Showing you what you want to hear

The Washington Post (via Overcoming Bias) reports that

…when volunteers heard about the risks of nanotechnology from different experts, they gravitated toward the views of experts who seemed to share their personal values… When people clash on hot-button issues, their disagreements may have more to do with clashing values than facts.

The finding has strong implications for government awareness campaigns: it essentially says that, in order to persuade someone, you just need to present an expert they identify with. Campaigns aimed at Asians that feature Asian presenters aren’t just using someone that the audience feels a kinship with for warm fuzzies – they’re taking advantage of a bias in human decision-making to implement mind-control 😉 More seriously, they’re using the most effective techniques they can to ensure that people are fully informed when they make decisions; and we all know that full information is important if we want to achieve efficiency, social harmony and a better standard of living for everyone.

The truth about happiness

Vox report a recent study on adaptation to life-changing events. I don’t want to venture into a discussison of happiness research — a topic fraught with controversy — but the results are always fun to read!

Apparently marriage really isn’t all that exciting and most people get progressively less happy as it drags on. Unsurprisingly, ending an unhappy marriage by divorcing one’s partner is a fantastic thing for most people; however, I’m surprised to see a strong increase in happiness in the lead up to the divorce with no drop immediately around it. Providing more evidence that marriage is a happiness wrecker is the plot for widowhood: while the death of a spouse is devastating, people are happier 3-4 years later than they were during the marriage!

Protectionism: it’s instinct

Steven Landsburg has an opinion piece in the NY Times today in which he extols the benefits of free trade and rails against the protectionists:

Suppose, after years of buying shampoo at your local pharmacy, you discover you can order the same shampoo for less money on the Web. Do you have an obligation to compensate your pharmacist? If you move to a cheaper apartment, should you compensate your landlord? When you eat at McDonald’s, should you compensate the owners of the diner next door? Public policy should not be designed to advance moral instincts that we all reject every day of our lives.

This strikes me as a bizarre analogy: how often does a community rally in support of local businesses when Wal-Mart or Woolworths moves in and puts the local dairy out of business? We read about such stories all the time in the newspaper and unsurprisingly so. Read more

Rule following and bus drivers

Today on the bus the bus driver stopped to tell school kids to stand up. This happens on occasion, and generally the adults on the bus act like they think it is a complete joke. You can here comments like ‘this is ridiculous’ and ‘the bus driver just wants to feel important’ from adults/civil servants lounging around, but ultimately I think the bus drivers understand what is going on better than the group of civil servants on the bus.

Bus drivers are like the government, they are given a certain welfare policy that has to be followed on their bus. Although conditions such as standing up to let frail older people sit down are solved internally in the ‘marketplace’ of the bus, the condition of having all adults sitting while children stand is often violated. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the rule is right, ultimately in social welfare terms I think there is no difference between me standing or some 14 year old boy is standing, but this is the rule that the bus driver has to enforce.

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In the long-run is happiness constant?

I was just reading the dirty old (note dirty old is a complement from me) Dilbert blog, when I happened upon a post he called Happiness smoothing. Now in this blog post he discusses how individuals choose to interact with people in a way that is inversely related to the persons current success. So if you see a successful person you rip them down, if you see a downtrodden person you help them out (all other things equal). This is similar to tall poppy syndrome and empathy all rolled into one.

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Jocks don’t trust geeks?!

This is why I don’t believe people who claim that overcoming one’s biases isn’t important. David Romer gives a football coach solid evidence that he could win more games by running or passing on fourth down and what happens?

“It used to be that going for it on fourth down was the macho thing to do,” Romer said. But after his findings were widely publicized in sports circles, he said: “Now going for it on fourth down is the egghead thing to do. Would you rather be macho or an egghead?”

Yeah, they STOP running and passing because that would be the ‘geeky’ thing to do! Now that’s an example of a seriously costly bias if ever I heard one.

The article quotes Wayne Stewart, an associate professor of management at Clemson University, describing this as a principal-agent problem: the team owner wants to win games but the coach just wants to avoid risky plays that might make him look bad. Or geeky plays that might get him a ribbing at the bar after the game, apparently.