Non-Cognitive Skills Are Important. Now What?

The combination of Paul Tough’s new book and KIPP’s savvy PR team have once again highlighted the fact that non-cognitive skills (or character, or emotional intelligence, or whatever you want to call them) are extremely important. And they are. That they’re finally receiving the minimum level of attention needed to have a chance of inducing change in our youth development institutions (i.e. school) is great news. The problem is that there’s a tendency for people to pat themselves on the back for raising awareness when the toughest tasks still remain. How can our education system, in practice, implement the teaching of non-cognitive skills?

At first glance, it’s an insurmountable challenge. There’s no extra instructional time for special lessons that don’t involve STEM or literacy. Idle resources that could be used to educate teachers are non-existent. Stand-alone interventions, even those with a mountain of scientific evidence behind them, are rarely implemented on a large scale. Sure, KIPP’s new focus on character has a promising start, but they’re doing it with a comically extreme emphasis that requires the dedication of every staff member at every opportunity. Creating that type of school-wide culture is utterly unscalable — there’s no way a majority of schools in America can pull it off.

My concern is that the new emphasis on “character” will go the way of “mindsets,” the most recent next-great-thing. For those who don’t remember, over 25 years of research has led to the conclusion that believing intelligence is malleable rather than fixed (a “growth” mindset) can have significant positive effects, even when interventions designed to instill this belief are brief.  When you believe you’re capable of getting smarter, failure is less painful because it’s a snapshot of your ability, not a permanent verdict. The focus on what psychologists call “theories of intelligence” peaked in 2006 when Carol Dweck published “Mindsets,” an overview of research and recommendations aimed at the non-scientific community (e.g. parents and educators.)

Now it’s six years later and the question is whether anything has changed. Yes, there are countless teachers and parents who took the lessons to heart and take every opportunity to emphasize that people aren’t born smart or stupid. But our education system as a whole still lacks an institutional focus in these areas. Meanwhile, Dweck and some of her former students have put their efforts behind a product called Brainology — a piece of software designed to teach children about the malleability of intelligence. Unfortunately, the price ($6,000 for a school, or $10-$90 for a child) seems likely to prevent it from having a transformational impact. (It would be wise for the government to purchase one less tank and instead buy Brainology for every child in America, but that’s a subject for another post.)

The lesson of mindsets is that if a new innovation isn’t implanted inside the building blocks of the school day, our excitement about it will soon wane and be forgotten. What’s needed is change without change — ways of teaching non-cognitive skills that don’t disrupt the current structure of the classroom or school day.

The good news is that there does appear to be a workable and scalable way to make this happen. Nearly every subject dedicates time to learning about individuals — it doesn’t matter if it’s math (Pythagoras), Science (Marie Curie), History (Truman), or English (Atticus Finch) — and learning about people is a great opportunity to highlight and teach the use of non-cognitive skills.

Researchers have already found evidence that this can be effective. One recent study examined what happend when students were presented with three variations of the same physics lesson. The first lesson taught students about scientists’ struggles to initially make their discoveries. The second lesson focused on the scientists’ lifetime achievements. The third lesson had no additional information beyond the physics content knowledge presented in all three lessons. When students were evaluated after the lessons, those who learned about the scientists’ struggles (character! growth!) performed better on nearly every measure:

 We found that the achievement-oriented background information had negative effects on students’ perceptions of scientists, producing no effects on students’ interest in physics lessons, recall of science concepts, or their solving of both textbook-based and complex problems. In contrast, the struggle-oriented background information helped students create perceptions of scientists as hardworking individuals who struggled to make scientific progress. In addition, it also increased students’ interest in science, increased their delayed recall of the key science concepts, and improved their abilities to solve complex problems.

A simple emphasis on failure and struggle transformed the students’ perceptions of science. The great teachers are able to do this, but for those who can’t we need to help out by building these lessons into the curriculum. With the amount free and open material increasing every day this shouldn’t be too difficult. Simply take a standard physics textbook and add a few sentences about Newton’s struggles or a positive/negative way he dealt with Leibniz’s concurrent discovery of calculus. Or take a generic history lesson about the American revolution and add five minutes of discussion about not fearing failure.

There’s a story often taught to Hebrew school students about the ancient Rabbi Akiva learning the Hebrew alphabet as a 40-year-old in a kindergarten classroom. I’m confident the story’s popularity is a result of it being “naturally selected” due to the way it imparts knowledge while imparting knowledge. In the midst of teaching the life history of an important figure it manages to stealthily convey the idea that anybody at any age possesses the ability to become almost anything (i.e. intelligence is malleable). It’s great that non-cognitive skills are being accepted as an important piece of our education system, but to ensure they become a part of it we must figure out ways to teach lessons, without disrupting lessons.


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When Are Witnesses More Likely to Make Stuff Up?

Research on the “forced fabrication paradigm” demonstrates that when people generate fictitious information to explain unknown events, they will eventually come to believe the information is true. This has implications for how leading questions can affect the memories of witnesses, but little is known about the specific circumstances under which people are more or less likely to believe their own fabrications. A new study by Quin Chrobak and Maria Zaragoza provides one potential answer — that people are more likely to believe fabrications when the fabrications provide a causal explanation for why something has happened:

In the present study we provide the first evidence that the search for explanatory coherence also plays a role in the memory errors that result from suggestive forensic interviews. Using a forced fabrication paradigm (e.g., Chrobak & Zaragoza, 2008), we conducted 3 experiments to test the hypothesis that false memory development is a function of the explanatory role these forced fabrications served (the explanatory role hypothesis). In support of this hypothesis, participants were more likely to subsequently freely report (Experiment 1) and falsely assent to (Experiment 2) their forced fabrications when they helped to provide a causal explanation for a witnessed outcome than when they did not serve this explanatory role. Participants were also less likely to report their forced fabrications when their explanatory strength had been reduced by the presence of an alternative explanation that could explain the same outcome as their fabrication (Experiment 3).

It seems as though emphasizing a causal role would be useful in any situation in which you’re trying to convince somebody of a certain reality. For instance, if you want people at work to think you’re a great employee, try to arbitrarily attribute random things to the fact that you’re a great employee (e.g. “The reason Bob let me leave early on July 3rd because is that I’ve been working really hard.”)

When it comes to actual witness testimony, I’m torn about the validity of this kind of research. To me it’s questionable whether people who knew it was important that they remember something would fall victim to these fabrications. When you sees a random video clip in a lab, you don’t make it a cognitive priority to keep track of what happened. You use the simplest heuristic possible to judge events — if the thought was once in your head, it’s probably true. But if you’re a witness in a murder trial, you might dedicate extra cognitive resources to keeping track of what you actually saw. That’s not to say the pressures of the situation wouldn’t cause certain people to believe fabrications, but I wonder what would happen in an experiment containing a  large ecologically valid sample — say, 60 real trial witnesses being observed during their initial interrogations. At the very least it would be interesting to see these experiments replicated but with “high value” and “low value” stories. That might reveal whether people are less likely to believe fabrications when they know a particular truth is more important.

Chrobak, Q.M., & Zaragoza, M.S. (2012). When Forced Fabrications Become Truth: Causal Explanations and False Memory Development Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0030093

The Washington Post Pretends Monday Never Happened

On Monday the Washington Post published a terrible piece of “savvy” horserace journalism. The article began with the unsubstantiated premise that Paul Ryan is a “bold, specific, confident” truth-teller, and then, offering nothing but quotes from random politicos, went on to theorize about how Romney is hurting Ryan’s image and the campaign by misusing Ryan’s talents. You could easily summarize the article in five words: Romney is toxic to Ryan.

My how things can change in three days. Tonight the Washington Post is singing a different tune:

Voters in three critical swing states broadly oppose the far-reaching changes to Medicare ­associated with the Republican presidential ticket and, by big margins, prefer President Obama to handle the issue, according to new state polls by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation…

The future of Medicare, the federal health program for the elderly and disabled, has become a flash point in the campaign since Romney’s selection last month of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, as his running mate. The choice of Ryan — who wrote a proposal that would move Medicare toward vouchers as part of an overall attempt to curb the deficit — is considered a bold and politically risky move, given Medicare’s popularity. Now, the challenges for Romney in the aftermath of the Ryan selection are becoming clear…

But voter distaste for a Ryan-like plan may insulate Obama from the political fallout. It appears that Medicare may have become a winning issue — for Obama…

Obama hammers the Ryan plan continually, telling supporters at a campaign event in Milwaukee last Saturday that Romney and Ryan would “turn Medicare into a voucher program in order to pay for tax cuts for the very wealthy.”

To sum up the article in five words: Ryan is toxic to Romney.

On one hand, I guess you could say kudos to the Post for publishing an article that’s based on some actual evidence. On the other hand, it seems the paper’s editorial process for political coverage can be summed up by the phrase “eh, seems legitimate.”

The Vacuous Article Template: Paul Ryan Something Something Medicare

I’m at a loss for words at the sheer emptiness of this Washington Post article. It’s like a journalism black hole, sucking facts and value out of every subject it touches until we’re left with unsubstantiated horse-race nothingness. And with that, let’s go on to the template.

1. The existence of a difficult-to-prove trend is proposed.

Apparently conservatives are unhappy because Paul Ryan is being tarnished by the Romney campaign.

Conservatives had hoped that Mitt Romney’s choice of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) as his running mate would make Romney act more like Ryan — bold, specific, confident.

Instead, in the six weeks since Ryan became the GOP vice presidential nominee — and particularly in the three weeks since the Republican National Convention — there has been mounting concern among Republicans that the pick has made Ryan look more like Romney — vague, cautious and limited to preset talking points.

This may be the worst opening sentence of any campaign article I’ve read this year. All it does is repeat unsubstantiated media narratives that have largely been de-bunked. Bold? Specific? Ryan’s convention speech is still being panned for its inaccuracies and lack of specifics, and he’s failed to specify politically troublesome spending cuts by hiding them in a budgeting gimmick. Was that Romney’s fault? Maybe, despite what all those articles said, Ryan just wasn’t all that bold, specific, and confident?

But fine, I’ll give the story the benefit of the doubt. Conservatives are angry the great Ryan is being made to look like the feeble Romney. On to the evidence!

2. The author quotes an expert in an attempt to support the existence of the trend, but the quote actually contains no real evidence. 

“I was wrong. When Paul Ryan was picked, I really thought this meant that the Romney campaign was shifting gears and was going to have a debate about big issues,” said Michael Tanner, an expert on health care and the budget at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Why do you pick somebody like Paul Ryan if you’re going to run a referendum, Obama’s-done-a-bad-job campaign?” Tanner asked.

Ok, time to find a REPUBLICAN to verify there is REPUBLICAN dissatisfaction with how Romney has affected Ryan. I know, let’s get somebody from a LIBERTARIAN think tank! Seriously. Almost any deviation from the Cato agenda — i.e. a large part of the Romney/Ryan campaign platform — would be criticized by Tanner. There’s not a very high degree of difficulty on extracting that quote.

3. One statistically insignificant person is introduced as evidence the proposed trend exists.

The dissatisfaction is not within Washington alone. Last week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) — who was so moved during Ryan’s GOP convention speech that he wept as his longtime ally spoke — told radio host Charlie Sykes that he thinks Ryan is not being used to his full potential.

“I just haven’t seen that kind of passion I know that Paul has transferred over to our nominee,” he said. He suggested that “pushback from some of the folks in the national campaign” might be restraining Ryan.

Hmm…where can we find an objective opinion on Ryan? I know, we’ll ask his “longtime ally” who he moves to tears!

4. Information is given that seemingly supports the hypothesis, but actually has nothing to do with it.

Part of Ryan’s predicament is the result of the strategic decisions of the Romney campaign, which some critics argue has been too cautious in its deployment of the seven-term Wisconsin Republican. There’s also the matter of some of Ryan’s self-inflicted wounds in recent weeks, as well as the substance of what he talks about on the campaign trail.

In his month-and-a-half as GOP vice presidential nominee, Ryan has not held a formal media availability with the dozen or so reporters that comprise his traveling press corps. He also did not hold any formal news conferences during his low-key return to Capitol Hill earlier this month or during his brief trip to Washington last week.

What Ryan has done is target local media outlets: He has sat down for more than 100 local TV or print interviews in 12 swing states, according to a Washington Post tally.

This is an interesting one. The implication is that spending time with local rather than national media is less of a “deployment,” and that formal media availability is the key way for a candidate to amplify his voice. It’s not surprising that Washington Post reporters think that, but I wonder if there’s any evidence that this is true. If there is, you won’t find any hint of it in the article.

Oddly, the writers manage to muddle their point and insult their own work in the next paragraph.

Some of those interviews have included tough questions. Last Tuesday, for instance, one reporter devoted an entire five-minute exchange to pressing Ryan on damaging remarks Romney made at a closed-door fundraiser in May. But many interviewers have lobbed softball questions at Ryan on issues that include his exercise routine and his affinity for health food.

Wait a second. The problem is that Ryan is sitting for tough local interviews when he should be be making his voice heard by answering not-tough and not-softball questions from the national media? In other words, his problem is that he’s not spending enough time giving talking-point answers to boilerplate questions from well-known reporters? Again, it’s not surprising that this is how the Washington Post views the campaign, but I’m not sure there’s much evidence one way or anther about how a vice presidential candidate should travel the country and work the media. Given that, you would think reporters would defer to the massive political organizations that have vast networks of polling and voter data on which they’re basing their candidate availability decisions.


All in all, the article is nothing more than a summary of previous coverage about Ryan — and by the way, because it’s 2012, all of that coverage still exists in easy-to-find places on the internet. If somebody can give me a good reason why this article was written — other than the fact that the Washington Post has politics reporters on its payroll and a print edition to fill — I’m all ears.

The Psychology of Inefficient Markets

The irrationality of humans can be a thorn in the side of efficient markets, and the problem has been exacerbated by the fact that it’s now easier than ever for single person to move an entire market — for example, if an oil trader gets drunk, buys 7 million barrels of crude, and sends the global price of oil to its highest point in eight months. While the dangers of drinking and trading are well-established, what other specific things might lead financial traders to act irrationally?

One answer is that the human tendency to think comparatively leads traders to be influenced by information about other traders. For example, in a new study led by Columbia’s Eric Schoenberg participants engaged in 15 rounds of trading in an experimental market. After each round they were shown the value or either the leader’s account, or the account of the person in last place. When participants viewed the leader’s account they tended to act much more aggressively in the next round:

The type of relative performance information provided has a significant effect on market prices: average trading prices are higher, the peak deviation of trading price from fundamental value is higher, and there are more periods when trading prices are higher than fundamental value in markets where all participants observe the higher Account Total as compared to those were all participants observe the lowest Account Total.

The study did not look at real traders engaged in their actual jobs, but the payouts to those who did well went as high as $73, so there was a big financial incentive to act rationally. The results also build on an earlier finding that trading within a tournament structure — where payoff is officially based on relative position — also induces inflated prices. The takeaway is that although publicly highlighting big bonuses or lucrative trades can motivate a firm’s employees, it may not always motivate them to act in everybody’s best interest.

Schoenberg, E.J., & Haruvy, E. (2012). Relative performance information in asset markets: An experimental approach Journal of Economic Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2012.08.008

What Does a Good Congressman Look Like?

Ross Douthat’s latest column eloquently explains the problem with a government that only serves those capable of working within the system:

Whence comes this wealth? Mostly from Washington’s one major industry: the federal government. Not from direct federal employment, which has risen only modestly of late, but from the growing armies of lobbyists and lawyers, contractors and consultants, who make their living advising and influencing and facilitating the public sector’s work…

The state of life inside the Beltway also points to the broader story of our spending problem, which has less to do with how much we spend on the poor than how much we lavish on subsidies for highly inefficient economic sectors, from health care to higher education, and on entitlements for people who aren’t supposed to need a safety net — affluent retirees, well-heeled homeowners, agribusiness owners, and so on…

In reality, our government isn’t running trillion-dollar deficits because we’re letting the working class get away with not paying its fair share. We’re running those deficits because too many powerful interest groups have a stake in making sure the party doesn’t stop.

Another way to think about the problem is to imagine the ideal workday of an elected representative. Ideally, they talk to constituents about what’s making life more difficult than it needs to be. Many of the complaints will be asinine, but some will be legitimate, and some of the legitimate complaints can be remedied without doing other harm. The representative would then create legislation to enact those fixes.

In theory, this is still how Congress functions, but instead of solving the problems of normal constituents, legislators are solving the problems of whatever registered lobbyist gets to talk to them for three minutes in the drink line at an exclusive D.C. event. This is what people mean when they talk about lobbyists buying access rather than influence.

It’s hard to say whether the government industry Douthat writes about is a bigger institutional problem than the zero-sum game that’s arisen between the two parties. The latter is keeping big legislation from being passed, but the former tends to make legislation worse once the big pieces are settled — instead of fixing issues that could inconvenience families, the “industry” ensures government effort is put into fixing issues that could inconvenience businesses or interest groups.


How Music Can Alter Moral Judgments

Over the last few years psychologists and political scientists have built a strong case against the idea that people have an uncompromising moral code. Research has shown that views about morality are influenced by factors such as a person’s recent actions (see here and here), the actions of others in their group, and even the actions of strangers who have similar birthdays. A new study adds to the malleability of our moral judgments by demonstrating that they can also be influenced by music.

In the initial experiment participants listened to Japanese “noise music,” which induced them to feel angry, or a soothing piece of classical music, which induced them to feel happy. A third group served as a control and listened to no music. When later presented with a series of moral vignettes (e.g. a man cuts in front of cars in order to beat the traffic) participants who were angry judged the actions of the characters to be more wrong. In a follow-up experiment, happy participants who had listened to classical music believed people were more obligated to help those in need, and rated the help as more praiseworthy.

The lesson is that our moral judgments are shaped by a host of seemingly arbitrary factors. Instead of living by an unflinching set of moral guidelines, our judgements about right and wrong tend to be uniquely constructed in the moment through the interaction between our relatively static system of beliefs and a variety of contextual factors. That means when something outrages you, it may be wise to take a step back and think if anything about your mood, your recent actions, or recent world events may be influencing your emotions.

Most importantly, because undesirable music can make you angry and anger can lead to judgements that moral behavior is less obligatory, the study finally provides proof that listening to Nickelback can make you a bad person.
Seidel, A., & Prinz, J. (2012). Mad and glad: Musically induced emotions have divergent impact on morals Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-012-9320-7