Big Planet

How to read your own books

In academia, popular economics on June 3, 2009 at 5:02 pm

You love buying books, but once the titles are in your shelf, you just kind of stare at them and read books you do not own.

It makes sense. Books you lend are transient, while books you own are permanent. You just want to maximize limited privileges (library, friends, anyone?). That’s why a criterion I use in buying a book is that I shouldn’t want to read it right away. But ten years have passed and I still have dusty Austen, yellowing Twain and crispy Dickens, untouched like wrinkled virgins. How many of us are guilty of this cognitive bias?

Perhaps you should turn to economics. It’s time to get over what Richard Thaler calls the endowment effect, which makes us value the things we own more than what they were worth when we did not own them.

Thomas Schelling, whose work on conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis won him the 2005 Nobel Prize, proposes an art of self-management he calls egonomics. He says each individual has a kind of split personality — for instance, one part wants to read the books in the shelves, while the other wants to play a simulation game instead.

You can force a cooperation between two conflicting parties through precommitment, which is a strategy that Schelling recommended in nation-state wars. The idea is for you to cut off your options to retreat or give up, hence making your threat credible. The credibility of the threat will deter the conflict, and the end result is avoidance of war (“you go to war to prevent it”).

Precommitment can cure the endowment effect. Simply threaten yourself to let go of your books, and see if you still won’t read them. The only catch is that the threat must be credible. Leave no option of retreating.

I did this by auctioning my books on eBay, where there’s a constant threat that a book will be sold. When someone bids for a book, I quickly pick it up from my shelf and read it before finally shipping it to the customer. I would feel sorry for myself if I did not read the books before letting them go.


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