Saturday, January 23, 2016

Understanding Iron Mike

Unfortunately the same can't be said for Mike Tyson, who plays the decidedly limited role of a bilingual, "foreign devil" crime boss who eventually goes mano a mano with [Donnie] Yen [in the movie Ip Man 3]. Likely unintentional but nevertheless helpful, English subtitles are provided not only for Tyson's Cantonese but also for his English lines.
--Michael Rechtshaffen, LA Times, on unintentional hilarity

Friday, January 22, 2016

What happens when you double teacher salaries?

How does a large unconditional increase in salary affect employee performance in the public sector? We present the first experimental evidence on this question to date in the context of a unique policy change in Indonesia that led to a permanent doubling of base teacher salaries. Using a large-scale randomized experiment across a representative sample of Indonesian schools that affected more than 3,000 teachers and 80,000 students, we find that the doubling of pay significantly improved teacher satisfaction with their income, reduced the incidence of teachers holding outside jobs, and reduced self-reported financial stress. Nevertheless, after two and three years, the doubling in pay led to no improvements in measures of teacher effort or student learning outcomes, suggesting that the salary increase was a transfer to teachers with no discernible impact on student outcomes.
--Joppe de Ree, Karthik Muralidharan, Menno Pradhan, and Halsey Rogers on double for nothing

How to erase fear

New research suggests that it may be possible not just to change certain types of emotional memories, but even to erase them. We’ve learned that memories are uniquely vulnerable to alteration at two points: when we first lay them down, and later, when we retrieve them.

Merel Kindt, a professor of psychology at the University of Amsterdam, and her colleagues have seemingly erased the emotional fear response in healthy people with arachnophobia. For a study published last month in the journal Biological Psychiatry, she compared three groups made up of 45 subjects in total. One group was exposed to a tarantula in a glass jar for two minutes, and then given a beta-blocker called propranolol that is commonly prescribed to patients for performance anxiety; one was exposed to the tarantula and given a placebo; and one was just given propranolol without being shown the spider, to rule out the possibility that propranolol by itself could decrease spider fear.

Dr. Kindt assessed the subjects’ anxiety when they were shown the spider the first time, then again three months later, and finally after a year. What she found was remarkable. Those who got the propranolol alone and those who got the placebo had no improvement in their anxiety. But the arachnophobes who were exposed to the spider and given the drug were able to hold the jar containing the tarantula on Day 1 and, by three months, felt comfortable holding the spider with their bare hands. Their fear did not return even at the end of one year.

How does this work? Well, propranolol blocks the effects of norepinephrine in the brain. This chemical, which is similar to adrenaline, enhances learning, so blocking it disrupts the way a memory is put back in storage after it is retrieved — a process called reconsolidation. ...

But there’s a flip side to this story about how to undo emotional learning: how to strengthen it. We can do that with drugs as well, and may have been doing it for some time.

Anxiety enhances emotional memory. We all know that — it’s why you can easily forget where you put your wallet, but will never forget being attacked. This is the case because anxiety leads to the release of norepinephrine in the brain, which, again, strengthens emotional learning. It is also why we should think twice about casually prescribing stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall for young people who really don’t need them. Stimulants also cause the release of norepinephrine and may enhance fear learning. So it is possible that taking stimulants could increase one’s risk of developing PTSD when exposed to trauma.

Indeed, a study that will be published next month found that the escalating use of stimulants by the military in active duty soldiers, including those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, was strongly correlated with an increase in the rates of PTSD, even when controlling for other factors, like the rate of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
--Richard A. Friedman, NYT, on remixing memory

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Einstein had imposter syndrome

The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Machiavellian reason to let North Korea have nukes

In one meeting, [a North Korean] official asked, “Why do the president and secretary of state keep saying that the United States will not allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons when in fact you are not doing much to stop us?” He deduced that there must be a hidden agenda. “It’s because you want us to have nuclear weapons as an excuse to tighten your grip on South Korea and Japan, your two allies.” We responded that there was no hidden agenda and that the United States really did not want the North to have those weapons. I’m not sure we convinced him.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The societal downside of flexible work schedules

As I discovered in a study that I published with my colleague Chaeyoon Lim in the journal Sociological Science, it’s not just that we have a shortage of free time; it’s also that our free time, in order to be satisfying, often must align with that of our friends and loved ones. We face a problem, in other words, of coordination. Work-life balance is not something that you can solve on your own.

Our study, which drew on data from more than 500,000 respondents to the Gallup Daily Poll, examined the day-to-day fluctuations and patterns in people’s emotions, week after week. ...

As measured by things such as anxiety, stress, laughter and enjoyment, our well-being is lowest Monday through Thursday. The workweek is a slog. Well-being edges up on Friday, and really peaks on Saturday and Sunday. We are, in a real sense, living for the weekend.

The surprising finding was that this is also true of unemployed people. ...

Free time is also a network good. The weekend derives much of its importance from the fact that so many people are off work together. ...

This conclusion points to a key feature of the work-life problem: You cannot get more “weekend” simply by taking an extra day off work yourself. If we were to take more time off as individuals, we would be likely to spend that time, as the jobless do, waiting for other people to finish work. ...

Over the past few years, many workplaces have looked for ways to create more flexibility in individual work schedules. There is no question that doing so has many benefits. But my research suggests that a disadvantage of these efforts is that they may lead us even further from a weekend-like system of coordinated social time.
--Cristobal Young, NYT, on the value of blue laws and common Sabbaths

Advice to female economists: Don't coauthor with men

[Harvard economics graduate student Heather] Sarsons compiled data on the publication records of young economists recruited by top universities in the United States over the last 40 years. ...

While women in the field publish as much as men, they are twice as likely to perish. And this higher rate for women being denied tenure persists even after accounting for differences in tenure rates across universities, the different subfields of economics that women work in, the quality of their publications and other influences that may have changed over time.

But Ms. Sarsons discovered one group of female economists who enjoyed the same career success as men: those who work alone. Specifically, she says that “women who solo author everything have roughly the same chance of receiving tenure as a man.” ...

Here is where it gets interesting. When an economist writes a paper on her own, there is no question about who deserves the credit. Each additional solo research paper raises the probability of getting tenure by about 8 or 9 percent, she calculated. The career benefit from publishing a solo paper is about the same for women as it is for men. But unlike women, men also get just as much credit for collaborative research, and there is no statistical difference in the career prospects of authors of individually written papers and those of papers written as part of a research team. ...

When women write with men, their tenure prospects don’t improve at all. That is, women get essentially zero credit for the collaborative work with men. Papers written by women in collaboration with both a male and female co-author yield partial credit. It is only when women write with other women that they are given full credit. ...

Interestingly, Ms. Sarsons has performed a parallel analysis of the field of sociology. In contrast to economics, there are no discernible differences in how men and women are given credit for joint work. One possible reason for this happier finding is that sociologists explicitly describe who deserves the most credit in a collaboration, by listing that person as the first author. This explicit attribution eliminates the need to make inferences, reducing the scope for sexist judgments. By contrast, economists list authors alphabetically, and the ensuing ambiguity may give greater space for sexist stereotypes to express themselves. Another possibility is that sociologists, many more of whom are women, are simply less sexist than economists. ...

As for Ms. Sarsons, a young economist who will have to navigate this thicket, she is taking her own advice. Her paper begins by saying, “This paper is intentionally solo-authored.”
--Justin Wolfers, NYT, on attribution bias

Friday, January 1, 2016

Partisan bias and its cure: money

Did unemployment get better or worse during Ronald Reagan’s presidency? In a 1988 survey, some 80 percent of dedicated Republicans accurately said it had improved, compared with 30 percent of loyal Democrats. In the 1990s, the pattern reversed on a range of factual questions about economic and fiscal issues. In a 1997 survey, for example, Republicans were far less likely than Democrats to acknowledge that the budget deficit had declined during the Bill Clinton administration. ...

But new research from two teams of political scientists adds a wrinkle to these findings. It turns out that the partisan bias in how people answer factual questions about the economy is diminished by this one weird trick: Pay people.

That is a conclusion reached in two new papers in The Quarterly Journal of Political Science, one from four scholars led by John G. Bullock at the University of Texas at Austin, the other by Markus Prior of Princeton and two colleagues.

When survey respondents were offered a small cash reward — a dollar or two — for producing a correct answer about the unemployment rate and other economic conditions, they were more likely to be accurate and less likely to produce an answer that fit their partisan biases. ...

The effect was even more pronounced when respondents were rewarded for honestly answering “I don’t know” when they didn’t have enough information. ...

The paper by Mr. Bullock, Alan S. Gerber, Seth J. Hill and Gregory A. Huber found that offering a $1 payment for a correct response and a 33-cent payment for an answer of “Don’t know” eliminated the entire partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans on questions about the economy.
--Neil Irwin, NYT, on the value of skin in the game

What happens to stuff you buy and then return

Little known to shoppers, however, is that a majority of returned items never make it back to retailers’ shelves. Instead, the items wind their way through liquidators, wholesalers and resellers, many of the purchases ending up in landfills. According to some estimates, as much as two million tons of returned items — most of it undamaged merchandise — are thrown away each year, enough to fill over 200,000 garbage trucks. ...

Optoro’s approach to cutting waste is to offer retailers more direct and cost-efficient ways to sell their returned goods through a software platform that tracks returns, quickly assesses which channel is the most effective for each returned item, and routes products to those channels.

For undamaged products that have a high resale value, like baby goods, power tools or tablet devices, Optoro’s software might direct products to its own discount site,, which sells open-box goods at discounts.
--Hiroko Tabuchi, NYT, on the cost of returned merchandise