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biology and gender differences in personality

Andy Perrin responded on Scatterplot to a Twitter debate that happened yesterday and I couldn’t resist adding two cents. It started with a link posted by Nicholas Christakis to a review article on gender differences in personality across societies. The main claim of the article is that gender differences in personality are larger in more gender-egalitarian countries, providing support for evolutionary theories of gender differences and against social role theories, which would predict gender convergence in egalitarian countries.

Steve Vaisey commented, “I am genuinely interested to hear how sociologists who study gender would react to these findings.” Andy’s response, which is as usual worth reading, argued against the study’s interpretation from a social constructionist perspective.

This sent me down the rabbit hole of actually reading the article and a bit of the research it is based on. I am not impressed.

Let me qualify that I am not a gender scholar, nor am I deeply familiar with this literature. My priors are that gender differences in personality are both biological and social, but that the average person (obviously not everyone) is insufficiently skeptical of biological explanations because they fit our expectations and stereotypes. I am inclined to be doubtful about this kind of research, but open to evidence.

Here’s two reasons this article left me underwhelmed.

First, the lit review is sloppy in a way that makes me not trust the authors about other things — say, the quality of their data collection across relatively small samples in dozens of countries. It sets up social role theory as a straw man (“social role theories of gender development contend any and all ostensible differences between men and women are primarily the result of perceived gender roles” [p. 47], when the debate is really about relative importance, not “any and all ostensible differences”). It quotes from an article about social role theory (“men and women have inherited the same evolved psychological dispositions” [p. 47]), but the page is not part of the article, and the quote does not seem to appear in the article at all. Based on Googling, it appears to come from a misquote in an edited volume. This may seem trivial, but if you’re asking me to trust that you used good research methods on a study that involved data collection in 50+ countries, I’d like to know that I can count on you to represent the literature accurately.

Second, I dug into one of the more prominent empirical studies in the review, by the same lead author. The review describes the study like this:

More egalitarian gender roles, gender socialization and sociopolitical gender equity, however, were associated with larger gender differences. For example, the largest overall gender differences in personality were found in relatively high gender egalitarian cultures of France (d = −0.44) and the Netherlands (d = −0.36), whereas the smallest gender differences were found in the relatively low gender egalitarian cultures of Botswana (d = 0.00) and India (d = −0.01).

The examples here are somewhat cherry-picked. Yes, these are the top two and bottom two countries. But if you look at their whole chart (p. 173), there’s more to the story. The five countries with the biggest gender differences in personality (measured as mean gender difference in big-five traits) are France, Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Brazil, and Belgium. The five most gender-similar countries are Indonesia, Congo, Fiji, Botswana, and Finland.

If we look at the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap indicator, France is the only country on the top five that makes it into even the top 20 countries for gender equality. Brazil and the Czech Republic are both basically at the global median. Finland, which has among the most similar personality scores by gender, is the third most gender-equal country in the world. So while correlations may be there across all countries, this is hardly dispositive unless you can come up some explanation for why gender egalitarianism leads to personality difference across genders in France, but similarity in Finland.

And when they actually dig into the relationships, they appear to be flimsy and overstated. The study examines nine country-level measures of gender equality. After controlling for the country’s development level, only four measures show a significant relationship to the gender-personality gap at the p < 0.05 level (p. 177). So by most measures, the study finds no relationship. Notably, neither of the UN composite measures of gender equality, the Gender Empowerment Measure and Gender Development Index, are significantly related.

The four measures that appear to be related to mean country-level gender difference in personality are 1) traditional values, 2) cultural trust (“can most people be trusted”), 3) the gender gap in smoking, and 4) “when the respondents are more inclined to agree with a question irrespective its content” [sic — I don’t even know what that means]. Two of these seem very questionably related to gender, and I’m going to discount those.

That leaves us with the following: countries with more traditional values have less sex differentiation in personality traits, and countries where women smoke a lot have more sex differentiation in personality traits. Both relationships are significant at the p < 0.05 level — but note that we have already run through several possible measures that turned out not to be significant.

From this, the study winds back up to its dramatic conclusion: “in more prosperous and egalitarian societies the personality profiles of men and women become decidedly less similar” (p. 178). More prosperous, yes: development level, not gender equality, is the best explainer of gender-personality differences. But more egalitarian? Color me unconvinced.

And from that, the abstract jumps to: “It is proposed that heightened levels of sexual dimorphism result from personality traits of men and women being less constrained and more able to naturally diverge in developed nations.” Wow. The word “naturally” is doing an awful lot of work there.

The review article covers a bunch of other studies, too, but based on what I’ve read it does not seem worth the time to dive in further. My priors — that personality differences are both biological and social, and that people are too credulous of biological explanations of gender differences — remain unchanged.

Written by epopp

December 20, 2017 at 9:01 pm

conspiracy theory, donald trump, and birtherism: a new article by joe digrazia

search-images

Joe DiGrazia, a recent IU PhD and post-doc at Dartmouth, has a really great article in Socious, the ASA’s new online open access journal. The article, The Social Determinants of Conspiratorial Ideation, investigates the rise in conspiratorial thinking on the Internet. He looks at state level Google searches for Obama birtherism and then compares to non political types of conspiracy theory, like Illuminati.

The findings? Not surprisingly, people search for conspiracy related terms in places with a great deal of social change, such as unemployment, changes in government, and demographic shift. This is especially important research given that Donald Trump first rose to political prominence as a birther. This research is indispensable for anyone trying to understand the forces that are shaping American politics today.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 8, 2017 at 12:22 am

article discussion: is marriage an all or nothing institution? by finkel et al. (2015)

Starting on July 1, we will discuss “The Suffocation Model: Why Marriage in America is Becoming an All or Nothing Institution” by Finkel et al. This appeared last summer in Directions in Psychological Science. The discussion will be less intense than a full blown book forum, but we will dedicate one or two posts to it. This article was suggested by Chris Martin.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 17, 2016 at 12:28 am

happiness paradox

My colleague Johan Bollen and his colleagues have been working on a project that tries to measure and verify the “happiness paradox,” which is an extension and elaboration of the “friendship paradox.” From the MIT technology review:

The friendship paradox is straightforward to explain. It comes about because of the skewed way people collect friends on online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Most people have a small number of friends—a few dozen or so. But a tiny fraction of people have huge numbers of friends millions or tens of millions of followers in some cases.

This has two effects. First, it makes them much more likely to appear in a random person’s list of friends. And second, it dramatically skews the answer when calculating the average number of friends that a person’s friends have.

Bollen et al then explain the analogous happiness paradox:

Bollen and co begin by analyzing the most recent 3,000 tweets sent by some 40,000 Twitter users. They use a standard algorithm to analyze each tweet to determine its sentiment—whether positive or negative—and then assume this gives a sense of the user’s happiness level. In other words, they assume that people who are less happy send more negative tweets. They also include in the analysis the number of followers and followees for each individual.

The results make for interesting reading. Bollen and co say there is clear friendship paradox at work in this network, as expected. But they also say there is a less striking but nonetheless significant happiness paradox at work, too.

Indeed, Bollen co say their evidence suggests that the more unhappy the individual, the stronger the happiness paradox they face. “Although happy and unhappy groups of subjects are both affected by a significant happiness paradox, unhappy subjects are most strongly affected,” they say.

The original paper is here. Recommended.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 7, 2016 at 4:25 am

let the children play! it’s good for their mental health

Psychology Today has an article on a new analysis of play and the mental health of young people. The gist is that (a) recently, we let kids have less unstructured play and (b) unstructured play increases the belief that one has direct control over their life, which in turn has positive effect on mental health and various measures of well being. From the article:

The standard measure of sense of control is a questionnaire developed by Julien Rotter in the late 1950s called the Internal-External Locus of Control Scale. The questionnaire consists of 23 pairs of statements. One statement in each pair represents belief in an Internal locus of control (control by the person) and the other represents belief in an External locus of control (control by circumstances outside of the person). The person taking the test must decide which statement in each pair is more true. One pair, for example, is the following:

  • (a) I have found that what is going to happen will happen.
  • (b) Trusting to fate has never turned out as well for me as making a decision to take a definite course of action.

In this case, choice (a) represents an External locus of control and (b) represents an Internal locus of control.

Many studies over the years have shown that people who score toward the Internal end of Rotter’s scale fare better in life than do those who score toward the External end.[2] They are more likely to get good jobs that they enjoy, take care of their health, and play active roles in their communities—and they are less likely to become anxious or depressed.

And:

In a research study published a few years ago, Twenge and her colleagues analyzed the results of many previous studies that used Rotter’s Scale with young people from 1960 through 2002.[3] They found that over this period average scores shifted dramatically—for children aged 9 to 14 as well as for college students—away from the Internal toward the External end of the scale. In fact, the shift was so great that the average young person in 2002 was more External than were 80% of young people in the 1960s. The rise in Externality on Rotter’s scale over the 42-year period showed the same linear trend as did the rise in depression and anxiety.  

[Correction: The locus of control data used by Twenge and her colleagues for children age 9 to 14 came from the Nowicki-Strickland Scale, developed by Bonnie Strickland and Steve Nowicki, not from the Rotter Scale. Their scale is similar to Rotter’s, but modified for use with children.]

It is reasonable to suggest that the rise of Externality (and decline of Internality) is causally related to the rise in anxiety and depression. When people believe that they have little or no control over their fate they become anxious: “Something terrible can happen to me at any time and I will be unable to do anything about it.” When the anxiety and sense of helplessness become too great people become depressed: “There is no use trying; I’m doomed.”

Wow. Later in the article, they talk about how this shift correlates with mental health outcomes. So don’t schedule them or boss the, let them play.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

October 1, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio, psychology

how to live a good life, the social science answer

This week, I will spend quite a bit of time discussing a book called The Triumphs of Experience by George Vaillant. I’ve written briefly about the book before, but I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the book until I assigned it for a class. Roughly speaking, the book follows a cohort of college men from the 1940s to the mid 2000s. Thus, the book tracks people from young adulthood to old age. It’s a powerful book in that it uses enormously rich data to analyze the life course and identify factors that contribute to our well being. You won’t find many other books that have such deep data to address one of life’s most important questions – What makes us happy? What is the good life?

In this first post, I want to briefly summarize the book and then note a few drawbacks. Later this week, I want to delve into two topics in more detail: alcoholism and parental bonds. To start: the Grant Study of Human development randomly selected a few hundred male Harvard undergrads for a long term study on health and the life course. It’s a biased sample, but it’s well suited for studying long life and work (remember, many women became home makers in that era) while controlling for educational attainment. The strength of this book is an ability to mine rich qualitative data on the life course and then mapping the associations over decades. The data is rich enough that the authors can actually consider alternative hypotheses and build multi-cause explanations.

A few drawbacks: Rhetorically, I thought the book was a bit wordier and longer than it needed to be. Also, I wish that the book had a glossary or appendix where one can look up definitions. More importantly, this book will note be convincing to folks who are obsessed with identification. It is very “1960s” in that they collect a lot of data and then channel their energies into looking at cross-group differences. But still, considering that doing RCT with your family is not possible and the importance of the data, I’m willing to forgive. Wednesday: The importance of your family.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street!!

Written by fabiorojas

May 4, 2015 at 6:03 pm

asian american privilege? a skeptical, but nuanced, view, and a call for more research – a guest post by raj ghoshal and diana pan

Raj Andrew Ghoshal is an assistant professor of sociology at Goucher College and Yung-yi Diana Pan is an assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. This guest post is a discussion of Asian Americans and their status in American society.

As a guest post last month noted, Asian Americans enjoy higher average incomes than whites in the United States. We were critical of much in that post, but believe it raises an under-examined question: Where do Asian Americans stand in the US racial system? In this post, we argue that claims of Asian American privilege are premature, and that Asian Americans’ standing raises interesting questions about the nature of race systems.

We distinguish two dimensions of racial stratification: (1) a more formal, mainly economic hierarchy, and (2) a system of social inclusion/exclusion. This is a line of argument developed by various scholars under different names, and in some ways parallels claims that racial sterotypes concern both warmth and competence. We see Asian Americans as still behind in the more informal system of inclusion/exclusion, while close (but not equal) to whites in the formal hierarchy. Here’s why.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

February 4, 2015 at 12:01 am

is there discrimination against conservatives in academia? comment on duarte et al. 2014

There’s been a paper making round and a few folks have asked me for comments. It  is called “Political Diversity will Improve Social Psychological Science.” It is forthcoming in Behavioral and Brain Sciences and is co-authored by Jose Duarte, Jarett Crawford, Jonathan Haidt, Lee Jussim and Phil Tetlock. Duarte et al. make the following claims:

  • Social psychology, like most academic areas, is politically homogeneous.
  • Intellectual diversity is a good thing.
  • “The underrepresentation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-
    selection, hostile climate, and discrimination.”

My overall reaction is sympathetic, but critical. In my comments, I will start with evidence that is specific to social psychology, but also comment on the broader issue of professorial partisanship.

The lopsided political slant of academia is to be lamented. Since social scientists study human values and ethical behavior, we definitely lose something if only one side of the argument is represented. I also think that when sociologists move from disagreement to hostility, they do a disservice. All students should feel like it is permissible to disagree with an instructor and no one wants to be judged on their political views when it comes to graduate school admissions and appointment to the faculty.

On other points, I am more critical. For example, their coverage of the debate over discrimination is lacking. It is true that that many academics exhibit confirmation bias – they are more likely to approve of studies that support their ideological view. That is a logically consistent story for why, say, sociologists might be overwhelmingly liberal because we deal with lots of research that have social implications. But it doesn’t really explain other facts, like that a majority of physical scientists vote Democrat (see page 29 of the Gross and Simmons’ book on professors*). How would people possibly know the party preference of mathematicians? It’s not on the CV and in the eight years I spent in math departments, I still have no idea what the preferences of my fellow students and teachers were.

Another point of criticism is that they take uncritically the evidence on self-reports of willingness to discriminate. They cover a number of studies showing that liberals admit they would discriminate, while others do not. They see this as strong evidence. I do not because of social desirability bias. The default response is for people to admit they do not discriminate. My hypothesis that overly zealous academic liberals are simply more motivated to admit personal fault, which means they deviate from the socially desirable answer at much, much higher rates.

One point that is never brought up is that liberal disciplines become noticeably more conservative if they try hard enough. For example, it is my impression that economics used to be dominated by Keynesians up until about 1960 or so. Now, there are many notable conservative and libertarian economists who are very prominent. Similarly, there are disciplines which have an even Republican/Democrat balance, such as engineering (see page 29 of Gross and Simmons). Those who think discrimination is the smoking gun in this story need to explain why economics has become more conservative over time, how discrimination is supposed to work in a-political fields like math, and why liberals never conquered other areas. Most of the story about liberal over-representation is about humanities and social sciences which, do indeed, have lopsided tendencies.

Perhaps the point that I always think about is one that Duarte et al. and others always seem to miss. A major finding of Gross’s 2013 book on academic liberals is that there is indeed a self-image problems. And yes, much of it has to do with the fact that conservative students don’t think they will “fit in” with liberal professors. But there is another very strong reason which Gross covers – money. Academia is a low paying profession and conservative students value income in jobs more than other types of students.

This finding dovetails well with an observation about professions. Liberals tend to dominate in areas that are low paying and focus on issues like education, learning, care giving, and culture. These include the arts, entertainment, academia, K-12 teaching, nursing, social work, and science. Once you add some high income, conservatives start appearing in large numbers (e.g., the Dem/GOP is way different for doctors vs. nurses; artists vs. art managers; lawyering vs. other humanities oriented work; physical science vs. engineering).

That summarizes my response to Duarte et al. 2012. The basic point is correct – social psychology, and other areas, by implication, are politically lopsided and it’s likely not a good thing. On other points, I think they over read the evidence. I am certain that discrimination might occur, but when you look at a broad range of evidence, the story gets complicated very quickly.

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* Disclosure: I have a chapter on this book on the history of ethnic studies.

Written by fabiorojas

January 9, 2015 at 12:55 am

letters of recommendation: still garbage

Long time readers know that I am a skeptic when it comes to letters of recommendation. The last time I wrote about the topic, I relied on a well cited 1993 article by Aamodt, Bryan amd Whitcomb in Public Personnel Management that reviews the literature and shows that LoR’s have very little validity. I.e., they are poor predictors of future job performance. But what if the literature has changed in the meanwhile? Maybe these earlier studies were flawed, or based on limited samples, or better research methods provide more compelling answers. So I went back and read some more recent research on the validity of LoRs. The answer? With a few exceptions, still garbage.

For example, the journal Academic Medicine published a 2014 article that analyzed LoR for three cohorts of students at a medical school. From the abstract:

Results: Four hundred thirty-seven LORs were included. Of 76 LOR characteristics, 7 were associated with graduation status (P ≤ .05), and 3 remained significant in the regression model. Being rated as “the best” among peers and having an employer or supervisor as the LOR author were associated with induction into AOA, whereas having nonpositive comments was associated with bottom of the class students.

Conclusions: LORs have limited value to admission committees, as very few LOR characteristics predict how students perform during medical school.

Translation: Almost all information in letters is useless, except the occasional negative comment (which academics strive not to say). The other exception is explicit comparison with other candidates, which is not a standard feature of many (or most?) letters in academia.

Ok, maybe this finding is limited to med students. What about other contexts? Once again, LoRs do poorly unless you torture specific data out of them. From a 2014 meta-analysis of LoR recommendation research in education from the International Journal of Selection and Assessment:

… Second, letters of recommendation are not very reliable. Research suggests that the interrater reliability of letters of recommendation is only about .40 (Baxter, et al., 1981; Mosel & Goheen, 1952, 1959; Rim, 1976). Aamodt, Bryan & Whitcomb (1993) summarized this issue pointedly when they noted, ‘The reliability problem is so severe that Baxter et al. (1981) found that there is more agreement between two recommendations written by the same person for two different applicants than there is between two people writing recommendations for the same person’ (Aamodt et al., 1993, p. 82). Third, letter readers tend to favor letters written by people they know (Nicklin & Roch, 2009), despite any evidence that this leads to superior judgments.

Despite this troubling evidence, the letter of recommendation is not only frequently used; it is consistently evaluated as being nearly as important as test scores and prior grades (Bonifazi, Crespy, & Reiker, 1997; Hines, 1986). There is a clear and gross imbalance between the importance placed on letters and the research that has actually documented their efficacy. The scope of this problem is considerable when we consider that there is a very large literature, including a number of reviews and meta-analyses on standardized tests and no such research on letters. Put another way, if letters were a new psychological test they would not come close to meeting minimum professional criteria (i.e., Standards) for use in decision making (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999). This study is a step toward addressing this need by evaluating what is known, identifying key gaps, and providing recommendations for use and research. [Note: bolded by me.]

As with other studies, there is a small amount of information in LoRs. The authors note that “… letters do appear to provide incremental information about degree attainment, a difficult and heavily motivationally determined outcome.” That’s something, I guess, for a tool that would fail standard tests of validity.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 29, 2014 at 12:01 am

i don’t want to be right

That’s the name of an article in the New Yorker that explores the work of my good friend political scientist Brendan Nyhan. The essence of pretty simple: people don’t change beliefs if it somehow challenges their identity:

Last month, Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth, published the results of a study that he and a team of pediatricians and political scientists had been working on for three years. They had followed a group of almost two thousand parents, all of whom had at least one child under the age of seventeen, to test a simple relationship: Could various pro-vaccination campaigns change parental attitudes toward vaccines? Each household received one of four messages: a leaflet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that there had been no evidence linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (M.M.R.) vaccine and autism; a leaflet from the Vaccine Information Statement on the dangers of the diseases that the M.M.R. vaccine prevents; photographs of children who had suffered from the diseases; and a dramatic story from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about an infant who almost died of measles. A control group did not receive any information at all. The goal was to test whether facts, science, emotions, or stories could make people change their minds.

The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked. The first leaflet—focussed on a lack of evidence connecting vaccines and autism—seemed to reduce misperceptions about the link, but it did nothing to affect intentions to vaccinate. It even decreased intent among parents who held the most negative attitudes toward vaccines, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. The other two interventions fared even worse: the images of sick children increased the belief that vaccines cause autism, while the dramatic narrative somehow managed to increase beliefs about the dangers of vaccines. “It’s depressing,” Nyhan said. “We were definitely depressed,” he repeated, after a pause.

and

It’s the realization that persistently false beliefs stem from issues closely tied to our conception of self that prompted Nyhan and his colleagues to look at less traditional methods of rectifying misinformation. Rather than correcting or augmenting facts, they decided to target people’s beliefs about themselves. In a series of studies that they’ve just submitted for publication, the Dartmouth team approached false-belief correction from a self-affirmation angle, an approach that had previously been used for fighting prejudice and low self-esteem. The theory, pioneered by Claude Steele, suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior. For example, when women are asked to state their gender before taking a math or science test, they end up performing worse than if no such statement appears, conforming their behavior to societal beliefs about female math-and-science ability. To address this so-called stereotype threat, Steele proposes an exercise in self-affirmation: either write down or say aloud positive moments from your past that reaffirm your sense of self and are related to the threat in question. Steele’s research suggests that affirmation makes people far more resilient and high performing, be it on an S.A.T., an I.Q. test, or at a book-club meeting.

Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented—that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.

Read the whole thing.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

October 24, 2014 at 12:01 am

ka-ching kitty!

Psych experiments show that we tend to overvalue objects that we possess – according to a coffee mug experiment, we would be willing to sell one that we have at a certain price, but others would not be willing to pay that same price.   What happens when the object is a non-human family member?

When negotiating the sale of their home, one Australian family was willing to give up their cat Tiffany to the new homeowners for $140,000 (about $120K in US dollars). Some readers of the article announcing this exchange felt their pets were priceless, while others pointed out that cats are territorial and may not tolerate moves.

The real estate agent is especially happy about his commission, presumably

The real estate agent is especially happy about his commission, presumably

Don’t expect some cats to reciprocate your affectionate feelings – according to one medical examiner, cats will consume your lips and other edibles should you expire in your home. Sweet dreams, kitty owners.

Written by katherinechen

October 22, 2014 at 2:57 pm

on facebook and research methods

Twitter is, well, a-twitter with people worked up about the Facebook study. If you haven’t been paying attention, FB tested whether they could affect people’s status updates by showing 700,000 folks either “happier” or “sadder” updates for a week in January 2012. This did indeed cause users to post more happy or sad updates themselves. In addition, if FB showed fewer emotional posts (in either direction), people reduced their posting frequency. (PNAS article here, Atlantic summary here.)

What most people seem to be upset about (beyond a subset who are arguing about the adequacy of FB’s methods for identifying happy and sad posts) is the idea that FB could experiment on them without their knowledge. One person wondered whether FB’s IRB (apparently it was IRB approved — is that an internal process?) considered its effects on depressed people, for example.

While I agree that the whole idea is creepy, I had two reactions to this that seemed to differ from most.

1) Facebook is advertising! Use it, don’t use it, but the entire purpose of advertising is to manipulate your emotional state. People seem to have expectations that FB should show content “neutrally,” but I think it is entirely in keeping with the overall product: FB experiments with what it shows you in order to understand how you will react. That is how they stay in business. (Well, that and crazy Silicon Valley valuation dynamics.)

2) This is the least of it. I read a great post the other day at Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective Blog (here) about all the weird and misleading things FB does (and social media algorithms do more generally) to identify what kinds of content to show you and market you to advertisers. To pick one example: if you “like” one thing from a source, you are considered to “like” all future content from that source, and your friends will be shown ads that list you as “liking” it. One result is dead people “liking” current news stories.

My husband, who spent 12 years working in advertising, pointed out that this research doesn’t even help FB directly, as you could imagine people responding better to ads when they’re happy or when they’re sad. And that the thing FB really needs to do to attract advertisers is avoid pissing off its user base. So, whoops.

Anyway, this raises interesting questions for people interested in using big data to answer sociological questions, particularly using some kind of experimental intervention. Does signing a user agreement when you create an account really constitute informed consent? And do companies that create platforms that are broadly adopted (and which become almost obligatory to use) have ethical obligations in the conduct of research that go beyond what we would expect from, say, market research firms? We’re entering a brave new world here.

Written by epopp

June 29, 2014 at 3:00 am

ten years towards big impact: david burns’ feeling good

One of the awesome aspects of grad school (besides the occasional “free” pizza as you listen to the latest in research) is the sharing of resources among colleagues who are undergoing the same experiences.  One grad school friend gave out copies of David Burns‘ seminal Feeling Good, an exercise book that explains how to practice cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Back in the fall, the Stanford alumni magazine had an article about how Burns became convinced of CBT’s efficacy over prescription drugs as a tool for treating depression, anxiety, perfectionism, and other paralyzing feelings:

What Burns did in Feeling Good, the first mass-market, evidence-based, self-help book for the relief of depression, was explain the tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for the lay person: that depression is caused by self-defeating beliefs and negative thoughts—thoughts like “I’m not good enough,” “I’ll never amount to anything,” or “I have no friends.” Feeling Good included exercises readers could use to change how they reacted to such thoughts and to stop depression before it spiraled down into an endless abyss of despair and pain. Study after study has since demonstrated CBT’s effectiveness.

Burns did not invent CBT; its philosophical underpinnings can be traced back to the Buddha or to Epictetus, the Stoic. Credit for laying the foundation of modern CBT generally goes to Philadelphia psychiatrist T. Aaron Beck and the late New York psychologist Albert Ellis. Burns remembers when he, like most psychiatrists, didn’t believe that something as simple as how we think could cause depression.

Working at the University of Pennsylvania’s Depression Research Unit in the 1970s, Burns researched the theory that low serotonin levels cause depression, an idea widely accepted as the “chemical imbalance theory” and conventional wisdom among popular media, many physicians and much of the public. Although Burns won the A. E. Bennett award from the Society of Biological Psychiatry in 1975 for his research on brain serotonin metabolism, he was not convinced that the chemical imbalance theory was valid. In one study, he and his colleagues gave massive daily doses of the amino acid l-Trytophan to depressed veterans in a double-blind study. L-Trytophan goes directly from the stomach to the blood to the brain, where it is transformed into serotonin. If depression results from a deficiency of brain serotonin, the massive increase should have triggered clinical improvement, but it didn’t.

The study was published in a top research journal but did little to dim the growing excitement about the chemical imbalance theory. In 1988, Lilly launched the world’s first blockbuster SSRI antidepressant, a drug with powerful effects on brain serotonin receptors. During its first 13 years, Prozac generated $21 billion in sales, or 30 percent of Lilly’s revenues. Burns still wasn’t convinced.

“I always wanted to see people’s lives transformed from depression and anxiety to joy and peace,” he says. In his clinical work, he didn’t see that happening very often, no matter how many pills he prescribed. His department chair suggested that he sit in on one of Dr. Aaron Beck’s weekly cognitive therapy seminars.

At first, Burns thought Beck’s presentation sounded like “pure hucksterism”; still, he began using CBT methods if only to prove to himself that they didn’t work. Soon, many patients he’d been treating with drugs and “you talk, I’ll listen” therapy started to get better. A lot better.

Burns felt torn. He had just won a five-year grant to develop a brain serotonin lab at Penn. Yet he wasn’t convinced serotonin played a role in depression or any other psychiatric disorder. After three agonizing months, Burns decided he’d “rather spend my life doing something that works.” He left Penn and opened a private practice “in a storeroom with a window,” two stories below Beck’s Center for Cognitive Therapy.

Burns’s doubts were vindicated by a landmark 2002 metastudy conducted by psychologist Irving Kirsch, now at Harvard, of all trials submitted to the FDA by the manufacturers of the six most widely prescribed antidepressants approved between 1987 and 1999. Not widely publicized until a 60 Minutes report in February 2012, it showed only a slight difference in patient response between the drugs and placebos.

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Written by katherinechen

June 3, 2014 at 7:50 pm

the psychology of ivy league grads on wall street

Ezra Klein interviews Kevin Roose, who has a new book about young Ivy League graduates who work on Wall Street. The take home point is simple: people who graduate from competitive schools graduate toward these jobs not because they love business, but because they want security. Wall Street jobs are high paid, require little experience, and have a bit of prestige. On the origins of the short term Wall Street job:

Wall Street invented this new way of recruiting in the early 80s. Before that they hired like any other industry. If you wanted to be a banker you applied for a job at a bank and they hired you or they didn’t. But in the early 80s Goldman Sachs and others figured out they could broaden their net and get lots of really smart people if they made it a temporary position rather than a permanent one.

So they created the two-and-out program. The idea is you’re there for two years and then you move onto something else. That let them attract not just hardcore econ majors but people majoring in other subjects who had a passing interest in finance and didn’t know what else to do. People now think going to a bank for two years will help prepare them for the next thing and keep them from having to make these hard decisions about the rest of their life. It made it like an extension of college. And it was genius. It led to this huge explosion in recruitment and something like a third of Ivy League graduates going to Wall Street.

Of course, it’s a mixed bag for the grads:

EK: So after writing this book, what would you say to a college senior thinking of going to Wall Street?

KR: First I would ask them why they wanted to work in an investment bank. If the answer is “because I’m tremendously in debt and need to pay it out” or “I’ve been reading Barron’s since I was 12 years old and I desperately want to be an investment banker” then those are legitimate reasons. Go ahead. But if it’s just about taking risk off the table and doing the safe prestigious thing, I’d tell them first that it will make them truly miserable, the kind of miserable it could take years to recover from, and that it also no longer has that imprimatur. It can actually hinder you. I’ve spoken to tech recruiters who say they only hire bankers in their first year or two because after that banking ruins them.

EK: How does it ruin them?

KR: It makes them too risk conscious. It gets them used to a standard of lifestyle they may not be able to replicate in any other industry. And it has a deleterious effect on creativity. Of the eight people I followed, a few came out very damaged by the experience. And not in a way a vacation can cure. It’s not about having bags under your eyes. It destroys your ability to think in creative ways about what it means to build something of value. The people I followed would admit they got a lot out of being a banker but I don’t think they’re all that tuned into the ways the experience changed them.

Check it out.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 22, 2014 at 12:01 am

centrism and sociology – guest post by chris martin

This guest post on the politics of sociology is written by Chris Martin, a doctoral student in sociology at Emory University.

Conservativism doesn’t seem to be a unipolar thing, according to much of the social psychological research on political attitudes. Rather, you can be conservative by being high in either social dominance orientation (SD) or right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). Of course, the two dimensions are moderately correlated but they’re not the same thing: high-SDO people dislike socially subordinate groups, and high RWO dislike socially deviant (or unconventional) groups. As a centrist, however, I’ve found that there’s a lack of research on the opposite poles of these scales even though there clearly seem to be a subset of liberals who like socially subordinate groups and a subset who like socially deviant groups.  Again, there’s considerable overlap between these two subsets. And there’s a small subset of libertarian liberals who don’t lean toward either pole.

This comes across in social psychological work on religious freedom. Early research showed that high-RWA people are more supportive of Christian than Muslim mandatory prayer, while low-RWA people oppose both types of prayer equally. However, if you change “mandatory” to “voluntary,” you find that low-RWA people no longer disfavor both types. Rather, they more strongly favor Muslim than Christian school prayer space.

To some degree, I’ve found that sociology has become so ideologically homogenous that it’s now the disciplinary norm to avoid using “inequality” to describe preferential treatment of subordinate or deviant groups. In the race domain, in fact, centrists can get accused of supporting colorblind ideology or denying White privilege, even if they have a well-reasoned critique of preferential treatment. And in the gender/sexuality domain, the norm is for 50% of the research to focus on people who are deviant by conventional standards. But this skewness of focus isn’t termed inequality. My point isn’t about race or gender, though, but the large issue of whether there’s place for centrists in sociology—people who neither valorize nor condemn subordinate and deviant groups. Psychological social scientists have begun to address this issue—see Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim in particular—focusing on how this political homogeneity harms science. Where does sociology stand?

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Written by fabiorojas

April 26, 2014 at 12:18 am

confidence, gender, and the social psychology of inequality

The Atlantic has a new article called “The Confidence Gap.” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman review the academic literature to discuss one source of gender inequality – the systematic differences in confidence. Roughly speaking, Kay and Shipman suggest that one reason that men are more likely to rise faster through careers is that men are simply overconfident. The fortune cookie version of the argument is that women will apply for a job only if they are sure that they 100%  qualified, while men will take a shot if they are half qualified.

A few comments: While I believe that sexism exists, the article is consistent with a “sexism without sexists” style argument as well. In other words, if A and B compose half the population but A applies for raises 66% of the time and B applies 33% of the time, you will very quickly get inequality even when bosses do not consider gender.

A policy observation from some of the experimental work. Kay and Shipman describe an experiment where men and women subjects try to solve a puzzle and initially men do better because they answer almost all questions. Women will try only when they are sure of the answer. When women are required to do the puzzles, the scores equalize. The policy implication is that raises and promotions should be routine. People are automatically considered for raises and promotions, or everyone will be considered if the situation arises.

The article has a lot to think about for folks interested in gender and inequality.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 16, 2014 at 12:01 am

the limits of human sociability

Are humans by nature social animals? My colleague, Adam Waytz, argues in a provocative essay for Edge.org that the idea that humans are naturally social may be more myth than reality. That is, if we define human sociability as the tendency to be cooperative with others, compassionate, and empathetic, it’s hardly the case that humans will always act or think in a social way. Adam’s essay is geared towards psychologists, where the trend has been to describe humans’ brains, hormones, and cognition as innately social.

He points out various ways in which psychological research points out that this is just not true. Humans are as competitive as they are cooperative, and in certain situations competition overrides cooperation. Empathy isn’t an automatic response. Humans may have a strong in-group bias and a tendency to treat people outside of our group with suspicion and lack of trust. Social behaviors seem to be triggered by certain situational characteristics rather than being the default. Moreover, our capacity to be social may be much more limited than we have previously recognized.

Because motivation and cognition are finite, so too is our capacity to be social. Thus, any intervention that intends to increase consideration of others in  terms of empathy, benevolence, and compassion is limited in its ability to do so. At some point, the well of working memory on which our most valuable social abilities rely will run dry.

Rather than sociability being the natural response to human interaction, it may actually be an achievement of society that we have created the right institutions that enable sociability. Sociologists, of course, have a lot to say about the latter.

Written by brayden king

January 22, 2014 at 5:43 pm

Posted in brayden, culture, psychology

stop interviewing people

A recent Washington Post op-ed describes recent research showing that interviews are poor predictors of future job performance. The idea is old, but the results elaborate in new ways. From Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia:

You do end feeling as though you have a richer impression of the person than that gleaned from the stark facts on a resume. But there’s no evidence that interviews prompt better decisions (e.g., Huffcutt & Arthur, 1994).

A new study (Dana, Dawes, & Peterson, 2013) gives us some understanding of why.

The information on a resume is limited but mostly valuable: it reliably predicts future job performance. The information in an interview is abundant–too abundant actually. Some of it will have to be ignored. So the question is whether people ignore irrelevant information and pick out the useful. The hypothesis that they don’t is called dilution. The useful information is diluted by noise.

Dana and colleagues also examined a second possible mechanism. Given people’s general propensity for sense-making, they thought that interviewers might have a tendency to try to weave all information into a coherent story, rather than to discard what was quirky or incoherent.

Three experiments supported both hypothesized mechanisms.

In other words, interviews encourage people to see patterns in the data where none exist. They also distract us with irrelevant information. Toss this in the file of “we have evidence it don’t work, but people will do it anyway.”

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Written by fabiorojas

October 30, 2013 at 12:01 am

how to live a happy life

For seventy five years, Harvard University has conducted a longitudinal study of 269 men who graduated in 1938. It’s an attempt to learn, in detail, about the factors that might contribute to a good life. Business Insider has a nice summary of a new book, Triumphs of Experience, that presents the results of the study. A few take home points:

  • Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power.” Alcoholism was the main cause of divorce between the Grant Study men and their wives; it was strongly correlated with neurosis and depression (which tended to follow alcohol abuse, rather than precede it); and—together with associated cigarette smoking—it was the single greatest contributor to their early morbidity and death.
  • Above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t matter. I assume that it doesn’t matter for the types of life course outcomes social scientists measure (employment, health, happiness, marriage).
  • Relationships matter, a lot: “Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned an average of $87,000 more a year than men whose mothers were uncaring.” and “Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers—but not with their fathers—were associated with effectiveness at work.”
  • Dad matters as well: “warm childhood relations with fathers correlated with lower rates of adult anxiety, greater enjoyment of vacations, and increased “life satisfaction” at age 75—whereas the warmth of childhood relationships with mothers had no significant bearing on life satisfaction at 75.”

The formula for a good life: no alcohol or smoking; be nice too people, especially your kids; and you’re probably good enough to get what you want out of life.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 20, 2013 at 12:01 am

valdedictorians and class background

The Chronicle of Higher Education features a study of valedictorians and finds that class background affects where they apply to college:

Poorer students remain underrepresented at America’s top colleges, research has shown. And their academic preparation isn’t the only reason, according to Radford’s study of valedictorians, who should be considered well-prepared.

“Less-affluent valedictorians were less likely to know someone who had enrolled in a most selective institution and thus had a harder time envisioning their own attendance,” Radford wrote in a summary of her research.

The theme of the research association’s meeting this year was “Education and Poverty.” And Radford was among many who presented research on class inequity in higher education, which academics say remains deeply problematic at most colleges. Her study comes at a time of increased focus on how, despite plenty of outreach efforts, much of the talent at low-income high schools isn’t getting recruited to top colleges.

Radford worked with data from the High School Valedictorian Project, a survey of 900 class valedictorians who graduated from public high schools between 2003 and 2006. She also drew from 55 in-depth interviews with the students. The University of Chicago Press soon will publish a book by Radford on her findings.

This is probably one of the key findings of recent stratificiation research. Class doesn’t affect life course only through material resources, but by changing the habitus.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 5, 2013 at 2:18 am

measuring the post-racist society: the eclipse of racist words

Slurs_af_am_latino As_am_slur_clean

The original post-racist society discussion, Eric Grollman responds,Tressie McMillan responds, my response to Eric, McMillan part deux, Eric responds again

A few weeks ago, I argued that the era of overt racism is over. One commenter felt that I needed to operationalize the idea. There is no simple way to measure such a complex idea, but we can offer measurements of very specific processes. For example, I could hypothesize that it is no longer to legitimate to use in public words that have a clearly derogatory meaning, such as n—— or sp–.*

We can test that idea with word frequency data. Google has scanned over 4 million books from 1500 to the present and you can search that database. Above, I plotted the appearance of n—– and sp—, two words which are unambiguously slurs for two large American ethnic groups. I did not plot slurs like “bean,” which are homophones for other neutral non-racial words. Then, I plotted the appearance of the more neutral or positive words for those groups. The first graph shows the relative frequencies for African American and Latino slurs vs. other ethnic terms. Since the frequency for Asian American slurs and other words is much lower, they get a separate graph. Thus, we can now test hypotheses about printed text  in the post-racial society:

  1. The elimination thesis: Slurs drop drastically in use.
  2. The eclipse thesis: Non-slur words now overwhelm racist slurs, but racist slurs remain.
  3. Co-evolution: The frequency of neutral and slur words move together. People talk about group X and the haters just use the slur.
  4. Escalation: Slurs are increasing.

This rough data indicates that #2 is correct. The dominant racial terms are neutral or positive. Most slurs that I looked up seem to maintain some base level of usage, even in the post-civil rights era. The slur use level is non-zero, but it is small in comparison to other words so it looks as if it is zero. Some slure use may be derogatory, while some of it may be artistic or “reclaiming the term.” I can’t prove it, but I think Quentin Tarantino accounts for for 50% or more of post-civil rights use of the n-word.

Bottom line: Society has changed and we can measure the change. This doesn’t mean that racial status is no longer important, but it does mean that one very important aspect of pre-Civil Rights racist culture has receded in relative importance. Some people just love racial slurs, but that its likely not the modal way of talking about people. Is that progress? I think so.

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* Geez, Fabio, must you censor? Well, it isn’t censoring if it’s voluntary. I just don’t want this blog to be picked up for slurs. Even my book on 1970s Black Power, when people used the n-word a bit, only uses it once, in a footnote when referring to the title of H. Rap Brown’s first book.

Written by fabiorojas

February 21, 2013 at 12:01 am

J. Richard Hackman and his legacy

Over a week ago, a colleague called to let me know that our advisor, Harvard Prof. J. Richard Hackman, had passed. For months, I knew that this news would eventually come, but it’s still painful to accept. I will miss hearing Richard’s booming voice, having my eyeglasses crushed to my face from a bear hug (Richard was well over 6 feet tall), or being gleefully gifted with a funny hand-written note imparting his sage advice on a matter.

Here is Richard preparing his introductory remarks for HackFest 2011 at HBS:
RichardHackman2011

Richard was a greatly respected work redesign and teams researcher. At Harvard, his classes included a highly regular and popular (despite its “early” morning time slot) course on teamwork. For those undergraduate and graduate students who have been lucky enough to take Richard’s course on teams, the course interweaves concept and practice as students must work in teams, something that most of us get very little practice with outside of organized sports or music.

In July 2012, Richard emailed several of his former teaching fellows asking us to join him in Cambridge and help him rework this course. On short notice, we assembled at the top floor of William James Hall and went over the materials, with Richard expertly leading us as a team, with clearly designated boundaries (those of us assembled for the task), a compelling direction (revising the material to attract students across disciplines), enabling structure (norms that valued contributions of team members, no matter their place in the academic hierarchy), and a supportive context (reward = tasty food, an incentive that always works on former graduate students, and good fellowship).

During this last meeting, Richard asked us about how we thought his course on teamwork could most impact individuals. I opined that his biggest impact wouldn’t be through just the students who took his course, but via those of us who would continue to teach teamwork and conduct research in other settings. This question may have been Richard’s gentle way of telling us that he was passing on the baton.

Here are several ways that I think Richard’s legacy lives on.
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Written by katherinechen

January 19, 2013 at 4:30 am

deep culture and organization theory

This weekend, Omar wrote a detail post about the “depth” of culture, the degree to which some idea is internalized and serves as a motivation or guide for action. I strongly recommend that you read it. What I’d like to do in this post is use Omar’s comments as a springboard for thinking about organizational behavior.

The reigning theory in sociology of organization is neo-institutionalism. The details vary, but the gist is that the model posits a Parsonsian theory of action. There is an “environment” that “imprints” itself in organizations. Myth and Ceremony institutionalism posits a “shallow imprinting” – people don’t really believe myth and ceremony. Iron cage institutionalism takes a very “deep” view of culture. Actors internalize culture and then do it.

Omar posits, I think, is a view of culture that is constitutive (you are the ideas you internalize) and interactive (your use of the idea modifies the cultural landscape). Omar wants to get away from the metaphor of “deep” vs. “shallow” culture. He also discusses dual process theory, which merits its own post.

What is important for organization theorists is that you get away from Parsons’ model:

Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).

The implication for orgtheory? Previously, the locus of orgtheory has been the “environment” – all the stuff outside the organization that people care about. That’s highly analogous to “culture” getting internalized deep within the individual. Thus, different institutional theories reflect a deep/shallow dichotomy. If you buy Omar’s post-Swidler/post-Giddens view of things, then what is really interesting is the interaction creating at the point of contact between environment and organization. Orgs don’t passively await imprinting. Rather, there is variance in how they respond to the environment and there is interesting variation in the adoption/importation of stuff from the environment.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 9, 2013 at 12:01 am

Rethinking Cultural Depth

The issue of whether some culture is “deep” versus “shallow” has been a thorny one in social theory. The basic argument is that for some piece of culture to have the requisite effects (e.g. direct action) then it must be incorporated at some requisite level of depth. “Shallow culture” can’t produce deep effects. Thus, for Parsons values had to be deeply internalized to serve as guiding principles for action. Postulating cultural objects that are found at a “deep” level requires we develop a theory that tells us how this happens in the first place (e.g. Parsons and Shils 1951). That is: we need a theory about how the same culture “object” can go from (1) being outside the person, to (2) being inside the person, and (3) once inside, from being shallowly internalized to being deeply internalized. For instance, a value commitment may begin at a very shallow level (a person can report being familiar with that value) but by some (mysterious) “internalization” process it can become “deep culture” (when the value is now held unconditionally and motivates action via affective and other unconscious mechanisms; the value is now “part” of the actor).

One thing that has not been noted very often is that the “cultural depth” discussion in the post-Parsonian period (especially post-Giddens) is not the same sort of discussion that Parsons was having. This is one of those instances in cultural theory where we keep the same set of terms—e.g. “deep” versus “shallow” culture–but change the parameters of the argument, creating more confusion than enlightenment. In contrast to Parsonian theorists, for post-Giddensian theorists, the main issue is not whether the same cultural element can be found at different levels of “depth” (or travel across levels via a socialization process). The key point is that different cultural elements (because of some inherent quality) exist necessarily at a requisite level of “depth.”

These are not the same sort of statement.  Only the first way of looking at things is technically “Parsonian”; that is Parsons really thought that

…culture patterns are [for an actor] frequently objects of orientation in the same sense as other [run of the mill physical] objects…Under certain circumstances, however, the manner of his [sic] involvement with a cultural pattern as an object is altered, and what was once an object becomes a constitutive part of the actor” (Parsons and Shils 1951: 8).

So here we have the same object starting at a shallow level and then “sinking” (to stretch the depth metaphor to death) into the actor, so that ultimately it becomes part of their “personality.”

Contrast this formulation to the (post-Giddensian) cultural depth story proposed by Sewell (1992). According to Sewell,

…structures consist of intersubjectively available procedures or schemas capable of being actualized or put into practice in a range of different  circumstances. Such schemas should be thought of as operating at widely varying levels of depth, from Levi-Straussian deep structures to relatively superficial rules of etiquette (1992: 8-9).

Sewell (e.g. 1992: 22-26), in contrast to Parsons, decouples the depth from the causal power dimension of culture. Thus, we can find cultural schemas that are “deep but not powerful” (rules of grammar) and schemas that are powerful but not deep (political institutions). Sewell’s proposal is clearly not Parsonian; it is instead (post)structuralist:  there are certain things (like a grammar) that have to be necessarily deep, while other things (like the the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate) are naturally found in the surface, and need not sink to the level of deep culture to produce huge effects.  Accordingly, Sewell’s cultural depth discussion should not be confused with that of the early Swidler. Swidler (circa 1986) inherited the Parsonian  not the post-structuralist problematic (because at that stage in American sociology that would have been an anachronism). Her point was that for the thing that mattered to Parsons the most (valuation standards) there weren’t different levels of depth, or more accurately that they didn’t need to have that property to do the things that they were supposed to do.

The primary aim of recent work on dual process models of moral judgment and motivation seems to be to revive a modified version of the Parsonian argument.  That is, in order to direct behavior the point is that some culture needs to be “deeply internalized” (as moral intuitions/dispositions).  However, as I will argue below the very logic of the dual process argument makes it incompatible with the strict Parsonian interpretation. To make matters even more complicated we have to deal with the fact that by the time we get to Swidler (2001) the conversation has changed (i.e. Bourdieu and practice theory happened), and she’s modified the argument accordingly.  She ingeniously proposes that what Parsons (following the Weberian/Germanic tradition) called “ideas” can now be split into “practices + discourses.”   Practices are “embodied” (and thus “deep” in the post-structuralist sense) and discourses are “external” (and thus shallow).

This leads to the issue of how Bourdieu fits into the post-Parsonian/post-structuralist conversation on cultural depth. We can at least be sure of one thing: the Parsonian “deep internalization” story is not Bourdieu’s version (even though Bourdieu used the term “internalization” in Logic of Practice). The reason for this is that habitus is not the sort of thing that was designed to give an explanation for why people “learn” to have “attitudes” (orientations) towards “cultural objects” much less to internalize these “objects” so that they become part of the “personality” (which is, by the way, possibly the silliest thing ever said).  There is a way to tell the cultural depth story in a Bourdieusian way without falling into the trap of having to make a cultural object a “constituent” part of the actor but this would require de-Parsonizing the “cultural depth” discussion (which is something that Bourdieu is really good for). There is one problem: the more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that, insofar as the cultural depth discussion is a pseudo-Parsonian rehash, there might not much left after it is properly Bourdieusianized.

More specifically, the cultural depth discussion might be a red herring because it still retains an implicit allegiance to the (Parsonian) “internalization” story, and internalization makes it seem as if something that was initially subsisting outside of the person now comes to reside inside the person (as if for instance, “I disagree with women going to work and leaving their children in daycare” was a sentence stored in long-term memory to which a “value” is attached.

This is a nice Parsonian folk model (shared by most public opinion researchers). But it is clear that if, we follow the substantive implications of dual process models, what resides in the person is not a bunch of sentences to which they are oriented; instead the sentence lives in the outside world (of the GSS questionnaire) and what resides “inside” (what has been internalized) is a disposition to react (negatively, positively) to that sentence when I read it, understand it and (technically if we follow Barsalou 1999) perceptually simulate its meaning, which actually involves running through modal scenarios of women going to work and leaving miserable children behind).  This disposition is also presumably the same one that may govern my intuitive reaction to other sorts of items designed to measure my”attitude” towards other related things.  I can even forget the particular sentence (but keep the disposition) so that when somebody or some event (I drive past the local daycare center) reminds me of it I still reproduce the same morally tinged reaction (Bargh and Chartrand 1999; Bargh and Williams 2006).

Note that the depth imagery disappears under this formulation, and this is for good reason. If we call “dispositions to produce moral-affective judgments when exposed to certain scenarios or statements in a consistent way through time” deep, so be it.  But that is not because there exist some other set of things that are the same as dispositions except that they lack “depth.” Dispositions either exist in this “deep” form or they don’t exist at all (dispositions, are the sorts of things that in the post-Giddensian sense are inherently deep). No journey has been undertaken by some sort of ontologically mysterious cultural entity to an equally ontologically spurious realm called “the personality.”  A “shallow” disposition is a contradiction in terms, which then makes any recommendation to “make cultural depth a variable” somewhat misleading, as long as that recommendation is made within the old Parsonian framework. The reason why this is misleading is because this piece of advice relies on the imagery of sentences with contents located at “different levels” of the mind travelling from the shallow realm to the deep realm and transforming their causal powers in the process.

If we follow the practice-theoretical formulation more faithfully, the discussion moves from “making cultural depth a variable” to “reconfiguring the theoretical language so that what was previously conceptualized in these terms is now understood in somewhat better terms.” This implies giving up on the misleading metaphor of depth and the misleading model of a journey from shallow-land to depth-land via some sort of internalization mechanism. Thus, there are things to which I have dispositions to react (endowed with all of the qualities that “depth” is supposed to provide such as consistency and stability) in a certain (e.g. morally and emotionally tinged) distinct way towards. We can call this “deep culture” but note that the depth thing does not add anything substantive to this characterization.  In addition, there are things towards which I (literally) have no disposition whatever, so I form online (shallow?) judgments about these things because this dorky, suit-wearing in July interviewer with NORC credentials over here apparently wants me to do so.  But this (literally confabulated) “attitude” is like a leaf in the wind and it goes this or that way depending on what’s in my head that day (or more likely as shown by Zaller 1992, depending on what was on the news last night).  Is this the difference between “shallow” and “deep” culture?  Maybe, but that’s where the (Parsonian version of the) internalization language reaches its conceptual limits.

Thus, we come to a place where a dual process argument becomes tightly linked to what was previously being thought of under the misleading “shallow culture/deep culture” metaphor in a substantive way. I think this will “save” anybody who wants to talk about cultural depth from the Parsonian trap, because that person can then say that “deep= things that trigger moral intuitions” and “shallow=attitudes formed by conscious, on-the-fly confabulation.”  Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).

prodigy bias

A few days ago, a colleague asked about the name of my baby, whom I named after jazz musician John Coltrane. He responded, “Ah, he’ll be a saxophone prodigy!” Later, I realized my colleague didn’t have his jazz history right. Though Coltrane is regarded as one of the seminal saxophone players, he wasn’t a prodigy. Definitely a good musician as a kid, but he wasn’t remarkable. And by all accounts, he only become a leading player later in his life – in his thirties – after dedicating himself completely to the mastery of his instrument.

This leads me to the concept of “prodigy bias.” It’s the belief that someone who has achieved great skill was a young prodigy, one who succeeded on raw talent and ability, rather than practice.  In academia, we see this all the time. Often, we say that an academic is successful because of talent rather than work. Academia has a cult of genius. The arts also have a cult of genius. Other fields have the same bias. In sports, we focus, we focus on “athletic talent” instead of the long hours of work.

While there are definitely some people who have abundant raw talent early in life, many – possibly most – high achievers reached their level of mastery through tireless practice and honing of the gifts they had. Though I do wish for my baby to have “talent,” I wish more that he’ll have the wisdom to realize that achieving one’s goals is more a matter of practice than effortless mastery.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 28, 2012 at 4:00 am

Posted in fabio, psychology

glaeser book forum 2: understanding the sociology of understanding

This Fall’s book forum is about Andreas Glaeser’s Political Epistemics, a historical ethnography of East German socialism. This week’s installment will focus on the theoretical purpose of the book, which is to articulate and defend “the sociology of understanding.”

What is this “sociology of understanding?” Well, it draws on a number of ideas that should be familiar to cultural sociologists. First, it’s fairly Schutz/Berger and Luckmann in nature. There is a “lifeworld” built upon a common stock of knowledge. “We all know that this is true.” Second, it’s also interactional. In Glaeser’s model, people develop their understanding of the world through affirmation/negation from other people or institutions.

So far, I think the picture is well rooted in cultural sociology. What Glaeser adds is an argument about the institutionalization of the self. Rather than assume that people have fairly independent interests and beliefs about the world, he argues that selves are built from of affirmation and negation from the social environment. Now, Glaeser isn’t making a Foucault style argument about how we lose ourselves in a network of signifiers. Quite the contrary, he’s arguing about the rootedness of one’s understanding of the world. Historical events affirm one’s understanding of the world, while others disrupt that notion of self.

How does this sociology of understanding (SoU) help us to do political sociology, such as analyzing the dissolution of communism? Well, if you believe SoU, the locus of attention should be on understanding how people construct their world in both abstract terms and in daily life. Abstract theories, like Marxism-Leninism, provide a basic vocabulary for people to assess their world and produce collective action. At the same time SoU theory suggests that these understandings can only sustain a type of self when reinforced by exogenous events and institutional life. A lot of daily political life is a response to the juxtaposition of these worldviews and observation, with actors often scrambling to make sense of events that would be unsurprising to others.

The SoU theory has interesting implications. For example, SoU theory implies that Western arguments about freedom would me moot points. The ideals of individual liberty only resonates in nations with specific institutional arrangements. Instead, people in socialist nations would criticize the system from within. And there is much truth to this observation. Dissidents and reforms rarely waved their copy of Road to Serfdom in the air. Rather, they often relied on arguments articulated by dissident socialist intellectuals. Thus, the collapse of communism, in this view, is less about external pressures and more about the management or mismanagement of contradictions.

The result of SoU theory is that one should understand how historical events, ideologies, organizational behavior, and personal biography intertwine to create the political system. Social changes happens when these factors shift, not so much when outsiders, like Reagan or Kennedy, stand by a wall and proclaim freedom. Next week, we’ll see the sociology of understanding in action, when I discuss the world of the Stasi and Berlin peace activists.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 17, 2012 at 12:01 am

forget the environment, everything is endogenous

Teppo is too humble to let us know that he’s the guest editor of a new special issue of Managerial and Decision Economics.  The issue’s theme is the “emergent nature of organization, market, and wisdom of crowds.” The special issue has an impressive lineup of authors, including Nicolai Foss, Robb Willer, Bruno Frey, Peter Leeson, and Scott Page.  Teppo’s introduction, as you might expect, is provocative, challenging learning theory and behavioral theories of the firm. Here’s a little teaser:

My basic thesis is that capabilities develop from within—they are endogenous and internal. In order to develop a capability, it must  logically be there in latent or dormant form. Capabilities grow endogenously from latent possibility. In some respects, capabilities should be thought about as organs rather than as behavioral and environmental inputs. Experience, external inputs and environments are, in important respects, internal to organisms, individuals and organizations. Although environmental inputs play a triggering and enabling role in the development of capability, the environment is not the cause of capability. Furthermore, the latency of capabilities places a constraint on the set of possible capabilities that are realizable. But these constraintsare scarcely deterministic; rather, they also provide the means and foundation for generating noveltyand heterogeneity (285).

Teppo offers a real challenge to the typical “blank slate” approaches that dominate organizational theory and sociology. Social construction has  limits if you assume that some capabilities are simply latent and waiting to be triggered into action. This reminds me of what my graduate school contemporary theory instructor, Al Bergesen, used to say about the deficiency of  most sociological theory. (In fact, he repeated the whole bit to me again when I ran into him in Denver’s airport Monday evening.) Sociology, he’d say, has never fully come to grips with the cognitive revolution of psychology or linguistics. We still assume that individuals are completely shaped by their social world and ignore cognitive structure  and the limits this imposes on how we communicate and who we can become.  Teppo and Al would have a lot to talk about.

Written by brayden king

August 23, 2012 at 1:46 am

why behaviorism isn’t satanism

Here’s a recent book chapter worth reading: “Why Behaviorism Isn’t Satanism.”

Abstract

The history of comparative evolutionary psychology can be characterized, broadly speaking, as a series of reactions to Cartesian versus pragmatist views of the mind and behavior. Here, a brief history of these theoretical shifts is presented to illuminate how and why contemporary comparative evolutionary psychology takes the form that it does. This brings to the fore the strongly cognitivist research emphasis of current evolutionary comparative research, and the manner in which alternative accounts based on learning theory and other behaviorist principles generally receive short shrift. I attempt to show why many of these criticisms of alternative accounts are unjustified, that cognitivism does not constitute the radical lurch away from behaviorism that many imagine, and that an alternative “embodied and embedded” view of cognition—itself developing in reaction to the extremes of cognitivism—reaches back to a number of behaviorist philosophical principles, including the rejection of a separation between brain and body, and between the organism and environment.

Key Words: animal, cognition, behavior, cognitivism, behaviorism, evolution, learning, psychology

Written by teppo

June 19, 2012 at 5:48 pm

recent orgtheory discussion on the sociology of gay politics and related topics

Written by fabiorojas

May 26, 2012 at 12:01 am

is gaydar, like, real?

Yeah, it’s real. I didn’t know this, but there’s a literature on gaydar and psychologists have shown that gaydar is real, at least among college students who take psychology experiments. The latest in the genre is a new PlosOne article by Joshua Tabak and Vivian Zayas called The Roles of Featural and Configural Face Processing in Snap Judgments of Sexual Orientation.

The new study tries to figure out what facial figures trigger accurate attributions of sexual orientation. An experiment demonstrates that homosexuality in women is easier to guess because the facial features correlated with sexual orientation are more exaggerated in women. I’d be interested in what sociologists of gender and sexuality think of such experiments.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 23, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, psychology

kids, minimal group affiliations and intergroup bias

Here’s an interesting piece extending Tajfel et al by studying 5-year-olds and intergroup bias: “Consequences of ‘‘Minimal’’ Group Affiliations in ChildrenChild Development.  So, do 5-year-olds have a bias toward members of their in-group, even if they are arbitrarily assigned to these groups?  They do.

Interesting paper.  The paper also raises questions about whether in-group bias is learned (“enculturation,” Spielman, 2000), or whether it perhaps is an evolutionary-survival-type thing, or something driven by expectations of reciprocity or competition. Or something else.

Here’s the abstract:

Three experiments (total N = 140) tested the hypothesis that 5-year-old children’s membership in randomly assigned ‘‘minimal’’ groups would be sufficient to induce intergroup bias. Children were randomly assigned to groups and engaged in tasks involving judgments of unfamiliar in-group or out-group children. Despite an absence of information regarding the relative status of groups or any competitive context, in-group preferences were observed on explicit and implicit measures of attitude and resource allocation (Experiment 1), behavioral attribution, and expectations of reciprocity, with preferences persisting when groups were not described via a noun label (Experiment 2). In addition, children systematically distorted incoming information by preferentially encoding positive information about in-group members (Experiment 3). Implications for the developmental origins of intergroup bias are discussed.

Written by teppo

May 18, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Posted in psychology, research

enclothed cognition: clothes and perception

Adam Galinsky’s recent work and experiment on clothing and perceptions of cognition have been getting lots of attention. Here’s the New York Times piece – “Mind games: Sometimes a white coat isn’t just a white coat.”  And, the ABC News story – “Clothes make the man and career.”

Here’s the paper (with Hajo Adam) in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “Enclothed Cognition.

(Sorry, Fabio, I don’t think the untucked shirt + Fanny Pack look gets you any extra cognition points.  But I could be wrong.)

Written by teppo

April 8, 2012 at 5:16 am

republicans fail the ron paul test

Politics is a chorus of dog whistles. Can’t say segregation, say states rights. Can’t say you hate immigrants, you just want them to “self-deport” and obey laws designed to keep them out.

That’s why I find Ron Paul to be a very telling politician. His candidacy reveals the true intentions of many Republican voters. Many voters say they want smaller government and Paul has voted in this way. He’s anti-tax, votes for program cuts, and against war, which grows government by leaps and bounds. How does he do among Tea Party, who claim they want less government? A telling summary of recent primary polling data from the New Yorker:

Polls have shown that voters who support the Tea Party are actually less likely to support Paul—some have gone for Newt Gingrich, whose denunciations of Obama are pithier, or for Rick Santorum, who is more forthright in his defense of “traditional American values.” In South Carolina, where Paul received thirteen per cent of the vote, behind Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Santorum, he did his best among voters opposed to the Tea Party. [my italics]

When given the option between Paul, a social conservative, and a liberal Republican who actually doesn’t mind expanding social services, GOP primary voters rate Paul a distant third. Tells  you a lot about the rhetoric of limited government.
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Written by fabiorojas

February 28, 2012 at 12:02 am

question for economists/economic psychologists

Two related questions:

1. What is the standard citation that addresses the difficulty in identifying when business cycles begin or end?

2. Is there a literature that describes when people think there are in a recession/recovery? For example, does public opinion follow technical definitions of how economists measure the health of the economy?

Bonus: Before we had Federal statistics on employment, did average people sit around and say “we’re in a recession?”

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Written by fabiorojas

February 16, 2012 at 12:04 am

Posted in economics, fabio, psychology

social theory midterm results: a behavioral approach

Eighty percent of success is showing up. – Woody Allen

I have a hypothesis, shared by many social scientists, that life course outcomes are highly correlated with self-discipline. If you are the kind of person who can follow the rules, you’ll probably do well. This is an average statement, of course. In certain contexts, rule breaking is wonderful, but life usually requires rule following and a measure of self-discipline.

To test this hypothesis, I conducted a simple statistical test with data from my social theory class (N=73). I collected two behavioral/discipline variables: did the students show up to two randomly selected classes and did students use their “free pass,” which allows them to skip a daily writing assignment. I then merged attendance, assignment completion, and midterm performance data.

The results:

  • Skipping the daily writing assignment is *not* correlated with midterm performance, except for “extreme skipping.” A handful of students skipped four or more daily write ups, thus wildly exceeding the “free pass” rule. They score 19% less than the rest of the class.
  • Attendance is correlated with midterm performance. Class skipping is associated with a 10.1% grade drop.
  • In the OLS model with dummies for attendance on either day and skipping 1, 2, 3 and 4 (or more), the results are the same.

The R-squared?  .27!!! Wow. Knowing nothing else about the students, like GPA, SAT, or SES, I can account for a lot of variance by just seeing if they show up and hand in assignments.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 17, 2011 at 2:04 pm