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Social Science

Ubuntu: How social networks help explain theories of change

Roxanne Bauer's picture

This is the second post in a series of six in which Michael Woolcock, Lead Social Development Specialist at the World Bank and lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, discusses critical ideas within the field of Social Development.

There is a Nguni-Bantu phrase, “I am because we are” which arises from the Ubuntu philosophy of community. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee translated it in her TED Talk as “I am what I am because of who we all are.” At its most basic understanding, Ubuntu means “human kindness toward others,” but its meaning is much greater, expressing ideas of connection and community. It is a concept known to cultures around the world. The Maori of New Zealand say “We all in the same boat”, and the North American Sioux tribe believes that, “With all things and in all things, we are relatives.” Globally, cultures around the world know and use the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child”. 

Modern philosophers have taken these axioms and developed social science research to explore them. Social capital refers to the interpersonal interactions we all participate in to create economic and cultural resources. When social capital is functioning well, social relations are marked by reciprocity, trust and cooperation and individuals can produce goods and services not just for themselves, but for the common good.  Relatedly, social cohesion describes the degree to which a society works toward the wellbeing of all its members, supports inclusive practices, and allows individuals to work for upward mobility.

These theories are essential to international development because, as Michael Woolcock points out, “Development changes who people interact with, and the terms with which people interact.”  Whether you think of these ideas as Ubuntu or social capital, they encompass the way in which people deal with power structures, like the state, and with other people who are not like them. 
 
Michael Woolcock

 

Thinking through funnels of attrition

Heather Lanthorn's picture

When first introduced to the idea of a funnel of attrition (my early attempt at a slightly more nuanced and symmetric — but still generic — version is here), I largely thought of it as a useful heuristic for thinking about sample size calculations, by being forced to think about issues of awareness and take-up as well as a few steps along a causal chain between initial participation or use and longer terms outcomes of interest.

More recently (including here), I  have tried to use it as a tool for thinking about articulating assumptions in a theory of change about where people might ‘fall out of’ (or never join) an intervention, thus leaving the funnelMore specifically, I tried (along with colleagues) using it as a goal for a conversation with implementing partners (that is, “let’s map out the funnel of attrition”), tackling the question from multiple perspectives. Various perspectives were brought in using personae, which I created beforehand relying partially on average results from the baseline as well as some stylizing to try to bring certain features into the conversation. At first I feared being overstylized but, in the end, I think I had too little detail. I reviewed my notes from The Inmates are Running the Asylum and was reminded of the importance of specificity, even at the expense of accuracy.

I liked this idea for guiding a conversation because the funnel of attrition is a little more straightforward than a full theory of change but, in constructing it, you still end up articulating some central assumptions, which can be added to thinking about change may/not happen. It seems like a handy building block in a well-considered theory of change.

The things we do: Why thought suppression doesn’t work

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Don't Think sign, LondonA colleague of mine recently told me a story about a friend of hers with a very long beard who was asked one day, “How do you sleep with all that hair?”  The man, who had never given it much thought, shrugged at the question. However, he later confessed to my colleague that since the question was posed he was losing a lot of sleep.
 
This man has fallen into a common mental trap: once a thought occurs to you, it’s very difficult to suppress it, and trying to suppress it may make the thought stronger.
 
This mental trap has a long-running history in our social consciousness.  Leo Tolstoy once said he tried to play a game in which he would, “get into a corner and endeavor, but could not possibly manage, not to think of the white bear.”  This was later echoed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky who lamented that “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute. So how is it to be done?  There is no way it can be done…"
 
These observations would later inspire social psychologist Daniel Wegner, PhD at Harvard University. Wegner is considered to be the founding father of thought suppression research, and was inspired to look into thought suppression after reading Dostoyevsky's quote more than 25 years ago.

#8 from 2015: The things we do: How money can buy you happiness

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2015. This post was originally posted on September 22, 2015.

People have been arguing for centuries about whether or not money can buy happiness. New research provides a fuller understanding of the relationship between what we earn and how we feel.

Cambodian farmer, Khout Sorn, stands in front of his banana trees in Aphiwat Village, CambodiaIt may seem a bit obvious: people with higher incomes are, generally speaking, happier than those who struggle. They worry less about paying their bills, they have greater choice in where they live or how they work, and they can provide creature comforts for themselves and their loved ones.  However, wealth alone is not a golden ticket. Indeed, what kind of money one has and how they spend it matters a lot more than a large income. 

The basics on happiness
When looking at all of these research results, it’s important to understand what is meant by the term ‘happiness’. Those in the field of happiness research divide it into two components, and individuals need both to be truly happy. But only one of those components keeps improving the more you earn. The other tops out after a certain point.

Hawthorne effects: Past and future

Heather Lanthorn's picture

Maseru Shining Centuary TextilesI have two main points in this blog. The first is a public service announcement in the guise of history. Not so long ago, I heard someone credit the Hawthorne effect to an elusive, eponymous Dr. Hawthorne, of which, in this case, there is not one directly tied to these studies. The second is a call to expand our conception of Hawthorne effects – or really, observer or evaluator effects – in the practice of social science monitoring and evaluation.
 
Hawthorne history

The Hawthorne effect earned its name from the factory in which the study was sited: the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne plant, near Chicago. These mid-1920s studies, carried out by MIT, Harvard, and the US National Research Council researchers were predicated on in-vogue ideas related to scientific management. Specifically, the researchers examined the effect of artificial illumination on worker productivity, raising and lowering the artificial light available to the women assembling electric relays (winding coils of wire) in a factory until the artificial light available was equivalent to moonlight.
 
The finding that made social science history (first in the nascent fields of industrial and organizational psychology and slowly trickling out from there) was that worker productivity increased when the amount of light was changed, and productivity decreased when the study ended. It was then suggested that the workers’ productivity increased because of the attention paid to them via the study, not because the light was altered.

Thus, the “Hawthorne effect” was named and acknowledged: the change in an outcome that can be attributed to behavioral responses among subjects/respondents/beneficiaries simply by virtue of being observed as part of an experiment or evaluation.

The things we do: Why work does not depend on demand

Roxanne Bauer's picture
Bureaucracy - MagritteWhen was the last time you finished a job in less time than was allocated to it?  Have you ever moved from a smaller to a larger home and discovered that your big, new home is somehow filled with stuff after a while? How about car parks or real estate developments that start out small, enlarge, and end up just as packed as before?

It’s human nature to fill the time and space available to us. This phenomenon, known as Parkinson’s Law, states that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” 

Other variations of the principle includeThe more money you earn the more money you spend,” or “The bigger the available space, the more junk it can hold.”

This principle comes from the opening line of a humorous essay by Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson published in The Economist in 1955.  

The essay explains the results of a study he conducted of the British Civil Service. The British Civil Service grew between 1914-1928, with a noticeable rise in administrative positions and a concurrent decline in ‘fighting’ positions. In 1914 there were 2,000 Admiralty officials with this number growing to 3,569 in 1928, creating “a magnificent Navy on land.” The interesting part of this shift, however, is that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work.  The British Navy during that period had diminished by a third in men and two-thirds in ships. From 1922 onwards it was limited by the Washington Naval Agreement, signed among the major nations that had won World War I, which limited naval construction to prevent an arms race. Thus, the number of people employed in the bureaucracy increased even as the British Empire collapsed — an event that decreased the amount of work available.

The things we do: Stop multitasking and start focusing

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Many believe that multitasking is the art of the productive. However, social science reveals that humans don't really multitask, but rather they rapidly switch among tasks. It's a cognitive illusion that actually results in less productivity and may harm the brain's natural abilities.

caffeinating, calculating, computeratingIn June of this year, a Chinese motorist was caught driving while undergoing intravenous therapy and talking on the phone.  A needle providing the intravenous therapy was stuck in the back of his right hand, which had been holding his phone, while he used his left hand to hold the iron pole with the intravenous fluid bag and also the car’s steering wheel.  Police in the city of Wenzhou in southeastern Zhejiang province, China were on patrol on June 20 when they saw the motorist driving at 80km/h.

The driver told police he was rushing to carry out some urgent matters so had left a health clinic before his infusion was complete. He claimed that it was not dangerous for him to be driving at the time because he was good at multitasking. The police didn’t buy his multitasking defense and fined the driver 150 yuan and deducted four points from his driving license for dangerous driving and using a mobile phone while driving.

In a famous study of drivers chatting on mobile phones, David Strayer and Frank Drews found that diving while using a mobile phone is as dangerous as driving while drunk.

The problems of multitasking don’t end with driving.  Harvard Medical School knows first-hand that multitasking increases the number of mistakes people make— a resident doctor nearly killed a patient after a text message distracted her from updating a prescription. 

These and other examples point to an undeniable truth: multitasking can be dangerous at its worst and inefficient at its best. Even simple can produce a kind of ‘attention interference’ when performed simultaneously.

What The Martian teaches us about the value of a statistical life

David Evans's picture

This weekend, the movie The Martian opens. It’s based on a book by Andy Weir, the most exciting one I’ve read this year. In the very near future, a mechanical engineer and botanist turned astronaut named Mark Watney gets marooned on Mars, with little hope that he can survive long enough for a rescue team to reach him. The narrative proceeds on two paths, with Mark showing amazing resourcefulness to extend his survival on a barren planet, and the U.S. National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) at home, scrambling to come up with a plan to save him.

The Martian | Official Trailer


At one point, Mark ponders a big question: “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?” (He gives an answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s wrong.)
 

The Martian, bookThroughout the book, I pondered the same question. The researchers at GiveWell.org estimate that you can save a life through a long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito net for $3,340. A program of community health promoters in East Africa is estimated to save a child’s life for $4,400. By those estimates, instead of saving Mark Watney (and let’s assume that it cost just $100 million), NASA could have saved almost 30,000 people with mosquito nets or almost 23,000 children through community health promoters.

Beyond the requirements of a thrilling piece of science fiction, why would we make that choice?

The things we do: How money can buy you happiness

Roxanne Bauer's picture

People have been arguing for centuries about whether or not money can buy happiness. New research provides a fuller understanding of the relationship between what we earn and how we feel.

ambodian farmer, Khout Sorn, stands in front of his banana trees in Aphiwat Village, CambodiaIt may seem a bit obvious: people with higher incomes are, generally speaking, happier than those who struggle. They worry less about paying their bills, they have greater choice in where they live or how they work, and they can provide creature comforts for themselves and their loved ones.  However, wealth alone is not a golden ticket. Indeed, what kind of money one has and how they spend it matters a lot more than a large income. 

The basics on happiness
When looking at all of these research results, it’s important to understand what is meant by the term ‘happiness’. Those in the field of happiness research divide it into two components, and individuals need both to be truly happy. But only one of those components keeps improving the more you earn. The other tops out after a certain point.

The things we do: why we follow the crowd... and why we don't

Roxanne Bauer's picture

When do we follow the crowd and when do we think independently? Social science research offers some clues, starting with Solomon Asch's famous experiments exploring group conformity.

In 1935, Rudyard Kipling wrote, “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it, you’ll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
 
Line cards used in Asch's experiment on conformityWhile many of us read these words and think, ‘yes, I believe that, too’ we often do not follow through when put to the test.  Imagine yourself in this scenario: as a university student, you sign up to participate in a psychology experiment and on test day you are seated at a table with seven or eight others whom you believe to be fellow subjects.  The experimenter tells you are participating in a study of visual judgment and asks you to compare the length of a line on one card with a set of three lines of varying lengths on another card.  The experimenter asks you and the other test takers to choose which of the three lines on the right card matches the length of the line on the left card.  Several rounds of this are completed.
 
On some rounds the other test takers unanimously choose the wrong line.  It is clear to you they are wrong, what do you do?  Do you go along with the wrong answer to please the majority? Do you begin to doubt your eyes? Or do you trust yourself and select the correct line?