Monthly Archives: October 2009

Could It Be That Easy?

The research found a dramatic improvement in ethical behavior with just a few spritzes of citrus-scented Windex. … [To appear in] a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. … “Could be that getting our kids to clean up their rooms might help them clean up their acts, too.”

The study titled “The Smell of Virtue” was unusually simple and conclusive. Participants engaged in several tasks, the only difference being that some worked in unscented rooms, while others worked in rooms freshly spritzed with Windex. …

Subjects in clean-scented rooms were less likely to exploit the trust of their partners, returning a significantly higher share of the money.  The average amount of cash given back by the people in the “normal” room was $2.81. But the people in the clean-scented room gave back an average of $5.33. …  Participants surveyed in a Windex-ed room were significantly more interested in volunteering (4.21 on a 7-point scale) than those in a normal room (3.29).  22 percent of Windex-ed room participants said they’d like to donate money, compared to only 6 percent of those in a normal room.

Follow-up questions confirmed that participants didn’t notice the scent in the room and that their mood at the time of the experiment didn’t affect the outcomes. … Their 2006 paper in Science reported that transgressions activated a desire to be physically cleansed.

More here and here.  Wow – these are big effects, via such a simple and easy treatment!

In my experience, the touchy-feely folks who talk the most about wanting to encourage more trust and charity do not get along that well with the anal folks who want everything to be very clean.  So I expect the first group will be reluctant to accept that this second group has been right all along – they want more charity their way, via folks feeling guilty, not via folks feeling clean.  So even if this study is confirmed by further research, I expect lots of resistance to its policy implications.  After all, politics is less about policy, and charity less about outcomes, than about who should be admired.

Hat tip to Bruce Bartlett.

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Bad News On Human Extinction

Disasters that destroy all but a thousand humans are more likely than disasters that destroy all but a hundred humans.  So this news says human extinction is more likely than we thought:

Conservation biologists may be deluding themselves. An analysis of the minimum number of individuals needed for a species to survive in the long term has found that current conservation practices underestimate the risk of extinction by not fully allowing for the dangers posed by the loss of genetic diversity. If correct, it means the number of individuals in endangered species are being allowed to dwindle too far.

Lochran Traill at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and colleagues found that for thousands of species the minimum viable population size (MVP) – where a species has a 90 per cent chance of surviving the next 100 years – comes in at thousands rather than hundreds of individuals. Many biologists, Traill says, work with lower numbers and so allow unacceptably high extinction risks.

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The Right Questions

Responding to John Nye, Will Wilkinson:

John [Nye] points out a striking paradox of modern economic growth: decreasing real economic inequality creates the illusion of its opposite. … As access to manufacturable goods becomes increasingly widespread, the status-signaling value of these goods declines relative to essentially scarce positional goods.  Meanwhile, as incomes rise, a rising portion of the population finds itself with money to spend on status games. … Our society has become more economically egalitarian, in one profoundly importance sense at least, but it sure doesn’t seem like it.

One question I’ve been asking myself how it is that John’s story can sound so similar to a story Robert Frank tells (in Status Fever, for example), while the lesson each draws from his story seems so different. I think much of the difference is explained by the fact that Frank sees little but waste (too many people competing to be rock stars!) and emotional harm (your BMW makes me feel worse about my Honda!) in positional competition, while John understands status-seeking more along the lines of Adam Smith and David Hume — as an engine of the efforts that drive growth and raise standards of living. …

When our institutions and norms focus the energy of status-seeking into the right kinds of activities, it tends to leave almost all of us economically better off even if it leaves the most status-obsessed feeling wretched.

See also Rob Wiblin on why “the best status games for society … would be enjoyable for the participants, productive for society and as egalitarian as possible.”  I don’t know who is right, but I’m pretty sure these are the important questions.

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Why Borg At Work, Not Home?

We have a love-hate relation with the division of labor.  On the one hand, we treasure our individuality and autonomy; we often do things differently just to show that we can.  On the other hand, we know that the division of labor, with its regimentation and standardization, is what lets us be amazingly rich.  But I wonder: why do we accept borg-like regimentation more at work than at home?

We produce both at home and on at work.  At home we make meals, clean clothes, entertainment events, etc., while at work we make many other things, like pots, t-shirts, TVs, etc that are useful inputs into home production.  Yet while scale economies are possible with both kinds of production, we are more reluctant to use scale economies in home production.

Most workplaces lower costs by regimenting and standardizing routines.  Employees show up at standard times, wear standard uniforms, write formula memos by scheduled deadlines, and so on.  Communities with limited budgets, like orphanages, military barracks, or school dorms, know that cheap ways to manage home life also involve a lot of centralization and standardization.   For example, one can feed lots of folks cheaper if they will eat the same food at the same time, and clothe lots of folks cheaper if they will wear the same kind of clothing centrally cleaned.

Yes, the more we differ the less enamored we are of communal efficiencies, and the richer we are the more we can indulge such differences.  We are willing to live in smaller homes, with food and clothing of lower quality ingredients, in order to eat our own different food wearing our own different clothes in our own different home.

But the same logic should apply at work as well.  In trade for lower wages, employers should allow us more variation in work habits, forms, dress, hours, etc.  And while we probably do see more of this with increasing wealth, it seems clear that we accept more regimentation in work production, relative to home production.  Why?

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you won’t be surprised to see me consider a signaling explanation.  🙂  Here goes.

Movies and TV sitcoms focus overwhelmingly on non-work life.   I suspect we see our work life as being less visible than non-work social life to the people we most care about impressing; the money we make from our work life, and the overall status of our job, seems more visible.   Also, at home and at leisure, the uniqueness of our behavior seems no less visible than the quality of its ingredients.

So to a first approximation, what others mainly see about us is the status of our job type, the income we have to spend, and the distinctive ways we spend our money and non-work social time; they don’t see as much of our distinctive job habits.  Thus we focus on signaling our autonomy, identity, taste, style etc. via non-work individuality, and at work focus more on money and job type status.   We are willing to be borgs at work so that we can afford to be all the more distinctive divas at home.

Added: Rather than admit we borg at work to better signal, we’d rather blame it on evil “power hungry” work organizations and leaders.  This may be a big part of why folks see for-profit work firms as evil, relative to non-profit leisure organizations like clubs, churches, families, etc.  My wife works for a non-profit whose mission she celebrates, while still loathing the executives who run it.

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Finance Profs Won’t Bet

Feel tempted to play the markets?  How much more tempted would you be if you were a professor of finance, certified as an expert whose main job was to study such markets?  Turns out, most finance profs know enough to know they don’t know enough to bet:

Employing a survey distributed to over 4,000 [finance] professors, we obtain four main results. First, most professors believe the market is weak to semi-strong efficient. Second, twice as many professors passively invest than actively invest. Third, our respondents’ perceptions regarding market efficiency are almost entirely unrelated to their trading behavior. Fourth, the investment objectives of professors are, instead, largely driven by the same behavioral factor as for amateur investors – one’s confidence in his own abilities to beat the market, independent of his opinion of market efficiency.

If finance profs are this reluctant to disagree with market prices, perhaps you should be even more reluctant to disagree, and just take that index fund?

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Beware Concept Intuitions

My dearest colleague Bryan Caplan has a broad solid training, a penetrating insight, and a laser-like focus on the important questions.  But Bryan shares an all-to-common intellectual flaw with other very smart folks: he trusts his concept intuitions way too much.

Our minds come built with concepts that let us categorize and organize the world we see.  Those concepts evolved to be useful in the world of our ancestors, and we expect them to reflect real, important, and consistent patterns of experience in that ancestral world.  Such concepts are surely far from random.

Nevertheless, we have little reason to think that our evolved concepts map directly and simply onto the fundamental categories of the universe, whatever those may be.  In particular, we have little reason to believe that categories that seem to us disjoint cannot in reality overlap.   For example:

  • Bryan Caplan’s intuition tells him it is obvious that “mind” and “matter” are disjoint categories, and cannot overlap; nothing could be both mind and matter.  Thus he thinks he knows, based only on this conceptual consideration, that conscious intelligent machines or emulations are impossible.
  • Bryan’s intuition tells him it is obvious that “is” and “ought” claims are distinct categories, and no ought claim could ever be justified by any set of is claims.   Since Bryan is sure he knows some ought claims that are true, he concludes he has a way to know things that doesn’t come via info about the world.
  • The brilliant David Chalmers (and others) thinks it obvious that the categories of things that “feel” is distinct from the category of things that can “cause” other things, which to him implies that there is a deep puzzle of why we humans can feel in addition to participating in cause and effect interactions.  Folks like Chalmers are sure we know we can feel but that the conceptual distinctness of feeling implies that this info does not come to us via our causal relations.  They conclude we have ways of knowing independent of our causal interactions.
  • The very smart Eliezer Yudkowsky, my once co-blogger, and others in his research group, think it obvious that “intelligence” tech is so conceptually distinct from other tech that devices that embody it can quickly explode to take over the world; our very different history with other tech so seems largely irrelevant to them.
  • Once upon a time many now-quaint conclusions were thought to follow from the conceptual distinctness of “living” vs. “dead”, or “spiritual” vs. “material”.

Yes categories such as “mind”, “matter”, “is”, “ought”, “cause”, and “feel” are powerful concepts that helped our ancestors to better organize their experiences.  But this usefulness is just not a strong enough basis on which to make sweeping conclusions about what must or cannot be true of all of reality, even parts, depths, and possibilities with which our ancestors never came into contact.   The categories in your head contain useful hints about what you might expect to see, but they simply cannot tell you what you must or can’t see; for that you have to actually look at the world out there.

On reflection, it seems to me quite possible that some real things are both mind and matter, that some claims are both is and ought, and that real things naturally both cause and feel.  And it seems to me that our theory of info, even if tentative, is the most well established theory we have.  It suggests an info fundamentalism: all that we know that could have been otherwise, even about ourselves, comes via our causal contact with what is; we have no good reason to think we have some other special ways of knowing.

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Unequal Beauty Silence

Back on Sept 5, Sebastian Perez published a satritical Post oped advocating reducing beauty-based inequalities:

Most champions of the less privileged have never made a practical effort to mitigate the social differences caused by the inequitable distribution of what, nowadays, is a factor with an enormous socioeconomic impact: beauty. … I suggest … political constitutions … should state that citizens may not be discriminated against on the basis of their physical attractiveness. …

Governments should … ensure the supply of low-priced makeup, anti-wrinkle creams, aesthetic plastic surgery, etc. … financed through a tax on the beautiful people in each country.  By law, companies should be obliged to guarantee minimum employment quotas for less attractive people, especially in the movie industry, television, modeling and beauty pageants.  Such affirmative action would help compensate for so many years of hateful discrimination based on looks. … The doormen at fashionable clubs cannot continue to mercilessly make decisions about who gets in based only on physical attractiveness. Such discrimination should lead to jail time and fines.

I was reminded of this oped by John Nye:

Perhaps the real issue … [is] why certain inequalities which are also unevenly distributed — such as looks, intelligence, ability, or personality — do not invite as much social envy or opprobrium as disparities in income or wealth resulting from hard work or shrewd dealing. These differences are probably as large or larger than the measured inequalities in dollar income, yet go unmeasured and often excite no commentary in discussions of inequality.

Searching for thoughtful critiques replying to Perez’s oped, I could fine none – only a few short snippy comments.  (Same for Nye.)  Why the deafening silence?

Let’s be clear: the issue is why those concerned about other inequalities, such as re genders or ethnicities, seem so uninterested in inequalities associated with beauty, etc.   Not only could we cause some people to look less pretty, we could use money to compensate ugly folk, reducing total inequality of utility (and increasing total utility if we are risk-averse in status).  Yes we can influence our beauty to some extent, but compensation could be tied to more fixed features such as height, skin smoothness, or body symmetry.

One theory is that what we have seen are somewhat random coalitions: the strongest support for reducing certain inequailties come from member groups who are either on the losing end of an inequality, or get signaling benefits by showing sympathy to such groups.  But no coalition wants to help groups that are too intrinsically weak, producing disgust and derision instead of sympathy from onlookers.  So the ugly, the stupid, or beta males, for example, tend to make unlikely coalition partners.

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Power Beats Happiness

From Time‘s new cover:   TimeCover1

If women had known that more power would be bundled with less happiness, would they have knowingly chosen this bundle?  Seems to me the obvious answer is: yes, if they had made the choice incrementally and in private, and hence in near mode.   But perhaps no, if they had made the choice visibly together all at once for a distant future, in far mode.   People seem to choose other things over happiness all the time, but this is somewhat at odds with their ideal self-conception.  Ideally people say they want happiness, but really they choose power.   Which choice reflects their “real” preference?

The new data showing women are less happy is from Wolfers and Stevenson – more here.

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What’s Pakistan’s Secret?

Today’s top headline is a big Pakistan attack on Taliban rebels; Thursday Obama signed a bill tripling US aid to Pakistan, to $7.5B over five years, on the condition of more such attacks.  Sounds promising for Obama’s Afgahn war, where he has doubled our troops, for a record number of troops at war, right?

But Tuesday’s Frontline, on “Obama’s War”, was pessimistic about the Afghan war, and said the  Taliban we fight there have long gotten most support from Pakistan!  Pakistan has also long supported al-Qaeda, and seems to be where the 911 attack money came from.  Pakistan has also been the main cause of nuclear proliferation over the last few decades, arming Iran and North Korea, who tried to arm Syria, and trying to arm Libya.

Most of the worst problems for the US over the last few decades seem to have come from Pakistan, yet the US treats them nice, not like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or North Korea – what is their secret?  Yes Pakistan has nukes, but so did Russia and China and we never treated them this nice.   And they don’t have the sort of home political support that let’s Israel get away with so much. What gives?

Here are some supporting quotes.  On Taliban support: Continue reading "What’s Pakistan’s Secret?" »

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Fertility Fall Still Puzzling

Bryan Caplan:

One popular story about the decline in family size over the last two centuries goes like this:  Back in the old days, having kids paid.  Children started working when they were quite young, and provided for their parents in their old age. … Ted Bergstrom summarizes evidence showing that even in pre-modern societies, kids did not pay.  Kids did not pay in hunter-gatherer societies. … Kids did not pay in agricultural societies.

Wikipedia lists five explanations for our having fewer kids than our ancestors:

  1. Parents … need not require so many children to be born to ensure a comfortable old age.
  2. Urban living … raises the cost of dependent children to a family.
  3. The cost of children to parents is exacerbated by the introduction of compulsory education …
  4. Lower … acceptance of childbearing and motherhood as measures of the status of women. Working women have less time to raise children.
  5. Improvements in contraceptive technology are now a major factor.

Bergstrom undercut #1, and fertility fell lots before contraception tech, saying #5 is minor.  #2 and #3 don’t obviously raise the cost of kids relative to income, or to kids’ value to parents.  That leaves #4, some unexplained feature of how kids give moms status.

A quick lit review finds a few recent suggestions, such as this:

Reproductive decision making might be driven by a human psychology designed by natural selection to maximize material wealth.


Advice and comment on reproduction that passes among kin is more likely to encourage the creation of families than that which passes among nonkin and (b) this advice and comment influence the social norms.

and this:

Mortality reductions affect the incentives of individuals to invest in human capital and to have children.

But the basic question remains open.  While we have some good clues to proximate causes, we just don’t understand how or why natural selection gave us preferences that, in our modern environment, produce such unadaptive behavior.

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