Economics of apologies


Ben Ho is a behavioral economist who studies apologies. He presents an economic theory of apologies that predicts when apologies will change the outcome of disputes, and proposes policies to increase the frequency and sincerity of apologies. The best evidence for economics-driven apology policies are the laws that make doctors' apologies inadmissible in court; Ho cites research that claims that this leads to more physicians' apologies, which reduces patient grief and anger, and cuts down on malpractice suits.

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Coming soon: More than one data point on the transgender experience in the military

Part of the problem with the Chelsea Manning situation is that it's spawned a lot of not-terribly-well-informed discussion about the roles and experiences of transgendered people in the military. There's a risk of this one big anecdote coming to represent the whole. Enter the Kinsey Institute — America's favorite source of sexuality science — which just got a grant to do actual research on the lives of transgender service members.

Humans will befriend a stick — as long as it moves properly

Human emotions and social interaction have a lot to do with body language — how our faces express what we're thinking and feeling, how our gestures are read by other people, and how we invade (or retreat from) each other's personal space. In fact, those movements and behaviors are so important that, if you map them onto an otherwise completely non-human, non-animal form, we'll start interpreting it as engaging with us — even if that form is nothing more than a moving stick.

This video, clips from a study that was published in 2011 by computer scientists at the University of Calgary, shows what test subjects did and said when they were left alone in a room with a stick-like robot, and asked to just think out loud and interact with the robot in whatever ways felt natural. Some people made friends. Others tried to fight it. And a few tried to talk it out of wanting to fight them.

Video Link

Experimenting on orphans

There's a fantastic long read up at Aeon Magazine about the science of child development and the ethics of running scientific experiments on vulnerable populations. Virginia Hughes goes to Romania to follow a long-term study comparing children placed in orphanages with children placed in foster homes. The catch: Scientists already know that foster homes are better for kids than institutions. But that fact isn't well-known or accepted in Romania. So scientists had to ask — is it ethical to run an experiment involving kids when you already know the answer if there's a chance that it might help other kids in the future?

What happens when actual prisoners play The Prisoner's Dilemma?


Photo: businessinsider.com

The Prisoner's Dilemma is a basic part of game theory. Two prisoners are given the choice between informing on the other, or staying silent. They can't communicate with each other. The choices they make determine how many years in prison they both get.

This analogy/brain game is often used to demonstrate the ways that different people can work with or against each other in economic and social situations. Now, for the first time, scientists have done a study based on The Prisoner's Dilemma that used real prisoners. Instead of time off their sentences, they were given the choice of competing or cooperating to earn goodies like coffee and cigarettes.

And here's the surprise: Compared to college students, the prisoners actually cooperated with each other much more often.

Actually, most college students aren't hooking up as much as you think

Really interesting little bit of social science at Slate where Lisa Wade looks at the "OMG COLLEGE STUDENTS ARE JUST INDISCRIMINATELY BANGING EACH OTHER WHILE DRUNK ALL THE TIME" scare story, and finds a very different picture of what's happening in reality. The catch: In order to understand why both the pop narrative and the reality can co-exist, you have to break college students down by demographics. Some students really are engaging in what's come to be called "hook-up culture", but they tend to be the most privileged students — the ones whose wealth, race, and social status can better protect them from the consequences of mistakes, and who think about their college life (and future goals) in very different ways compared to less-privileged peers.

The messy science that spotted J.K. Rowling's secret novel

Behind the unveiling of J.K. Rowling as the author of a pseudonymously published detective novel lies a messy and not-terribly-precise science called "forensic stylistics". Using specially designed software — or, less often, just a trained eye — experts in the field try to match writing styles and discern the true authorship of disputed texts. But, even when they turn out to be right, as in the Rowling case, their findings are less than exact. Linguist Ben Zimmer explores the field and its usefulness at The Wall Street Journal.

Read this before you read another story on epigenetics

At Download the Universe, i09 editor Annalee Newitz critiques a new e-book about epigenetics — the science of how environmental factors can influence genetic expression — and violence. The book makes some pretty terrible (and non-scientific) insinuations about the idea of an inherent propensity towards violence and Newitz does a good job of both taking down the specific book and explaining the nuance behind a complicated topic.

Gun lobby has opposed research on effects of gun ownership/gun laws

Photo: Shutterstock

Last week, after giving myself an initial overview of the scientific research on how gun ownership and gun laws affect violent crime, I told you that it seems like there's not a solid consensus on this issue. At least not in the United States. Different studies, of different laws, in different places seem to produce a wide variety of results.

On the one hand, this is kind of to be expected with social science. People are hard to pin down. Harder, often, than the Higgs Boson particle. And you can't just do a clean, controlled laboratory study of these issues. Instead, you're left trying to compare specific places, laws, and enforcement techniques that may not be easily comparable, in an attempt to draw a broad conclusion. That's hard.

But, it seems, the National Rifle Association has gone out of its way to make this work even more difficult than it would otherwise be. Since the early 1990s, NRA-backed politicians have attacked firearms research they believe is biased against guns. Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon.com wrote a piece on this back in July, after an earlier mass shooting. He describes how a vaguely worded clause has lead researchers to avoid doing firearms studies at all, for fear of losing their funding.

The Centers for Disease Control funds research into the causes of death in the United States, including firearms — or at least it used to. In 1996, after various studies funded by the agency found that guns can be dangerous, the gun lobby mobilized to punish the agency. First, Republicans tried to eliminate entirely the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the bureau responsible for the research. When that failed, Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, successfully pushed through an amendment that stripped $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget (the amount it had spent on gun research in the previous year) and outlawed research on gun control with a provision that reads: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Dickey’s clause, which remains in effect today, has had a chilling effect on all scientific research into gun safety, as gun rights advocates view “advocacy” as any research that notices that guns are dangerous. Stephen Teret, who co-directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told Salon: “They sent a message and the message was heard loud and clear. People [at the CDC], then and now, know that if they start going down that road, their budget is going to be vulnerable. And the way public agencies work, they know how this works and they’re not going to stick their necks out.”

In January, the New York Times reported that the CDC goes so far as to “ask researchers it finances to give it a heads-up anytime they are publishing studies that have anything to do with firearms. The agency, in turn, relays this information to the NRA as a courtesy.”

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Via Dave Ng

Image: IMG_0362, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from neontommy's photostream

Different names for the same thing: Visualizing the 2012 election

Did you know that there was a major American election on Tuesday? Great. Let us all never speak of it again. At least for the next 3.5 years.

But before we send the parts of our brains that care about politics off to recuperate at a nice imaginary spa, take a quick look at a page of election maps put together by University of Michigan physics professor Mark Newman. He studies complex systems, including the networks of human relationships and decision-making that go into election results. His page of maps shows several different ways to visualize the same 2012 presidential election data — methods which provide different pieces of context that you don't normally see in the simple state-by-state map.

The basic map — the one you see on TV and in the newspaper — doesn't really tell you the whole story. It gives you no idea of population density (a factor that obviously matters a lot in tallying the popular vote), and it only shows the winning party in each state. In reality, the vote is seldom all-Democrat or all-Republican. There's a gradient, no matter where you live.

The map above takes both those factors into account — distorting the country to make the more populous parts larger, and showing split turnouts in shades of purple.

See all Mark Newman's maps at his website

And here's his FAQ

Thanks, Rick Musser!

Peer rewards for good behavior take a bite out of trolling and griefing in MMO


The Mary Sue's Becky Chambers rounds up the coverage and analysis of an anti-trolling/griefing experiment in League of Legends, a massively multiplayer online RPG battle arena. League's management hired a team of social scientists who designed a system of peer-rewards that allowed users to hand each other publicly visible points for positive, friendly interactions (there was already a system of reporting bad behavior and meting out punishments, but it wasn't working very well). Unlike previous attempts to use public reward to improve behavior, this one was not yet turned into a back-scratching system where friends just vote one another up, and has reportedly resulted in massive improvements in the quality of group interactions.

Ten days after Honor went live, an update from Dr. Lyte appeared on the official LoL blog, detailing the global changes they’d noticed in reported bad behavior:

Negative Attitude reports: -29% in normals and -11% in ranked
Offensive Language reports: -35% in normals and -20% in ranked
Verbal Abuse reports: -41% in normals -17% in ranked

Check that out. Ten days of a voluntary system that grants nothing more than a tiny perk for being amiable, and folks were already cleaning up their acts. Of course, these stats only show a decline of reported incidents, which, while encouraging, is could be different than how things look down in the trenches. As LoL is not part of my repertoire, I took to Twitter earlier this week to get the word on the street. Lo and behold, players are indeed noticing a difference.

I first got some feedback from a player named Paige, who cites LoL as her favorite game despite the “negativity and hostility” within the community. In her opinion, Honor is a welcome addition. “Players seem to be making more of an effort to be just generally friendly,” she wrote in an email, noting that she’s seen a slight improvement in cross-team chat. She also pointed out that this hasn’t prevented insults from flying when a match goes badly, but nonetheless, she’s glad for a way to give props for good behavior.

So Far, So Good: League of Legends Takes An Honorable Approach To Improving Player Behavior (via Techdirt)

Income inequality can be seen from space

How? It's surprisingly simple. Turns out, demand for trees in neighborhoods behaves a lot like a luxury item, as opposed to a basic necessity.

Tim De Chant at The Per Square Mile blog wrote about research on this a couple of weeks ago. Then, he went out and found examples, using images from Google Earth.

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The academic linguistics of LOLspeak

On Submitterator, Musicman pointed me towards this great presentation on LOLspeak as a form of language play, and why people engage in that play. According to Lauren Gawne, who gave this speech last week at the Australian Linguistics Society conference, the choice to use LOLspeak has a lot to do with establishing identity—the playful identity of "cat", and the serious identity of "knowledgeable Internet user".

Includes an explanation of why LOLspeak is language play and not some language mashup "kitty pidgin".

You can read more about this on Lauren Gawne's blog Superlinguo.

The video, by the way, is 20 minutes long. It's also got a little bit of weird, warbly feedback in the audio, but that doesn't get in the way of hearing what Gawne is saying.

Population streams: globalization results in liquefaction

Venkatesh Rao (one of my favorite provocative thinkers) noodles around with the idea of "streams" -- demographics of people who follow a particular international course, in long, stable, weird, nearly invisible arcs. Rao calls this "Globalization as liquefaction" and says, "Globalization signifies an incomplete process, not a state. For a long time I was convinced that there was a bit of semantic confusion somewhere. Why is there a becoming without discernible being states before and after? The reason is that the word globalization works like the word liquefaction. Liquids aren’t a transition from one solid state to another. They are a transition from a fundamentally static state to a fundamentally dynamic one. The world is not getting flatter, rounder or spikier. It is liquefying. There you go, Thomas Friedman, that’s my modest little challenge to your metaphor."

For most of the last decade, Israeli soldiers have been making the transition back to civilian life after their compulsory military service by going on a drug-dazed recovery trip to India, where an invisible stream of modern global culture runs from the beaches of Goa to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh in the north. While most of the Israelis eventually return home after a year or so, many have stayed as permanent expat stewards of the stream. The Israeli military stream is changing course these days, and starting to flow through Thailand, where the same pattern of drug-use and conflict with the locals is being repeated.

This pattern of movement among young Israelis is an example of what I’ve started calling a stream. A stream is not a migration pattern, travel in the usual sense, or a consequence of specific kinds of work that require travel (such as seafaring or diplomacy). It is a sort of slow, life-long communal nomadism, enabled by globalization and a sense of shared transnational social identity within a small population.

I’ve been getting increasingly curious about such streams. I have come to believe that though small in terms of absolute numbers (my estimate is between 20-25 million worldwide), the stream citizenry of the world shapes the course of globalization. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to say that streams provide the indirect staffing for the processes of modern technology-driven globalization. They are therefore a distinctly modern phenomenon, not to be confused with earlier mobile populations they may partly resemble.

The Stream Map of the World

(via Futurismic)

(Image: table mtn stream 040608, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from wolfgrams's photostream)

Empirical manners: towards a science of harmonious norms

"Rewilding Etiquette," Karl Schroeder's guest-post on Charlie Stross's blog, looks at a future where social contracts, not social control, are used to keep things running. As Larry Lessig wrote, the three forms of governance are law, technological constraint, and norms, and while activists and science fiction writers focus on the first two, the third is the most important (the reason your neighbors don't break into your house has more to do with being "good" than fear of arrest or difficulty defeating your locks).
Manners--etiquette--are little studied these days, which is ironic considering that arguably, we need them more than ever. After all, at no other time in history (except maybe during the hegemony of Rome) have so many diverse people being jostling elbows the way they are now. These days, any big city has people from every corner of the world living in it; in my city of Toronto, more than 50% of the inhabitants are from somewhere else. (And it works magnificently; we have 1/10th the murder rate of any comparably-sized American city.) We need to get along with one another, and good manners are an essential tool.

So, what if we didn't shave everybody's head, stamp a number on it and put them through brainwashing classes; or breed them for docility; or drug the water supply. What if, instead, we started a new movement in manners, one directed at conflict resolution, collective problem solving, and the cohabitation of diverse kinds of people? And simply presented it as a movement, like open source software, not run by a social engineering elite but by anybody who's willing to use the publically available code: i.e., the peer-reviewed, experimentally verified, incomplete but emerging cognitive sciences?

Rewilding Etiquette

(Image: Tokyo subway rules of etiquette, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from juicycactus's photostream)