Tag Archives: Age

Student Status Puzzle

Grad students vary in their research autonomy. Some students are very willing to ask for advice and to listen to it carefully, while others put a high priority on generating and pursuing their own research ideas their own way. This varies with personality, in that more independent people pick more independent strategies. It varies over time, in that students tend to start out deferring at first, and then later in their career switch to making more independent choices. It also varies by topic; students defer more in more technical topics, and where topic choices need more supporting infrastructure, such as with lab experiments. It also varies by level of abstraction; students defer more on how to pursue a project than on which project ideas to pursue.

Many of these variations seem roughly explained by near-far theory, in that people defer more when near, and less when far. These variations seem at least plausibly justifiable, though doubts make sense too. Another kind of variation is more puzzling, however: students at top schools seem more deferential than those at lower rank schools.

Top students expect to get lots of advice, and they take it to heart. In contrast, students at lower ranked schools seem determined to generate their own research ideas from deep in their own “soul”. This happens not only for picking a Ph.D. thesis, but even just for picking topics of research papers assigned in classes. Students seem as averse to getting research topic advice as they would be to advice on with whom to fall in love. Not only are they wary of getting research ideas from professors, they even fear that reading academic journals will pollute the purity of their true vision. It seems a moral matter to them.

Of course any one student might be correct that they have a special insight into what topics are neglected by their local professors. But the overall pattern here seems perverse; people who hardly understand the basics of a field see themselves as better qualified to identify feasible interesting research topics than those nearby with higher status, and who have been in the fields for decades.

One reason may be overconfidence; students think their profs deserve more to be at a lower rank school than they do, and so estimate a lower quality difference between they and their profs. More data supporting this is that students also seem to accept the relative status ranking of profs at their own school, and so focus most of their attention on the locally top status profs. It is as if each student thinks that they personally have so far been assigned too low of a status, but thinks most others have been correctly assigned.

Another reason may be like our preferring potential to achievement; students try to fulfill the heroic researcher stories they’ve heard, wherein researchers get much credit for embracing ideas early that others come to respect later. Which can make some sense. But these students are trying to do this way too early in their career, and they go way too far with it. Being smarter and knowing more, students at top schools understand this better.

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Old Prof Vices, Virtues

Tyler on “How bad is age discrimination in academia?”:

I believe it is very bad, although I do not have data.

I started my Ph.D. at the age of 34, and Tyler hired me here at GMU at the age of 40. So by my lights Tyler deserves credit for overcoming the age bias. Tyler doesn’t discuss why this bias might exist, but a Stanford history prof explained his theory to me when I was in my early 30s talking to him about a possible PhD. He said that older students are known for working harder and better, but also for being less pliable: they have more of their own ideas about what is interesting and important.

I think that fits with what I’ve heard from others, and have seen for myself, including in myself. People complain that academia builds too little on “real world” experience, and that disciplines are too insular. And older students help with that. But in fact the incentive for each prof in picking students isn’t to solve the wider problems with academia. It is instead to expand an empire by creating intellectual clones of him or herself. And for that selfish goal, older students are worse. My mentors likely feel this way about me, that I worked hard and did interesting stuff, but I was not a good investment for expanding their legacy.

Interestingly this explanation is somewhat the opposite of the usual excuses for age bias in Silicon Valley. There the usual story is that older people won’t take as many risks, and that they aren’t as creative. But the complaint about older Ph.D.s is exactly that they take too many risks, and that they are too creative. If only they would just do what they are told, and copy their mentors, then their hard work and experience could be more valued.

I find it hard to believe that older workers change their nature this much between tech and academia. Something doesn’t add up here. And for what its worth, I’ve been personally far more impressed by the tech startups I’ve known that are staffed by older folks.

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I Was Wrong

On Jan 7, 1991 Josh Storrs Hall made this offer to me on the Nanotech email list:

I hereby offer Robin Hanson (only) 2-to-1 odds on the following statement:
“There will, by 1 January 2010, exist a robotic system capable of the cleaning an ordinary house (by which I mean the same job my current cleaning service does, namely vacuum, dust, and scrub the bathroom fixtures). This system will not employ any direct copy of any individual human brain. Furthermore, the copying of a living human brain, neuron for neuron, synapse for synapse, into any synthetic computing medium, successfully operating afterwards and meeting objective criteria for the continuity of personality, consciousness, and memory, will not have been done by that date.”
Since I am not a bookie, this is a private offer for Robin only, and is only good for $100 to his $50. –JoSH

At the time I replied that my estimate for the chance of this was in the range 1/5 to 4/5, so we didn’t disagree. But looking back I think I was mistaken – I could and should have known better, and accepted this bet.

I’ve posted on how AI researchers with twenty years of experience tend to see slow progress over that time, which suggests continued future slow progress. Back in ’91 I’d had only seven years of AI experience, and should have thought to ask more senior researchers for their opinions. But like most younger folks, I was more interested in hanging out and chatting with other young folks. While this might sometimes be a good strategy for finding friends, mates, and same-level career allies, it can be a poor strategy for learning the truth. Today I mostly hear rapid AI progress forecasts from young folks who haven’t bothered to ask older folks, or who don’t think those old folks know much relevant.

I’d guess we are still at least two decades away from a situation where over half of US households use robots do to over half of the house cleaning (weighted by time saved) that people do today.

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Middle-Age Is Near

Tali Sharot says we are optimistic because we under-respond to bad news, an effect weakest for the middle-aged, explaining why they are more pessimistic:

People of all age groups changed their beliefs more in response to good news, and they discounted bad news. Even more surprising was the finding that kids and elderly people both showed more of a bias than college students. …

From about the time we are teenagers, our sense of happiness starts to decline, hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s. (Middle-age crisis, anyone?) Then our sense of happiness miraculously starts to go up again rapidly as we grow older. …

Andrew Oswald … controlled for people being born in better times, marital status, education, employment status, income: The age pattern persisted. Even more surprising, the pattern held strong even though Oswald did not control for physical health. … Oswald tested half a million people in 72 countries, in both developing and developed nations. He observed the same pattern across all parts of the globe and across sexes. …

While women reach the bottom of the happiness barrel at 38.6 years on average, men reach it more than a decade later — at 52.9 years [but 44.5 in the U.S.] … Americans have been growing less happy since 1900. In Europe, however, happiness has been increasing steadily since 1950, after 50 years of decline. (more)

OK, but that just pushes the question back: why do middle-aged folks respond the most to bad news? An obvious functional explanation comes to my mind: In the tradeoff between (near) beliefs that support good personal decisions and (far) beliefs that present a good image to others, personal decisions matter more for the middle-aged. In general, good personal decisions matter more for those who who are more dominant, more in the productive prime of their life, and more past the early ages where long term bonds are formed, and before elderly dependence on others.

This explains the later male unhappiness peak, the US/Europe trends matching their rising/falling world dominance, and also why pretty people are more selfish and conformist. After all, happy is far, and conformity is near.

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Is Paper Low Status?

“Virginia has a lot of electronic voting and in general has an election system where it’s very hard to get recounts,” says Dill. “So I might worry about Virginia, depending on how close it is.” … It’s a lot easier to modify electronic records than to modify paper records which is why banking and a lot of other critical activities like that still rely on paper when there’s an ultimate disaster and electronic records are lost or corrupted. (more)

When I voted this morning in Virginia I noticed a line of 6-8 people waiting to use the electronic voting machines, but one could vote immediately on paper. Yet paper voting is less corruptible. I asked Alex Tabarrok and he said he puzzled over the same thing when he voted: why is paper voting so unpopular?

A fb comment noted that it is mostly old folks voting on paper. And that was true at my place as well. Which leads me to suggest that this is a status effect – people stand in line to vote less securely in order to signal that they aren’t old folks scared by or incompetent at electronics. Yes, it seems surprising that people are willing to spend an extra few minutes just to look hip to strangers. But what other explanation is there?

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Young Idealist Reply

I wrote:

Humans … slowly gain competence over a lifetime, usually reaching peak productivity in our forties and fifties. … When people get idealistic, they tend to forget this. … They want to know how to most help the world in the next few years, not over their lifetime. … Young folks … should expect to prepare and learn while young, and then have their biggest influence in their peak years.

Alex Waller disagrees:

When I’m 50 I don’t really want the world to be the way it is now. I don’t want to bide my time and merely learn and network idly for another decade or two while someone else is responsible for enacting positive change in the world.

News flash: you are just one of seven billion, so you aren’t going to personally make much difference. The world will have nearly as many problems worth solving then as now, with or without your help.

Let’s say I was the CEO of a small corporation that developed medical devices. … A sustainable revenue stream requires projects with a variety of timelines. Similarly, I shouldn’t only invest my company’s resources in a project with a huge payout that will take 15 years.

The world already has a big portfolio of idealistic projects. If you want your life to be one of those projects, you should accept that it has a natural timescale. There’s a best time to invest, and a best time to reap returns.

Hanson elicits skepticism in the idea that social changes enacted now will positively impact the future, without justification.

I’m not skeptical of future impacts, just of their typically growing in impact faster than financial investments.

However, I’d counter-argue that his position is just as weak: name someone who is making better-than-inflation on their investments in the last 11 years?

The last few years have been quite unusual in finance. Feasible long term financial rates of return are higher than economic growth rates.

If I am to put off charity for 20 years to compound interest, why not put it off 40 years to compound even more? Why not put it off for 100 years?

Why not indeed? If you think that your personal monitoring adds much value, you might want to spend before you die, so you can personally monitor your charities. Else you might instruct your charity fund to grow until it seems that worthy causes are about to run out, or that investments no longer grow.

Hanson totally misguides when he suggests that Young Idealism is sexually motivated.

I said “signal one’s attractiveness to potential associates.” I didn’t mention sex.

Then what explains extra altruism in the old?

I said “people tend more to form associations when young.” This implies only that old folks have a weaker need to signal, not that they have no need to signal.

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Impatient Idealism

Humans have long lives. We are unusually dependent on our parents when young, and we then slowly gain competence over a lifetime, usually reaching peak productivity in our forties and fifties. Most of the time we are aware of this. For example, we count on our peak earning years by taking out loans as young students, and later saving for retirement. And we prefer leaders at those peak ages.

But when people get idealistic, they tend to forget this. Young idealists often ask me and others what they can do to most help the world. Which is a fine question. But such folks tend to be impatient – they want to know how to most help the world in the next few years, not over their lifetime. So when they consider joining an idealistic project, they focus more on whether the project will succeed than on what skills and contacts they would acquire.

Yet young folks shouldn’t expect to have their biggest influence when young. Yes young folks have higher variance, and so sometimes get very lucky, but they should expect to prepare and learn while young, and then have their biggest influence in their peak years. Why such a short term focus? Especially since idealism should if anything induce a far view. Yes young folks are often short-sighted, but why be more so about altruism than about school, relationships, etc.?

This seems related to the puzzle of why people don’t leverage the power of compound interest to donate to help the future needy, instead of today’s needy. Some argue that the future won’t have any needy, or that helping today’s needy automatically helps future needy, at a rate growing faster than investment rates of return. I’m pretty skeptical about both of these claims.

One plausible explanation is that a habit of extra youthful altruism evolved as a way to signal one’s attractiveness to potential associates. People tend more to form associations when young, associations that they tend more to rely on when old. And potential associates like to see altruism, because it correlates with generosity and cooperation (as near-far theory predicts). But if you save money to help the future needy, or if you invest now in skills useful in future idealistic projects, that is less clearly a signal of altruism, because you might later change your mind and use that money or those skills for other purposes.

So to signal your youthful idealism to potential associates, you must spend the money and time now, even if such spending is less effective toward the idealistic cause. But hey, at least the cause gets something.

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The value of time as a student

When I was at college, many of my associates had part time jobs, or worked during school breaks. They were often unpleasant, uninspiring, and poorly paid jobs, such as food preparation. Some were better, such as bureaucracy. But they were generally much worse than any of us would expect to be after graduating. I think this is normal.

It was occasionally suggested that I too should become employed. This seemed false to me, for the following reasons. There are other activities I want to spend a lot of time on in my life, such as thinking about things. I expect the nth hour of thinking about things to be similarly valuable regardless of when it happens. I think for a hundred extra hours this year, or a hundred extra hours in five years, I still expect to have about the same amount of understanding at the end, and for hours in ten years to be about as valuable either way.

Depending on what one is thinking about, moving hours of thinking earlier might make them more valuable. Understanding things early on probably adds value to other activities, and youth is purportedly helpful for thinking. Also a better understanding early on probably makes later observations (which automatically happen with passing time) more useful.

This goes for many things. Learning an instrument, reading about a topic, writing. Some things are even more valuable early on in life, such as making friends, gaining respect and figuring out efficient lifestyle logistics.

Across many periods of time, work is roughly like this. It is the total amount of work you do that matters. But between before and after graduating, this is not so!

If activity A is a lot more valuable in the future, and activity B is about as valuable now or in the future, all things equal I should trade them and do B now.

Yes, work before graduating might get you a better wage after graduating, but so will the same amount of work after graduating, and it will be paid more at the time. Yes, you will be a year behind say, but you will have done something else for a year that you no longer need to do in the future.

On the other hand, working seems a great option if you have pressing needs for money now, or a strong aversion to indebtedness. My guess is that the latter played a large part in others’ choices. In Australia, most youth whose families aren’t wealthy can get enough money to live on from the government, and anyone can defer paying tuition indefinitely.

It seems that college students generally treat their time as low value. Not only do they work for low wages, but they go to efforts to get free food, and are happy to spend an hour of three people’s time to acquire discarded furniture they wouldn’t spend a hundred dollars on. This seems to mean they don’t think these activities they could do at any time in their life are valuable. If you are willing to trade an hour you could be reading for $10 worth of value, you don’t value reading much. When these people are paid a lot more, will they give up activities like reading all together? If not, it seems they must think reading is also more valuable in the future than now, and the relative values are jumping roughly in line with the value of working at these times. Or do they just make an error? Or am I just making some error?

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Missing Life-Lessons

We learn many things over the space of our lives. With language, we can share such things with many others distant in space and time. With such a fantastic capacity, you might think we humans would hardly ever have to learn anything important directly for ourselves. But while we do learn many things from textbooks and mentors, we are surprisingly bad at teaching the most important life lessons. Like, for example, what its like to be married a long time, how to stay married, and when that is worth the trouble.

One contributing factor is that folks, late in life, almost never write essays, or books, on “what I’ve learned about life.” It would only take a few pages, and would seem to offer great value to others early in their lives. Why the silence? Some possible explanations:

  1. People don’t actually learn much that can be abstracted from their life details.
  2. People don’t want to hear the truth, and they won’t find lies useful, so why bother.
  3. Young folks already think they know all the answers, so won’t listen.
  4. It seems arrogant to offer lessons from your life when few others do this.
  5. When folks write on their life, they care much more to brag about what they did.
  6. Useful lessons will suggest the author had average success, which is shameful.
  7. The lessons of folks with way above average success aren’t useful to average folks.
  8. People are too weak to write when they feel old enough to tell lessons.
  9. Few care what people will think of them after they are dead.
  10. Most lessons have been written, but few can be bothered to read them.

None of these explanations seem especially satisfactory. What’s going on?

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Just A Flesh Wound

ARTHUR: You are indeed brave, Sir knight, but the fight is mine.
BLACK KNIGHT: Oh, had enough, eh?
ARTHUR: Look, you stupid bastard, you’ve got no arms left.
BLACK KNIGHT: Yes I have.
ARTHUR: Look!
BLACK KNIGHT: Just a flesh wound. (more)

In the US the top 5% of medical spenders spend an average of $40,682 a year each, and account for 49.5% of all spending. (The bottom half spend an average of $236.) Not too surprisingly, 60.3% of these people are age 55 or older. Perhaps more surprising, on their health self-rating, 28.9% of these folks say they are “good”, 19.9% “very good” and 7.5% “excellent”, for a total of 56.3% with self-rated health of “good” or better (source).

So, are these folks in serious denial, or is most of our medical spending on hardly sick folks?

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