The Intermingling of Self-Interest and Group Interest


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It is commonly assumed that much of political behavior is driven by individual self-interest. People vote for tax breaks, better school or larger social programs to benefit themselves. But when this assumption is empirically tested the results are mixed; it seems sometimes self-interest drives political behavior and other times it does not. Those results are due to a couple factors, first self-interest is very complicated, second group identity also influences political behavior.

The complexities of individual self-interest inherently make it is difficult to empirically evaluate the role of self-interest in political behavior. First off self-interest is a feature of the individual and their particular circumstances. Each and every person has different needs and desires which inform their idea of what is in their best interests. Also each individual has different perceptions about the best manner to solve the problems they face and thus may endorse different courses of action even when faced with similar problems. Some researchers assume that on the aggregate people in similar positions will face similar problems and thus show some similar behavior based on individual self-interest. This in fact can be shown when voting varies based on economic conditions; a good economy increases votes for the incumbent and a poor economy decreases votes for the incumbent. The effect is small but consistent which indicates that self-interest based on the economy is only part of the story. Other research can show that people are more apt to mobilize for collective action when faced with a very proximal threat to their wellbeing. For example you see protests over the construction of highways or pollution from a factory harming the community. While people may act politically to engage an issue in their own community far fewer will do so in another community especially if it is distant from their home. That shows that self-interest is influencing the political behavior.

But there are problems with self-interest. Frequently self-interest is measured in an objective manner since that gives the most precise and consistent measures. Yet it has been shown that objective deprivations are not as good predictors of political behavior as subjective grievances. That means the reality of the situation is not what matters instead it is the individuals perception of the situation that leads to political behavior. This inherently creates difficulties with empirical analysis of self-interested behavior since it is harder to get at individual perceptions than objective realities. Researchers may utilize questions about the individual’s perception of various issues but when it comes down to it those questions may or may not address the particular self-interested motivations of that individual. Also much of government is very complicated so it can be difficult for individuals to understand whether or not a given policy or piece of legislation is in their interests. People may not understand what is in the legislation such as Obamacare which is so complex with so many features that even insurance companies are hiring specialist to help them comprehend the impact it will have. Thus it is exceptionally difficult for an average person to evaluate. It is impossible to measure self-interested behavior when individuals can’t determine what is in their own interests. Also any attempt to look at self-interest has to make assumptions about what is or is not in the person’s interests. The researcher has to apply a value system to the information in order to judge self-interest but there are many different value systems used by people. The incorrect choice of values will lead to an inability to properly measure self-interest. Consider an individual without health insurance, many would say that Obamacare is in their interests because they could potentially go on Medicaid or receive subsidies through the health exchanges. But not all people would agree. Some would argue that the government intrusion into health care is contrary to their self-interest. That Obamacare will damage the entire health care system and the entire country which in turn is not in their personal self-interest. At the same time others may argue that health insurance coverage will keep them healthier and thus Obamacare is in their interests. Unfortunately, any empirical study of self-interest must make determinations such as what is truly in the interest of the individual but that may not be what the individual believes.

In addition to the complexities facing an empirical analysis of self-interest there is also the problem that self-interest is not the only motivator of behavior. In fact many see group identity as very large driver of human behavior. Identity politics are clearly seen during elections where candidates appeal to women’s issues, latino voters or black voters. In fact group identity has been shown to be a very strong driver of collective action and political behavior. Frequently when researchers investigate self-interest they also include party affiliation, demographics, ideology, religion and other identity factors. That is usually done in order to control for those variable. But the results are frequently that self-interest is a smaller impact than partisanship, ideology or race. Unfortunately both identity and self-interest are tied together in certain ways that could make it difficult to untangle.

Most people don’t follow politics closely so they get their information from friends, family, coworkers or others in their community. These communities provide a space for people to discuss politics and develop opinions about politics. This also influences what individuals see as their own self-interest. So group identity can also factor into perceived self-interest but it is not easy to separate the effect of the group from the individual perception. This is especially difficult if the measurement for self-interest are unreliable, inaccurate or biased because that adds a lot of noise to the data and makes it impossible to differentiate effects. Furthermore people need mobilized to take political action, which is why candidate engage in “Get out the vote” campaigns. Yet social networks play a critical role in mobilization of individual to take political action. Some of the primary social networks for people are the groups they identify with most closely. So even when an individual is acting in their own self-interest it oftentimes requires a group to motivate the individual to act. That confounds any measure of self-interest with group identity.

Finally not all people act politically in a self-interested manner. Some may believe that they should not vote for their self-interest rather they should vote in the interest for the country. Some may even believe it is wrong to act politically on the basis of personal interest. A prime example of this is in John Rawls “A Theory of Justice”. Rawls argues that people should develop the political system from behind a “veil of ignorance”. Essentially he puts forth a scenario where people are creating a new government but each person is unaware of what their position in society will be. So every person is motivated to create the most just system possible. It is intended to eliminate self-interest in political choices and instead focus purely on making the best system for all people. That shows that at least some people may actively choose not to vote on self-interest. They may vote purely based on the interests of the nation as a whole. Other examples of political behavior that is not self-interested are the animal rights movement and the environmental movement. . Groups like the Sea Shepherds literally put their lives on the line in order to save animals. Those individuals engage in political activity that may have no benefit for themselves because they believe it is the right thing to do.

In the end self-interest does seem to motivate some behavior though it is difficult to determine exactly how much. It is difficult to measure self-interest due to different individual perceptions and values. On the other hand group identity can clearly motivate group behavior. Groups and communities serve as a place for individuals to form opinions and perceptions about politics. Also social networks are important for individuals to mobilize for political action. Thus self-interest and group identity are intertwined and it may be impossible to ever untangle them.


Ideology: Biased Facts


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Sometimes it can get frustrating when discussing policy issues with somebody who has strong political opinions. You point out a fact that supports your case and they twist it around into supporting their case or they simply ignore. Occasionally it gets so bad you start wondering if you both are even looking at the same reality.

A recent study from the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) may shed some light on how ideology can play a role in the interpretation of facts. In the study people were measured on ideology and numeracy which involves making valid inferences from quantitative data and mathematical ability. Then the participants were presented with one of four scenarios. Two scenarios involved a skin rash treatment where one indicated the treatment made the rash worse and the other showed the treatment made the rash better. The other two scenarios involved gun control; one showed gun control decreased crime and the other showed that gun control increased crime. Each scenario provided a table of numbers and the subjects were asked what results the study supported. Bellow you can see each of the four conditions. Take note that the numbers are identical but the labels are changed. One would think people could draw the same inferences from the same numbers regardless of how the table is labeled.

Motivated Numeracy Table

Now overall people had difficulty with this task, only 41% got it right. But that is not surprising the table is actually designed to make people want to draw the wrong inference if they utilized cognitive heuristics instead of critically thinking about the numbers. But as expected those individuals that scored higher on numeracy were more likely to get the correct answer.

The interesting thing is that overall in the skin rash conditions people performed equally. Yet in the gun control conditions performance differed based on ideology. When conservatives saw the condition where gun control leads to an increase in crime they got the correct answer more often but when conservatives were in the condition where gun control resulted in less crime they got the answer correct less often. The opposite was true of liberals who got it right more often when gun control resulted in less crime and got it incorrect more often when gun control resulted in more crime. Though the numbers in the table were identical for both gun control conditions and both skin rash conditions and the only difference was the labeling.

Furthermore correct interpretation differed based on the individual’s numeracy. While those with higher numeracy performed better in the skin rash condition that was not always the case in the gun control condition. Those with higher numeracy performed best when the results were consistent with their ideology and performed worse when the results contradicted their ideology.

Presented below are the results based on ideology and numeracy for all four conditions. First look at the skin rash condition since that is the baseline and behaves as expected. You can see that there was pretty much no difference in performance based on ideology. Also the participants got the answers correct regardless of whether the skin rash treatment increased or decreased rashes. You can tell this because the distributions for each of the four groups on the first two graphs are very close together and overlap a great deal. Furthermore you can see that when people were higher in numeracy that they got the correct answer more. You can see this by the fact that the centers of the distributions are further to the right in the second graph compared to the first graph.

Now look at the third and fourth graphs and you will see very different results. The distributions are much more spread apart and overlap far less. Conservatives get the correct answer far more when gun control causes an increase in crime while liberals get the correct answer far more when gun control decreases crime. In addition if you look at graph four which is for high numeracy the distributions are spread even further apart. That shows that those with higher numeracy abilities are being affected by their ideology to an even greater extent than those with low numeracy.

Motivated Numeracy Graphs

This goes to show that when facts are ideologically loaded people perform differentially at interpreting the data. They are most apt to correctly interpret data that is consistent with their ideology and less likely to correctly interpret data that is inconsistent with their ideology. Furthermore those that are best at interpreting data were the most likely to misinterpret data based on ideology. Frequently we want to say that intelligent and analytical individuals are more trustworthy for examining complex data but this show that may not be the case. In addition, this data was very clear and quantifiable so consider what might happen when the data itself is unclear. People could see the exact same situation can draw completely opposite conclusions from it.

Most of the time people are quick to accept information that is consistent with their beliefs and quick to reject information that is inconsistent with their beliefs. When the reality is that we should do the exact opposite. We should question information that is consistent with our beliefs more. We should stop and take a deeper look because it may not actually support our beliefs, the evidence might be showing the opposite. At the same time we should be more open to accepting information that is contrary to our beliefs. Usually we want to question and challenge contrary information until we have a reason to reject it. Instead next time look at it and question it but accept that it could be accurate and true. Everybody should be open to changing their beliefs when reality demonstrates them false. We are all human and thus fallible; keep that in mind when looking at evidence. It is not a character flaw to replace a false belief with a true belief; it is a character flaw to hold false beliefs in the face of contrary evidence.

Ideology: The Perception of Bias


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Most people consider some news sources ideologically biased. Many will say Fox is conservatively biased while other will complain of the liberal bias of CNN. But is that because those news sources are biased or because people perceive them as biased?

Research by Joel Turner at Western Kentucky University indicates that the perception of bias may not be based on the content of the news. Prior polls had shown that people tend to report that Fox has a strong conservative bias and that CNN has a strong liberal bias. To test this Turner took five news stories from both Fox and CNN. Then he had those stories re-recorded in a professional news studio using the original transcripts of the stories and a professional anchor. Each story was recorded three times, once it was verbally identified as being from Fox, once from CNN and once without any network association.

Participants were recruited to watch the news stories then answered questions about the stories and themselves. The interesting thing is how individuals perceived bias in the stories. When the stories (both Fox and CNN) were NOT attributed to a news network participants perceived them as unbiased. It did not matter whether the original story came from Fox or CNN, both were rated equally as unbiased. But when the stories were attributed to Fox they were seen as having a conservative bias. Again it is didn’t matter if the original story was from Fox or CNN. Finally when the stories were attributed to CNN they were perceived as having a liberal bias regardless of the original source of the story.

But it gets more interesting from here; the researcher looked at how the individual’s personal ideology interacted with their perception and found astonishing results. Ideology was measured on a 7 point scale from strong liberal (-3) to strong conservative (+3) with 0 representing ideological moderate. Ideological moderates perceived equal bias in both news sources, yet they perceived no bias when the stories did not indicate a news source. But when the perceived bias in the news source the ideology of the individual conflicted with each other then the individual perceived even greater bias in the news. Yet when the perceived bias in the news source was consistent with the individual’s ideology then they minimized the bias. This was so powerful that strong liberals perceived twice the amount of bias in Fox news as moderates while not seeing any bias in CNN. On the flip side strong conservatives saw twice the bias in CNN as moderates did while not perceiving any bias in Fox news.

This is quite amazing considering that when the stories were not attributed to any specific news source they were not seen as being biased. The simple fact that the anchor stated the news network led people to see bias in the reporting even if it wasn’t present.

Now I do have to state a caveat, none of the news stories selected came from pundits or talking heads of either network. They were actual news stories not editorials or news commentary or opinion pieces. The pundits on the different networks certainly show a great deal of bias on all sides of the spectrum. Instead this was about the news not opinions and it seems that when it comes to the news we see more bias than may be present in the news. So next time you see a story posted by Fox news or CNN or any other news source you think is biased stop yourself, take a look and think carefully if the actual story is biased before you judge it.

Ideology: Partisanship as Identity


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American politics is dominated by the idea that political ideology falls on a single axis from liberal to conservative or left to right. The rhetoric used by both politicians and the electorate emphasize this dichotomous view and often times leaves little room for other conceptions of ideology. The single axis conception of ideology can impact politics by activating group identity, framing perceptions of candidates and providing information. Though the effects can be empirically identified the desirability of this situation is far more difficult to determine.

The terms liberal and conservative have different meanings and affect associated with them depending on the individual involved. Those that self-identify as liberal or conservative will have immediate reactions to both terms since the terms identify the in-group and out-group. Group identity is so ingrained into the human psyche that it activates without any effort or volition on the part of the individual. Group identity makes a person more or less susceptible to persuasion based on whether it comes from the in-group or out-group. Also it causes an instant affective response in which in-group members are perceived better than the out-group. In addition group identity activates group norms and their corresponding sanctions and rewards associated with the norms. All of this can take place in a split second without the individual consciously choosing to do this. The in-group bias, openness to in-group persuasion and activation of group norms all combine such that individuals are more easily influenced and motivating by information coming from an in-group source. This can be both a boon and a bane. Group identity can leave individuals open to manipulation by those who wish to utilize group affiliation for their own benefit. By crafting rhetoric and propaganda properly one can activate group identity and reduce the amount in-group members question the material. On the other hand group identity can frequently be a useful guide for group interests. Overall members of the same group share many interests in common and benefits to the group often benefit the individual members of the group as well. So it can be rational to follow group interest despite the fact that group identity can be used to manipulate individuals.

While in-group identification can open up an individual to manipulation, out-group identification can close an individual off from pertinent information. Just as in-group sources of information are more persuasive; out-group sources of information are perceived as less persuasive. In fact individuals may outright discard information due to the source without evaluating the quality of the information. That can leave members of the out-group unable and/or unwilling to consider the counter-arguments to policies, political candidates or legislation. Thus it could deprive some of the necessary means to make rational choices in their own self-interest. But it is also true that out-group actions may not benefit the in-group to the same degree. Also opposition to the out-group may be based in some manner on group-interest which often coincides with self-interest. So opposition to the out-group may well be in the rational interests of the individual.

Unfortunately considering how ingrained liberal and conservative conceptions of ideology are in the US it is unlikely to change. Though even if it could change it would be questionable about whether that is desirable. The fact is that regardless of how ideology is conceptualized there will always be group identities associated with ideology and there will always be a bias for the in-group as opposed to the out-group. Even if there were more numerous and diverse ideologies in American politics the situation would be very similar. Some people would identify with one ideology or another and those identities would influence their behavior. Maybe the impact would be reduced some if ideologies were far more numerous since the groups would be smaller thus limited the impact any given ideology could have on politics overall. But that is unlikely considering the number of identities the human psyche is capable of dealing with and switching between. In fact more numerous ideologies might just mean that there are more out-groups to oppose.

Next the single axis conception of ideology can impact the framing of political candidates. As mentioned previously individuals have a positive affective bias toward in-group members. So the group affiliation of a candidate activates that positive affect for the in-group but not the out-group. This can influence how individuals evaluate candidates, their actions and their policies. People overall are more apt to give in-group members the benefit of the doubt when actions appear contrary to stated goals, ideology or interests. When a candidate or politician acts in a manner contrary to in-group interests the in-group is more apt to rationalize the behavior by assuming there was a situational necessity or that the politician had more information than the public. Yet when an out-group politician acts in the same manner individuals are more apt to attribute that to personal characteristics such as being duplicitous or hypocritical. This colors the perception of every action a politician takes and effect the overall evaluation of the politician as well as the consequences of their actions.

This can be both good and bad. It can be good sometimes to give somebody the benefit of the doubt since it is hard for us to know the exact situation and all of the pertinent information. Thus sometimes seemingly contradictory actions can actually be consistent with an underlying principle. Also sometimes it is necessary to give a politician a chance because they may be acting in the best interest of you, your group or the nation as a whole even if it is hard to understand that. But it can also be bad to give a politician the benefit of the doubt. Supporting a politician who is acting contrary to your self-interests or group-interests only serves to harm yourself and group. Politicians are well known for saying one thing while doing the other, so it can be quite rational to question their every action. Unfortunately when nearly all of the questioning comes from the out-group it is dismissed by the in-group and vice versa. It is only when both sides are questioning a politician that people really listen. But that is infrequent and only in extreme cases.

Finally the liberal / conservative ideological dimension can provide individuals with a great deal of information without very much effort or energy. In general liberals support certain policies and group interests while conservatives support different policies and group interest. The label liberal or conservative can convey a great deal of information about a politician’s likely behavior while in office. In fact much of the time; especially in the past decade; legislation is passed along party lines. Many politicians vote with their party 90% or more of the time. So simply attending to the party and ideological self-identification of a politician can give you about as much information as attending to his/her rhetoric and platform. Furthermore when voting the electorate can’t pick and choose policies and positions on specific issues instead they must select a single candidate. You have to take the whole package, so if you in general agree with conservatives (or liberals) then it would make sense to select one for office. There is no option for those that want some elements of conservatives and some elements of liberals in a candidate, they are stuck picking one or the other. So the electorate must select candidates based on which values and issues are most important to them personally.

Unfortunately liberal and conservative labels can close one off to information contrary to their ideology. Recent research by the Social Science Research Network (cited bellow) shows that ideology can actually inhibit an individual’s ability to process and evaluate data. In the study participants were given data and asked to determine the most effective condition. For half the participants the data was on a skin-rash treatment and the other half it was on the effect of gun control laws. Then those two groups were split such that half receive information indicating the ‘treatment’ group was effective or ineffective. The data in all conditions was identical and presented exactly the same, the only differences were the labels. All participants regardless of ideology did equally well evaluating the effectiveness of the skin-rash treatment. Yet when evaluating gun control the participants performed differentially depending on their ideology. When a liberal was presented with data indicating gun control was ineffective they misinterpreted the results more often and when a conservative was presented with data indicating gun control was effective they misinterpreted the results more often. It showed that individuals may not effectively evaluate evidence when it contradicts their ideology.

Thus ideology can provide information to the electorate. But at the same time it can close individuals off from information that contradicts their ideology. The information ideology provides can greatly help individuals by reducing the amount of time and energy needed to make choices. It can provide information about the likely behavior of politicians. It can help identify the groups likely to benefit from that politician’s policies and actions. On the other side, ideology can close the public off to information and prevent rational decision making. It can inhibit people from properly evaluating evidence and making choices that benefit themselves and the country.

In conclusion the single dimension ideological continuum present in America has many benefits and negatives. Ideology can activate group identity, frame perceptions of political figures and provide information. Each of these areas has its own benefits and drawbacks. Unfortunately it is unlikely to change. Regardless of the conception of ideology utilized in the US there will always be some conception of ideology. Since group identity is core to all of the impacts of ideological conceptions many of the same advantages and disadvantages will persist even if the conception of ideology were to change. Ideology and the group identity it brings with it is here to stay and will always be a part of any political landscape.

McCain talking out of both sides of his mouth


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Senator John McCain (R-AZ) published an Op-Ed on the Russian news website Pravda, in it he criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin. While his criticisms of Putin may be accurate the exact same criticisms can be applied directly to the United States. McCain holds no moral high ground from which he can chastise others. Here are a few excerpts from Senator McCain’s Op-Ed:

I make that claim because I respect your dignity and your right to self-determination. I believe you should live according to the dictates of your conscience, not your government. I believe you deserve the opportunity to improve your lives in an economy that is built to last and benefits the many, not just the powerful few. You should be governed by a rule of law that is clear, consistently and impartially enforced and just.

Oh really? McCain believes we should have dignity, self-determination and live by our own conscience? Hmmm…. To me dignity isn’t a state that can spy on our ever activity, a state that gathering information on it’s own citizens without any reason to suspect wrong doing or even peripheral involvement in criminal activity. Then lies to Congress that it doesn’t gather information on citizens. A state that has decided it can go through your emails without a warrant while the founding fathers made it illegal to go through the mail without a warrant. Then the state can release non-criminal information to the public and in the process bring down the former CIA director David Petraeus and the Commander of US forces in Afghanistan John Allen just because somebody complained to an FBI friend.

Dignity is not living under a government that claims the authority to assassinate it’s own citizens without any due process or review. It is not living in a country that openly admits to torturing prisoners or indefinitely holding individuals. Dignity is not had in a country that can perform home to home searches of lawful residents in order to find a suspect.

McCain also asserts a belief in an economy built for the many instead of the few. Yet here in the US income inequality is growing rapidly, middle class wages are flat for 3 decades and corporate profits have never been higher. Right now the Walton family of Walmart own more wealth than the bottom 40% of the population. Currently CEOs make 350 times the median income for full time workers. So why not focus your attention at home where it is needed? This country could use an economy like McCain claims to believe in.

A Russian citizen could not publish a testament like the one I just offered. President Putin and his associates do not believe in these values. They don’t respect your dignity or accept your authority over them. They punish dissent and imprison opponents. They rig your elections. They control your media. They harass, threaten, and banish organizations that defend your right to self-governance.

Hmmm… that sounds an awful lot like the US. If you protest against the government there is a fair chance you will end up in jail or harassed by the system. Just look at both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, both were harassed in one way or another. But also any type of activist that challenges the authority of the government is likely to find themselves in legal trouble. At the very least they will end up monitored by the government so that officials can find something to bring against them.

Then rigged elections, what you mean like unfair redistricting by the states? Maybe attempts to keep people from voting by cutting the number of days they can vote? How about a system built that benefits the two established parties but hinders any outside candidates from running for elections? Or could he be referring to the fact that if a third party candidate runs s/he can expect both parties to dump vast amounts of money and resources to ensure they are defeated?

Or control of the media, really he doesn’t support control of the media. Well has he paid attention to the vast wiretapping of AP offices or the Fox reporter threatened with charges for accepting information? There is also the fact that many news sources check with the administration before publishing stories. Yeah we don’t hear about that often except papers like the Guardian which publish stories the administration doesn’t like. Then there is the ban on the press photographing the coffins of soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. While I don’t want to see them personally there should not be a prohibition against it, that is not freedom of the press.

Sergei Magnistky wasn’t a human rights activist. He was an accountant at a Moscow law firm. He was an ordinary Russian who did an extraordinary thing. He exposed one of the largest state thefts of private assets in Russian history. He cared about the rule of law and believed no one should be above it. For his beliefs and his courage, he was held in Butyrka prison without trial, where he was beaten, became ill and died.

Can you say Edward Snowden? Somebody exposes violations of our Constitution and rule of law and does McCain praise him? No instead he condemned Putin for granting Snowden asylum. That doesn’t sound like somebody who supports allowing for the exposure of corruption and violations of the rule of law.

Overall McCain may be correct about the state of affairs in Russia but he needs to take a closer look at the state of affairs in America. The land of the free is not so free anymore. The government of the people, by the people, for the people is no longer alive. It is a government of the political elite, by the wealthy, for the power.

Money on the Brain


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Imagine that you get in your car and it starts making a funny sound.  Unfortunately your broke and don’t know how you will pay to fix it so you ignore it till payday. Most of us know what that is like and we know it can be stressful.  But did you know that situation can actually reduce your cognitive functioning.
Well recent research published in Science magazine shows that it does. In fact the researchers found it impacts cognitive function approximately as much as a night without sleep or being drunk which is about -13 points on IQ.
Right about now you are probably calling BS or at least wondering what evidence I have for my claim. So I will explain. The researchers went to a mall in NJ and gathered a random sample of participants.  First the participants were presented with a scenario like this: “Your car is having some trouble and requires $X to be fixed. You can pay in full, take a loan, or take a chance and forego the service at the moment… How would you go about making this decision?” For half of the sample X was $150 and the other half it was $1,500. Then the participants performed a Raven’s matrices test which is a spacial problem solving exercise commonly used in IQ testing to measure “fluid intelligence” (problem solving in novel situations independent of acquired knowledge).
The interesting thing is that participants presented with the high cost scenarios did worse on Raven’s test but only if they happened to have lower income. The wealthier half of the sample performed equally well on Raven’s test regardless if they were presented with the high cost or low cost scenario. While the entire sample (both poor and wealthy) did equally well on Raven’s test when they were presented with the low cost scenario.
Now a critical reader is likely thinking there are a couple problems with those results.  The first question is how many people were sampled?  The researchers ran the experiment 3 times each with 101, 100 and 96 participants. That is reasonable sample size and each trial replicated the results.  Considering the sample size and that the researchers randomly assigned individuals to the high and low cost scenarios we can have good confidence that the scenario caused the reduction in cognitive performance for the lower income participants. Next one may ask what mechanism is causing the results? The researchers propose that “poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks.” Though the exact mechanism is not important since the study design has a high level of internal validity meaning that it allows for attribution of causation. Finally you might be thinking these results are all fine and dandy but do they hold up in the real world?
Well the researchers asked the same question so they ran a variant on the study using a real world situation.  Sugar cane farmers in India earn money annually at harvest so they are relatively ‘wealthy’ after harvest and very poor just before harvest. Utilizing this natural occurrence the researchers tested sugar cane farmers using Raven’s test before and after the harvest. The results were the consistent, the same farmer performed worse before harvest and better after harvest. Also to be sure that the extra labor involved in the harvest did not impact cognitive performance they tested some after harvesting but prior to being paid and found they did worse on Raven’s test then and better after being paid. In addition the researchers were concerned that the farmers were learning how to solve Raven’s by being tested twice. So they tested some farmers only once after harvest and found those farmers performed consistent with the other farmers after harvest. This showed that the previous experiment’s results hold up in the real world.
Since the same results could be demonstrated using a controlled experimental design with high internal validity and verified using a real-world field study with high external validity the conclusion is very solid. If you are poor and you have to think about a difficult financial situation it can actually inhibit your cognitive performance.
There are massive implications of this result. Being poor may actually make it more difficult for those that are on welfare or unemployed to get back on their feet. They are functionally operating at a cognitive deficit during that period of their life. They will be more likely to make poor decisions and will find it harder to present well for job interviews and such. Also consider education, poor college students may not be able to perform as well in higher education as their wealthier counterparts since some of their mental resources will be focused on their financial situation. Furthermore poor parents may find it harder to help their children with homework and other cognitive tasks which could impact their children’s ability to do well at school. In addition these results challenge what many people think. It shows at least one clear situation where people are actually not as rational as they could be. So when somebody says that poor people are not as smart as others or that they engage in counter-productive behavior it could be in part caused by their situation and not be a inherent feature of the person. Finally consider that more and more Americans are living in poverty even if they are working. This could inhibit them from getting ahead and achieving the American dream.
This leaves me wondering what other situational factors can influence one’s cognitive function? How stable is your intelligence? How much does your intellectual functioning change based on outside factors? Next time you see somebody and think that they are stupid stop and ask yourself if maybe they are just in a bad situation.

Can Political Knowledge be Improved?


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The research on political knowledge and opinion stability reveal critical information for democratic institutions. Upon initial examination the data shows that overall public knowledge of politics is rather poor and that political opinions can be quite fickle. Elite democratic theorists argue that most people can function in a democratic society with very little political knowledge which is true but it is far from an ideal situation.  Those with low levels of political knowledge tend to utilize social cues and mental heuristics as short cuts to determine their political positions and voting behavior. Reliance on social cues and mental heuristics has been ingrained in the human psyche for thousands of years. Normally they can provide adequate information for survival with very little investment of time or energy. The problem is that social cues and mental heuristics are error prone and open to manipulation. Over the past 40 years a great deal of research and information about mental heuristics has been developed showing the conditions when heuristics function well and when they don’t function well. This information has been appropriated into marketing, advertising and politics where it serves as the basis for manipulating the public for monetary and political gain. Thus those with low levels of political knowledge are most open to manipulation through the use of social cues and mental heuristics which politicians can take advantage of for their own gain.

On the other hand research by Carpini and Keeter show that those with high levels of political knowledge hold more stable political opinions and they participate in politics at a higher rate. The more stable opinions are less open to manipulation especially using the peripheral route to persuasion such as social cues and mental heuristics. Instead people with more stable opinions are persuaded best through direct argumentation and facts. That means politicians cannot easily manipulate the political position of well-informed voters. But the benefit of political knowledge goes beyond that; since well-informed voters participate at a higher rate they have a greater influence over political outcomes. When stable political opinions are combined with higher participation rates the result could be more stable electoral politics. That is because less of the electorate could be easily manipulated by advertising campaigns and sound bites, instead more of the electorate would vote based on the issues and policies being presented in the campaign.

Despite that fact that much of the electorate is uninformed it might be possible to cultivate a more informed electorate. First Kull, Ramsay & Lewis demonstrated that an individual’s primary new source impacted the likelihood of that individual holding misperceptions. In particular NPR and PBS showed substantially lower rates of misperceptions than all of the other news outlets measured. Thus it would make sense to increase public funding for news so that additional public new sources are available. That could increase access to news from PBS and NPR and thereby it could potentially reduce misperceptions in the public. Though, access to public news does not necessitate that individuals would be motivated to use those news sources, so it is likely that there is a saturation point at which investment into public news would lead to diminishing returns. But it might be possible to improve the public’s knowledge of politics through public investment into NPR and PBS.

Next, Burns et al. has shown that females have greater political knowledge when there are women holding Senate seats or running for the Senate. Though current there are only 17 female Senators (17%) and 78 female Representatives (17.9%). If the proportion of female elected officials were to increase then female knowledge of politics may increase as well. It is possible that moving away from single district plurality voting for Representatives toward a proportional representation system may increase political knowledge by increasing diversity in Congress. This effect could impact women but it could also impact minorities which are under-represented in Congress. While proportional representation could improve diversity in the House it is unlikely to affect the Senate significantly since many state elect Senators with statewide elections.

Another possible improvement to political knowledge could be obtained by altering the redistricting process. Frequently redistricting is done in a manner that benefits the party in power at that time and creates a great deal of ‘safe’ seats. That is redistricting can make elections less competitive yet Gordon and Segura point out that in countries with more competitive elections the electorate is better informed. It is possible to create Congressional districts in a neutral manner with a computational redistricting methodology which does not take into account political factors in creating districts. Two examples of such methods would be Warren Smith’s Split-line method and Brian Olson’s method of minimizing the distance to the center of each district. Both methods are neutral in terms of politics and only operate using population statistics to develop Congressional districts. That could remove politics from redistricting and create more competitive elections thereby increasing public political knowledge.

Finally Mark Smith showed that states with ballot initiatives have higher levels of political knowledge. Thus it would be reasonable to assume that implementing a national ballot system could improve knowledge of politics nationwide. The people could then play a role in the creation of federal law which would make them may feel more invested in the system and spend more time keeping up on politics. Furthermore it could be used to deal with controversies such as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). If there was a national ballot system then the Affordable Care Act would have already come up for a popular vote by the people. That could end all the challenges to the Affordable Care Act in Congress which may lead to a government shutdown in a matter of weeks. The voice of the people would be able to give it a yes or no vote and that could defuse the whole issue.

Thus it could be possible to improve the political knowledge of the public in a number of ways. Increased funding to NPR and PBS has the potential of reducing misperceptions in the public. Proportional representation for Representatives could increase diversity in Congress and thereby increase political knowledge of females and minorities. Computational redistricting could create more competitive elections and thus motivate more people to follow elections. Finally a national ballot system could get more of the electorate involved in the creation of federal law and motivate more people to pay attention to politics. Therefore it could be possible to cultivate a more knowledge electorate which would hold more stable opinions and be less susceptible to manipulation.


Disclaimer: This was written for my public opinion class and citations were not required since they were from our reading. But if you would like citations feel free to ask and I can provide them.

Math Experts Split the Check

Completely geeky but I loved it.

Math with Bad Drawings

Engineer: Remember to tip 18%, everybody.

Mathematician: Is that 18% of the pre-tax total, or of the total with tax?

Physicist: You know, it’s simpler if we assume the system doesn’t have tax.

Computer Scientist: But it does have tax.

Physicist: Sure, but the numbers work out more cleanly if we don’t pay tax and tip. It’s a pretty small error term. Let’s not complicate things unnecessarily.

Engineer: What you call a “small error,” I call a “collapsed bridge.”

Economist: Forget it. Taxes are inefficient, anyway. They create deadweight loss.

Mathematician: There you go again…

Economist: I mean it! If there were no taxes, I would have ordered a second soda.

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Graduate School Begins


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I apologize for not posting over the past couple of weeks. I have just moved from Austin, TX to Huntington, NY in order to go to graduate school. I am working on a masters in political science at Stony Brook University. I have just completed my first week of classes and I am very excited about the rest of the semester.

This semester I am taking courses in the dynamics of public opinion, passionate politics, research methods and time series statistics. Dynamics of public opinion will be very interesting as it will go over both general public opinion but also individual psychological influences on opinion. During the semester we will investigate the effects of personality, knowledge and social groups on opinions about political issues. In passionate politics we will examine political involvement especially in protests, social movements and special interest groups. We will go over the role of emotions and group identity in political involvement. Furthermore we will look at electoral politics and the role of the internet / social media in politics. My research methods course will likely be very easy for me since I have already taken research methods, advanced research methods, epistemology and philosophy of social sciences. Though I look forward to learning more about qualitative approaches to research since ASU is a very quantitatively focused psychology department. Finally I am excited about time series statistics, yes I am a complete dork at times. But I have been working with time series for 6 1/2 years and I think the course will help me solidify the knowledge I gain at work into a cohesive whole. 

Through out the semester I plan to post any relevant papers that I write. I believe that many will be of interest to my readers. I will also post some of the things that I read since y’all may enjoy them too.