Monday, April 28, 2008

Does Studying Economics Make You Selfish?

There's been a lot of discussion in economics circles about how economics training makes people more selfish -- in particular, by teaching people "rational choice theory", the cartoon version of which portrays rationality as a matter of always acting in one's perceived (economic) self interest (for example, by defecting in prisoner's dilemma games and offering very little in ultimatum games). Accordingly, the economics literature contains a few much-cited studies that seem to show that economics students behave more selfishly than other students.

However, virtually all the experiments cited in support of this view are flawed in one of two ways. Either they test students on basically the same sorts of games discussed in economics classes, or they rely on self-report of selfishness. Relying on econ-class games makes generalizing the results very problematic. It's no surprise that after a semester of being told by your professor that defecting (basically, ratting on your accomplice to get less prison time) would be the rational thing to do in a prisoner's dilemma game, when that same professor or one of his colleagues gives you a pencil-and-paper version of the prisoner's dilemma, you're more likely to say you'd defect than you would otherwise have been (even with small real stakes). What relationship this has to actually screwing over acquaintances is another question.

Likewise, relying on self-report of selfishness is problematic for all the reasons self-report is usually problematic in the domain of morality, and in this case there's an obvious additional confound: People exposed to rational choice theory might feel less embarrassed to confess their selfish behavior (since it is, after all, rational according to the theory), and so might show up as more selfish on self-report measures even if they actually behave the same as everyone else.

I've found so far only three real-world studies of the relationship between economics training and selfishness, and none suggest that economics training increases selfishness.

(1.) Though I find their study too problematic to rely much on, Yezer et al. (1996) found that envelopes containing money were more likely to be forwarded with the money still in them if they were dropped in economics classes than other classes.

(2.) Frey and Meier (2003) found that economics majors at University of Zurich were less likely than other majors to opt to give to student charities when registering for classes, but that effect held starting with the very first semester (before any exposure to rational choice theory), and the ratio of economics majors to non-economics majors donating remained about the same over time (all groups declined a bit as their education proceeded).

(3.) Studying professional economists, Laband and Beil (1999) found a majority to pay the highest level of dues to the American Economic Association (dues prorated on self-reported income), though they could without detection or punishment have reported lower income and so paid less. Through an analysis of proportion paying dues in each income category vs. proportion in the profession making income in those categories they found similar rates of cheating in self-reported income among sociologists and political scientists.

I see these findings as the flip side of what I've been finding with ethicists: Just as ethical training doesn't seem to increase rates of actual moral behavior much, if at all, so also being bathed in rational choice theory (if, indeed, this is what economics students are mostly taught) doesn't seem to induce real-world selfishness.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Qi (Ch'i) and Moral Psychology

The term qi (or ch'i) is known to Westerners mainly through martial arts and new age mumbo-jumbo, and is taken to mean something like spiritual and physical vitality, or the mystical medium of that vitality. The word goes back to classical Chinese, where it originally meant "air" or "breath" and then by extension the vital energy connected with breath, working its way into early Chinese medicine and theories of the body.

Robin Wang has recently been exploring the connections between qi and moral psychology in early Chinese thought. Among other things, she notes the importance of caring for the body in the tradition -- both the moral obligation to do it but also, perhaps, the asserted connection between moral goodness and physical health. (One index of the importance of that connection in the ancient Chinese tradition is the frequency with which it is mocked by Zhuangzi.)

Confucius (if the passage is authentic) notes the connection between morality and qi thus:

There are three things the gentleman should guard against. In youth when the blood and qi are still unsettled he should guard against the attraction of feminine beauty. In the prime of life when the blood and qi have become unyielding, he should guard against bellicosity. In old age when the blood and qi have declined, he should guard against acquisitiveness" (16.7, Lau trans.).
Thus, disorders of qi are associated with a propensity toward certain moral failings. Mencius even more famously associates a "flood-like qi" with moral rightness (2A2).

There is something attractive in this view. It's uncontroversial that peace of mind is good for your health, and it's very plausible that health is generally good for your peace of mind. It may be hard to muster up the energy or will to do what's right if one is feeling substantially less than vigorous, and certain types of physical shortcomings may lead us more easily to certain sorts of moral temptations.

Yet at the same time, a concept that intimately connects physical health and moral health strikes me as highly noxious. Is the highest degree of moral propriety impossible from a wheelchair, or from one's deathbed, or from someone with chronic fatigue? It seems to me that physical disability often gives as much to us morally as it takes away (e.g., by increasing our sympathy with others or by broadening our perspective).

What the connection is between physical health and moral behavior is an empirical question, of course, but one that would be very difficult to study well. I've heard of no studies. (And any one study, anyway, would have to be highly limited.) In the meantime, I say down with the concept of qi!

P.S.: For those readers interested in Chinese philosophy who haven't noticed it yet, I recommend Manyul Im's Chinese Philosophy Blog.

Friday, April 18, 2008

"Mama" as an Early Expression of Need?

When we first met Kate, our adoptive Chinese daughter, at 13 months old, she was already babbling, saying "mama(-m)" and "baba(-b)". Surprisingly to me, she seemed to use them differentially -- "mamama" when she was upset or needing something, "bababa" in a playful mood. I had noticed the same thing in my son when he was about 10 months old, although for him the second sort of babbling sounded like "dadada". At the time, I figured Davy's differentiated babbling was due to our parental reinforcements and interpretations -- that when he said "mama" we were more likely to hand him to his mom, and when he said "dada" we were more liked to hand him to dad, and the like. What was striking to me was that, as an orphan, Kate had no mom or dad. (It's not even clear that she had ever seen a man before.)

Since at least the 1960s, linguists have known that a wide range (maybe even of majority) of languages of very different origins use something like the "mama" (or "nana") sound for mother and something like the papa/baba/tata/dada sounds (all related phonologically) for father. For example, in Chinese "mama" and "baba" are baby-ese for mother and father, in Hebrew it's "ima" and "abba", and of course there's Spanish, Italian, etc.

The standard first remark about this is that these words are very easy for babies to say. I wonder if in addition to this, "mamama" goes more naturally with need or distress while the other goes more naturally with fun and exploration -- for example if the "m" phoneme is easier to make with the facial expression of distress (it seems to me that m's are easier with a tight, distressed face, p's and d's easier with an open, relaxed face, but maybe that's just me). That would explain in a way other theories would not why even an orphan would show the sort of differentiation Kate does between those two sounds. Given the different roles mothers and fathers typically play, it's then easy to see why one babble would come to be associated with the mother and the other with the dad.

(Probably some linguist has suggested this before, but for obvious reasons I haven't time right now to do serious reference chasing. Even without the reference chasing, though, I feel comfortable doubting whether anyone has thought to study 12-month-old orphans specifically in this connection.)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Tucson Presentation

On the Underblog I've posted the text of the talk I gave this morning for the Toward a Science of Consciousness conference. Given that the title of the talk predicts the possible demise of consciousness studies, I thought it might be wise to check that the back door was unlocked in case I needed to make a quick escape! (Actually, everyone was very nice.)

The talk basically combined my reflections on the richness or thinness of experience from my 2007 article on the topic, "Do You Have Constant Tactile Experience of Your Feet in Your Shoes?" (advocates of a rich view say yes [and that we also constantly auditorially experience the hum of traffic in the background, etc.], while advocates of a thin view say no), with the pessimistic argument in a recent post that the question is unresolvable -- and, worse, that it's likely impossible to establish a general theory of consciousness without first settling the rich-vs-thin question. Grand conclusion: A general theory of consciousness may be beyond human reach.

The one new thing was this: Ned Block and Michael Tye have recently argued that experience outruns attention (and thus that the thin view can't be right) because one visually experiences at least the gist of the parts of a visual display (for example on a psychologist's computer) to which you don't focally attend -- for example in "change blindness" demonstrations. Or to put it another way: Your visual attention right now might be on a few of the words in this sentence, but surely you also visually experience more of what is before you than just those few words, so (they say) this shows that attention is not required for experience.

The problem with that argument, I think, is that it ignores the (quite reasonable) possibility that attention comes in degrees and can spread beyond just a narrow point. In some sense, one is attending to the whole computer display even if the finest, most focused point of attention is just a few words at a time. What remains open -- and what I'm pessimistic about resolving -- is whether you also simultaneously visually experience the picture on the wall behind the computer and the pressure of the chair against your back. (Of course you experience them now, but did you experience them ten minutes ago when you weren't thinking about it? I think neither objective nor subjective methods to address this question can yield a trustworthy answer.)

Anyway, I enjoyed having the chance to pontificate about this for a while for the people at this conference! With the new book and the plenary talk, people are starting to treat me almost like I'm an established philosopher. (Maybe it helps, too, that I'm going a bit gray at the temples.) I think it would be a good thing not to get too used to that.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Experiential Blanks

I'm on the road, at the biennial consciousness conference in Tucson. Yesterday, Russ Hurlburt and I led a workshop on the use of beepers to explore the stream of experience (the topic of our recent book). As part of the workshop, we "beeped" the audience -- a few random beeps sounded through speakers, interrupting our PowerPoint presentation, and each audience member was to reflect as best she could on her "last undisturbed moment of inner experience" just before each beep. For each beep, we selected a random audience member to describe her experience, and we interviewed her about it, we argued with each other about it, and other members of the audience pitched in, too. Great fun, I thought.

I was especially struck by one of the audience member's reports. He said that, as best as he could tell, he had no inner experience whatsoever, no consciousness, no phenomenology, at the moment just before the beep. He did have an experience a few moments before the beep -- one of feeling his nametag pressing against his chin (he was absent-mindedly playing with it) -- but at the moment of the beep itself, nothing. Russ was talking, but he didn't have any auditory experience. If I understand him correctly, he felt he had no sensory experience of any sort, nor any emotional experience, nor any imagery, nor any conscious thoughts, no experience at all.

People do sometimes say this when they are sampled with beepers, Russ has found in his decades of study. I've also heard a couple of reports of this sort among the forty or so people I've interviewed using Russ's beeper methodology -- but in both of my own cases, the subjects had fallen asleep and the beep had woken them.

Now I confess that I incline toward a rich view of experience -- according to which we generally have constant visual experience, constant auditory experience, constant tactile experience of our feet in our shoes (though peripherally and faintly, of course!), and much else going on with us experientially at any one time. I'm not at all sure that this view is right, but to think that we have waking moments with no experience whatsoever...!

This is one of the cool things about beeper interviews: People say things you'd never expect them to say, they describe their experience in ways you (and even they) might have thought impossible, with all sincerity. It jars me from my complacency.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

First Draft to Publication, Fifteen Years

I had hoped to be back to regular posting by now, a week and a half after my return from China, but things are still pretty chaotic!

I posted about a year ago on the Two Envelope Paradox, and my paper with Josh Dever on the topic has finally been published (as of Monday, in Sorites).

In 1993, when Josh and I were both graduate students in Berkeley, he introduced me to the paradox, which is very simple to formulate:

You are presented with the choice between two envelopes, Envelope A and Envelope B. You know that one envelope has half as much money as the other, but you don't know which has more. Arbitrarily, you choose Envelope A. Then you think to yourself, should I switch to Envelope B instead? There's a 50-50 chance it has twice as much money and a 50-50 chance it has half as much money. And since double or nothing is a fair bet, double or half should be more than fair! Using the tools of formal decision theory, you might call "X" the amount of money in Envelope A and then calculate the expectation of switching as (.5)*.5(X) + (.5)*2X = 5/4 X. So you switch. (But of course that's absurd.)
For some reason, the problem completely took hold of me. I found myself waking in the middle of the night and writing equations. Josh and I bothered just about every graduate student at Berkeley and about half the faculty with the problem. It seemed to me, to us, that the core problem was in the use of a variable with different expectations in different terms of the expected value equation (in the first term, where Envelope A has more, the expectation of X, the value in Envelope A, is higher than it is in the second term, which represents the possibility that Envelope A has less). Just about everyone we spoke to was eventually won over by our reasoning on this, and I presented a paper on it at a graduate student conference later that year.

For a while, I flirted with the idea of writing my dissertation on decision theory, but when I decided to work on connections between philosophy and developmental psychology instead, it seemed the practical decision to set the essay aside. (Berkeley had at the time, and maybe still has, a culture of discouraging graduate students from attempting to publish essays based on anything other than a virtually completed dissertation.)

A couple years later, one of our professors, Charles Chihara, published a paper on the problem (in which he generously thanks me) with a solution similar to ours but also in some important ways different -- and not, it seemed to me, very mathematically precise. Other approaches to the problem came out through the mid- and late 1990s, when it was briefly trendy, but all of them seemed to me to miss the point.

In 2002, I had a long conversation about the problem with Terry Horgan, who had published a couple of papers on it, and I felt myself almost convincing him that my solution was better than his own. (He might not agree with this description of our conversation!) He advised that I seek publication again, so I teamed up with Josh and wrote a new version of the essay.

In 2003, we submitted to Mind, which had published other essays on the problem, but which we thought was a longshot. The referee report came back saying that our solution, though correct, was too technical -- although we felt our paper less technical (and maybe, too, of broader general interest, though that's harder to judge) than the other papers Mind had published on the topic. We received the same reply -- with even less justification, we think, from Analysis, which has published more essays on the topic than any other journal. We then sent the essay to Theory and Decision, whose referee gave us the first substantive criticism we had received (a helpful simplication of our proof) but who recommended rejecting our solution as "obvious" -- despite the fact that in ten years no other essay on the topic had offered it! We considered Synthese, but Springer is such a noxious and expensive publisher, that we decided to send it to an open-access journal instead. We chose the Australian Journal of Logic, which, when we received no reply to several queries sent through various media over the course of a year, we decided had folded. (Though now I see they have a 2007 issue. Hm!) So we withdrew the paper from there to send it to another open-access online journal, Sorites, which we also started to worry about when we got no replies over the course of six months. Finally, when we were about to withdraw the article, we received an apologetic email from the editor -- now, after fifteen years! -- and five journals, and only one minor substantive criticism, it's finally in print.

Anyone out there with a more convoluted publication story?