Guest post: Michael Blastland on Uncertainty

michael blastlandThis week we have a guest post from journalist, broadcaster and author Michael Blastland. In addition to creating the BBC 4 Radio programme ‘More or Less’, he has authored several books including The Tiger That Isn’t (published in the US as The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life) and The Only Boy in the World, about his son’s autism. He is a well-known campaigner for statistical literacy. His most recent book, The Norm Chronicles: Stories and numbers about danger, looks at the risks of everyday life and how to decode them. 

People tend not to like uncertainty. It’s confusing. It makes our choices riskier. What are we supposed to do when we’re not sure what’s going on?

No, if it can be nailed down, nail it. If it can be settled, sort it. And even if it can’t, maybe any answer is better than none. Faced with the stranger on the moor who says the true path is definitely this way, or the one who says ‘not sure, maybe over there somewhere,’ which do you choose?

For the stranger on the moor substitute the political leader, or the business leader. We like people who seem to know.

Then, a few weeks ago an old friend, Oli Hawkins, said he’d had an idea.  

Understatement.

What’s more, it was an idea about how to show the uncertainty in data.

Hazardous understatement.

More accurately, it was an idea about how to bring uncertainty to life so that we see its full extent and implications.

And I thought: this is brilliant; some people will hate it.

What I think Oli had done was to find a way of making statistical doubt more visible. This is no small trick. In doing so, he might have helped us see the world differently. But there’s also little doubt that it makes life less comfortable.

The nub of the problem he has been trying to overcome is, in a word, pictures.

I agree, that doesn’t sound like a problem. In fact, pictures are often the answer to the problem of how to interpret data. They can crystalize ideas and make vagueness vivid. Turned into pictures, numbers escape the fog of evidence for the blue sky of clarity. We take in so much more from a picture than from columns of data, we spot patterns, faster, we remember the picture, it can even be beautiful.

As with a character in film compared with a character in a novel, the wry smile and the twinkle in the eye is given settled form. For some of us, it’s hard to stop thinking that James Bond is Sean Connery.

‘So?’ you say. ‘What’s wrong with that? Isn’t this exactly what visualisation strives to do.’ Well, sometimes there’s nothing wrong at all. Sometimes it’s fab.

And sometimes it’s fantasy. Especially when the ideas themselves ooze doubt, when vagueness and uncertainty might be half the point, when the numbers are more mush than concrete.

I’m a huge fan of visualisation. Who isn’t? But uncertainty is visualisation’s portrait in the attic: a dodgy secret, an orthogonal truth, in keeping with the human tendency to avoid it.

How to say that the line is most likely here, doing this, but could be way over there doing that? This has never, in my view, been satisfactorily sorted. The understandable tendency of a lot of data-viz is to ignore it.

On those occasions uncertainty is acknowledged, a standard approach is the error bar. Here’s an example from Oli’s discussion of the problem:

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‘The margin of error’ he says ‘reflects the 95% confidence interval for the estimate, which means there is a 95% chance that the actual value is within the range shown by the error bar and a 5% chance that it is outside this range. The size of the error bar is determined by the size of the sample on which the estimate is based.’

But as Oli points out, the error bars simply follow the trend.

They move up and down in a neat little dance either side of the central estimate, and our eyes follow, as if all estimates dance in the same direction. In fact, the true value might lie at any point along those error bars, or beyond, though with diminishing probability. That is, the true value could be at the top of one error bar and the bottom of the next. So this visualisation – improvement though it is on a plain bar chart – arguably obscures the potential movement.

Another example is the Bank of England’s fan charts for GDP, which apply both to future estimates and, more to the point here, to GDP in the past, about which we also remain uncertain. These fan charts show a range of estimates of the true value, in bands of probability.

They’re good. I like them. But they have exactly the same problem. All estimates echo the central line and visually reinforce our impression of the trend. Not the idea at all.

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What we tend to ‘see’ in this chart, I think, is a rise and then a fall in the rate of growth in the past few years that might have happened higher or lower than the central estimate, but was basically in lockstep with it. And people draw all sorts of conclusions from that supposed trend about the conduct of economic policy.

But is it true? Because what could have happened is that the rate of GDP growth rose continually since 2009, as it swung from the bottom to the top of the Bank’s range of estimates. Rather than an economy that skirted double or even triple-dip recession, maybe we had an economy going from strength to strength for more than three years. Or maybe it was the other way round and we recovered spectacularly in late 2009 and then slammed into reverse and another shallow but protracted recession.

You’ll find little economic comment to this effect, and it’s not the Bank’s nor the ONS’s best guess, but it is perfectly within what the Bank thinks are reasonable bounds of uncertainty. Maybe one reason this discussion doesn’t happen, and the doubts tend to be smothered in the rush to an appalled/euphoric (delete as applicable) reaction, is because we don’t have the right way of showing their extent.

And fan charts like these are a relatively recent innovation. Before them, the lines were even more concrete.

There are other techniques for representing uncertainty. Howard Wainer’s ‘Picturing the Uncertain World’ is an interesting exploration of the subject. But we can, and should do more.

‘You know…’ I say, trying to inspire audiences of designers, ‘you have an opportunity here to work out how to use visual techniques to bring uncertainty properly to life. Do that, and you could help people see, maybe for the first time, the way that statistical evidence relates to real events. This could change the way we see the world.’

But if that sounds too much like hard work, well then, as I’ve put it elsewhere, we can always carry on with the same old statistical blah… only prettier. As Tim Harford has said, mis-information can be beautiful too.

My own attempt at the uncertainty problem was to make some fantasy league tables in which the position of each imagined school, or hospital, or whatever, bounced up and down randomly within the confidence intervals, moving up and down all over the shop. Who really ranked where? You couldn’t be sure. Which is irritating, but often as it should be.

But how to make this movement proportionate to the real probabilities? Cue Oli. He has found a way http://olihawkins.com/visualisation/1 to animate the estimates within the confidence intervals so that they pop up just as often as probability suggests they should – given the data. He shows that this can be done with interval data so that we discover how different a trend might look over time, as well as with categorical data – like the school league-table example. He’s done it as a series of snapshots rather than a continually fluid movement, which helps pick out more clearly what the true trend might have been.

And…? Isn’t all this obvious? If that’s what you think, you’d be right in the sense that it is all implied by the existing maths of confidence intervals.

The answer may be that all that is new here is the articulation of an idea. And it may be true that the idea is already latent in the prior concept of confidence intervals. So what’s the big deal?

The big deal for me is that an idea that is latent – except in the minds of a few – isn’t an idea at all for the many. Articulating it is every bit as important as knowing it. I would say that, being in the communication business. But maybe the proof of how important it is to articulate these things, and also the proof of how well it’s been done to date, is how little there is in public argument about the extent of the uncertainty around numbers like these or what that uncertainty implies. If the idea is obvious, where’s it been?

Now you could just put that absence down to the ignorance of the commentariat and politicians, or you could add that maybe we could do it differently.

The acid test is what we see with the new method. Applied to the migration data, the effect is electric. Here are a few grabs from Oli’s visualisation as it runs through the variety of stories that could have been told.

Like this one…

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Fairly flat, bit of a crest around 2010 maybe, maybe a hint of a rising trend – though this could be no more than a couple of weird years. Nothing to my eye leaps off the page over the long run.

Or like this.

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Which looks pretty clearly like a step change in 2004. The numbers roughly double. A good one for those who want to say we ‘lost control of the borders’ and a sharply different reading of history.

Or what about this?

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In which the key date moves back six years as we see a broadly rising trend all the way until about 2010, when ‘determined action by the Coalition finally brought it under control,’ presumably.

Or like this, when determined action by the Coalition since 2010 made hardly any difference.

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Just click and play to see the variety of stories that could be true. The implications of the uncertainty are easier to grasp and harder to ignore. What also emerges is that some stories are more common and consistent than others. Very few iterations show 2012 higher than 2010 for example. So we see both what is most uncertain, and what is most likely. It’s not at all the case that the upshot of all this is to throw up our hands and say we’re clueless about what happened.

Not new? It’s revelatory. What if we did it to the GDP lines on the Bank of England’s fan chart, and animated them through a range of possible stories in all their top-to-bottom potentially volatile variety? What if we did the same to the monthly unemployment data?

Yes, it’s disturbing, destabilising, unsatisfactory in so many ways. It makes the world less nailable, less sorted. And I love it.

What’s especially thought provoking is that it makes you wonder how many more techniques there might be that could bring life to statistical insights, rather than bringing design or false clarity to dodgy data.

Don’t get me wrong. I think there’s some fantastic stuff out there. And anyway, uncertainty isn’t always a big factor. All the same, data visualisation is no more than a fancy distraction if it doesn’t help us see better. But when it does…  wow.

Norm Chronicles interactive site

Profile in the Guadian

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Outside The Matrix: Florian Bauer

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Following on from Kiki Koutmeridou, we’ll continue this week with another Outside the Matrix interview: Florian Bauer from Vocatus AG in Germany, who studied psychology and economics at the Technical University in Darmstadt, at MIT, and at Harvard University. He has devoted himself to research into behavioural economics and the psychology of pricing, which were also the subject of his doctorate (“the psychology of price structure”). Starting his career as a strategy consultant at Booz, Allen & Hamilton 1996, he joined with two colleagues in founding Vocatus AG (a full-service market research and consulting company) in Munich in 1999. He’s also a member of the board of the German Market Research Association (BVM), and regularly teaches as a visiting professor at several universities in Germany. In 2005 and 2010 he won the ‘German Market Research Award‘ for the ‘Study of the Year‘ and in 2010 the ‘Best Methodological Paper Award’ at the ESOMAR Congress (global market research conference), and has subsequently won the the ESOMAR “Research Effectiveness Award” both in 2012 and 2013. 

Tell us about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? Well, all I do is in fact decision making research. I see market research as nothing else than trying to understand the basic building block of an economy – the customers decision making process. And here, there is no better theoretical and methodological basis than behavioral economics even though this is often neglected in classic market research approaches.

Why you decide to go into industry instead of continuing in academia? Well, it was primarily “anticipation of regret”. I had a hard time deciding which path to follow. The reason why I picked business was for one part the idea that I could regret it later not having taken the chance to start my own company. For the other part it was the fact that I really wanted to apply the stuff I was doing and put it to test in the real world. Still today, this a thrill to me.

What do you enjoy the most in your current role?  Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? I love that I can do what I like most: Focusing on applying behavioral economics in marketing in general and pricing in specific. I love that we were able to attract a team of more than 70 colleagues that share the same interest and want to rock the boat. The only challenge I can see is the reluctance to adopt new approaches when the old ones are still massively promoted by large international research agencies. But quite frankly, the solution to this is to seek for more innovative clients that are willing to switch gears and go beyond the classic market research approaches. And that works quite well.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? I think the perspectives are extremely different although they could profit much more from each other. While academia is focusing on a specific effect, on a specific theory, and the analysis of different ways of looking at the issue, practitioners are focusing a broader array of different questions. Where in the end they have to make a recommendation fast and still good enough.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? Test and decide, maybe try to do academic and market research in parallel. In any case, find your own way and do not focus on traditional career paths.

Website

Resource Scarcity: Improving microfinance with mental accounting

In this first post of the resource scarcity series, Shereen talks about how we could potentially improve microfinance with the help of mental accounting. 

There is an anomaly in the economic literature called the “flypaper effect” that can be leveraged to help poor people make better investments. To understand what this phenomenon is, consider the food stamp program of the U.S. government. Food stamps are an example of what economists call “in-kind” grants. Basically, it is money that can only be spent on a specific good. When the government gives out food stamps to poor people, it expects that they will now be able to spend their money on other necessities, like paying bills. However, because people view in-kind grants differently than they see an equivalent amount of money, food stamp recipients might actually buy more food than they did before receiving food stamps. This would be an example of the “flypaper effect.”

While there are many potential explanations for the flypaper effect, several people, including Richard Thaler, suggest that this may be due to the ways people categorize and make their financial decisions, something called “mental accounting.” Mental accounting explains that people group different types of spending into different mental categories or “mental accounts”, which may result in seemingly irrational behavior. The flypaper effect happens because people fail to mentally transfer money between their different mental accounts. Continuing with the food stamps example, if people have a certain amount of money in their mental “groceries” account, then when they receive food stamps, it is as if they have more money in their groceries account. Instead of mentally transferring this extra money from their groceries account to, for instance, their “gas” account, people behave as if they are richer with respect to food, and they buy either more expensive food or greater quantities of food.

Although this could be a potential problem for the food stamps program, the flypaper effect could actually be used to improve microfinance initiatives in developing countries. Specifically, it could be used to get small business owners to invest more money and energy in their business.

For example, when researchers gave small Ghanaian business owners equipment or materials for their businesses, they behaved as if they were richer with respect to their business account: They spent more money on business-related items instead of using the extra money for household expenses, and this improved their situation. This was not true for the business owners who received an equal value in cash.

People also invest more money in their business if they receive a subsidy in an individual bank account as opposed to a joint (i.e., husband and wife) bank account. The researchers who discovered this phenomenon in rural Kenya argue that people “activate different behavioral savings rules” for these different accounts. People treat the individual bank account more like a “business account” and the joint bank account more like a “household” account, and thus, decide their account spending accordingly.

(Photo by Bryce Yukio Adolphson, © 2011)

(Photo by Bryce Yukio Adolphson, © 2011)

Thus, even though mental accounting can cause people to make poor decisions, it can sometimes work in their favor. The studies I described above indicate that microfinance institutions will have more success improving small businesses with in-kind loans rather than cash loans, and also more success with subsidies to individual, as opposed to joint, bank accounts. Might the flypaper effect also have implications for encouraging other types of saving among the poor? Or more spending on education? Would in-kind grants for vaccinations or routine physicals encourage greater uptake of and spending on preventative healthcare measures?

(For more, see Development Impact.)

Resource Scarcity: Is Less Really More?

Editor’s note: This week we’re proud to launch the first of our streams of curated content. These streams will introduce readers to different areas of judgment and decision making psychology, with our sub-editors bringing us their expertise in the topic. Each series will kick off with an introduction to the area, followed by a range of content such as interviews and posts discussing different topics. This first one on the impact of resource scarcity on decision making will be curated by Caroline Roux from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Shereen Chaudhry from Carnegie Mellon University.  

Whether we live in resource-poor circumstances or resource-rich ones, even if we’re loaded with more money or goods or everything you could possibly dream of wanting or needing, we live with scarcity as an underlying assumption. It is an unquestioned, sometimes even unspoken, defining condition of life.” – Twist and Barker (2006), The Soul of Money

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No matter whether we live in a resource-rich or a resource-poor environment, we are surrounded by reminders that resources may be insufficient to satisfy demand, which often inhibit us from acting on our needs and desires. Scarcity thus has important consequences on people’s judgment and decision making. Marketers have understood the appeal of scarcity for quite some time and have used it to sway consumers to want things more. There are however many other consequences to being exposed to scarcity-related cues or to living in scarce environments, which we are only beginning to understand. For instance, why are people willing to do all kinds of crazy things to get their hands on the best deals of the year? Why do poor people seem to always be making bad decisions (and are they really)? Scarcity seems to be a unique source of decision making errors and tendencies, which this series will attempt to unpack and explain.

More generally, living in deprived circumstances can also exacerbate the effects of many other psychological motivations and cognitive biases. The desire to buy status-related items is equally strong in, but more detrimental for, individuals who can hardly afford to buy staple goods. While we all struggle with self-control and saving for the future, payday loans appear most attractive to people in the lowest income brackets, the people least able to afford the astronomical interest rates. Aware of the challenges that people living under extreme resource scarcity face, organizations like “Innovations for Poverty Action” and the “Corporation for Enterprise Development” are beginning to address such issues by leveraging lessons from the fields of judgment and decision making, as well as behavioral economics.

In this series, we will present findings from behavioral research that helps better understand different consequences of resource scarcity. On the one hand, Shereen will take a “behavioral engineering” approach and present applications that help improve the lives of people living in poverty or developing countries, as well as other populations for which errors in human judgment and decision making are especially detrimental. Caroline, on the other hand, will present findings from different fields related to judgment and decision making to help explain the influence of scarcity in our everyday lives. We will cover a wide range of scarcity-related topics that will hopefully be of interest to you, readers of this blog, and we hope to stir your interest in this flourishing and fascinating field of research.

Outside The Matrix: Kiki Koutmeridou

Kiki_20130929135455608Third in our series of those who moved into the private sector after completing their PhD in decision making psychology is Kiki Koutmeridou – a behavioural economics researcher within GfK NOP, a global market research agency based in London. She has a background in Psychology (BSc) and Neuroscience (MSc) and she completed her PhD in Cognitive Psychology at City University in 2013 focusing on memory and the strategic processing of retrieval cues. In her role as the head of the Centre for Applied Behavioural Economics, Kiki works in collaboration with City University, GfK and clients trying to explore how behavioural economics can be incorporated in the traditional market research.Since joining GfK NOP London in September 2012, Kiki has introduced behavioural economics theories to numerous research projects which focus on the application of academic findings to real-life situations.

Tell us about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? I’m currently the head of the Centre for Applied Behavioural Economics at GfK NoP, part of the GfK Group, an international market research organization. The Centre for Applied Behavioural Economics is a partnership between City University and GfK NoP in an effort to promote applied knowledge in the decision-making field. So, by definition, my work is all about decision-making psychology. I’ve just completed my PhD in cognitive psychology and more specifically in memory. When the opportunity presented itself to explore human decision-making behaviour in an applied setting, I didn’t think twice and have been working at GfK for two years now.

My role at GfK is two-fold. I contribute to the various client research proposals across the company by integrating the academic knowledge on decision-making into the suggested research design. I’m looking into ways in which the client’s research question can be answered via the various theories and findings from the behavioural economics field. For this purpose, I help at all stages of the project (experimental design, client meetings, field work, data analysis, presentations). In addition, I work in unison with several external (academic or not) collaborators to conduct fundamental research promoting applied knowledge of decision-making behaviour. As a consequence, we are in a position to subsequently approach suitable clients, to share our findings with them and to make a proposal that would be in their best interest.

Why you decide to go into industry instead of continuing in academia? Actually, I don’t think I’ve made such a decision. I haven’t excluded one for the other (yet!). Like I said, the Centre for Applied Behavioural Economics is in strong collaboration with City University. I spend a day per week at City University, where I finished my PhD, meeting with academics, discussing potential projects and visiting the library. Being still part of an academic institution gives you opportunities for collaborations, fruitful discussions and knowledge sharing. Being part of the industry gives you the chance to apply all this knowledge in the real world and observe the outcome. I consider I get the best of both worlds.

What do you enjoy the most in your current role? My role is not restricted to market research. On the contrary, I explore ways in which people can make better decisions in a variety of settings (consumer, health, financial etc…). What really thrills me is the opportunity to either apply the academic knowledge in the real world or derive new knowledge from the applied experiments towards this end. This is a two-way street that can change the status quo of how things function. The idea that I can be part of these changes gives meaning to what I do and great satisfaction.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? While there is great conversational interest about the academic findings and some recognition of their benefits, it can at times be a challenge to encourage clients to move beyond tried and tested approaches. When I first joined the market research industry I was surprised that psychology wasn’t incorporated more in the everyday business. In every meeting about any project, the discussions were ringing bells about possible psychological theories that could be applied. But experimenting is often not on the table. However, Applied Decision-Making or Applied Behavioural Economics if you like, is still at its infancy. The challenge is to provide strong evidence of its benefits. It’s a matter of finding the right people, in the right places that can promote this line of research and highlight the benefits of decision-making psychology and its methods until they become part of the norm.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? In a word: complementary. Academics and practitioners bring different but equally important elements into the equation. My current role is an example of just that: the academic environment provides new findings, old and new theories and innovative methodologies; businesses offer the opportunity to apply all this to the real world and they can provide large sample sizes (the nemesis of the academic world along with the funding). In addition, practitioners have hands on knowledge of the effects that academics describe. Collaboration between the two can only lead to better formulated, more accurate theories and predictions about human behaviour.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? The irony is that I’m in need of that advice too as a young researcher myself! However, based on my experience so far I have 3 suggestions

  1. Seize every opportunity as you never know where it might lead. I started working at GfK as a part-time data analyst. If you had asked me back then I wouldn’t be able to foresee my current role.
  2. Be open-minded. Nowadays, the boundaries are hazy and every field can be combined with just about any other. Do not limit your imagination about potential new applications or approaches.
  3. Be confident and proactive. There isn’t one right way of doing things so always voice your opinion. You are not supposed to know everything and quite frankly no one does. Remember that we learn more from our failures than from our successes. The important thing is to keep trying to find the answers and to keep reading around your field of interest. Brain is like a muscle – keep it fit!

Also from GfK NOP: interview with Colin Strong (In The Wild series)

Malcolm Gladwell’s ACR 2013 Talk: Summary, Science and Responses

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Malcolm Gladwell just gave a talk at the Association for Consumer Research. What did he talk about? How did it go? What scientific research did he cover? What are related research he did not cover? How did he handle questions and a somewhat “difficult” audience of behavioral scientists?

We will post a more detailed reaction soon that will feature editorials. But for those itching to know what he talked about and also interested in citation links related to what he said, here’s your summary fix.

What was his “hypothesis”?

Gladwell talked about topics not in his new book. He described the ideas as ‘provisional’ but they seemed highly polished. He mainly talked about how minorities (women, races) are kept out of the majority and his main hypotheses was that people excluded minorities by a) accepting some of them and/or b) being hyper critical of others. His illustrative hypothesis was that if and when Hillary Clinton is elected President she will be the only woman president for a long time.

What were the specifics of the “hypothesis”?

Gladwell argued that people feel licensed to be discriminatory against minorities because they tend to accept a few of them (e.g. have one female head of state, have one woman artist in a museum) and or do a few things for them (charity). He also argued they feel like they can be hyper critical of minorities.To help explain this point he defined two different types of minority tokens: the trouble token and the ideal token.

The trouble token he defined as the person that represents the minority and is thoroughly thrashed by the majority culture. His main example for this was former Australian head of state Julia Gillard who Gladwell says was uniquely ridiculed by the public in part because of her gender.

The ideal token he defined as the person that is accepted by the majority and allows the majority to feel “not sexists” or “not racist.” His main narrative example for this was artist Elizabeth Thompson who broke into the male dominated English art scene in the 1870s. However, her success did not lead to a drastic change in the gendered art community. There was also some discussion about Jews and how Nazis felt comfortable with prejudice and the Final Solution because they had previously been nice to small groups or individuals. In discussing the ideal token he cited “moral licensing” work about how favoring Obama licenses people to have anti-black attitudes.

How did he do?

ImagePretty fantastic actually. Rhiannon MacDonnell said it best on Twitter: “Really interesting and candid talk by Gladwell at ACR 2013. Great jock tackling a tough crowd with humility and humor.”

Gladwell did two things right: 1) He told great thought provoking stories and 2) he was upfront that he was proposing absolute “laws.” He cleverly joke about how his aims are different from the scientific community.

The ACR Co-Chairs Simona Botti  and Aparna Labroo should be proud to have brought such great entertainment with a side of thought provoking insights to ACR with Gladwell. In their introduction of the Gladwell session, it was obvious how excited the two were to have Gladwell, and by the end of the session that excitement was shared by arguably most of the audience.

But there was one thing…

Gladwell’s talk was extremely depressing.  He identified a problem and offered no solution. His talk ended with, “And I’m not certain we’ll ever have another Black President.”

Gladwell’s entire message was that people in the majority can oppress minorities and still feel good about themselves. His whole talk was about why and how this happened but the takeaway was there really is no hope. There was sliver of hope suggesting that if some how a significant portion of the minority can force their way in, things will get better. However, that was the only ray of sunshine.

Now, if you are in the successful class (like in many ways to audience at Palmer Hilton hotel conference featuring Malcolm Gladwell are), then his points seem insightful. But if you are in the minority or lower class then the results are just depressing.

How did he manage the whole criticism of the Gladwell style?

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Arguably quite well. He was humble. Saying his ideas in the talk were “provisional” and “I am just playing.” He joked about differences between his writing and scientific writing saying, “I am not going to submit that [his hypothesis on culture] to JPSP [The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology].”

He also talked about how though all the behavioral scientists in the room think it is obvious that things like culture affect outcomes, this is not the case for the general public always. He states that his books were to get people thinking about ideas that our field just knows to be true

Yale Professor Zoe Chance asked Gladwell a pointed question about balancing accuracy with storytelling. His response seemed very similar to a recent quote he gave in a Guardian piece, “If my books appear oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them” and also expressed in an extended conversation with Duke Professor Dan Ariely.

Gladwell stated that he wants to inspire people and make them feel joyous about science. He sees himself (as he literally is) the child of an academic and pursues similar but not the exact same goals. From the buzz around ACR it seems Gladwell won over a lot of the Gladwell skeptics. He did this by clarifying that he isn’t trying to replace scientists nor does he want to propose absolute laws – he articulated perfectly and humbly that his goals are different.

Why the talk was interesting & uncomfortable

Gladwell articulated in his iconic style a question that has been on the minds of many moral psychologists: how can we feel good about ourselves when we do so little to actually help those in need?

For instance all of the conference members with enjoy a private party at the House of Blues in Chicago this evening and return late into the night to Palmer Hilton for a nice sleep and flight back—all compensated by their universities. All of us here at ACR arguably all engage in some degree of hypocrisy, claiming to care so much for the poor, the obese, and the irrational consumer, but we then go buy a $5 Starbucks with university funds.

Understanding this general psychological phenomenon and trying to grasp at what truly is the correct moral way to live in the world is something that came (intentionally or not) out of Gladwells speech – it’s a wonderful spark for empirical and philosophical work.

What science should Malcolm Gladwell read?

ImageIt was difficult to tell how much psychology Gladwell has read. He referenced work on moral licensing, but even how familiar he was with that topic was ambiguous. This did not stop him from making insightful and great points that he openly described as speculative.

However, if he does want to move more from speculation to more of a firm hypotheses for a future articles or a book, we have a few suggestions of what he should read more of. If you have any suggestions let us know on Twitter (@Indecision_Blog) or just leave a comment on this post. We’ll be updating this post with the ideas you share us here and also with more specific articles in the future to stimulate discussion amongst ourselves and maybe even to pass along to Gladwell. In sum, it is the belief of at least this author that Gladwell put together some fascinating hypotheses that may be worth exploring or relating to our work.

Moral licensing

Licensing is a more contentious topic than it sometimes seems. We suggest he keeps his eyes out for looming meta-analyses that should come out soon and check out work on when licensing does not occur such as in this study by Ayelet Gneezy and colleagues.

Moral self

His hypotheses seemed very similar to work by Albert Bandura on moral disengagement and Nina Mazar on the self-concept maintenance model. Both of these ideas were the center of Dan Ariely’s bestselling new book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, so it was somewhat odd than none of these researchers in our field got a nod and instead only Effron and Monin got a tip.

Categorization theory

In discussing how people assign people to categories and code people as say “in-group” or “out-group” or how whites might decide where to code a black person as “black” or not has been extensively looked at the literature. This seemed fundamental to his discussion of the ideal token, but he did not discuss any of this work. Was this because of time or his lack of knowledge of it? Even just a short browsing on Psych Wikipedia for this topic might help.

Our Question! His Answer: Storytelling

Indecision Blog had the honor of asking Gladwell the first question in the Q&A (big thanks to co-chairs of ACR for this honor): we asked how can academia influence business persons and policy makers in the way Gladwell has.

His answer was simply that we need to tell stories. He made clear that the story has to be in the communication with businesses and policy makers. Gladwell described his answer as “obvious”, but we still think it’s not so obvious in our field all the time. (Full coverage as well as the full transcription of Gladwell’s answer to this question sometime soon.)

However, we will note that Gladwell started his ACR talk with a very long story before it became apparent what his hypotheses was and long before his talk got “scientifically interesting.” You could feel the tension in the room when Gladwell was just storytelling and before he delivered on the story in a way that seemed to satisfy the audience. We as researchers would probably have skipped the extensive opening narratives when communicating our ideas, but Gladwell says this is necessary. At the end when all the bread crumbs he laid out came together, it was hard to argue that his extensive storytelling did not help make his simple hypotheses seem more real and inspire his audience to actually do something about it.

ACR 2013 Doctoral Consortium: Contradictions are Part of the Point

ImageOn Thursday, October 3, 2013, a lot of information was shared at the Doctoral Consortium.  Interestingly, some of the advice contradicted one another: contradictions occurred between and across sessions. As an attendee or someone who just read the tweets, you might be wondering, “What’s a grad student to make of speakers giving different opinions?”

Indecision Blog caught up with Consortium Co-Chair Derek Rucker after day to talk about the themes and goals of the day. The full video interview will be coming soon but we wanted to post a few quotes to help clarify some things.

What did you hope the students got from today?

Rucker: “As a Ph.D student you are at a particular graduate program with a limited set of faculty… The big thing here is exposure to different thoughts, and different ideas, and different ways of doing things.”

How should students deal with hearing contradictory information?

Rucker: “One of things I want students to get is that there are different ways to approach research. Sometimes these are represented as contradictions – Faculty A says do it this way and Faculty B says do it that way. But instead, with many great minds in the room you see that there are different paths to success.”

 “For instance students that just listened to talk that discussed, ’Should I do more field experiments or should I start with theory?’ whereas probably both are paths to success. You can come to [ACR] and say, ‘Wow there are some real luminaries in the field. What’s their style? Which ones resonate with me? Which ones don’t? [At ACR] you get this nice exposure to different ways of reaching the same goal.”

Across the Consortium

At many places across the Doctoral Consortium, Rucker’s sentiments were shared. At the Consumer Culture Theory session, the researchers talked about connecting with “what vibrated with you.” At the “What I was Glad I Did/What I Wish I Would Have Done Differently” session, the speakers openly contradicted each other. But the contradictions were not mean – instead they openly laughed about the contradictions. Likewise the journal editors talked about differences and even used a funny metaphor (to varying degrees) of “too hot, too cold, and just right” to describe the journals’ unique characteristics and goals.

However, that doesn’t mean you should just run free without worries as there are definitely poor ways to do things and internally inconsistent ways to approach things. Doing things in a certain way means you will have to sacrifice something else – life and research come with trade-offs, so don’t let cognitive dissonance convince you otherwise. The point simply is that there are different ways to do great things and if the consortium seemed contradictory to you, you should know that it was, in fact, one of points of consortium: to let help you connect with a great path that works for you.

Special thanks to the co-chairs and all the panelists who took time to talk to Indecision Blog and provided us with your materials. 

N.B. Blogged and edited semi-live so mistakes and typos may have slipped in!