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2018
David Myers

Sometimes Truth Is Comedy

Posted by David Myers Expert Nov 29, 2018

As I approach five years of www.TalkPsych.com commentary—which has settled into a weekly Thursday essay—I am tempted (given our now larger audience) to replay an occasional favorite. Here is my second focused essay, which still puts a smile on my face . . . and perhaps yours? (In sneaking humor into texts, I presume that if I can’t have fun writing, then readers likely won’t have fun reading.)

 

From April 6, 2014:

Consider Brett Pelham, Matthew Mirenberg, and John Jones’ 2002 report of wacky associations between people’s names and vocations. Who would have guessed? For example, in the United States, Jerry, Dennis, and Walter are equally popular names (0.42 percent of people carry each of these names). Yet America’s dentists have been almost twice as likely to be named Dennis as Jerry or Walter. Moreover, 2.5 times as many female dentists have been named Denise as the equally popular names Beverly and Tammy. And George or Geoffrey has been overrepresented among geoscientists (geologists, geophysicists, and geochemists).

I thought of that playful research on names recently when reading a paper on black bears’ quantitative competence, co-authored by Michael Beran. Next up in my reading pile was creative work on crows’ problem solving led by Chris Bird. Today I was appreciating interventions for lifting youth out of depression, pioneered by Sally Merry.

That also took my delighted mind to the important books on animal behavior by Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger, and the Birds of North America volume by Chandler Robbins. (One needn’t live in Giggleswick, England, to find humor in our good science.)

The list goes on: billionaire Marc Rich, drummer Billy Drummond, cricketer Peter Bowler, and the Ronald Reagan Whitehouse spokesman Larry Speakes. And as a person with hearing loss whose avocational passion is hearing advocacy, I should perhaps acknowledge the irony of my own name, which approximates My-ears.

Internet sources offer lots more: dentists named Dr. E. Z. Filler, Dr. Gargle, and Dr. Toothaker; the Oregon banking firm Cheatham and Steele; and the chorister Justin Tune. But my Twitter feed this week offered a cautionary word about these reported names: “The problem with quotes on the Internet is that you never know if they’re true.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

Perhaps you, too, have some favorite name-vocation associations? I think of my good friend who was anxiously bemused before meeting his oncologist, Dr. Bury. (I am happy to report that, a decade later, he is robustly unburied and has not needed the services of the nearby Posthumus Funeral Home.)

For Pelham and his colleagues there is a serious point to this fun: We all tend to like what we associate with ourselves (a phenomenon they call implicit egotism). We like faces that have features of our own face morphed into them. We like—and have some tendency to live in—cities and states whose names overlap with our own—as in the disproportionate number of people named Jack living in Jacksonville, of Philips in Philadelphia, and of people whose names begin with Tor in Toronto.

Uri Simonsohn isn’t entirely convinced (see here and here, with Pelham’s reply here and here). He replicated the associations between people’s names, occupations, and places but argued that reverse causality sometimes is at work. For example, people sometimes live in places and on streets after which their ancestors were named.

Implicit egotism research continues. In the meantime, we can delight in the occasional playful creativity of psychological science.

P.S. Speaking of dentists (actual ones), my retired Hope College chemistry colleague Don Williams—a person of sparkling wit—offers these photos, taken with his own camera:

And if you need a podiatrist to advise about your foot odor, Williams has found just the person:

(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)

After elections, people often note unexpected outcomes and then complain that “the polls got it wrong.”

 

After Donald Trump’s stunning 2016 presidential victory, the press gave us articles on “Why the Polls were such a Disaster,” on “4 Possible Reasons the Polls Got It So Wrong,” and on “Why the Polls Missed Their Mark.” Stupid pollsters. “Even a big poll only surveys 1500 people or so out of almost 130 million voters,” we may think, “so no wonder they can’t get it right.

 

Moreover, consider the many pundits who, believing the polls, confidently predicted a Clinton victory. They were utterly wrong, leaving many folks shocked on election night (some elated, others depressed, with later flashbulb memories of when they realized Trump was winning).

 

So how could the polls, the pundits, and the prediction models have all been so wrong?

 

Or were they? First, we know that in a closely contested race, a representative sample of a mere 1500 people from a 130 million population will—surprisingly to many people—allow us to estimate the population preference within ~3 percent.

 

Sounds easy. But there’s a challenge: Most randomly contacted voters don’t respond when called. The New York TimesUpshot” recently let us view its polling in real time. This enabled us to see, for example, that it took 14,636 calls to Iowa’s fourth congressional district to produce 423 responses, among which Steve King led J. D. Scholten by 5 percent—slightly more than the 3.4 percent by which King won.

 

Pollsters know the likely demographic make-up of the electorate, and so can weight results from respondents of differing age, race, and gender to approximate the population. And that, despite the low response rate, allows them to do remarkably well—especially when we bear in mind that their final polls are taken ahead of the election (and cannot account for last-minute events, which may sway undecided voters). In 2016, the final polling average favored Hillary Clinton by 3.9 percent, with a 3 percent margin of error. On Election Day, she won the popular vote by 2.1 percent (and 2.9 million votes)—well within that margin of error.

 

To forecast a race, fivethirtyeight.com’s prediction model does more. It “takes lots of polls, performs various types of adjustments to them [based on sample size, recency, and pollster credibility], and then blends them with other kinds of empirically useful indicators” such as past results, expert assessments, and fundraising. Here is their 2016 final estimation:

Ha! This prediction, like other 2016 prediction models, failed.

 

Or did it? Consider a parallel. Imagine that as a basketball free-throw shooter steps to the line, I tell you that the shooter has a 71 percent free-throw average. If the shooter misses, would you disbelieve the projection? No, because, if what I’ve told you is an accurate projection, you should expect to see a miss 29 percent of the time. If the player virtually never missed, then you’d rightly doubt my data.

 

Likewise, if, when Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com gives a candidate a 7 in 10 chance of winning and that candidate always wins, then the model is, indeed, badly flawed. Yes?

 

In the 2018 U.S. Congressional races, fivethirtyeight.com correctly predicted 96 percent of the outcomes. On the surface, that may look like a better result, but it’s mainly because most races were in solid Blue or Red districts and not seriously contested.

 

Ergo, don’t be too quick to demean the quality polls and the prediction models they inform. Survey science still works.

 

(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)

David Myers

Science Marches On

Posted by David Myers Expert Nov 15, 2018

This week I interrupt our weekly focus on psychology’s big ideas and new findings to update three prior essays.

 

Loss aversion in sports. A recent essay described how, in sports (as in other realms of life), our fear of losing can rob us of chances to win:

  • In baseball, a mountain of data shows that runners on first base will rarely take off running on a fly ball that has any chance of being caught. But their aversion to being thrown out leads to fewer runs and wins.
  • And in  basketball, teams trailing by 2 points at a game’s end typically prefer a 2-point shot attempt, hoping to avert a loss and send the game into overtime (where half the time they will lose), over a 3-point attempt for victory—even in situations where the odds favor the latter. New Cornell/University of Chicago studies of “myopic loss aversion” confirm this irrational preference for loss-averting 2-point shots at the end of National Basketball Association games.
  • Moreover, those same studies  extend the phenomenon to National Football League games, where teams prefer to kick a tying extra point in situations where a 2-point conversion makes a win more likely (as when down by two points late in the third quarter—see also here). Caution often thwarts triumph.

 

Gratitude gratifies. An essay last spring testified to the positive power of expressing gratitude, which increases well-being and prosociality. In new experiments, Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley found that people who wrote gratitude letters “significantly underestimated how surprised recipients would be about why expressers were grateful, overestimated how awkward recipients would feel, and underestimated how positive recipients would feel.”

 

Our unexpected personal thank you notes are more heartwarming for their recipients than we appreciate. (Is there someone whose support or example has impacted your life, who would be gratified to know that?)

 

The net effect. A May 2016 essay discussed research on how, in the smartphone age, “compulsive technology use not only drains time from eyeball-to-eyeball conversation but also predicts poorer course performance.” Since then, my friend (and co-author on the new Social Psychology, 13th Edition) Jean Twenge has enriched the public understanding of social media effects in her new book, iGen, and in associated media appearances. (For an excellent synopsis, see her Atlantic article.)

As she documents, the adoption of smartphones is echoed by increases in teen loneliness, depression, and suicide, and by decreases in sleep and face-to-face interactions (though also in less drinking, sex, and car accidents). Jean also continues to mine data, such as from an annual survey of American teens in a new Emotion study with Gabrielle Martin and Keith Campbell. They reconfirmed that a dip in adolescent well-being has precisely coincided with an increase in screen time (on social media, the Internet, texting, and gaming). Moreover, across individuals, more than 10 screen-time hours per week predicts less teen happiness.

 

Ergo, a task for teachers is to inform students about these trends and invite discussion about how students might apply them in their own peer culture. In a recent APS Observer essay, I suggested this might also be a good class activity:

  • Invite students to guess how often they check their phone each day, and how many minutes they average on it.
  • Have them download a free screen-time tracker app, such as Moment for the iPhone or QualityTime for the Android.
  • Have them add up their actual total screen time for the prior week and divide by 7 to compute their daily average.
  • Then ask them, “Did you underestimate your actual smartphone use?

The results may surprise them. In two recent studies, university students greatly underestimated their frequency of phone checking and time on screen. As Steven Pinker has noted, “The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life.”

In this time of political passion, those of us who are instructors and/or text authors may agonize over whether to engage contentious public issues, such as the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination, fears of immigrant crime, or the possible social toxicity of presidential rhetoric.

 

My assumption is that—given our focus on education and our respect for our students’ diversity—classrooms and textbooks should not be political bully pulpits. There are more appropriate venues for advocating our own political views.

 

But that needn’t preclude our seeking to inform public dialogue, by offering pertinent evidence. For example, in a recent essay, I drew on memory science to report the tunnel-vision nature of emotion-laden memories, as perhaps illustrated when Christine Blasey Ford recalled being sexually assaulted without remembering peripheral details—just what we would expect from an authentic memory. And I indicated how state-dependent memory phenomena could help explain why Brett Kavanaugh might be sincere in having no memory for the same event. But I stopped short of expressing an opinion about whether he should have been confirmed.

 

Other essays have also offered information pertinent to heated political debates:

  • Trade policies. While politicians and economists debate the economic merits of free trade versus trade-restricting tariffs, social psychologists have noted that economic interdependence and cooperation enhance the odds for sustained peace (here).
  • Fear of immigrants. Recent political rhetoric focusing attention on the “caravan” of Central Americans desperate to enter Mexico and the U.S. has again raised fears of immigrant crime. Recent TalkPsych essays (here and here) offered data on actual immigrant crime rates in the United States, and on who in the U.S. and Germany most fears immigrants (ironically, those who have little contact with them). Gallup data from 139 countries confirms higher migrant acceptance among those who know migrants. Teachers can offer such evidence without advocating either party’s border policy (yes?).
  • Presidential rhetoric and public attitudes. Recent essays in The New York Times (here and here) and The Washington Post (here and here) assume that President Trump’s derision of his political opponents and of the press creates a toxic social environment that seeps down into his followers’ attitudes and actions. Pertinent to these concerns, my earlier essays wondered whether the President was “simply giving a voice” to widely held attitudes, or instead was legitimizing such attitudes and thereby increasing bullying. I later offered new evidence that hatemongering from high places does indeed desensitize people to such and increases expressions of prejudice. Can teachers offer such evidence without being partisan?

 

Be assured, psychological science is not intrinsically liberal or conservative. Its evidence sometimes lends weight to progressive thinking (say about sexual orientation as a natural, enduring disposition) and sometimes to conservative thinking (for example, about the benefits of co-parenting and stable close relationships such as marriage). As I conclude in an upcoming teaching column for the Association for Psychological Science Observer, “psychology aims not to advance liberal or conservative thinking per se, but to let evidence inform our thinking. And for us teachers of psychology that, no matter our political identities, is perhaps the biggest lesson of all.”

 

(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)

Hate-fueled pipe bombs target Democrats. Two African Americans are gunned down in a grocery story. An anti-Semite slaughters synagogue worshippers. Political leaders denigrate and despise their opponents. In National Election Studies surveys, the percentage of Republicans and Democrats who “hate” the other party has soared, for both sides—from 20 percent in 2000, to near 50 percent in 2016. (Let’s make it personal: Would you want your child to marry a devotee of the other party?)

 

Hostilities are poisoning the culture, and many Americans are wondering: How can we, as individuals and as a culture, turn a corner? Amid animosities fed by groundless fears, fact-free ignorance, and repeated (then believed) big lies, how can we embrace our common humanity and shared goals?

 

As we social psychologists remind folks, conflicts lessen through contact, cooperation, and communication. Personal contact with equal-status others helps (it’s not just what you know, but who you know). Cooperative striving for shared superordinate goalsthose that require the cooperation of two or more people—fosters unity (it even helps to have a common enemy). Ditto guided communication (an aim of www.Better-Angels.org, which brings together “Reds” and “Blues” to understand each other’s concerns and to discover their overlapping aspirations).

 

And might we, individually and as a culture, also benefit by teaching and modeling an outlook that encompasses three virtues: conviction, humility, and love?

 

Our convictions define what matters. We anchor our lives in core beliefs and values that guide our lives. Our convictions motivate our advocacy for a better world. They give us courage to speak and act. “We must always take sides,” said Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” “To be silent is to be complicit,” adds Dead Man Walking author Sister Helen Prejean.

 

But convictions need restraining with humility, a virtue that lies at the heart of science for theists and nontheists alike. Those of us who are theists, of whatever faith tradition, share two convictions:

  1. There is a God.
  2. It’s not me (or you).

Ergo, we are fallible. The surest conviction we can have is that some of our beliefs err. From this follows the religious virtue of humility (alas, a virtue more often preached than practiced). A spirit of humility seasons conviction with open-minded curiosity. It tempers faith with uncertainty (faith without humility is fanaticism). It subjects our opinions to evidence and enables good science. It tells me that every person I meet is, in some way, my superior . . . providing an opportunity to learn.

 

The triangle of virtues within which we can aspire to live is completed when conviction, restrained by humility, is directed by love. In his great sermon on love, Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Jesus: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” Doing that, he said, does not compel us to like our enemies, but does compel us “to discover the element of good” in them. By contrast, “hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe,” he added. “If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. . . . Hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.”

 

Is this not a vision of a good life that will enable a flourishing culture . . . a life that is animated by deep convictions, which are refined in humility and applied with love?

 

(For David Myers’ other weekly essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com)