Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The trap of assuming what is generally believed is also generally true

Just a couple of examples of low level cognitive pollution floating around out there. The first is Heard Bad Things About Yik Yak? Try Using It by Virginia Postrel. My sidelines impression of the social media tool was much as Postrel describes. I don't use Yik Yak and don't have any desire to use Yik Yak so the entirety of my impression of it is from the judgments of others.
Yik Yak is a social-media app that in just two years has become an everyday part of the American college experience. If you’ve heard of it, chances are you think it’s awful. It has a terrible reputation as a dangerous source of vitriol, threats and ethnic slurs — a reputation only strengthened by recent events.

After protests by black students led to the resignation of the president of the University of Missouri, menacing posts appeared on Yik Yak, which lets people make anonymous, ephemeral notes visible to others within a narrow geographical radius. One of them said, “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see.”

On Wednesday, police officers in Columbia, Missouri, arrested a man the state university described as “the suspect who posted threats to campus on Yik Yak and other social media.” Later, a student at Northwest Missouri State University was arrested on charges of threatening black students on Yik Yak. (Although Yik Yak posts are anonymous, the company logs users and will share that information with law-enforcement under certain conditions, including imminent threats.)

The stories are typical of those shaping Yik Yak’s media image. Critics, after all, portray it as a clearinghouse of digital hostility. Last month, a coalition of feminist groups asked the Department of Education to force universities to do more to police Yik Yak. They decried it as a tool for “cyber-harassment, intimidation, and threats.” Why would college students embrace such a terrible tool?

I had read about Yik Yak, always negatively, but had never actually experienced it until I was at Princeton last spring, reporting a column on student angst. Students there cited Yik Yak as a way to gauge campus culture, so I signed up and took a look.


The Yik Yak I saw came closer to the company’s public-relations aspirations (“home to the casual, relatable, heartfelt, and silly things that connect people with their community”) than to the hate-drenched graffiti its critics had led me to expect. Though largely banal, my samples at Princeton, and later at UCLA and Santa Monica College, revealed Yik Yak posts to be mostly good-natured, often stupid, but rarely evil. At SMC, students typically complain about the parking shortage; at UCLA, they gripe about food; at Princeton they desperately crave sleep. Everywhere they talk about sex.


So, yes, Yik Yak does attract nasty posts, including the threats in Missouri. But on a routine basis, the app grownups love to demonize is much friendlier than the Twitter and Facebook feeds I read daily. For reasons built into its structure, Yik Yak offers fewer rewards for mean, grouchy, tribal, and polarizing posts and more for those that are supportive, funny, inquisitive, and community-building. Far from encouraging a free-for-all, the terms of service prohibit threats and abuse, as well as “racially or ethnically offensive language.” More immediately, Yik Yak lets users vote comments up or down, giving them longer or shorter lives.

By wielding their voting power, Yik Yak users develop unwritten rules that tend to keep things friendly and fun, observes Briallyn Smith, a graduate student in rehabilitation science at Western University in London, Ontario, who writes frequently on the intersection of technology and college life. “I’ve been amazed by how quickly Yaks that don’t fit the community’s standards will be removed from view — not by any external moderation, but by the user base,” she writes, noting that “generally you’ll only see negative messages for the first minute after they are posted, after which they are completely down-voted into oblivion.”

This dynamic isn’t an accident. It’s essential to the business. Unlike a website such as Reddit or an Internet-based service such as Twitter, Yik Yak doesn’t draw from the whole world. It can’t survive by attracting a tiny fringe from a huge universe or by aggregating lots of separate tribes. It has to draw most of the potential audience within each local radius, typically a college campus. And everyone sees everything -- no talking only to those who agree. It’s like a small town, but one that people can abandon simply by not logging on. Leaving Yik Yak, unlike other social media, is painless; it won’t hurt you professionally or cut you off from family photos.

If a local Yik Yak provides a place people want to hang out, it will flourish. If it alienates too many users, it will just blow away. The service has spread so fast not because students love to dole out abuse but because they yearn to connect.
A good cautionary tale about untested impressions.

Similarly in The Myth of the Bernie Bro by Matt Bruenig about a meme of which I was completely unaware, namely that Bernie Sanders enthusiasts are mostly men.
In theory, writing an election take about demographic divides in candidate support is pretty straightforward:
1) Identify a demographic divide.

2) Provide a plausible theory for the demographic divide.
Because step one is usually pretty easy, most of the punditry action is at step two. But, as Amanda Marcotte’s take earlier this week shows, every so often, punditry is so bad that it doesn’t even manage to get step one right.
The dig clearly stung, as Bernie Sanders immediately went out on Sunday talk shows to deny Clinton’s insinuation that gender played a role in his remarks about “shouting” during the debate.

From the female-heavy crowds that turned out to support Clinton in Iowa, it seems the strategy is working. And not just on older women, either. Girls, from little kids to college aged women, were out in force for Hillary Clinton in Des Moines over the weekend. Moms with daughters, both little girls and teens, were a dominant force in the crowd. Glitter, unicorns, and Disney princess memorabilia was on full display at the Clinton rally. . . .

While both Clinton and Sanders had plenty of young people of all genders turning out, the young people of the Sanders crowd were just as male-dominated as the Clinton crowd was female-dominated. . . .

This contrast continued inside Hy-Vee Hall, where the dinner was held: More young men for Sanders and more young women for Clinton.
Putting aside the question of how much control eight-year-old girls have over what rally they attend, there is an obvious problem with this gender demography point. And that problem is that it’s not reflected in the polling cross-tabs. Although Marcotte insists that she “couldn’t find good polls on gender amongst supporters, much less age,” data for both are readily available on the Internet.

From a YouGov/Economist poll from a couple of weeks ago:

There simply isn’t a gender demographic divide. There is nothing here to theorize about. The take is dead at step one.
Bruenig then goes on to point out that there is in fact a notable and material demographic difference between the supporters of Clinton versus those of Sanders. Sanders supporters are markedly younger than Clinton's

But Bruenig's point, as is Postrel's, are both supportive of the first question in the Decision Clarity Consulting methodology, "Is it real?" It is too easy to fall into the trap of assuming what is generally believed is also generally true. Often, it is not.

UPDATE: Here's another example, Did the media ignore the Beirut bombings? Or did readers? by Max Fisher.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Societal complexity and the fundamental attribution error

I see people exhibiting the fundamental attribution error all the time. From Wikipedia:
In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error, also known as the correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics (personality) to explain someone else's behavior in a given situation rather than considering the situation's external factors.
Basically, when someone else does something we don't like, we attribute it to defects in their personality rather than seek an explanation in the circumstances. Someone is speeding on the road and cuts you off. We automatically condemn them with "Jerk" or "Jackass". They are a bad person. We don't look to circumstances that might cause them to be driving in that fashion, say driving someone to the hospital, for example.

I personally see this in a lot in discussions, in articles, in pontificating pundits. I have been wondering whether this is just my noticing this for the first time or whether it is a real trend. The question is somewhat unanswerable as the conceptual phrase was only coined in the late 60s or early 70s. Looking at NGram Viewer, the trend suggests that people are indeed commenting on it more, i.e. there is a dramatic upward trend in mentions in books. Google Trends similarly indicates an upward trend.

Accepting as a hypothetical that there is an increasing number of people committing the fundamental attribution error. Why? Why do they do this? Why do we do this? The easy answer is that people are becoming more intolerant of others. Without elaborating, I am skeptical of that.

I wonder if it is simply that we are leading more complex lives, interacting with more people, and more people who do not share our own worldviews (manners, assumptions, goals, behaviors) and therefore it is cognitively more difficult to extrapolate to people's circumstances from their actions. Creating twenty scenarios that give the deviant behavior a justifiable context is cognitively more taxing than the knee-jerk assumption, "Jerk."

The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else.

Heh. From Megan McArdle in How to Win Friends and Influence Refugee Policy. Deals with what is too common today - virtue signalling substituting for actual robust arguments.
It took me years of writing on the Internet to learn what is nearly an iron law of commentary: The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else. The messages that make you feel great about yourself (and of course, your like-minded friends) are the ones that suggest you’re a moral giant striding boldly across the landscape, wielding your inescapable ethical logic. The messages that work are the ones that try to understand what the other side is thinking, on the assumption that they are no better or worse than you. So if you are actually trying to help the Syrian refugees, rather than marinate in your own sensation of overwhelming virtue, you should avoid these tactics.

Measuring happiness

I have long been intrigued by the notion of measuring and researching "happiness' both at the individual level as well as culturally and cross-culturally. While I have been interested, much of the work to-date has been amateurish. Or should I say, much of the work to date has not adequately addressed the issue of how to measure happiness. Much of this is covered in The World Isn't Ready for Gross National Happiness by Noah Smith.

A couple of good points.
The focus on happiness represents a philosophical shift for the economics field, but not necessarily an unwelcome one. Economists’ traditional measures of well-being are based on utility, or the degree to which people get what they want. If I want a burger and I get it, my utility goes up -- and, according to standard economics, I am therefore better off. It’s a fundamentally libertarian, individualistic idea, because it says that people ought to get what they want.

But suppose the burger doesn’t make me happy? Suppose I feel bad after I eat it, because I broke my diet? Even though I might choose to eat burgers over and over, if I’m unhappy each time I succumb to temptation, am I really better off? Economists who study happiness have begun to entertain the notion that perhaps what matters isn’t the degree to which people get what they want, but how much they like what they get. Good emotions may be more important than satiation of desires.

That’s not a crazy idea. There’s one huge problem with happiness research, however. There is really no good way to measure what people are actually feeling.
Echoes the folk wisdom of Love the One you're With by Crosby, Stills, Nash.
If you're down and confused
And you don't remember who you're talking to
Concentration slips away
Because your baby is so far away

Well there's a rose in a fisted glove
And the eagle flies with the dove
And if you can't be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you're with
You gotta love the one you're with
You gotta love the one you're with
You gotta love the one you're with
Back to Smith's piece.
If hedonic adaptation is driving most of people’s responses to surveys, then we should see little correlation between self-reported happiness and emotionally driven behavior. In fact, that is what recent Nobel-winning economist Angus Deaton and his co-author Anne Case found when they looked at the correlation between self-reported happiness and suicide:
Suicide is the ultimate act of desperate unhappiness...In a recent study...we find that some of the factors that correlate with happiness also correlate with low suicide rates, but that just as many do not...The lack of any clear relation between suicide and happiness [means that] perhaps we cautious [about] giving too much weight to self-reports of life satisfaction.
If self-reported happiness can’t even predict how likely people are to kill themselves, then there are big problems with the research methodology. Emotions are incredibly important, but they are also complex, subtle and poorly understood. Until we find a better way of measuring them, I don’t think economists or governments should rush to replace traditional measures of well-being with survey measures of happiness.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

These ultimately self-abnegating paradigms

From an article, Alternating Realities by Richard Wolin, reviewing Why the World Does Not Exist by Markus Gabriel. Recent trends in the field of philosophy.
As Gabriel tells it, the new realism emerged as an attempt to free philosophy from the dead end in which it had become entrapped by two earlier fashionable trends, postmodernism and social constructivism. They shared a thorough­going skepticism concerning the capacity of the human mind to penetrate the nature of objective reality, and held that all we can really know is our representations of reality. The upshot of these ultimately self-abnegating paradigms was that professional philosophy had de facto given up on reality.

Drinking while watching the news

Idle speculation.

The conversation turned to the drinking habits of our parents' generation (born in the 1930s, coming of age in the fifties and sixties). There were the shared memories of Dad getting home and pouring himself a bourbon and coke, or whiskey neat, or some other stiff drink before reading the paper. Based on the recollections, in some families, mom and dad both had a drink before dinner, sometimes while watching the news. Often there was a second or third drink later in the evening after dinner.

Then there were some recollections of Dad's stories about taking clients to lunch and the drinks there.

And to our generation that almost looks like hard drinking. Of course it isn't, and wasn't, but when your base of comparison is an occasional glass of wine, it certainly seems like alcohol played a greater part of the daily routine.

Someone made the connection between drinking and watching the news. They speculated that the sense of partisanship and polarization arising from watching the news is not a function of changed newscasts but of reduced alcohol consumption. Perhaps a couple of early evening stiff drinks before viewing the news would help put things into better perspective.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Categories of decision making

Sounds roughly right but I wonder what an empirical analysis would show.

Selling to the periphery as the golden path to success

Yesterday I posted XXXXX.

This section was to me the most provocative, but yet also consistent with my own thinking.
First, you will never increase your brand’s market share by targeting existing users — the task that digital media performs so efficiently. The effort and expense marketers put into targeting their own customers with emails and web banners is largely wasted; loyalty programmes, says Sharp, “do practically nothing to drive growth”. What seems like a prudent use of funds — focusing on people who have already proved they like the brand — is actually just spinning wheels.

Second, and paradoxically, a successful brand needs to find a way of reaching people who are not in its target market, in the sense of people who are predisposed to buy it. The brand’s advertising must somehow gain the attention of people who are not interested in it, have never bought it, or who bought it so long ago they can’t remember — so that when they are ready to buy, it automatically springs to mind. In the wastage is the value.
This is consistent with a lot of findings in network theory and affiliative sociology. It is becoming well established that when job searching or doing sales, your likeliest source of success is not with those with whom you have the deepest relationships, your nearest circle of friends.

The best leads come from the second and third circles out from your core friends. The reason has to do with statistical overlaps. When you think of friend circles as access nodes to information, it becomes a little clearer. Think of the perfect job opportunity.

If you start looking for that perfect job opportunity, how likely is it that your closest friends know about it but you don't? That's the heart of the issue. Your closest friends have a knowledge and experience set that tends to be highly correlated with your own. Yes, they might know something you don't but the odds are significantly lower than someone who is two or more circles out. A friend-of-a-friend likely has a dramatically lower overlap of knowledge than your immediate circle. And an acquaintance of a friend, yet even lower odds of overlap.

The further out on your friend network you go, the more likely it is that they are aware of things you are not. Hence the demonstrable value of networking.

I take all this and look at the book industry. People re always trying to break into the authorship gig but the hurdles are horrendous. Not in terms of being published. Those hurdles are lower than they have ever been and almost non-existent. No, the barriers to entry are not getting published, they are getting noticed. It's all about marketing.

"You will never increase your brand’s market share by targeting existing users" is especially relevant. 50% of the population read no book electively during a year. 10% of the population do 80% of the reading. 40% of the population do 20% of the reading, averaging about a book every two months or 6 books a year.

The 10% who do 80% of the reading are knowledgeable and discerning readers. They usually stick with their reading interests which often flow along genre lines. The reader of westerns is unlikely to take up a romance. A reader of romances unlikely to try out nonfiction science. A reader of mysteries is unlikely to switch to contemporary literary fiction. Etc. People read what they are interested in and have relatively fixed ideas of what that might be.

What Sharp's research suggests s that publishers should be focusing their marketing efforts, not on already enthusiastic readers but on occasional readers and the non-readers.
The most effective ads don’t sell, but they do make people buy. By keeping the brand alive in your mind, Coke ads change the probability of you buying it in the next year by a minuscule proportion, a nudge so small that you almost certainly won’t notice it, which is why people often say that advertising doesn’t affect them. But that tiny effect adds up to millions of cans.
Enthusiastic readers are a small body count in the market (10%) even though they buy most the books. But they are very set in their ways and very canny book buyers. It is the ninety percent of the market where publishers have the best chance of getting occasional readers (40% of the market at 6 books a year) and the intermittent readers (50% of the market and fewer than a book a year). If they change their reading habits by even a small amount, it has a huge impact.

I think this is what the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS people miss. It is not a supply side issue. There are near infinite books published each year (from the perspective of a single reader) and there are many, many publishers and there are exceptionally low barriers to entry. Publishers are not the problem.

It is readers who are the problem. They are not reading the books the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS people want them to read. So this isn't about publishers or racism. This is about getting readers to want to read the types of books that the WNDB people want them to read.

That's a big ask and involves quite a different set of activities than trying to shame publishers into publishing a few more books that people aren't likely to read. This is, in large part, why I think the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS campaign will end up failing. They have misdiagnosed the problem and do not have any solutions for the real issue.

It was impossible to avoid joining in (campus mindlessness)

We have a 5%, probably just a 1%, of campus students who are dissatisfied with a range of ill-articulated grievances. They are unable to provide evidence to support even the existence of the problem with which they identify, are unable to argue their case, and are unable to support the half-baked solutions which they recommend. It is frustrating to taxpayers to see such strong evidence of gross educational misconduct. It is frustrating because the claims originate out of a small ideological cult who are immune to argument. They are Eric Hoffer's True Believer made flesh.

Everyday for the past couple of weeks, and every week for the past couple of years, there are more and more instances reported. Mizzou, Yale, Columbia, Amherst, Dartmouth, UCLA, etc. The reality, though, is that there is no patriarchy, there is little or no institutional racism, there is no such thing as a microagression, people are generally not prejudicially bigoted. Except, regrettably, among the advocate hustlers themselves who are more than happy to trade in negative stereotypes and prejudicial bigotry.

This most recent week's collection of bigotry and hatred from the 1% social justice warrior class is appalling. It brings to mind George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. From Chapter One. I hadn't read it in years but it seems strangely prescient. I wonder what it would be like to read Nineteen Eighty-Four and True Believer back-to-back? It sounds depressing but I suspect it might be seering.

From the first few pages of Chapter One of Nineteen Eighty-Four we already have Oceania, the three-year plan, Hate Week, Big Brother. In the first few pages, Orwell has already introduced key cultural concepts that have recurring cultural relevance sixty-six years later. And of course there are the Party's three slogans:
The wilful assertion of opposites is still running strong:
And that foolishness is just from this week alone.

Here's the scene that this week's viral video's brought to mind. The daily Two Minute Hate.
The next moment a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. It was a noise that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The Hate had started.

As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. The little sandy-haired woman gave a squeak of mingled fear and disgust. Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters, perhaps even — so it was occasionally rumoured — in some hiding-place in Oceania itself.


Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room. The self-satisfied sheep-like face on the screen, and the terrifying power of the Eurasian army behind it, were too much to be borne: besides, the sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other. But what was strange was that although Goldstein was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers, in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were — in spite of all this, his influence never seemed to grow less. Always there were fresh dupes waiting to be seduced by him. A day never passed when spies and saboteurs acting under his directions were not unmasked by the Thought Police. He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State. The Brotherhood, its name was supposed to be. There were also whispered stories of a terrible book, a compendium of all the heresies, of which Goldstein was the author and which circulated clandestinely here and there. It was a book without a title. People referred to it, if at all, simply as THE BOOK. But one knew of such things only through vague rumours. Neither the Brotherhood nor THE BOOK was a subject that any ordinary Party member would mention if there was a way of avoiding it.

In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. Even O’Brien’s heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he were standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out ‘Swine! Swine! Swine!’ and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein’s nose and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp. Thus, at one moment Winston’s hatred was not turned against Goldstein at all, but, on the contrary, against Big Brother, the Party, and the Thought Police; and at such moments his heart went out to the lonely, derided heretic on the screen, sole guardian of truth and sanity in a world of lies. And yet the very next instant he was at one with the people about him, and all that was said of Goldstein seemed to him to be true. At those moments his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector, standing like a rock against the hordes of Asia, and Goldstein, in spite of his isolation, his helplessness, and the doubt that hung about his very existence, seemed like some sinister enchanter, capable by the mere power of his voice of wrecking the structure of civilization.
From the movie version of the book.