Teenagers Are Bad At Predicting Their Risk Of Getting Into Trouble

Recent investigations of adolescents’ beliefs about risk have led to surprisingly optimistic conclusions: Teens’ self estimates of their likelihood of experiencing various life events not only correlate sensibly with relevant risk factors (Fischhoff et al., 2000), but they also significantly predict later experiencing the events (Bruine de Bruin et al., 2007). Using the same dataset examined in previous investigations, the present study extended these analyses by comparing the predictive value of self estimates of risk to that of traditional risk factors for each outcome. The analyses focused on the prediction of pregnancy, criminal arrest, and school enrollment. Three findings emerged. First, traditional risk factor information tended to out-predict self assessments of risk, even when the risk factors included crude, potentially unreliable measures (e.g., a simple tally of self-reported criminal history) and when the risk factors were aggregated in a nonoptimal way (i.e., unit weighting). Second, despite the previously reported correlations between self estimates and outcomes, perceived invulnerability was a problem among the youth: Over half of the teens who became pregnant, half of those who were not enrolled in school, and nearly a third of those who were arrested had, one year earlier, indicated a 0% chance of experiencing these outcomes. Finally, adding self estimates of risk to the other risk factor information produced only small gains in predictive accuracy. These analyses point to the need for greater education about the situations and behaviors that lead to negative outcomes.

The paper (pdf) is from Judgment and Decision Making and the author is Alexander Persoskie.

Can Flip-Flopping Make You More Persuasive?

Convincing somebody to follow your advice can be a grueling task. Though it may often seem like the only thing to do is continue stating your spectacularly rational argument and hope they eventually see the light, some new research suggests a counter-intuitive twist on that strategy: Initially recommending what you don’t want them to do and then contradicting yourself.

The study, which was led by Stanford’s Taly Reich and Zakary Tormala, found that contradictions can lead people to think about what caused your change of heart, and that can make you more persuasive.

Conventional wisdom and past research suggest that contradicting oneself, or changing one’s stated opinion, should undermine one’s persuasiveness. In contrast to this view, we propose that under specifiable conditions contradicting oneself might offer a persuasive advantage. Across a series of experiments, we find evidence for this contradiction effect and explore its mechanism and boundaries. In particular, we show that contradictions can prompt attributional processing geared toward understanding why a shift in opinion has occurred. When strong arguments are provided, they foster favorable attributions (e.g., the source thought more about the issue and/or gathered new information), which result in increased persuasive impact. When weak arguments are provided, they induce less favorable attributions, which in turn dampen or even reverse the effect. Furthermore, consistent with an attributional perspective, we find that contradictions introduce a persuasive advantage only when they come from a single source and only when trust in that source is high.

The broader lesson is that there’s a lot that can change when something interrupts our relatively automatic cognitive processes. In this instance a contradiction leads to a new evaluation of why a person has a particular position, but research also shows that making people aware they are being persuaded can influence their actions. (In fact, this may contribute to why contradictions, which could signal the absence of a strong persuasion attempt, can be more persuasive.) None of this is to say that “You shouldn’t go out with me…actually you should go out with me” is an effective pickup line, but there do seem to be plenty of situations — particularly when seeking advice from a trusted friend — where contradicting yourself could be a worthwhile strategy.
Reich, T., & Tormala, Z. (2013). When contradictions foster persuasion: An attributional perspective Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49 (3), 426-439 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.01.004

How Do You Determine the Value of a Higher Education Experience?

Consider me among those heartened by the fact that President Obama seems ready to take significant steps to shake up the status quo in higher education. Here’s the key piece from the policy document released alongside the State of the Union:

The President will call on Congress to consider value, affordability, and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to federal student aid, either by incorporating measures of value and affordability into the existing accreditation system; or by establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results.

For a complete breakdown I recommend Kevin Carey’s take, but for now I want to focus on the question of “value.” The bottom is line that there’s no objective way to quantify the value of your higher education experience. That doesn’t mean the government shouldn’t try to define and measure it, but because there are so many gray areas there are a lot of potential outcomes.

One question is whether to define value in absolute or relative terms. Even with skyrocketing tuition, researchers and analysts are unanimous in proclaiming that nearly every single bachelor’s degree has a positive return on investment. When you look at differences in earnings over an entire lifetime, it’s crazy not to go to college. Who cares what it costs? This is the argument the higher ed lobby will make when it pushes for absolute measures of value.

Ideally, the Obama administration will remain focused on relative value. A $50 million life-saving surgery still has “good value,” even if all the inputs of the surgery cost only $10,000. The same goes for a $200k college degree that could be administered for $25k. In competitive markets the price isn’t what people are willing to pay, it’s what people are willing to sell for. This should be the goal for higher education. Universities should be compared to every other player in the higher education arena, and the fact that Obama used the phrase “bang for you buck” suggests he agrees.

A second issue is how metrics unrelated to employment or tuition (e.g. clubs, facilities, etc.) will be used in the calculation of value. Recently there’s been discussion of the idea that high tuition is partly a result of colleges providing a lot of amenities that students value. Should these amenities count at all? If they do, should the system account for the overall tuition level when judging the value of amenities? For example, imagine a college that increases tuition by $10 in order to build a climbing wall, and each student consequently reaps and average of $11 worth of benefits from playing on it. Seems fine. But now imagine the college makes 1,000 similar investments. Tuition has now risen by $10k, and though you might say it’s ok because students are still getting good overall value from each dollar, there’s a problem. That extra $10 in spending may not be a good value for every current or future student, particularly low-income youth who have different substitution costs for each dollar of tuition. If 40 wealthy kids get $13 of value from the climbing wall, but 60 poor kids get only $9, should an accountability system view it as a good thing or a bad thing? My point is that a college could hypothetically increase tuition and and create better value, so what if they just keep doing it? At some point there will be diminishing returns, but is there a level of tuition at which the school shouldn’t get accolades for building a fancy schmancy robotics center that generates a lot of benefits? How should we handle schools that offer a great product while also being truly and unabashedly unaffordable?

A final question is how measurements of value should handle the contrast between competency and employment. For example, imagine that Stanford offers the exact same educational experience as UC-Santa Cruz, but for double the price. Due to entrenched reputations Stanford students do three times better than Santa Cruz students in the job market. Is Stanford actually offering a better value? From an employment standpoint they are, but from a pure competency standpoint they’re not. This is a complicated issue, particularly because one could argue employment is a better measure of competency than demonstrable content knowledge. I’m not sure there’s a right or wrong answer here, but it’s yet another example of the complex philosophical issues involved in determining the value of a higher education experience.

New Blog, Same Semi-Witty Pontifications

In what surely qualifies as big news around here, I’m excited to announce that I have a new blog over at Psychology Today. The blog — which is tentatively titled ‘The Inertia Trap” — will focus on the psychology of change, or to be more precise, the psychology of why change is difficult. More specifically, the goal is for the blog to discuss how psychology mechanisms can prevent macro-level social, cultural, and political change from occurring. One way to think of it is like a self-help here’s-why-we’re-screwed blog, but for institutions, communities, and social orders instead of for individuals. And have no fear — posts should continue here at about the same pace. The only difference is that when I write something about change it will probably pop up over at the Psych Today blog.

The blog is here, and you can subscribe to the RSS feed by clicking here. The inaugural post looks at how new research on intergroup biases paints a bleak picture for the prospect of political compromise:

If you’re the type of person who spends the weekend scanning cable news channels or curling up with an esoteric political science journal you can probably name 27 different reasons politicians on opposing sides of the political spectrum find little common ground. Though most political chatter tends to focus on salient motivations like ideological commitments, reelection incentives, or plain ol’ believing the other party is hell-bent on destroying the country, there are also psychological aspects of intergroup dynamics that can make it hard for political parties to cooperate.

To briefly summarize all of human history, groups are good. They provide protection and increase favorable opportunities. As a result, we generally seek to buttress our own groups while treating other groups with wariness. One way this manifests itself is in the “intergroup sensitivity effect” (ISE) – the tendency to be more dismissive of criticism when it comes from out-group members.

So right from the start, political systems involving multiple parties have a steep hill to climb. Compromise requires persuading another party that some piece of what they want is stupid (or at least less brilliant than the other things they want) and the ISE makes it harder for them to be open to that criticism. When a Liberal explains to a Conservative why their energy plan is bad, there’s not a great desire to take the explanation at face value.

If that were the extent of the trouble caused by the ISE, things might not be so bad. After all, even if being in the out-group essentially handicaps your argument, you can still make up for it by building a really strong argument.

Unfortunately, the above scenario may paint too rosy of picture.

Yeah, I’m going to make you click through. Consider it my nudge to get you to bookmark it, subscribe to it, Tweet it, and email it.

Emotional Unpredictability As a Negotiating Tactic

The title of the paper is “The Advantages of being Unpredictable: How Emotional Inconsistency Extracts Concessions in Negotiation”:

Integrating recent work on emotional communication with social science theories on unpredictability, we investigated whether communicating emotional inconsistency and unpredictability would affect recipients’ concession-making in negotiation. We hypothesized that emotional inconsistency and unpredictability would increase recipients’ concessions by making recipients feel less control over the outcome. In Experiment 1, dyads negotiated face-to-face after one negotiator within each dyad expressed either anger or emotional inconsistency (by alternating between anger and happiness). In Experiment 2, participants received angry and/or happy messages from a simulated negotiation opponent. In Experiment 3, participants read a scenario about a negotiator who expressed either anger or emotional inconsistency by alternating between anger and disappointment. In all three experiments, emotional inconsistency induced recipients to make greater concessions compared to expressing a consistent emotion. Further, in all three experiments, the effect of emotional inconsistency was mediated by recipients’ feeling less control. These findings qualify previous research on anger in negotiation and demonstrate the importance of feelings of control for negotiation outcomes.



The Moral Case For MOOCs

There’s a problem with how our society evaluates computer-based education. It’s not that there’s something inherently wrong with that pushback against American colleges that have chosen to embrace technology. Those who fear the consequences of an increasingly technological higher education system are free to voice their opinion. The problem is that the question of “What does this mean for American colleges?” is the wrong way to frame the debate. Ultimately, MOOCs and similar innovations are not about the American higher education system. They’re about the rest of the world.

The world’s optimists constantly talk about the future contributions of the billions who now live in poverty. Tom Friedman has written 47 columns about them. Unfortunately, the U.S. can’t do a whole lot to solve the problems faced by children in a poor Indian village. The U.S. can’t even do a much to solve their education problems. But one thing we can do is push the innovation of open, free, and high-functioning online education systems so that whenever these kids get internet  access, whether it’s in 2013, 2014, or 2019, they will have the means to educate themselves.

The American education system is irrelevant to this development. Not unaffected, but irrelevant. Yes, online education will have an impact on American universities. And there is a legitimate case to be made that we should be wary and skeptical of change. But online education is for the rest of the world, and our relatively petty concerns about marginally lowering the quality of learning at elite universities should not be a roadblock to the development and advancement of online learning systems. The positive externalities from successful trial and error are too great. Instead of giving MOOCs only two strikes, we should be giving them four strikes.

Again, none of this is to say that we shouldn’t be careful about the changes we make to our higher education system. But a lot of the pushback against MOOCs is disconnected from any specific initiative — there’s merely an abstract concern that MOOCs are a negative development for all involved. In reality, MOOCs are sure to be a positive development for 98% of the world regardless of their effect on American universities. Until there is actual evidence of widespread negative consequences as a result of MOOCs, critics should tone down their outrage and allow as much experimentation as possible.

How Well-Endowed Are Your Online Dating Prospects?

The emergence of non-traditional markets is one of the more rapid developments in the American economy.  For example, thanks to Airbnb there is now a semi-legitimate market for “a three bedroom house in the Southern part of Nashville for a single Tuesday night in November.” Sites like Craigslist and Etsy are also driving the creation of markets that were previously non-existent.

Given the growth of these new markets, it’s important to ask whether they induce different behavior than more traditional markets. One answer is that non-traditional markets have larger endowments effects (i.e. the tendency to believe something is more valuable when their is a sense of ownership.) Research suggests there are increased endowment effects — as measured by the ratio between the “willingness to accept” price (WTA) and the “willingness to pay” price (WTP) — in cap-and-trade markets for pollution permits, and according to a new study, in markets for contact information of potential dates.

The endowment effect appears to be much stronger in markets for environmental goods that are not usually monetized than in traditional markets. This study explored the effect in another non-traditional market: the dating market. In Experiment 1, participants were asked either for a buying or selling price for the contact information of each of 10 dates. The WTA/WTP ratios within this market were higher than in traditional markets and, unexpectedly, much higher for women than for men, with an average ratio of 9.37 and 2.70, respectively. Experiment 2 replicated this result and found in a within-subject design the usual WTA/WTP ratio for coffee mugs. The paper concludes with a discussion of differences between traditional and non-traditional markets, with a special emphasis on the dating market.

This seems like the kind of cute but insignificant study that tends to attract a lot of media attention, but it does have the potential to help shed light on pricing patters in non-traditional markets. I also wonder whether it’s relevant to the rapidly emerging markets involving personal information. Could large WTA/WTP ratios emerge when a company sells information to advertisers, or is there no real sense of ownership to “endow” the information with value?
Nataf, C., & Wallsten, T. (2013). Love the One You’re With: The Endowment Effect in the Dating Market Journal of Economic Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2013.01.009