Tag Archives: Standard Biases

Fem Hiring Jealousy

I’d always wondered why men get a higher wage premium than women for good looks.  Now we learn jealousy by women in charge of hiring seems a likely explanation:

Job applicants in Europe and in Israel increasingly imbed a headshot of them- selves in the top corner of their CVs. We sent 5312 CVs in pairs to 2656 advertised job open- ings. In each pair, one CV was without a picture while the second, otherwise almost identical CV contained a picture of either an attractive male/female or a plain-looking male/female. Employer callbacks to attractive men are significantly higher than to men with no picture and to plain-looking men, nearly doubling the latter group. Strikingly, attractive women do not enjoy the same beauty premium. In fact, women with no picture have a significantly higher rate of callbacks than attractive or plain-looking women. We explore a number of explanations and provide evidence that female jealousy of attractive women in the workplace is a primary reason for the punishment of attractive women.

For every additional point a judge assigns to a photographed person’s beauty, the judge rates the same person’s intelligence .29 points higher on average. This result is highly significant and contradicts the dumb-blonde hypothesis. … A female subject who is rated one point higher for her beauty is also perceived to be an extra .26 points more intelligent on average.

We asked each company surveyed to indicate what message is conveyed by a … candidate who includes a picture. … Thirty-six percent of the respondents reacted positively to males’ inclusion of a picture, invoking terms such “presentable” and “confident”. Only 28% of the respondents expressed negative associations for male photographs. By contrast, negative sentiments were the predominant response (56%) to females CVs with pictures. “Not serious” and “an attempt to market herself via her appearance” were among the reactions. A mere 12% of respondents expressed a positive association. These findings suggest that we cannot rule out the negative signaling story. … 93% of the [hiring] respondents in our sample were female …

We have presented a range of evidence that suggests that female jealousy is part of the observed and unexpected discrimination against attractive females. To begin, women mostly do the initial screening of CVs. When the hiring is done by the company in which the hired job candidate will work, these women discriminate strongly against attractive women and only attractive women, treating all other picture CVs similarly to the paired no-picture CV. Outside employment agencies in charge of hiring provide a control group. They differentiate significantly between the picture and paired no-picture CVs in all cases, with the attractive females being the only exception: employment agencies discrimination against attractive women is only weakly significant. (more; HT Dan Houser.)

So now that firms know this, will they still let female hiring folks discriminate against pretty female applicants?  Will the law and politicians allow such blatant unfairness to continue? Of course they will. But it is interesting to consider why exactly this will happen.

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Beware Consistency

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. Emerson


Experimental choice data from 881 subjects based on 40 time-tradeoff items and 32 risky choice items reveal that most subjects are time-inconsistent and most violate the axioms of expected utility theory. These inconsistencies cannot be explained by well-known theories of behavioral inconsistency, such as hyperbolic discounting and cumulative prospect theory. … Time-inconsistent subjects and those who violate expected utility theory both earn substantially higher expected payoffs, and these positive associations survive largely undiminished when included together in total payoff regressions. Consistent subjects earn lower than average payoffs because most of them are consistently impatient or consistently risk averse. … Controlling for the total risk of each subject’s risk choices as well as for socio-economic differences among subjects, time inconsistent subjects earn significantly more money, in statistical and economic terms. So do expected utility violators. Positive returns to inconsistency extend outside the domain in which inconsistencies occurs, with time-inconsistent subjects earning more on risky choice items, and expected utility violators earning more on time-tradeoff items. The results seem to call into question whether axioms of internal consistency—and violations of these axioms that behavioral economists frequently focus on—are economically relevant criteria for evaluating the quality of decision making in human populations. (more; HT Dan Houser)

If your jaw isn’t in your lap yet, you aren’t paying attention:

Ask a behavioral economist what we learn from behavioral economics in applied work aimed at educating the public or designing institutions, and you will likely hear calls to help error-prone, biased, or irrational humans overcome the systematic pathologies built into their brains. And yet, very little evidence exists linking violations of axiomatic rationality to high-stakes differences in real people’s lives. … Calls to use behavioral economics as a prescriptive basis for institutional design, such as … to tax potato chips and subsidize carrots, or … changing defaults in savings plans, organ donation rules, and the positioning of dessert on the buffet line, naturally raise controversy. What seems clear, however, is the need for … investigating whether the normative measures we use are relevant to the economic problems we face.

These results seriously question the relation between winning and easy-to-observe local measures of rationality.  In at least two important contexts, people whose actions seem more locally consistent, consistently lose.

Such results also suggest we face a “dark decisions” problem, analogous to the dark matter and energy problems in physics, or the dark brain in neuroscience. Clearly the processes behind our inconsistencies aren’t just random errors, and aren’t very close to expected utility; simple-minded attempts to make them more consistent seem to make them worse.

Added 27Nov: On reflection, I wasn’t thinking straight; this is just the sort of result one should expect from simple random error.  When “rationality” makes you avoid big risks and future payouts, random error can indeed get you paid more on average, in the future.

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New Vs. Old Guard

Jon Stewart can pretend all he wants that the point of his big rally Saturday was just for chuckles, or just to encourage a more reasonable, substantive and civil tone in American politics. The reality is that his own audience on the Mall had an additional agenda, and it was decidedly partisan and decidedly liberal. … It’s self-defeating and even delusional to think progressive policies are going to be achieved just by agitating nobly for a more positive style in politics. (more)

So why is the U.S. left suddenly so eager to emphasize its civility and maturity compared with the right?

In both primitive tribes and modern board rooms, incumbents play out a standard script when arguing with upstarts. When a new guard bids for more influence relative to an old, the new suggests the old is weak, corrupt, out of touch, and past their prime, while the old suggests the new is immature, inexperienced, unrealistic, and untried. The old guard tries to sound calm and reasonable and suggest things are ok, there’s no need for disruptive change, or perhaps that we can’t afford to change captains midstream in a crisis. The new guard will suggest a crisis, with problems getting worse until we change tact, or perhaps that only new leadership can take full advantage of new opportunities.

We are so habituated to expect these patterns that we use these arguments, and are persuaded by them, even when they are unlikely to apply. For example, in a modern two party political system, the party out of power is probably nearly as corrupt and mature as the party in power. Nevertheless, the out party will complain of corruption, while the in complains of immaturity.  The circle of autopilot-thought life continues.

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Thresholds Hurt Oddballs

To estimate the quality of something using a bunch of noisy clues, people often set minimum “deal-breaker” thresholds for each clue, and then reject candidates who fall below any threshold. For example, in dating:

My 20-year-old daughter informed me that she recently dumped a guy because when she asked him the meaning of a word, he said, “Are you serious?”  “That was it. It’s like a huge test for me. … It told me he felt intellectually superior to me,” explained Jenna. … Whoa, give the guy a break, I thought. …

[In] “Love and the Litmus Test,” an article that appeared here 28 years ago [I] essentially justified the kind of subjective, quick and seemingly irrational judgment that Jenna had made. … An “insignificant gesture, an offhand comment” or a plaid sports coat can alter destiny. … For my daughters, ineptitude in the kitchen is almost a deal-breaker. … “The check shouldn’t even hit the table if you’re out to dinner — he should grab it out of the waitress’s hand. … If a guy ever picks up a phone during a meal, I would never talk to him again. …  Irrelevant [facebook] wall posts tells me the guy has too much time on his hands. (more)

Now consider the following two dimensional space, where clues are linear correlates of a linear quality.

thresholdbiasRed lines A,B,C show three different clue cutoffs, and the blue region shows the points that satisfy all three cutoffs. If we consider directions perpendicular to the better vs. worse quality axis, we can see that even though being “odd“, i.e., away from the central quality axis, does not hurt quality, the deal-breaker approach to selecting candidates is biased against odd candidates. Plain, i.e., not odd, candidates are acceptable even when relatively low in quality.

In general, instead of letting each noisy clue be a potential deal-breaker, it is usually better to weigh your clues together (e.g., via a weighted average).

So why do some women claim that they combine clues via deal-breaker thresholds instead of via weighing clues? My guess: such women are bragging about their selectivity in a way that is relatively verifiable. It would be harder to verify a claim that they set a high threshold on a complex weighing of many factors.

The same bias applies to regulations, which typically consist of a set of minimal requirements along many different dimensions. Such regulations are easier to express, monitor, and prosecute, but as with dating they are also biased against odd people and ventures. Count this as another way to see that regulation discourages innovation.

Thanks to Alex for talking this through with me.

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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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Detail Is Near

A pilot tells me that we naturally tend to judge how far away things are by how much detail we can see on them. He says that this leads to a bias whereby pilots overestimate how far away is the ground at night, and when water is flat and calm.  Experienced pilots know to correct for this. More examples where this detail heuristic leads to bias:

  1. Women who see little detail in a man’s feelings often feel he is emotionally distant.  But often men’s feelings just don’t have that much detail.
  2. Liars add extra irrelevant detail to make their lies seem more believable.  Religions do the same.  Story tellers also add irrelevant (i.e., detached) vivid detail to make the overall features of plots and characters seem more realistic.

What more examples of this bias can we find?

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Chase Your Reading

Hunting has two main modes: searching and chasing.  With searching you look for something to chase. With chasing, in contrast, you have a focus of attention that drives your actions. You may find something else worth chasing along the way, and then switch your focus to a new chase, but you’ll still maintain a focus.

It seems to me that while reading non-fiction, most folks are in searching mode. Most would be more intellectually productive, however, in chasing mode. It helps to have in mind a question, puzzle, or problem, and then read in order to answer your question, explain your puzzle, or solve your problem.

In searching mode, readers tend to be less critical. If a source came recommended, they tend to keep reading along even if they aren’t quite sure what the point is. Since authors tend to be more prestigious than readers, readers tend to feel reluctant to question or judge what they’ve read.  They are more likely to talk about whether they enjoyed the read, than whether the author’s argument works.

In chasing mode, readers are naturally more critical. When you are looking for something particular, it feels less presumptuous to stop reading when your source comes to seem irrelevant. After all, the source might be good for some other purpose, even if not for your purpose.

In chasing mode, you continually ask yourself whether what you are reading is relevant for your quest, or whether the author actually has anything new or interesting to say. You flip around seeking sections that might be more relevant, and you might even look up the references for an especially relevant section.

Also, search-readers often don’t have a good mental place to put each thing they learn. In which case they don’t end up learning much. Chasers, in contrast, always have specific mental places they are trying to fill with what they read, so they better integrate new things they learn with old things they know.

In chasing mode, readers also tend to better interleave reading and thinking. People often hope that search-mode reading will inspire them to new thoughts, and are disappointed to find that it doesn’t. Chase-mode reading, in contrast, requires constant thinking, in order to evaluate how the current source addresses your chosen focus. This tends to make it easier to notice missing holes in the literature, where your new idea can be placed.

So if you read to be intellectually productive, rather than just to fill your time, consider reading while chasing something, anything.  (From a conversation with Heather Macsorley.)

Added 8p: Katja and Andy comment, and dloye offers this quote from Samuel Johnson:

What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.

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To Open Mind, Clean Hands

Sometimes it can just be that simple:

After choosing between two alternatives, people perceive the chosen alternative as more attractive and the rejected alternative as less attractive. This postdecisional dissonance effect was eliminated by cleaning one’s hands. Going beyond prior purification effects in the moral domain, physical cleansing seems to more generally remove past concerns, resulting in a metaphorical “clean slate” effect. (more)

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What Tradition Knows

Bryan portrays himself as an intellectual elitist, but he has an oddly unflattering portrait of the elite.  When it comes to the dreamworld of political debate, elites are relatively rational but that is exactly the sphere in which individuals are least decisive over actual outcomes.  When it comes to the really big, important decisions, such as how many kids to have, individuals in the elite are highly decisive in steering outcomes yet quite irrational.  They underappreciate the joy of kids.

That is Tyler.  This seems a plausible example of where thinking goes wrong, i.e., where those who think less tend to make better decisions by following tradition and intuition, and those who rely more on explicit reasoning often take many decades to realize their mistake.  What are the clearest other examples of this, and what features do such examples have in common?  Ideally, we’d use these features to construct a coherent argument to warn young excess thinkers away from their most common mistakes.

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Hearts Vs. Heads

Our minds are big, and composed of many parts.  When our parts disagree, other folks tend to see some parts of our minds as more their allies than other parts.  And such folks will tend to support their allies by encouraging us to give more weight in our minds to their allied parts.

One big division in our mind seems to be between our “heart” and our “head.”  But oddly, literature seems to contain far more examples of folks being encouraged to follow their hearts than their heads.  Why this difference?  Katja Grace ponders:

My favorite explanation at the moment is that we always do what our hearts tell us, but explain it in terms of abstract fabrications when our hearts’ interests do not align with those we are explaining to. Rationalization is only necessary for bad news. … We dearly want to do whatever our listener would have, but are often forced by sensible considerations to do something else.

OK, but why do we not as often give the reverse excuse, that we cannot do what our listener and head wants, because our heart compels us otherwise?  I suggested:

We usually know more about what their heart wants than what their head wants. So if they were going to lie they could just lie about what their head wants – no need to invoke the heart.

Here’s another heart-over-head theory:

Maybe the heart is stupider than the head, so we’re more often tempted to fool someone by appealing to their heart. Similarly, we’d prefer to negotiate with the less sharp partner in a business partnership.

Bryan tells me that for the thinking vs. feeling, or “agreeableness”, personality type dimension, more agreeable folks trust their head less and cooperate more via positive heart feelings.  Negative heart feelings, such as anger, are described via other personality dimensions.  So does “think with your heart” really just mean “be more agreeable” and so “succumb to my social pressure”?   If so why don’t those negative feelings come as easily to mind?

Are there other plausible theories?

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