Bringing Wealthy Kids Into Your University Is a Good Investment

The outrage over P. Diddy’s son getting a football scholarship to UCLA is among the more shortsighted collective conniptions in recent memory. Frankly I’m disappointed in the internet.

The bottom line is that having wealthy kids attend your University is a good investment (assuming you can find a merit-based reason to admit them.) For a measly $54,000, which does not come from taxpayer dollars, UCLA now has the opportunity to receive alumni checks from the Combs family for all of eternity. When all is said and done that will pay for a lot more than $54,000 worth of scholarship money for low-income students. Of course assuming Diddy’s son had to play somewhere, society as a whole now has one less scholarship for a low income student (and the same amount of potential Diddy alumni money). But UCLA itself is better off.

The Internet Chews Up Language And Spits It Out

Jonathan Bernstein laments the media’s overuse of the word “establishment”:

It’s just lazy journalism. Parties have groups, and factions, and individuals, and certainly those who are in and those who are out…oh, I suppose they can have something that’s an establishment, too (I do think there was a foreign policy establishment in the 1960s, for example), but more likely you’re not telling us anything at all by calling one of these factions or groups or individuals “establishment.” I know I’ve hit on this point before, but alas the examples of it are all over the place and just as useless as ever.

I’m never one to push back against charges that the media is lazy, but I think part of what destroyed the word is that the internet exponentially speeds up the half-life of popular jokes and phrases. The internet allows more people to publicly share thoughts, and that means more people are publicly using the word “establishment” as they see fit. With people being exposed to the word from a wider range of sources, the definition is bound to eventually stretch to the point of uselessness. In an ideal world, some kind of benevolent language council of elders would phase out the word and adopt two new ones to take on the different extremes of the old word’s range of definitions.

There Are Some Things Our Emotions Don’t Know

One of the more interesting dichotomies in psychology is the interplay of intuition and conscious reasoning during the decision making process. When we can’t consciously consider important pieces of evidence, going with emotion or intuition can sometimes be more effective. (There’s even a whole book about it.) For example, if your intuition correctly identifies a person as somebody bad before your deliberative thought figures it out, you may feel afraid of somebody you can’t identify.

It would seem that the opposite could also happen. That is, your conscious mind could influence a judgment by picking up on something your intuition missed. For example, you might initially dislike a new co-worker because they have the same haircut as somebody you hated in college. Only after consciously thinking about them do you realize you have no reason to not like them.

A study by UC-Berkeley’s Matthew Feinberg provides some new evidence that this kind of “reappraisal” of intuition can influence judgments. Steinberg and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments in which they observed the moral judgments subjects made about scenarios that were designed to initially elicit disgust, but actually be morally ambiguous. They found that reappraisal of initial moral intuitions generally led to altered judgments that relied more heavily on deliberate reasoning.

We hypothesized that although emotional reactions evoke initial moral intuitions, reappraisal weakens the influence of these intuitions, leading to more deliberative moral judgments. Three studies of moral judgments in emotionally evocative, disgust-eliciting moral dilemmas supported our hypothesis. A greater tendency to reappraise was related to fewer intuition-based judgments (Study 1). Content analysis of open-ended descriptions of moral-reasoning processes revealed that reappraisal was associated with longer time spent in deliberation and with fewer intuitionist moral judgments (Study 2). Finally, in comparison with participants who simply watched an emotion-inducing film, participants who had been instructed to reappraise their reactions while watching the film subsequently reported less intense emotional reactions to moral dilemmas, and these dampened reactions led, in turn, to fewer intuitionist moral judgments (Study 3).

The findings suggest that under certain circumstances you can essentially get a second opinion on your intuitions by reappraising them, and that the reappraisal often leads to judgments that are based on more-deliberate reasoning. The study also hints that it’s theoretically possible to find a sweet middle ground where your emotions and intuitions are making judgments about things you can’t consciously judge, and your conscious mind is making judgments about the things your intuition can’t judge.

By the way, if you’re wondering what the ambiguous moral scenarios were, see below. (The scenario is courtesy of Jonathan Haidt, who created it for an earlier experiment.)

The chicken dilemma described a man who purchased a dead chicken, had sex with it, and then cooked and ate it in the privacy of his own home. For each scenario, participants answered two questions: “Is this morally wrong?” and “How morally wrong would you rate their [the man’s] behavior?”

It seems wrong, but on the other hand….
Feinberg, M., Willer, R., Antonenko, O., & John, O. (2012). Liberating Reason From the Passions: Overriding Intuitionist Moral Judgments Through Emotion Reappraisal Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611434747


–The virtues of gossip.

–Powerful leaders really do keep their enemies “close.”

–Do scholarships designed to produce effective teachers actually produce effective teachers?

–People tend to believe groups that win are more homogeneous.

–Activating thoughts about money makes 5-year-olds more selfish.

What Republicans and Teachers Unions Have In Common

One thing Democrats find so infuriating about the economic arguments of Republicans is that from 2001-2008 we more or less got to test out the validity of those arguments, and they proved to be relatively invalid. Yet Mitch McConnell still makes statements that begin, “If we want strong economic growth, we have to….” He does this even though U.S. economic performance during the Bush presidency weakens his credibility and suggests he does not actually know how to induce strong economic growth.

Like Republicans, teachers unions also spent a chunk of recent history in charge — until a few years ago, there were 20-30 consecutive years where almost no change to our education system was made without their approval. Like Republicans, teachers unions also don’t seem to think that the insufficient progress made under their watch should open doors for other ideas. The solution is always more of what unions think is right and less of what they think is wrong. Union leaders still make statements that begin with, “If we want better schools, we need to….” Like McConnell, they make these statements even though our educational outcomes over the last 30 years weaken their credibility and suggest that unions do not actually know how to create better schools.

None of this is to say that union ideas and opinions should not be taken into account, but like the GOP on economic issues, union rhetoric is absurdly vile, unrestrained, and disconnected from reality. (Unions may point to very recent history and say the lack of progress of is because of the reforms they hate rather than a lack of them, but changing an education system is not like tax policy — it takes 10-15 years to implement changes and see the effects.)

Obviously Republicans and union officials aren’t going to change their minds about taxes and charter schools overnight. When you’ve believed something your whole life, admitting you were wrong is simply too damaging to your perceived self-worth and self-esteem. But perhaps the realization that they’re engaging in the same tactics they despise in their sworn political enemies may finally be enough to start a shift in beliefs.

What’s the Best Way to Discriminate?

The dream of every 8-year-old boy is to build a kick-ass treehouse, install a reliable tin-can phone line, and then watch the neighborhood girls brood as it’s all topped off with a finely calligraphed “no girls allowed” sign. (At least that’s what 80’s television taught me.) A new study forthcoming in Social Psychological and Personality Science poses an interesting question about that scenario. Would the excluded girls react differently if the sign said “For Boys Only”?

The researchers reasoned that while negative differentiation (“This isn’t for girls”) would communicate inferiority and set boundaries, positive differentiation (“This is for boys”) might allow for more constructive coping, lower feelings of threat, and increase efforts to disprove prejudicial beliefs. They designed an experiment in which women were excluded from a poker game, but for different reasons (“it’s for men,” “it’s not for women,” or due to an unrelated reason.)  They discovered that positive differentiation can in fact be less harmful.

Based on current insights on responses to discrimination, we predicted and found that those who are exposed to negative differentiation will tend to object to those who rejected them, while positive differentiation is more likely to induce efforts to disprove the validity of the rejection. Female participants facing negative differentiation objected against the discriminatory nature of their rejection and showed cardiovascular reactivity more indicative of threat (and less of challenge) than participants in the positive differentiation condition. In addition, positive differentiation caused participants to disprove the validity of these group-based expectations by claiming the possession of relatively more masculine (and less feminine) traits.

Assuming that the findings can be generalized to other types of discrimination (a real assumption, but not one that’s farfetched), the study has a lot of implications for academic motivation. For example, imagine a 10th or 11th grader who tells their college guidance counselor they want to go to Harvard. Telling the student “Harvard is not for you” will have a different effect than saying “Harvard students generally have very high SAT scores.” The positive differentiation could drive the student to show they belong in the high-SAT group, or induce them to take on the identity of a high achiever. It’s a small distinction, but one that can be the difference between a student feeling threatened and a student feeling motivated to disprove the reason for their exclusion.

These types of situations arise throughout school, whether it’s telling a student that they’re not in an honors class, or explaining why they didn’t get their desired role in an extracurricular activity. I’m not quite sure what goes on in our variety of teacher training programs, but I feel fairly confident saying there’s not enough time being spent on the motivational framing of feedback.
Cihangir, S., Scheepers, D., Barreto, M., & Ellemers, N. (2012). Responding to Gender-Based Rejection: Objecting Against Negative and Disproving Positive Intergroup Differentiation Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612448195

Will Facebook Help Destroy Organized Religion?

There are a number of reasons organized religion in America appears to be in decline. An increasing percentage of the war and violence in the world is now being done in the name of religion (as opposed to the need to increase a tax base or acquire natural resources.) Orthodox views on social issues and the depravity of the Catholic Church scandal have also turned some people off. And thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to ask questions, get answers, publicly discuss deep philosophical and existential issues, and do a host of other things that spur the adoption of alternative creeds.

I think there’s at least one more factor, and it’s something that will soon grow more significant. Religion is essentially the original social network. Whether it was the 5th century or the 20th century, people who left their current social circle could always use religion to find a new one. Locate your place of worship in a new town and you’ll have food, shelter, friends, childcare, and a much-needed safety net. No matter where you went, religion ensured you always had a community.

But now, for first time in human existence, the internet has given people the opportunity to truly craft their own communities and social networks. And because these networks aren’t bound by location, nearly anybody in the developed world can be a member. The guy from who you stayed with for two days? That friend of a friend of a friend who got you a job interview because he saw an impressive tweet of yours? That girl from your adult kickball team who set you up on a date with her friend? All of them are filling roles once filled by religious communities, but they’re part of your self-created social network. By facilitating these relationships, the internet is increasingly making the ability of organized religion to connect people obsolete. That’s not to say there aren’t other good reasons for the existence of religion, but it seems obvious that as religion’s value as a social connector declines it is bound to become less popular.

In general, I think that more and more we’ll start to see society shed some of the unecessary scaffolding for accomplishing societal goals that can now be accomplished online. The decline of religion is one example, and so is the end of retail and the disruption of our higher education system (wait, that still hasn’t happened yet?) Those are fairly obvious examples, but as we build new social infrastructure I think we’ll start to see necessary withering and deterioration in some unexpected places.