Archive — Social science
This is more than a month old. In terms of the coronavirus outbreak, that’s an eternity. But I still found this list of possible future scenarios interesting and thought-provoking.
It also comes with the major caveat that predicting the future is a mug’s game at the best of times, never mind during these times. This is inherently recognised in the fact that some of the predictions are contradictory.
I was particularly interested in the political, economic and sociocultural predictions. For instance, I have wondered if in the coming decades society will prioritise getting the basics right more over relentless innovation. This article suggests that may be the case, but that the shift may not last long.
The crisis may prompt a reappraisal of what society cares about most, with short-term attention focusing on the bottom of Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. (This may have the effect of, for example, boosting relative status of health workers and farmers, and diminishing ‘luxury’ industries, including leisure, gaming, arts – although history suggests that this will be short-lived, and the luxury status of some goods and services may ultimately be reinforced.)
Why it may not always be right to design as smooth a journey as possible.
This idea seems counter-intuitive at first, but makes perfect sense on further reflection.
…people who had an issue with a service that was later resolved gave a better rating to it than people who didn’t have any.
It reminds me of a story (which I now cannot find) about someone who annually camped out for nights on end to get tickets for a particular event. One year, this person’s dedication was rewarded with free tickets. This gift offended the person. They derived their utility from the effort they were putting in (or perhaps in showing that effort to other people). The value was in the struggle.
A balanced piece that considers the pros and cons of Labour’s proposal to nationalise Openreach and promise free broadband for all.
What’s notable is that the only reason we’ve reached this stage is because of the utter failure of BT to do this job properly (particularly in rural areas). It is constantly being “dragged kicking and screaming” to do the basics. This has left the UK needlessly lagging behind.
Still, they’ve got the Champions League rights, huh?
It has long been known that being kind to others makes you feel good and can improve your mental health. Now it seems there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that it can increase your life expectancy.
“Living with people who treat you, at best, with disregard or a lack of concern, and at worst with open hostility, is bad for you. It shortens your life, quite literally,” [Daniel Fessler] says.
“Conversely, both receiving kindness from others, and providing kindness, both of those things are the antithesis of this toxic stress situation. And they’re good for you.”
This post is about how a policy (crashing out of the EU) that will do nearly everyone harm and some great harm seems to have considerable, albeit still minority, support…
You either have to assume that a third of the population has gone mad, or instead see this as a fundamental failure of information. The UK is a failed state because the producers of information have made it fail.
According to Simon Wren-Lewis, this information problem is being facilitated by the media.
In one sense, the idea that people don’t have enough information to make an informed decision is nothing new. As I’ve written in the past, ignorance is inevitable.
But there does seem to be something particular going on in Britain right now that is causing something even worse than mere ignorance.
A fascinating study from YouGov around people’s understanding of what is meant by left-wing and right-wing, and what policies people who self-describe as left- and right-wing actually support.
The article sweeps aside the idea that politics is better seen through an additional authoritarian/libertarian axis. Presumably a study for another day.
But from a liberal perspective, and as someone who doesn’t clearly view themselves as either left- or right-wing, this makes interesting reading.
This study shows that the majority of people who:
- Want a greater redistribution of wealth
- Think the minimum wage is too low
- Want to nationalise the railways
- Want to nationalise utilities
- Think the criminal justice system is too soft
- Want tighter restrictions on immigration
- Support capital punishment
- Favour powerful government over individual freedoms
It’s almost as if believing the government should have more control over economic activity, and believing the government should have more control over people are… somehow… linked. 🤔
On the incredible story about Hertz suing Accenture for a failed “digital transformation project”.
Alarm bells ring at the best of times when website redesigns are described as “digital transformation”. But to then completely outsource the product owner role — to the same management consultancy firm that was carrying out the redesign — underlines just how much the top brass seemingly didn’t get it.
Particularly important is this:
The private sector is NOT intrinsically better at these things than the public sector. Occasions like this and the TSB meltdown should never be celebrated but should surely be greeted by a wry smile by those of us who have been hearing about the incompetence of public service digital for years from some corners — and particularly why there was never any need to bring things in-house because all the expertise was with the big suppliers.
I would argue that this isn’t even just about digital. The idea that public sector organisations are inherently worse at anything than the private sector has long been spurious. Large organisations perhaps do find certain things more difficult — but in both the public and private sector.
If you think the way they measure radio audiences is primitive now (and, by the way, it is), then wait until you read about the Audimeter. A great look at the history of radio ratings, and the early days of trying to measure the impact of advertising.
Putting into economic terms the distinction between blogging and social media, and articulating what we have lost through the decline of blogging.
If you want attention for your blog you have to earn it through a combination of quality, in the sense that you’re producing something valuable for your readers, and trust, in the sense that you’ve produced enough good stuff over time to establish a good reputation with the fellow bloggers whose links will help grow your audience.
I first realised this about blogging when it became clear that comments sections on major websites were almost always cesspits. People in comments sections are generally attempting to freeride on the quality of the website they are posting on.
Bloggers, on the other hand, really need to be high-quality to get any sort of audience at all. That makes blogs generally good.
Social media is quite the opposite. To start getting traction on social media, the threshold is rather low. In fact, often, lower quality works better.
Link via Khürt Williams
About a third of 18- to 49-year-olds (32%) correctly identified all five of the factual statements as factual, compared with two-in-ten among those ages 50 and older. A similar pattern emerges for the opinion statements. Among 18- to 49-year-olds, 44% correctly identified all five opinion statements as opinions, compared with 26% among those ages 50 and older.
I find this a bit weird, because knowing a fact from an opinion is quite a basic and fundamental concept that was drilled into us at school. Perhaps older generations were not taught this. That would certainly explain a few things.
Lottery math is human math
How to regain the lost art of reflection
[A] focus on information processing, reaction, and execution — while it may feel productive — causes the quality of our thoughts to suffer. We believe that corporate leaders in today’s complex world urgently need to recultivate the art of reflection.
In an increasingly busy and complex world, how do we make sure we have the space to think reflectively? It’s the classic notion of having your best ideas in the shower.
I think this is part of the reason why I feel a benefit from walking so much — about two hours most days. This gives me the unstructured thinking space this article argues for.
On a recent cycle, I found my thoughts subconsciously drifting towards a knotty work problem. For a few seconds, everything seemed crystal clear. “I’ll remember that later,” I thought, and on I went with my cycle. When it came to it, it took some time and effort to recall what seemed so obvious when I was cycling with my wandering thoughts.
From the collection: Blissymbolics
The story of a utopian attempt to introduce a universal pictographic writing system, Blissymbolics.
It is a noble but unrealistic idea that seems typically mid-century, and it’s unimaginable that it would fly today. Not that Blissymbolics flew either. It reminds me of Esperanto.
Even in this brief article that contains a few examples of Blissymbolics, many of the explanations seem rather tenuous. My favourite is stick (“linear thing + tree”). Or perhaps branch, which is a division symbol next to the tree symbol (“part (of) + tree”).
I also wonder how skewed by western culture Blissymbolics is, and if it could genuinely be said to be universal.
Values and voting
How to measure levels of populism, and how that cuts across traditional measures of economic left/right and liberal/authoritarian sentiment.
Populist sentiments are more common on the left than the right of the economic dimension, and authoritarians are more likely to be populist than liberals but the patterns are complex…
The Labour party win a clear majority of the votes of those on the ‘liberal’ and ‘centre’ left. But their vote share is lower among the ‘authoritarian’ left than it is among the centre liberal position. In fact, the Conservatives gained greater share of the left-authoritarians (regardless of populist sentiment).
Who’s laughing now? The science behind the UN’s reaction to Trump
The calculations that were going through Donald Trump’s head when the UN laughed at him.
Part of the way humans respond to laughter is to work out whether we are included in it or excluded from it, and whether we are being laughed with or laughed at. I see people’s brains truly light up in the MRI scanner when they listen to laughter, as they’re trying to figure this all out.
Open office plans have a surprising effect on communication at work
More on the seemingly negative effects of open plan offices.
When forced to share space, humans behave much like swarms of insects. This has appeared to be true in a range of contexts, the authors note, citing studies involving the US Congress, college dormitories, co-working spaces, and corporate buildings.
However, as far as we’re aware, hornets and wasps are not as psychologically and socially complex as people. For instance, they do not regularly switch between their front-stage self and back-stage self, managing the impression they’re making, per a longstanding theory about humans.
Talking ’bout my generation
How our political views throughout our lifetimes are shaped by our formative years.
If you were politically aware in in your teens and early 20s in the mid-80s, you’ll have vivid memories of how the SDP did indeed weaken Labour, and how early hopes for the party were dashed. Amongst 50-somethings, these memories create a jaundiced view of new centre parties – a view perhaps not shared by those younger than us…
The psychology here is simple. There is such as a thing as an impressionable age – in this context, our teens and early 20s. I, for example, have vivid memories of most of what happened between around 1976 and 1989, but everything before then is what I’ve only read or heard about, and everything since is a bit of a blur, mostly of minor significance.
I definitely feel that. I followed politics very closely in the late 1990s and into the 2000s. But for the past ten years or so, the day-to-day detail has all felt rather less significant.
A conversation with Brian Eno
Always interesting to see an interview with Brian Eno. Here he talks to author David Mitchell. I was particularly interested on the section about why people like music.
And that is truly a mysterious question, which many learned books have utterly failed to answer. Why do I like one composer’s string quartet rather than another’s, when to a martian visitor they’d seem indistinguishable? What are the differences we’re hearing? What intrinsic wiring exists for having feelings about music?—and by intrinsic wiring I mean the kind of wiring that leads us to prefer symmetrical faces to asymmetrical ones, or to be frightened of spiders. I used to think that, given enough goodwill, anybody would be able to “get” any music, no matter how distant the culture from which it came. And then I heard Chinese opera.
Economists have lost the trust of politicians
It’s always good to read/see/hear Stephanie Flanders. Here she asks why politicians no longer have a favourite economist, in the way that Margaret Thatcher liked Milton Friedman and John F Kennedy admired John Kenneth Galbraith.
In one sense, this feels like a concern I have been reading about for a decade or two. But it also feels like an extension of the more recent phenomenon of refusing to listen to experts.
Nevertheless, there are some real questions for economics to answer. Why does it not have the influence today that it enjoyed in previous decades?
We’re also hearing mainstream economists talk more loudly about the possibility of shifting the balance back toward labor with wealth taxes and reduced taxes on earned income. That’s a big shift for a profession that seemed to think until recently that reducing the tax on capital was always and everywhere a good thing. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for an elected politician to decide that any of this advice is worth listening to.
Sin taxes are less efficient than they look
Very interesting piece on the pros and cons of sin taxes (taxes on things like tobacco, alcohol).
Implied, but not quite explicitly mentioned here, is the fact that because such items tend to have low price elasticity of demand (in other words, price rises don’t change consumption habits all that much) — because they are usually addictive. As such, they are excellent revenue generators for governments.
This is an issue that’s well worth being on top of, as such taxes increasingly cover new things — like sugar and plastic bags.
Keeping yourself out of the story: Controlling experimenter effects
How do you stop yourself, as a user researcher, biasing the results? An important topic for user researchers to consider. (It’s also an excellent excuse to re-tell the story about Clever Hans, the horse who everyone thought could count, until they realised he was simply reacting to subtle, unintentional cues from his trainer.)
I recently undertook some usability testing, where I was asking people to complete tasks that I didn’t know how to complete myself. This meant I was less likely to bias the participant. But it was a strange experience for me, and it made me less certain about how to conduct the test.
It’s official: Open plan offices are now the dumbest management fad of all time
New research suggests that open plan offices hinder collaboration rather than help it.
Previous studies of open plan offices have shown that they make people less productive, but most of those studies gave lip service to the notion that open plan offices would increase collaboration, thereby offsetting the damage.
The Harvard study, by contrast, undercuts the entire premise that justifies the fad. And that leaves companies with only one justification for moving to an open plan office: less floor space, and therefore a lower rent.
My current office is my first open plan one. I am still ambivalent about the benefits or otherwise of open plan. The shift may have contributed to my feeling that I had lost my mojo.
I definitely make heavy use of chat and messaging to communicate with people a couple of desks away. That might not necessarily be a bad thing. But I do miss the gently assertive act of simply walking into someone’s office to get their attention. It all seems a bit more difficult to do that in an open plan office.
If you say something is “likely”, how likely do people think it is?
Very interesting analysis of how people perceive what probability is meant by phrases such as “likely” or “real possibility”. It turns out there is a lot of scope for misinterpretation.
However I would quibble with the following:
You are trying to assess the probability that the [product launch] doesn’t happen. The way to frame your bet might be: “If the product fails to launch, I receive $1 million, but if it does launch, I get nothing.”
Now imagine a jar full of 25 green marbles and 75 blue marbles. You close your eyes and select a marble. If it’s green, you receive $1 million, and if it’s blue, you get nothing. You know you have a one in four chance (25%) to get a green marble and win the money.
Now, which would you prefer to bet on: the launch failure or the draw from the jar?
An interesting thought experiment, but not quite true. People prefer to receive an amount of money sooner rather than later. So you’d still rather place the bet on the jar, even if you thought the probability of product failure was 25% — because you wouldn’t receive the money until the unspecified future date.
Thanks to my colleague Lauren Tormey for the tip.
Why hasn’t public opinion changed more over Europe?
For an issue that has (rather rarely in politics) been one of sustained public interest, with many twists along the way, it’s perhaps surprising that there hasn’t been greater movement, not even in the form of bouncing back and forth between pro and anti.
Mark Pack concludes:
…you need to move people at a deeper level than a recitation of facts about a technical policy detail.
Sadly, as much as we would like it to be, people’s minds aren’t changed by facts. Particularly on emotive topics like Scottish independence and Brexit.
For those of us who are rather keen on reality, it’s disturbing. So how can we influence people another way?
Below the Surface
Every item found at the bottom of a river that had been excavated in Amsterdam — archived online. One of the coolest websites I’ve seen for a while.
The excavations in the Amstel yielded a deluge of finds, some 700,000 in all: a vast array of objects, some broken, some whole, all jumbled together. Damrak and Rokin proved to be extremely rich sites on account of the waste that had been dumped in the river for centuries and the objects accidentally lost in the water. The enormous quantity, great variety and everyday nature of these material remains make them rare sources of urban history.
Deadly set: how too much focus causes mistakes
The phenomenon of set — where we focus so much on something specific that we miss the bigger picture. This article says it is a survival characteristic, but in the wrong circumstances it can have dire consequences. In the example provided, it was the cause of an air crash.
It’s vital for us to understand how and why we make mistakes – not just in safety critical systems but in all walks of life. When I read that passage above, I see parallels with so many of the mistakes I make on a daily basis at work and at home. I can see myself in every role: the captain, the flight engineer, the first officer, the air traffic controller.
Newly analysed recording challenges Zimbardo’s account of his infamous prison experiment
Many people are aware of the Stanford prison experiment, which “had to be abandoned when some of the volunteers playing the role of guards began mistreating the volunteers acting as prisoners.”
The validity of the study has long been a source of debate. But a new analysis suggests that the researchers had so much influence on the participants that the study was “not so much an experiment but more a form of theatre”.
Study shows immigrants are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs
Economic studies are one way to measure the impact of immigration.
Personally, I like to measure it another way. I like to look at my son — the great-grandson of a Mexican immigrant — while he plays cricket with his friends, nearly all of whom are second-generation Indian immigrants.
When I watch my son play cricket with his friends, I come to the same conclusion the economists at Wharton do:
Our new immigrant friends are enriching our lives and making our economy better…
It’s time to say this sort of thing more loudly. There are clear and well-understood economic benefits of immigration. But people who dislike immigration don’t do so for economic reasons (even if they kid on that they do).
We should be clearer about the ways in which immigration and diversity enrich our lives as a whole. And just how sad and pathetic our lives would be if people didn’t move around and mix with others.
Britain’s open borders policy
Whilst cycling the other day, I crossed the Leicestershire-Rutland border. And I was shocked to see…nothing. No border controls, no passport checks, no customs officials. Here in Rutland we have an open borders policy.
Chris Dillow makes the point that most of the debate around immigration and borders does not relate to economics.
This is part of the reason why it’s futile to try to argue with Brexiteers or Scottish independence fanatics around the economics of creating new borders. When it comes down to it, they just don’t care.
Economicky arguments for migration controls are just distractions and, I suspect, often dishonest ones.
Feelings around immigration boil down to feelings about the other.
The endowment effect: Why you can’t let go of your possessions
Insights from behavioural science on why people overvalue possessions they already own.
Psychologists have also concluded that this overvaluation may stem from our sense of ownership itself. We value something more simply because it is ours. If we own a car, laptop, or watch of a certain model, we would similarly overvalue that same object owned by someone else because we own one ourselves.
How much would I have to pay you to quit Facebook?
Many people may feel like they are addicted to Facebook. But it’s amazing to see just how little people actually value it.
Economists have been carrying out experiments to see how much people would have to be paid to do without certain types of websites. By this measure, social media appears to be the very bottom of the pile — worth almost 60 times less than search.
Their rough-and-ready conclusion is that the typical person would have to be paid about $17,500 a year to do without internet search engines, $8,500 to abandon email and $3,500 to quit using digital maps. Video streaming through sites such as Netflix and YouTube is worth over $1,150 a year; ecommerce $850, and social media just over $300.
The amazing psychology of Japanese train stations
How Japan uses behavioural science (nudge theory) to keep its railways flowing efficiently.
Tokyo is home to the world’s busiest train stations, with the capital’s rail operators handling a combined 13 billion passenger trips annually. Ridership of that volume requires a deft blend of engineering, planning, and psychology. Beneath the bustle, unobtrusive features are designed to unconsciously manipulate passenger behavior, via light, sound, and other means. Japan’s boundless creativity in this realm reflects the deep consideration given to public transportation in the country.
Bertrand Russell’s chicken (and why it was not an economist)
How introspection can lead to greater understanding — and how it may not.
The chicken that is fed by the farmer each morning may well have a theory that it will always be fed each morning – it becomes a ‘law’. And it works every day, until the day the chicken is instead slaughtered.
…Economics is at a disadvantage compared to the physical sciences because we cannot do so many types of experiments (although we are doing more and more), but we have another source of evidence: introspection… why is the farmer doing this? What is in it for him? If I was the farmer, why would I do this? And of course trying to answer that question might have led them to the unfortunate truth.
The dark art of stealing from self-checkouts
Anyone who pays for more than half of their stuff in self checkout is a total moron.
I have long wondered how much stealing goes on at self-checkouts. It turns out, quite a lot — but presumably not enough to make many retailers think twice about having them. What’s interesting is that many self-checkout thieves are apparently otherwise generally law-abiding.
Why Microsoft Office is a bigger productivity drain than Candy Crush Saga
Computers can certainly continue the process of specialisation, parcelling out jobs into repetitive chunks, but fundamentally they are general purpose devices, and by running software such as Microsoft Office they are turning many of us into generalists.
AI don’t kill people, people do
Reflections on whether technological advances will ‘take our jobs’.
…[I]n Western societies, technical advancement has allowed many of us to extricate ourselves from physical, dangerous and demeaning forms of work, and to create careers that are fulfilling beyond renumeration: creatively, intellectually, socially… “job satisfaction”.
Historically, technological advances haven’t meant humans losing jobs. But it has meant we have taken on increasingly complex and interesting jobs. Perhaps the future will bring us further job satisfaction.
That’s not a bad place to be at all. A reminder that we should be grateful for the luxury we have in being able to pursue a good career in the first place, rather than slaving away to make ends meet.
See also: Why you shouldn’t follow your passion
Wealth inequality is even worse in reputation economies
Cory Doctorow on how reputation economies (like the rating system satirised in the Black Mirror episode Nosedive) have a series of undesirable effects.
…reputation is useless as a hedge against the real nightmare of a setup like Ebay: the long con. It doesn’t cost much, nor does it take much work, to build up sleeper identities on Ebay, fake storefronts that sell unremarkable goods at reasonable prices, earning A+++ GREAT SELLER tickmarks, even for years, until one day, that account lists a bunch of high-value items on the service, pockets the buyers’ funds, and walks off.
Reputation works badly and fails badly – it’s a lose-lose situation all around.
Nick Clegg meets Richard Thaler: ‘All it would take to stop Brexit is a couple of dozen brave Tories’
The Guardian set Nick Clegg up for a Skype interview with Richard Thaler, who has recently been awarded the Nobel economics prize.
Thaler was a big influence on the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition and it is clear from this interview that Thaler and Clegg admire each other somewhat.
At times the interview may come across to some as typical smug metropolitan centrist dadism, with the pair shaking their heads at how stupid everyone else is being. But when you read Nick Clegg’s anecdote about speaking to a voter in Chesterfield, you understand why he feels that way.
I remember speaking to a guy leaning on the fence outside his house and saying: “Any chance you’ll vote for the Liberal Democrats?” And he said: “No way.” And I said: “Why not?” And he said: “Because of all these asylum seekers.” And I knew for a fact that not a single asylum seeker had been dispersed to Chesterfield. So I said to him: “Oh, have you seen these asylum seekers in the supermarket or the GP’s surgery?” And he said something to me that has remained with me ever since. He said: “No, I haven’t seen any of them, but I know they’re everywhere.”
The pendulum swings against privatisation
Does privatisation work? The evidence is mixed, according to Tim Harford.