Do Freedom of Information Act Laws Make a Difference?

Yes! From a study led by Winthrop’s Adriana Cordis:

We assess the effect of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws on public corruption in the United States. Specifically, we investigate the impact of switching from a weak to a strong state-level FOIA law on corruption convictions of state and local government officials. The evidence suggests that strengthening FOIA laws has two offsetting effects: reducing corruption and increasing the probability that corrupt acts are detected. The conflation of these two effects led prior work to find little impact of FOIA on corruption. We find that conviction rates approximately double after the switch, which suggests an increase in detection probabilities. However, conviction rates decline from this new elevated level as the time since the switch from weak tostrong FOIA increases. This decline is consistent with officials reducing the rate at which they commit corrupt acts by about twenty percent. These changes are more pronounced in states with more intense media coverage, for those that had more substantial changes in their FOIA laws , for FOIA laws which include strong liabilities for officials who contravene them, for local officials, and for more serious crimes. Conviction rates of federal officials, who are not subject to the policy, show no concomitant change.



Is Our Criminal Justice System Too Aggressive?

I have a new piece in Pacific Standard about research suggesting that fear of the criminal justice system can lead people to opt out of institutions that collect personal information. This could mean forgoing medical care at a hospital or deciding not to open a bank account.

While the study has all the standard caveats that come will correlational research, the results paint a bleak picture:

Even after controlling for demographics, income, health, and behaviors like drug use or carrying a weapon, respondents who had any type of contact with the criminal justice system were 31 percent more likely than those who had no contact to not obtain medical care when they needed it. Even people who were merely stopped by police were 33 percent more likely to not seek medical care. 


The findings tell a convincing story about how fear of the criminal justice system can lead to negative health, financial, and educational outcomes. And because contact with the system is more frequent in low-income and minority communities, these negative outcomes ought to hit them disproportionately hard. A perfect storm of data collection and aggressive criminal justice policies can help to create a society that’s toxic for social mobility.

Go read the whole thing!

Look! A Morsel of Good Vaccination News

It’s been a bad few weeks for vaccination. Whooping cough continues to make a comeback; it was revealed that some New York City schools have third-world vaccination rates; and a study led by Brendan Nyhan found that four different interventions were unable to shift vaccination intentions.

So it may come as a surprise that a new study actually produced some good news. An intervention based on anticipated regret questions (ARQ) and graphical communication managed to successfully shift parental intentions on vaccination.

Our goal in conducting this research was to determine possible interventions that might help parents appreciate the risks of not vaccinating their daughters against HPV infection…We hypothesized that an intervention designed to help mothers visualize the risks of nonvaccination (a graphical depiction of how cervical cancer risk is affected by HPV vaccination) would moderate the effects of ARQ on behavioral intentions…We found that among mothers who saw the graphic message, asking ARQ had a significant positive effect on both message involvement and behavioral intention…the ARQ intervention had no significant effect on vaccination intentions in the text-only condition.

The “graphical” intervention showed filled stadium bleachers to illustrate the number of people who could be saved from cancer, whereas the text-only condition showed only the number. The ARQ procedure involved two questions: 1) If your daughter was not immunized against HPV and developed cervical cancer, how responsible would you feel, and 2) If your daughter was not immunized against HPV and developed cervical cancer, how much regret would you feel?

Additional analyses suggested that rather than changing parental beliefs about the benefits of vaccination, combining ARQ with a graphical message was effective because the ARQ increased emotional involvement with the information contained in the graphics. That is, instead of increasing the perceived downside of nonvaccination, the intervention appeared to have increased the salience of the existing perceived downside.

And now for the caveats. The study involved only 320 mothers, and unlike the Nyhan study, it used random assignment to parse out an effect rather than analyzing how the opinions of individual mothers shifted. Prior research on ARQ also suggests it’s most effective among parents who already have high vaccination-intention levels, so the intervention in the study may ultimately fail to convert stubborn opponents. Finally, the study focused on an HPV vaccine for girls aged 11-16, and not the MMR or whooping cough vaccines for young children that seem to be the basis for the most outlandish fictional side effects.

Clearly, it would be a mistake to rush into building ARQ into the vaccination decision process, but the strategy of targeting potential regret may be promising in ways that purely informational strategies are not (though it should be noted that some of the ineffective interventions in Nyhan’s study — such as presenting a mother’s account of her child’s measles hospitalization — may have featured inducing regret in a more indirect manner.) People on the fence about vaccination are probably already considering the regret they’ll feel if their child develops autism, so inducing them to think about the regret of disease may help level the playing field. Eliminating the small pockets of vaccination opposition is still an uphill climb, but it’s good to see that it’s at least possible for an intervention to have the desired positive effect.
Cox, D., Sturm, L., & Cox, A. (2014). Effectiveness of Asking Anticipated Regret in Increasing HPV Vaccination Intention in Mothers. Health Psychology DOI: 10.1037/hea0000071

Are Color-Coded Nutrition Labels a Good Idea?

They seem to be, at least for people who normally lack self-control when it comes to food. From a new study led by Joerg Koenigstorfer:

This article investigates whether traffic light color-coded nutrition information helps low- (vs. high-) self-control consumers make more healthful food choices within a given product category. Two in-store lab studies assess the effects of traffic light colors. The colors indicate low (green), medium (amber), and high (red) levels of four negative food nutrients (sugar, fat, saturated fat, and salt). The color-coding was implemented on nutrition labeling schemes shown on the front of actual food packages (pasta meals in Study 1; cereal bars in Study 2). Consumers with low self-control to resist food temptations, but not those with high self-control, make more healthful food choices in response to the color-coded labeling. The behavior is congruent with their long-term goals of controlling their food choices and is evident when traffic light colors vary between both nutrients and products (Study 1) and when traffic light colors vary between nutrients but not products (Study 2). The authors derive theoretical implications and draw conclusions from the perspectives of public policy, retailing, and manufacturers.


Electoral Evidence That the Tide Has Turned on Gay Marriage

From a new study by Stony Brook’s Jeremiah Garretson:

Studies have shown that same-sex marriage (SSM) ballot measures affected voter turnout and primed voters in a manner that aided the Republican Party in 2004. However, if attitude strength plays a role in these spillover effects, then recent increases in the intensity of support for SSM on the left may have eroded—or even reversed—the pro-Republican electoral boost of these measures. Using individual- and county-level data, I demonstrate that more recent votes on SSM have mobilized more pro-Obama SSM supporters than pro-Republican social conservatives. These findings are important for understanding how ballot measures may potentially affect candidate elections.

Are People Wired to Help the Needy?

Humans tend to be altruistic creatures. Don’t be fooled by what you see on Black Friday or days when Congress votes on food stamp funding — we like helping each other out.

A popular explanation for our behavior is that we have evolved to care for those in need and feel empathy when we come across people in distress. These “empathy” motives suggest we prefer to help people who appear the most troubled.

A less-discussed explanation is that we aim to help desirable social partners in order to improve our reputations. This “affiliation” motive suggests that we might prefer to help people we characterize in a positive rather than a negative manner.

Often these two motivations work together to drive helping behaviors. If your CEO’s car breaks down in a snowstorm there are a lot of reasons to go offer your help. But what would happen if these motives came into conflict?

Michigan’s David Hauser, Stephanie Preston, and R. Brent Stansfield tried to answer this question with a study that aimed to figure out which motivation — empathy or affiliation – would dominate. Specifically, in a series of four experiments they examined whether people expressed a preference for helping a happy or a sad person.

The first three experiments focused on the decision to hold a door open for somebody else. In each experiment a confederate waited near the door to a building, and when somebody walked by they pretended to have a phone conversation. In the “happy” condition confederates said, “It’s so great…I’m so happy…Ok…Yeah..I’ve gotta go”; in the sad condition they said, “It’s so terrible…I’m so sad…”; and in the neutral condition they said, “I know…Yeah…Ok… .” The confederates then hung up and followed the unknowing participant into the building. The first experiment was conducted outside nondescript university buildings, the second experiment was conducted at the entrance to a hospital, and the third experiment was conducted at the entrance to a university health services building. To emphasize that the confederate was somebody in need, in all three experiments he or she worse a facial bandage.

In the first two experiments, the data indicated that participants were more likely to hold the door for happy rather than sad confederates, and in third experiment there were no statistically significant differences between the conditions. Overall, when it came to simple daily assistance, none of the three experiments found evidence that people prefer to help those who appear distressed.

The fourth experiment presented participants with hypothetical scenarios involving hospital patients. One patient was positive and joked about his medical struggle, while the other patient was sad and burst into tears. Participants were then asked if they wanted to donate money to cover some of the patient’s co-pay, or sit and talk with the patient for 30 minutes while they waited for the doctor.

The researchers found that participants were more likely to donate money when the patient was sad, but more likely to have a conversation (i.e. make an emotional commitment) when the patient was happy. The results suggest that when there’s a demonstration of real need, and when personal interaction isn’t required, empathy motives for helping may be stronger than affiliation motives.

The study’s findings are far from conclusive, and it’s easy of to think of alternative explanations. Perhaps participants avoided holding the door for people saying “That’s so terrible…” because they saw the conversation as more private than a conversation about good news. Similarly, one could question how much the experiments replicated a real-life situation involving somebody in need.

But even the mixed findings are noteworthy. Humans like to believe they follow a general rule of prioritizing help for those in need, but Hauser’s study shows that unless people are severely distressed and no social interaction is required, that may not be the dominant motive. In many situations our preference appears to be to help “positive” people.

The strength of social affiliation motives may be one of the many reasons that good-hearted people don’t give all of their disposable income to the sick, poor, or starving people around the world (and instead choose to give $150 million to Harvard.) More broadly, it’s a reminder that acting selflessly is a complex process. People have many different motivations with different levels of moral purity. Perhaps someday policy architects can take advantage of this by using social affiliation motives to direct aid the most needy. We already do this to some extent by honoring big third-world philanthropists, but perhaps there are ways to do it on a wider and smaller scale so that assistance is directed away from wealthy cultural and religious institutions and toward the destitute.
Hauser, D.J., Preston, S.D., & Stansfield, R.D. (2014). Altruism in the Wild: When Affiliative Motives to Help Positive People Overtake Empathic Motives to Help the Distressed. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0035464

A Theory About Why the Powerful Don’t Care For the Powerless

Humans are skilled at perceiving the world in a way that makes life more enjoyable. One thing that helps with this goal is the tendency to view the world as a fair and orderly place, a bias often termed the “Just-world fallacy.”

There are benefits to believing injustice is rare. It makes you feel nice and warm on the inside. Research also suggests it increases your focus on larger long-term rewards rather than smaller short-term rewards. After all, if the world is a chaotic place where nobody gets what they deserve, there’s less reason to work hard or stick to long-term plans.

But it can be hard to believe in a just world because injustice is everywhere. There are repressive governments and natural disasters. Bad things surely happen to good people. And thinking about these innocent victims comes into direct conflict with the desire to believe the world is just. In lab experiments participants often resolve this conflict by derogating the victim, perhaps by coming up with some explanation for why the victim deserved their fate. In the real world you can see traces of this in people who believe food stamp recipients are wholly responsible for their own plight. If people are to blame for their misfortune, the world remains just.

A group of researchers led by Mitchell Callan of the University of Essex reasoned that if derogating victims increases the belief in a just world, and the belief in a just world helps people focus on long-term rewards, then it stands to reason that derogating victims could help people focus on long-term rewards.

To test their hypothesis Callan and his team conducted an initial experiment in which participants read about somebody who was mugged. Some participants learned that the mugger was apprehended (the world is just!) while others learned that the mugger was never caught (the world is unfair!) Afterward participants answered questions about how much they liked the victim and the degree to which they felt the victim was careless or responsible.

To measure commitment to long-term rewards, the researchers gave participants a “delay-discounting” task in which they revealed their preferences for accepting different amounts of money at different future times. Participants who were willing to wait longer for larger sums (i.e. those who didn’t “discount” a delayed payment) were measured as expressing a stronger commitment to the long-term.

The results were as expected. Among participants who had their perception of a just world threatened (because the mugger was not apprehended), those who rated the victim favorably, and thus perceived a more unjust world, were more likely to prefer quick payments. On the other hand, those who derogated the victim by rating him as unlikable and irresponsible were more likely to say they would hold out for larger long-term rewards. It appeared as though derogating the victim increased commitment to the long-term by helping to restore faith in a just world.

A follow-up experiment followed a similar procedure, but prior to the experiment researchers measured each participants’ “baseline” tendency to delay-discount. In addition, the level of injustice was manipulated by telling some participants the victim was a drug dealer. The results were the same as in the initial experiment. When participants saw victims as more deserving of their fate, participants were less likely to weaken their commitment to future rewards.

Here’s what’s so troubling about the study: The ability to put off small short-term rewards for larger long-term rewards is important if you want to attain a position of power. Very few people who are unable to turn down cocaine at a frat party the night before a chemistry exam are going to end up as a Congressman. Becoming powerful generally requires hard work, persistence, and a focus on large rewards that will arrive in a distant future.

Callan’s experiment shows that people can develop the ability to focus on long-term rewards by derogating victims. The implication is that our politicians and CEOs are more likely to come from a population that, on average, is less empathetic toward victims. Being able to view victims as undeserving of assistance may have helped them get where they are.

On a slightly less somber note, the study is a good reminder that it’s impossible to attain psychological perfection. As the internet fills with research-based tips on things like cognitive biases and habit formation, it can feel like there’s a solution for everything. But many times two laudable goals are incompatible. If you want to feel a sufficient amount of empathy for victims, the lost faith in a just-world could make it harder to stick to future plans. If you want to stick to future plans, it may be helpful to convince yourself that certain victims weren’t so innocent. So don’t be discouraged if it feels like it’s impossible to reach a psychological state with no drawbacks. Because it is.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)

Callan, M.J., Harvey, A.J., & Sutton, R.M. (2013). Rejecting Victims of Misfortune Reduces Delay Discounting Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.11.002