Thursday, February 28, 2013

Up Goer Five style thesis

My behavioral economics theory thesis using only the ten hundred most common words (inspired by XKCD, who else?). This was surprisingly easy to do, I suppose since economics studies what people do and the most common things we talk about are also what people do... Nonetheless, circumlocutions abound. (By the way, after typing in babyspeak for awhile, it is dangerously satisfying to type 'circumlocutions abound'...) I suspect it'd actually be much easier to understand if I could just say "social image".
We humans do things that we don't want to do sometimes. Often this is because everyone agrees that we should act in one way in a given situation, even when we might want to act another way. We agree that doing the wrong thing is bad, so we feel bad inside if we do it. Also, we don't want other people to look down on us for doing a bad thing. If a lot of people can see what we're doing, we especially don't want to do something bad, because we don't want everyone to look down on us. Because of this, one way to make people do the right thing is to make sure that everyone else is carefully watching what they do and looking down on them when they do something bad. 
But sometimes people don't agree on what is the right thing to do. Some people will think that one thing is right, and other people will think that another thing is right. Then what are we supposed to do to avoid having other people look down on us? It isn't clear whether having people look down on someone will still work to make them stick to what they really believe is the right thing when people don't agree on what the right thing is. That is the question I am answering. 
I found out that if we want to be seen as always sticking to what we believe is right, even if everyone else thinks something else is right, we will more often do what we think is right when we are being watched by other people. But, if we want other people to agree that what we are doing is right, we will more often follow the crowd. Sometimes the crowd believes in something that is good for the world, so this is good. But sometimes the crowd believes in something that isn't always good, so we might do bad things in order to avoid being looked down on. 
I also found out that sometimes we might do bad things even if we only want to be seen as always sticking to what we believe in. This can happen if there is a group of people who are very good at always sticking to what they believe in and they all agree on what is right. Then, even if most people don't agree with them, we can be seen as sticking to what we believe if we follow them. If they happen to believe in something that is bad for the world, we might do something bad by following them. But, not very many people will do this. If too many people did this, then everyone would know that they were pretending to believe in the same thing as that group, so people would look down on them again. 
I also found out that if we want to be seen as sticking to what we believe in, we can't agree on a middle ground very well. But if we only want other people to think that we are doing the right thing, even if we have to break our own ideas of what is right in order to do what everyone else thinks is right, then we can agree on a middle ground. If one group would look down on us a lot if we did what another group thinks is right, and that other group would look down on us a lot if we did what the first group thinks is right, then we might want to follow the middle ground instead of either of doing something that anyone thinks is right. 
I also found out that if people have to decide ahead of time what they think is right, then people will always agree on what is right. Sometimes, they might agree on something that is bad for the world, though. One way to make sure this doesn't happen is to make sure that we won't be looked down on too much for doing something else. 
All in all, I found that people don't act the same when they are afraid of being looked down on. But the thing they are looked down on for matters. If we want people to do the right thing and for people to agree on things that are good for the world, we have to figure out which way people want to be seen in the real world.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

cross-cultural economics

In the summer of 2003, I was a pre-freshman research assistant at Caltech when Jean Ensminger gave a lecture to summer students on her research collaboration that was studying how notions of fairness vary around the globe. Her claim was that societies with more market integration have more strongly developed notions of 50-50-split type fairness norms. I was so fascinated by her talk that I immediately decided to double major in economics, having no idea what economics was other than this very behavioral/anthropological project. (It worked out ok though :) Ten years later, the influence of that talk is still obvious; I've studied social norms and fairness all through grad school.

Now, there's a nice journalistic treatment of (part of) this research program. Very good to see!


(Although, it's pretty annoying when journalists inject so much of their own rumination and mold facts onto a more grandiose scaffolding. Nope, I just couldn't let it go without a token amount of whining about science journalism...)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference, by Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser: Interesting breakdown of the reasons why Europe and the U.S. have found themselves in two different equilibria w.r.t. redistribution policies and attitudes toward the welfare state. I think they wrote off social norms much too quickly (arguing that norms differ because of a top-down process initiated by institutions which are the main cause.) I was very interested and convinced by their argument that race plays a role by allowing the median American to see poverty as an outgroup problem. (But more on that later.)

A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution, by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis: Good book about the evolutionary aspects of social preferences, which is a different angle than the one I research but one that I find recreationally interesting. I wish I knew more about the historical debate/controversy w.r.t. group-level selection. It seems entirely non-problematic to me. I had to rush through this too fast because someone put a library hold on it, so maybe I missed some of those subtleties.

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, by David Brooks: I don't think it's possible to improve on this in the popular-social-science category. My hero-worship of David Brooks continues unabated if not strengthened. (I've also never been so unable to keep from laughing out loud on the BART when listening to text-to-speech on headphones... I got a lot of weird looks from other passengers during his hysterical descriptions of the "Composure Class"...) Anyway, the book weaves together personal narratives of the individuals from two generations with mounds and mounds of research pertaining to every stage of their lives in a way that makes it very hard to stop reading and impossible not to see the relevance of that research. I am too prone to writing off minor cute experimental/empirical results so being forced to read an integrated literature review that ties it all together for me is really nice.

Monday, February 18, 2013

dan savage is a great feminist

Dan Savage is one of my favorite people (and is even better speaking than writing, if you can imagine...), and his most recent letter is a perfect example of why.
Q: What are the effects of perpetuating the myth that gay men should all be tanned and chiseled Adonises? Because that is all one sees. -Not All Adonises
A: ... [T]hose images of tanned and chiseled Adonises can do harm. But if all one sees are images of tanned and chiseled Adonises, NAA, then that’s all one is looking for. Yes, the media—gay and straight—focuses too much on the young and the hot. But if you’re not seeing gay men of all ages, sizes, shapes, and colors, NAA, it’s because you’re choosing not to see them. Open your eyes.
Wow, can you imagine if this was the standard rhetoric of the shrill vocal minority of feminists who love to blow societal factors out of proportion and to fixate on trivial details that 90% of the time have nothing to do with gender in the first place, thereby undermining the credibility of valid complaints that really do deserve attention? I swear to you, as a female in a long diverse string of male-dominated cliques who has never faced a personal reason to give a single thought to gender issues and would never have thought about gender discrimination at all had it not been stuffed down my throat by a string of reactionary feminists, all that fixation is more damaging to your own cause than the original issue...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

economists are cute

I love this footnote (number 6 in the pdf):
"That is to say that they do seem to have wide validity as normative criteria (for me, as well as for Savage); they are probably\footnote{I bet.} roughly accurate in predicting certain aspects of actual choice behavior in many situations and better yet in predicting reflective behavior in those situations."
I translate that as "As a careful scientist, I must point out that this statement is technically an opinion. Yet since I am willing to bet on its truth, you should rationally update your beliefs in the direction of accepting the statement as likely fact." All captured with a two-word footnote, and as if any of that were necessary to elaborate in the first place :)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

when intentions, rather than competence, rule

I'm frequently on the right-wing end of the spectrum in bay area social groups (mostly because I have the gall to believe in gains from trade and respect for individual choice.) Many people seem shocked that I'm almost as hostile to the extreme political atmosphere here as I was to the extreme political atmosphere in Oklahoma (where I was invariably on the far left-wing end of the spectrum...) How could you possibly even compare the hostility of social conservatives to the bumbling head-in-the-clouds misguidedness of many bay area progressives? they say. One leads to unconscionable persecution of minority groups; the other leads to inefficiencies in government. And yes, obviously I'd trade the former for the latter*.

But it's sentences like these...
Grant seekers were told that in the next funding cycle, they would be required — for the first time — to provide quantifiable proof their programs were accomplishing something. The room exploded with outrage. This wasn't fair. ... [A nonprofit CEO] suggested the city's funding process should actually penalize nonprofits able to measure results, so as to put everyone on an even footing. Heads nodded: This was a popular idea.

*on the relevant margin.