Monthly Archives: August 2010

School Isn’t For Learning

A few years ago, Peter Gray blogged some provocative claims:

Foragers don’t distinguish work from play:

Hunter-gatherers do not have a concept of toil. When they do have that concept, it derives apparently from their contact with outsiders. … Their own work is simply an extension of children’s play. Children play at hunting, gathering, hut construction, tool making, meal preparations, defense against predators, birthing, infant care, healing, negotiation, and so on and so on; and gradually, as their play become increasingly skilled, the activities become productive. … work is play for four main reasons: (1) It is varied and requires much skill and intelligence. (2) There is not too much of it. (3) It is done in a social context, with friends. And (4) (most significantly) it is, for any given person at any given time, optional. …

Hunter-gatherers’ work somewhere between 20 and 40 hours a week, on average, depending on just what you count as work. Moreover, they do not work according to the clock; they work when the time is ripe for the work to be done and when they feel like it. There is ample time in hunter-gatherers’ lives for leisure activities, including games of many sorts, playful religious ceremonies, making and playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, traveling to other bands to visit friends and relatives, gossiping, and just lying around and relaxing. (more)

Foragers kids learn without being taught:

Hunter-gatherers lived in small nomadic bands (of about 25 to 50 people per band), made decisions democratically, had ethical systems that centered on egalitarian values and sharing, and had rich cultural traditions that included music, art, games, dances, and time-honored stories. … [We] contacted a number of anthropologists who had lived among hunter-gatherers and asked them to respond to a written questionnaire about their observations of children’s lives. …

[Our] four conclusions: … 1. Hunter-gatherer children must learn an enormous amount to become successful adults. … 2. The children learn all this without being taught. … Occasionally an adult might offer a word of advice or demonstrate how to do something better, such as how to shape an arrowhead, but such help is given only when the child clearly desires it. Adults do not initiate, direct, or interfere with children’s activities. … 3. The children are afforded enormous amounts of time to play and explore. … “[Batek] children were free to play nearly all the time; no one expected children to do serious work until they were in their late teens.” … 4. Children observe adults’ activities and incorporate those activities into their play. … Nobody has to tell or encourage the children to do all this. They do it naturally because, like children everywhere, there is nothing that they desire more than to grow up and to be like the successful adults that they see around them. (more)

This “free school” approach works today: Continue reading "School Isn’t For Learning" »

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Who Signals Least?

How can we learn to see our signaling more clearly? That is, how can we learn to see what our behavior would be like if we had not evolved to show off, but had still evolved to achieve the other non-show-off functions of our behavior?

Some suggest we look at folks who are alone, but isolation was pretty rare for our distant ancestors, most interesting behaviors happen around others, and observers often give extra weight to the behavior of folks who expect to be alone.  Here is a more reliable clue:

[In] standard one-dimentional signaling models, … signaling incentives distort actions most for the best agents, and *not at all* for the worst agents.

In a standard game-theoretic signaling separating equilibrium, each person sees their hidden one dimensional ability A, and then chooses a one-dimensional effort E(A). These together determine a visible one-dimensional performance P(A,E(A)). Knowing the equilibrium behavior E(A) of the game, observers can then infer a person’s ability A from his performance P. The fact that others observe one’s performance usually induces extra effort E, which contributes to the waste of signaling.

In such an equilibrium, the people with the lowest possible ability A know they can’t gain by pretending to be any other type, and know that even doing their best they will be revealed to others to be of the worst type. So they know they might as well choose zero extra effort, and make their choice ignoring signaling incentives. If everyone is going to know you are lazy, you might as well put your feet up and relax; if everyone thinks you terribly ugly, why bother with makeup?

This is of course only a model; the real world isn’t exactly like this.  But I suspect its conclusion is robust: the behavior of those who send worst signals are the least influenced by signaling distortions. So if you want to see what humans look when they are not trying to impress, even unconsciously, look at the worst folks.

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Who Should Get A Life?

A common complaint about nerds is that they should “get a life.” For example, parents, teachers, etc. feel quite justifying in tsk-tsking hackers who spend most of their hours in front of a computer screen. Interestingly, we don’t feel much inclined to complain about athletes who are similarly focused. Alex quotes Wallace ’95:

It’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. … The actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them. … Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce.

This seems to me yet another example of people picking on nerds more because nerds are widely disliked.

Added 11a: Many suggest that “get a life” means “get popular, high status.”  OK, I can buy that.

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Great Divides

When troops must be motivated to fight, “go team” speeches often invoke an ancient conflict, along a great divide:

Our fight, of [A] against [B] over [C], is but one battle in the ancient war over [F], along the great divide between [D] and [E]. Many do not realize how many of our apparently mundane conflicts are, in reality, battles in this ancient war. Today is a crucial day in this war, so we must not give up, and we must not lose hope, or someday [D] may lose [F] forever. Fight, fight!

Some classic great divides: tyrants vs. freedom-lovers, rich vs. poor, faithful vs. heathen, urban vs. rural folk, men vs. women, intellectuals vs. ignoramuses, artists vs. undiscerning, greens vs. greedy, civilized vs. uncivilized, east vs. west, farmers vs. herders, hill vs. valley folk, Aristotle vs. Plato followers, jocks vs. nerds, extroverts vs. introverts, neats vs. scruffies, makers vs. takers, communitarians vs. individualists, young vs. old, [can add more here].

Some questions, which I rarely see adequately answered:

  1. How is this division a key division, underlying many others?
  2. How do people acquire their sides in this conflict?
  3. How has this conflict lasted so long, without one side winning?
  4. How could one side finally win such an old conflict?
  5. Why is one side better than the other in an absolute sense?
  6. Why can’t those folks be persuaded that their side is bad?
  7. Why can’t peaceful compromise replace conflict?

Consider rich vs. poor as an example. Its devotees might say:

People really do most things for money, and so money is what most conflicts are about. Your position in this conflict comes from your wealth; the rich oppose the poor. This conflict continues because wealth can be inherited and random fluctuations in economic outcomes continually add to wealth variance; “the poor you will always have with you.” Today’s poor are worth fighting for, even if the fight must be renewed every generation. The rich are bad because inequality is bad, and the rich could reduce inequality by giving to the poor. Self-interest blinds the rich from seeing this fact. Peaceful compromise is possible but weak; with cash transfers, one person’s gain is another’s loss.

These are at least first-cut answers to my questions, though I doubt we do most things for money, and so doubt this divide is behind most disputes. Also, peaceful compromise can encourage the creation of more wealth, money inequality isn’t worse than other kinds, and whether inequality is bad depends on where it came from.

Who will answer these questions regarding their favorite “great divide”? I’d love to see a review of many great divides, comparing their answers and persuasiveness.

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Meh To Matches

Human aversion to being overtly ranked makes them look too often for good matches, rather than just for good people. For example, kids choosing a college are usually overly concerned with finding a good “match,” when then should just focus on the best college that is cheap and conveniently located.

Similarly for relationships. Bryan Caplan tells me that although spouses tend to have similar religion, politics, education, wealth, and intelligence, their personalities are not correlated.  Turns out, there are no personality interaction effects for relation and life satisfaction: your personality and their personality matter, but not the combination:

Three very large, nationally representative samples of married couples were used to examine the relative importance of 3 types of personality effects on relationship and life satisfaction. … Using data sets from Australia (N = 5,278), the United Kingdom (N = 6,554), and Germany (N = 11,418) … Actor effects accounted for approximately 6% of the variance in relationship satisfaction and between 10% and 15% of the variance in life satisfaction. Partner effects (which were largest for Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability) accounted for between 1% and 3% of the variance in relationship satisfaction and between 1% and 2% of the variance in life satisfaction. Couple similarity consistently explained less than .5% of the variance in life and relationship satisfaction after controlling for actor and partner effects.

If you want a happy relationship, be a happy person and pick a happy partner; no need to worry about how well you match personality-wise.

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Reply To Caplan on Kids

In general, those who can send better signals should put more effort into signaling. In particular, those with a better shot at them should work harder to gain status markers. So women with better relative endowments should delay and reduce kid raising efforts; their fewer high status kids would make for more great-grand kids. And since farmer status inequalities were bigger than forager inequities, this effect was stronger for farmers.

Monday I described Bill & my suggestion that this effect might explain the demographic transition, if our subconscious minds neglect the possibility that whole societies could get and long stay rich. That is, we see that by ancient standards we live like kings, we might be fooled into thinking we have a chance at king-like status and relative reproduction success, if only we work extra hard to achieve status markers. But in fact, we can’t all reproduce like kings.

Tuesday Bryan objected:

Unless I’m deeply misunderstanding it, this “excellent” theory doesn’t even get off the ground. Like Feyrer and Sacerdote’s theory, Dickens-Hanson implies gender conflict: In the modern world, men should want more children than women, and this gap should get larger as people get richer. But in reality, men and women around the world see eye-to-eye on this question – see the World Values Survey, question D017. But doesn’t the Dickens-Hanson mechanisms work for men, too? Robin thinks it does, but admits that it doesn’t work as strongly:

I just don’t see that our theory implies gender conflict on family size. By “[the theory] doesn’t work as strongly [for men]”, I meant and said:

So men should work even harder to gain status markers. But even so, raising overt kids will less distract men from pursuing high status, and a man’s delay in starting kids will less reduce his fertility. Thus excess male status efforts probably do less to reduce overall fertility.

Since men are even more eager than women to gain status, and stay fertile longer, if men shared kid raising efforts equally they might well want to delay kids even longer than women want. But if women bear most of the kid-raising burden, that should make men more eager to have kids earlier. The net effect of these factors isn’t clear.  So I see no clear net prediction of our theory about how people should answer a survey question about “optimal family size.” (And I’m inclined to pay more attention to how many kids people actually have, relative to survey responses.)

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In Favor Of Fever

The US spends over 17% of income, two trillion dollars a year, on medicine, mostly on new intensive treatments. You might think this was because we long ago carefully studied all the simple cheap treatments, and got as much mileage as we could from them, so now must consider complex expensive treatments. You’d be very very wrong.

One of the commonest, and cheapest, forms of medicine is “antipyretics”, e.g. aspirin, for reducing temperature. You know you are getting “modern” medicine if, when sick, people take your temperature often, and give you antipyretics when “too hot.” Seeing this care, you can relax assured you are getting modern care.

Turns out, we hardly have any data on whether this helps, and what data we do have says it probably makes you sicker, except in a few rare situations like stoke or head injury.  It seems we are very reluctant to give up the appearance of helping the sick, even if our “help” probably makes them sicker.

We also seem pretty uninterested in collecting the data needed to clarify this. The biggest randomized trial to date was stopped mid-trial because “there were seven deaths in people getting standard treatment and only one in those allowed to have fever, … [so] it would be unethical to allow any more patients to get standard treatment.” Yet standard treatment continues because others say not enough trials exist to justify changing standard treatment. Is that #$@%-ed up ethics or what? Details: Continue reading "In Favor Of Fever" »

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Value Of Virginity

Fake virgins. A growing number of Chinese women … are opting for a surgical procedure called “hymen restoration,” which returns the hymen to its condition before it was ruptured. … Many men, including white-collar professionals, say they want to marry a virgin. And increasingly liberated Chinese women have found a way to oblige them. …

Zhou, 44, said most of her patients are sexually active young women who are about to marry and have told their future husbands they are virgins. … For as little as … about $737, for a 20-to-30-minute procedure. … “It’s just a white lie,” Zhou said. And she blames men for having unrealistic expectations. … “It’s really worthless for couples to break up over this small issue,” said the woman, who asked not to be quoted by name. …

Some sociologists and others have criticized the virginity obsession as emblematic of a male-dominated society in which women are viewed as sex objects. … “Women demand men have houses and cars, why can’t men demand women be virgins?” asked one man. (more)

It seems to me many men really do have a strong preference for virginity, and are willing to pay a high price for it in a marriage bargain. This male preference for virgins seems as legitimate as the female preference for high status husbands. So it can do husbands a great harm to deceive them about virginity.

Imagine a woman married a man in part because of his great job and income, and as soon as she has his first kid he reveals that it was a fake; his parents had paid for a temporary high-status job and big house/car/etc. so she could give them a high quality grandkid. Now that the kid has arrived, husband goes back to being a janitor with a bike and one-room apartment. What if the man said, “It’s really worthless for couples to break up over this small issue.”

Added 10p: Wow, I go away for ten hours and 50 comments appear.  I didn’t claim male status is exactly like female virginity in all its effects, nor did I claim such preferences are independent of culture. The relevant issues seem to me to be the strength of preference, which it seems to be are often similar, and whether a preference is for some exceptional reason illegitimate. I accept most preferences as legitimate, and haven’t heard a good reason why male preference for virgins is illegitimate. Surely the fact that a preference is influenced by culture is not a reason by itself to consider that preference illegitimate.

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Response to Kling

Arnold Kling:

Robin Hanson asks why parking should be free, when there are thousands of other goods with low marginal cost that are not free. My basic answer is that there are thousands of other goods with low marginal cost that are free. I think of free parking as a form of bundling, where the supplier of a priced good (a house, or a store) throws in another for free. If you think bundling is exceptional, then you must be shocked every time you buy a car with cup holders, a cell phone with a camera, or a computer that comes with a USB port, a WI-FI antenna, and word processing software. …

Yet another relevant margin is land use. How much land should be used for parking and how much should be used for other purposes? … Along which of these margins is there the proverbial $20 bill lying on the sidewalk for policy makers to pick up? The Shoup argument that Tyler Cowen is advancing seems to be that government forces the bundling of free parking. Take away the government distortion, and you would see a lot less free parking. Maybe, but I keep wondering how much more bundling government encourages beyond what would take place, anyway, and whether that additional bundling is such a bad thing.

Take two random products or services A and B; what are the chances that those two are sold in a bundle that includes both A and B? Pretty dang low. So in this sense bundling is the exception, not the rule. Yes in the absence of government rules many firms would in fact bundle parking with their product. But what is at issue are government rules requiring a large number of parking spaces be bundled with many products. Shoup goes to a lot of trouble to try to quantify the large distortions, especially along the land use margin, caused by forcing too much parking to be bundled with many products. It is just not very responsive to say “you never know, maybe firms would have wanted to bundle that much parking with their products.” Surely regulations should be supported by stronger arguments than this.

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Bill & My Excellent Hypothesis

In January I said:

In October I reviewed explanations for the clearly-maladaptive demographic transition, whereby societies consistently have fewer kids as they get rich. I leaned toward:

Lower … acceptance of childbearing and motherhood as measures of the status of women.

On a recent long drive, Bill Dickens and I developed an intriguing elaboration of this theory. The key idea: farming pressures strengthened a fem forager tendency to, when personally richer, invest more energy in pursuing status, relative to raising kids. So when all fems are rich, they all invest more in status, relative to kids, and fertility falls.

Ok, now for the details. When men vary in status and mating can be covert, high status men have two kinds of mates: a few “overt” mates, whose kids will inherit much of his status, and many “covert” mates, whose kids won’t inherit his status and who may have their own overt mates. While a top man will want as many covert mates as possible, he will be choosier about overt mates, wanting them to seem high status, to raise the status of his overt kids. Women will want to be overt mates of such top men, so that their sons can have a better chance to be top men, and then get many covert mates. Continue reading "Bill & My Excellent Hypothesis" »

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