Is College Worthwhile for the Government?

With the constant attention given to the unsolvable debate over whether college is “worth it” for students, the question that gets ignored is if college is worthwhile for local governments. That is, if college isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, is funding for higher education a good investment for states? According to a new study by economists Amy Damon and Paul Glewwe, the answer is yes for the state of Minnesota.

In 2005, the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system received $832 million from Minnesota’s state government to support educational programs. These subsidies allow these institutions to offer lower tuition rates, increasing the number of Minnesotans with bachelor and graduate degrees. We calculate that removing these subsidies would eventually lead to 14,000 fewer graduate degree holders in Minnesota, and reduce those with bachelor’s degrees or “some college” by 42,000. The annual economic cost of these subsidies is about $326 million; this is less than annual state appropriations because most of those appropriations are income transfers from taxpayers to students, not an economic cost. We estimate that the annual value of the benefits of these subsidies is between $531 and $786 million ($381 and $570 million) when a 3 percent (5 percent) discount rate is used.

At some point there are bound to be diminishing returns to these investments, but right now the findings remind us that cuts to higher education are probably not in the “winning the future” playbook.


Adventures in Euphamisms

Society has long mocked the idea of fat people saying they are “big-boned,” but it turns out they may have been on to something.

In Study 1, participants’ attitudes toward people labeled as fat were less favorable than were their attitudes toward people labeled as overweight. In Studies 2 and 3, although participants chose similar-sized figures to depict fat and overweight targets, weight stereotypes and weight attitudes were more negative toward people labeled as fat than those labeled as overweight

Taken together, these three studies indicate that the weight label “fat” biases participants to respond more negatively than does the weight label “overweight,” even though these labels refer to the same social group.

And here’s another very interesting but completely unrelated finding from the same paper:

In particular, fat people were the least favored of the 10 social groups presented, followed by overweight people and Muslim people, who were rated similarly.

The authors are Paul Brochu and Victoria Esses of the University of Ontario. It’s yet another sign of American decline that a Canadian University is at the forefront of obesity judgment research.

On an separate note, I’d be interested in the ratings of people who are categorized as “calorically challenged.”

People Don’t Know How They Feel About Public Transportation

A few weeks ago I mentioned a study showing that people are terrible at predicting how they will feel about using public transportation. Those results have now been confirmed in a new unrelated study.

Affective forecasting in public transport was investigated in 2 studies. Study 1 revealed differences in satisfaction between users (n = 870) and non-users (n = 137). Users were more satisfied than were non-users with regard to reliability and safety, as well as with regard to overall satisfaction. It was also found that non-users mispredicted their satisfaction with public transport. Study 2 revealed that habitual car users (n = 106) reported greater satisfaction after using public transport for 1 month than they had predicted initially, which provided additional support for the hypothesis that habitual car users would mispredict their satisfaction with public transport.

The authors attribute the poor affective forecasting to focalism (e.g. focusing on the salient drawback of waiting rather than the quicker commute or ability to read while traveling) and our inability to account for emotional adaptation.

It’s worth noting that both studies were conducted in Europe, a place where I assume the gap between “perception of public transportation” and “enjoyment of public transportation” is much smaller than it is in car-loving, dilapidated-subway America. If the same kind of erroneous forecasting problem is happening here it means our transportation policy problem may really be more of a PR problem.

You Are What You Read

This might explain some of the extreme Harry Potter cosplay:

We propose the narrative collective-assimilation hypothesis—that experiencing a narrative leads one to psychologically become a part of the collective described within the narrative. In a test of this hypothesis, participants read passages from either a book about wizards (from the Harry Potter series) or a book about vampires (from the Twilight series). Both implicit and explicit measures revealed that participants who read about wizards psychologically became wizards, whereas those who read about vampires psychologically became vampires.The results also suggested that narrative collective assimilation is psychologically meaningful and relates to the basic human need for connection.

The authors fittingly focus on the human need for connection, but the results also hint at what I like to call our desire to “diversify our emotional portfolios.”  By “becoming” a wizard (or a Red Sox fan, or a Mitt Romney supporter) through engagement with a narrative we ground some of our emotional well-being in the fate of the group we join. This can mitigate the effects of negative life events because our emotional states are no longer strictly based on personal outcomes. It also allows us to feel extreme emotions (something we like) when our lives might otherwise be emotion-free.

The Cause of Your Office Internet Addiction

Are you afflicted by an uncontrollable impulse that constantly forces you to navigate away from your spreadsheet and toward the siren song emanating from your Twitter feed? A new study in Computers in Human Behavior may shed some light on the causes of  your “cyberloafing.” The good news? There’s plenty of blame to go around. You can even blame your boss.

As hypothesized, the employee job attitudes of job involvement and intrinsic involvement were negatively related to cyberloafing. Also, as predicted, the organizational characteristics of the perceived cyberloafing of one’s coworkers and managerial support for internet usage were positively related to cyberloafing. Finally, results showed that attitudes towards cyberloafing and participation in non-Internet loafing behaviors were positively related to cyberloafing.

The study is more evidence of how incapable we are of escaping the influence of social settings. Even in an office environment where people are driven by direct monetary incentives a person’s work ethic is still affected by social factors.

On another note, I’m very excited “cyberloafing” is an official academic term.

We Know Nothing of Innovation

Some days it seems as though every hypothetical reform still wouldn’t be enough to bring about an ideal school system. At times like these it’s nice to be reminded that schooling is so institutionalized, we overlook many areas of potential innovation. Even when we believe we’re thinking outside of the box we are still stuck within a bigger box that’s stuck within an even bigger box. For example, a new study by Amy Ellen Schwartz, Leanna Stiefel, Ross Rubenstein, and Jeffrey Zabel finds that the rarely-questioned K-5/6-8/9-12 grade divisions are not a good way to do things.

This article examines how grade spans and the school transitions that students make between fourth and eighth grade shape student performance in eighth grade. The authors estimate the impact of grade span paths on eighth-grade performance, controlling for school and student characteristics and correcting for attrition bias and quality of original school. They find that students moving from K–4 to 5–8 schools or in K–8 schools outperform students on other paths.

Despite having the highest 3rd grade scores and lowest poverty levels students in standard K-5/6-8 schools posted the smallest 8th grade gains. The researchers believe the gains in K-8 and 5-8 schools come from more stable cohorts and an earlier introduction to junior high.

Grade divisions are just one example of something extremely influential that most people never give a second thought. Perhaps 60 years ago there was a good reason for having 5th graders with younger students rather than older students. In 2011, there isn’t.  The paper’s potential to reform grade divisions is important, but its true value may be in reminding us to continue to search for overlooked institutionalized aspects of schooling that are ripe for reform.

Do Friends Help You Be Mean?

Being socially connected has considerable benefits for oneself, but may have negative consequences for evaluations of others. In particular, being socially connected to close others satisfies the need for social connection, and creates disconnection from more distant others. We therefore predicted that feeling socially connected would increase the tendency to dehumanize more socially distant others. Four experiments support this prediction. Those led to feel socially connected were less likely to attribute humanlike mental states to members of various social groups (Exps. 1 & 2), particularly distant others compared to close others (Exp. 3), and were also more likely to recommend harsh treatment for dehumanized others (i.e., terrorist detainees, Exp. 4).

The paper is titled “Social Connection Enables Dehumanization” and the authors are Adam Waytz and Nicholas Epley.

One possible takeaway from the paper is that it helps explain/support the army’s strong devotion to “brotherhood.” If you feel connected to the 25 people around you you’ll not only consciously do everything you can to save them, you’ll unconsciously have an easier time killing the enemy.