Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category
A couple of weeks ago I linked to a blog post by Brad DeLong about the future of economics education. While most of the comments to my post were about the content of economics education, what really struck me in DeLong’s original post was how academic majors reinforced students’ pre-existing political biases, rather than informing or changing them as we like to be a good liberal arts education will do. Right-leaning students leave economics feeling justified that the market will solve every social problem (or if it doesn’t, it’s not a social problem we ought to do anything about). Left-leaning students leave sociology feeling justified in their beliefs that the state ought to do more to resolve social problems. This is a problem of confirmation bias. Our brains are not very good at evaluating evidence that doesn’t conform to our pre-existing beliefs.
New research by legal scholar Dan Kahan shows that political ideology strongly shapes our willingness to believe scientific evidence. It turns out that it’s not just a problem among Republicans. Here’s a summary by Chris Mooney in Mother Jones:
In Kahan’s research (PDF), individuals are classified, based on their cultural values, as either “individualists” or “communitarians,” and as either “hierarchical” or “egalitarian” in outlook. (Somewhat oversimplifying, you can think of hierarchical individualists as akin to conservative Republicans, and egalitarian communitarians as liberal Democrats.) In one study, subjects in the different groups were asked to help a close friend determine the risks associated with climate change, sequestering nuclear waste, or concealed carry laws: “The friend tells you that he or she is planning to read a book about the issue but would like to get your opinion on whether the author seems like a knowledgeable and trustworthy expert.” A subject was then presented with the résumé of a fake expert “depicted as a member of the National Academy of Sciences who had earned a Ph.D. in a pertinent field from one elite university and who was now on the faculty of another.” The subject was then shown a book excerpt by that “expert,” in which the risk of the issue at hand was portrayed as high or low, well-founded or speculative. The results were stark: When the scientist’s position stated that global warming is real and human-caused, for instance, only 23 percent of hierarchical individualists agreed the person was a “trustworthy and knowledgeable expert.” Yet 88 percent of egalitarian communitarians accepted the same scientist’s expertise. Similar divides were observed on whether nuclear waste can be safely stored underground and whether letting people carry guns deters crime. (The alliances did not always hold. In another study (PDF), hierarchs and communitarians were in favor of laws that would compel the mentally ill to accept treatment, whereas individualists and egalitarians were opposed.)
Head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect, where people not only fail to change their minds when confronted with the facts—they may hold their wrong views more tenaciously than ever. In other words, people rejected the validity of a scientific source because its conclusion contradicted their deeply held views—and thus the relative risks inherent in each scenario. A hierarchal individualist finds it difficult to believe that the things he prizes (commerce, industry, a man’s freedom to possess a gun to defend his family) (PDF) could lead to outcomes deleterious to society. Whereas egalitarian communitarians tend to think that the free market causes harm, that patriarchal families mess up kids, and that people can’t handle their guns. The study subjects weren’t “anti-science”—not in their own minds, anyway. It’s just that “science” was whatever they wanted it to be.
I suppose another implication of this is that as society becomes more politically polarized, the less influential scientific evidence will be in persuading anyone to change their political positions.
The NATO intervention in Libya has made people ask: Why now? Of all the crazy, genocidal tyrants, why bother with Gadaffi? Here’s my answer: some countries are just annoying. They cultivate a particularly aggravating stance in the global community that just invites retaliation. They are the mosquito in the ears of the powerful and they get swatted.
Of course, this is not a complete account of war. Nations fights wars for all kinds of reasons – genuine security threats, national pride, humanitarian missions, or just grabbing more territory. But a nation’s charisma is also an important factor. Some nations keep doing things that rile the public. In Gaddafi’s case, he engaged in terrorism, allied himself with Hugo Chavez, and tried to usurp Western nations as a patron in Africa.
Like I said, this is by no means a complete account of war making. Other theories, I think, account for more. But charisma does pop up from time to time and it should not be ignored. For example, charisma is definitely a factor in the Iraq War. Saddam Hussein’s anti-Western stance and terrorism overseas eroded what support he had from the US in the 1980s. By 1990, conservative think tanks already had Baathist Iraq in their sights.
Similarly, Iran is frequently targeted. The Iranian regime is clearly evil, but there are all kinds of crazy governments that pose threats. The reason that some Western policy intellectuals focus on Iran is because the regime engages in nasty public displays anti-Semitism and anti-Westernism.
Bottom line: If you are a murderous dictator, we’re more likely to leave you alone if you just keep your mouth shut.
The hallmark of “Indiana institutionalism” is an emphasis on struggle and conflict. Rather than assume the influence of macro-social processes, the scholars around here tend to focus on social movements, legal challenge, and contention. I’d like to draw your attention to a nice paper by my friend and colleague Tim Hallett. The Myth Incarnate is all about coupling processes in organizations, and brings an brings an important psychological dimension to institutional theory.
His question is simple: What happens to an organization when somebody tries to make you actually do the mission statement? In institutional lingo, this is “recoupling.” His example is accountability standards in schools. He has a nice ethnographic study of school where a new principle tried to enforce new accountability procedures. The result? People freaked out:
Turmoil is foremost a state of epistemic distress, but it has another social-psychological component. Epistemic distress involves a collapse of meaning, but eventually teachers responded by reconstructing meanings in ways that defined emergent battle lines. When teachers talked to each other and to me about the past, they were not just describing their experience; they were infusing it withmeaning. ‘‘Turmoil’’was their term, and it is not a neutral one. Talk is a basic element in the politics of signification (Benford and Snow 2000; Hall 1972), and teachers’ ‘‘turmoil talk’’ had political aspects (Emerson and Messinger 1977). Teachers had no formal authority to fight recoupling, but they did have the informal symbolic power (Hallett 2003) to shape meanings. Turmoil has a negative connotation, and teachers used their version of events to construct the recoupling negatively.
I liked this study as an example of where macro-political processes hit the ground and institutions create conflict, rather than resolve them. “Must read” for folks interested in institutional work and organizational conflict.
The most recent issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives has an interesting, non-standard article analyzing the behavior of individuals during the Titanic disaster. Worth reading.
Frey, Bruno S., David A. Savage, and Benno Torgler. 2011. “Behavior under Extreme Conditions: The Titanic Disaster.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25(1): 209–22.
During the night of April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg on her maiden voyage. Two hours and 40 minutes later she sank, resulting in the loss of 1,501 lives—more than two-thirds of her 2,207 passengers and crew. This remains one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history and by far the most famous. For social scientists, evidence about how people behaved as the Titanic sunk offers a quasi-natural field experiment to explore behavior under extreme conditions of life and death. A common assumption is that in such situations, self-interested reactions will predominate and social cohesion is expected to disappear. However, empirical evidence on the extent to which people in the throes of a disaster react with self-regarding or with other-regarding behavior is scanty. The sinking of the Titanic posed a life-or-death situation for its passengers. The Titanic carried only 20 lifeboats, which could accommodate about half the people aboard, and deck officers exacerbated the shortage by launching lifeboats that were partially empty. Failure to secure a seat in a lifeboat virtually guaranteed death. We have collected individual-level data on the passengers and crew on the Titanic, which allow us to analyze some specific questions: Did physical strength (being male and in prime age) or social status (being a first- or second-class passenger) raise the survival chance? Was it favorable for survival to travel alone or in company? Does one’s role or function (being a crew member or a passenger) affect the probability of survival? Do social norms, such as “Women and children first!” have any effect? Does nationality affect the chance of survival? We also explore whether the time from impact to sinking might matter by comparing the sinking of the Titanic over nearly three hours to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, which took only 18 minutes from when the torpedo hit the ship.
Organizations are, in addition to being actors in their own right, physical places. People interact, live, and experience life in organizational settings, whether it be their workplaces, churches, or voluntary associations. Much of our bodily experiences is structured by organizations. Surprisingly, the physical/bodily experience of organizations doesn’t get much attention in organizational theory. Feminist perspectives are a big exception, of course. Philip Selznick also emphasized how ideals were “embodied in action” through organizations in his distinct brand of pragmatism. But most organizational theory fails to take into account the physical experience of organizations.
One of the reasons I really like Shamus Khan’s book, Privilege, is because it provides a rich empirical window into the physical embodiment of organization. Of course, Khan’s purpose in writing the book is not primarily to inform organizational theory. His study is about how privilege is reproduced in an elite private boarding school – a system that has increasingly emphasized merit over inherited wealth as the key to elite access. He shows that rather than confer elite status simply through association, the school teaches students how to feel and act like someone of high status. The school provides a setting where students can master the physical and cultural practices of the elite and learn how to physically navigate the social hierarchies they will face in their adult lives.
[The students] literally must know what the various postures feel like and internalize the many different poses necessary to succeed in the myriad dimensions of an elite existence. In learning to embody a variety of interactions – how to flop onto your teacher’s couch and compose yourself at a formal dinner, each with equal ease – students learn to negotiate the dense, yet subtle content of hierarchical relations. By learning how to comfortably yet respectfully relate to those above them – teachers – students learn a crucial mode of elite interaction. This mode consecrates hierarchy by respecting it and by acknowledging the formality required in certain situations; at the same time, the ease with which successful students navigate the density almost denies the existence of hierarchical relations. And there is a clear difference between this kind of interaction – respecting the hierarchy while making it disappear – to the one with staff – where it is the people themselves who disappear (70).
The book provides numerous examples of how students learn (or fail to learn) to feel “at ease” in these hierarchies, preparing them for life outside of the walls of the school. Students who physically acclimate themselves and embody the school’s ideals are able to translate their skills and knowledge to other settings and thereby gain access to elite circles of influence and wealth.
Khan’s private school is an extreme but accurate representation of what people experience in any organizational hierarchy. Every organization has “rules of the game” that determine how people gain access to elite circles and generate influence. In most organizations, these rules are applied situationally, requiring the individual to adapt her posture and physical demeanor to show competence and understanding. Individuals who do this excel beyond their mere capabilities or knowledge. Individuals who never quite figure out how to “feel at ease” in their organization sputter and live a frustrated existence. We all know of very capable individuals who struggle with intra-organizational politics because they just don’t seem to fit in. Sometimes it’s hard to really put our finger on what exactly makes that person a poor fit, but it’s something that we pick up in just a few minutes of observing that person interact with others. There’s something physically obvious about not knowing how to fit in.
At the psychological level we know that individuals’ physical presence matters a great deal to the outcome of an interaction. A person’s height or posture can have an impact on the balance of power in an interaction. One thing we learn from Shamus’s study is that learning physical presence is an organizational and cultural phenomenon. What works in one setting may not work in another. Therefore, to understand power dynamics across organizations, we really need to understand the ideals of that organization and pay attention to the ways that individuals learn to embody those ideals.
- NPR story on removing traffic signs in Germany.
- Wired story on ‘Roads Gone Wild.’
- Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)
- And, lets throw this in too — audio of Friedrich Hayek speaking in 1983 on ‘evolution and spontaneous order’
I am not a social psychologist. So I was not prepared when someone asked me: what are the most important accomplishments of social psychology? I could point to something like framing theory, but that’s literally decades old. That’s my question for you: what are the biggest theoretical or empirical accomplishments of recent social psychology?
There is a disconnect between how some social scientists see themselves versus how they see their subjects. Scientists theorize about the world — they develop hypotheses, models, they reason, imagine, simulate, then test and revise, etc — and regular folks, well, learn more myopically via observation and experience. Behaviorism of course represented an extreme case of the latter – a stimulus-driven, passive view of human behavior.
But I’ll go on a limb and say that I think that the “scientist model” is a far better conception of all human activity. Everyday living and interaction is scientific activity of a sort: we have models of the world that we constantly update and revise. Importantly, these models have an a priori nature, decoupled from experience. Does experience matter? Sure. But, I think the a priori factors matter just as much, even more. How one conceptualizes the a priori depends on one’s field and purposes, but it includes the following types of things – human nature, choice, reason, imagination, intention, conjectures, hypotheses and theories and so forth.
Readers will of course recognize the above dichotomy as the rationalism versus empiricism debate: reason versus experience. Empiricism, very often, looks deceptively scientific. After all, it’s easy to count things that we can observe. Experience and history are master mechanisms behind gobs of theories — tracing, counting what happened in the past appears scientific. In some cases it is. But, the stuff that we observe and perceive is heavily theory-laden (no, not in that sense), and observations and perceptions might simply be epiphenomena of a priori “stuff.” And, experience might simply “trigger” rather than cause outcomes. Furthermore, experience and history are only one of many, possible worlds.
The “poverty of stimulus” argument relates to this. Varieties of the poverty of stimulus argument show up in developmental psychology, linguistics, philosophy, ethology and other areas. In short, the upshot of the poverty of stimulus argument is that outputs and capabilities manifest by organisms far outstrip inputs such as experiences and stimuli. The work on infants, by folks like Elizabeth Spelke and Alison Gopnik, highlights this point: children have clear, a priori conceptions of their surroundings. Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s notion of language capabilities as the “infinite use of finite means” relates to the poverty of stimulus argument. Some varieties of decision-making models (depending on what types of “priors” they allow) also fit. Ned Block’s “productivity argument” fits into this. As does, perhaps, Charles Peirce’s notion of “abduction.” Etc.
The above discussion of course is a very Chomskyan view of human nature and science. But, this tradition goes back much further (well, to Plato). In my mind, one of the best, historical primers on some of these issues is Chomsky’s Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (be sure to get the 2003 edition, with McGilvray’s excellent introduction). A very, very under-rated book.
Overall — I’ll go out on a limb, again (no one reads the last paragraph of loose, jargon-laden rants/posts like this anyways) — I don’t think the social sciences have come to terms with the scientific problems associated with experience-heavy arguments and the crucial importance of the a priori (however conceived). I think there are lots of research opportunities in this space.
One thing that organizational and economic sociology could use more of is experimental methods. While sociologists are not completely averse to experiments (see its prominent use in exchange theory), the method seems to occupy a small niche. Some sociologists express a real distaste for experiments. Our love of context and history seems to bias us against experiments, which emphasize internal validity over external validity and random assignment over sampling from real populations.
My sense though is that a number of theoretical areas could be more fully developed by using experiments. The real value of experiments comes from being able to more precisely identify theoretical mechanisms, especially at the cognitive level. (If you have any doubt of the utility of experiments, check out Correll’s, Benard’s and Paik’s beautiful study of the motherhood penalty.) Given the calls to explore the micro/cognitive foundations of social theories, experiments could be very useful. Here are just a few conceptual areas that could benefit from experiments.
- Networks and relationship formation – what cognitive dynamics explain homophily? How does framing affect relationships (see, for example, this paper in Psych Science). What sorts of social cues trigger relationship formation? What is the role of emotion in choosing friends?
- Institutions and cultural persistence – Zucker (1977) broke ground in this area but since then experimental methods have been scantly used. What cognitive dynamics explain habituation? What role does social influence play in the transfer of cultural preferences? What situational dynamics lead to rule conformity?
- Collective action frames – why are some frames more resonant than others? How important is shared identity to frame resonance?
- Categories and legitimacy – to what extent does categorical contrast lead to perceptions about legitimacy? How different does something have to be from others in a category before individuals perceive a fit problem? What is the relationship between categorical fit and valuation?
- Status and power – why are individuals so biased by status? How sensitive are individuals to status differences? What are the cognitive dimensions of status deference?
What else would you add to the list?
Information wants to be free. I don’t know that anyone will teach an all wikipedia-sourced course anytime soon (though, many entries offer a good intro and great references), nonetheless there are now some free online options that one might consider using in the classroom.
Flat World Knowledge recently came to my attention. The company offers high-quality, quasi-free textbooks. Textbooks can be viewed for free online, though downloading and/or printing costs (though, far less than regular textbooks). Here are two good examples:
Introduction to Psychology, by Charles Stangor.
Principles of Management, by Mason Carpenter, Talya Bauer, Berrin Erdogan.
Didn’t see anything on organization theory yet. For a free organization theory textbook, check out Peter Abell’s (LSE) textbook (pdf) Organisation Theory: An Interdisciplinary Approach.
Positive organizational scholarship (POS) — which builds on the positive psychology movement — is getting lots of attention. Here are a few links:
- The wikipedia entry for positive psychology
- U of Pennsylvania’s Seligman gives a TED primer on the positive psychology movement
- The epicenter of POS, University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Scholarship
- Positive organizational scholarship wiki
- Wiki entry for positive organizational behavior
- POS scholar Ryan Quinn (et al) maintain a blog
- The University of Pennsylvania ‘Authentic Happiness’ web site has lots of positive psych-related tests, tools etc
- Then there’s the whole field of happiness economics
There you have it. Have an uplifting, flourishing and happy weekend.
Satoshi Kanazawa seems to believe that intelligence explains, well, a lot of stuff. Here’s what intelligence is correlated with:
- a preference for classical music — Kanazawa, Satoshi and Kaja Perina. Forthcoming. “Why More Intelligent Individuals Like Classical Music.” Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.
- physical attractiveness — Kanazawa, Satoshi. 2011. “Intelligence and Physical Attractiveness.” Intelligence. 39: 7-14.
- substance abuse — Kanazawa, Satoshi and Josephine E. E. U. Hellberg. 2010. “Intelligence and Substance Use.” Review of General Psychology. 14: 382-396.
- being a night owl — Kanazawa, Satoshi and Kaja Perina. 2009. “Why Night Owls Are More Intelligent.” Personality and Individual Differences. 47: 685-690.
- being a liberal and an atheist — Kanazawa, Satoshi. 2010. “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent.” Social Psychology Quarterly. 73: 33-57.
- all kinds of other stuff — Kanazawa, Satoshi. 2010. “Evolutionary Psychology and Intelligence Research.” American Psychologist. 65: 279-289.
We all want sharp graduate students and colleagues, so based on the above we could almost develop a Kanazawa-quotient, a simple heuristic for hiring and selection. If you meet, say, three-four of the criteria, you should receive serious consideration: you like classical music, are attractive, have a substance abuse problem, are a night owl, liberal and an atheist.
More Kanazawa here.
I’m interested in the nature of reality and particularly the boundaries and scope of the social construction of reality. I think social construction clearly plays an important role, but the question is, how “strong” is that role? For example, I think the performativity argument (and associated “strong programme”) pushes the social construction argument way too far.
But let’s get more specific: what role do categories, language and naming play in the construction of reality?
One empirical setting for actually studying this question is the case of color categories and color naming, an active area of research in linguistics, computer science and psychology. Scholars in this space have looked at whether the extant categories and names of colors of particular languages impact what individuals actually see and remember. The famous Sapir-Whorf thesis of course argued, broadly, that language, categories and culture strongly determine perception and reality. But, the color research shows otherwise. Languages with highly fine-grained distinctions for individual colors, as well as languages with relatively few (or even no!) distinctions and names for color, lead to the same perceptions and experiences of color. (Check out the citations below to see the clever way in which this is empirically tested.)
Well, almost. Recent work is making some important qualifications to the argument (articulating a middle ground, of sorts, between universality and strong construction), and there clearly is a very active debate in this space.
Here are some links to this literature:
- Berlin & Kay. 1991 (2nd edition). Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution. University of California Press.
- Lindsey & Brown. 2006. Universality of color names. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103: 16608-16613.
- Terry Regier, Paul Kay, Aubrey Gilbert, and Richard Ivry. 2010. Language and thought: Which side are you on, anyway? In B. Malt and P. Wolff (Eds.), Words and the Mind: Perspectives on the Language-Thought Interface. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Ke Zhou, Lei Mo, Paul Kay, Veronica P.Y. Kwok, Tiffany N.M. Ip, & Li Hai Tan. 2010. Newly trained lexical categories produce lateralized categorical perception of color. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107: 9974-9978.
- See Paul Kay’s web site.
- Also check out the World Color Survey @ Berkeley.
Now, I don’t, by any means, think that the color research necessarily is a knock-down argument against social construction. But I do think this research definitely questions the “strong” form of construction — I have opportunistically cited and referred to these and other findings to make that point. And another, perhaps unfair, knockdown argument is that no matter what linguistic categories a color-blind person has, it simply won’t matter in the perception of color.
There is of course much debate in the color literature as well and some of the work points toward a particular, softer form of construction. And, the color research of course is just one setting, and the findings may not generalize to other settings. But I do like the fact that the color research actually allows us to more rigorously say some things — with the usual qualifications and questions — about the specific role that language (as well as categories, culture etc) plays in the way we perceive the world.
My friend Bill Dickens, an economist at Northeastern and Brookings fellow, has a nice discussion of his research on the Flynn effect at the recent Psychometric Society meetings. Here’s the video. Here’s the abstract:
What is “g”? Opening Keynote Presentation at the 16th International Meeting of The Psychometric Society, St John’s College, Cambridge, July 2009
Large secular gains in cognitive ability (the Flynn Effect) show that large, environmentally induced changes in measured cognitive ability are possible, but several studies have suggested that secular gains are not gains in general cognitive ability and this has led some to conclude that they are therefore not substantive.
This paper extends the model of a single cognitive ability presented by Dickens and Flynn (2001) to multiple abilities. It shows that such a model can account for all the important facts about general cognitive ability without postulating any common underlying physiological cause for different mental abilities. A general intelligence factor arises in the model because people who are better at any cognitive skill are more likely to end up in environments that cause them to develop all skills. Scores on the resulting general ability factor can be highly heritable even while they are potentially subject to considerable environmental influence. Loadings of subtest scores on the general ability factor can be positively correlated with subtest heritabilities. In the model, discrimination against a social group in access to cognitively demanding environments can produce subtest score differences from other groups that are strongly correlated with both the g loadings and heritabilities of those subtests. Despite this, there is no reason to expect that meaningful secular gains should be correlated with g loadings across subtests.
Check it out.
Any good consultant or best-selling management guru knows that organizational performance and success simply [wink] requires the articulation of a visionary go-to-the-moon-type mission statement or better yet, a “big, hairy, audacious goal” (you know, a BHAG, pronounced BEE-hag, I’m not kidding).
Goals matter. The bigger, the hairier, the better. You want people to have to stretch. There’s certainly a solid and long (Latham, Locke etc) tradition of research on goal-setting that offers some support for this argument. And, at a more macro level, organizational goals and aspirations are also central to the behavioral theory of the firm.
But both the goal-setting and aspirations literature have recently been challenged/revisited. In short, the argument is that stretch goals and aspirations may not be the panacea that they have been made out to be —- aggressive stretch goals may lead to unethical behavior, they may demotivate, they may lead to excessive risk-taking, etc.
Goals of course are not bad in and of themselves, I likes me a goal just like anyone else. But, the consultant folklore of aggressive stretch goals, exciting as it is, needs to be ratcheted down a notch or two to account for important theoretical contingencies (which, to be fair, much of the original goal-setting literature also addressed).
Here are two recent papers that discuss some of the above issues:
Sitkin, See, Miller, Lawless & Carton. 2011 (forthcoming). The paradox of stretch goals: Organizations in pursuit of the seemingly impossible. Academy of Management Review.
Ordonez, L. D., Schweitzer, M. E., Galinsky, A. D. & Bazerman, M. H. 2009. Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of over prescribing goal setting. Academy of Management Perspectives, 23: 6–16.
There is a town in Peru where people fight to settle grievances during the holiday season. Go to :30 in the clip. Festivus lives.
The most recent issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics has a provocative article by Joe Price and Justin Wolfers on “Racial Discrimination Among NBA Referees.” (Brayden blogged about the working paper three years ago, here.)
Here’s the abstract:
The NBA provides an intriguing place to assess discrimination: referees and players are involved in repeated interactions in a high-pressure setting, with referees making split-second decisions that might allow implicit racial biases to become evident. We find that more personal fouls are awarded against players when they are officiated by an opposite-race officiating crew than when they are officiated by an own-race refereeing crew. These biases are sufficiently large so that they affect the outcome of an appreciable number of games. Our results do not distinguish whether the bias stems from the actions of white or black referees.
Andrew Gelman wants to understand what the big deal is about Erving Goffman. After an initial run in with a couple of Goffman-admiring commenters, Andrew read one of Goffman’s articles and came back with more questions. Here’s an excerpt from his recent post:
It’s always amusing to see white-collar types treated anthropologically, so that’s fine. But then Goffman continues:
Sometimes, however, a member of an organization may fulfill some of the requirements for a particular status, especially the requirements concerning technical proficiency and seniority, but not other requirements, especially the less codified ones having to do with the proper handling of social relationships at work.
This seemed naive at best and obnoxious at worst. As if, whenever someone is not promoted, it’s either because he can’t do the job or he can’t play the game. Unless you want to define this completely circularly (with “playing the game” retrospectively equaling whatever it takes to do to keep the job), this just seems wrong. In corporate and academic settings alike, lots of people get shoved aside either for reasons entirely beyond their control (e.g., a new division head comes in and brings in his own people) or out of simple economics.
Goffman was a successful organization man and couldn’t resist taking a swipe at the losers in the promotion game. It wasn’t enough for him to say that some people don’t ascend the ladder; he had to attribute that to not fulfilling the “less codified [requirements] having to do with the proper handling of social relationships at work.”
Well, no. In the current economic climate this is obvious, but even back in the 1960s there were organizations with too few slots at the top for all the aspirants at the bottom, and it seems a bit naive to suppose that not reaching the top rungs is necessarily a sign of improper handling of social relationships.
My emailed response to Andrew is in the post. Here’s an earlier post about Goffman’s controversial personality.
Last night, during a social theory class, a student asked about Mead’s “I/me” distinction and the humanities. Apparently, various folks in the areas of theater and drama theory employ the I/me distinction. The student asked who came first: Mead or the drama people? I have no idea! Anyone out there can help me?
Okcupid is a dating web site and their research blog just released a report on race and dating. They took a sample of 500k+ “about me” pages and did word counts. The findings are presented in the word graphs featured on the post. What does one learn?
- White guys like to rock: Van Halen, Frank Zappa and even joke group Tenacious D.
- White ladies are the #1 Red Sox fans. I don’t understand why that is the #1 key word for this group.
- Black men and women agree on soul food, but not Alicia Keys.
- Latin men and women both agree on the merengue. Latin men (ahem) like being tough – they mention UFC, the Marines and other super tough words. But they also mention being funny. Latin women mentioned sensitive movies like Sixteen Candles.
- There are a bunch of other word lists. I found the South Asian male list to be notable. They mention mechanical engineering (!), consultant, and freakonomics (!). I would like to know from readers if dropping the words “instrumental variable” into conversation really helps in that dating market.
Required reading for sociologists of dating.
A recent topic in economic sociology is the effect of cultural schema on markets. The argument, put forward by multiple scholars, like our friend Ezra and Hannan/Hsu/Polos, is that buyers and sellers punish products/firms that don’t conform to type. That brings me to the George Foreman Grill (GFG).* A student and I got into a discussion of products like the GFG, which are sold through infomercials. We observed that the GFG seems to be an exception to the rule that products sold on informercials remain low status. Given the theory, you’d expect low status informercial products to be punished by consumers if it were to appear in mainstream venues. However, unlike its infomercial fellow travelers, the GFG seems to have “migrated” from TV ghetto to mainstream product. So, when can a product can “jump” from the informercial category to “legitimate product?”
A few hypotheses:
- The product resembles other high status products.
- The product is obviously and clearly superior, which explains why the kind-of useful Shamwow remains in the informercial ghetto.
- Endorsed by a high status celebrity.
Any other guesses? What other infomercial products have gone mainstream?
*Disclaimer: I own a GFG and use it frequently.
Cal Newport is an MIT computer science post-doc and college advice dude. He has some books and an interesting blog. I thought orgtheory readers might enjoy this post about a computer science professor named James McLurkin. It’s hard to find such a nice statement about what it takes to be a truly good academic. The post is about how he earned his reputation as a top researcher in grad school, which lead to an excellent career.
Here’s the key passage:
- To become a star, in graduate school or elsewhere, you need to make an important advance in your field.
- Important advances require bleeding-edge expertise. (Once this expertise is gained, however, the breakthrough itself will probably seem obvious.)
- Therefore: To become a star, you should focus on getting to the bleeding edge of your field as quickly as possible.
Newport observes that step #3 is really, really hard because it requires a person to go beyond their comfort zone, but not too much. How does that work? Most people tend to repeat what they know. It is daunting to work on a project where you don’t know the answer, or how it will work out. If you stick with what is easy, you don’t progress. Conversely, if your project is too hard, then you won’t be able to learn from it and you will get stuck.
The trick is to build up skills by doing projects that stretch you, but not too much. If you can do that a few times in a row, you will likely get to the cutting edge of the field:
James describes this lesson as perhaps the most valuable he learned as an undergrad at MIT. Under the tutelage of his supervisor, he honed his ability to choose projects that were hard enough to stretch his ability, but still reasonable enough that he could complete them. She wanted him to be ambitious and set big goals, but she had no tolerance for goals so big that they were beyond his ability to finish in a reasonable time frame.
Lack of empathy may be one reason that people rationalize heinous acts like torture. My colleagues at Northwestern, Mary Hunter-Morris (also of Harvard Law) and Loran Nordgren, and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon have written a new paper explaining how social psychological tendencies make it difficult for interrogators to assess the difference between “enhanced interrogation” and torture. Even interrogators with good intentions may push the limits of acceptable interrogation techniques too far because of these systematic biases. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract:
We identify the existence of two separate systematic psychological biases that impede objective application of the torture standard. First, the self-serving bias – a bias that motivates evaluators to interpret facts or rules in a way that suits their interests – leads administrators to promote more narrow interpretations of torture when faced with a perceived threat to their nations’ national security. Thus, the threshold for torture is tendentiously raised during exactly the periods of time when torture is most likely to be used. Second, our own research on the hot-cold empathy gap suggests that an assessment of an interrogation tactic’s severity is influenced by the momentary visceral state of the evaluator. People who are not currently experiencing a visceral state – such as pain, hunger, or fear – tend to systematically underestimate the severity of the visceral state. We argue that, because the people who evaluate interrogation tactics are unlikely to be experiencing an extreme visceral state when making their evaluations, the hot-cold empathy gap results in systematic underestimation of the severity of tactics. This, in turn, leads to an under-inclusive conception of ‘torture’ being applied in domestic interrogation policy and international torture law.
Of the two biases, the empathy gap is especially interesting to me. This bias would seem to most severely impair people who are in the greatest need of empathy. If you’re living a comfortable lifestyle in a wealthy suburb, you’re inclined to underestimate the severity of living conditions of lower-income families. If you’ve never experienced any kind of addiction, you probably underestimate the challenges that a drug addict faces in giving up drug use. But what makes the empathy gap so critical to understanding the definition of torture is that it virtually ensures that interrogators will underestimate the visceral impact of any kind of interrogation tactic they use. If the legal system doesn’t impose strict, objective boundaries on interrogation techniques, the tendency will be for interrogators to gradually move to more and more extreme tactics. Scary.
FYI, the authors recently submitted the paper to a number of law reviews.
A while back, Jeremy turned me on to the work of John Henrich, a psychologist at UBC. Henrich is one of those people who travels to far off places and has people play games, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Ultimatum Game. One of the things you learn is that there is substantial variation in how people play these games outside of Western cultures. There’s a nice article in the National Post about his research and his hypothesis that we are WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic). In other words, comfortable Westerners really view things differently than non-industrialized people.
Take the Ultimatum game, where person #1 can split $100 and offer it to person #2. If person #2 rejects, no one gets anything. If person #1 accepts, then person #2 keeps what is offered and #1 gets the rest. Economic theory suggests that something is better than nothing, so people will accept what is offered, even if it is just $1. What happens in Western societies is that player #1 offers around $48, while player #2 rejects if the offer is under $40. When Henrich’s team discovered is that there are cultures were people will accept the low ball offers because, as economic theory suggests, something is better than nothing – it’s free money! Westerners reject low offers, maybe because they feel insulted, or they want to punish player #1 for making a low offer.
If you follow rational choice sociology, this should not be surprising. The work of Werner Raub and Vincent Buskens is all about “embeddedness” of games – the social context of the game affects how people play it. Even in Western culture, researchers have found real differences in game play. I learned from Werner, when he visited Chicago a while back, that students and business people play the trust game differently. His argument was that business people show more trust because they work in a world of cooperation, where students live in a world of short term relationships.
The lessons I take from this research:
- For game theory: Rather than going on insane mathematical excursions, maybe game theorists should work on simple games and variation in play. How do people interpret the game? How does heterogeneity of players affect the outcomes? I think this is more interesting than the umpteenth behavioral paper about risk that’s based on college students.
- For economic theory: Let me phrase this in econo-talk so that you guys can understand… People have different utility functions for money and they have complex utility functions. If you believe the research, there are cultures where people have nice linear utility functions for money. In the West, we may decide that we don’t value money and that we value fairness, or that we value punishing other players. Showing real differences in utility functions across cultures is pretty friggin’ important.
- For economic sociology: What sorts of cultures produce “homo economicus?” What needs to happen to create a society of cooperators? Are the behaviors in these games observed in real economic transactions? Henrich’s writings cite anthropological research on these cultures, but more can be done, especially in Western cultures and focusing on transactions. For example, maybe someone like Sudhir Venkatesh could have people in inner city neighborhoods or low income schools play these games. Then we could see later if game play is correlated with certain job search behaviors or life course outcomes.
If you’re interested in how Gladwell creates these tsunamis, check out this article in Psychology Today. Personally, I think the backlash against Gladwell is a little much. Yeah, he could be more careful when constructing his overviews of scientific research, but if he were too careful he would be boring to read and the general public would stop reading. If he became a boring writer, the public would know no more about social science than they did before Gladwell. The problem isn’t Gladwell; the problem originates in a reading public who doesn’t have the time or interest in reading nuanced scientific studies with findings based on probabilistic outcomes. Gladwell has just figured out the best way to write about scientific research for this audience.
If you want a heavy dose of experimental economics — and who doesn’t? this stuff is fascinating — then I highly recommend a recent special issue of the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. The JEBO special issue features top scholars in the space (Vernon Smith, Ernst Fehr, Ken Binmore, Elinor Ostrom, Herbert Gintis, etc, etc) wrestling with some big questions — the role of context in experiments, problems of generalization, psychology-economics links, challenges to experimental findings, future directions for experimental economics, and so forth.
Ken Binmore and Avner Shaked have a particularly provocative essay (non-gated here), challenging the Fehr-Schmidt model of “inequity aversion.” (The opening sentence of Binmore-Shaked: “The long heralded reintegration of economics with psychology is now an accomplished fact.”) And, the special issue features a response by Fehr-Schmidt and then a Binmore-Shaked rejoinder.
I couldn’t sleep last night and I thought some wee-hour TV (yes indeed, at 4am) would take care of things. Boy was I wrong. I ran into the PBS NOVA documentary Mind Over Money (it appears the documentary was just released a couple days ago, and it’s now online). Be sure to watch it — it’s very good.
The documentary features interesting discussions and debates about the efficiency (and not) of markets, emotions, value and decision-making, rationality, bubbles (housing and tulips), and so forth. The documentary is peppered with interesting experimental findings, highlights of research and engaging interviews with scholars such as Gary Becker, John Cochrane, Eugene Fama, Jennifer Lerner, Robert Shiller, Richard Thaler, Vernon Smith, etc, etc.
I’m guessing most orgtheory readers are quite familiar with the central issues raised in the documentary, but it’s definitely still worth watching and I can see this documentary being very useful in the classroom. Good stuff.
A few days ago, we got into a good discussion about the organizational culture of hospitals. The professional identity of many doctors is tied up with a need to assert authority and treat subordinates as inferiors rather than team members. This, it turns out, has severe consequences for patient safety. A surgeon or a physician can routinely ignore vital information about patients that may improve their care or even save their lives.
The orgheads noted that the stubborness of medical professionals is tied to professional identity and authority. Then, Katherine raised an important point – toxic culture is not limited to hospitals. All kinds of organizations eschew team work in favor of the exalted professional. Universities are full of professors who answer to no one, police departments have officers who are treated as ultimate authorities on certain cases, etc.To tease out this insight, let me state it more directly:
Exalted Professional Syndrome: An organization suffers from EPS when it is based on a culture that values professional autonomy over everything else. EPS is characterized by the following traits:
- The organization is a college of experts who answer to no one.
- The experts value their own autonomy over task completion, cost-benefit analysis, and performance.
- The experts operate in a strictly hierarchical fashion, ignoring the input of subordinates, rather than work as a team. The experts don’t trust information by qualified outsiders.
- Managers have difficulties monitoring or controlling expert work.
- Customers and clients are treated as problems to be solved rather participants in a process. In other words, work is problem oriented rather than people oriented.
This isn’t to say that EPS totally disables organizations. If you have talented experts, they will ensure that much gets accomplished. But routine improvements in performance are delayed or obstructed because it may result in a distribution of authority. For example, doctors don’t want nurses to tell them to wash their hands because nurses aren’t supposed to tell doctors what to do – even if washing hands can save live and millions of dollars! So, what do you think?
A biting wind whipped down a dark street, where a man crouched in the shadow of a building. He pulled on black gloves and glanced up and down the avenue. Satisfied that no one was watching, he pulled a mask the size of a beach ball out of a bag, pulled it onto his head and wriggled it into place: snout in front, eye holes over his own, rounded ears pointed skyward.
Death Bear was ready for his mission.
A man in the second-floor unit of a nearby apartment building in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn was desperate to get rid of something that was too torturous to keep but impossible to discard.
The anguished individual had turned to Death Bear, a macabre performance artist who silently walks the city streets in a one-man quest to relieve people of painful remnants of the past: love letters, photos, gifts, dog tags, underwear — a lot of underwear, it seems — anything that might reduce an otherwise well-functioning person to a sniffling wreck.
I’ve got a pile of rejection letters that’s too painful to see…
My colleague Brendan Nyhan has a NY Times Op-ed on the subject of people’s beliefs about health care. The message is simple. Even as health care is enacted, people will still cling to wrong beliefs about the policy. A few choice clips:
Studies have shown that people tend to seek out information that is consistent with their views; think of liberal fans of MSNBC and conservative devotees of Fox News. Liberals and conservatives also tend to process the information that they receive with a bias toward their pre-existing opinions, accepting claims that are consistent with their point of view and rejecting those that are not. As a result, information that contradicts their prior attitudes or beliefs is often disregarded, especially if those beliefs are strongly held.
Unfortunately, these tendencies frequently undermine well-intentioned efforts to counter myths and misperceptions. Jason Reifler, a political scientist at Georgia State, and I conducted a series of experiments in which participants read mock news articles with misleading statements by a politician. Some were randomly assigned a version of the article that also contained information correcting the misleading statement.
Our results indicate that this sort of journalistic fact-checking often fails to reduce misperceptions among ideological or partisan voters. In some cases, we found that corrections can even make misperceptions worse. For example, in one experiment we found that the proportion of conservatives who believed that President George W. Bush’s tax cuts actually increased federal revenue grew from 36 percent to 67 percent when they were provided with evidence against this claim. People seem to argue so vehemently against the corrective information that they end up strengthening the misperception in their own minds.
One for the annals of delayed gratification: A Ryanair passenger won €10,000 on an in-flight lottery scratchcard. But, as you might expect, the flight attendants didn’t have the money for him right there and then. He became angry and frustrated. In the face of urgings to the contrary from the crew and other passengers, he threw a fit and ate the ticket.