None of the Above

June 10, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Hey, students. Want to see a copy of last year’s midterm? Try PostYourTest.com.

Inside Higher Ed reports on the new website that scans and uploads exams for students to download. The idea is certainly not new. Students have given returned exams to friends. Fraternities have long kept exams on file for members to share. But as with everything else, the Internet broadens the scope for good or for evil.

I’m not sure where I stand on this. The idealist in me says that you put something on an exam because it’s important that students know it. And if it’s important that they know it, you should let them know that it’s important. It’s like the test for your driver’s license. The DMV doesn’t try to keep it a secret that they’ll ask you to parallel park. You know that it’s part of the test, so you learn to do it.

Whispering in my other ear is that little red fellow with the pointy ears and tail, and he’s saying that I should guard my questions because those sneaky students will just learn only what’s going to be on the test. Worse, they won’t learn ideas; they’ll just learn to circle “c” or “a” or “none of the above.”

What bothers me most about the website is what bothers me about this orientation towards exams, an orientation shared by students and faculty. In the ideal, education is a co-operative venture. Students want to learn, teachers want to teach, and together they explore ideas. But in the model that PostYourTest builds on, education is us-versus-them. We have the power of grades, they have RateMyProfessors.com. We have the power to assign papers, they have paper-writing, “research” websites, and we have TurnItIn.com. We have test banks, they have have PostYourTest.com.

Attribution Theory at the Gas Pump

June 8, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Most of the time, people are psychologists. If asked to explain, say, giving to charity, they tend to think in terms of personal traits. Generous people give, stingy people don’t. They ignore situational and structural factors and instead attribute cause to personal factors. (See the previous post in this blog.)

Faced with $4 gasoline, 35% of Americans blame oil companies; only 14% attribute the price to the market forces of supply and demand. And only 3% choose the demand from US drivers as the major cause. (Poll data are here.)

A quarter of those polled blame President Bush.

Who would hold such a silly idea that the President can control oil prices? George W. Bush, for one. Paul Krugman in his blog yesterday linked to a New York Times story from eight years ago.
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas said today that if he was president, he would bring down gasoline prices through sheer force of personality, by creating enough political good will with oil-producing nations that they would increase their supply of crude.

“I would work with our friends in OPEC to convince them to open up the spigot, to increase the supply,” Mr. Bush . . . told reporters here today. “Use the capital that my administration will earn, with the Kuwaitis or the Saudis, and convince them to open up the spigot.”
It’s not surprising that Bush sees economics and politics as a matter of personality traits and personal relationships. This is, after all, the man who looked into the soul of Vladimir Putin and found it good. It is also a man whose own economic and political fortunes depended heavily on personal and family connections. When connections and charm have saved you from financial ruin a few times (not to mention keeping you out of Vietnam) and have ultimately brought you
wealth and success, you probably think they can work for the country as a whole. Can we really expect such a person to see complex political and economic structural forces?

Read the whole Times article. It’s a little like thumbing back through the early chapters of a mystery once you’ve finished it and getting that eerie feeling when you see all those clues you didn’t notice the first time through.
“The fundamental question is, ‘Will I be a successful president when it comes to foreign policy?’ ”

He went on to suggest, as he did in answer to other questions, that voters should simply trust him.
They did – at least once, maybe twice.

Giving Money, Giving Shocks

June 6, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brad Wright has a post about giving money to charity. Brad quotes Michael Kruse’s review of Who Really Cares by Arthur Brooks.
Brooks reports that the key indicator of giving is not political affiliation but weekly attendance at worship. Conservative and liberal weekly attenders are the highest givers although conservatives give slightly more.
The implication is a kinds-of-people difference: people who attend church are more generous kinds of people than are the curmudgeonly non-attenders. Brooks extends the comparison to other traits as well – political orientation and especially views on government redistribution of wealth. He paints a picture of generous, churchgoing, conservative, anti-redistributionist givers and their stingy counterparts on the opposite end of these traits.

O.K. Maybe individual traits matter. But so do situational pressures. People who for whatever reason go to church every week are confronted with direct in-person requests for donations. Some churches increase the social situational pressure by “passing the plate,” thereby subjecting each person’s giving or non-giving to public scrutiny. People who don’t go to church may get appeals in the mail (oh boy, do we get appeals in the mail), but these are far easier to ignore even when they do give you those little address labels.

It’s a little (or maybe a lot) like the Milgram experiment. The subject is being asked to do something he might not otherwise do. The subject (parishioner) is more likely to comply when the person making the request is in the same room. And he is far more likely to comply when he finds himself surrounded by others who are readily going along with the request. If these situational forces can pressure people to inflict painful and perhaps lethal shocks to a stranger, they can certainly affect less conflict-ridden behavior like giving money to charity.

The assumption about the importance of individual traits is right there on the book jacket: Who Really Cares. The title would more accurately be Who Really Gives or, since Brook’s data come largely from surveys (GSS, SCCBS), Who Really Says They Give.

It’s not as catchy a title, but how about another book: In What Situations Do People Give?

Women – Getting in Office and Getting Their Way

June 3, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andrew Gelman links to an article by John Lott to the effect that ever since women got the vote in the US, “the evidence indicates that women have long gotten their way.”

Lott has a fairly disreputable history as a scholar – making up data, using pseudonyms to post rave reviews of his own books at Amazon, etc. (for the full indictment go here). But he’s thoroughly conservative, so Fox and the American Enterprise Institute are glad to hire him.

Getting their way apparently doesn’t include guaranteed maternity leave and other family-friendly policies that Europeans take for granted. Nor does it mean ever having had a women as head of state – unlike the UK, France, Germany, India, Israel, Argentina, Ireland, Pakistan . . . .

When it comes to electing women legislators, the US ranks right up there, slightly ahead of Gabon but a bit behind feminist states like Uzbekistan and Sudan.


(For the complete list, go here.)

Within the US, state legislatures vary in the percentage of women legislators, and there are some surprises. Arizona (McCain-Goldwater country) and New Hampshire elect a higher percentage of women than do liberal Massachusetts and New York.

(Click on the map to see it in visible size.)