer, you’d say Yes and be wrong. But if you go with the derivative — the “surprisingly popular” answer —  you’ll get it right.

McCoy sees applications of this to all kinds of forecasts — the market for some product, the price of gold, voting, He doesn’t mention the Superbowl. Right now, about 25% of bettors think that the Rams will win or that they will lose by 2 points or less. But suppose we asked all bettors, “What fraction of people do you think are betting the Rams?” If they guessed that only 10% of them are backing the Rams, then the Rams would be the “surprisingly popular” choice, and you would be a fool not to put down a grand to win $1250. Alas, I know of no such surveys. Besides, I don’t trust Belichick.

Two other thoughts:
First, McCoy’s makes the concept harder to understand by choosing an example where No is right. “Is No the correct answer?” “Yes, No is right.”

Second, I was stunned that two-thirds of MIT students did not know the capital of fifth most populous state in the country. Look, people, we’re not asking about Pierre or Carson City. This is not rocket science. And now I get the feeling that at MIT a question about rocket science might have gotten a higher proportion of correct answers.

*From an interview with McCoy on a Wharton School podcast. An article by Prelec, Seung, and McCoy in Nature is here behind a paywall.