Tag Archives: Identity

Freedom As Identity

At a big wonk dinner last night there was a long discussion of NSA policy. People seemed to agree that such policies are unlikely to change due to concrete publicized examples of specific resulting harms. Instead, people argued that changing technologies require us to change laws and policies in order to uphold basic principles such as that policies should be accountable to the public, avoid possibilities for corruption, and offer some substantial limits on government powers. But I wondered: how strongly does the public really support such principles?

You may recall I posted on survey results saying a US majority thought Snowden was wrong to expose NSA intelligence-gathering efforts. Also, Robert Rubin’s favorite graph of 2013 is one showing that the US public trusts the military and police far more than the courts, media, congress, or even the president. At the dinner many talked about wanting to avoid the abuses uncovered by the Church committee, but I’ll bet few in the public even remember what that was, and even fewer remember the Church committee as the good guys.

It occurs to me that what support the US public does have for principles of a limited and accountable government may be largely a side effect of war and patriotism propaganda. During the cold war we were often told that what made them bad and us good is that we had freedoms, while their governments had and used arbitrary powers. We were also told similar things about why the Nazis were bad. And in support of all this, schools tell kids that the US started because we objected to England’s arbitrary powers over us.

But as the cold war and WWII fade into history, we define ourselves less in opposition to enemies whose governments have arbitrary powers. We instead fall back more onto presuming that our status quo laws and policies are sufficient to support whatever principles we might have. Because in fact we don’t really support abstract principles of governance. We instead support the general presumptions that they are bad and we are good, and that our existing laws and policies are good unless someone can show otherwise via specific demonstrated harms. If today “they” are terrorists, then we assume that whatever we do to hurt them under existing policies is probably good too.

If there is a hope here, it would be that political elites feel a much stronger attachment to political principles, and that the public will over time come to adopt elite beliefs. But for now that seems a slim or distant hope. World of mass government surveillance, here we come.

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Brands Show Identity

Marketers have long noticed puzzlingly high levels of brand loyalty:

Consumers appear to have high willingness to pay for particular brands, even when the alternatives are objectively similar. The majority of consumers typically buy a single brand of beer, cola, or margarine, even though relative prices vary significantly over time, and consumers often cannot distinguish their preferred brand in blind “taste tests”. Consumers pay large premia to buy homogeneous goods like books and CDs from branded online retailers, even when they are using a “shopbot” that eliminates search costs. A large fraction of consumers buy branded medications, even though chemically equivalent generic substitutes are available at the same stores for much lower prices.

Brand loyalty is big barrier to innovation, and an important reason why inefficient firms manage to survive so long.

Brand preferences create large entry barriers and durable advantages for incumbent firms, and can explain persistence of early-mover advantage over long periods

In the latest American Economic Review Bronnenberg, Dube, & Gentzkow offer new clues:

Variation in where consumers have lived in the past allows us to isolate the causal effect of past experiences on current purchases, holding constant contemporaneous supply-side factors such as availability, prices, and advertising. … 60 percent of the gap in purchases between the origin and destination state closes immediately when a consumer moves. … The remaining 40 percent gap between recent migrants and lifetime residents closes steadily, but slowly. It takes more than 20 years for half of the gap to close, and even 50 years after moving the gap remains statistically significant. … The relative importance of brand capital is higher in [product] categories with high levels of advertising and high levels of social visibility. (more)

This ad effect is puzzling because:

Large literatures have measured the effects of advertising, but these studies often find no effects [of ads on sales], and the effects they do measure are estimated to dissipate over a horizon ranging from a few weeks to at most five or six months.

Let me suggest that an important use of brands is to create and signal identities. We create a coherent understandable idea of the kind of person we are, integrated with the kind of products we use, and we prefer not to change that concept, so that others can continue to rely on their expectations about us. We are willing to pay higher prices, and neglect info about quality, in order to keep a persistent style and appearance. So brands are naturally more important for products we use that others see more, and where ads have made connections to identity more salient.

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Jumping To Joy

I recently talked with a Christian college student who had just attended a wild party at another school, and who lamented that while folks there seemed to be having “fun” it wasn’t the “real joy” that she knew.  I’ve heard similar feelings from folks who really like their favorite drug or sex style.  I wonder, what fraction of folks feel smugly superior that favorite way of happiness/pleasure/joy/etc. is intrinsically superior to what most others have found? What evidence would it take for this to be a reasonable conclusion?

I also wonder: why are so many of us (including me) so reluctant to experiment with so many joys with strong fans? After all, fans argue, their suggested drug, sex style, or religious experience would only take a few hours to try, and could give us a lifetime of joy if we liked it.  It seems we see far larger costs than the time for a trial. My guess: we value our current identity, integrated as it is into our job, hobbies, friends, etc.  We fear that if we try new joys, we will like them, and jump to practicing them, which will change us.  We fear that by jumping to juicy joys, we won’t be us anymore.

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Uncritical Science News

In Nature, Colin Macilwain says science reporting is too uncritical:

[Science journalism] converts original scientific findings, via a production line of embargoed press releases from journals and universities, into a steady stream of largely uncritical stories. … In stark contrast to proper investigations of issues such as public corruption, corporate maleficence or industrial health and safety — essentially silly stories about science continue to fill newspapers and news broadcasts.  Some science reporters are uneasy about this situation, but most accept it. … Most [scientists] seem to be largely content with a system that disguises the very human process of scientific discovery as a seamless stream of ingenious and barely disputed ‘breakthroughs’. Like other elites, researchers feel no great yearning to be held to account by the press. ….

There is a need for dedicated newspaper sections, radio and TV programmes, more akin to existing sports coverage, that can provide detailed, critical assessment of the scientific enterprise for people who really like science.  Reporters and editors could then engage with sets of findings and associated issues of real societal importance in the news pages, asking the hard questions about money, influence and human frailty that much of today’s science journalism sadly ignores. …

The machine … serves the short-term interests of its participants. … Researchers, universities and funding agencies get clips that show that their work has had ‘impact’. And readers get snippets, such as how red or white wine makes you live longer or less long, to chat about at the water-cooler. … Science is being misrepresented as a cacophony of sometimes divergent but nonetheless definitive ‘findings’, each warmly accepted by colleagues, on the record, as deeply significant. The public learns nothing about the actual cut and thrust of the scientific process.

Yes, science reporting is less critical than political, business, or sports reporting.  Since the media is very competitive, readers/viewers must prefer it that way.  But why?

First, we are far more suspicious of bids for dominance-status than for prestige-status.  We see politicians and businesses as threatening to dominate us and so we are eager to watch out for illicit power grabs.  In contrast, we see science, arts, literature, etc. as only awarding prestige, not power, and we are less worried about illicit prestige grabs.  We mainly care about prestigious stuff as ways to see who is more impressive, and a tricky “illicit” prestige grab is itself pretty impressive, so little harm done.

Also, we like some critical reporting on sports, music, and literature because we are expected to choose sides in these areas as part of our identity.  We are supposed to have our favorite band, team, or author, and so we appreciate news rehearsing arguments we might offer for or against such things

But we are not supposed to have favorite positions on science disputes.  Science is more like our communal religion, something that distinguishes us advanced insiders from those ignorant outsiders, and we are eager to signal being part of us and not them.  It is like how, aside from worrying about power-grabs by our military leaders, we are not each supposed to have a different favorite war strategy for our troops – that would be divisive and we prefer to show that we are united against them.

Sciences of politics or business are of course the obvious exception, as we suspect illicit power in politics or business might be supported by illicit scientists.  So we do see critical reporting in these sort of sciences.

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Costumes And Identity

When we put on costumes at Halloween, we dress up as unusual sorts of people; they are not at all randomly selected from real folks, or even from fictional characters.  Instead, we prefer to dress up as people whose style of dress says a lot about them, i.e., people with vivid and well-defined roles strongly indicated by the way they dress.  Knowing that someone is a princess, athlete, fireman, doc, pirate, or prostitute says a lot about more about their personality and lifestyle than knowing that someone is an insurance adjuster, sales clerk, or network administrator.

This is interestingly at odds with of our general tendency to avoid regimentation and structure, though we accept more at work than at home.  It seems that at some level we miss and/or admire folks whose lives are tightly structured and defined by a particular strong standard identity.   Or at least we admire them when their role has high status, like docs, athletes, etc.  How much have we lost by not having the better-defined social roles of our ancestors?

Added 1Nov: When I started Overcoming Bias, I also sketched out this other blog concept that I never used, using me in costume in the header:

Header 2

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A Theory Of Identity

A person’s “identity” is something less than all his or her details but more than a few simple stats.  What is it exactly, why do people need to discover it, want to stay true to it, why could only their “heart” tell them what it is, and why would a 35 year old still be searching for it, even after they’ve taken every personality test ever devised?  Why do ads mostly tell us what identities we could project via their product, and how could a new job or lover help us find our identity?  I’ve been working out a theory; here goes.

Humans are enormously complex, but even so we need to predict how each other will act, and are wary of “unstable” folks whose actions we cannot predict well.  So we are built to find a simple story we can project about who we are that will let others predict us well.  This story includes what we like, what we are good at, how we decide who we are loyal to, and so on.  Such stories are naturally more than a few stats but less than all our details.  Our conscious minds are the public relations department of our larger minds, presenting and managing a story of ourselves to others. Continue reading "A Theory Of Identity" »

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Blowhard Insight

David Mazzotta gets me:

The trick when surfing these days is not to find curious bits of entertainment news that is ahead of the curve, but to find high quality thoughtful posting; things of intellectual or critical value that you can really sink your teeth into. In that respect, the web is no different than any other source of communication. So let me recommend four “blogs” where I regularly find thoughtful posts. Were I still an old school blogger, I bet 80% my posts would come from these places.  First and foremost is Overcoming Bias.

Yes, thoughtful is what I’m trying for.  One of the other three blogs is 2blowhards, where I find this insightful gem:

Killing time waiting for The Wife at the hair salon, I leafed through some women’s magazines. … I had a good time noting down some of the fantasies … these magazines’ readers enjoy indulging in:

  • Spend a year in a foreign country, and you’ll discover your true self. …
  • Embracing who and what you are — whatever that means — will make you look ten years younger.
  • Jobs aren’t about selling something others are willing to pay for. Jobs are about personal fulfillment. …
  • Emotions — no matter which, no matter when — need to be faced and worked-through. Then you’ll feel great.
  • Following your instincts and your feelings will always work out for the best. …
  • The troubles of movie stars are just like yours.

No doubt marketing to men involves similarly implausible fantasies.  Marketing seems all about identity, something economists know relatively little about. Makes me want to study the subject more.

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Improved Cores Unwanted

The most interesting thing I learned at the Symposium last weekend was this two year old paper on a survey about enhancement.  Its main result was that the more people considered a feature to be a key part of their identity, the less they wanted to improve it.   Few folks want to improve their empathy, self-confidence, or self-control, while more folks want to enhance their rote memory, math ability, and wakefulness.   I suspect something similar holds for beliefs: the more important a belief is to our identity, the less eager we are to improve that belief via evidence or analysis.  Beware identifying with beliefs!

The paper’s main table:

enhancetable

Hat tip to Anders Sandberg.

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Avoid Identifying With Anything?

From Paul Graham's recent essay:

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.

Which topics engage people's identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn't. No one would know what side to be on. So it's not politics that's the source of the trouble, but identity. When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people's identities. . . .

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

Via Andy McKenzie.

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Beware Identity

More from Paul Graham’s fantastic essay on lying to kids:

Some parents feel a strong adherence to an ethnic or religious group and want their kids to feel it too. This usually requires two different kinds of lying: the first is to tell the child that he or she is an X, and the second is whatever specific lies Xes differentiate themselves by believing. …

Almost anything else you tell a kid, they can change their mind about later when they start to think for themselves. But if you tell a kid they’re a member of a certain group, that seems nearly impossible to shake. … When parents are of different religions, they’ll often agree between themselves that their children will be "raised as Xes." And it works. The kids obligingly grow up considering themselves as Xes …

If you want to set yourself apart from other people, you have to do things that are arbitrary, and believe things that are false. And after having spent their whole lives doing things that are arbitrary and believing things that are false, and being regarded as odd by "outsiders" on that account, the cognitive dissonance pushing children to regard themselves as Xes must be enormous. If they aren’t an X, why are they attached to all these arbitrary beliefs and customs? …

This form of lie is not without its uses. … You can tell the child that in addition to never wearing the color yellow, believing the world was created by a giant rabbit, and always snapping their fingers before eating fish, Xes are also particularly honest and industrious.  Then X children will grow up feeling it’s part of their identity to be honest and industrious.

I try to be wary of beliefs attributed to me via some part of my being a nerdy middle-age white male American economist homeowner parent.  I do not want any such feature to on net influence my beliefs (other than through influencing my truth-seeking).  Do read the whole Graham essay, by the way – it is gold. 

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