Monthly Archives: June 2009

For The Truth, Ask Friends

John Bargh at The Edge:

“If all these things are going on without my knowledge, then I don’t really know why I’m doing what I’m doing, and I don’t really know myself that well apparently. So how can I make the right decisions or make the right choices for myself when all these biases are throwing my decisions all over the place?”

There’s a really simple answer here, which I like and people also seem to like it. It is to ask your friends, ask your family, ask people who are close to you about yourself. Don’t be afraid to hear what they have to say. Tell them to tell you the truth, because they do know you, and in many ways better than you know yourself.

That’s the funny thing about all of this. It turns out we do know about other people pretty well. We’re much better at predicting other people’s behavior than our own, and Emily Pronin at Princeton, whose research has focused on this issue, gives a great example of when she was deciding on grad schools to go to. Continue reading "For The Truth, Ask Friends" »

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Why Signals Are Shallow

A comment on Tierney’s NYT blog post on Miller’s Spent:

I recently applied to PhD programs. I had the good fortune to be accepted to a number of top-rate programs. … One stood out as the university with the most prestige and ‘brand recognition’. … I was not surprised that strangers, especially those outside of academia, reacted most positively to the name with the highest perceived prestige. What did surprise (and sadden) me is how it seemed to change the perceptions that my family and very close friends have of me. Even when family or friends … told me to make the decision based on what program I thought was best for me, it was clear that they were leaning towards and routing for the program with the most famous name. After I made the decision, it was clear that their perceptions of me changed, palpably. They can now say, ‘I have a friend/daughter/granddaughter who is going to this world famous Ivy League institution’. The whole story they can tell about me- and they way they think about me has shifted.

Geoffrey Miller says we try too hard to collect shallow signals that don’t say much to those who know us well.  But a boss who has known you for years may not promote you unless you get a better degree, even if school teaches you nothing useful on your job.  He might not hire you without that degree, even if he knows and trusts folks who have known you for years.  Why do people who know us well care so much about shallow signals?

Your boss doesn’t just want high quality subordinates; he wants his boss to think he has high quality subordinates.  Actually he wants his boss to be happy about it, which requires his boss’ boss be happy about it, etc.  We all want to affiliate with high status people, but since status is about common distant perceptions of quality, we often care more about what distant observers would think about our associates than about how we privately evaluate them.

In academia, one often finds folks who are much more (or less) smart and insightful than their colleagues, where most who know them agree with this assessment.  Since academia is primarily an institution for credentialling folks as intellectually impressive, so that others can affiliate with them, one might wonder how such mis-rankings can persist.  But academics understand that folks primarily care about distant common signals of impressiveness, such as publications.  Getting a lousy paper into a top journal usually counts for more than a fantastic paper in a low rank journal.  Only in small tightly-connected academic communities can an informal perception that your low-journal paper was fantastic make it count for more than a crappy top-journal paper.

I suppose it might be nice to live in an isolated small town where everyone knows everyone so well that superficial signals count for little.  But I’ve never lived in such a town, and am quite unlikely to ever live there.

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Over The Top Commencement

Listening to my son’s high school graduation ceremony last night, I was struck by how completely implausible were many speaker claims, such as:

  1. Never let anyone tell you there is something you can’t do.
  2. You’ll have setbacks, but never let them discourage you.
  3. If I can succeed, so can you.
  4. We’ll always treasure our memories of high school.
  5. We students are so thankful to have such a friendly principal.

I was embarrassed to be associated with such transparent falsehoods, but apparently I’m in a minority.  What obvious lies have you heard at commencement, and why do you think such lies were told?

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Blame Games

Politics isn’t mainly about policy, but when policy comes up politicians mainly want credit for appearing to do what voters embrace, while avoiding blame for appearing to do what voters reject.  Actually doing something everyone likes is very hard; it is usually easier to modify how things appear, and who appears responsible.  Republicans do this as much as Democrats, but since Democrats are now in charge, they offer current examples.

Since the Democrats gained control of the US Presidency and both houses of Congress, they have been getting a lot of what they’ve long wanted.  They didn’t patiently wait to get it slowly, but have been grabbing as fast as possible.  Even so, Democrats don’t want to appear fully in control, because then they could be blamed for the negatives as well as the positives.

On the financial crisis, the Democrats loved the stimulus idea as an excuse to spend lots on favorite projects, but emphasized that the spending was forced on them by the credit crisis, which they blame on Republicans.  Democrats also loved overruling bankruptcy law to give [Chrysler] to unions at the expense of bondholders, but again said the crisis forced their hand.

On global warming, the Democrats want credit for cutting carbon, but don’t want blame for higher energy prices.  A carbon tax would make price blame clearer, so they are going with tradable permits, which also lets them play more favorites with who gets permits.  Permits also make it harder to notice if they actually cut carbon, vs. preserving business as usual.  They hope to get credit for creating a process that will cut carbon if future politicians set low permit levels. Continue reading "Blame Games" »

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Errors, Lies, and Self-Deception

About a recent European Journal of Personality article:

The participants recorded a one minute television commercial, … then watched … themselves, having been given guidance on non-verbal cues that can reveal how extraverted or introverted a person is. … They were then asked to rate their own personality. … The participants’ extroversion scores on the implicit test showed no association with their subsequent explicit ratings of themselves, and there was no evidence either that they’d used their non-verbal behaviours (such as amount of eye contact with the camera) to inform their self-ratings.

In striking contrast, outside observers who watched the videos made ratings of the participants’ personalities that did correlate with those same participants’ implicit personality scores, and it was clear that it was the participants’ non-verbal behaviours that mediated this correlation … Two further experiments showed that this general pattern of findings held even when participants were given a financial incentive.

[Folks seem] extremely reluctant to revise their self-perceptions, even in the face of powerful objective evidence. … Participants seemed able to use the videos to inform their ratings of their “state” anxiety (their anxiety “in the moment”) even while leaving their scores for their “trait” anxiety unchanged.

(Hat tip to Michael Webster.)  This sort of thing terrifies me.   Let me explain why. Continue reading "Errors, Lies, and Self-Deception" »

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“Lazy” Hurt Less Than “Stupid”?

Bryan Caplan reports on a meta-analysis comparing intelligence, personality, and status in predicting life outcomes:

The magnitude of the effects of personality traits on mortality, divorce, and occupational attainment was indistinguishable from the effects of [Socioeconomic status] and cognitive ability.

Conscientiousness, i.e., not being lazy, matters about as much as intelligence, i.e., not being stupid.   And it is similarly heritable, i.e., genetic, it is more correlated with gender, and probably similarly correlated with race, class, and ethnicity.  Yet stupidity seems a far more sensitive topic.  Many deny intelligence exists as a meaningful concept, many others say we should not study intelligence-group correlations, and employers are discouraged from using intelligence tests in hiring.  Yet few seem to object to the meaningfulness of personality concepts, no one has even bothered to study personality-race correlations, and employers seem to face lower barriers to using personality tests in hiring.

So why is “lazy” less insulting/sensitive than “stupid”?   Some possibilities:

  1. Folks (incorrectly) think laziness is less permanent than stupidity.
  2. Laziness is a desire, smarts an ability; bad desires are less insulting than bad abilities.
  3. Good personality tests are recent; after a century of racist, sexist, etc. uses they’d be just as sensitive.
  4. Intellectuals see school as filtering stupidity more than laziness; IQ tests compete more with their product.

What say ye?

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Tyler Dares Obama

In the NYT, Tyler Cowen dares Obama to put up or shut up:

Medicare expenditures threaten to crush the federal budget, yet the Obama administration is proposing that we start by spending more now so we can spend less later. … Obama administration talks of empowering an independent board of experts to judge the comparative effectiveness of health care expenditures …

[Yet] Congress has not been willing to give up its power over what is perhaps the government’s single most important program. … There is already a Medicare Advisory Payment Commission, but it isn’t allowed to actually cut costs. …

If we are willing to take comparative-effectiveness studies seriously, we could make significant cuts in Medicare costs right now. We could cut some reimbursement rates, limit coverage for some of the more speculative treatments, like some forms of knee and back surgery, and place more limits on end-of-life-care. … If we aren’t willing to take even limited steps to conserve resources, we shouldn’t be spending any more money elsewhere. …

67 percent of Americans believe that they do not receive enough treatment … only 16 percent believe that they have received unnecessary care. If the Obama administration covers more people … the political support will broaden for generous benefits.  … Mr. Obama has pledged to be a fiscally responsible president. This is the biggest chance so far to see whether he means it.

Wonks have for years warned of the coming US fiscal “train wreck” of retiring baby boomers riding the medical cost escalator.   Politicians ignored the wonks and even expanded Medicare drug benefits, and then suddenly dug deep to respond to a financial meltdown.  Now Obama proposes to spend even more.   Tyler is right; if they can’t find the nerve to cut costs now, don’t expect them to do so until forced.

(Tyler quotes me, but I’d agree with him here even if he hadn’t.)

Added: Clyde Middleton weighs in.

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Growth Mode Jump Example

I’ve talked here before how history can be seen as a sequence of periods of steady exponential growth, separated by a few sudden jumps to new modes.  A new paper in Science offers a nice concrete model of how a new mode can be triggered by an old mode reaching a particular level.   In this case the new mode is humans using culture to share and improve complex behavior like art and tool construction.   The model says the new mode was not possible until humans were dense enough so that skill improvements from groups copying each other could overcome the tendency of a lone group’s skills to devolve.  From Science Daily:

“Our paper proposes a new model for why modern human behaviour started at different times in different regions of the world, why it disappeared in some places before coming back, and why in all cases it occurred more than 100,000 years after modern humans first appeared.  By modern human behaviour, we mean a radical jump in technological and cultural complexity, which makes our species unique. This includes symbolic behavior, such as abstract and realistic art, and body decoration using threaded shell beads, ochre or tattoo kits; musical instruments; bone, antler and ivory artefacts; stone blades; and more sophisticated hunting and trapping technology, like bows, boomerangs and nets.” …

[They] found that complex skills learnt across generations can only be maintained when there is a critical level of interaction between people. Using computer simulations of social learning, they showed that high and low-skilled groups could coexist over long periods of time and that the degree of skill they maintained depended on local population density or the degree of migration between them. Using genetic estimates of population size in the past, the team went on to show that density was similar in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and the Middle-East when modern behaviour first appeared in each of these regions. Continue reading "Growth Mode Jump Example" »

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Space Towers

Long ago kings and empires often signaled their power via impressive buildings, such as temples, cathedrals, and pyramids.   Today, cities and corporations often similarly signal via big skyscrapers, bridges, and ships.  But for nations, the fraction of  wealth spent on a single showy construction has dramatically decreased.  Space programs serve a similar function, but don’t leave such huge monuments to admire.

A new Acta Astronautica article suggests this trend may reverse.  New Scientist reports:

A giant inflatable tower could carry people to the edge of space without the need for a rocket, and could be completed much sooner than a cable-based space elevator, its proponents claim. … The team envisages assembling the structure from a series of modules constructed from Kevlar-polyethylene composite tubes made rigid by inflating them with a lightweight gas such as helium.

To test the idea, they built a 7-metre scale model made up of six modules.  … The team [also mathematically] modelled a 15-kilometre tower made up of 100 modules, each one 150 metres tall and 230 metres in diameter, built from inflatable tubes 2 metres across. Quine estimates it would weigh about 800,000 tonnes when pressurised – around twice the weight of the world’s largest supertanker. “Twenty kilometres up is about as dark as outer space. You can see about 600 kilometres in any direction.”

The analysis in the tech paper is solid, if preliminary.  This seems doable now. (Quotes from the paper are below.) My immediate reaction was tech lust and pride: “COOL!”  Once upon a time I would have celebrated the social value of such innovations, but now I understand that while innovation in general should be praised, we probably waste too much on showy but not especially useful monuments like this.

Yes, it could be used for tourism, to reduce the cost of spaceflight, and for geoengineering, but those probably won’t cover its costs.  I’m proud my culture seems able to do such a thing, but I’ll admit my gain may come at the expense of others who look worse by comparison.  Those quotes from the paper: Continue reading "Space Towers" »

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Why Yes Men

A classic 1993 economics paper is “A Theory of `Yes Men.’“:

This paper illustrates an incentive for workers to conform to the opinion of their supervisors when firms use subjective performance evaluation. This desire to conform arises endogenously from the firm’s need to induce the worker to exert effort.

The basic model goes as follows.  A boss needs to estimate some number X (e.g., the optimal value of a design parameter).  An employee can work to get a noisy signal S about X; the harder he works, the lower his noise.  The boss also has a noisier estimate B of X, and wants to encourage employee effort to get an accurate signal S.  If no one will ever know anything more about X than these two estimates, then the boss is forced to reward the employee based on how close that employee’s estimate S is to the boss’ estimate B.  If there are several employees, the boss can also reward each employee i based on how close his estimates Si is to other employees’ estimates Sj.

Now imagine that an employee i can work to get signals not only about X, but also about the boss signal B, or about other employee signals Sj.  Under the above incentive schemes, such efforts may be richly rewarded.  Yet from the point of view of a boss who wants a good estimate of X, such efforts are a waste.  This is the problem of  (suck up, brown noser, kiss ass) “Yes Men” (and women), who pay too much attention to what the boss thinks, or to common opinion, relative to the problem at hand.

This classic paper was insightful, but I think it missed a key feature of real yes-men: most bosses of yes-men encourage, not discourage, their employees to find out what they think.  In the above model, a boss who revealed his own estimate before the employee put in his effort would have lost all ability to encourage such effort.  So such a boss should instead try hard to hide his own opinion until the last possible moment.  Similarly, if it weren’t for the benefits of teamwork, such a boss should try to prevent multiple employees from talking to each other about their estimates  Real bosses with yes-men, however, typically make their opinions clear to subordinates, and encourage full communication between subordinates.  Why? Continue reading "Why Yes Men" »

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