Do Children Learn to Hide Religious Preferences?

Occasionally the wiring in your brain comes into direct conflict with those pesky social norms imposed by civilized society. For example, although certain people don’t explicitly express preferences for specific groups, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) reveals that they often have implicit or unconscious attitudes that favor a particular ethnicity, gender, or religion. The reasoning goes that people understand these preferences are bad, and so the preferences are only able to bubble to the surface when people don’t have time to think.

If adults have a disconnect between implicit and explicit attitudes, what about children? A new study led by Harvard’s Larisa Heiphetz attempts to answer the question within the domain of religion. In the initial experiment Heephetz and her team replicated previous experiments that showed Christian adults expressed implicit, but not explicit attitudes that favored other Christians. In experiments 2 and 3, the researchers found that unlike adults, children ages 6-8 whose parents identified them as Christian expressed both implicit and explicit preferences for Christians. The results suggest that there is a period when children have learned to favor their own religion, but haven’t yet learned not to show it.

In two final experiments the researchers made small tweak. Instead of presenting children with groups that had a clear religious difference — Christians and Hindus — they present the children with groups that had a “weak” religious difference — Christians and Jews. This time children were more like adults — they expressed implicit, but not explicit attitudes in favor of Christianity. Heiphetz reasons that this is not due to social pressures, it’s because when two characters are similar children don’t have sufficient awareness of their attitudes to articulate them.

I think you can look at the study’s findings in two ways. On one hand, good for society! By the time people become adults we’ve managed to shame them into abandoning their arbitrary and potentially discriminatory explicit preferences. On the other hand, society is terrible! By the time children are seven-years-old we’ve already filled their heads with our own ideas and prevented them from truly forming their own opinions.
Heiphetz, L., Spelke,E.S., & Banaji, M.R. (2012). Patterns of Implicit and Explicit Attitudes in Children and Adults: Tests in the Domain of Religion Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0029714

Unions in Pro Sports Are Just Like Those In Education

I’m a fan of labor disputes in professional sports because they provide a non-political lens through which to view the economics and motivations of unions, and teacher’s unions in particular. For example, the MLB player’s union is opposed to contracts that make heavy use of performance or merit pay, and it has nothing to do with the evaluation difficulties or counter-intuitive motivational factors often cited by teachers. The player’s union doesn’t like performance pay because in the long-run contracts that are better aligned to performance will likely lead to fewer inefficient financial decisions and lower average salaries.

Right now another interesting dispute is taking place between the NFL and the union of its referees. At the moment, all referees are part-time, but commissioner Roger Goodell wants to make some of them full-time – with corresponding pay increases — while also bringing in more part-time referees — I assume with corresponding pay cuts for the current refs who don’t get full-time positions. Goodell’s reasoning is solid. NFL officiating is one of those jobs for which it’s hard to predict who will be great. By allowing more people to officiate NFL games, the league will have a larger pool from which to uncover great referees. Those referees can then become full time refs who officiate more games and work in the playoffs. In the long-run the quality of officiating will improve, and to make that happen Goodell is willing to risk slightly-reduced referee quality in some regular season games.

Better playoff officiating isn’t the only outcome of Goodell’s plan. Allowing non-referees to become referees is bad for current union members because they will have to share the pie with more people. Because the union’s job is to advocate for curent, rather than future union members, the union is now fighting a proposal that seems likely to raise the long-run quality of NFL officiating.

In terms of our education system, I think our schools and the teaching profession would benefit from a system more like the one Goodell is proposing for the NFL. One thing people across the policy spectrum agree on is the impact of great teachers, but as with great NFL officials, it’s not easy to predict who will become one. The best way to find more great teachers may simply be to give more people the opportunity to teach.

The system would be similar to what Goodell is proposing for the NFL. A large group of current teachers would receive pay cuts and reduced workloads, and the money would go towards hiring more teachers. When a teacher proves themselves to be effective, they’re given increases in pay and instructional time. This could be done by increasing their class size and/or having rookie teachers spend time handling the expert teachers’ “unksilled” workload (e.g. grading homework, communicating with parents, etc.) When a teacher proves they’re an expert, the entire system works to maximize their impact.

The tradeoff is similar to the one Goodell is attempting to make. A small amount of slightly lower-quality work (i.e. instruction) in return for an increase in highly skilled employees and a correspondingly larger increase in higher-quality work. Teacher’s unions would be unlikely support the plan because it’s a net pay cut for current members, so for now file it away under “in an ideal world…”.

How Uncertainty Makes It Hard to Do What You Should Do

As a member of the fraternity of people who spend too much time chastising themselves for not doing what they should be doing, it’s always nice to find a new external explanation for bouts of unproductivity. This week’s excuse comes from a new study on uncertainty by Penn’s Katherine Milkman. In a series of four experiments Milkman found that dealing with uncertainty exhausts self-control, and thus makes it more likely you’ll choose a “want” option (i.e. behaviors that are hedonistic, irresponsible, or aimed at short-term gain) over a “should” option (i.e. behaviors aimed at long term-gain.)

In Milkman’s initial experiment students persisted longer on a series of math problems when they were allowed to scratch off a lottery ticket before beginning the allotted ten minutes of work time rather than after the time was up. In a follow-up experiment participants were asked to imagine their roommate was bringing home a pizza, and that they could choose either a fruit salad (the should option) or brownies (the want option) for desert. When participants were told their roommate was bringing home either pesto chicken pizza or carne asada pizza, they were significantly more likely to choose brownies as a desert than when they were told exactly what kind of pizza would be brought home. Dealing with the simple uncertainty about the type of pizza they would be eating reduced self-control enough to make people choose the unhealthy desert.

Though we might not realize it, there are varying degrees of uncertainty present when we make many want vs. should decisions. As Milkman points out while discussing her findings, if doctors or financial advisors are careful about minimizing the uncertainty in decision making environments they can help nudge people to more should choices. Moreover, reducing uncertainty may even be able to mitigate extremely harmful behaviors.

Past research has suggested that unethical decision making may be a want choice (see Mead, Baumeister, Gino, Schweitzer, & Ariely, 2009; Tenbrunsel, Diekmann, Wade-Benzoni, & Bazerman, 2010), implying that the presence of uncertainty may reduce ethical decision making. Future studies could test this intriguing hypothesis: for instance, does increasing financial uncertainty lead to a concurrent increase in unethical behavior?

Minimizing uncertainty is no easy or wholly beneficial task. In fact, underestimating the amount of uncertainty in the global financial system is one thing that facilitated its collapse. Perhaps the best course of action is not to gloss over real uncertainty, but to emphasize certainty where it exists or where its undererestimation can be advantageous (e.g. “if you keep eating like this, you definitely won’t make it past 60.”) That’s not to say the we should immediately re-design society to minimize uncertainty in decision-making contexts, but it’s something to keep in mind as you struggle to induce your own or another person’s should behaviors.

The study also hints at why habits are so important. If you get home from work and stop to think “will I go to the gym today?”, that uncertainty is already starting to sap your ability to control your gym-avoiding tendencies. But if you get home knowing you’ll go to the gym because you’ve gone on 23 consecutive Tuesdays, it will be easier to actually go.
Milkman, K.L. (2012). Unsure what the future will bring? You may overindulge: Uncertainty increases the appeal of wants over shoulds Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.07.003

Why It’s Important For People to Know Experiences Are Better Than Possessions

The tendency for experiences to create more happiness than material possessions is one scientific finding that’s recently received a lot of attention. While most media coverage about the joy of experiences has focused on the abstract question of how to be happy, evidence is building that beliefs about materialism and happiness can also have concrete implications for a person’s day-to-day to life. For example, two recent studies have found a connection between materialism and poor money management. This means that convincing people material possessions aren’t the key to happiness won’t simply help them spend their Christmas bonus more wisely, it may also lead to better overall financial management.

The first study, which was conducted with Icelandic participants, found that not only do people who endorse materialistic values have worse money-management skills, when money-management skills and incomes are held constant a person’s materialistic beliefs can be directly linked to their amount of debt. The second study, which was conducted with American participants, built on these findings by demonstrating a link between poor money management and the specific belief that material possessions will lead to increased happiness.

The simple reason why materialism leads to poor money management is that it biases a person’s cost-benefit analysis. If a person irrationally believes a product will make them happy, they’ll be willing to pay an irrationally high (and financially unwise) price for it. The authors of the second study, Grant Donnelly, Ravi Iyer, and Ryan Howell, propose an additional way that materialism can lead to bad money management. When you believe material purchases are your path to happiness, you want to avoid anything that could stem those purchases — even if that thing is paying attention to your finances.

Thus, materialists may avoid meaningful self-monitoring of their finances because self-awareness of one’s current financial situation may encourage restraint from the acquisition of the material items they feel will reduce the discrepancy between their real and ideal selves.

Getting back to the issue of experiences vs. possessions, educating people about the value of experiences is now no longer just about making better purchases — a successful effort to downplay the joy of possessions and create less materialistic attitudes can also lead people to broadly improve their money management. Because many experiences need to be “purchased,” it’s debatable whether having an experience is inherently less materialistic than purchasing an object. There’s also the question of whether materialistic attitudes are malleable enough. Nevertheless, if teaching about the relative value of experiences is able to shift materialistic attitudes, the result won’t merely be a better purchase here or there, it may be a lifetime of improved financial decisions.

Garðarsdóttir, R.B., & Dittmar, H. (2012). The relationship of materialism to debt and financial well-being: The case of Iceland’s perceived prosperity Journal of Economic Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2011.12.008

Donnelly, G., Iyer, R., & Howell, R.T. (2012). The Big Five Personality Traits, Material Values, and Financial Well-being of Self-described Money Managers Journal of Economic Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2012.08.001

Most Football Players Make More Money For Their Colleges Than They Earn Playing in the NFL

The most coherent argument made by those who support the college football status quo is that players don’t need to be compensated for helping fill university coffers because college football allows them to earn loads of money in the NFL. It’s hard to settle this argument empirically due to the difficulties in finding the “true” value a player extracts from his time in college, but there are some simpler questions whose answers can be quite revealing. For example, do college football players earn more money in the NFL than they make for their schools? If they don’t, it would certainly support the case that there is some kind of exploitation going on.

In a new paper, Robert Brown, an economist at Cal-State San Marcos, attempts to answer this question by examining data from the 2004-05 college football season. After a variety of statistical tricks aimed at controlling for the different types of college football programs, Brown concluded that nearly two-thirds of players drafted by an NFL team don’t earn enough money to compensate for what their universities made off of them.

First, this paper uses a quantile regression method to account for differences in player marginal revenue products across college teams with different revenue- generating capabilities; for instance, players at high-revenue college teams produce higher marginal revenue products and thereby experience greater degrees of monopsony exploitation to overcome at the professional level. Next, it approximates professional players’ earning profiles using NFL salary data, and then weighs these earnings against a player’s foregone college compensation resulting from monopsony- induced restrictions in college football. The results indicate that between 33 and 38 percent of this sample of players (active and inactive) will earn NFL incomes sufficient to offset their monopsony-lost college earnings: A handful of these NFL players earn huge net surpluses but most can expect more modest net earnings.

According to Brown’s model, a future NFL draftee at a football program in the 90th percentile in terms of revenue can earn the program $2.5 million. These players would have to have a fairly successful NFL career to earn more than these “monopsony-lost” college earnings. If you’re thinking “so what?”, imagine that before starting a business aspiring entrepreneurs had to have unpaid internships in which they occasionally made their employers large sums of money that dwarfed whatever monetary benefits they received through the increased training and experience. Would people be outraged?

It’s also worth pointing out that Brown’s analysis is a fairly conservative estimate of the “exploitation” that’s going on. For example, when most people make money for their company, they’re compensated with money. If you’re not getting paid for your work, it’s unfair — it doesn’t matter that your new training and experience will lead to an increase in future earnings that surpasses what the company is making off of you. Yet Brown’s analysis assumes this lack of monetary compensation and merely looks at the value of the “training.”

In the end, this is just another wonky economics paper that won’t change anything, but the fact that the majority of drafted players earn less in the NFL than they make for their colleges is fairly jarring (and let’s not forget about the players who aren’t drafted.)

Brown, R. (2012). Do NFL Player Earnings Compensate for Monopsony Exploitation in College? Journal of Sports Economics DOI: 10.1177/1527002512450266

Why Public Opinion Is Turning Against Teachers

People often criticize teachers unions for putting teacher needs ahead of students, and much of the time these criticisms take the form of the vague ideological talking points I often rail against. But not always. Earlier this month CNN’s School of Thought Blog published an article by award winning teacher Xian Barrett that makes it painfully clear teachers often do stand in the way of changes that will help students. In the article Barrett attempts to explain that Chicago should not extend the school day because teachers already work too many hours.

How much time do I really spend each day?

Most Chicago teachers give our all in very challenging conditions. A recent Gates study suggests that the average teacher works 53 hours per week, while University of Illinois researchers found that Chicago teachers work approximately 58 hours per week. Several years ago, I counted my own hours and found that I was consistently working between 70-90 hours each week.  Through challenging conditions, we impact hundreds of students positively every day; sometimes in small ways, sometimes in earth shattering, life-changing ways.

Let’s take a step back and look a the basics of the debate. A change — more learning time — is proposed that will improve student learning. In an ideal world where student needs trump everything else the proper response is to say, “Great, let’s plan on having a longer school day, and then we’ll figure out what other changes have to be made to accomodate it.” But that’s not Barrett’s response. Without really considering the potential benefits to students, he says we can’t extend the school day because it won’t work for teachers. The current state of the teaching profession is not designed for a longer school day. End of story.

Barrett could argue that longer school days aren’t better for learning. He doesn’t. He could also argue that the drawbacks of making major changes to the teaching profession (e.g. hiring more part time staff, decreasing workload by creating more specialized roles) would outweigh the gains from a longer school day. He doesn’t do that either. (And the fact that this may be implicit in his reasoning speaks volumes.) Barrett simply says that the change won’t work for teachers, and therefore students should be denied its benefits.

This type of close-mindedness is at the heart of the ideological disagreements between unions and reformers. Teachers and their unions can’t comprehend what it means for an education system to truly be about students. For them, the general status quo of the teaching profession is our education system, and any reforms have to be built around it. Reformers, on the other hand, are able to see our system as more of a Tabula rasa. Let’s figure out what’s best and build it. If longer learning days are important, let’s start with a 9-5 school day and then build a teaching profession around that schedule. One reason criticism of unions is on the rise is that the political center and center-left are shifting toward the latter view.

What does all this mean for reform? My take is that it’s extremely important to continue stressing ideal scenarios and the long-term future of the teaching profession. What will a teacher’s job be like in 10-20 years? If we started a colony on the moon, how long should kids there be in school? The more reformers can get teachers to think less about tomorrow’s lesson and more about their job in 2017, the easier it will be for teachers and reformers to envision the same kind of changes.

The Media Needs to End Its Obsession With Quotes

Last month the frivolous public outrage meter ticked up a few notches when it was revealed that both the Obama and Romney campaigns review and alter quotes before they appear in print. Yet in all the hemming and hawing over how to fix this “problem,” people have ignored a more fundamental question: Why does the media still adhere to ridiculous conventions regarding the value of quotations?

Ninety years ago quotes served a number of important purposes. Without the internet, it was actually difficult to find out the thoughts of important people, and the best way to remedy that problem was to print their words in widely read publications. If you wanted to know how Woodrow Wilson felt about Chick-Fil-A, you had to read a quote from him in the newspaper. Quotes also lent real legitimacy to a story by proving that a person had physically been near the places and people at the heart of the story. You didn’t see video of the reporter on the scene, but a quote was the next best thing.

Things are different now. You rarely read a quote in a newspaper article that truly fulfills a need to know somebody’s opinion. A host of archival data on internet means that most people’s views are already known, and even if they aren’t, new views aren’t likely to be broken through mainstream media, they’ll be delivered through Facebook, Twitter, email lists, and hacked iPhones.

What’s worse, the proliferation of PR shops and communications departments means that quotes aren’t simply superfluous, they often give the reader a less accurate portrayal of what’s happening. How often do you read the self-interested analysis of a Romney or Obama campaign official on an issue that’s not directly related to their expertise? Why is Romney’s view on the latest job numbers in any way helpful for interpreting what they mean?

Making an article without quotes the new norm will solve a number of issues. First, it will require political campaigns, corporations, and anybody else who might be quoted to actually say something insightful in order to have their voice heard. No longer will we have to waste valuable seconds reading that one campaign believes the other campaign’s latest attack is just an attempt to distract from the issues. Putting less importance on quotes may even help stem the flow of he-said she-said journalism.

Clearly, quotes are not without merit. But the implicit agreement between journalists and communications departments in which journalists print talking points in return for the opportunity to add legitimacy to their story has diluted the value of quotes to the point where it’s impossible to recognize those that are worthwhile. As a confused Christopher Nolan superhero might say, “to save the quote, we must kill it.”