Syndicate content

behavioral science

The things we do: Why do conspiracy theories thrive?

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Girl receiving oral polio vaccine in IndiaIndividuals who believe in conspiracy theories are often disregarded as 'paranoid' and 'irrational', but social science research indicates that they engage in psychological processes that we all do. The difference lies their unusual distrust of authority.

Conspiracy theories abound!  Rumors are whispered, discrepancies in a story are seized upon, and the official version of events is discredited.  Then, an alternate explanation is proposed and evidence is gathered to support it.

While there is no formal, generally-accepted understanding of a ‘conspiracy theory’, they are usually considered to be an explanation for an event that is not the most plausible account and which postulates unusually sinister and competent conspirators carrying out the conspiracy.  Conspiracy theories are usually based on weak evidence, are self-insulating from fact, and sensationalize the actors or the implications of the event.

Contrary to what we might think, many of the people who follow conspiracies aren’t crazy.  They are actually skeptics, they just happen to be selective with their doubt.   According to research, individuals that believe in conspiracy theories tend to favor a worldview in which people are prone to misbehave (or behave downright evil) and in which elites exercise omnipotence.

The things we do: The entourage effect

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Members of the Association Culture et Developpement de Kasserine (ACD) “Culture and Development Association of Kasserine”Psychological research explores a phenomenon known as the "entourage effect"in which allowing individuals, referred to as VIPs, to share otherwise-exclusive privileges with a circle of friends, elevates the status of the VIP.

Economists and marketers alike have known for a long time now that the perceived status of a product has a tremendous impact on sales and who the customer base is. The basic economic reasoning is that the scarcer a product or service is, the more valuable it is perceived to be. The scarcity or exclusivity of the product or service signals its status.

Research on this topic, however, highlights the ultimate form of status: the entourage.

Brent McFerran of the University of Michigan, Stephen M. Ross School of Business and Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta, Department of Marketing, Business Economics, & Law published a paper in September 2012 called the “The Entourage Effect” in which they demonstrated that when an individual earns or wins a reward, they enjoy it more if they can share it with people they like. This individual, referred to as the VIP because a priviledge has been granted to them, gains status from the act of sharing.  The authors write, “the presence of others (i.e., an entourage) alters a VIP's personal feelings of status.” In particular, they show that “VIPs feel higher levels of status when they are able to experience preferential treatment with an entourage, even if this results in the rewards associated with the treatment becoming less scarce.”  Even though VIPs are sharing their reward, reducing its exclusivity, they nonetheless feel higher levels of status.

Experiencing development: fast cars and fast cash

Bilal Zia's picture

In a new World Bank working paper, Bilal Zia and his coauthors study how insights from the biology of the human mind can help to better understand and facilitate learning of key development concepts, especially among illiterate populations in poor countries. To make people experience- rather than learning- the concept of probability, the researchers played a simple dice game in rural South Africa in a RCT involving 840 individuals. In the game each player started with one die and rolled till she got a six, then she was handed two dice and rolled till she got two sixes which on average took her much longer. Depending on how fast players were able to roll two sixes, they could reflect and update their beliefs about winning odds. Afterwards, players were told that winning the lotto would be equivalent to them rolling all sixes on nine dice. Read the complete blog post.

Experiencing development: fast cars and fast cash

Bilal Zia's picture
In a new paper published in the World Bank Working Paper Series: “Debiasing on a Roll: Changing Gambling Behavior through Experiential Learning” (WPS #7195, February 2015), my co-authors and I study how we can start using insights from the biology of the human mind to better understand and facilitate learning of key development concepts especially among illiterate populations in poor countries.

The Things We Do: How Crowd Science Can Help Eliminate Biases

Roxanne Bauer's picture

There is a new and exciting field emerging that combines the insight of analytics and psychology; it’s known as crowd science.  Already, it’s a fairly pervasive industry, involving not just data scientists but also behavioral economists, marketers, and entrepreneurs.
 
Crowd science analyzes data (through mining, algorithms, statistical modeling, and others) and then applies psychological or behavioral theories to make sense of the analyses. It is sometimes referred to as the “guinea pig” economy because it utilizes consumer tests— often without the consumer realizing it— to obtain its data and, therefore, insight.
 
One of the most popular forms of crowd science is A/B testing whereby website visitors are shown different interfaces or versions of the same site. The way in which each visitor navigates through the site is then tracked to determine which version is more appealing or effective. One reason A/B testing is so helpful is that it divides users into a control group and a treatment group, allowing the engineers of the experiment to determine not just what the issues are but how to solve them. It also allows decision-makers to test for biases in project design and implementation.

The Things We Do: Your Pain is My Pleasure

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Mel Brooks once famously said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

Certainly, we can all relate to this, whether we like to admit it or not.  When something unlucky happens to us, we feel it more deeply than those around us do, and we wonder why people do not immediately recognize the calamity.  Equally, we take pleasure when an opponent is beaten or find it a little rewarding when our enemy is cut down.  

The joy we experience from the pain of others is known as “schadenfreude” in German and is translated as “harm-joy”.

According to Richard H. Smith, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, schadenfreude is an adaptive function that evolved from our need to make social comparisons.  These comparisons, he argues in a new book called The Joy of Pain, allow us to asses our strengths and weaknesses in the social order and thereby determine our social status.  Comparisons, though, can invoke envy, insecurity, and a sense of inadequacy if we find ourselves lacking in one dimension or another compared to someone else. These feelings can then trigger a desire to compete with or knock down those perceived to be superior.  When these desires are fulfilled organically, through no fault of our own, schadenfreude arises. 

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Out in the Open: This Man Wants to Turn Data Into Free Food (And So Much More)
Wired
Let’s say your city releases a list of all trees planted on its public property. It would be a godsend—at least in theory. You could filter the data into a list of all the fruit and nut trees in the city, transfer it into an online database, and create a smartphone app that helps anyone find free food. Such is promise of “open data”—the massive troves of public information our governments now post to the net. The hope is that, if governments share enough of this data with the world at large, hackers and entrepreneurs will find a way of putting it to good use. But although so much of this government data is now available, the revolution hasn’t exactly happened.

Four mobile-based tools that can bring education to millions
The Guardian
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, Nelson Mandela is famed for saying. Yet access to good quality learning is still denied to millions around the world, particularly in developing countries where teaching standards and education facilities are often poor. The ubiquity of mobile phones is presenting educators with a new, low-cost tool for teaching. Here we look at four mobile-based solutions delivering real results for low-income learners.

WEIRD samples and external validity

Jed Friedman's picture

A core concern for any impact evaluation is the degree to which its findings can be generalized to other settings and contexts, i.e. its “external validity”. But of course external validity concerns are not unique to economic policy evaluation; in fact they are present (implicitly or explicitly) in any empirical research with prescriptive implications.