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behavioral science

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 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: Mobilize your potential through self-talk

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Also available in: العربية

People often talk to themselves.  This was once thought to be a hallmark of the self-absorbed.  Social science research, however, suggests it may be a powerful way in which we can motivate and cheer ourselves on.

thinkingHave you ever spoken to yourself?  Have you spoken to yourself in third person? Most of us have done so, but we may not have considered why we do it.

In 2013, Malala Yousafzai appeared on the Daily Show and Jon Stewart asked her when she realized the Taliban had made her a target. She begins her answer in first person but switches to third person part-way through, saying “When in 2012 I was with my father and someone came and she told us ‘have you seen on google if you search your name that the Taliban have threatened you?’ I could not believe it. I said ‘No, it’s not true.’ Even after when we saw it, I was not worried about myself that much. I was worried about my father because we thought the Taliban are not that cruel that they would kill a child because I was 14 at that time. But then later on, I started thinking about that. I used to think a Talib would come and kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do, Malala?’ Then I would reply to myself that, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’ But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with a shoe then there would be no difference between you and the Talib.’ ”

Ethan Kross, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, studies self-talk, the introspective conversations we have with ourselves about ourselves, and believes that speaking to or about ourselves in the third person may be one way in which we help ourselves cope.

The things we do: The connection between sleep and poverty

Roxanne Bauer's picture

It’s well-established that a lack of sleep can impair cognitive function and lead to adverse physical outcomes. But is it possible that a lack of sleep can also explain social issues, like poverty? 

YA woman naps on a hand cart, used for hauling goods around the crowded streets of Mumbaiou’ve probably heard the saying, “Work, play, sleep: pick two.” 
Unfortunately, as human beings, we cannot do everything.  Turns out, in this constant negotiation, many more people should be picking sleep over work or play. 

Researchers have demonstrated that, for most people, sleeping less than six hours a night results in cognitive impairment and a host of other health problems, including increased risk for Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These diseases are also more common among the poor, which leads to some obvious questions: Does poor sleep lead to health problems and lower earnings?  Or is it the other way around- that poor health and lower earnings result in poor sleep?  Can a lack of sleep explain the income gap?

Freakonomics recently published a two-part podcast on the topic of sleep and how it may affect not just health outcomes, but also the financial outcomes for people.  It begins by discussing the puzzle over whether poverty leads to poor sleep (environmental factors, the stress of poverty, or the need to work more than one job may interfere with regular sleep) or whether poor sleep leads to poverty (the impaired cognition that results from insufficient sleep keeps us from earning our full potential).

The things we do: How technology undermines our ability to lie

Roxanne Bauer's picture

We are told, on average, around 200 lies per day.  Most of these lies are harmless and meant to protect the self-esteems of the liar or the one being lied to.  However, as technology and social media become more integral to our lives, how will our ability to deceive change?

youth using smartphonesAs technology and the so-called ‘Internet of Things’ becomes more pervasive in our lives, the amount of information we leave as online bread crumbs also expands. Online advertising companies, for instance, collect huge amounts of information about our browsing histories, which can unearth a pretty comprehensive profile of what we've been up to on the Internet— and by extension in reality. Moreover, smartphones are very sophisticated tracking and eavesdropping devices that follow our every move, from fitness tracking and location services to text messages and social media apps.
As individuals, we can manipulate our online personas so that only the best of us is shown.  We may post photographs of our vacations, tweet about our chance encounters with celebrities, or write status updates that sound optimistic and cheerful— all the while omitting our headaches and heartaches.  But what happens when our Fitbits reveal our connection to our sofas or our smartphones expose our in previously denied affection for Taylor Swift?
In a paper published in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law in 2012 Kathryn R. Brown distilled research on social media psychology and found that users screen photographs of themselves in order to present themselves as “attractive” and “having fun”. She also found that they adjust their personas to seem “socially desirable,” “group-oriented,” and “smiling.” At the same time, “individuals are unlikely to capture shameful, regrettable, or lonely moments with a camera.”

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.