Monthly Archives: August 2009

Fiction And Females

In January I wrote:

Both religion and fiction serve to reassure our associates that we will be nice.  … Religious beliefs show we expect the not nice to be punished by supernatural powers, and our favorite fiction shows the sort of people we think are heroes and villains, how often they are revealed or get their due reward, and so on.  We don’t believe the stories really happened, but we do tend to believe these “social truths” about their characters.

Robert Wilbin asked me how that fits with these ’06 findings:

[Researchers] interviewed 500 men, many of whom had some professional connection with literature, about the novels that had changed their lives. … Similar research into women’s favourite novels …  [was] last year.  The results are strikingly different. …

Women … named a “much richer and more diverse” set of novels than men. … “Men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life’s journey, as consolers or guides, as women do,” … Women readers used much-loved books to support them through difficult times and emotional turbulence, and tended to employ them as metaphorical guides to behaviour, or as support and inspiration.  “The men’s list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading,” she said. Ideas touching on isolation and “aloneness” were strong among the men’s “milestone” books. … They revealed a pattern verging on a gender cliche, with women citing emotional, more domestic works, and men novels about social dislocation and solitary struggle.  She was also surprised she said, “by the firmness with which many men said that fiction didn’t speak to them”. … Most of the men cited books they had read as teenagers, and many of them stopped reading fiction while young adults, only returning to it in late middle age. …  “On the whole, men between the ages of 20 and 50 do not read fiction.”

Men do like fictional heroes that maintain and even develop their determination, ideals, and identity in the face of outside indifference or hostility.  This makes sense as a male ideal, since men need to project confidence and toughness in our world.

Men probably also tend to avoid religion between the ages of 20 and 50, at least when free to choose for themselves.  I wonder why such men see less need to use fiction or religion to show their identity and ideals, relative to women or other aged men.

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Lorentz Invariance, Not

New Scientist:

Major Atmospheric Gamma-ray Imaging Cherenkov Telescope. …  What MAGIC saw on that balmy June night … Lower-energy photons from Markarian 501 had outpaced their higher-energy counterparts, arriving up to 4 minutes earlier (Physics Letters B, vol 668, p 253)

The MAGIC observations were showing just the sort of effect that quite a few models of quantum gravity predict. … A minimum size for space-time grains, as predicted by loop quantum gravity, could violate the cherished principle of special relativity known as Lorentz invariance, which states that the maximum speed of all particles, regardless of their energy, is the speed of light in a vacuum.

Here is more on the empirical issues; here is a solid and robust argument that a min size in space time implies a Lorentz violation.   We seem to be starting to see a clear quantum gravity effect!

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Social Brain Theory Confirmed

The social brain theory is that human brains got big mainly due to deal with the complexity of human societies.  Such as, say, signaling.  While it is the dominant theory as far as I can tell, it is nice to see some direct evidence in its favor.   New Scientist:

Geary collected data from 175 fossil hominin skulls, from 1.9 million to 10,000 years old. Then he looked to see whether brain size was best correlated with climatic variability – a crude measure of biodiversity which could indicate the complexity of hunting and gathering – or the human population size at the time, which could reflect the complexity of social interactions.  Geary’s analysis found that population size was the best predictor of brain size, suggesting that our ancestors’ need to outcompete their neighbours in order to survive may have been the strongest driver of brain growth (Human Nature, vol 20, p 67).

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Women Prefer Poaching

Men tend to want the woman they see in front of them, while women want the man other women see:

Are women more interested in men who are already in a relationship? Female and male participants who were single or in a relationship viewed information about an opposite-sex other and indicated their interest in pursuing this target. Half of the participants were told that the target was single and half read that the target was currently in a relationship. The results showed that only single women were more interested in pursuing an attached target rather than a single target. …

According to a recent poll, most women who engage in mate poaching do not think the attached status of the target played a role in their poaching decision, but our study shows this belief to be false. …

Across ten world regions, 57% of men and 35% of women indicated they had engaged in an attempt at mate poaching, … people who mate poach are more likely to be low in agreeableness and conscientiousness than those who do not. …. Research on animal mating (e.g., fish, birds) has shown that female animals are more likely to choose a male that has already been chosen by other females … Research on human preferences does show that women rate men as more desirable when they are surrounded by other women, compared to being alone or surrounded by other men. Conversely, men rate women as less desirable when they are surrounded by other men, compared to being alone or surrounded by other women.

Yet another way in which we don’t know why we do what we do.

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Tax Investment

Michael Blume recently reminded me of a point I made eleven years ago.  At the time it seemed too obvious to be original, but now I’m not so sure.  So let me point out an important negative investment externality:

Raising the long term real interest rate results not only in dropping poor investment projects, whose rates of return are lower than the new rate, it also causally increases the long term rate of return of all better investments, those that would have been undertaken anyway.

This is a huge market failure, due to a lack of property rights in long term investment prospects, as I explain below.  If it were the only investment externality, then free market interest rates would be too low.  This externality is countered, [edit: complicated] however, by a legal failure due to our choosing not to enforce all feasible long term contracts, especially with the dead:

Large legal barriers now hinder us from making deals with the far future, and from saving today to benefit them.  We do not enforce many kinds of terms in wills, and charities are required to spend a certain fraction of their capital each year, to prevent their endowments from growing large.

Given this overall situation, the obvious policy prescription is:

  1. Enforce all feasible long term contracts, and
  2. Artificially raise global interest rates, e.g., tax investment.

The first policy can be implemented locally, but second seems to require global coordination – an extra local tax may on net hurt that locality.   So without a world government we may never implement this second policy. Continue reading "Tax Investment" »

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Futarchy in BBC Focus Mag

I have a 600 word pro-futarchy oped in the current issue of BBC Focus magazine. It begins:

Has the recent MP expenses scandal soured the idea of democracy for you? Good, because a vast space of possible forms of government remains unexplored, and it is high time we explored it. Yes, democracy beats a dictatorship, but there might be better systems. …

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Indifference To Hospital Quality

Consumer pressure for quality in medicine is very weak.  How weak?  Consider that readers of Consumer Reports are unusually wealthy and assertive as customers, and readers who answered a Consumer Reports survey are probably especially so.  Yet when such folks had a choice of hospitals, only 2% listed a hospital rating among their top three reasons:

Fifty-nine percent of patients in our survey did not enter the hospital through the emergency room, so they might have had a choice of which hospital to go.  But 65 percent [of these] simply went to the hospital their physician recommended or was affiliated with.  Forty percent chose a hospital for its location, and 28 percent because it was in their health plan’s network.  (Respondents were asked for their top three reasons.)  Only 11 percent chose the hospital for its record in treating their condition, and only 2 percent on the basis of the hospital’s ratings in books or magazines or online.  (Consumer Reports, September 2009, “Patients Beware,” pp. 18-23.)

I suspect most of that 11% of patients were actually just relying on their physician’s claim about a hospital’s record, rather than checking it out for themselves.  Consumer Reports also surveyed 731 hospital nurses, 26% of who said their staff is lax in washing hands, vs. 5% of patients who said so:

To help prevent hospital infections, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that doctors or nurses should wash their hands (or use alcohol gel) in front of you when they enter your room, and if they don’t you should remind them.  Many hospitals have campaigns to encourage patients to speak up in that way.

Do it!

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Moral Rules Are To Check Power

Three recent papers from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology combine to tell an interesting tale:  We fundamentally care about outcomes, but have rule morality to keep powerful folks from doing bad things to the rest of us. This is of course not a new idea, but new data offers new support.

From August:

Thinking about and having power affects the way in which people resolve moral dilemmas. … In determining whether an act is right or wrong, the powerful focus on whether rules and principles are violated, whereas the powerless focus on the consequences. For this reason, the powerful are also more inclined to stick to the rules, irrespective of whether this has positive or negative effects, whereas the powerless are more inclined to make exceptions. … The power–moral link is reversed when rule-based decisions threaten [powerful] participants’ own self-interests.

From March:

A distinction is made between two forms of morality. … Prescriptive morality is sensitive to positive outcomes, activation-based, and focused on what we should do. Proscriptive morality is sensitive to negative outcomes, inhibition-based, and focused on what we should not do. Seven studies profile these two faces of morality. … Both are well-represented in individuals’ moral repertoire and equivalent in terms of moral weight, but proscriptive morality is condemnatory and strict, whereas prescriptive morality is commendatory and not strict. … proscriptive morality was perceived as concrete, mandatory, and duty-based, whereas prescriptive morality was perceived as more abstract, discretionary, and based in duty or desire; proscriptive immorality resulted in greater blame, whereas prescriptive morality resulted in greater moral credit.

From June:

Three studies tested the hypothesis that people would be particularly sensitive to the fairness of decision-making procedures when they experience deprivation of autonomy needs. Study 1 indicated that procedural justice judgments indeed were influenced more strongly by variations in decision-making procedures among participants who experienced little autonomy in their life.

The basic idea here is that moral norms are enforced via social censure, which requires that observers be able to tell who has violated moral norms.   When there are norm ambiguities, powerful people will find it easier to falsely claim they have followed norms, implicitly threatening those who contradict them.  To avoid this, powerful folks are held to rule norms that are easier for observers to verify.

Here is a somewhat-related result, from the July Psychological Science:

Among people who are highly identified with a group, learning about the group’s injustice leads to short-term increases in group-serving behavior.

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Social Science Cuts Religiosity

If reducing interest in religion is a sign of rationality, then social sciences rule!

A new NBER paper compares college majors for their effect on student religiosity.  Majoring in biological sciences, engineering, or vocational areas all increase religiosity about the same relative to not going to college.  Majoring in education encourages religion even more, while majoring in physical science has about the same effect as no college.  Majoring in humanities reduces religiosity relative to no college, and majoring in social science reduces it the most.

Here is a part of the paper’s main table:

econcutsreligion

Bold params are significant at 5%.  They control for year, region, gender, parent education, type of religion, and initial religiosity.

Added: Studying physics in college helped me become atheist because, taken as a complete account, physics seemed to leave no room for spirits to regularly intervene in human affairs.  Most students, however, do not take physics as such a complete account.  Social sciences and humanities do not usually suggest they offer complete accounts, but they do offer more direct stories of how human affairs become arranged, accounts that compete more directly with divine intervention stories.  I suspect that this competing explanation effect is the reason social sciences and humanities reduce religiosity, and that the social science effect is stronger because its accounts leave fewer holes for divine influence than do humanities’ accounts.

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How Wrong Can We Be?

Most models published in economic journals have a reasonable if loose match with human behavior.  If most published economic models says that in X-type situations people tend to do more Y, then more often than not, people in fact more often do Y when X.  This is evidence that economic theoryists actually know something about human behavior.

However, when you ask people in situation X why they do Y, the reasons they give usually have only a weak connection to the reasons in related economic models.  Yes people who have been taught economics can find it easy to explain their actions in economic model terms, but this is not how most folks usually think.  Thus the practice of academic economics implicitly accepts that people often, perhaps even usually, do things for reasons other than the reasons they give.

Consider also that something similar holds in sales and marketing.  The rationale a marketer gives for why an ad or other product strategy works usually differs quite a bit from the reasons people give for why they like an ad or a product.  Similarly, the reasons dating and other relation consultants give for why their suggested strategies help people like or respect you are often quite at odds with the reasons people give for why they like or respect others.

In addition, I just posted on how seeing the hidden status games in most conversations makes one a better actor, and on how psychotherapy is all about exposing our hidden-to-ourselves agendas.   Standard social science accounts of religion say religion is quite functional for people, but for reasons rather different from the reasons religious people give.  Similarly, my “showing that you care” explanation of medicine suggests medical behavior is functional, but for quite different reasons than people usually give.

This all seems to add up to a consistent expert consensus that humans quite often, perhaps even usually, just don’t know why they do what they do.  And this is extremely disturbing, as it calls into question our own opinions about why we do what we do.  Worse, if each of these areas (econ modeling, marketing, acting, psychotherapy) experts call into question only a limited range of our opinions, while implicitly assuming most of our other opinions are correct, perhaps these experts seriously underestimate just how misinformed we all are.

I’d like to take this skepticism seriously, and in fact seem to be somewhat obsessed by this project.   I’m not sure exactly how, but I’ll plow ahead anyway.

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