The Art of the Chart - Visualizing Comparisons

April 29, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

My graphic design talents fall in the leftward tail of the distribution.* So I have great admiration for those who can make data visually accessible, and especially for those who improve on existing visualizations.

Here is a chart The Economist posted showing how people in six different countries allocated their time.

(Click on the graphic for a larger view.)

This was of interest to me since I had once posted (here) about US-France differences in time spent at meals. I tried to see if the data confirmed what I had said then. But finding the relevant numbers wasnct easy.

Enter Andrew Gelman. After only a few minutes (well, hours actually), he took the original data, translated the hours from absolute to relative – above or below the mean – and created this chart . . .

(Click on the graphic for a larger view).
. . . which allows for much easier comparisons among the six** countries.

The full post is here and includes a link to the R code for the chart.

* My students complained in class that my writing on the board was illegible. Montclair students rarely voice their displeasure to the instructor. They may grumble among themselves about their teachers, but that, however much they may grumble among themselves about their teachers,s usually as far as it goes. So when they spoke up in class, I knew things were seriously bad.

** Why Turkey, you may ask. I have no idea, and The Economist isn’t saying.

Easter Parade 2011

April 27, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The public rituals of Easter are not about the Passion, just as most public Christmas rituals have little to do with the birth of Jesus. The song “Easter Parade” (written by the same Jew who wrote “White Christmas”) is all about hats and photographers. That was over a half-century ago. Some things don’t change.

(Click on a picture for a larger view.)

That creation on the right was not the only house hat, but that theme was not as common as bunnies or eggs . . .

or, especially, flowers.

The above scene is on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which celebrated its celebrated mass. Outside, things were much more secular (apparently, what happens in St. Patrick’s stays in St. Patrick’s).

Men too wore hats.
And some of the guys dressed up in fancy suits to pose for the photographers.

This woman had her arms tattooed to match her skirt.

I did see one religious message, but even that one added a somewhat post-Biblical context.

New York City does not do much officially for Easter. The police wear their traditional hats.

But in Rockefeller Plaza, you could get this view of 30 Rock.
I hope all readers of the Socioblog had a wonderful Easter.

Compulsory Fun

April 24, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I don’t want a ‘fun’ beer,” said my father. (This was a long time ago.)

It took me a second, but I realized he was talking about the ad that had just been on the radio. I had mentally tuned out the commercial – background noise between innings in a ball game broadcast – and I was far too young to drink beer. But I knew the jingle (“ . . . blended into one beer / a light, bright, fun beer . . “). I had just never thought about the words. Now my father had pointed out their absurdity. What is a fun beer anyway? More to the cultural point, why must a beer be fun?

In last week’s New Yorker (April 18, here, gated), Yiyun Li has a short piece about her first months in the US as a graduate student in Iowa. What astonished her at first was the lighting -- every place was well lit, and Americans left lights on all the time. That and fun. “Be there or be square,” said the instructional voice on her four-cassette course in American English. The phrase did not turn out to be especially useful.

No one told me to “be there or be square,” but everyone I met, it seemed, expected me to have fun.
Her science adviser (“Have fun”), the nurse she saw regularly because she had not passed the TB skin test (“Have a good time”), and a sorority mother who
asked repeatedly, “Did you have fun?” after I visited the sorority house and dined with her girls.
Cultural help for foreign students also included a midnight to 3 a.m. ride-around in a police cruiser.
In parting, I said goodbye to the officer, and he wished me “a fun time in America.”
Not all cultures think so highly of fun, and I don’t just mean dour dictatorships and theocracies. In France, for example, as people mature into their late teens and beyond, they are supposed to become sérieux. Those stereotypical left-bank students deep in philosophical discussions. But look at the pictures here on US students’ dorm-room doors and on the walls of their rooms and Facebook pages. The dominant value is fun. The snapshots, with their laughter and exuberance and ubiquitous red plastic cups, proclaim the ideal: we are wild and crazy guys.

Fun is a newcomer in the house of American values. I doubt deToqueville had much to say about it. The Google Ngram chart shows fun rising steadily to mid-century, then declining briefly in the 1950s only to zoom in the 1980s.
(Click on the chart for a larger view)

The first academic mention I know of is Martha Wofenstein’s 1951“fun morality” article (in the context of the Ngram chart, it now seems unusually prescient).
A recent development in American culture is the emergence of what we may call “fun morality.” Here fun, from having been suspect if not taboo, has tended to become obligatory. Instead of feeling guilty for having too much fun, one is inclined to feel ashamed if one does not have enough.
It often takes an outsider to see the obvious. I didn’t notice all those fun messages flowing in the media. But Martha Wolfenstein and my father did – they both had come of age in a pre-fun America. Then, forty-five years after Wolfenstein’s article, a Chinese girl arrives in the American heartland.
What a strange country, I thought, where fun, like good lighting, seemed mandatory.

Change Blindness II

April 22, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

As a sequel to yesterday’s post on change blindness, here’s a card trick by Richard Wiseman – magician, psychologist, and blogger. He’s the one on the left. And he stays that way. But watch the trick, and see how observant you are.

I quickly guessed (correctly) how the card trick was done, but just as I was thinking how clever I was not to have been fooled, the video pointed out my change blindness.

Notice Anything Different?

April 21, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s sitcom cliche – the man failing to notice that his wife or girlfriend is now blond instead of brunette or that the living room walls, once a pale gray, are now day-glo orange.

It may be a cliche, one bursting with gender stereotyping, but the phenomenon is real. It’s called “change blindness.” All it means is that we ignore aspects of the setting that aren’t important to us, so we don’t notice when they change. If we had to remember every little detail in every encounter and setting, we’d never get anything done. What’s surprising is how huge the changes can be yet still go unnoticed .

In a psychology experiment by Daniel Simons, subjects turn in their release form at a counter. The assistant behind the counter takes the form, ducks down behind the counter to get another piece of paper, and when he reappears a second later, he’s a different person.

Three-fourths of the subjects didn’t notice that the guy on the left had become the guy on the right. The voiceover on the video says that the differences between the men are “obvious.” “Their faces are different, their hair is different, even their shirts are a different color.”

But they are the same race, the same age, roughly the same height and build, and their shirts are the same Ivy-league uniform – pale, button-down, Oxford cloth. I’m impressed that 25% of the subjects did notice.

In Simons’s “door experiment,” one person asking directions is replaced by another.
Again, they don’t look so different (a video is here )

Outside of academia, Candid Camera style TV versions show just how far you can take this sort of thing. Derren Brown, a sort of British Penn Jillette, though much less abrasive, does a version of the door experiment with the transformations getting more and more exaggerated (video here, not embeddable). It ends with this – as different as Black and White.

And then there’s the Japanese version. The switcheroo is unmistakeable, nor is there any attempt at misdirection by focusing the person’s attention on a map. The victims of the prank are asked to point the camera directly at the two young girls, who then become two old men So people do notice. But to befuddle them further, the experimenters add a gaffed Polaroid camera.

The victims are confused, obviously. But if you didn’t reveal the gag and you asked them a few days later what they remembered of it, would they adjust their memories to make the events consistent with the law of conservation of reality?:Does change blindness go both forwards and backwards in time? Is the impulse towards retrospective interpretation strong enough to overcome such a huge difference?

Then there’s the question crucial for the issue of eyewitness testimony: would they forget the most important detail – the car?

Overcoming Social Desirability Bias – He’s Got a Little List

April 19, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

As some day it may happen that a survey must be done, you need a little list, a quick five-item list – for sex or race or crime or things quite non-PC but fun, where pollsters all have missed, despite what they insist. There’s the guy who says he’d vote for blacks if they are qualified; he’d vote for women too, but are we sure he hasn’t lied? “How many partners have you had?” Or “Did you ever stray?” With things like this you can’t always believe what people say. You tell them it’s anonymous, but still their doubts persist, and so your methodology can use this little twist.

It’s called the List Experiment (also the Unmatched Count Technique). It’s been around for a few years, though I confess I wasn’t aware of it until I came across this recent Monkey Cage post by John Sides that linked to another post from the presidential year of 2008. Most surveys then were finding that fewer than 10% of the electorate were unwilling to vote for a woman (Hillary was not mentioned by name). But skeptical researchers (Matthew Streb et al., here gated), instead of asking the question directly, split the sample in half. They asked one half

How many of the following things make you angry or upset?
  • The way gasoline prices keep going up.
  • Professional athletes getting million dollar-plus salaries.
  • Requiring seat belts to be used when driving.
  • Large corporations polluting the environment.
Respondents were told not to say which ones pissed them off, merely how many. Researchers calculated the average number of items people found irritating. The second half got the same list but with one addition:
  • A woman serving as president.
If the other surveys are correct, adding this one item should increase the mean by no more than 10%. As it turned out, 26% of the electorate would be upset or angry about a woman president, considerably more than the 6% in the GSS sample who said they wouldn’t vote for a woman.

The technique reminds me of a mentalist act: “Look at this list, sir, and while my back is turned tell me how many of those things you have done. Don’t tell me which ones, just the total number. Now I want you to concentrate very hard . . . .” But I can certainly see its usefulness as a way to check for social desirability bias.

Iyengar Management

April 14, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I think it came up in a discussion of culture and the observation that American culture generally values rationalism over traditionalism.* I was reminded of this anecdote that Sheena Iyengar tells in her TED talk (it’s also in her recent book The Art of Choosing).

That in turn reminded me of the famous** diner scene from “Five Easy Pieces.” The conflict is similar – individual goals in conflict with rules, though in this case the rules are bureaucratic regulations rather that cultural norms.

These clips relate to other issues besides culture and bureaucracy – social class comes quickly to mind – but also occupational roles , the self and presentation of self, and of course, conflict resolution (I can’t imagine Prof. Iyengar sweeping the crockery off the table).

* From Robin Williams (no, not that Robin Williams, not the one of “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Flubber”) American Society, first published sixty years ago.

** Or maybe not so famous. None of my students had heard of it (the movie was made twenty years before they were born). They did, however, recognize a very young Jack Nicholson.

AKD 2011

April 13, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Montclair had its annual AKD induction ceremony a week ago. This year, fourteen students joined – a good number, especially considering that this year we raised the minimum GPA.
(Click on the photo for a larger view.)

From left to right:
  • Malgorzata Slusarek
  • Courtney Artz
  • Lisa M. Applegate
  • Jesenia Rivera
  • Irina Gavdanovich
  • Anthony DeLello
  • David Stever
Seven students weren’t able to attend (or couldn’t get there till after the photo-op)
  • Lauren Breem
  • Concetta Cardellicchio
  • Staycee Marshall
  • Seth Mendez
  • Cassandra Moran
  • Jenna Pariso
  • Gabrielle Walker
Our speaker was Peter Moskos, author of Cop in the Hood, and (just out today) In Defense of Flogging. His talk was “The Wire, for Real: My Year as a Cop Baltimore's Eastern District,” but the real theme, not quite explicitly stated, was the wrongheadedness of the war on drugs. Peter makes his point with macro data (his slides included graphs of crime rates and incarceration rates) and ethnographic data (photos of the hood with its boarded-up buildings, desolate streets, grafitti (some of them very amusing) and the kids who sell drugs.

You can get more of Peter’s take on all this in his book, or at his Website.

What’s Wrong With (Percentages in) Mississippi

April 10, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

A Public Policy Polling survey asked Mississippi Republicans about their opinion on interracial marriage. It also asked how they felt about various politicians. The report concludes, “Tells you something about the kinds of folks who like each of those candidates.”

Not quite.

What’s been getting the most attention is the finding that Mississippi Republicans think interracial marriage should be illegal. Not all Mississippi Republicans. Just 46% of them (40% think it should be legal).* Does their position on intermarriage tell us anything about who they might like as a candidate? Does a Klaxon wear a sheet?

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

It’s no surprise that Sarah Palin is much preferred to Romney. But as PPP points out racial attitudes figure differently depending on the candidate. When you go from racists to nonracists,** Palin’s favorable/unfavorable ratio takes a hit. But Romney’s gets a boost.

But does this tells us something about “the kinds of folks who like each of those candidates”? The trouble is that statement is percentaging on the dependent variable, implicitly comparing Romney supporters with Palin supporters. But the percentages actually given by PPP compare racists with nonracists** The statement is implying that candidate preferences tell us about racial attitudes. But what the data show is that racial attitudes tell us about candidate preferences. The two are not the same. From the data PPP gives, we don’t actually know what percent of Palin supporters favor laws against intermarriage. Ditto for Romney supporters.

In any case, neither Palin nor Romney is the top choice of Mississippi Republicans (especially the racists), who may be thinking racially but are acting locally and going with their own governor first and the former governor of neighboring Arkansas second.

* The sample was only 400. But the results aren’t too different from what the GSS has found. The most recent GSS I could find that included RACMAR was from 2002. In the “East South Central” region, the percent favoring laws against interracial marriage was 36%. So among Republicans, it might have been ten points higher.

**I realize that neither of these terms “racist” and “nonracist” is necessarily accurate. I use them as shorthand for, respectively, “people who think interracial marriage should be illegal” and “people who think interracial marriage should be legal.”

Stamp of Approval?

April 8, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Stamps allow you to learn all about the world. That’s the sort of thing I used to hear as a kid, usually from grown-ups encouraging kids to get involved in a hobby, like stamp collecting.

Here’s the Royal Wedding commemorative stamp that New Zealand Niue issued. It’s worth 5.80 NZ dollars, but conveniently, if your letter requires less postage, you can tear the stamp on the perforation.

It reminds me of those photos (from the pre-Photoshop era) of now-divorced couples, the photo torn in half to remove a husband or wife. The New Zealand Niue stamp is like a pre-nup – we’re not saying you’re going to split up, but in case you do, this will make thing easier.

There’s a second problem, one pointed out by many others (including The Equality Myth, which is where I found this thanks to a link by Philip Cohen): Prince William is worth 3.40, Kate is worth only 2.40.

Those grown-ups of my childhood – maybe they were right. Stamps can tell you something about real world.

Academic Discplines and Labeling

April 8, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a post on the teaching of economics in the US, Brad deLong drops this aperçu
Warning labels should inform right-wing students that economics will encourage their bad intellectual habits just as labels should inform left-wing students that sociology will encourage theirs.
(Sociology faculty and students probably thought this was going to be about that other kind of labeling, an assumption that maybe illustrates Brad’s point.)


April 6, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jenn Lena
blogs something a relative sent her, with a picture of some dogs.
This morning I went to sign my dogs up for welfare. At first the lady said, “Dogs are not eligible to draw welfare.” So I explained to her that my dogs are mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddy’s are. They expect me to feed them, provide them with housing and medical care. So she looked in her policy book to see what it takes to qualify. My dogs get their first checks on Friday.

Damn, this is a great country! [emphasis in original]
The relative’s ignorance extends far beyond not knowing how to form plurals in written English, and Jenn provides, point by point, actual evidence that refutes the assumptions behind this supposed satire.

A day or two earlier, I came across this in the blog of Scott Sumner, who is, inTyler Cowen’s words, a “very smart monetary economist.” He knows the difference between a possessive and a plural, and I’m sure he has sophisticated economic theories and models that justify all his policy preferences. But read his gut reasons for mistrusting the Democrats on Social Security.
Here’s why I don’t trust the Dems—I see them as the party of one marshmallow eaters.* They represent people who have less self-control. I fear they will cut my benefits, but not cut the benefits of people who didn’t save for retirement. . . . .

In my view there is nothing egalitarian about redistributing income from two marshmallow eaters to one marshmallow eaters. They’ve already had their fun when young, loading up their three car garages with all sorts of fun toys. I’ve never even had a garage. (full text here )
Sumner is talking here not about the poor but about middle income (or somewhat higher) people who spent rather than saved. Still, the same moral sentiment underlies much opposition to policies designed to reduce inequality: they take from prudent ants and give to profligate grasshoppers.** The tone is different from the dogs-as-poor-people bit of hilarity. But it’s the same song, just played in a different key.

* This is a reference to the famous Stanford “marshmallow experiment,” where four-year-olds were given a marshmallow but were told that if they didn’t eat the marshmallow now, they could have two marshmallows later.

**I wonder how these people react to Rep. Ryan’s recent proposal, which does the reverse Robin Hood thing of shrinking programs for the poor and giving tax breaks the rich. Two-thirds of his proposed budget cuts hit programs for the poor (details here). At the same time, he would lower the income tax for millionaires from 35% to 25%. The former is for the noble purpose of saving the economy by reducing the deficit. I’m not sure how the latter helps in this regard, but I’m sure Rep. Ryan has some noble purpose in mind.


April 4, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

We sociologists don’t get much respect.

Duncan Watts, in a Scientific American Q & A, describes how other people’s perceptions of him changed when he left physics/math and got into sociology – good-bye Einstein, hello Rodney Dangerfield:
I started out life in physics and then mathematics, and at some point I switched over to become a sociologist—and in the process of transitioning, I noticed this interesting phenomenon: When people perceived me as a mathematician, and I would describe my research, they would say, "Wow, that's really fascinating. How do you figure these things out? It's complicated and difficult." But when a few years later I was describing the same work in terms of social phenomena and the behavior of people, fads and historical events, success and failure, and so on, people would say, "That sounds kind of obvious. Don’t we all know that?"
It’s probably because we study people. Everybody has a working theory– probably several theories – about why people do what they do. Those ideas are dime a dozen. Ah, but scientists . . .
When someone tries to explain to us how electrons behave, we think it’s amazing and completely unintuitive, but when we explain how people behave, it always seems trivial.
I’m not familiar with Watts’s work. Sight unseen I’m fairly sure I don’t have the math chops to handle much of it (the library call number prefixes on his earlier books are QA, not HM). It’s about social influence and networks – he takes issue with some of the “tipping point” and “small world” models. I might have better luck with his new book (published, less dauntingly, by Crown Business), Everything Is Obvious:* *Once You Know the Answer

Names -- Traditional or Trendy

April 4, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I suspect the recent upsurge in Old Testament names for boys expresses not so much a religious sentiment as it does a desire to be different but not too different. This trend towards trendiness and away from tradition isn’t just an American thing. It’s also true in France, where parents have had a free choice of names for less than 20 years. Before that, there was a government-approved list parents had to choose from.

The government still offers new arrivals some advice on names. Bapiste Coulmont links to a list of “French” names the government recommends to immigrants who want to become French – a process called “francisation.”* The list has about 400 names that are “French or currently used in France.”

But the French themselves don’t seem to have much use for that list. When I checked the most popular names that actual French parents were giving their newborns (the most recent year I could get was 2006), for both boys and girls, three of the top ten names were not on the list of “French” names.

Enzo (1) Ines (7)
Nathan (4) Jade (9)
Tom (8) Lola (10)

From what I understand, other unlisted names – Margaux, Apolline, and Victoria – have since climbed into France’s top ten.

Japan too. Several decades ago, when I was in Japan, nearly all girls’ names ended in either ko (), a few in mi () or e (). Now none of the popular girls’ names have these endings.

The trend isn’t universal. In Italy, all the top names are traditionally Italian.** Joseph and Mary (Giuseppe and Maria) top the list.

* The counterpart of Americanization. When the movie “The Americanization of Emily” was released in 1964, that name wasn’t even in the top 250, but the title was prescient. Thirty-two years later, Emily had climbed to #1, and she held that spot for over a decade.

** Italy has no list of approved names. But the law does allow a civil official to “advise and dissuade overly-creative parents” who propose names that are “ridiculous, shameful, or embarrassing.” (A newspaper article on this is here.) In the US, you can name your daughter Brooklyn no questions asked. But in Italy, tying to name your kid Testaccio might not go so smoothly.


April 1, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

After putting up the previous post, I wondered if maybe there actually had been some Moussa Koussa jokes. So I check Andy Borowitz’s tweets. Borowitz is a funny guy (one of today’s tweets:
“What does Fox News do on April Fool's Day?” is a question akin to “What do slutty nurses do on Halloween?”
In fact, he did have some Koussa tweets, but they were mostly jokes about the name, not the man. For example,
Gaddafi Replaces Moussa Koussa with New Foreign Minister, Banana Fanna
Now, here’s the sociological connection. Andy Borowitz was a sociology researcher. Well, not quite. But he appears in the initial footnote of a classic article, Wendy Griswold’s “American Character and the American Novel” (AJS 1981).
The indefatigable research team consisted of Andy Borowitz . . . .
Clearly, Borowitz coulda been a contender. Instead, he turned his back on sociological research (maybe he wasn’t all that indefatigable after all) and went with comedy. I guess it was a choice between sending out reprints or cashing in residuals. In Hollywood, he created “Fresh Prince,” which ran for six seasons and is probably still being recycled today somewhere on cable.

'Taint Funny, Moussa

April 1, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Moussa Koussa, the newly defective foreign minister of Libya, was a sociology major at Michigan State.

My first reaction was that this was a set-up line waiting for a punch line. But it’s not funny, and it’s not an April Fool thing. This guy was involved in some very nasty stuff – assassinations of Libyan exiles, probably Lockerbie and perhaps another airplane bombing. (Video of old TV news stories is here.)