Category: Science

The Economics of Orgasm

I’ve been an economist for so long that I don’t flinch when the paper abstract starts as follows:

“This paper models love-making as a signaling game. In the act of love-making, man and woman send each other possibly deceptive signals about their true state of ecstasy. Each has a prior belief about the other’s state of ecstasy. These prior beliefs are associated with the other’s sexual response capacity…”

Or if that is not enough for you: “In this paper, love is formally defined as a mixture of altruism and possessiveness. Love is shown to alter the man and the woman’s payoff functions in a way that increases the equilibrium probability of faking, but more so for the woman than for the man.”

Here is the full paper. I could go on with quotations, but why don’t we look at the empirical results, drawn from an extensive data set and questionnaire:

1. 72 percent of women admit to having faked it in their current or most recent relationship, for men the number is 26 percent.

2. You are more likely to fake an orgasm if you are in love. “It was the men I deceived the most that I loved the most,” said Marguerite Duras.

3. Being in love and faking are less positively correlated for men than for women. Perhaps men want to look like studs, regardless of the seriousness of the relationship.

4. Women mind less if their partners fake orgasm. (Might some be positively relieved to have it over?)

5. Faking is correlated with age, but in complicated ways. It depends on whether you love your partner, whether you are a man or woman, and how old you are.

6. The more education you have, the more likely you are to fake orgasm. I found this to be the most interesting result.

The author, Hugo Mialon, is on the job market right now and he has a forthcoming co-authored AER piece, plus a revise-and-resubmit at the Rand Journal. His dissertation is “Five Essays on the Economics of Law and Language.”

OK, the orgasm stuff is not his most marketable side, but Hugo seems to be a guy with both ideas and good technical skills. Hire this man. If we had a slot at GMU I would be pushing for him, even though he probably fakes his orgasms.

Thanks to Newmark’s Door for the initial pointer to the paper.

How to improve meetings

I have heard of or experienced the following ideas for improving the running of meetings:

1. Make everyone stand up until the meeting is over.

2. Make everyone talk on the phone, even if you are in adjacent offices.

3. Give everyone a chess clock to limit the number of minutes they are allowed to speak for (this is a variant of an idea from Robin Hanson. Read here for some commentary.

4. Lock the door when the meeting starts on time and do not allow latecomers to enter.

Or how about this idea, channeled through Randall Parker:

Aided by tiny sensors and transmitters called a PAL (Personal Assistance Link) your machine (with your permission) will become an anthroscope – an investigator of your up-to-the-moment vital signs, says Sandia project manager Peter Merkle. It will monitor your perspiration and heartbeat, read your facial expressions and head motions, analyze your voice tones, and correlate these to keep you informed with a running account of how you are feeling – something you may be ignoring – instead of waiting passively for your factual questions. It also will transmit this information to others in your group so that everyone can work together more effectively.

So perhaps a bunch of buzzers go off when somebody says something confusing. Or the boss knows when no one is paying attention.

I’m all for voluntary experimentation, but let’s not forget what many meetings are about. Meetings are not always about the efficient exchange of information, or discovering a new idea. Meetings can be about displays of power, signaling that a coalition is in place, wearing down an opponent, staging “theater” to make someone feel better, giving key players the feeling of being insiders, transmitting information about status, or simply marking time until something better happens. It’s one thing to hate meetings. But before you can improve them, make sure you know what meetings are all about.

The answer to bad technology is often good technology

A genetically engineered plant that detects landmines in soil by changing colour could prevent thousands of deaths and injuries by signalling where explosives are concealed.

The plant, a modified version of thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), is sensitive to nitrogen dioxide gas, which is released by underground landmines. The leaves of the plant change from green to red after three to five weeks of growth in the presence of this gas. “They are easy to spot,” says Carsten Meier of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, who served as scientific adviser to Aresa, the Danish company that developed the plant.

Here is the full story. Note that the technology is not yet fully proven.

On a separate note, it appears that simply putting a tea strainer (mesh cylinder) in your neck could stop a large number of strokes.

Are test-tube mice different?

They are bolder and more confident, but have poorer memories, here is the story.

And humans?

Studies are needed to see if test-tube humans are similarly affected, he says…In the Western world, around 1% of children are conceived through assisted reproductive technologies. In one common method known as in vitro fertilization, eggs are fertilized in a test tube, cultured for a short while and then returned to the womb. Over a million ‘test-tube’ babies have been born worldwide. But little is known about the long-term effects of culturing embryos. The world’s first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born just 26 years ago. There have been few systematic attempts so far to assess the long-term health and behaviour of these children.

Food for thought, perhaps we are engaging in social experimentation here without knowing it.

Can climate engineering limit global warming?

Maybe so, according to Futurepundit. Here are some options (not all of this represents Futurepundit’s words, some is from his links):

Proposed options for reducing carbon dioxide pollution currently include underground burying of liquefied carbon dioxide; disposal in the sea; fertilising its absorption by marine algae; reflecting the sun’s rays in the atmosphere; and stabilizing sea-level rise. These and other macro-engineering ideas will be evaluated against a strict set of criteria, including effectiveness, environmental impacts, cost, public acceptability, and reversibility. All of these options go beyond the conventional approaches of improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon intensity by using more renewable energy sources, and may be needed in addition to these conventional approaches.

And further out on the limb:

… the scientists backed more way-out systems for reflecting the sun’s rays back into space. Plan A would float thousands of bubble-making machines across the world’s oceans to send huge amounts of salt spray into the atmosphere. The trillions of tiny droplets would make the clouds bigger, whiter, and more reflective — enough, in theory, to shut down several decades worth of global warming.

Plan B would flood the stratosphere with billions of tiny metal-coated balloons, “optical chaff” to backscatter the sun’s rays. Most sophisticated of all, Plan C would assemble giant mirrors in orbit, ready to be positioned at will by a global climate controller.

The BBC reports on 4 major categories of conceivable climate engineering approaches.

* “sequestering” (storing) carbon dioxide, for example in the oceans, by removing it from the air for storage, or by improved ways of locking it up in forests
* “insolation management” – modifying the albedo (reflectivity) of clouds and other surfaces to affect the amount of the Sun’s energy reaching the Earth
* climate design, for example by long-term management of carbon for photosynthesis, or by glaciation control
* impacts reduction, which includes stabilising ocean currents by river deviation, and providing large-scale migration corridors for wildlife.

Here is another article on the topic. I’ll never be competent to assess these proposals, but they could be among the most important scientific innovations we come up with. Global warming may well be real and the result of human activity, follow Chris Mooney. For better or worse I’ll predict the world won’t much cut its CO2 omissions in the near future, so we need to look toward other solutions.

A (slightly) reassuring fact

A penny dropped from the Empire State Building would not kill someone standing below, most likely. The observation deck is 1050 feet high, and the penny would reach a maximum velocity of 57 miles an hour after falling 500 feet. That’s enough to hurt pretty bad, but only a very very lucky (unlucky) shot would kill you. Most importantly of all, there is an updraft. Tossed coins generally land on the setback roof of floor 80.

The calculations come from the February issue of Popular Science, the article itself is not available on-line.

Addendum: Cecil offers some more detailed observations. Here is another supporting account, albeit with different details, in engineering language.

The universe on a T-shirt? Not yet.

Here is an update on the quest for a Theory of Everything. It is written by Lee Smolin, of inflation theory fame, and recommended to me by Robin Hanson. In pdf format it is over sixty pages long but makes for fascinating albeit difficult reading. Smolin defends “loop gravity” theories over string theory. He claims that within ten years we may have real experimental evidence to resolve the dispute.

Does monogamy resemble addiction?

Recent research suggests the following:

The reward mechanism involved in addiction appears to regulate lifelong social or pair bonds between monogamous mating animals, according to a Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN) study of prairie voles published in the January 19 edition of the Journal of Comparative Neurology. The finding could have implications for understanding the basis of romantic love and disorders of the ability to form social attachments, such as autism and schizophrenia.

In other words, if you are monogamous, your feelings toward your partner bear some resemblances to other addictions.

Sleep on it

A good night’s sleep can help you think better and solve problems more effectively.

German scientists say they have demonstrated for the first time that our sleeping brains continue working on problems that baffle us during the day, and the right answer may come more easily after eight hours of rest.

The German study is considered to be the first hard evidence supporting the common sense notion that creativity and problem solving appear to be directly linked to adequate sleep, scientists say. Other researchers who did not contribute to the experiment say it provides a valuable reminder for overtired workers and students that sleep is often the best medicine…

Scientists at the University of Luebeck in Germany found that volunteers taking a simple math test were three times more likely than sleep-deprived participants to figure out a hidden rule for converting the numbers into the right answer if they had eight hours of sleep. The results appear in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

Here is the full story. Here is another account, with a link to the original research. I will note that I typically review previously written MR postings after a night of good sleep.

Are athletes Bayesians?

Mark A. Walker and John C. Wooders, economists at the University of Arizona, recently studied old videotapes of tennis matches involving stars like Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras. The economists looked at the serves in each match to see how well players randomly altered playing the ball to an opponent’s forehand or backhand.

Many people do poorly on similar tests when they are conducted in a laboratory. Ask somebody to write down a list of hypothetical coin-flip outcomes, for example, and the result will probably contain too few streaks of heads or tails. Because people know that the overall odds are 50-50, they underestimate how often three straight tails or four straight heads turn up.

But professional tennis players realize, on some level, that their opponent will have an advantage if he knows that a serve to the forehand is likely to be followed by one to the backhand. They do a relatively good job of mixing serves, though still not as randomly as a computer program would, Professors Walker and Wooders reported in a 2001 paper.

Controlled experiments yield similar results, read this account from The New York Times.

Here is the bottom line:

The more uncertainty that people face – be it caused by wind on a tennis court, snow on a football field or darkness on a country highway – the more they make decisions based on their subconscious memory and the less they depend on what they see.

Related research by Doru Cojoc of Clemson shows that chess players play mixed strategies to keep their opponents off balance. Furthermore they are more likely to play such sophisticated strategies, the higher the rewards on the line.

By the way, even plants seem to perform implicit calculations when they breathe, read this recent account. Armen Alchian, of course, once postulated a similar conjecture, namely that plants maximize sunlight without any conscious awareness of such a process.

Could a little poison be a good thing?

Evidence is building for hormesis, the theory that suggests that moderate doses of bad things like radiation and toxins can improve health. Interestingly, much of the evidence has been around for a long time but it has been ignored because the focus was on proving the harm that toxins can cause and because low-dose effects are, by their nature, harder to identify so positive effects at low doses were typically discounted. Edward J. Calabrese of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, however, has collected thousands of already published examples and is conducting original research of his own into hormesis. Other researchers are beginning to take notice. Hormesis is controversial, however, as you might imagine from this bombshell:

Calabrese suspects that in many cases, the benefits of hormesis may occur at levels higher than the recommended safe doses for humans.

Hormesis is a similar idea to the hygiene hypothesis (more here) which asserts that “reduced microbial exposure because of increased sanitation and cleaner lifestyles has facilitated the rise in asthma and allergic disease in the Western world.” (The mechanisms of the two effects appear quite different, however.)

Smoking less doesn’t always help

Many smokers manage to smoke fewer cigarettes. The problem is that they often puff all that much harder. In the long run they may not end up much healthier, read this account. By the way, Sam Peltzman has studied this phenomenon more generally. We can do things to make people safer, but they respond by taking more risks. Thanks to Jon Klick for this latter link.