Congenial Invention and the Economy of Everyday (Political) Conversation

31 Dec

Communication comes from the Latin word communicare, which means `to make common.’ We communicate not only to transfer information, but also to establish and reaffirm identities, mores, and meanings. (From my earlier note on a somewhat different aspect of the economy of everyday conversation.) Hence, there is often a large incentive for loyalty. More generally, there are three salient aspects to most private interpersonal communication about politics — shared ideological (or partisan) loyalties, little knowledge of, and prior thinking about political issues, and a premium for cynicism. The second of these points — ignorance — cuts both ways. It allows for the possibility of getting away with saying something that doesn’t make sense (or isn’t true). And it also means that people need to invent stuff if they want to sound smart etc. (Looking stuff up is often still too hard. I am often puzzled by that.)

But don’t people know that they are making stuff up? And doesn’t that stop them? A defining feature of humans is overconfidence. And people often times aren’t aware of the depth of the wells of their own ignorance. And if it sounds right, well it is right, they reason. The act of speaking is many a time an act of invention (or discovery). And we aren’t sure and don’t actively control how we create. (Underlying mechanisms behind how we create — use of ‘gut’ are well-known.) Unless we are very deliberate in speech. Most people aren’t. (There generally aren’t incentives to be.) And find it hard to vet the veracity of the invention (or discovery) in the short time that passes between invention and vocalization.

Some Hard Feelings: Feelings Towards Some Racial and Ethnic Groups in 4 Countries

8 Aug

According to YouGov surveys in Switzerland, Netherlands and Canada, and the 2008 ANES in the US, Whites, on average, in each of the four countries feel fairly coldly — giving an average thermometer rating of less than 50 on a 0 to 100 scale — toward Muslims, and people from Muslim-majority regions (Feelings towards different ethnic, racial, and religious groups). However, in Europe, Whites’ feelings toward Romanians, Poles, and Serbs and Kosovars are scarcely any warmer, and sometimes cooler. Meanwhile, Whites feel relatively warmly towards East Asians.

A Relatively Ignored Mediational Variable in Deliberation

5 Jun

Deliberation often causes people to change their attitudes. One reason this may happen is because deliberation also causes people’s values to change. Thus, one mediational model is as follows: change in values causes change in attitudes. However, deliberation can also cause people to connect their attitudes better with their values, without changing those values. This may mean that ceteris paribus, same values yield different attitudes post-treatment. For identification, one may want to devise a treatment that changes respondent’s ability to connect values to attitudes but has no impact on values. Or a researcher may try to gain insight by measuring people’s ability to connect values to attitudes in current experiments, and estimating mediational models. One can also simply try simulation (again subject to the usual concerns): use post-treatment model (regressing attitudes on values), use pre-deliberation values, and simulate attitudes.

Capuchin Monkeys and Fairness: I want at least as much as the other

1 Dec

In a much heralded experiment, we see that a Capuchin monkey rejects a reward (food) for doing a task after seeing another monkey being rewarded with something more appetizing for doing the same task. It has been interpreted as evidence for our ‘instinct for fairness’. But there is more to the evidence. The fact that the monkey that gets the heftier reward doesn’t protest the more meager reward for the other monkey is not commented upon though highly informative. Ideally any weakly reasoned deviation from equality should provoke a negative reaction. Monkeys who get the longer end of the stick – even when aware that others are getting the shorter end of the stick – don’t complain. Primates are peeved only when they are made aware that they are getting the short end of the stick. Not so much if someone else gets it. My sense is that it is true for most humans as well – people care far more about them holding the short end of the stick than others. It is thus incorrect to attribute such behavior to an ‘instinct for fairness’. A better attribution may be to the following rule – I want at least as much as the others are getting.

Raising money for causes

10 Nov

Four teenagers, at the cusp of adulthood, and eminently well to do, were out on the pavement raising money for children struck with cancer. They had been out raising money for a couple of hours, and from a glance at their tin pot, I estimated that they had raised about $30 odd dollars, likely less. Assuming donation rate stays below $30/hr, or more than what they would earn if they were all working minimum wage jobs, I couldn’t help but wonder if their way of raising money for charity was rational; they could have easily raised more by donating their earnings from doing minimum wage job. Of course, these teenagers aren’t alone. Think of the people out in the cold raising money for the poor on New York pavements. My sense is that many people do not think as often about raising money by working at a “regular job”, even when it is more efficient (money/hour) (and perhaps even more pleasant). It is not clear why.

The same argument applies to those who run in marathons etc. to raise money. Preparing and running in marathon generally costs at least hundreds of dollars for an average ‘Joe’ (think about the sneakers, the personal trainers people hire, the amount of time they `donate’ to train, which could have been spent working and donating that money to charity etc.). Ostensibly, as I conclude in an earlier piece, they must have motives beyond charity. These latter non-charitable considerations, at least at first glance, do not seem to apply to the case of teenagers, or to those raising money out in the cold in New York.

‘Representativeness heuristic’, base rates, and Bayes

23 Apr

From the Introduction of their edited volume:
Tversky and Kahneman used the following experiment for testing ‘representativeness heuristic’ –

Subjects are shown a brief personality description of several individuals, sampled at random from 100 professionals – engineers and lawyers.
Subjects are asked to assess whether description is of an engineer or a lawyer.
In one condition, subjects are told group = 70 engineers/30 lawyers. Another the reverse = 70 lawyers/30 engineers.

Results –
Both conditions produced same mean probability judgments.

Discussion –
Tversky and Kahneman call this result a ‘sharp violation’ of Bayes Rule.

Counter Point –
I am not sure the experiment shows any such thing. Mathematical formulation of the objection is simple and boring so an example. Imagine, there are red and black balls in an urn. Subjects are asked if the ball is black or red under two alternate descriptions of the urn composition. When people are completely sure of the color, the urn composition obviously should have no effect. Just because there is one black ball in the urn (out of say a 100), it doesn’t mean that the person will start thinking that the black ball in her hand is actually red. So on and so forth. One wants to apply Bayes by accounting for uncertainty. People are typically more certain (lots of evidence it seems – even in their edited volume) so that automatically discounts urn composition. People may not be violating Bayes Rule. They may just be feeding the formula incorrect data.

Impact of Menu on Choices: Choosing What You Want Or Deciding What You Should Want

24 Sep

In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely discusses the clever (ex)-subscription menu of The Economist that purportedly manipulates people to subscribe to a pricier plan. In an experiment based on the menu, Ariely shows that addition of an item to the menu (that very few choose) can cause preference reversal over other items in the menu.

Let’s consider a minor variation of Ariely’s experiment. Assume there are two different menus that look as follows –
1. 400 cal, 500 cal.
2. 400 cal, 500 cal, 800 cal.

Assume that all items cost and taste the same. When given the first menu, say 20% choose the 500 calorie item. When selecting from the second menu, percent of respondents selecting the 500 calorie choice is likely to be significantly greater.

Now why may that be? One reason may be that people do not have absolute preferences; here for specific number of calories. And that people make judgments about what is the reasonable number of calories based on the menu. For instance, they decide that they do not want the item with the maximum calorie count. And when presented with a menu with more than two distinct calorie choices, another consideration comes into mind – they do not too little food either. More generally, they may let the options on the menu anchor for them what is ‘too much’ and what is ‘too little’.

If this is true, it can have potentially negative consequences. For instance, McDonald’s has on menu a Bacon Angus Burger that is about 1360 calories (calories are now being displayed on McDonald’s menus courtesy Richard Thaler). It is possible that people choose higher calorie items when they see this menu option, than when they do not.

More generally, people’s reliance on the menu to discover their own preferences means that marketers can manipulate what is seen as the middle (and hence ‘reasonable’). This also translates to some degree to politics where what is considered the middle (in both social and economic policy) is sometimes exogenously shifted by the elites.

That is but one way a choice on the menu can impact preference order over other choices. Separately, sometimes a choice can prime people about how to judge other choices. For instance, in a paper exploring effect of Nader on preferences over Bush and Kerry, researchers find that “[W]hen Nader is in the choice set all voters’ choices are more sharply aligned with their spatial placements of the candidates.”

This all means, assumptions of IIA need to be rethought. Adverse conclusions about human rationality are best withheld (see Sen).

Further Reading –
R. Duncan Luce and Howard Raiffa. Games and Decision. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1957.
Amartya Sen. Internal consistency of choice. Econometrica, 61(3):495– -521, May 1993.
Amartya Sen. Is the idea of purely internal consistency of choice bizarre? In J.E.J. Altham and Ross Harrison, editors, World, Mind, and Ethics. Essays on the ethical philosophy of Bernard Williams. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Does children’s gender cause partisanship?

26 May

More women identify themselves as Democrats than as Republicans. The disparity is yet greater among single women. It is possible (perhaps even likely) that this difference in partisan identification is due to (perceived) policy positions of Republicans and Democrats.

Now let’s do a thought experiment: Imagine a couple about to have a kid. Also assume that the couple doesn’t engage in sex-selection. Two things can happen – the couple can have a son or a daughter. It is possible that having a daughter persuades the parent to change his or her policy preferences towards a direction that is perceived as more congenial to women. It is also possible that having a son has the opposite impact — persuading parents to adopt more male congenial political preferences. Overall, it is possible that gender of the child makes a difference to parents’ policy preferences. With panel data one can identify both movements. With cross-sectional data, one can only identify the difference between those who had a son, and those who had a daughter.

Let’s test this using cross-sectional data from Jennings and Stoker’s “Study of Political Socialization: Parent-Child Pairs Based on Survey of Youth Panel and Their Offspring, 1997”.

Let’s assume that a couple’s partisan affiliation doesn’t impact the gender of their kid.

Number of kids, however, is determined by personal choice, which in turn may be impacted by ideology, income, etc. For example, it is likely that conservatives have more kids as they are less likely to believe in contraception, etc. This is also supported by the data. (Ideology is a post-treatment variable. This may not matter if impact of having a daughter is same in magnitude as impact of having a son, and if there are similar numbers of each across people.)

Hence, one may conceptualize “treatment” as gender of the kids, conditional on the number of kids.

Understandably, we only study people who have one or more kids.

Conditional on number of kids, the more daughters respondent has, the less likely respondent is to identify herself as a Republican (b = -.342, p < .01) (when dependent variable is curtailed to Republican/Democrat dichotomous variable; the relationship holds — indeed becomes stronger — if the dependent variable is coded as an ordinal trichotomous variable: Republican, Independent, and Democrat, and an ordered multinomial estimated)


If what we observe is true then we should also see that as party stances evolve, impact of gender on policy preference of a parent should vary. One should also be able to do this cross-nationally.

Some other findings:

  1. Probability of having a son (limiting to live births in the U.S.) is about .51. This ‘natural rate’ varies slightly by income – daughters are more likely to be born among lower income. However effect of income is extremely modest in the U.S., to the point of being ignorable. The live birth ratio is marginally rebalanced by the higher child mortality rate among males. As a result, among 0-21, the ratio between men and women is about equal in U.S.

    In the sample, there are significantly more daughters than sons. The female/male ratio is 1.16. This is ‘significantly’ unusual.

  2. If families are less likely to have kids after the birth of a boy, number of kids will be negatively correlated with proportion sons. Among people with just one kid, number of sons is indeed greater than number of daughters, though the difference is insignificant. Overall correlation between proportion sons and number of kids is also very low (corr. = -.041).


5 May

Nudging the mood?
Important consequential decisions in life are hostage to our mood. What we intend to do (and actually do) often varies by mood. Mood in turn can vary due to a variety of exogenous reasons – negative swings can be caused by ill-health (a headache, or allergies) and positive swings can be caused by a nice thing said by someone you meet by accident. This variation is a ‘proof’ of our ‘irrationality’. The irrational aspect is not just misattribution of ill-health to mood, but why mood at all affects our decisions. Being aware of the relationship between mood and decisions can allow one to choose better. Given the central place mood occupies in decision making, it is likely that a nudge to affect the mood would be powerful.

End of a nudge
One of the paper-towel dispensers I use has the following sticker –‘These come from trees’. This is a famous ‘nudge’ (In Sunstein/Thaler terminology). So far so good. Till perhaps few months ago, I always read the sticker when I used the dispenser. Yesterday I noticed that I had stopped noticing the sticker. This contrasts with my behavior towards the hotel notes about saving water – which I still read. I think that is so partly because there is so much time in a hotel room. ‘Nudges’ for quick everyday decisions perhaps need to change over time.

Measuring Partisan Affect Coldly

24 Mar

Outside of the variety of ways of explicitly asking people how they feel about another group — feeling thermometers, like/dislike scales, favorability ratings — explicit measures asked using mechanisms designed to overcome or attenuate social desirability concerns — bogus pipeline, ACASI — and a plethora of implicit measures — affect misattribution, IAT — there exist a few other interesting ways of measuring affect:

  • Games as measures – Jeremy Weinstein uses games like the dictator game to measure (inter-ethnic) affect. One can use prisoner’s dilemma, among other games, to do the same.
  • Systematic bias in responding to factual questions when ignorant about the correct answer. For example, most presidential elections years since 1988, ANES has posed a variety of retrospective evaluative and factual questions including assessments of the state of the economy, whether the inflation/unemployment/crime rose, remained the same, or declined in the past year (or some other time frame). Analyses of these questions have revealed significant ‘partisan bias’, but these questions have yet to be used as a measure of ‘partisan affect’ that is the likely cause of the observed ‘bias’.