Are We Losing the War on Climate Change Cinema?

Views on climate change tend to have the unfortunate quality of being influenced by exposure to partisan media rather than through careful, unbiased research. This is not a quality unique to climate change, but environmental issues do seem to generate a large number of prominent movies relative to other public policy disputes. There’s not a steady release of mainstream films about the value (or atrocity) of food stamps.

The proliferation of such media poses a problem for environmentalists only to the extent that a) a larger audience encounters climate-skeptic films relative to environmentalist films, or b) skeptic films have a relatively stronger impact. I’ll ignore the first point for now, but with regard to the second point a new study suggests that there may be something to worry about.

The study, which was conducted by Tobias Greitemeyer of the University of Innsbruck, examined the impact of different climate change films on the environmental attitudes of Austrian collge students. In Greitemeyer’s initial experiment a skeptic film, “The Great Global Warming Swindle,” induced stronger negative attitudes toward the environment, but a climate change-affirming film, “Children of the Flood,” did not lead to stronger positive attitudes. The results suggest that there may be something about climate skeptic films that makes them more powerful.

A follow up experiment dug a bit deeper into how climate change films influence viewers. This time the climate change-affirming film was a documentary, “Six Degrees Could Ghange the World,” rather than a fictional film about a world ravaged by climate change. (The skeptic film, a documentary titled, “The Climate Swindle: How the Eco-Mafia Betrays Us,” was also different from the film used in the initial experiment.) Prior to viewing the films participants completed a survey that aimed to gauge their baseline level of environmentalist behavior. After viewing the films participants responded to three sets of questions that measured their mood, their general propensity to consider future consequences, and their apathy about the environment.

The results of the second experiment largely confirmed the findings from the initial experiment. Even when controlling for prior views on the environment, the skeptic film had a significant negative impact on concern for the environment, but the climate change affirming film did not have a significant positive impact on concern for the environment. Interestingly, a follow-up analysis revealed that the reason the skeptic films were effective was that they altered the degree to which people considered future consequences. In fact, after viewing the films a person’s reported consideration of future consequences was a better predictor of their concern for the environment than the type of film they saw. While the study comes with all the caveats of an experiment restricted to Austrian college students, the findings suggest that climate change skeptic films do in fact have a stronger impact, but only to the extent that they do more to influence people’s consideration of future consequences.

So what, if anything, does this mean for the fight against climate change? Obviously it’s bad news if films produced by climate skeptics have a stronger impact. On the other hand, the importance of considering future consequences may at least hint at some worthwhile countermeasures. One possibility is that simple nudges to induce more foresight, even in domains that have nothing to do with the environment, will lead to greater consideration of the future and an increase in concern for the environment. For example, getting people to think more about saving for retirement may change how they think about the future in such a way that they become more environmentally conscious.

The study also helps explain why, economically speaking, environmentalism functions as a “luxury good” (i.e. as countries get richer they “consume” more environmentalism.) The standard reasoning is that richer countries care more about the environment because they can afford to make economic sacrifices for the sake of the planet. People in America can afford to buy green lightbulbs or pay taxes on the carbon they use. People living in Bangladesh cannot.

But Greitemeyer’s study tells a slightly different story about the connection between wealth and environmentalism. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck you don’t expend a lot of energy thinking about long-term issues, and thus you don’t spend as much time considering future consequences. On the other hand, if you’re relatively wealthy it’s not uncommon to think about what you’ll be doing in 30 years. And so the poor might not be less concerned with climate change simply because they can’t afford it, they might be less concerned because they don’t generally think about the distant future. Such an explanation doesn’t open the door for any particular panacea, but it ought to strengthen the case for economic growth as a long-term solution to climate change. In the meantime, people should probably be more wary of crackpot climate skeptic films.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)
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Greitemeyer, T. (2013). Beware of climate change skeptic films Journal of Environmental Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.06.002

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The Link Between Political Views and…Video Sharing Behavior?

From a new paper by Bradley Okdie:

We examined whether participants’ political beliefs significantly predicted likelihood of forwarding political videos and the characteristics of the targets of these forwards. Participants viewed one of four political advertisements that varied in terms of the candidate’s political party (Democrat or Republican) and the emotion that the advertisement evoked (Positive or Negative). Democrats were more likely to forward advertisements when they experienced positive emotional arousal, and the targets of the forwards were not especially similar to Democrat participants in terms of political orientation or personality. Conversely, Republicans were more likely to forward advertisements when they experienced negative emotional arousal, and the targets of the forwards were highly similar to the Republican participants in terms of political orientation and personality. This is consistent with previous research (e.g., Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003) indicating that conservatism is associated with greater negative affect sensitivity and insularity in communication.

Do Fast Food Restaurants Cause Poor Financial Decision-Making?

Occasionally I think about doing a recurring item called “New research the media will overhype so much the academic community will have to initiate pushback.” (The name was always a work in progress.) I never follow through, but if I did, the series might include this latest paper from the University of Toronto’s Sanford DeVoe, Julian House, and Chen-Bo Zong on the connection between fast food and financial decisions.

Zong and DeVoe initially made a splash with their 2010 Psychological Science paper titled, “You are what you eat: Fast Food and Impatience.” The paper described three experiments that linked exposure to fast food symbols with impatience. The final experiment demonstrated that people exposed to fast food symbols were more likely to prefer an immediate smaller sum of money rather than a larger sum of money a week later.

In their new paper DeVoe, House, and Zong lay out five studies which offer additional evidence that fast food restaurants encourage financial impatience. The first three studies focused on “socioecological” evidence of this relationship. The initial study examined the household savings rates and the number of McDonalds restaurants in 30 OECD countries from 1978-2008. The second study used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to examine household savings and the change in fast food restaurant concentration within American neighborhoods between 1999 and 2007. The third study compared fast-food restaurant concentration with preferences about forgoing an immediate payment for a larger future payment.

All three studies found that an increase in fast food restaurants was associated with financial impatience. In the first two studies, after controlling for factors such as income, household preferences, and the overall concentration of restaurants, the researchers found that an increase in fast food restaurants was associated with less household saving. In the third study, the concentration of fast food restaurants was negatively correlated with the preference for delaying earnings to a future date. That is, people who lived near more fast food restaurants needed larger future payments to forgo an immediate $1000.

The researchers are quick to point out that it’s still difficult to determine the direction of causality because financial impatience or anticipated financial impatience could be causing more fast food restaurant to open rather than the other way around. I also think it’s possible that a third factor is causing both an increase in fast food restaurants and a decrease in savings. For example, an increase in fast food restaurants could be part of a broader wave of new commercial development, and an increase in the quantity or quality of ways to spend money might cause you to shift consumption from the future to the present. If you think about the findings in terms of “more stores” rather than “more fast food restaurants,” the fact that saving goes down doesn’t seem all that out of the ordinary.

The final two studies attempted to establish more of a causal connection between fast food and financial impatience. The fourth study largely extended the results of the 2010 paper by finding that being asked to recall a fast-food dining experience rather than a conventional dining experience led people to place a steeper discount on future earnings. In the fifth and final study, the researchers went out into the field and surveyed participants in front of either a fast food restaurant or a conventional chain restaurant. As expected, participants surveyed in front of the fast food restaurant were more likely to prefer a smaller immediate cash prize rather than a larger prize on a later date.

One additional question is whether the findings could be part of a larger set of consequences that result from our advertising industrial complex and consumer driven society. Think of how many times a day you’re told that buying something will make you happy. Everything from a subway ad for a new movie, to a TV commercial for Bud Light, to the a banner ad for a resort on a Caribbean island you’ve never heard of. Perhaps being bombarded with messages about the joys of immediate spending increases financial impatience, and fast food restaurants merely lead to a powerful manifestation of this broader effect. The question then is whether there would also be a connection between financial impatience and the emergence of other consumer-driven businesses. For example, would the concentration of Verizon or Old Navy stores be correlated with an aversion to saving money?

Either way, while I would still hold off on the sensationalistic “McDonalds Is Destroying the Economy” headlines, these new findings make for a strong follow up to the 2010 study. At the very least fast food symbols do seem to have an immediate priming effect, and though the case for a stronger, long-lasting causal connection between fast food restaurants and financial impatience is less airtight, I assume this won’t be the researchers’ last foray into uncovering new evidence.
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DeVoe, S., House, J., & Zhong, C. (2013). Fast Food and Financial Impatience: A Socioecological Approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0033484

Should Crazy Political Candidates Be the Norm?

From a new paper by Jens Großer and Thomas Palfrey:

We study a citizen-candidate-entry model with private information about ideal points. We fully characterize the unique symmetric equilibrium of the entry game and show that only relatively “extreme” citizen types enter the electoral competition as candidates, whereas more “moderate” types never enter. It generally leads to substantial political polarization, even when the electorate is not polarized and citizens understand that they vote for more extreme candidates. We show that polarization increases in the costs of entry and decreases in the benefits from holding office. Moreover, when the number of citizens goes to infinity, only the very most extreme citizens, with ideal points at the boundary of the policy space, become candidates. Finally, our polarization result is robust to changes in the implementation of a default policy if no citizen runs for office and to introducing directional information about candidates’ types that is revealed via parties.

Nobody In New York City Is Serious About An Alternative to High-Stakes Testing

I’m among those who believe an accountability system based largely on standardized tests is the best of the imperfect options we have for improving our schools. Yet because the imperfections of such a system are so discouraging, I think it’s extremely important that we attempt to develop better alternatives. But thus far nobody who rails against the spread of high-stakes testing seems interested in putting forth a comprehensive plan that still ensures legitimate accountability.

That’s why I was excited to see that New Yorkers For Great Public Schools put out a new report titled “Charting a New Direction in Testing and Accountability.” The report was deemed significant enough that it was announced at a press conference featuring UFT president Michael Mulgrew and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, with the other Democratic candidates all releasing statements of support. Unfortunately, the report demonstrates that a real alternative to standardized testing will remain a pipe dream. To be blunt, the document is more of a trite blog post than a serious proposal.

The proposal, which comes in at a whopping two and a half pages, is divided into three sections: Testing (5 bullet points) Accountability (4 bullet points), and State & Federal Advocacy (5 bullet points). I’m tempted to go through all 14 bullet points, but for the sake of brevity I’ll focus on the vacuous points that are most emblematic of the report’s deep lack of seriousness.

Let’s start with the 4th bullet on Accountability (emphasis not mine):

The new accountability system should ensure that all DOE policies, including school budgeting and resource provision, teacher placement, and student assignment policies (such as high school admissions and other choice-based processes, as well as the assignment of students with disabilities, English Language Learners, students overage for grade, and over-the-counter students), do not set struggling schools up for failure and undermine systemic improvement efforts.

Look, I understand that when you spend 12 years demonizing a mayor’s policies you can start to believe your most extreme rhetoric. But I feel confident saying that the number of people who do not advocate the platform above is literally zero. If somebody wants to produce the DOE document where Walcott lays out the plan to screw struggling schools and at-risk students I’d love to see it. But in the absence of such evidence a serious “plan” needs to explain the mechanism that’s preventing the status quo from producing the desired outcome, and then describe what should be done differently. Instead what you have here is essentially a quote from an anti-Bloomberg rapid-response press release being passed off as a serious policy proposal.

Here’s the second bullet point is the Accountability section:

The new accountability system should enable the DOE to identify a set of struggling schools that need interventions and supports to improve their academic performance. These prioritized schools should be identified through a rating system based on multiple demographic and performance indicators and transparent and equitable comparative measures that identify the schools within tiers of citywide performance to distinguish which schools are highly successful, average or struggling.

First, it’s worth pointing out that the Progress Reports put out by the DOE largely do this. For most metrics each school is given a percentile rank within a group of 30-40 comparison schools that are demographically similar. Now it’s fine if you disagree with the exact methodology the DOE uses (and I happen to have some issues with it), but if that’s the case then you need to explain what your objections are. What you can’t do is ignore what’s being done and pretend that the DOE has no interest in identifying struggling schools in an equitable way. And yet you see this ignorance of reality in a bunch of the report’s initiatives. In general, you have an entire document (with an accompanying press conference) based on the illusion that NYGPS and the Bloomberg administration have different goals rather than a different set of priorities for achieving those goals. Again, this is what I’m talking about when I call the plan a trite blog post rather than a legitimate plan. The plan says “Bloomberg wants bad things but we want good things,” but it doesn’t offer any details on how to achieve the good things. Note the incredible vagueness in both the sections quoted above. No piece of any them contains a hint of detail.

Moving on, this is the first bullet in the Testing section:

Promotion and retention decisions should be based on a student’s full body of work. The educator’s and school leader’s judgment should be the primary input in such decisions, and a review should be triggered if the test results contradict that judgment. Retention decisions should also include the provision of additional academic and other supports if needed. Parents should have the right of appeal in all promotion and retention decisions.

This point is less egregious that the others because it’s not based on a gross mischaracterization of current policy, but note the lack of detail. A full body of work? What does that mean? Is the classroom teacher the only person judging this work? Isn’t this basically just allowing the teacher to decide? I’m open to the idea, but it would be helpful if there was some explanation about why this would be an improvement — an explanation that doesn’t involve the a priori assumption that anything is better than tests. And what about the parent’s right to appeal? This would be an enormously complex and controversial process. The nature of the appeals process has tied up union negotiations for decades. Isn’t it worth contributing at least a paragraph to explain how this might work? More importantly, an appeals process is very labor intensive. Where is the extra funding for this process going to come from? How does NYGPS plan to find the resources to deal with there potentially being a legal hearing for every student who is to be retained?

Here’s the fifth Testing bullet:

Expand the use of alternative assessments such as portfolio and performance-based assessments to measure student progress.

I have no major qualms if somebody Tweets that this is something we should do. In fact, I’m intrigued by the idea of portfolio based assessments and would love to see a large scale pilot that could help us determine if it’s a good way of doing things. But this incited a press conference with Michael Mulgrew and Bill de Blasio. It is not a Tweet! Tell us what kind of alternative assessments should people try. What’s good about them? Where are you going to get the additional resources that such assessments require? Give us one actual detail!

I wasn’t even going to mention the final section on state and federal advocacy because it’s not really about alternatives to testing, but the section is so vacuous that I feel the need to talk about it. Here is the beginning of it.

3. Work at state and federal levels to reduce the amount and the consequences of high-stakes standardized testing by:

a. Advocating against the expansion of standardized tests, and particularly against proposed policies to test young children in the early grades;

b. Advocating against the expansion of high stakes consequences for teachers and schools based on standardized testing;

c. Advocating to significantly reduce the amount of time lost to instruction that students and teachers spend taking and administering state standardized testing;

Is there anybody reading this document who is not already doing this things? Isn’t this just a reiteration of NYGPS’ mission? This essentially says the goal is to advocate for thing A, and the way we’re going to do that is by advocating for thing A. What’s the point?

Many of the remaining bullet points deal with reducing the role of testing in the admissions process for specialized high schools or gifted and talented programs. Unlike most of the other points, this is something that’s less-discussed and thus highlighting the issue with a two-sentence bullet point is more-defensible than doing so for the issue of “we need less testing.” However, the brevity with which it’s discussed once again shows that the point of the document is to blast standardized testing without engaging in a serious discussion. For example, there’s good reason to believe that the emphasis on testing is helpful to low-income and minority students. What will happen if tests are replaced by “multiple measures” as the report advocates? It seems to me that the students likely to benefit from the inclusion of things like essays or extracurricular talents (e.g. piano playing skills) are those from wealthier families who have college-educated parents to help them. Now it’s possible I’m wrong about this. We don’t know. And that’s the problem. If you’re advocating replacing testing with other measures you need to flesh out what the consequences might be. You can’t just assume that outcome will be better because there’s less testing.

Now you might say that I’m taking all this too seriously. That this was just meant to to serve as a communications document that would earn a favorable news cycle. But that also proves my point. Here you have the head of the biggest local teachers union in the country on stage with somebody who might become the mayor of the biggest city in the country, and their plan to transition away from standardized testing is wholly unserious. This is a microcosm of what you see happening around the country. Everybody wants to use the backlash against testing to win the PR war, but nobody actually cares to work on a serious alternative.

Another slightly different take is that the document was simply supposed to be a set of guidelines designed to get the issue on people’s agendas. That would be fine, except the issue is already on everybody’s agenda. Everybody understands the limitations of standardized testing and everybody would like better alternatives. What we need is real evidence about real alternatives. In the absence of that the NYGPS’ proposal is nothing more than the GOP holding inconsequential votes to repeal Obamacare and calling it a healthcare plan.

So once again, I’ll ask the question. If you think there should be less standardized testing, what’s your specific alternative accountability system? (And if you don’t think there shouldn’t be any stringent accountability, where’s the evidence demonstrating that on a large scale such a system would be an improvement. )

The Hazards of Debating Race and Inequality

Imagine there is a certain advantaged group of people that supports a policy that harms a disadvantaged group, and you believe there are hints of racial or ethnic bias underlying their position. Even if the advantaged group doesn’t literally believe that the disadvantaged group is less deserving, it’s impossible to view their insensitivity to the plight of those at the bottom of the system without considering race.

Now imagine you’re a prominent activist or politician gearing up to take on the advantaged group’s inequitable policy. What’s the optimal approach? Should you characterize their views in the most despicable way possible? Or would it be better to tone down the sensitive rhetoric and attempt to signal that you aim to be reasonable?

If there’s any kind of public element to the debate, most people will want to avoid being too conciliatory. After all, you need the public to know the scope of the injustice you’re fighting. There’s also research that suggests it can be harmful to avoid calling a spade a spade. A recent study led by Heather Rasinski found that after passing up an opportunity to confront somebody who exhibited prejudice, participants viewed the offending person more favorably and believed that confronting them was less important. Rasinski and her team concluded that in order for participants to reconcile the difference between their beliefs, which held that prejudice was always unacceptable, and their actions, which suggested that prejudice might not be so unacceptable, they revised their beliefs to reflect their actions. Thus, it’s important not to hold back when confronted with injustice because your lack of intensity can influence the strength of your beliefs.

On the other hand, it may be even more important to avoid drifting too close to the other extreme. Simple common sense tells you that a negotiation will go poorly if you demonize the other side, but accusations of racial or ethnic bias will be particularly damaging because of the strong threat they pose to a person’s self-concept and their belief that they’re ultimately a good person. When faced with such a threat people will respond by finding ways to mitigate it. The question then, is how exactly people mitigate the threat.

new study led by Tamar Saguy suggests a discouraging answer. Saguy and her team conducted three experiments that examined attitudes about inequality in the context of the relationships between Americans and Hispanics, Israeli Jews and Arabs, and Italians and African Immigrants. They found that the more the advantaged group felt wronged by accusations of racial bias, the more they viewed the inequality they benefited from as legitimate, and the less they expressed a willingness to take action to reduce inquality. In other words, when people felt unfairly accused of racial bias, they responded by legitimizing the system that put them in an advantaged position, and that led to a reduced desire to help the disadvantaged group.

So, for example, if somebody says your group of rich white men doesn’t care about Hispanic immigrants, that poses a threat to the moral standing of your group. But since your brain is generally focused on making you think your group is awesome, it will attempt to preserve that perception of awesomeness by strengthening the belief that your group’s wealth is the outcome of a system devoid of unfairness. In a sense, you’re maintaining your level of “goodness” by countering the increased possibility that you’re prejudiced with the increased possibility that your advantaged status is legitimate. Unfortunately, a stronger belief in the legitimacy of the system will lead to a weaker desire to help the people who are on the bottom of it.

All of this puts our hypothetical activist in a tricky position, but might there be another tool researchers have found for effectivley dealing with the issue of race-based inequality? Some studies have shown that people in an advantaged group are more likely to act to reduce inequality when the gap is framed as resulting from their own advantage rather than another group’s disadvantage. One study, which was based on the reasoning that people don’t like being seen as advantaged, found that when inequality was framed as resulting from White advantage, Whites were more likely to support policies that reduced economic opportunites for their own race (but not more likely to suport policies that increased opportunities for minorities.) Another study found that when income inequality was framed as the higest earners making more money rather than everybody else making less money, conservatives were more likely to support raising taxes on the wealthy. The researchers attributed their findings to the idea that framing inequality in terms of advantage makes people more aware of how external factors (e.g. place of birth, luck) contributed to their success.

Yet these studies don’t directly address the problem of race-related accusations strengthening support for an inequitable system. At the margin, framing inequality in terms of advantage may help mitigate the negative effects of these accusations, but such frames don’t truly provide a better a way to talk about sensitive issues involving race. Ultimately, the best advice for debating race and inequality may sound like something a parent would tell a 4th grader. Make sure you let the person know you’re unhappy with their behavior, but try not to hurt their feelings.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)
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Saguy, T., Chernyak-Hai, L., Andrighetto, L., & Bryson, J. (2013). When the powerful feels wronged: The legitimization effects of advantaged group members’ sense of being accused for harboring racial or ethnic biases European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1948

Rasinski, H., Geers, A., & Czopp, A. (2013). “I Guess What He Said Wasn’t That Bad”: Dissonance in Nonconfronting Targets of Prejudice Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167213484769

People Think Secret Information Is Better Information

The recent disclosures about the extent of the NSA’s domestic spying program add to a long history of incidents in which the American public has gained access to information that was once secret. And that’s great. People should have information about what their government is doing. But it’s worth considering whether people are able to make accurate judgements about leaked information. For example, do people perceive the quality of information to be different if the information is secret rather than public?

According to a new study led by the University of Colorado’s Mark Travers, when it comes to foreign policy the answer is yes:

Three experiments demonstrate that in the context of U.S. foreign policy decision making, people infer informational quality from secrecy. In Experiment 1, people weighed secret information more heavily than public information when making recommendations about foreign political candidates. In Experiment 2, people judged information presented in documents ostensibly produced by the Department of State and the National Security Council as being of relatively higher quality when those documents were secret rather than public. Finally, in Experiment 3, people judged a National Security Council document as being of higher quality when presented as a secret document rather than a public document and evaluated others’ decisions more favorably when those decisions were based on secret information.

To be clear, none of the judgments made by participants are inherently “bad” judgments. Placing greater value on secret information may be a useful heuristic in most situations. In fact, the researchers proffer three very legitimate reasons why people tend to be smitten with secret information: 1) Secret information is often more important in strategic situations (e.g. a seller’s preferences in a negotiation), 2) people tend to view their personal secrets as being of greater importance, and thus they may believe the same about other secrets, and 3) governments generally behave as though secret information is more important.

But there are some situations where a heuristic based on secrecy can be a problem. For example, it’s possible for the government to take advantage of leaks.

Our studies imply that, among average U.S. citizens, secret information is used as a cue to infer informational quality. This suggests that when government leaders claim, for example, that secret information indicates that enemy nations are building weapons of mass destruction—and that military intervention is therefore warranted—citizens may be more likely to endorse their government’s position even though there is no opportunity for public vetting of that information.

*Cough* *Iraq* *Cough* *Cough*

Though the study doesn’t shed any light on whether experts exhibit a tendency to over-value secret information, it’s also possible that they could be led astray. For example, if an intelligence officer has a set of policy preferences based on public information, but then encounters a piece of secret information, he may place too much weight on the secret information and alter his preferred policy too much. Obviously foreign policy experts have extensive training and a strong grasp of complex situations, but when you’re dealing with issues important enough to involve secret information any marginal shift away from the optimal policy has the potential to be extremely destructive.

Finally, assuming the findings extend beyond the realm of direct foreign policy, the study emphasizes how important it is for the media to not screw up when given access to secret information. For example, initial reports based on Edward Snowden’s leaks contained  claims about “direct access” that the government and the companies involved continue to deny. However, because the “secret” information in the news articles garners more weight than the public denials, it’s likely that many people will be slow to correct their perceptions of the spying program. The media should always take care not to report inaccurate information, but when the information is purported to be secret, sloppy reporting will be even more harmful.
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Travers, M., Van Boven, L., & Judd, C. (2013). The Secrecy Heuristic: Inferring Quality from Secrecy in Foreign Policy Contexts Political Psychology DOI: 10.1111/pops.12042