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Critical Thinking

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Are Men Bigger Risk Takers Than Women?

Now that’s risky.

Most people (in America at least) would probably agree with the following statement:

Men are bigger risk takers than women.

Several research studies seem to have documented this. Researchers have asked people what risky behaviors they engage in (or would like to engage in). For instance, they might ask a randomly selected group of men and women whether they would like to jump out of an airplane (with a parachute). Men – more often than women – say that this is an appealing idea. Ask about driving a motorcycle and the response is more or less the same. Men are interested, women not so much. QED: men are bigger risk takers than women.

But are we taking a conceptual leap here (without a parachute)? How do we know if something is true? What’s the operational definition of “risk”? Should we be engaging our baloney detectors right about now?

In her new book, Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine suggests that we’ve pretty much got it all backwards. The problem with the using skydiving and motorcycle driving as proxies for risk is that they are far too narrow. Indeed, they are narrowly masculine definitions of risk. So, in effect, we’re asking a different question:

Would you like to engage in activities that most men define as risky?

It’s a circular argument. We give a masculine definition of risk and then conclude that men are more likely to engage in that activity than women. No duh.

Fine points out that, “In the United States, being pregnant is about 20 times more likely to result in death than is a sky dive.” So which gender is really taking the big risks?

As with so many issues in logic and critical thinking, we need to examine our definitions. If we define our variables in narrow ways, we’ll get narrow and – most likely – biased results.

Fine writes that many people believe in in Testosterone Rex – that differences between man and women are biological and driven largely by hormonal effects. But when she examines the evidence, she finds one logical flaw after another. Researchers skew definitions, reverse cause-and-effect, and use small samples to produce large (and unsupported) conclusions.

Ultimately, Fine concludes that we aren’t born as males and females in the traditional way that we think about gender. Rather, when we’re born, society starts to shape us into society’s conception of what the gender ought to be. It’s a bracing and clearly argued point that seems to be backed up by substantial evidence.

It’s also a great example of baloney detection and a good case study for any class in critical thinking.

(I’m taking a risk here. I haven’t yet read Testosterone Rex. I based this commentary on four book reviews. You can find them here: Guardian, Financial Times, NPR, and New York Times).

 

 

Happiness and Creativity

Do you want to be happy or creative today?

The 2017 World Happiness Report was released yesterday. The headlines today are all about Norway, which supplanted Denmark as the happiest country in the world. That’s nice and I’m sure that Norwegians are celebrating today. But what intrigues me is the relationship between happiness and creativity. (See also here, here and here).

In 2015, the Martin Prosperity Institute published the Global Creativity Index. Reviewing the two lists together suggests that the relationship between happiness and creativity is very tight indeed. Here are the top ten countries on each list.

Rank Happiness (2017) Most Creative (2015)
1 Norway Australia
2 Denmark United States
3 Iceland New Zealand
4 Switzerland Canada
5 Finland Denmark
6 Netherlands Sweden
7 Canada Finland
8 New Zealand Iceland
9 Australia Singapore
10 Sweden Netherlands

Of the ten happiest countries in the world, eight also make the top ten list for most creative countries in the world. The two that miss — Norway and Switzerland — don’t miss by much. Norway is 11th on the most creative list; Switzerland is 16th.

Conversely, of the ten most creative countries in the world, eight also make the list of the happiest countries in the world. Again, the two that don’t make the list — the United States and Singapore — don’t miss by much. The United States is 14th; Singapore is 26th.

What’s it all mean? I can think of at least four ways to interpret the data:

  • Happiness causes creativity — there’s a meme that says that only tortured geniuses are truly creative. Perhaps it’s wrong. Perhaps you have to be happy to be creative.
  • Creativity causes happiness — this explanation appeals more to me. I know that when I create something (like an article for this website), it makes me happy. I get a little glow of accomplishment. On the other hand, I know happy people who aren’t very creative and vice-versa.
  • A hidden third variable causes happiness and creativity to correlate — perhaps there’s something else going on. It could be income — all of the countries are fairly rich. It could be government policy — they all invest public funds in research. It could be geography — they are all fairly far from the equator. It could be language — all of the countries on the list have very good English language skills.
  • The two surveys are measuring essentially the same thing — though the two surveys seem quite different, perhaps they really measure the same thing. Perhaps happiness and creativity are so throughly intertwined that we can’t tease them apart.

It’s also interesting to delve into which countries have the best combination of happiness and creativity. We can make some crude judgments by adding up the national position in each survey. Like golf, the low score wins. For instance, Denmark is second in happiness and fifth in creativity, for a combined score of seven. As it happens, that’ s the lowest score — so Denmark takes first place in the combined league table. Here are the top five combined scores. I don’t know about you but I think I’ll soon pay a visit to Denmark.

Rank Country Combined Score
1 Denmark 7
2 Australia 10
3 Iceland 11
3 (tie) Canada 11
3 (tie) New Zealand 11

Cherry Creek Parks Itself

Sure, you can park here.

The owners of Cherry Creek shopping mall recently shifted from social norms to market norms. They may have screwed themselves in the process.

Cherry Creek is a huge shopping mall filled with upscale stores in a trendy neighborhood in Denver. The neighborhood is a traditional shopping district – filled with boutiques, salon, coffee shops, and restaurants — that predated the mall. The neighborhood offers on-street, metered parking. When the mall opened, it offered 5,100 free covered parking spaces.

Being good citizens, we Denverites treated the covered parking spaces as a social good governed by social norms. We knew that the parking spaces were intended for people who were shopping in the mall, not wandering about the neighborhood. I’m sure that some people cheated but, by and large, we honored the social norms.

A few weeks ago, the mall started charging for parking. It now costs about the same to park in the covered lots as it does to park on the street in the neighborhood. There’s one exception: you get the first hour free at the mall.

I used to consider the mall parking a social good. But now that the rules have changed, I consider it a commercial product. We’ve shifted from social norms to market norms. If it’s going to cost about the same to park on the street or in the mall, I think I’ll park in the mall. It’s covered and convenient. And it’s a commercial product, so I won’t have a guilty conscience.

My prediction: the change to market norms will worsen the mall’s parking problems. More non-mall shoppers will feel justified to pay the fee, park in the covered lots, and then wander the neighborhood. They’ve paid for the parking so they can use it any way they want.

In his book, Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely stresses that people will do more, work harder, and behave better when social norms are in force as compared to market norms. Ariely reports on an experiment performed at St. Thomas University. Researchers asked students to do a rather mind-numbing task on a computer for five minutes. Students were divided into three groups. The first group received a payment of five dollars. The second group got a payment of 50 cents. The students in the third group were asked to perform the task “as a favor” to the researchers.

Who performed best? The students who received five dollars completed 159 transactions. Those who received fifty cents completed 101 transactions. And those who did it for nothing completed 168 transactions. In this example, money decreases performance rather than increasing it. As Ariely notes, “Money, as it turns out, is very often the most expensive way to motivate people. Social norms are not only cheaper, but often more effective as well.”

Ariely also tells the story of a nursery school that wanted to motivate parents to pick up their kids on time. The owners of the school used social norms to enforce the policy. Parents were guided by their conscience; they were ashamed to be late.

Most parents complied, but a few didn’t. The nursery school then shifted to market norms – charging a fine for late pick-ups. What happened? The number of late pick-ups increased sharply. With fines in place, your conscience no longer guides you. Your wallet does. You can literally buy time.

Tellingly, when the nursery school then removed the fine, the parents’ behavior didn’t change much. Ariely draws a larger point from this – once you change form social norms to market norms, you can’t go back. Ariely writes, “Once the bloom is off the rose – once a social norm is trumped by a market norm – it will rarely return.”

What does all this mean for Cherry Creek shopping mall? I suspect that non-compliant parking will increase. People will no longer be guided by their conscience. More prosaic concerns will prevail. People can now buy time, convenience, and space. I suspect the mall managers will reverse their decision at some point. Unfortunately, it won’t matter much.

It’s too bad the mall managers didn’t read Dan Ariely’s book. They could have saved themselves a huge headache. However, if some of my other predictions come true, we won’t need parking lots much longer.

Trumping The Press

I need my skeptical spectacles.

Is Donald Trump vilifying the press or playing the press?

Take a recent example: someone leaked a draft memo to the Washington Post suggesting that the government will activate 100,000 National Guard troops to arrest illegal aliens. The Post printed the story and the reactions from both sides were predictable. The left was outraged that the government might do such a thing. The right pitched a hissy fit over leaks.

But here’s another way to interpret the story. The Trump administration wants to rid the country of approximately 11 million illegal aliens. Deporting them all would be a difficult, expensive, and lengthy task. So here’s another way: scare at least some of them into leaving on their own. The National Guard story – though false – undoubtedly started rumors in immigrant neighborhoods that the Feds were about to launch massive sweeps. Better to depart sooner rather than later.

Seen in this light, the Trump administration wins in two ways. First, the story sows fear in immigrant communities and may lead to “self-deportations”. Second, the administration continues to build the narrative that the media promotes fake news and is the enemy of the people.

Another tactic to control the conversation is what academics call availability cascades. We humans estimate how risky something is based on information that’s available to us. An availability cascade makes a cascade of information – about one and only one topic – readily available to us.

The Ebola scare of 2014 provides a good example. Somebody gets sick with a dread disease. The press writes vivid stories about the illness and makes grim images easily available to us. It’s top of mind. Then people push the government to “do something” about the menace. The press writes about that. Then the government actually does something. The press writes about that. Then people protest what the government has done. The press writes about that. Soon, the entire world seems to be chattering about Ebola. If everybody’s talking about it, it must be dangerous.

The Trump administration creates an availability cascade when it lures the press into writing more about Islamic terrorism. The administration has accused the press of underreporting terrorist incidents. In response, the press has written numerous articles pointing out just how many stories they’ve written on terrorist incidents. The net effect? Terrorism is in the headlines every day. Everybody is talking about it. It must be dangerous.

Even fake news can help keep availability cascades in the headlines. The administration makes a far-fetched claim and the press naturally wants to set the record straight. By doing so, the press adds fuel to the availability fire. The story lingers on. As long as the press plays along, the administration will keep creating alternative facts. Think of it as the media equivalent of rope-a-dope.

Trump’s obsession with himself creates another availability cascade. Trump regularly talks about himself and his accomplishments – how smart he is, how many electoral votes he won, and so on. He often repeats himself; the news is no longer new. Yet the press keeps writing about it. Apparently, they want to show how self-obsessed he is. But the practical effect is that Trump dominates the headlines very day. If everybody is chattering about him, he must be very powerful.

Bernard Cohen wrote that, “The press may not be successful … in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about.” The Trump administration is using the press to frame the discussion and tell us what to think about. Perhaps it’s time for the press to change the subject.

Factory-Installed Biases

Born this way.

In my critical thinking class, we investigate a couple of dozen cognitive biases — fallacies in the way our brains process information and reach decisions. These include the confirmation bias, the availability bias, the survivorship bias, and many more. I call these factory-installed biases – we’re born this way.

But we haven’t asked the question behind the biases: why are we born that way? What’s the point of thinking fallaciously? From an evolutionary perspective, why haven’t these biases been bred out of us? After all, what’s the benefit of being born with, say, the confirmation bias?

Elizabeth Kolbert has just published an interesting article in The New Yorker that helps answer some of these questions. (Click here). The article reviews three new books about how we think:

  • The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber
  • The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone by Steve Sloman and Philip Fernbach
  • Denying To The Grave: Why We Ignore The Facts That Will Save Us by Jack Gorman and Sara Gorman

Kolbert writes that the basic idea that ties these books together is sociability as opposed to logic. Our brains didn’t evolve to be logical. They evolved to help us be more sociable. Here’s how Kolbert explains it:

Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.”

So, the confirmation bias, for instance, doesn’t help us make good, logical decisions but it does help us cooperate with others. If you say something that confirms what I already believe, I’ll accept your wisdom and think more highly of you. This helps us confirm our alliance to each other and unifies our group. I know I can trust you because you see the world the same way I do.

If, on the other hand, someone in another group says something that disconfirms my belief, I know the she doesn’t agree with me. She doesn’t see the world the same way I do. I don’t see this as a logical challenge but as a social challenge. I doubt that I can work effectively with her. Rather than checking my facts, I check her off my list of trusted cooperators. An us-versus-them dynamic develops, which solidifies cooperation in my group.

Mercier and Sperber, in fact, change the name of the confirmation bias to the “myside bias”. I cooperate with my side. I don’t cooperate with people who don’t confirm my side.

Why wouldn’t the confirmation/myside bias have gone away? Kolbert quotes Mercier and Sperber: ““This is one of many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.” All we have to do is wait 1,000 generations or so. Or maybe we can program artificial intelligence to solve the problem.

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