Friday, December 19, 2008


"If I can be any help at all, you're in worse trouble than I thought."
- Blind jazz saxophonist to Steve Martin, All of Me

I sometimes feel this way reading fellow applicants' posts to the Livejournal applying to grad community.

More on the Linda the bank teller:
"As Stephen Jay Gould noted, knowledge of the truth does not dislodge the feeling that Linda is a feminist bank teller: 'I know [the right answer], yet a little homonculus in my head continues to jump up and down, shouting at me - "but she can't just be a bank teller; read the description."'"
- Daniel Kahneman & Shane Frederick, Representativeness Revisited

(Those nested quotation marks are making me crazy here.)

You know, sometimes you just gotta tell that little homonculus to shut up and sit his ass down.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

MIT Open Course Ware

For those readers who may be jonesing for more math instruction or are just interested in checking out some college coursework, the MIT Open Course Ware program looks pretty cool. I have not used it, but it is "a free publication of MIT course materials that reflects almost all the undergraduate and graduate subjects taught at MIT." You don't get any kind of college credit with it, but you can take advantage of lecture notes, assignments, and classroom lecture videos to learn something new or review something you used to know. They have over 1800 undergraduate and graduate courses available.


Robert was looking at this article about a bunch of new species of animals and plants found in Southeast Asia. Though there is something to be said for a spider with a foot-long leg span, a rat thought to be extinct for centuries until being spotted in an outdoor restaurant, and a bright pink milipede, I only have eyes for the bunnmunk (okay, a rabbit called nesolagus timminsi).

Am I adorable or what?
"We're the bunnmunks! B-U-N-N-MUNK!"

I mean, really, he's got serious chipmunk coloring:

But I've got a prettier tail!
Much cuteness.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I Hope So Too

Although I do not share the pink-haired girl's overall attitude toward life, I heartily agree with her statement in the last panel. I hope this much of the time.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Defending the Family (Mathematical) Honor

I have now done my part to uphold the family honor: I have finished the diff equations class and barring some bizarre problem like this has all been a dream, I should have an A. Hopefully this effort, combined with my sister's previous ones, will help counter the blemish of my dad's differential equations F.

I am now well-prepared to begin forgetting more about differential equations than most people will ever know.

...which, by the way, has to be one of the least compelling arguments for credibility ever. "I have forgotten more about macroeconomics than you will ever know!" or "She has forgotten more about state purchasing guidelines than he ever knew!" This is particularly strange when used as a reason that the speaker should be trusted to make a decision, etc., over the other person mentioned. Wait, we're supposed to put all this confidence in you because you used to know something about the topic? I'm going to put my trust in someone who has learned a lot about something and not, you know, forgotten it. I used to think that this phrase was merely a joke, but it seems that people do use it seriously as a testament to an individual's knowledge and expertise (and not, as it may sound to one upon first hearing it, their cognitive decline).

Do the math. Hey, we can do this in the form of a GRE quantitative comparison question.

"Ann has forgotten more about math than Brenda ever knew.

Column A: the amount Ann currently knows about math
Column B: the amount Brenda currently knows about math

A - the quantity in Column A is larger
B - the quantity in Column B is larger
C - the two quantities are equal
D - the relationship cannot be determined from the information given"

Ann forgot X amount, and once knew Y amount, and currently knows Y - X amount about math.

Brenda forgot S amount, and once knew T amount, and currently knows T - S amount about math.

X > T

Is Y - X larger, smaller, or equal to T - S?

It's easy to see if you try different numbers. Say X = 10 and T = 5. How does Y - 10 compare to 5 - S? That depends on Y (how much Ann once knew) and S (how much Brenda forgot).

If Y = 100 and S = 1, then 100 -10 = 90 > 5 - 1 = 4.
If Y = 11 and S = 3, then 11 - 10 = 1 < 5 - 3 = 2.
If Y = 14 and S = 2, then 13 - 10 = 3 = 5 - 2 = 3.

So without additional information, the statement means squat in terms of who knows more about math right now.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Movie Anachronisms

I finally watched No Country for Old Men, which many reviewers believe to be the Coen brothers' best movie since Fargo. I have to disagree. It's better than Fargo; it's their best movie, full-stop. Don't get me wrong - I liked Fargo a lot, but the pacing, the suspense, and most of all, the overall context for the violence was far superior in No Country. Also, Tommy Lee Jones rocked a part that could easily have been too full of small-town old-timer wisdom and gets special recognition for that uber-rarity: making you interested in hearing about a dream he had, a dream that has a frickin' point even.

But one thing that surprised me was the reference to an ATM in a movie set in West Texas in 1980. I have found out that the first ATM in Texas was opened in 1978, but it's hard to imagine that they were very common in some small town in the Del Rio area. (Various sources online suggest they did not come into common usage until the mid-1980's. This matches up with my experience.) Of course, it's possible that the non-local who refers to the ATM could have been lying about its existence. So it's not certain to me that it's an anachronism, but it was kind of jarring.

Last week, I also enjoyed the silly fish-out-of-water-coming-of-age-story-with-quiz-bowl movie Starter For 10 (which also featured two actors from the TV show Rome in further evidence of my "there are only 50 British actors" hypothesis) that was set in 1985. The soundtrack was full of mid-80's favorites, but also two songs from the 1989 Disintegration album by the Cure. I know, "Pictures of You" is a fantastic song, almost impossible to resist putting in a movie like this, but come on, guys, it's a full 4 years too early.

Of course, the most egregious recent use of that song is in this HP commercial. What part of lyrics like "I've been looking so long at these pictures of you that I almost believe that they're real / I've been living so long with these pictures of you that I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel" did the ad agency not understand? This is a totally inappropriate song for that ad.

It's funny that from watching modern movies set in the 1980's, you would assume that bands like the Smiths, the Psychedelic Furs, the Cure, the Replacements, New Order, and the Pixies were the dominant bands of the era. And OK, these groups were pretty popular, and they definitely have held up well with time, and I basically love them, but they were totally eclipsed by the vastly different, pre-alternative pop rock of people like Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, the Police, U2, et al., who owned the 1980s. I don't mean to seriously complain - I would much, much rather listen to a Kate Bush song than a Whitney Houston song in a movie soundtrack. I never need to hear that song "Every Breath You Take" ever again. No question this selective memory fits my own tastes. But the 1980's soundtrack of most people's lives did not feature Camper van Beethoven.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Inside Business" Column: December 10, 2008

by Dominique Argente

Insiders report that there's trouble in paradise over at Salligent this week! Recently promoted Chief Morale Officer Leopold Rex is not so happy with his job or his boss lately, which can't bode well for the organization as a whole. If your CMO ain't happy, can anyone be happy?

It appears that the "carrot, not stick" strategy Rex recommends for motivating employees and increasing satisfaction hasn't caught on with company bigwigs. Sources say that Salligent CEO Sally Porter and CFO Robert Eggman have been ganging up on Rex and undermining his position: "Porter holds him down and Eggman stabs him in the back, literally, every day! You should hear the thumping!"

The only hope is that both Porter and Eggman have been "feeling sick" this week. After all this mistreatment, perhaps their consciences are catching up with them, or perhaps they simply recognize that they risk alienating their CMO for good with their aggressive, back-stabbing ways.

CORRECTION to "Inside Business" Column

On December 10, we reported that the Salligent company has been demoralizing their Chief Morale Officer Leopold Rex by "literally" stabbing him in the back on a daily basis. Unfortunately, this paper assumed that the source describing these events was using the word "literally" to mean "figuratively" or "metaphorically" rather than "literally."

Further discussions with CEO Sally Porter, CFO Robert Eggman, and Dr. Tina Bunnyluv of the local House Rabbit society revealed that Mr. Rex is suffering from a potentially deadly infection that Salligent's executive management staff have been treating with daily shots of antibiotic. Porter says, "Leopold hasn't liked this whole 'grab and stab' approach to treatment, but it has been necessary. We've all been pleased with how much he grumbles and fights it, since this grumpiness demonstrates how much he has regained his strength. He's now well on the road to recovery and is taking his medication orally. I was concerned about him refusing to take pills, but since the medication is a liquid, it has gone well so far. Leopold continues to delight and motivate all members of this organization in sickness and in health. We couldn't be happier with him. And all things considered, he seems pretty happy with us, too." Mr. Eggman could not be reached for comment since he is at home, sick and asleep.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Extensional Versus Intuitive Reasoning

Let's revisit a famous psychology experiment from 1974. In fact, you should play along yourself by reading the following description of a person and then ranking the 8 statements that follow according to their probability, with 1 being the most probable and 8 being the least probable.

"Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Linda is a teacher in elementary school.
Linda works in a bookstore and takes Yoga classes.
Linda is active in the feminist movement.
Linda is a psychiatric social worker.
Linda is a member of the League of Women Voters.
Linda is a bank teller.
Linda is an insurance agent.
Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement."

OK, all done?

Notice anything interesting about this list?

What the experimenters are really interested in is seeing how you rank the items "active in the feminist movement" (F), "bank teller" (B), and "bank teller and active in the feminist movement" (B+F).

Those of us who took probability and statistics will remember something called the conjunction rule: P(A+B)<=P(B). This means simply that the probability of two things together being true must be less than or equal to the probability of one of the two things being true by itself. For example, the probability that "my pet is a rabbit named Leo" (R+L) cannot be greater than the probability that "my pet is a rabbit" (R). This is because the pet has to be a rabbit (R) in order for it to be a rabbit named Leo (R+L) and it is possible for R to be true while L is not true: I could have a rabbit, but his name is Blackberry or Hazel or Bigwig or ....

Although looking at the formula can be confusing, I think the central idea is pretty easy to grasp. The probability that "Joe has a computer that is a Mac" can't be higher than the probability that "Joe has a computer." The probability that "Kevin had a burger and fries at lunch" cannot be higher than the probability that "Kevin had a burger at lunch." And so we see, the probability that "Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement" cannot be higher than the probability that "Linda is a bank teller."

So how did you do? Did you rank "bank teller + feminist" higher than "bank teller" alone? If so, you have plenty of company. In the experiments, 88% of students thought it was more likely that Linda was a feminist bank teller than a bank teller, thus violating the conjunction rule. When they tested students with higher levels of "statistical sophistication" (i.e. had taken more statistics classes), 85% of them violated the conjunction rule.

They did another experiment in which students looked at the same list, but instead of ranking the probability of the events, they ranked how well Linda resembles the typical member of the class. In this case, 85% ordered the descriptions Feminist > Feminist Bank Teller > Bank Teller, which matched up very well with the rankings in the probability experiment.

So it appeared that when people were asked to think about the probabilities of various things being true, they thought about how well the description matched up with what they knew about Linda. Since Linda had many characteristics associated with the stereotypical feminist, and few traits associated with the stereotypical bank teller, it seemed natural to assume that she was more likely a feminist than a bank teller, even to the point of finding "feminist bank teller" more plausible, and hence probable, than just "bank teller," despite the mathematical incoherence of such a thing.

The experimenters were a bit dismayed by these results and hence proceeded to create "increasingly desperate manipulations designed to induce subjects to obey the conjunction rule." One of these desperate manipulations was to see if people could at least recognize that they should be using the conjunction rule in determining these probabilities. Subjects were shown two arguments and asked to indicate which they found more convincing:

"Argument 1: Linda is more likely to be a bank teller than she is to be a feminist bank teller, because every feminist bank teller is a bank teller, but some women bank tellers are not feminists, and Linda could be one of them.

Argument 2: Linda is more likely to be a feminist bank teller than she is to be a bank teller, because she resembles an active feminist more than she resembles a bank teller."

65% of subjects found Argument 2 more convincing.

Then the experimenters changed the experiment, giving the same description of Linda's personality and background, but then saying: "If you couuld win $10 by betting on an event, which of the following would you bet on? (Check one.)" and listing the bank teller and feminist bank teller descriptions. 56% of subjects selected feminist bank teller.

I thought this was particularly interesting:

"Why do intelligent and reasonably well-educated people fail to recognize the applicability of the conjunction rule in transparent problems? Postexperimental interviews and class discussions with many subjects shed some light on this question. Naive as well as sophisticated subjects generally noticed the nesting of the target events [i.e. that "bank teller" includes "feminist bank teller"] in the direct-transparent test, but the naive, unlike the sophisticated, did not appreciate its significance for probability assessment. However, most naive subjects did not attempt to defend their responses. As one subject said after acknowledging the validity of the conjunction rule, 'I thought you only asked for my opinion.' "

The experimenters then liken the naive subjects to children in the preconservative stage of cognitive development who recognize the validity of concepts such as conservation of volume but do not see that the conservation argument is "decisive" and should over-rule their impression that when you pour a given quantity of liquid from a short, wide glass into a tall, skinny glass, there is a greater amount of liquid because it looks like more.

I find it rather endlessly fascinating and depressing that even when the error is pointed out to them, so many adults could believe, "Well, yes, technically she is more likely to be a bank teller, but it's my opinion that she's probably a feminist bank teller." While this may seem like a trivial example, the implications are disturbing. Even in situations in which the person's belief is not even possible, they stick to it as a matter of "opinion." So imagine the situations in which the belief is possible - like, Barack Obama has the middle name Hussein so he is probably a Muslim. How much evidence would be required to make the person change their "opinion" about that? And while in experiments with other types of things (like a gambling scenario with a sequence of die rolls given) subjects were able to be more logical with their reasoning, person perception scenarios seem to be particularly prone to triggering this intuitive (and faulty) reasoning based on stereotypes. What's more, the thinking process doesn't have to be motivated by bad intentions to come up with these impossible beliefs.

The researchers conclude their article by observing, "A system of judgments that does not obey the conjunction rule cannot be expected to obey more complicated principles that presuppose this rule, such as Bayesian updating, external calibration, and the maximation of expected utility. The presence of bias and incoherence does not diminish the normative force of these principles [i.e. that people should follow them], but it reduces their usefulness as descriptions of behavior and hinders their prescriptive applications." Economists, they are looking at you.

The researchers, psychologists Amos Tverksy and Daniel Kahneman, pioneered the hugely influential area of "heuristics and biases" in judgment (of which these experiments give a taste of the impact of the "representativeness heuristic") and also collaborated on "prospect theory" (another theory that showed deficiencies in the expected utility model in decision-making under uncertainty), for which Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. (Tversky died in 1996 and was not eligible for the award.) Apparently, Kahneman has never taken a course in economics.

Source: Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. Extensional versus intuitive reasoning: the conjunction fallacy in probability judgment (originally published 1984), in Heuristics and Biases, eds. Thomas Gilovich, Dale Griffin, Daniel Kahneman, 2002.

Grad School & Leo Update

I have completed and sent in the 6 applications that I had scheduled myself to have done prior to Christmas break. I now only have one left, with a late deadline, that I hope I will not have to finish. So now, we wait.

On Saturday night, Leo developed a head tilt - he was sitting up, trying to sleep, but his head kept tilting over to the side until he'd jerk it back into position, over and over. Head tilt is a very serious symptom in rabbits and generally indicates that the bunny should get immediate care. We are fortunate that the House Rabbit group in Austin, from whom we adopted Leo, provides such excellent support for their bunnies. Robert got on the phone with one of the women from the group I will call T and half an hour later, we were in her living room, with Leo getting shots of steroids (to remove pressure from the nerve in his ear) and antibiotics. She sent us home with three days of medication. Leo has already improved drastically (no more tilting! and he is behaving/eating mostly normally) so on Wed. night, we will go to her house again to pick up some oral antibiotic that she is compounding for us.

A weekend emergency visit to an animal hospital would have been several hundred dollars. When Robert asked about how much we owed her, she said, "Let's call it a $10 donation to cover the costs. You can give it to me when you pick up the oral meds." $10?! Needless to say, the organization will be getting a substantially larger donation from us than that.

Keeping You Up All Night

I post this as a warning to my readers who spend a lot of time looking at animal videos on YouTube, surfing, and searching for the best lolcats/lolbuns/etc. -- you know who you are. (I know who three of you are.)

(Note: this makes me want to post another photo of Leo just to mess with this cartoon girl's mind.)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Liz's Candied Sweet Potatoes

This is a slight variant on the recipe Robert's aunt made at Thanksgiving, with a somewhat lower butter and sugar to potato ratio, but still yummy. The ratios definitely don't need to be precise; you can work with the amount of potato you have and decide how sweet a glaze you want for them. You will want to make sure you increase the water in proportion to the potato, however.

Liz's Candied Sweet Potatoes

1 1/2 lb. peeled and cubed sweet potato*
2 T butter
1/4 c. packed light brown sugar
1/3 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper
1/2 c. water

* This was the post-peeled and cubed weight according to my scale.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.

Add remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer.

Reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Cook until the sweet potatoes are tender, 30 minutes to 55 minutes (varies greatly based on the size of your "cubes"), stirring every 5 minutes or so (I did it more like every 10 minutes).

When the sweet potatoes are tender, remove the lid and bring the sauce to a rapid simmer over medium-high heat. Simmer until the sauce has reduced to a glaze (this happened for me almost immediately).

Makes 4 servings, about 250 calories each.

I had it for dinner tonight with oven baked chicken strips. I made the potatoes this afternoon, and I think they tasted better after setting in the fridge for a few hours than they did right off the stovetop.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Opportunity to Resist Temptation

Another interest of mine is research that aids in developing strategies that people can use to improve their ability to reach long-term goals in the face of temptations to satisfy short-term goals instead: studying and working instead of playing, exercising instead of watching TV, eating an apple intead of a doughnut, etc. Since I'm pretty good about getting work done and exercising daily and saving money, but have difficulty not eating too much, especially of sweets, I have a particular interest in how people can better meet their healthy eating goals.

This is the topic of another article in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Specifically, they are addressing two rather contradictory theories / streams of research on the influence of food temptations on later eating opportunities.

The first, I think we're all familiar with: exposure to food cues (such as the sight and smell of food) activates our desire to eat, thus making it difficult for us to control ourselves. Research on self-regulation as a limited resource (which I've talked about before) suggests that when you have to control yourself in one situation, you deplete your self-regulation ability, setting yourself up for self-control failure in the future. These ideas would indicate that the best way to overcome temptation is to avoid it - keeping yummy snacks (e.g. Oat Crack cereal) out of the house, not exposing yourself to ads for food, etc.

The second one is new to me: the "critical level model" states that only once a problem reaches some threshhold level of seriousness or difficulty do people engage their problem-solving abilities. It is theorized that this occurs because people expect intense states to last longer than milder states and thus find the serious problem worth trying hard to solve. In the context of achieving long-term eating goals, I can see how this might play out. People frequently put effort into thinking of strategies for dealing with major Diet Threat situations like holidays, parties, vacations, all-you-can-eat buffets, and so forth, while we are rather blase about the small-time temptations we encounter on a daily basis. This model would suggest that encountering a large enough problem / threat to our eating goals in the form of a food temptation might trigger self-control strategies that would benefit you in a later self-control situation.

In this paper, they look at two kinds of temptations: Actionable temptations, in which the food is physically present and available for you to "act" on the temptation by eating, and Nonactionable temptations, like advertisements that make you think about food but do not provide an immediate opportunity to act on your desire to eat. They hypothesized that Actionable temptations (in their experiment, real candy that participants were looking at to do a survey but were not allowed to eat) would lead to greater self-control in a later eating situation compared to Nonactionable temptations (participants seeing drawings of candy).

This research is difficult to describe because of the complexity of the experiments, so I will cut to the overall results:

* Previous exposure to the real candy made something happen to block thoughts about eating when they later encounter a chance to eat.

* When given the chance to eat some M&M's, the drawings of candy group and control group ate a lot more when the experiment included the eating "cues" of the smell of chocolate and the availability of the chocolate in easy-to-grab trays, compared to when they were just presented with the M&M's with no smell and in less convenient containers. Those in the real candy group did not increase their intake of M&M's when those cues were present compared to when they were absent. Again, the idea is that something about their previous exposure to the real candy protected them from cues that typically make people eat like crazy.

* They rejected the idea that previous exposure to real candy (Actionable temptation) made people more likely to think about dieting than those who had only seen drawings (Nonactionable temptation); both groups had elevated thoughts about dieting compared to the control group. Their position is that something made the real candy group think less about eating and actually eat less compared to those who only saw pictures of food and the control group, but it wasn't increased thinking about dieting. The question remains: What is that "something"?

It's clearly unwise to interpret this single study as a reason to go to Sam's Club and buy the biggest damn bag of candy you can find. For one, the "future" eating opportunities they provided were not very distant in time from the original exposure to the candy at the beginning of the experiment. It's unknown how long this "something" that protects you against future eating temptations lasts. Your own big bag of candy may function as both exposure to temptation and later eating opportunity in the same afternoon.

Also, critically, the sorts of social inhibitions that allowed people to be tempted by the original real candy, but not actually eat any of it in the lab, are unlikely to exist in your own kitchen; if you've just eaten a pound of chocolate, you're probably not going to feel very tempted by candy for a while anyway and you've already hosed your diet.

In any event, it'll be interesting to see where future research on this topic goes.

Source: Geyskens, K., Dewitte, S., Pandelaere, M., & Warlop, L. (2008). Tempt me just a little bit more: the effect of prior food temptation actionability on goal activation and consumption, Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 600-610.

Mysteriously Disappearing Comments

There appears to be some weird interaction between the comment function and posts with YouTube videos. Last night, I had to try posting the "Science" video several times before the comments line showed up. The "Peaches" post originally allowed comments, and now even though there is a comment, the ability to see that comment or make new comments has disappeared. Weird. I am not doing any of this on purpose.

Looking Cheap

As those of you who have read some version of my statement of purpose know, one research area of great interest to me is social cognition (how people process social information, think about other people, etc.) in the context of consumer psychology. This is a broad field that could look at things like:

* Stereotypes about people who buy certain things or shop at certain stores. Take a moment to consider "Whole Foods shopper" and "Wal-Mart shopper" - for most of us, images of these two categories of people come readily to mind, even if we also understand that individual people in these groups will not match up with the stereotype very well. Humans rely a great deal on these kind of simplifying generalizations in dealing with the social world.

* The influence of self-identities on consumer behavior. For a trivial example, imagine that I am in the grocery store to pick up something for dinner. Depending on what aspect of my identity is ascendant at the time, I may make a different choice. If I'm aware of myself as a "healthy eater," I will be more likely to choose something natural, with a lot of vegetables, good fats, etc. If I'm aware of myself as a "dieter," I may pick up something lower in fat and calories, but that has more chemical additives and less nutritional value. If I'm aware of myself as "college student on Operation Cheap Ass," I might gravitate toward the least expensive alternatives.

* The use of consumer goods in bolstering impression management efforts. The objects in our lives serve a lot of purposes, and communicating something about ourselves to others, in order to make a favorable impression on people whose opinions we care about, is a big one.

A paper in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research ties together several things close to my heart - grocery shopping, impression management, and saving money.

They start with the psychological concept of "stigma by associaton" (SBA) - when a negative trait a person has or is believed to have (a stigma) is also attributed to someone associated with (or similar to) that individual. In this case, they are examining the stigma of "cheapness" that comes with using coupons, especially those of low value. Other research has demonstrated that people believe that using low value coupons is something cheap people do (and is thus stigmatized), while using higher value coupons is an action of a "smart" shopper and does not produce the same negative perception.

In a series of experiments and field studies, they test whether other people will view another, "normal" shopper as cheap if a "coupon-using" shopper uses low or high value coupons in a variety of situations.

They found:

* A bystander will view a "normal" shopper following a "coupon-using" shopper in the grocery store line as more cheap when the coupon-user uses a low value (50 c) coupon than a high value ($2) coupon or no coupon. Even though the two shoppers had no actual relationship, the proximity of the normal to the "low value coupon-using" shopper made the former shopper look cheap too.

* However, when the normal shopper is in a different line from the coupon-user, the perception of cheapness does not rub off on the normal shopper regardless of coupon value. (This appears to be more about the different line than mere physical distance based on further tests.)

* When the normal shopper is very physically attractive and the coupon-user is of average appearance, some interesting stuff happens. Not only is there no SBA for the "normal/attractive" shopper regardless of coupon value or proximity to the coupon-user (he is protected by his dissimilarity to the coupon user and the fact that he has a socially desirable trait), the coupon-user himself looks less cheap. Something of the social desirability of the attractiveness of the normal shopper appears to be transferred back to the coupon-user, protecting him against a negative evaluation in the form of perceived cheapness.

* When a second person accompanies a coupon-user in the store, the second person himself feels a sense of cheapness by association. When the second person is a stranger to the coupon-user, the felt SBA is fairly low and does not depend on the coupon value, but when he is the coupon-user's friend, the felt SBA is higher, especially when a low value coupon is used.

I found the "contrast effect" produced by the highly attractive normal shopper and the typical-looking coupon-user interesting, but it seems to me that they were testing two things at once. From their experiment, it's hard to separate out how much of the effect is caused by the normal shopper being dissimilar to the coupon-user, and thus less likely to be affected by SBA, and how much is due to his having a positive trait that is known to produce a halo effect (makes the person seem good on other dimensions that have nothing to do with their attractiveness). I wonder what would happen if the normal shopper was especially ugly instead of especially good-looking, but equally dissimilar in appearance? Would this make the coupon-user appear even cheaper?

Source: Argo, J.J., & Main, K.J. (2008). Stigma by association in coupon redemption: looking cheap because of others, Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 559-572.

The Limits of Science

Forget Popper and Kuhn. You may think you understand the scientific process, but I guarantee you will find much to learn from this educational video, brought to us by Mr. Show:

It's a bit eerie how much my wizard hat (that I constructed for a Halloween party when I was about 16) resembles the one in this video. I didn't realize how historically accurate my costume was.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


I was realizing tonight that I suck. I have two KSAL disks sitting on my desk that I have not even made a copy of for myself yet, let alone anyone else. (Wait, I think Tam has a copy of the first one; it's been sitting around since before my last visit to Denver. At least they both say "2008" on them.)

This weekend, I need to get these copies made and sent out while I still have some hope of identifying what the songs are. I know one of them has a couple of songs by The Presidents of the United States of America. The song "Peaches" is not one of them, but I like the video, so to tide over KSAL listeners, I present this for your amusement, and for evocations of a warmer time. Enjoy.

Note: the line "Peaches come from a can" reminds me of how it twangs my brain whenever I see a recipe that starts with a can of sweet potatoes. It's like seeing...I don't know...what's weirder than canned sweet potatoes? Canned lettuce?

Fun & Games

I just finished watching the movie "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (based on the Edward Albee play). Although its caustic, cruel, witty dark humor is not for everyone, I was pretty much blown away by it. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are extremely good in their roles of drunk, middle-aged harridan and her smart, ineffectual, yet increasingly boisterous semi-failed academic husband as they go after each other all night long in the company of a handsome young new assistant professor in the math or biology (controversy exists here) department and his "mousy" wife.

The dialogue was intelligent and surprisingly raw at times, with quite a bit of swearing. I particularly enjoyed Richard Burton's lines - e.g. "You bet your historical inevitability" and "Will you show her where we keep the ... euphemism?" and "You disgust me on principle and you're a smug son of a bitch personally but I'm trying to give you a survival kit."

Definitely worth seeing, if you can stomach this level of intensity.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Not Entirely Dazzled

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the Freakonomics book is how weirdly gushing it is about how much of a genius economist Steven Levitt is. What makes it nauseating is that Steven Levitt is himself co-author of the book.

Perhaps it was not completely inappropriate for journalist Stephen Dubner to be so laudatory and hagiographical when he was writing about Levitt in his series of articles in the NY Times. He wanted people to know, Hey, this guy's research may look frivolous, but he's totally smart and stuff! (Although I think he went too far even in that context.) But when you then co-write a book with the target of all this overwrought verbiage, you should really have the sense to not go on at such length about what a brainiac maverick he is.

And if you're the rogue economist in question, you really shouldn't let him. This shit is going out under your own name. Doesn't that seem bizarrely self-aggrandizing? You really should make the point of establishing your own credibility as an expert in the book you write other ways. A classic approach is to let your bio point out that you won the Clark Medal, etc. But perhaps they were afraid we wouldn't read it and may come away with anything less than complete conviction that Steven Levitt is an utterly brilliant, visionary thinker. Or whatever.

Perhaps they had to call the book "Freakonomics" because the phrase "Staggering Genius" was already used in that Dave Eggers memoir. And "Iamanecongodonomics" is too long.

I found it hard to judge the value of this book, which is basically a discussion of the different research projects Levitt and his collaborators have done. It is definitely intended for the layman audience. Perhaps too much of the important stuff seemed obvious to me and the rest, well, it really is pretty insignificant-seeming at times.

It was also kind of unusual to read a book that is so strongly (it seems to me) in the spirit of traditional economic thinking, for all that Levitt is positioned as a rebel. At the same time (the book came out in 2005) that other economists are writing about how research in the other social sciences can enrich economic theory by complicating naive assumptions about rationality and so forth (i.e. behavioral economics), Levitt seems to be trying to use the rather stunted tools of homo-economicus-based economic analysis to understand everything in the world. It's a rather grandiose vision. Or it could be, if it weren't so clear that Levitt sees it mostly as a fun game to play.

One of the big stories told in the book was about the link between legalized abortion and the crime rate. Levitt and another economist had done research (regression analysis of available data) suggesting that the crime rate in the 1990's went down because a lot of the people who would have grown up to be criminals during that time had instead been aborted after the legalization of abortion in the 1970's. This was a very controversial finding. In fact, controversial enough that other people analyzed the data and believed the results to be flawed. I have not followed the back-and-forth on this issue, which is very technical, so I really have no strong sense of whether Levitt has been vindicated or his findings are questionable.

I didn't write down much that I read from the book, but I did make note of the following "fundamental ideas" that motivated the book:
1. Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life.
2. Conventional wisdom is often wrong.
3. Dramatic effects often have distant, even subtle, causes.
4. Experts use their information advantage to serve their own agenda.
5. Knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world less so.

I also thought the findings of an analysis of real-estate ad terms and sales price were kind of interesting. Terms associated with a higher price: granite, state of the art, Corian, maple, gourmet. Terms associated with a lower price: fantastic, spacious, !, charming, great neighborhood. The authors suggest that realtors use a coded language to talk to each other and can communicate negative qualities while using phrases that appear positive to their customers.

In a good example of the more frivolous research, they found that voting on the TV show "Weakest Link" discriminates against Hispanics and the elderly: Hispanics because other team members believe they have poor skills and the elderly because other team members just prefer not to interact with them.

The best part about the book was that it inspired me to have a long argument with Robert, which I spent standing in the kitchen, about something involving incentives and the utility function and a bunch of other things that I can't even remember now. Good times, good times.