Intercultural knowledge (Comprenez?)

April 1, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Foreign students in the US are often dismayed at how ignorant American students are about other countries. Not just ignorant but incurious. So I was interested in this poster that’s all over Paris metro walls these days.

How many Americans could decipher a visual pun in foreign language? Certainly not enough to make it worthwhile to advertisers. (Of course, if they could offer round-trip to London for $90, they wouldn't have to worry about ads.)

The problem of ethnocentric ignorance goes beyond pop culture trivia, and it’s certainly not confined to the young. Soon after taking office, the Bush administration decided that it could change the politics of the Middle East, and in 2003 it launched that policy with the invasion of Iraq. But the ignorance of the region’s culture and religion is stunning. Last October reporter Jeff Stein revealed that many high-level government people working on counter-terrorism didn’t have a clue as to the differences between Sunni and Shiite, didn’t even know which branch of Islam was followed by Al Qaeda or Iran.

If you didn’t get the poster reference, you can find the answer here.

Rewarding Good Behavior

March 31, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Many people think of welfare as helping the unfortunate. In this view, the government should ensure that everyone, even the poorest members of society, can feed and shelter their children. Yet for as long as I can remember, conservatives have hammered on welfare as “rewarding bad behavior” — if you give women these princely sums (a couple of hundred dollars a month) when they have babies, of course they’ll go and have more babies whether they’re married or not.

The evidence doesn’t support this idea, but the moralistic and punitive mentality remains unchanged. The most striking feature of the “welfare reform” of the 1990s was this punitive approach: if you don’t get a job, we’ll punish you by taking away your welfare grants.

Now, a new program in New York City keeps the same conservative view, but instead of punishing bad behavior, it seeks to reward good behavior.

The city will select an experimental group of 2500 poor families and give them cash for good behavior in
  • education (children’s attendance and performance, parents’ involvement)
  • health (regular check-ups at doctors and dentists)
  • work (job training, looking for work, working)
The total payments, if a family does everything right could add up to $5000 for a year.

The official announcement was full of optimism, and the press coverage has been favorable. I like the idea that it’s based on reward rather than punishment. At a time when the very richest are getting astronomically richer, it just doesn’t seem right to have government taking money away from the very poorest. I also like the built-in experimental design — a study will also follow a control group of 2500 similar families who are not offered the incentive. (As Mike Kellerman at Harvard’s Social Science Statistics blog notes, “The image of 2,500 families randomly selected to not receive benefits probably doesn't do much to help the cause . . .”

But I have a couple of reservations. First, I worry that the rewards won’t work because they are too small and too long range. Suppose we offer a reward of $50 or even $100 for good school attendance. If the family can’t get the cash till the end of the term, will that far-off promise be enough to offset whatever pressures there are in the present that have been pulling the kids away from school? These rewards are based on the assumption that the poor have the luxury of a longer-term perspective. That perspective is much more available in the comfort of a middle-class income than in the world of poverty with its frequent financial crises.

Even middle-class people may not act “rationally” to maximize their rewards. In my classes, I offer bonus points for papers turned in on time. On most assignments, about half the students don't take advantage of the offer. Other things in life get in the way of doing the paper on time.

Suppose that the study does prove a success, and that the experimental group does better in those three areas. Is the program an answer to the problem of poverty?

Programs like this one assume that poverty is matter of individual characteristics; they ignore the role of the broader economy. Welfare rolls were reduced in the 1990s, and Clinton’s welfare reform may have played a part. But so did a booming economy, which was certainly not caused by welfare reform. In those full-employment years, employers were paying living wages to people whose personal characteristics might have caused employers and economists a few years earlier to write them off as “unemployable.” In a weak economy, all a program like this might be expected to do is to convert the welfare poor into the working poor.

Whatchoo Lookin' At?

March 26, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

A few months ago in this blog, I speculated about what people in supermarkets spend their time doing. Ask people, and most would say “shopping.” But I wondered what the results could be if we could somehow track what they were actually looking at. My guess was that they spend much more time looking at other shoppers than at the stuff on the shelves.

We may not yet have unobtrusive ways of following the gaze of people as they walk around, but eyetracking technology can tell us what people actually look at when they look at a computer screen. The technology can overlay the screen image with a color map showing which places on the screen got the most attention. Here, for example, is a newspaper. Red areas were the most looked at, green the least. Purple X’s are mouse clicks.

One researcher, Tara Pierce Coyne, found that as with most things in life, there are differences between the sexes. Here’s a photo of baseball Hall-of-Famer George Brett. (The image was not a stand-alone as it is here, but part of a larger page with biographical information. ) Both women and men looked at Brett’s face, but men were also interested in an area not usually thought of as having much to do with on-base percentage.

Of course, if you asked guys what they looked at, they would probably not mention this area. They wouldn’t be deliberately lying. It’s just that we’re not always aware of everything we are doing.

Nor should Brett be flattered. Men’s attention (but not women’s) drifted to similar areas even when viewers were told to look at the Website of the American Kennel Club.

I bet you looked.

Just Your Average Family

March 23, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

This sceptred isle . . .this happy breed of men, this little world . . .
Against the envy of less happier lands . . .
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, Manhattan.

Even for those of us in the social science biz, anecdotal evidence is more striking than systematic evidence. As Stalin said, “The death of a million Russian soldiers, that is a statistic. The death of a single Russian soldier, that is a tragedy.” And when it comes to making an impression on someone’s mind, statistics lose out almost every time. Almost. Sometimes you come across one of those numbers that speaks so loudly it stops you in your tracks.

Sure, I know about income inequality and how it’s been increasing, mostly because those at the very, very top of the income ladder are raking in larger and larger amounts. I also know that middle-class and upper-middle-class families are returning to the cities. I know that in my town, New York City, the “good” schools, public and private, are flooded with applications — far more than when we went through this ordeal with my son back in the 90s.

Parents with more kids and more money. There was even a story in the Times a couple of months ago about the Mercedes GLs and other pricey SUVs crowding the streets near expensive preschools at drop-off and pick-up time. It had gotten so bad that the director of one school sent a letter to parents telling them to have the drivers wait somewhere else. (“Drivers” was the word used. The parents themselves were certainly not driving, but they also don’t care for the word “chauffeur.”) The Times story was angled mostly at the foibles and status games of the rich, as in the following: “In the letter, [the director] played perhaps the only bargaining chip she has, stating that failure to observe this rule could hinder their children's chances of getting into the kindergarten of their choice.”

But today, the Times told the story with a single number, and here it is: the median income for white families in Manhattan with children under age 5 was $284,208. The median, not the mean. In other words, the middling Manhattan white family has an income higher than 99% of all US families.

Nevertheless, I’d bet that most of those Manhattan families feel that they don’t have quite enough money. I don’t have data on them, just a strong hunch based on what we know about people and money.