Monday, February 28, 2011

Thinking About Relationships Long Term

I've boasted regularly about the new blog and book, Spousonomics. Whether it's date night, conflict, or marriage in general, economics has a lot to say about marriage. The authors recently requested questions on the Freakonomics blog, and mine got accepted. Here the question and answer:
Q. How do you avoid the counting-favors game? -Harrison Brookie

A. Or put another way, how to stop score-keeping? An excellent question and one that applies to virtually every couple, partnership and business relationship on planet earth. Research on incentives shows that counting favors is a double-edged sword. Say you’re trying to construct an agreement for how to pay an employee (or spouse). You could count every little thing he or she does or doesn't do, and pay for or punish each one. But this signals a lack of trust: Why else would you have to keep such close score? Evidence has shown that when a partner feels a lack of trust, he or she is more likely to cheat the system and less likely to volunteer to do something on his or her own. This is called “crowding out” of intrinsic motivation.
There are clear benefits to counting favors, you get the other to do more. But I'd never considered the costs. Like Dan Ariely stated in his book, there two different kinds of exchanges, market and social. When you treat a relationship like a system of platonic exchanges, the intrinsic desire to help disappears. If you plan on being in a relationship long term, which I certainly do, it's probably better for you to stop keeping count.

The Past Wasn't Completely Impoverished

In the first post my series against self-verification, I'd like to try and balance an argument I make regularly. Though like was significantly worse before the Industrial Revolution, in some places it wasn't as bad as I thought:
In the first, with Joseph Cummins and Brock Smith, he shows that England was surprisingly rich before the Industrial Revolution. This assertion is based on the fact the a small share of the population was engaged in farming. The primary sector accounted for 52% in 1817, and even 60% in 1560. These measurements are based on the occupations listed in men's wills and indicate that a substantial fraction of people living in rural areas were in fact not engaged in farming. Thus measuring the urban population share can be misleading in this respect.

In the second, Gregory Clark shows that there has been relatively little growth over these centuries, which means that way back in 1381, England was much richer than we thought. At that date, only 55% of the population was engaged in farming, based on records of the Poll Tax. This is very close to the number quoted above for 1817. Thus standards of living were not that different four and a half centuries apart.
I think I've also been guilty of ignoring the importance of intimate relationships when it comes to measuring wealth. Having enjoyable conversations with friends is one of many things that won't show up in GDP. And let's not forget, that like me, plenty of ancient cultures had time for games.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Your Default is Self-Verification

If there is one thing blogging has taught me, it's that we are drawn to ideas we already have. For example, we only trust experts when they agree with what we believe (I'm guilty too). This is a huge hindrance to our search for the truth. To be truly wise, we must doubt our own fragile understanding and give others' thoughts the benefit of the doubt. That's why this week, I will devote the first post of every day to items that I was once wrong about. Hopefully by reminding myself of my past foolishness, I can prevent future foolishness.

The Reverse Placebo

If education and ignorance can be positive placebos, can the reverse be true?:
Researchers from Britain and Germany used brain scans to map how a person's feelings and past experiences can influence the effectiveness of medicines, and found that a powerful painkilling drug with a true biological effect can appear not to be working if a patient has been primed to expect it to fail.
Via Justin Landwehr.

People Care Less Than You Think

One of the main complaints about the world is that people don't care enough. But it's not all bad:
This research provides evidence that people overestimate the extent to which their actions and appearance are noted by others, a phenomenon dubbed the spotlight effect. In Studies 1 and 2, participants who were asked to don a T-shirt depicting either a flattering or potentially embarrassing image overestimated the number of observers who would be able to recall what was pictured on the shirt. In Study 3, participants in a group discussion overestimated how prominent their positive and negative utterances were to their fellow discussants. Studies 4 and 5 provide evidence supporting an anchoring-and-adjustmentinterpre- tation of the spotlight effect. In particular, people appear to anchor on their own rich phenomenological experience and then adjust--insufficiently--to take into account the perspective of others. The discussion focuses on the manifestations and implications of the spotlight effect across a host of everyday social phenomena.
This is one of the biggest lessons I try to teach my high schoolers.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Before There Was Blogging

There was memorization:
Today we have books, photographs, computers and an entire superstructure of external devices to help us store our memories outside our brains, but it wasn’t so long ago that culture depended on individual memories. A trained memory was not just a handy tool but also a fundamental facet of any worldly mind. It was considered a form of character-building, a way of developing the cardinal virtue of prudence and, by extension, ethics. Only through memorizing, the thinking went, could ideas be incorporated into your psyche and their values absorbed.

Friday, February 25, 2011

History of US Energy Production

That's from the US Energy Information Administration. So what do we expect for the future? A combination of more nuclear, more solar, more oil, maybe more geothermal, hopefully less corn and all at about the same price.

Conditioned For Marriage

There's been a lot of chatter on the web recently about "the end of marriage". Unsurprisingly, I'm skeptical. Here's some evidence that humanity is trained for committed relationships:
Single, male subjects rated a woman the most attractive at the peak of her ovulation, scientists found, which is to be expected since that's when she's the most fertile. On the other hand, male subjects in a committed relationship behaved the opposite by giving the woman lower attractive marks during her fertility peak.
Here's why:
The authors hypothesize that people in relationships are more likely to subconsciously reduce thoughts of temptation. Researchers call these tendencies "relationship maintenance strategies," where we downplay the attractiveness of others we might be tempted by.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Regret, Frustration, and Traffic

The Freakonomics blog recently posted a study done showing that people will give up something to prevent the possibility of regret. In the experiment participants were asked to pick a lottery ticket at random and then were offered a bonus to exchange the ticket for a different one. Because the first choice was random, there's no reason not to accept the free gift, but most do not. This is an irrationality I see often. I think it comes from a misunderstanding of sunk costs. There are certain things that are out of our control, for example the lottery, so they shouldn't effect our decision making.

I use this idea regularly on my long commute to work. It's well known that commuting, along with being  a terrible use of time, is very mentally taxing. One of the more frustrating parts of driving to work in the morning with a late bell looming over your shoulder, is getting behind a slow moving vehicle. That is, until I realized that most of my drive is a sunk cost. There is very little I can do on a road with one lane and very few places to pass. So when I drive, I don't try to go as fast as possible without getting a ticket, I try to limit the space between me and the car in front of me. As long as I'm right behind them, there's nothing else I can do. No regrets, no frustrations.

The Curveball That Led the US to Iraq

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Brookies Versus Cleverbot

In the aftermath of Watson, the IBM computer that dominated Jeopardy last week, I've been thinking a lot about the practicality of this kind of artificial intelligence. Information organization, like that of the audio-visual encyclopedia Qwiki seem like the most obvious uses (though there are others). To get an idea of how this might work I decided to do my own type of Turing test and see if I could outwit a computer. As my opponent I chose, an interactive website that can mimic human conversations. With my wife by my side, we tried to prove that it was not a human:
User: Hello.
Cleverbot: Hello Hello.
User: How do I know you're not a robot?
Cleverbot: Well duh i'm not a robot.
User: What was your childhood like?
Cleverbot: Good enough I suppose.
Just generic enough. So we decided to ask it a trick question that only a robot could answer.
User: What is 50000.4 x 40000.5?
Cleverbot: Stop, now! I'm no calculator!
Dang. Okay, how about a question that only a human could answer.
User: What is your mother's name?
Cleverbot: I never told you her name, so I'm not telling you now.
User: What's love got to do with it?
Cleverbot: Love means nothing, peace means everyrthing.
Then we noticed something unusual.
User: Why did you misspell the word 'everyrthing'?
Cleverbot: I didn't.
User: Yes you did.
Cleverbot: No I didn't.
User: Prove it.
Cleverbot: Look at the log of our conversation.
We started getting frustrated.
User: Are you a robot.
Cleverbot: I'm not a robot.
User: Prove that you are not a robot,.
Cleverbot: How would you like me to prove that I am not a robot?
Then it occurred to me. It will be difficult to trick it using text. So how about sound.
User: What am I trying to communicate?: Hollow eye ham a niece pearson..
Cleverbot: That has nothing to do with the conversation.
User: Yes it does. I'm trying to find out if you are a robot. Answer my question.
Cleverbot: No, you weren't.
User: Look at the log of our conversation.
I'll count that as a victory for the humans.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My Career and Hobby Advice

Get really good at something specific and get paid for it (ex: teaching high school economics). Then spend the rest of your time getting good at everything else (ex: improv, blogging, relationships) and it will probably make you even better at your original thing.

Cities Are Greener

if you love nature, stay away from it. We're much more likely to harm nature, as Thoreau did surrounded by the woods than if we lived in tall urban apartments by ourselves. There's a statistical partner to that, which is together with Matthew Kahn, I've assembled data on carbon emissions associated with living in different parts of the country. And there are two facts which I think are important to come out of that: one of which is that people who live in cities do tend to emit significantly less carbon than people who live in countries. And this is controlling for income controlling for family size. That's coming mainly from driving, from the fact there's just a lot fewer carbon emissions associated with dense living. It's not just the move to public transportation, it's also that for drivers within cities, they're just driving much shorter distances. And then of course, it's because of smaller homes. The higher price of urban space means that people are living in smaller homes even with the same family size. And that leads to lower electricity usage, lower home heating usage, and those are the facts that make cities seem, at least to my eyes, significantly greener.
So if, as the author also claims, that cities are the engines of economic and social growth without the environmental destruction, why don't we all live in big cities? The government:
I think that at the federal level there are three issues, one of which is the home mortgage interest deduction. The home mortgage interest deduction essentially acts as a push away from urban apartments into suburban homes. [...]

Second policy that's problematic, and we're still doing this, and this I actually give President Obama much less credit for—we've been huge on building infrastructure in this country for a long time. [...]

But I worry about a renewed push towards building new transportation infrastructure in this country. The work of Nathaniel Baum-Snow finds that every new highway that cut into a major city in the post war period reduced that city's population by eighteen percent because of suburbanization. Transportation is sort of the opposite of urban clustering. You're sort of subsidizing people to spread out.

And the third thing, which is not really a federal issue, but it's huge is our local system of schooling. Certainly for anyone who's a parent like myself, the suburban school districts offer huge enticement to leave cities.
If you're not subscribed to this podcast yet, I highly reccomend it (and others).

Monday, February 21, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Late-February '11 Links

"Hello", here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Effectiveness of Surveillance Cameras

More than I thought:
Her team of researchers looked at two high-crime neighborhoods on Chicago's West Side, Humboldt Park and West Garfield Park. In Humboldt Park, she told me, they found "a significant decrease in total monthly crime numbers," including property crime and violent crime. They found no evidence that the cameras merely pushed crime into other areas. In West Garfield Park, on the other hand, they saw "no impact," possibly because there were fewer cameras.

On the cost-effectiveness test, though, La Vigne says the cameras were a solid success. For every $1 of costs, they yielded $4 of societal benefits (reduced crime, savings in courts and corrections, less suffering for victims), despite their failure in West Garfield Park.

In Baltimore, where cameras are concentrated in downtown and monitored actively 24 hours a day (as distinct from the more passive approach in Chicago), La Vigne found the impact on violent crime was even greater — and the benefits exceeded the costs by 50 percent.
It makes sense that there is a diminishing effect of cameras. The most cost effective action may be to put a few in high crime areas and use them post-crime. I have very little opposition to this on privacy grounds. Must be because I'm an amoral libertarian.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Marriage Advice on Conflict

Conflict is important for any relationship and like most things, it has a learning curve. Here's a good question from the Spousonomics blog:
Have you figured out a way to argue more efficiently? Like, to reach resolution and smiles more quickly?
and here's the fabulous answer:
Never ever call names. Never ever threaten to leave. Don’t apologize for things you aren’t sorry for, that’s just mean, and for the love of all things Holy don’t fight about things that don’t matter. If you sit down and look at your part in things it’s unlikely that what you’re angry about matters one bit.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Worthwhile Sentences on Thinking

From George Orwell: People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome."

From Victor Frankl: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

From The New Yorker (about Harry Potter): "That the reality of machines can outpace the imagination of magic"

From homosexual pastor Mel White: "Even when we believe the Scriptures are 'infallible' or 'without error,' it's terribly dangerous to think that our understanding of every biblical text is also without error."

From Abraham Lincoln: "The problem with Internet quotations is that many are not genuine."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Learning by Teaching: The Newburgh Conspiracy

Teaching has taught me more about history and economics than college ever did. Here's an example of something my US History class just covered:
The Newburgh Conspiracy was unrest in 1783 among officers of the American Continental Army resulting from the fact that many of the officers and men of the Continental Army had not received pay for many years. Commander-in-Chief George Washington stopped any serious talk by appealing successfully to his officers to support the supremacy of Congress.
Instead of taking on the kingship offered him he made a speech:
Washington then gave a short but impassioned speech, the Newburgh Address, counseling patience. His message was that they should oppose anyone "who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.". He then took a letter from his pocket from a member of Congress to read to the officers. He gazed upon it and fumbled with it without speaking. He then took a pair of reading glasses from his pocket, which were new and few of the men had seen him wear them. He then said: "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." This caused the men to realize that Washington had sacrificed a great deal for the Revolution, just as much as any of them. These, of course, were his fellow officers, most having worked closely with him for several years. Many of those present were moved to tears, and with this act, the conspiracy collapsed as he read the letter.
I hope the Egyptian military is reading my blog.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival Suggestions

Once again, live comedy converges on the South. This is the third and final week of the North Carolina Comedy Art Festival. Sketch and stand up weeks are over and it's on to my favorite, improv week! If you're within driving distance, this is your chance to see improv comedy from around the nation (and Canada). Here are my must see recommendations:

If you want to see me, I'm performing each night with different teams:
Go here for a full schedule. You can buy tickets online or at the door.

Pound for Pound Presents A Two Person Show

I've posted variety type show from college and recent group Harold performances. Here's a duo team I proud to be a part of. I apologize in advance for the video quality:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part XIX

Valentines relationship edition:
Female wild Bechstein's bats prefer to literally hang out with certain friends while they also keep loose ties to the rest of their colony. Lead author Gerald Kerth told Discovery News that these bat buddies mirror human ones. Despite all of their "daily chaos, the bats are able to maintain long-term relationships," he said.
Okay, so that's a similarity, what about this:
Male bats of this species are solitary, but females roost together in bat boxes and tree cavities. They preferred certain companions over the years.
Yikes. Surely they just appreciate the familiarity and that's it:
consultant for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, pointed out that female bats even sometimes serve as midwives.

In one documented case, a pregnant fruit bat in Florida was attended by an unrelated female fruit bat, according to Balcombe, who is author of the book "Second Nature." The helper bat repeatedly groomed and hugged the pregnant bat during the birthing process.

"Following birth, the helper groomed the pup, and she and a third female fanned the mother with her wings," added Balcombe.
Dang that's surprising. So what can we do for Valentines Day that animals can't? Justin Beiber.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Economics of the Printing Press

It's likely that the printing press played a part in the Industrial Revolution. Here's estimate of it's impact on population:
Historians observe that printing diffused from Mainz in “concentric circles” (Barbier 2006). Distance from Mainz was significantly associated with early adoption of the printing press, but neither with city growth before the diffusion of printing nor with other observable determinants of subsequent growth. The geographic pattern of diffusion thus arguably allows us to identify exogenous variation in adoption. Exploiting distance from Mainz as an instrument for adoption, I find large and significant estimates of the relationship between the adoption of the printing press and city growth. I find a 60 percentage point growth advantage between 1500-1600.
Here's an example of how:
Cities that adopted print media benefitted from positive spillovers in human capital accumulation and technological change broadly defined. These spillovers exerted an upward pressure on the returns to labour, made cities culturally dynamic, and attracted migrants.

Present Value of Planet Earth

$5,000,000,000,000,000. That's $5,000 trillion.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Famous as Shit

I've thought a lot about fame. About what it's like to be really famous and kind of famous. And how to know if you are famous. In the past, my fame-meter has been do you want to have lunch with a stranger. A truly famous person couldn't say yes, if they did, they'd always be eating with strangers. Justin Wehr has come up with an even more unusual metric. In response to poop art:
It is fascinating (to me) to think about the different market values of poop depending on context. The same person who paid thousands of dollars for Manzoni's poop would probably pay hundreds of dollars to avoid the experience of seeing, smelling, or God-forbid stepping in a stranger's poop.

Here is a fascinating question: What person, in what context, would have the highest-valued poop?

I'd bet that a Buzz Aldrin turd released in space would demand a pretty penny. Not sure if it would go higher than a Marilyn Monroe turd.
You heard it here first: If I ever become famous enough to have poop with a positive market value (come to think of it, that is a good measure of fame, isn't it?), I will sell it. In fact, I wouldn't mind being remembered as the guy who sold more of his poop than any other human in history. I am only half-joking.
That's a part of Justin's weird but surprisingly interesting series Poop Mondays. Here are the other posts so far:
Here's my contribution to the topic:

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Most Important Person You've Never Heard Of

Nobel peace prize winning plant scientist Norman Borlaug:
He received the Nobel in 1970, primarily for his work in reversing the food shortages that haunted India and Pakistan in the 1960s. Perhaps more than anyone else, Borlaug is responsible for the fact that throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted -- for example, in the 1967 best seller Famine -- 1975! The form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.
A great example of how the market (or maybe in this case an individual scientist) can influence global history. Mr. Borlaug died a couple of years ago.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Mid-February '11 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Story of Reason and Emotion

I recently took economist Steve Landsburg's blog, The Big Questions, off my blogroll out of protest for his harsh critisim of this story:

The criticism focused on the fact that although the speech was captivating, it had no specific evidence. Not only do I disagree with Mr. Landsburg's complaint, I think the that personal stories are an important part of any debate. A while back I posted on the balance between our reason and emotion. My conclusion was that both are important for decision making. Later I shared an example of how even our emotions can make the market more efficient and more accurate. Recently a friend reminded me of Tyler Cowen's TED Talk I shared a while back when I gave fictional support to my factual call to legalize drugs:

In this talk he affirms the idea that fiction is a powerful source of persuasion. He warns that stories can be overly simplified and used to mislead. Although I agree with Tyler's worry, I think stories are more than tricks for our rational brain. They're information for our emotions. If our logic and reason are conscious thought. Our emotion is unconscious thought. Both can be improved, just in different ways. Our emotional brain craves stories. This is why there is only short list of narrative possibilities. Tyler lists a few: a stranger comes to town, rags to riches, voyage and return, etc. This is shown beatifically in the ongoing video series Everything is a Remix. Part one is about music, part two is about stories:

Stories are useful ways to to condense information. Narratives are memory tools for our emotional brain. It is important to use stories as a way to learn and grow. This topic came up in my church last Sunday when the pastor talked about how of the three ways we interact with the world (reason, emotion, action), our emotion is the most underused in our understanding God. As someone who is overly in their head, I couldn't have agreed more. But as he explained the ideas in an intellectual way, I couldn't help but ask him how we could improve our feelings directly. My question led him to blog this:
I was stumped Sunday morning. Admittedly, I don’t like being stumped. There is a small part of me that wants to always have an answer for any question that someone can throw at me. But then reality hits you in the face, you get flustered and give nonsensical round about answers. I have to smile a little when this happens because really it is good to be humbled and reminded I am human. I’m nowhere as smart as I would like to be. I simply offer what I have learnt in my journey with Jesus.

I spent 45 minutes making an argument for how, as Christians, we can just focus on thinking the right things (orthodoxy) and doing the right things (orthopraxis) but that it is just as important to work on feeling the right things (orthopathos). I was trying to show my flock that God cares about our feelings, and wants to use and redeem our feelings. Then someone basically asked me in Q&A, “This church is very intellectual so how do we work on feeling the right things?" Good question. A very good question. I really should have been ready for this question because it is the question that is begging to be asked. But I didn’t have the foresight to expect it. There is something very ironic in trying to get people to work on their emotional health by giving them an intellectual case for it. Can you really “right think” people into “right feelings”? The short answer is “no.” But that is where you start when your church’s culture is to emphasize the mind. Nothing wrong with that. Some churches emphasize the mind, some emphasize actions, and some emphasize feelings. You hope that all churches seek some balance between those things at the same time.

But back to the question that stumped me. I have been thinking about this question since I was asked it. On one hand, it is a very easy question to answer. On the other hand, it is a very difficult question to answer. The easy answer is, “Emotional health is ultimately an individual’s journey that starts with a person being willing to explore their emotional life and bring it honestly to God for redemption. Where God takes that journey afterwards is different for each person.” The reason why this question is easy and difficult to answer is because the burden IS on an individual to do the work towards emotional well-being and the things that can be done on a corporate level are limited.

On a corporate level, we can start talking in a way that acknowledges that feelings are important. We can stop giving over-spiritual answers that imply believing in Jesus gets rid of all the ups and downs of emotions. We can model emotional well-being by seeking it in our own lives as leaders of the church. We can provide training to small group leaders that open the door for both the leaders’ and the members’ emotional well-being. Even just those four things are actually a tall order for any church. And the thing is, even when a church can do those four things well, it still comes down to an individual’s willingness to delve into, what can be for many people, the murky and scary waters of emotions.
He goes on to give five practical ways to solve the problem. Although helpful, I think the main item missing from the list is the power of stories. Every so often our church has a member give their testimony (Christian word for story). In my weekly small group we've been taking turns giving our personal biographies. In my improv team we did an exercise creating characters through personal beliefs. Whether in a religious, relational, or educational environments, stories are powerful. Non-fiction is important, but so is fiction. This is the power of art. Sure they can also be used to distort truth, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to use music, paintings, movies, or even improv as "lies to tell the truth".

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Reason and Emotion Revisited

Here's a follow up to my earlier posts on reason and emotion and the efficiency of emotion. It's an example of where our gut response is better than our thoughtful one:
Let me tell you a story about strawberry jam. In 1991, the psychologists Timothy Wilson and Jonathan Schooler decided to replicate a Consumer Reports taste test that carefully ranked forty-five different jams. Their scientific question was simple: Would random undergrads have the same preferences as the experts at the magazine? Did everybody agree on which strawberry jams tasted the best?

Wilson and Schooler took the 1st, 11th, 24th, 32nd, and 44th best tasting jams (at least according to Consumer Reports) and asked the students for their opinion. In general, the preferences of the college students closely mirrored the preferences of the experts. Both groups thought Knott’s Berry Farm and Alpha Beta were the two best-tasting brands, with Featherweight a close third. They also agreed that the worst strawberry jams were Acme and Sorrel Ridge. When Wilson and Schooler compared the preferences of the students and the Consumer Reports panelists, he found that they had a statistical correlation of .55. When it comes to judging jam, we are all natural experts. We can automatically pick out the products that provide us with the most pleasure.

But that was only the first part of the experiment. The psychologists then repeated the jam taste test with a separate group of college students, only this time they asked them to explain why they preferred one brand over another. As the undergrads tasted the jams, the students filled out written questionnaires, which forced them to analyze their first impressions, to consciously explain their impulsive preferences. All this extra analysis seriously warped their jam judgment. The students now preferred Sorrel-Ridge—the worst tasting jam according to Consumer Reports—to Knott’s Berry farm, which was the experts’ favorite jam. The correlation plummeted to .11, which means that there was virtually no relationship between the rankings of the experts and the opinions of these introspective students.
Here's what they think is happening:
Reasoning is generally seen as a mean to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Much evidence, however, shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests rethinking the function of reasoning. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given human exceptional dependence on communication and vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology or reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing but also when they are reasoning proactively with the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow the persistence of erroneous beliefs. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all of these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and favor conclusions in support of which arguments can be found.

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part XVIII

I've always been amazed by the sometimes eerie ability of gorillas or chimpanzees (and sometimes whales) to learn how to use of language. However, it's important to remember what their limitations are:
During one of his journeys, Cohen met two of the stars of the ape-language world: the bonobo Kanzi and his half-sister, Panbanisha. He writes: ‘If they have language, I did not witness it. If a three-year-old human showed as little response to what I said, I would think the child had a hearing problem or was psychologically impaired.’

The 1960s and 70s were the heyday of ape-language research, but the field imploded in the 1980s after Columbia University researcher, Herbert Terrace, published the findings of his attempts to teach the chimp Nim Chimpsky American Sign Language (ASL). Not only did Terrace conclude that Nim was incapable of creating sentences; his team also analysed films of other high-profile ASL-using apes, including Washoe the chimp and Koko the gorilla, and decided that apes had a ‘severely restricted’ ability to learn more than ‘isolated symbols.’ There was no evidence of them being able to create sentences.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Game Theory of the Improv Scene

Something I've been working through as a coach and a player, is the problem of balancing stage time. You want to feel responsibility for the show, but you also don't want it to feel like a one-man-team. Should you play aggressively or politely? There's certainly some individual wisdom required, but I think I've decided what the default mode should be. Here's a game theory chart to explain:

No matter what Player 1 does, Player 2 should always play aggressively. No matter what Player 2 does, Player 1 should always play aggressively. Best of all, if both follow this strategy it results in the best possible scene, fast-paced and exciting. And you though Game Theory was just for classrooms and reality TV.

This has also been posted at The College Improv Resource.

Economics of the Egyptian Military

Compared to similar protests for democracy like Tiananmen Square in China twenty years ago, the Egyptian military has been surprisingly supportive of the people. There are several reasons for this, but the most interesting is the fact that the military actual run many of the Egyptian industries and has a vested interest in economic stability: assembly, we're talking of clothing, we're talking of construction of roads, highways, bridges. We're talking of pots and pans, we're talking of kitchen appliances. You know, if you buy an appliance there's a good chance that it's manufactured by the military. If you ... don't have natural gas piped into your house and you have to have a gas bottle, the gas bottle will have been manufactured by the military. Some of the foodstuffs that you will be eating will have been grown and/or processed by the military.
Or to put it another way:
These billions would be threatened if the protests devolved into full-on civil conflict. People in the middle of violent political chaos don't buy dishwashers.
They run somewhere between five to forty percent of the Egypt's several hundred billion dollar economy. How do we know all of this? One of the good things to come from WikiLeaks.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Super Bowl's Importance to Society

I usually have a hard time getting into major sporting events, with some exceptions for the World Cup and Clemson football. But here's a reason why the Super Bowl may be good for national cohesion:
There is nothing else in the country today that can act as a common language between the boardroom and the bingo hall, the classroom and the union hall. Sports, and most importantly talking about sports, is the only activity just about all Americans share regardless of age, education, or wealth. When the electrician shows up at the doctor's house they can always talk about one of the local teams. This is not as often the case in other countries where interest in sports is closely associated with class.
You can follow the drama in as much detail as you would like. Deep or shallow, this passion unifies us and keeps us from trying other worse ways to unify:
And this is right, because as Tocqueville warned, the passion for equality can produce the most desperate inequality. The passion for equality and the passion of envy are remarkably similar, and in our zeal to obtain equality we’ll blindly give up other goods. In the extreme, we will give up freedom, preferring to be equally subject to one power and safe from being proved inferior to another than free to exercise our unequal abilities.
I'll be specifically watching to see how the eyes of the world influence individual decisions.

Kid Lincoln Presents Harold

You've seen me do it, now see the team I coach:

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Rationality of Playing the Lottery

Sometimes seemingly irrational things, like recessions, may actually be a result of perfectly a rational decisions. The lottery is no different:
Why do people play the lottery? On the one hand, the answer is obvious enough: We’re happy to spend $3 for approximately 15 seconds of irrational hope, for the pleasure of thinking about what might happen if we’d suddenly won millions of dollars. While most players know they won’t win – the odds are a joke – the latex coated ticket is a cheap permission to daydream, to think about the possibility of a better life.
So we pay a couple of dollars to dream big. Seems harmless, until you consider who plays:
Not surprisingly, those without lots of money are more interested in such escapist pleasures. As I note in my recent Wired article on the statistician Mohan Srivastava, state lotteries have become a deeply regressive tax. On average, households that make less than $12,400 a year spend 5 percent of their income on lotteries.
Those who most want to escape the reality of their finances play the lottery. Sadly, that lottery helps to keep them in their real financial problems. Sounds like we need a savings lottery.

Be Sure You Can't Be Replaced by Progress

A while back I got in a conversation with some students about how to choose a career. One of the suggestions I gave them was to be sure your job won't be replaced by computers in the foreseeable future. It's one of the reasons I've been giving a lot of thought to teaching online. But it's not just teachers, journalists, and factory workers that have to worry. Economist Eric Falkenstein describes how even highly skilled jobs like college admissions, bank underwriters, and day traders might go the way of the switchboard operator.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Economics of Marriage, Part II

Last month I mentioned a new blog I was following, Spousonomics. Not only do the authors have regular interesting insights, they've begun a very popular series of Economists in Love. In it they interview married economists about how those two parts of their lives interact. Previous entries include Jeff ElyShelly Lundberg and Dick StartzDaniel HamermeshSeth Gitter. Their most recent entry is a behavioral economist I've had the pleasure of meeting, Dan Ariely. He offers his marital wisdom in video form:

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Dedication Begets Dedication Revisited

Last year I mentioned how dedication towards one person, say a child with special needs, increases dedication towards others. Meaning, our ability to sacrifice doesn't burn out, it strengthens. Here's an experiment that supports this idea:
The ability of compassion felt toward one person to reduce punishment directed at another was examined. The use of a staged interaction in which one individual cheats to earn higher compensation than others resulted in heightened third-party punishment being directed at the cheater. However, among participants who were induced to feel compassion toward a separate individual, punishment of the cheater disappeared even though the cheater clearly intended to cheat and showed no remorse for doing so. Moreover, additional analyses revealed that the reduction in punishment was directly mediated by the amount of compassion participants experienced toward the separate individual.
I feel like there is an important religious lesson here.

Money > Time = Tax Surplus

One of my shortest and I think underappreciated posts was one describing why we feel so busy. Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams has a "bad idea" on how to use that to raise taxes on the rich:
It's useful to keep in mind how the rich are different. When you are poor, you are willing to trade your time to earn money. When you are rich, you trade your money to get more time. For example, the rich hire people to clean their homes, and they don't waste time shopping for bargains. In business school I learned that when people have different preferences, you can usually find a way to engineer a deal.

Suppose we change the tax code so that in return for higher taxes on the rich, we figure out a way to give the rich some form of extra time. The bad version is that anyone who pays taxes at a rate above some set amount gets to use the car pool lane without a passenger. Or perhaps the rich are allowed to park in handicapped-only spaces.

Ridiculous, you cry! Remember, this is the bad version. And if the rich are only a tiny percentage of the population, they would have almost no impact on the traffic in car pool lanes or the availability of parking spaces for the handicapped. You wouldn't even notice the difference.

You could imagine a host of ways the government could trade time for money. Suppose all government agencies had a mandate to handle the affairs of the rich before everyone else. You wouldn't even notice that your wait at the Department of Motor Vehicles was 2% longer.

As a bonus, what happens to the economy when the people who are most skilled at making money suddenly have extra time? My bet is that they stimulate the economy by spending more or by earning more.
I'm not convinced this is such a bad idea.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Extroverted vs Introverted Leaders

If you had to guess, which do you think would on average make a better leader? Here's the interesting answer:
although extraverted leadership enhances group performance when employees are passive, this effect reverses when employees are proactive, because extraverted leaders are less receptive to proactivity.
So as my wife put it, "high school teachers should be extroverts".

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Early-February '11 Links

Here is a list of the worthwhile sites I've Bookmarked recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part XVII

First, a similarity:
Chimpanzees sometimes smile from pleasure, as when baby chimps play with each other. But chimpanzees also smile when they’re trying to strengthen a social bond with another chimpanzee.

Dr. Niedenthal thinks that some human smiles fall into these categories as well. What’s more, they may be distinguished by certain expressions. An embarrassed smile is often accompanied by a lowered chin, for example, while a smile of greeting often comes with raised eyebrows.

Chimpanzees sometimes smile not for pleasure or for a social bond, but for power. A dominant chimpanzee will grin and show its teeth. Dr. Niedenthal argues that humans flash a power grin as well — often raising their chin so as to look down at others.

“ ‘You’re an idiot, I’m better than you’—that’s what we mean by a dominant smile,”
Now here's something we're better at:
But most importantly, Dr. Niedenthal argues, people recognize smiles by mimicking them. When a smiling person locks eyes with another person, the viewer unknowingly mimics a smile as well. In their new paper, Dr. Niedenthal and her colleagues point to a number of studies indicating that this imitation activates many of the same regions of the brain that are active in the smiler.

A happy smile, for example, is accompanied by activity in the brain’s reward circuits, and looking at a happy smile can excite those circuits as well. Mimicking a friendly smile produces a different pattern of brain activity. It activates a region of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, which distinguishes feelings for people with whom we have a close relationship from others. The orbitofrontal cortex becomes active when parents see their own babies smile, for example, but not other babies.

If Dr. Niedenthal’s model is correct, then studies of dominant smiles should reveal different patterns of brain activity. Certain regions associated with negative emotions should become active.

Embodying smiles not only lets people recognize smiles, Dr. Niedenthal argues. It also lets them recognize false smiles. When they unconsciously mimic a false smile, they don’t experience the same brain activity as an authentic one. The mismatch lets them know something’s wrong.