Humbling wingnuts

I have just read Cass Sunstein’s short collection of essays How to Humble a Wingnut and Other Lessons from Behavioral Economics. It is a decent summary of the behavioural science literature on political bias, although there are few surprises and not a lot of fresh opinion.

The one piece new to me concerned the moderation of people’s views after they are forced to explain their understanding of an issue. The basic story is as follows:

[C]onsider an intriguing study by Philip Fernbach, a University of Colorado business school professor, and his colleagues. …

First, people were asked to state their positions on a series of political issues, including a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, a national flat tax, merit-based pay for teachers and unilateral sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. They were asked to describe their position on a seven-point scale whose endpoints were “strongly in favor” and “strongly opposed.”

Second, people were asked to rate their degree of understanding of each issue on a seven-point scale. The third step was the crucial one; they were asked to “describe all the details you know about [for example, the impact of instituting a ‘cap and trade’ system for carbon emissions], going from the first step to the last, and providing the causal connection between the steps.” Fourth, people were asked to rerate their understanding on the seven-point scale and to restate their position on the relevant issue.

The results were stunning. On every issue, the result of requesting an explanation was to persuade people to give a lower rating of their own understanding—and to offer a more moderate view on each issue. In a follow-up experiment, Fernbach and his co-authors found that after being asked to explain their views, people were less likely to want to give a bonus payment to a relevant advocacy group.

Interestingly, Fernbach and his co-authors found no increase in moderation when they asked people not to “describe all the details you know” about the likely effects of the various proposals, but simply to say why they believe what they do. If you ask people to give reasons for their beliefs, they tend to act as their own lawyers or public relations managers, and they don’t move toward greater moderation.

I wonder how long the effect lasts.

The magic of commerce

A re-read of The Malay Archipelago reminded me of Alfred Russel Wallace’s occasional bleeding-heart libertarian leanings. From his time in remote Dobo in the Aru Islands of Eastern Indonesia:

I daresay there are now near five hundred people in Dobbo of various races, all met in this remote corner of the East, as they express it, “to look for their fortune;” to get money any way they can. They are most of them people who have the very worst reputation for honesty as well as every other form of morality,—Chinese, Bugis, Ceramese, and half-caste Javanese, with a sprinkling of half-wild Papuans from Timor, Babber, and other islands, yet all goes on as yet very quietly. This motley, ignorant, bloodthirsty, thievish population live here without the shadow of a government, with no police, no courts, and no lawyers; yet they do not cut each other’s throats, do not plunder each other day and night, do not fall into the anarchy such a state of things might be supposed to lead to. It is very extraordinary! It puts strange thoughts into one’s head about the mountain-load of government under which people exist in Europe, and suggests the idea that we may be over-governed. Think of the hundred Acts of Parliament annually enacted to prevent us, the people of England, from cutting each other’s throats, or from doing to our neighbour as we would not be done by. Think of the thousands of lawyers and barristers whose whole lives are spent in telling us what the hundred Acts of Parliament mean, and one would be led to infer that if Dobbo has too little law England has too much.

Here we may behold in its simplest form the genius of Commerce at the work of Civilization. Trade is the magic that keeps all at peace, and unites these discordant elements into a well-behaved community. All are traders, and know that peace and order are essential to successful trade, and thus a public opinion is created which puts down all lawlessness.

Ignore the sunk costs

Edge has a great set of short notes by various authors on how Daniel Kahneman has influenced them. It is worth flicking through them all, but excerpts from my two favourites are below.

First, some excellent advice via Jason Zweig:

Anyone who has ever collaborated with him tells a version of this story: You go to sleep feeling that Danny and you had done important and incontestably good work that day. You wake up at a normal human hour, grab breakfast, and open your email. To your consternation, you see a string of emails from Danny, beginning around 2:30 a.m. The subject lines commence in worry, turn darker, and end around 5 a.m. expressing complete doubt about the previous day’s work.

You send an email asking when he can talk; you assume Danny must be asleep after staying up all night trashing the chapter. Your cellphone rings a few seconds later. “I think I figured out the problem,” says Danny, sounding remarkably chipper. “What do you think of this approach instead?”

The next thing you know, he sends a version so utterly transformed that it is unrecognizable: It begins differently, it ends differently, it incorporates anecdotes and evidence you never would have thought of, it draws on research that you’ve never heard of. If the earlier version was close to gold, this one is hewn out of something like diamond: The raw materials have all changed, but the same ideas are somehow illuminated with a sharper shift of brilliance.

The first time this happened, I was thunderstruck. How did he do that? How could anybody do that? When I asked Danny how he could start again as if we had never written an earlier draft, he said the words I’ve never forgotten: “I have no sunk costs.”

Second, Eric Kandel (an 84 year-old Nobel laureate):

Daniel Kahneman has not yet influenced my work on snails and mice, but I am only in an early point in my career and I still look forward to exploring his ideas in a molecular biological context in the future.

A week of links

Again, closer to a month of links:

  1. A great set of essays triggered by David Dobbs’s assault on the selfish gene.
  2. Tim Harford on big data. His piece on behavioural economics is also worth reading. Take the hype with a grain of salt.
  3. The Greg Clark show continues – an interview on Social Science bites, a presentation at the RSA and some thoughts by Greg Cochran.
  4. Charles Murray has a new book on its way – The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life
  5. A good long-read on de-extinction.
  6. Free-range kids.

A week of links

More like a month of links, but here goes:

  1. We’re going to be hearing a lot about Greg Clark’s new book on social mobility – The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. Clark gives a synopsis in the NYT. In short, Clark and his colleagues estimate “that 50 to 60 percent of variation in overall status is determined by your lineage.”
  2. Kolk and colleagues present a paper in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B presents a model in which intergenerational fertility correlations drive a long-term fertility increase. They cite my working paper a source for genetic correlations driving fertility up. When (if) I get that paper published, do I now cite back?
  3. The germs made you do it. (A good long read)
  4. Are the hot hand deniers, so desperate to demonstrate cognitive biases, falling to biases of their own?
  5. Don’t hire like Google.
  6. Behavioural economics versus behavioural finance. On House’s question of where the behavioural economics folk are, I suggest the supply responded to the demand.

Cooperation and Conflict in the Family Conference wrap

Over the past year I have posted several times about the Cooperation and Conflict in the Family Conference, which was held in Sydney this week. It turned out to be a great conference, and I am very pleased with how it panned out.

The conference has increased my optimism about the potential for more work to be carried out at the inter-disciplinary boundaries between economics, evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology and so on. When I compare it to the Social Decision Making: Bridging Economics and Biology conference I attended almost three years ago (an excellent conference), we managed to drag in a broader range of economists and other social scientists to this event. I suspect this is evidence for increasing interest on the part of social scientists in how sciences such as biology can add to the social science toolkit.

As a result, I hope this conference is the first of a continuing series (although hopefully with a wider group of organisers). An interesting challenge for the next iteration will be to pick an appropriate theme. In this case, the Cooperation and Conflict in the Family theme was useful in pulling together people who may not have necessarily considered that there were useful insights in other disciplines. We would not have gotten such an interesting mix of people if we had pitched the topic specifically around the integration of disciplines.

It was interesting to see the different presentation styles across disciplines, and I have to say that the biologists (on average) have the edge in presenting their work in an easy to understand way – particularly in relation to the submitted presentations. Us economists are still too tied to our equations to dump them. This was best illustrated in the presentations of two plenary speakers – Michael Jennions and Hanna Kokko – who used simple cartoons and illustrations to describe their models. If you go to their papers (particularly the supplementary materials), there can be some relatively hefty math behind them. Yet they are able to present the ideas without relying on the equations. And maybe this should also be taken as an indication for how economists write their papers – more of the math in the supplementary appendix, more time in the (shorter) main paper on the important intuition. And then dump the math when we intend to communicate our ideas verbally.

The conference also reminded me of how hard it is to work across disciplinary boundaries without full immersion in both sides (or having someone from both sides engaged in the work). Again turning the Michael Jennions presentation, he talked about Bateman’s gradient and the operational sex ratio, and about what each of them actually show (the paper on this is here). I thought I knew what each were about, but am now revisiting my understanding.

Finally, we recorded most of the plenary and submitted presentations and are exploring ways to make sure that the outputs of the conference do not disappear into the ether. When we do put some material together and post it online, I’ll put a note here and on the conference website.

A week of links

Links this week:

  1. Greg Clark on long-term social mobility.
  2. Cameron Murray on his reading list – Tribes, Gods, Indeterminancy, Property, Capitalism
  3. Assortative mating drives income inequality.
  4. The behavioural science of sleep.
  5. The Cooperation and Conflict in the Family Conference kicks off today. Rob Brooks posts. For Sydney folk, there are some free public lectures as part of the conference that will be worth checking out.

A change of blogging pace and style

Since late 2010, I have usually generated two or more substantive posts per week at Evolving Economics. Unfortunately, I’ve reached a point where I can’t sustain posting at the rate and quality I would like. The combination of writing my (near complete) PhD, trying to publish the chapters as papers, working full-time as a consultant (on a very interesting project for most of 2014), reading as much as I would like, and trying to have a life has proved a touch too much.

So, I’m changing my blogging strategy for the immediate future to a lower output approach. Posts will appear if I find time and mental space. I plan for some of those posts to be higher quality long reads – of the standard I’d be happy to see published in a magazine. I’ll also keep posting on my research and on events such as the upcoming Cooperation and Conflict in the Family Conference. But there will be no (self-imposed) schedule and some reasonably long gaps between substantive posts.

At the other end of the spectrum, I will keep putting up my “week of links” posts as a pointer to the interesting pieces I come across (although they may not arrive exactly on a weekly schedule). I may also post other quick notes of interesting articles and papers that I come across.

And I’m looking forward to it. During the last two months of 2013, posting was sporadic as I took a surfing holiday, came down with a fever that I picked up in the tropics, and took some time off over Christmas. I enjoyed the change of pace and the absence of a (completely self-imposed) obligation to generate regular content. I had more space for reading and getting across new ideas.

I may revert back to a more regular posting pattern if circumstances and resource constraints permit. But until then, thanks for the flow of comments, thoughts and support I’ve received over the last few years. I’m not disappearing, just being a little less productive on the blogging front.

And as has been the case for a while, if you would like to be notified of new posts when they do arrive, follow me on twitter or Google+ (there is also a Facebook page, although I’d recommend the other options first). You can also subscribe to posts via email by entering your address in the sidebar to the Evolving Economics page or in the box at the bottom of this post. There is also an RSS feed (if you still have a feedburner subscription to the feed, I recommend that you update your RSS feed to the one in the link above – that link will get you posts without delay and this feed address will persist if Google ever pulls the feedburner plug).

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A week of links

Links this week:

  1. A cool idea – people who are genealogical ancestors of everyone alive but genetic ancestors of none (HT: Joe Pickrell).
  2. Philip Ball on how the apparently irrational can be rational.
  3. John Kay on the economic approach – there is no such thing.
  4. Genetically modified chickens.
  5. The annual Edge question is out, this time “What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?” Of those answers written about areas I am familiar with or interested in, the question has effectively been “What Scientific Idea Don’t You Like?” As a result, we get the latest play in old debates on race, IQ, the limits to growth (Ridley, Hidalgo and  Obrist), inclusive fitness, gene-environment interactions (Pinker and Sapolsky among others ), epigenetics, rationality, homo economicus and culture (Betzig, Richerson and Tooby). Some are framed in interesting ways (I like Sapolsky’s approach), but there are few surprises. I found more value in the answers that addressed approaches to science (such as Richard Thaler, Nicholas Christakis and Samuel Arbesman).
  6. And finally, surfing the US-Mexico border fence (HT: Michael Clemens).