Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Immorality East and West: Are Immoral Behaviors Especially Harmful, or Especially Uncivilized?

Emma Buchtel et al.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, forthcoming

Abstract: What makes some acts immoral? Although Western theories of morality often define harmful behaviors as centrally immoral, whether this is applicable to other cultures is still under debate. In particular, Confucianism emphasizes civility as fundamental to moral excellence. We describe three studies examining how the word immoral is used by Chinese and Westerners. Layperson-generated examples were used to examine cultural differences in which behaviors are called “immoral” (Study 1, n = 609; Study 2, n = 480), and whether “immoral” behaviors were best characterized as particularly harmful versus uncivilized (Study 3, N = 443). Results suggest that Chinese were more likely to use the word immoral for behaviors that were uncivilized, rather than exceptionally harmful, whereas Westerners were more likely to link immorality tightly to harm. More research into lay concepts of morality is needed to inform theories of moral cognition and improve understanding of human conceptualizations of social norms.

Nod to Kevin Lewis

Monday, August 31, 2015

Training Day

Okay so this is 2.5 minutes you will never get back.  But it's a pleasant little trifle for golfers.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Goalie Hit in Face Every Time

Is this dumb, and absurdly fake?  Sure.

But credit to the BYU folks:  It's well done, in the tradition of Dodgeball/Most Extreme Elimination "announcing."

As in, "That's a bold strategy, Cotton..."

Friday, August 21, 2015

The powerful negative theorems of Economics

People, one area where economics has proven to excel is showing us what cannot be done.

There are several very powerful negative theorems out there that have real implications for policies but are often downplayed or ignored.

Here I pay homage to them.

1. The theory of the second best.

Simply put, if the world or model has multiple distortions in it, removing only one of those distortions may not make things better. This applies so strongly to macro and development economics, but it rarely even mentioned. Consider corruption. Suppose a polity has bad laws, weak rule of law, oppressive regulations, little protection of property rights and corruption. In such an environment, an anti-corruption campaign alone may actually make many people worse off. You can no longer bribe your way out of the oppressive regulation or bribe your way into protection of your property. This one is a real doozy.

2.  Arrow's impossibility theorem.

Simply put, this tells us that there is no ideal, comprehensive way of aggregating individuals preferences into an aggregate choice. Arrow shows there is no mechanism that is non-dictatorial, satisfies independence of irrelevant alternatives, and pareto efficiency.

Or as the great philosopher Robyn Hitchcock put it, "When I hear the word "Democracy", I reach for my headphones."

3. Related is Hurwicz's impossibility theorem of mechanism design, which shows that there is no strategy-proof, Pareto-efficient, and individually rational rule for allocation. In other words, a planner cannot get truthful revelation from people about their preferences and willingness to pay without wasting resources in the process.

4. The Folk Theorem.

This is a strange one because some "folks" take is as a feature, rather than the devastating bug that it really is. The folk theorem shows that if people are patient enough, any behavior pattern can be an equilibrium of an infinitely repeated game. I have actually seen papers invoke the folk theorem in a positive sense, citing it to prove their preferred story is an equilibrium story, without realizing the irony that in that setting ANY story is an equilibrium story.  Ouch.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

This is why we can't have nice things!

People, this happened:

"a Weibo post showed a child defecating on board Shenzhen Airlines flight ZH9709 from Nanjing to Guangzhou.... after a passenger complained saying both bathrooms were vacant, the parents said the bathrooms were too small anyway so they used the back of the plane because it had more room."

What's that you say? Pictures or it didn't happen? OK.

I can't believe that the only valid complaint was that the bathroom was vacant. On Chinese airlines are you ALLOWED to poop in the aisle if the bathrooms are occupied?

In the process of designing our house in Santa Fe, we were concerned the guest bathroom was too small. Our architect assured us it would be functional and beautiful "like an airline bathroom". Robin went totally nuts. We somehow got the project done anyway and the bath in question is actually quite spacious. Even a Chinese kid would deign to poop there.

Perhaps the worst part of the airline poop saga? The plane had not yet taken off!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Wheels up!

I have finally used up all the maple slabs I bought last year. They are now a dining room table, a desk and shelf and a massive coffee table.

Here's the finished coffee table, with its 10 inch metal wheels. I love how the wheels reflect off the polished concrete!

Thursday, August 13, 2015


A snippet from the Q&A portion of the "Cato Book Forum" in July.

In which I come out as a Buchananite...

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Hierarchy, Dominance, and Deliberation: Egalitarian Values Require Mental Effort 

Laura Van Berkel et al. 
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, September 2015, Pages 1207-1222 

Abstract: Hierarchy and dominance are ubiquitous. Because social hierarchy is early learned and highly rehearsed, the value of hierarchy enjoys relative ease over competing egalitarian values. In six studies, we interfere with deliberate thinking and measure endorsement of hierarchy and egalitarianism. In Study 1, bar patrons’ blood alcohol content was correlated with hierarchy preference. In Study 2, cognitive load increased the authority/hierarchy moral foundation. In Study 3, low-effort thought instructions increased hierarchy endorsement and reduced equality endorsement. In Study 4, ego depletion increased hierarchy endorsement and caused a trend toward reduced equality endorsement. In Study 5, low-effort thought instructions increased endorsement of hierarchical attitudes among those with a sense of low personal power. In Study 6, participants thinking quickly allocated more resources to high-status groups. Across five operationalizations of impaired deliberative thought, hierarchy endorsement increased and egalitarianism receded. These data suggest hierarchy may persist in part because it has a psychological advantage. 

What I think is interesting about this is that markets have the same problem.  People's support for price gouging laws, for example, is based on an atavistic set of mental modules about sharing in a lifeboat, or in a cave.  It takes an effort, one most people just don't feel like making, to overcome the inertia of that immediate impulse to hate someone who is charging you for something you need.

Nod to Kevin Lewis