Archive for the ‘bias’ Category

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s excellent Twitter feed directed me to this story:

Electronic cigarettes don’t burn and don’t give off smoke. But they’re at the center of a social and legal debate over whether it’s OK to “light up” in places where regular smokes are banned. Despite big differences between cigarettes and their electronic cousins, several states, workplaces and localities across the country have explicitly included e-cigs in smoking bans.

Here’s a video overview for a typical e-cigarette:

The article notes that e-cigs are designed to “address both the nicotine addiction and the behavioral aspects of smoking — the holding of the cigarette, the puffing, exhaling something that looks like smoke and the hand motion — without the more than 4,000 chemicals found in cigarettes.” Since the smoke that is emitted is actually water vapor, users call the activity “vaping” instead of smoking.

So if it’s just water vapor, then how could e-cigs fall under smoking bans (about which I’ve written critically here). Well, the FDA says the liquid nicotine cartridges contain “detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed.” Not saying much really, but if even if e-cigs were toxic, smoking bans are ostensibly about second-hand effects, so what’s the harm in water vapor?

There’s no research to say if any of the ‘detectable toxins to which users could potentially be exposed’ might also potentially expose third-parties, but that’s not stopping the awesomely named American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. In their view, e-cigs should be banned until it’s proven they “do no harm.” In that case, says the spokesperson with courageous unambiguity, “we’ll have to revisit” the ban.

Several days ago, Robin Hanson blogged about how the status of a risky activity seems to affect our desire to regulate it: climbing Everest is a deadly activity and no one thinks to call for a ban, but the far less dangerous lawn darts? Fuggedaboutit! This status-driven impulse might apply to smoking bans as well.  Smoking, while once considered classy and cool, has become so low-status that smokers often feel the need to apologize for their behavior every time they want to light up. Sure, there’s a defensible public health argument for smoking bans, but then how to explain this anecdote at the beginning of the article?

That’s not smoke coming out of Cliff Phillips’ mouth.

But that hasn’t stopped others from cringing, making remarks, waving their hands in their faces and coughing at the sight of the vapor from his electronic cigarette.


Some e-cig users have even taken to “stealth vaping,” a method in which they hold the vapor in their mouth long enough for it to mostly dissipate or exhale the vapor discretely.

E-cigs are made to look like regular cigarettes, but functionally they are little alike.  In fact,  e-cigs are quite similar to nicotine inhalers.  If e-cigs were identical in every way except for the emission of water vapor, would they be causing such a hubbub? Or what if manufacturers agreed to model e-cigs to look like pieces of excrement? That way those who enjoy vaping can do so in peace, and restaurant and bar patrons can still look down their blissfully non-irritated noses at the habit.

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People recycle because they don’t want to waste resources. Throw a yogurt tub in the trash instead of a colored bin, and you lose forever to a landfill whatever use could be gotten from that plastic.  But recycling itself also consumes resources, so how can you judge the trade-off? Such is the worry of a Mother Jones reader:

City recycling instructs you to put clean containers in the recycle bins. But I’ve become increasingly frustrated trying to get certain pet-food cans, yogurt containers, and margarine containers cleaned without using a lot of water. I feel that the water I use, the gas to heat the water, the dish soap, and the paper towels are wasting natural resources as well as costing me money. So how clean is clean enough?

The columnist ignores the question of resources, instead saying that 1) you don’t have to get the containers squeaky clean, but 2) the cleaner they are, the more valuable they are, so “by providing clean recyclables, you can actually save your city (and ultimately, taxpayers) money.”

By the logic of the second point, everyone should also not only be sorting and cleaning their recyclables, but also personally transporting them to the recycling center, perhaps stopping along the way to dive a dumpster or two for more revenue-generating recyclables.  Think of all the money you’d be saving taxpayers!

Ikea furniture is cheap, but the price can be misleading because you’re performing the value-added process of building the furniture yourself. For some the labor and time involved is a trade-off worth making. For many people, however, it’s better to pay a higher price for a typical piece pre-assembled by an expert.

Cleaning recyclables is also a value-adding process, and if your goal is to conserve resources, you want that process done as efficiently as possible. The single best way to ensure that efficiency is to pay the specialist to do the recycling for you. Don’t waste any resources cleaning the yogurt tub, just throw it in the bin as is .* If a modern recycling facility can’t turn a dirty yogurt tub into a valuable resource, then how in hades do you expect to do better in your kitchen!

* Prediction: As automated scanning and sorting technologies improve, and the economic value of recycling increases, sorting at the home will disappear entirely. Sci-fi writers and futurists feel free to include this prediction in your works.


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Every so often when I glance at my Facebook feed, I’m reminded at how many of my childhood friends have stayed put in the place where they’ve grown up.  And it’s not hard to see why, since the private Christian school we attended runs all the way from preschool to postgraduate. Whereas I parted ways after twelve years to go to a secular university somewhere else, most of my class–and all of my friends–opted to rollover into what I called the 13th grade. There’s a whole host of reasons why staying for college made sense for them, however, and so it’s only been after graduation where location decisions were less obvious that I’ve been surprised. Forget going ye therefore to different nations, or even states; Greenville County is home. To a lesser extent (and yes, I am just speaking in anecdotes based on my FB friends), many of my USC acquaintances have stayed in South Carolina and (perhaps most perplexingly) in Columbia, even if they’re not from the area.

A typical suburban household.

What to make of all this? At first, my quick-draw explanation was to throw in some combination of status-quo bias and path dependence. Applying the status-quo bias I imagine is straightforward enough, but path dependence less so: here I’m using it to mean that the longer one stays in one place, the more geographically-bound his social network becomes, thus also binding his options to wherever he happens to be. Plainly put, people stay in a rut because there’s nothing strong enough to pull them out, and the longer they stay in, the deeper the rut becomes.

As I was googling around on this topic, however, I also came across two related psychological effects which might also apply. The first is the appealingly-named propinquity effect, which says that closeness (in one way or another) matters a lot for attraction. Similarly, the exposure effect holds that “people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.” Perhaps then the status-quo bias is powerful because people like where they because that’s where they are.  Ain’t nothing like social science to make intuition sound complicated, is there?

How then have I managed to overcome the mighty propensities of my brethren? My city of residence has, after all, changed once every six months on average since graduating from college.  There are the Adamsian reasons, yes, but those are probably just cover for the real–but less noble and wise–motivations to signal how cool and cosmopolitan I am.  Something about this story is awry, however, because every time I move (Happy New Year!) I still feel a need to explain that I’m not cuckoo bananas.

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As another US election draws nigh, politics becomes the sporting talk of a certain American cross section. I’m much more inclined to be an observer rather than participant, but inevitably I am drawn in to an idle political chat or two. If nothing else, these conversations force me to confront the fact that my voting views are not as anodyne as I’d like to think, and that I’d better be ready to explain myself satisfactorily.

Here’s a short and–I hope–entertaining movie I made based on how these conversations run, with the main differences being that I’m not this articulate in person and that I usually fail to convince the person I’m not some “communist whack-a-doo.” If you’re having a hard time understanding the robo-speak, you can turn on closed captions:

The main points I try to get across in the movie:

  1. There are many reasons to vote.
  2. What many, if not most, voters use as their stated reason for voting (i.e. its instrumentality, or ability to decide who wins) is irrational in a dry, technical, uncontroversial way.
  3. This is OK, because voters’ behavior reveals their voting to be for other valid reasons, such as for personal expression, group affiliation, the fulfilling of a civic duty, etc. In other words, they’re behaving like me, even if they don’t acknowledge it.

One  thing I don’t mention in the movie is that I, along with plenty of others in the electorate, rarely bother to vote in small and/or local elections when the instrumental value of a vote is orders of magnitude higher. You can try to explain this by pointing out the smaller stakes, but in my my view it’s another bit of evidence that people vote expressively.

(The paper referenced in the movie on voting probability in the 2008 can be found here (.pdf), and the statistic about death from a non-poisonous arthropod is from the always fun to use Book of Odds.)

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The 4th of July is a holiday in Rwanda, too. There they celebrate Liberation Day, which commemorates the symbolic end of the genocide in 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by now-president Kagame captured Kigali. As the name attests, they were patriots, too, fighting for the freedom of their people. You might even say they were fighting, as were we, against colonial oppression, which had lingered long after most of the colonials had left in the form of a deeply inculcated mindset which emphasized differences among man more arbitrary than man can usually tolerate. But blood and violence changed that, and a new mindset prevails.  A “liberated” one, Kagame called it today.

Who knows what being liberated means to Kagame, but my year in his country did give me a better sense of what being liberated meant to me.

Americans, especially on days like these, fancy themselves the freest of the free (we’re at least in the top ten, anyway). But this emphasizes a loud fife-and-drum conception of liberty from some tyrannical control, when the real beauty of it is found in a quiet evolved respect for the individual prerogative. The more I jaunt around the globe–itself a wonderful benefit of liberty–the more I’ve come to appreciate the ability to act alone.

In Rwanda, for instance, as in many places around the world, an individual never stops being accountable to and responsible for the family from whence he came. His decisions may not be coerced with the threat of violence, but they aren’t made freely because of the powerful cultural forces at play. He may prefer to live the life of a penniless artist, but can’t because he’s expected to support some lazy cousin and his wife. Liberation from the repression of a culture isn’t even an option, because it may well never occur to the person he’s being repressed. Minorities everywhere are victimless victims.

Wonderfully, liberty does not embrace tradition, though that is the conceit of conservatives. To be liberated is to question always and to be suspicious of settled ways. Decisions are inevitably framed by biases both cognitive and cultural, a fact I understand well coming from a childhood thoroughly saturated with religion. But even in this relatively (for America) repressive environment, I was able to leave it without too much distress. Cultural values were strong, but not omnipotent.

And I could have returned from my rumspringa rather than stayed astray. Though I doubt many Rwandans are liberated by my definition, I may be mistaken. And if nothing else, what provides me the most comfort about liberty is it recognizes confusion, complexity, and all the rest, and makes the most provision for being wholly wrong.

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I came upon this article while doing the Morning Links on my other blog (where it is cross-posted):

Thorp, the founding principal of Gateway High in San Francisco – one of the most highly touted public schools in the state – has accepted that same position at Gashora Girls Academy in landlocked Rwanda. This means he will leave behind his attorney wife, Donna Williamson; his three adult children; his 3-year-old sheepdog, Jake; and his top-floor flat with a roof deck in order to live in a shared house and spend a minimum of three years swatting at mosquitoes.

“Rwanda is not without its challenges,” he says while stroking Jake in a living room that is sunny and easy and will probably seem sunnier and easier with each passing day until his departure. “There is the risk that at some point during this stint I will get malaria.”

I let out a wee guffaw at that last sentence. Yes, there is “the risk” of getting malaria–it’s even higher than the States(!)–but that doesn’t get you far. This region sees more lightening than anywhere else in the world; why not mention that shocking elevated risk instead? Truth is, your chances of getting malaria in Rwanda are small even if you don’t take medication (like most other expats I know and me), and if you are popping pills (as I’m sure Principal Thorp will), then it’s just silly to mention.

But I’m missing the storm for the clouds, aren’t I? The crux of his comment is not about the risk of malaria, it’s about the general hardship he will have to suffer for his cause. One fights the urge to weep looking over what he will be giving up:

  • Attorney wife Donna Williamson
  • Three adult children
  • Jake, the 3-year-old sheepdog
  • Top-floor flat with a roof deck
  • Sunny and easy living room that will seem sunnier and easier with each passing day
  • Sympathetic journalists

Ok, so leaving your family isn’t trivial, but would this be the chosen framing if his departure were for Belgium? As much as I hate to betray my own winsome exoticism, the expatriate life in Rwanda is not often equivalent to a perpetual safari. If you’re in Kigali, as Principal Thorp will be for at least part of his stay, you’ll be in a house, not a hut, and if you cook over a fire it will be because most ranges here are fueled with gas.

Gérard Prunier, an Africa scholar, has described Rwanda as being the “darling of foreigners” because the “blacks were polite and everything was clean.” In the same book, he later described it as “virtuous, Christian, respectable, and boring.” If Rwanda presents challenges for the expat, it more likely has to do with these than malaria or lightening strikes alike.

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When I graduated from university, my work colleagues at the think tank treated me to a nice evening out. Altogether lustrous it was, but dimmed (OK, only very slightly) because I could not for the life of me convince someone of the logic of opportunity cost. He was a smart, successful, middle-aged guy, but the implications of it struck him as counter-intuitive at best and nonsensical at worse.

The concept is easy to define and explain, but hard to take seriously. A Kindle is too expensive for me, but if someone gave it to me, I’d probably keep it, thereby paying the price for which I could have sold it. Some of this can be charitably excused by the endowment effect, or the idea we value things more once we possess them, but too much of it is just ignoring unseen costs.

But a hope again rises, for even if I don’t myself always follow the illuminated path, there’s a new and better way to shine a lamp unto the feet of others. Here’s a description of new economics research:

The economists worked with the managers of a Chinese electronics factory, who were interested in exploring ways to make their employee-bonus scheme more effective. Most might have recommended changes to the amounts of money on offer. But Mr Hossain and Mr List chose instead to concentrate on the wording of the letter informing workers of the details of the bonus scheme.

At the beginning of the week, some groups of workers were told that they would receive a bonus of 80 yuan ($12) at the end of the week if they met a given production target. Other groups were told that they had “provisionally” been awarded the same bonus, also due at the end of the week, but that they would “lose” it if their productivity fell short of the same threshold.

Objectively these are two ways of describing the same scheme. But under a theory of loss aversion, the second way of presenting the bonus should work better. Workers would think of the provisional bonus as theirs, and work harder to prevent it from being taken away.

This is just what the economists found.

The article is about endowment and framing effects and not explicitly about opportunity cost, but what a great way to make the idea clearer. If we think of having something and provisionally losing it, suddenly the cost becomes far more salient than if we think of not having something and provisionally gaining it.

Better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all?

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