Friday, February 22, 2013 -- A Place to Collect Free, Unique Social-Behavioral Data

My friend, Ravi Iyer, works with the website This website allows you to create simple lists of anything that you might want a list of, and then gives you the ability to have other people vote on the list items. This effectively allows you to get data on what other people like, and then, based on how they vote across many different lists, you can see what kinds of things tend to go together. For example, Ravi found that people who voted for Governor Romney tended to prefer classic television shows like Leave it to Beaver, The Twilight Zone, Miami Vice, and the X-Files.

I've posted a list of my own, which you can find linked below.

The Cities That Best Share My Values

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Diagnosing Democracy

Sam walked into the doctor's office complaining. "I'm not feeling so well. I feel torn. I am of two minds and am unable to decide which actions to take. This indecision has me in a state of gridlock. I couldn't balance my budget, resulting in a big hit to my credit score. I couldn't hold my tongue and find myself calling people who disagree with me crazy or ignorant or liars. I know I have to make some big changes to my life, but I just can't decide how to move forward. What's wrong with me, doc?"

The Institute for Emerging Issues asked me to come and diagnose Sam, also known as American democracy, at the Redesigning Democracy Summit.

After looking at her chart, I have come to the conclusion that the syndrome causing Sam's problem stem from a longstanding, untreated case of political segregation. Moralized migration patterns where liberals are moving to liberal enclaves and conservatives are moving to conservative enclaves lead to political segregation. People on the left literally have less contact with people on the right; and, people on the right literally have less contact with people on the right. When people do not have contact with members of other groups, it becomes much easier to think ill of them. As former Representative Jim Leach (R-IA) said, "it's a whole lot easier to call someone a dumb liar if you know you don't have to face that person's family over the dinner table later that day." With this political segregation, the norms of politeness and respect change, and may even be irrelevant for dealing with people of divergent political perspectives. So, politicos now face little repercussions for calling someone a liar, a fascist, a communist, or, in some cases, "the Anti-Christ." In some cases, this disrespect may benefit them and provide a boost to their fundraising.

Further complicating political segregation is that liberals and conservatives now live in communities that are very different from one another and face different problems. These different communities create different social realities for their inhabitants. For example, people living in more conservative rural farming towns have a dramatically different experience of the current economic downtown than people living in more liberal urban manufacturing cities. These diverse places suffer in unique ways and demand different remedies to their economic hardships. People in farming communities are unlikely to need extensions of unemployment benefits, as unemployment has not increased as much in these communities. Rather, they may need subsidies or tax breaks to help them cover the increased cost of fuel for the equipment on their farms. In contrast, urban liberals are unlikely to desire, or even see the relevance of, giving tax breaks to farmers in this time of economic turmoil. Rather, they may desire extensions of unemployment benefits to help people survive while they acquire skills needed for jobs of the future. Anyone advocating for one of these programs will be seen in a positive light by one of these communities and out-of-touch by the other community. Thus, it is no surprise that representatives of these communities cannot compromise to address the country's economic problems.

So, my diagnosis is that our political segregation is giving way to the growing incivility and partisan gridlock in America. It is natural for people to want to be around others who share their values, but if we are to address our most pressing issues and move America forward, we need to step outside of our comfort zone. You may not know many people who hold different values, but if you do, try talking with them with an open-mind; try to understand them, rather than just trying to persuade them to agree with you. Through this, you just might make a new friend who will help you to better understand the world around you. Oh, and over time, this may give way to a more pleasant America where people can disagree without demonizing each other, and where our government is less prone to gridlock.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Redesigning Democracy

I have been invited to sit on a panel comprised of Grover Norquist (founder of Americans for Tax Reform and author of the No Taxes Pledge) and Lee Rainey (director of Pew Internet Research, author of five books, and former editor of US News & World report) at the Redesigning Democracy Summit this weekend. On this panel, we will be discussing the state of American democracy in the wake of the 2012 presidential election. The organizers have asked us to consider the following questions:

1) "Redesigning Democracy" implies that something is wrong with the status quo. Thinking about 2012, what is currently wrong with the state of our democracy? (focused on topics such as civic infrastructure, hyper-segregation based on political beliefs)
2) How important is it to reverse our current trajectory? (Focused on topics such as polarization, disengagement)
3) What are the most promising strategies to be employed in the redesign? (Internet/technologically based engagement, in person conversations, etc.)
4) What is working best in our democracy?
5) What is the greatest challenge facing our democracy?
6) How can we encourage people to participate in our political system and communities?
7) How can we use online tools to engage people of different viewpoints and backgrounds?
8) Who is melding face-to-face and online civic engagement to address community challenges?
If you have any thoughts about any of these questions, please feel free to comment on this blog, email me, or submit them directly to the organizers of the summit via their Qualtrics survey or by tweeting your response with the hashtag #RDS12.

I will be posting my responses on here as I assemble them. If you would like to watch the event, you can see it on WRAL, or on the Emerging Issues Institute's website, beginning tomorrow (12/9/12) at 7:00pm until 8:30, and then on Monday (12/10/12) from 8:00-9:30am.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Open Science Framework Launches its Public Beta

The Open Science Framework has launched its public beta version. If you do science, want a way to catalog your study ideas and materials, want to simply copy other people's materials rather than having to recreate them as you interpret them from the published manuscript, and want t practice open science, this is a great resource for you.

Monday, August 20, 2012

What Is Social Capital?

Human beings may be smart, but some scholars suggest that it may be our incredible need to be social and connect with others that has allowed us to take over the world. Some evolutionary biologists, like Edward O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson (among others), argue that people who bind together into groups that are better able to cooperate with each other will outlast groups less successful in cooperating with each other. The debate on this idea of group-level selection is on-going, but raises a question that is not contingent on group-level selection being empirically-confirmed.

What makes some groups better at promoting cooperation between and well-being among its members? Or, more simply, what makes some groups better for people than others?

Many people throughout history have mused on this idea, but only in the 19th century did scholars interested in the human community start conducting scientific studies to test their theories.

Alexis de Tocqueville studied the young United States of America and stated that "America is an exceptional country where people are engaged and participate in their government in ways that even people in other democracies around the world do not; Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations... In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others." Here, de Tocqueville is suggesting that the US is a remarkable place because of the culture of cooperation and civic participation that seemed greater than in other democratic countries.

Later, French sociologist Emile Durkheim theorized that communities that are socially integrated and that create a moral order where members are connected to each other will be the most cooperative with the happiest citizens. In the book On Suicide, Durkheim reported findings on how Catholics had lower suicide rates than Protestants. He explains that this may be because Catholics have stronger social communities because they are more integrated and that social integration improves well-being.

Durkheim reports that other less-integrated people had higher suicide rates than more integrated people, too. Adults without children commit suicide more than adults with children. Single adults commit suicide more than married adults. Individualistic (Scandinavian) countries have higher suicide rates than more group-oriented countries (e.g., France, Italy). More recent work suggests that conservatives are happier than liberals, and that this may be due to conservatives being more group-focused and liberals being more individual-focused.

Research on the idea of social integration and connection to one's community grew rapidly following the publication of Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, Putnam describes the basic ideas proposed by de Tocqueville and Durkheim as "social capital."

Social capital, still loosely defined here, is more or less people's engagement in their community and their trust in each other.

When people are engaged in their communities, perhaps by being active members of voluntary social organizations like bowling leagues (hence the book's title), the communities tend to have lower mortality and suicide rates, higher education levels, better physical and mental health, and more trust in fellow community members. In other words, communities with a lot of social capital tend to be great in promoting the citizens' well-being and improving cooperation among citizens. (Although, as would be expected from the group-level selection-based evolutionary theories, high social capital may also negatively impact interactions among people who belong to different communities. Putnam does not focus much on this, but in Bowling Alone he does present some evidence showing that the communities with the highest social capital are ethnically-homogeneous / segregated. For an interesting take on how to build social capital even across ethnic and other group boundaries, check out Putnam's new book Better Together: Restoring the American Community)

At the Stanford University Summer Institute in Political Psychology, Laura Stoker leveled two strong critiques of social capital research.

First, social capital is measured in lots of ways. Putnam often assesses social capital by asking about people's participation in voluntary social organizations. Others, though, infer it by examining network density, or trust of people in a given community. Some even argue that social capital cannot be assessed at any single level of analysis by asking individuals about how they relate to people in their communities or by looking at aggregate levels of participation in organizations based on community-level census data. Rather, these latter researchers suggest that social capital is an emergent phenomenon that happens between levels of analysis (see this paper for more). According to Stoker, these diverse measurement approaches suggest that the concept is not adequately defined.

Second, Stoker points to problems with some of Putnam's analyses. One issue in them, is that they tend to treat the country as the primary unit of analysis and fail to consider the diversity of communities within a country. This aggregation issue calls into question the validity of his transnational studies comparing countries with varying degrees of social capital. Yet, in other studies, Putnam treats the "state" as the primary unit of analysis and shows substantial variability between states (providing support for Stoker's claim that aggregating across states is inappropriate). Stoker also points out that although Putnam highlights the positive relationship between education and social capital (that is, more educated people have more social capital), yet most of his analyses statistically control for education. When re-running some of his analyses, she claims that the downward trend in social capital (as measured by membership in voluntary organizations) in the United States is only downward when controlling for education. If this is the case, there is some sort of interesting statistical suppression occurring that muddies the story on the importance of social capital.

So, social capital seems to be an important topic to study, as it may help people to find communities where they can satisfy their need to belong and connect with others who share their values, but it is one that needs more specificity. Researchers need to review the methods of the many studies done on this topic and figure out what measurement approaches predict what outcomes. Researchers then need to organize this into a clearer theoretical framework, so that others may contribute to our understanding of human communities and use these findings to improve our communities.

Let's start with you. What do you think social capital is? How should it be measured?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Dirty Rats: How Feelings Drive Political Thinking

For a long time, people reasoned their way to the conclusion that they are rational beings who only make decisions after considering the pros and cons of each option. Over the past several decades, though, scientists have found limited support for this intuitive theory.

Rather, we have more immediate, gut-level emotional reactions to stimuli before we think about the stimuli's characteristics. Social psychologist Bob Zajonc demonstrated support for this hypothesis by flashing smiling or frowning faces on a computer screen faster than the human eye could notice and then asking people to rate how positive or negative Chinese ideographs were. Participants who rated ideographs after being subliminally primed with smiling faces evaluated the ideographs more positively than after being subliminally primed with the frowning faces.

Moral psychologist, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt conducted similar studies. Instead of priming people with frowning faces, he and his colleagues primed people to associate the feeling of disgust with different stimuli. Again, when people were primed with disgust, their evaluations became more negative. However, Haidt and colleagues went further. They found that negative feelings led to harsher moral judgments

Machiavellian campaign strategists raise their eyebrows at findings like these. They see a potential tool to help win some votes. Perhaps strategists were aware of this body of research and design ads trying to get voters to associate negative things, like Rats, with opposition candidates, like Al Gore in 2000.

And, associating a violent criminal with Michael Dukakis in 1988. Or, associating nuclear war with Barry Goldwater in 1964.

It's not clear that any of these ads were effective (or not), but there is psychological evidence suggesting that they could lead voters to have more negative feelings towards the targeted candidate. Furthermore, it's not clear that some negative feelings associated with one candidate will do anything to change someone's preference in the voting booth.

At the Stanford Summer Institute in Political Psychology, political scientist Milt Lodge presented research addressing these very questions. In a series of studies, he and his colleagues subliminally primed participants with positive, negative, or neutral words (much like that in the Zajonc studies, and possibly similar to the Al Gore BureaucRATS ad) before asking participants to read a strong argument about a specific issue, and then later asked them to report their attitude on that issue.

When people were primed with the positive words, they evaluated the argument more favorably. If they agreed with the argument prior to the priming, they agreed even more after the priming. When people were primed with the negative words, they evaluated the argument less favorably. If they agreed with the argument prior to the priming, they agreed less after the priming. Furthermore, these subliminal primes had lasting effects, too, suggesting that commercials shown well before people ever get into a voting booth may affect their behavior once they do enter the voting booth.

So, what Machiavellians need to know from this work is that if they can just manipulate people's emotions so that they associate "good" with the people on Team Machiavelli and "bad" with all others, then they can win friends and influence people.

Wait. Not so fast. The manipulation of the sort used in the studies described here are of dubious legality. At present (August 17, 2012), there are no federal laws banning subliminal priming in advertisements in the United States, but there are a number of private-sector regulating bodies that prohibit it.

That doesn't mean you can't use this affective primacy principle to your advantage. It just means you need to be more creative. Consider adding a smiling face to your commercials, images from some widely loved cartoons (ahem!), and a few jokes at the beginning of any speeches you may be giving. Perhaps, you'll warm up your audience and use a basic component of your audience's psychology to help the presentation go a little more enjoyably for the both of you.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Cost of Flip-Flops: The Electoral Consequences of Candidate Ambiguity

Campaign politics are kind of like a box of chocolates. You never really know what you're going to get, but you can be pretty sure that you'll get a few of the same pieces in each box. 

In the United States, one of these pieces that we get every two or four years is the flip-flop (sometimes called a waffle). A flip-flop is not merely a breakfast food, but can also be when someone holds one policy position before holding a different policy position. The more the latter position contradicts the former position, the bigger the flip-flop (see this website that has a rating system for degree of flipping and flopping). 

Accusing one's opponent of flip-flopping has become the dominant candy in the box of chocolates. For evidence of this, just google "political flip-flop." You'll see 3.53 MILLION pages returned. 

For some bipartisan examples, let's recall President (then Governor) Bill Clinton's 1992 attacks on President George H. W. Bush for flip-flopping on taxes.

And, President George W. Bush's comical attack on Senator John F. Kerry's flip-flopping on a number of issues.

And, the newly available flip-flop footwear with the opposition candidate's face and name on them.

So, it's clear that attacking one's opponent by calling them a flip-flopper or a waffler is common. But, do those attacks work? And, is there some reason why candidates choose to flip-flop on some issues?

At the Summer Institute in Political Psychology, Michael Tomz presented the findings from a paper he and Robert van Houweling published in the 2009 issue of the American Political Science Review in which they try to answer these questions.

These researchers hypothesized that flip-flopping could lead voters to have positive OR negative perceptions of the candidates. Flip-flopping might actually lead people to think that the inconsistent candidate is open-minded, flexible, and responsive to new data. Alternately, voters may come to view the inconsistent candidate as lacking integrity and honesty, and perceive the candidate as willing to say anything to get elected. This negative effect should dissuade candidates from changing their views, lest they suffer the wrath of countless attack ads.

In Tomz and van Houweling's research, they had participants read about two fictitious candidates, one of whom had flip-flopped on an issue. After reading about the candidates, the  participants evaluated the character of the candidates and their confidence in how the candidate would stand on issues if s/he was elected.

Holding all other variables constant, randomized flip-flopping led to an 11% penalty in the polls. However, the story gets more complicated. This effect is particularly true for partisans and when the flip-flop is on an issue that some bloc of voters deems important.

If this is the case, then it would be most sensible for candidates to stay consistent on issues that have appeal across the aisle and be ambiguous about the key issues for one's own party, because members of the candidate's party assume that the candidate shares their view regardless of any clear statement of that view.

Thus, ambiguity can be strategically used by candidates to appeal to specific groups that might not ordinarily support them. If done inappropriately, it can ring the final bell and effectively bring a campaign to its knees... unless it can also frame the other candidate as an ambiguous flip-flopper.

With these implications, we should expect to see a growing barrage of flip-flopper attacks as the 2012 US Presidential Election approaches.