Month: March 2006

The best paragraph and a half I read yesterday

This is from William Saletan’s New York Times review of Judith Harris’s No Two Alike:

Ultimately, however, long-term behavior modification is at odds with
itself. As our minds become subtler and our occupations less stable,
short-term modifications suited to the situation at hand become more
advantageous than permanent modifications. This is already happening,
according to her theory. The reason parental influence doesn’t control
children’s behavior outside the home is that they adjust to context.
"Children are capable of generalizing – of learning something in one
context and applying it in another – but they do not do it blindly,"
Harris observes. At home, where you’re the younger sibling, you yield.
At school, where you’re one of the bigger kids, you don’t. And unlike
other animals, you can shuffle your self-classifications. In seconds,
you can go from acting like a girl to acting like a child to acting
like a New Yorker.

In short, the evolutionary logic that makes
us different from one another will gradually make us different from
ourselves, context by context. Personality – behavior that is
"consistent across time and place," as one textbook puts it – will
fade. We’ll miss characters like Harris, the little woman from New
Jersey who boasted of giving psychologists a "wedgie" and tried to
solve the puzzle of human nature.

But is it true?  Cannot evolutionary pressures favor extreme constancy, for purposes of precommitting to transparency and attracting a better mate?

By the way, I’ll give "best sentence of the day" honor to Daniel Akst: "Any benefit from shining the cleansing light of day on executive greed
will probably be outweighed by the inflationary effect of additional
disclosure, which will provide more ammunition for executives and
consultants seeking to justify additional increases."

Libertarian Economist

Jeff Miron has a new blog.  Miron is the author of Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition, a superb economic analysis of the war on drugs (I was the editor).  He is also known for his work on seasonal business cycles (see also here for Tyler’s take).  The new blog, based in part on a course Jeff is teaching at Harvard has three themes.

first is that consequential libertarianism is consistent in its
approach to the issues. Modern liberalism and conservatism are not.

second theme is that both liberals and conservatives advocate massive
amounts of government intervention. The two perspectives disagree about
precise policy choices, but overall they are far more similar than
different. The libertarian perspective, however, is truly distinct from
either mainstream view.

The third theme is that most economic
and social problems are best addressed by eliminating the government
interventions that caused or exacerbated the problem in the first
place. Creating even more government is never a sensible approach.

Welcome to the blogosphere Jeff!

Should you be a maximizer?

Five hundred and forty-eight graduating students from 11 universities were categorised as maximisers or satisficers based on their answers to questions like “When I am in the car listening to the radio, I often check other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I am relatively satisfied with what I’m listening to”.

When questioned again the following summer, the maximisers had found jobs that paid 20 per cent more on average than the satisficers’ jobs, but they were less satisfied with the outcome of their job search, and were more pessimistic, stressed, tired, anxious, worried, overwhelmed and depressed.

“We suggest that maximisers may be less satisfied than satisficers and experience greater negative affect with the jobs they obtain because their pursuit of the elusive ‘best’ induces them to consider a large number of possibilities, thereby increasing their potential for regret or anticipated regret, engendering unrealistically high expectations”, the researchers said. Indeed, the researchers found that maximisers were more likely to report fantasising about jobs they hadn’t applied for and wishing they had pursued even more jobs than they did.

Here is the link, and by now you know the usual caveats for such research.  Number one is whether the survey evidence measures true commitment to maximization, or whether it simply picks up grumps who are fussy and determined to portray a fussy image to the world.  Number two is whether they properly adjust for IQ, which may be causing both superior results and greater returns to search behavior.

Rwandan killers, again

There were two kinds of rapists.  Some took the girls and used them as wives until the end, even on the flight to Congo; they took advantage of the situation to sleep with prettified Tutsis and in exchange showed them a little bit of consideration.  Others caught them just to fool around with, for having sex and drinking; they raped for a little while and then handed them over to be killed right afterward.  There were no orders from the authorities.  The two kinds were free to do as they pleased.

Of course a great number didn’t do that, had no taste for it or respect for such misbehaving.  Most said it was not proper, to mix together fooling around and killing.

That is from Jean Hatzfeld’s Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak.  Here is my previous post about the book.

Big dog

Darpa_doggie_1My admittedly uninformed perspective is that after the robot arm, progress in the field of robotics slowed greatly.  Fixed location, repetitive movement robots for industrial production worked very well but the problems of autonomy turned out to be much more difficult than had been anticipated.  It appears to me, however, that many roadblocks have fallen in recent years.  The robots are on the move.

    Case in point?  Check out this movie of big dog.  Further info here.

Thanks to Robin Hanson for the pointer.

An epistolary romance

Dear Sir or Madam:
You may love to see me smile, but I, however, love to see me eat.
Please send me coupons for free McDonald’s product, so that I may
continue to eat (and smile).
Thank you well in advance,

Tom Locke, eating enthusiast

CVS got this:

Dear Sir or Madam:
I am a health and wellness addict. Please send me a random product
which you think I would enjoy. It doesn’t have to be something big,
just something nice! I like surprises.
Thank you in advance,

Tom Locke, health enthusiast

What would happen if you sent one hundred letters like that to the leading consumer product corporations in the United States?  Read here.  You also could call this post "How to spend $39," "How to measure industrial concentration," "How to find corporate addresses," "Experimental economics, for real," or (how many of you get this one?) "Hoping for a durable goods monopolist."

Here is part (but not all) of the upshot:

Wrigley’s (#6) basically told me to buy my own gum – as well as exactly where to buy it.
I guess they figured since they’re nice enough to keep making it, I should be nice enough to keep
buying it.  And I probably will.  It’s interesting to note that Wrigley’s letter starts out,
"Thank you for visiting".  I didn’t visit  I visited the post office.

(#40) basically just said no. Nothing fancy or elaborate. Just no. And
a cute little Smuckers logo on their letterhead to top it off. Well…
the joke’s on Smuckers. I plan to run that letter through my juicer
and make my own jellies and jams. Boom!

Thanks to Cynical-C blog for the pointer.

Cooperative game theory vs. sexual selection

Roughgarden said that pairings are often better explained by creating a viable team than by finding the highest quality genes. Couples are usually genetically similar, she said, and their differences are often complementary: Both members provide the team with the strengths the other lacks.

"To make an analogy with humans, the number of children a couple can raise to adulthood is more influenced by the income of the family rather than the genetic makeup," Akcay said. "We think that in most species, this is what is going on: Males and females choose each other for ecological benefits rather than superior genetic makeups."

Read more here, including criticisms, hat tip to for the pointer.

Do people like happy endings?

Forty-one per cent [of respondents] are overwhelmingly in favour of books with a happy ending, as against 2.2% who like it sad. Women were 13% more likely than men to say they want it all to end happily. Almost one fifth of men expressed a preference for books with ambiguous endings…

Young people were most likely to prefer books with a sad ending – 8.6% of under 16s. Those aged 41-65, however, a group with more personal experience of sadness, dislike sad endings, with only 1.1% preferring books that end this way.

Here is more information.  You must know by now, of course, that I prefer most of my endings tragic, or ambiguous, with a few happy tales thrown in to make the tragedies a surprise when they come.  (Is it the dirty little secret of elite culture that we would be bored if in fact we had everything our way?)  In fact all of you unwashed-masses-happy-endings-loving viewers subsidize me.  You support so much feel-good slop that when something meaty does come along, I am genuinely shocked and delighted.  If it is bad, I just put down the book or leave the theater.  Thank you all, once again.

Addendum: Right now Typepad is "holding" all your comments.  They should appear sooner or later, our apologies…Further update: The problem appears to be corrected.

Hot or Not in the AEA

Every year the AEA conducts elections to determine who will sit on the executive committee.  The AEA ballot includes a short biography of the candidate and a small picture.  Daniel Hamermesh looks at 312 elections between 1966 and 2004 and finds that better looking candidates are more likely to win.  Most interestingly, using candidates who compete in multiple elections, Hamermesh finds that the same candidate does better with a better picture.

I have yet to be nominated for the AEA executive committee but should that happen I think I will submit this picture