February 9, 2013

Mankiw: "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor and Your Economists, Too"

Gregory Mankiw, the former chairman of the Bush Administration's Council of Economic Advisers, writes in the New York Times:
In just the last few weeks, the economics department at Harvard, where I am chairman, has brought in six candidates to be considered for two assistant professor positions. Of the six, three are Americans, one is German, one is Argentine, and one is a New Zealander. ... 
THIS competition from abroad may reduce the salaries of American-born economists like me, but it has improved the university, much to our students’ benefit. For one thing, such competition keeps down the university’s labor costs. Many parents are shocked at how high college tuition is, but it could be worse.

At first, I assumed that when Dr. Mankiw, who has not only tenure but an endowed chair at Harvard (he is the Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics), says, "This competition from abroad may reduce the salaries of American-born economists like me," he didn't really mean "like me." Instead, I presumed, he meant "like my Assistant Professors, those ungrateful wretches, always whining about how their wives need money to buy disposable diapers."

But, I now see that Dr. Mankiw has revolutionized the Harvard Economics Department in accordance with the principles of economics. 

Every Monday morning at 9 am, each endowed chair in economics at Harvard is auctioned off for the week to the lowest bidder from around the world. This week, Dr. Mankiw is the Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics, but only because, after a spirited round of online bidding, he agreed to accept a salary of $182.50 for the 40-hour week to fulfill all the duties, such as they are, of the endowed chair. (As a Republican economist, Dr. Mankiw doesn't believe minimum wage laws apply to him.)

In the Free Market competition, Mankiw aced out last week's Robert M. Beren Professor, Moldovan Ph.D. Vlad Snegur, who ultimately bid $185.00, but refused to go lower, saying "Harvard nice job, but wife say she leave me if no can afford detergent for cloth diapers again this week. So, drive cab this week. But next week, me be Charles W. Eliot University Professor and Larry Summers can go drive cab."

Well done, Dr. M.!

"I'm Charlie Sheen and I'm here to help"

From E Online:
Just days after his name appeared in suspected killer Christopher Dorner's manifesto, Charlie Sheen is reaching out to the ex-cop. 
In a short video, the Anger Management star urged Dorner to contact him, saying, "You mentioned me in your manifesto, so thank you for your kind words. I am urging you to call me."

Reminds me of a couple of years ago.

Dorner = Rambo's "First Blood?"

I've only seen bits and pieces of the 1982 Sylvester Stallone movie "First Blood," in which troubled but heroic Medal of Honor winner John Rambo outsmarts corrupt cops tracking him in the cold mountains, but I'll bet Christopher Dorner has watched the whole thing.

He probably didn't watch The King of Comedy all the way through, however.

As a big movie fan, Dorner has probably moved beyond DVDs to downloading and streaming. But just in case he hasn't, I'd advise the cops to find his DVD player, push the Eject button, and see what he watched right before setting off. It might give them some clues.

February 8, 2013

Ten Years After

Here's a beautiful brochure from ten years ago that is Exhibit A in the Secret History of the 2000s:
The American Dream of Homeownership: From Cliché to Mission 
Presentation by Angelo R. Mozilo 
Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, 
Countrywide Financial Corporation & Chairman, Countrywide Home Loans, Inc. 
The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University 
John T. Dunlop Lecture 
Sponsored by The National Housing Endowment 
Washington, DC        February 4, 2003

And here's another document of that era, from the New York Stock Exchange magazine, May 2005:
American Dream Builder: CEO Angelo Mozilo targets U.S. “multicultural market communities” as core Countrywide customers.  

When I call this kind of thing the "Secret History of the 2000s," I don't mean that Mozilo's Harvard address or Bush's mortgage speeches were given in a secure location dug out deep under the Greenbrier Country Club. No, they were heavily publicized to all interested parties. But they might as well be secret today because they don't fit into any of the standard, respectable models of "Who Are the Good Guys and Who Are the Bad Guys?" There's no pre-existing team to push this analysis of What Just Happened, so it might as well be secret.

From "Dorner Unchained" to "Dorner Explained:" NYT ponders whether LAPD had it coming

There haven't been enough wacko shootings so far in 2013, so the air has been slowly leaking from gun control momentum since the Newtown peak. You might think that L.A. lunatic Christopher Dorner would be an excellent example to pump back up the panic over Nuts-With-Guns. But, instead, because Dorner mentioned the R Word, Attention Must Be Paid to his reasons, just as with Connecticut shooter Omar Thornton in 2010.

From the New York Times:
Shooting Suspect’s Racism Allegations Resound for Some 
By ADAM NAGOURNEY56 minutes ago 
Whatever the changes since the days of rampant racism and corruption at the Los Angeles Police Department, an alleged killer’s charges — however unhinged — have struck a chord. 
LOS ANGELES — For the Los Angeles Police Department, the allegations of departmental corruption and racism by a former police officer now accused of a revenge-fueled killing rampage are the words of a delusional man, detached from the reality of the huge improvements the force has undergone over the years. 
“These are the rantings of a clearly very sick individual,” William J. Bratton, a former department commissioner, said Friday. “It would be a shame if he was able to rally to his cause people who remember the bad old days of the L.A.P.D.” 
Yet for whatever changes the department has undergone since the days when it was notorious as an outpost of rampant racism and corruption, the accusations by the suspect — however disjointed and unhinged — have struck a chord. They are a reminder, many black leaders said, that some problems remain and, no less significant, that memories of abuses and mistreatment remain strong in many parts of this city.

You'll recall that Thornton's massacre inspired far fewer calls for gun control than inquiries into whether or not the victims had it coming.

Whatever happened to the word "Chicano?"

When I was a kid, the Chicano Movement was a huge deal in Los Angeles. For example, in 1970 the local band El Chicano's instrumental Viva Tirado reached only #28 on the national Billboard chart, but it was #1 on KHJ-AM's Boss 30 Countdown for three weeks. It was ideal for blasting from the speakers of your lowrider as you cruised Van Nuys Blvd.
The point of the word "Chicano," which first shows up in Google's nGram around 1967 and peaked in 1976 before declining sharply, was that it referred to Mexican-Americans born in the U.S. The idea was to distinguish Mexican-Americans both from whites and from Mexicans, who often looked down upon Mexican-Americans as people who couldn't make it in Mexico. The Chicano Movement inspired a fair number of radical activists, such as Oscar Zeta Acosta, the original for Dr. Gonzo, Raoul Duke's "300-pound Samoan attorney" in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Whatever happened to Chicanos, anyway?

My guess is that despite the sizable outpouring of ethnic pride that the Chicano concept elicited from the Mexican-American masses, it didn't fit into elite plans for a broad Hispanic / Latino category, comprising both Mexicans and non-Mexicans and both immigrants and American citizens, whose vast numbers could be used to demand more Hispanic / Latino immigration, thus generating more jobs for Hispanic / Latino elites. "Chicano" was too particularist to be politically attractive to the top guys. Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, can plausibly present himself to Republicans as the voice of Hispanic opinion, but the Cuban could hardly present himself to even the clueless GOP as the authentic leader of the Chicanos.

February 7, 2013

Priming in Action: "Dorner Unchained"

From The Hollywood Reporter:
L.A. Fugitive Christopher Dorner Reveals Strong Opinions on Hollywood in Bizarre Manifesto 
1:38 PM PST 2/7/2013 by THR Staff 
Three people are dead, including a policeman, as the shooting-rampage suspect remains on the loose. 
As a massive manhunt presses on in search of former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner, who stands accused of killing two civilians and a police officer this week, the suspect's rambling, chilling manifesto -- which contains, among the names of suspected targets, a long list of celebrities and media figures he admires -- has left Hollywood shocked.
Among the Hollywood figures called out in the document, which was posted to Dorner's Facebook page, is director Todd Phillips, director of The Hangover movies. 
"It’s kind of sad I won’t be around to view and enjoy The Hangover III," Dorner writes. "What an awesome trilogy. Todd Phillips, don’t make anymore Hangovers after the third, takes away the originality of its foundation." 
... He singles out Ellen DeGeneres for her "excellent contribution to entertaining America and bringing the human factor to entertainment." He also credits her with shaping how the country views "the LGBT community." 
Christoph Waltz's Oscar-nominated performance in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained showed "glimpses of Daniel Day-Lewis and Morgan Freeman-esque type qualities of greatness," Dorner writes. He also praises the actor's Oscar-winning turn in Inglourious Basterds.

Here is Dorner's full paragraph praising Waltz, which hopefully will now become part of Django Unchained's Oscar campaign. Blowing these words up on a Sunset Blvd. billboard is the least we can do:
Christopher Walz*, you impressed me in Inglorious Basterds. After viewing Django Unchained, I was sold. I have come to the conclusion that you are well on your way to becoming one of the greats if not already and show glimpses of Daniel Day Lewis and Morgan Freeman-esque type qualities of greatness. Trust me when I say that you will be one of the greatest ever.

And if you can't trust a spree-killer, who can you trust?

I bet Jamie Foxx is feeling a little left out right now. Why does Waltz's performance get all the love?
* Note to all the racist spreekillers / fans of Christoph Waltz (not "Christopher Walz") out there: Always run spellchecker before hitting Save. You may not get a chance to edit your spelling later.

David Brooks tries his hand at explaining regression toward the mean

Here's the coin-flipping scene from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,
with Gary Oldman blithely on an epic hot streak, much to the
dismay of the more scientific-minded Tim Roth.

Recently, we were kicking around Galton's paradoxical concept of regression toward mean. Galton discovered that there'a a wholly mathematical side to regression. And yet, it's also worth looking at examples of how human decisionmaking can increase or decrease the rate of regression. Regression toward the mean is such an important concept for understanding how the world works that it's worth unpacking the idea so that people don't get wrong ideas stuck in their heads.

Now David Brooks is giving regression toward the mean a try.

From the NYT:
For example, every person who plays basketball and nearly every person who watches it believes that players go through hot streaks, when they are in the groove, and cold streaks, when they are just not feeling it. 
But Thomas Gilovich, Amos Tversky and Robert Vallone found that a player who has made six consecutive foul shots has the same chance of making his seventh as if he had missed the previous six foul shots. 

There's got to be a better way to phrase this, right? Brooks is presumably talking not about two players you've never seen before, but about one player with years of NBA free throw shooting experience, who is widely acknowledged to have reached what appears to be a career plateau, and has no obvious problems contributing to a cold streak. Brooks' next paragraph is better:
When a player has hit six shots in a row, we imagine that he has tapped into some elevated performance groove. In fact, it’s just random statistical noise, like having a coin flip come up tails repeatedly. Each individual shot’s success rate will still devolve back to the player’s career shooting percentage.

If we are just talking about undefended free-throw shooting (not field goal shooting where the distance and defense varies constantly, especially in reaction to the results of the last few shots taken), an we're talking about an NBA veteran who has plateaued over several years at around, say, a 75% free throw success rate, well, then don't get too excited about him making six in a row. There's an 18 percent chance that from pure randomness, a "true" 75% shooter would make six in a row.

On the other, say you are the coach. With one second left in a tied game, the refs call a technical foul on the other team and rewards your team with one free throw. You get to pick the free throw shooter who will have one chance to win the game. Your two best available potential shooters are both veterans with career percentages of 75%. But one has made his last six free throws and the other has missed his last six. Which do you pick, or are you indifferent (as Brooks implies)?

Well, of course you go with the guy who looks like he's on a hot streak. Maybe he's not really on a hot streak, but at least he's not on a true cold streak. Maybe hot streaks are just the absence of cold streaks, but cold streaks caused by very real detrimental factors definitely exist.

There's only a 1/4096th chance of a 75% free throw shooter missing six in a row out of pure bad luck. So, missing six in a row could very well be a sign that he has a secret injury he's not telling you about, or that he's developed a hitch in his shot that he needs some extra free-throw shooting practice to work out, or that he's mentally flustered. So, as coach, you do something. The first thing you do is you don't assign the cold streak guy to shoot the technical foul shot (unless it's some mind game strategy you have of improving his self-confidence by showing your confidence in the cold shooter, but you'd better have your playoff spot clinched before you do that).

Hot streaks and cold streaks in field goal shooting (in the regular run of the game) are more complicated because of defense, which often shifts in response to streaks.

If you look at enough basketball statistics, you see that NBA players generally shoot poorly from the floor their rookie year, then maintain a fairly consistent level, except for off years (presumably caused by minor injuries, divorces, cocaine addictions, spats with coach or media, or whatever), until they hit a decline phase near the end of their careers.

On the other hand, strange things do happen. For example, veteran center Wilt Chamberlain shot .563 in his first three seasons with the Lakers, but then shot .683 over the last two seasons of his career, because his new coach, Bill Sharman, talked him into emphasizing defense like his more successful old rival, Bill Russell, and thus only take easy shots. (But, not too many conclusions should be drawn from anecdotes about Wilt. We still talk about him so much because he was so sui generis.)

But it takes a fair amount of coaching to keep NBA players near their career plateaus.

Say you have two starting guards, one (O) who is good at offense but not defense, and the other (D) is vice-versa. If they took exactly the same shots from the floor, O would make 60% and D 40%. So, of course, you devise game plans where O takes more shots, especially more of the hard shots, and D takes fewer shots, especially fewer of the hard shots. That moderates their respective shooting percentages to, say, 55% and 45%. (Under some conditions, the smart strategy is to push this all the way until both have the same shooting percentage. You want to keep arbitraging marginal advantages down to the vanishing point.

Or, consider the effects of defense on a single player. Say, Jeremy Lin starts off a game making two shots in a row against the Lakers last year. Is this just luck? Maybe. Or maybe he's being nominally defended by 37-year-old Derek Fischer, and so Lin can probably get open looks all night, and, indeed winds up with a career-high 38 points. A little while later, Lin starts a game off missing shots. Cause for panic? Or should he keep firing away because he'll be bailed out by regression toward the mean? If he's being guarded by, say, LeBron James, it's likely time for an agonizing reappraisal of the shoot-Jeremy-shoot tactics that worked so well against Fischer.

In general, if a player is 6 for 6 in the first half of a game because he owns a mismatch over his defender, at halftime the coach will probably tell him he should be shooting more. Assuming, say, a 50% breakeven point, the team would be better off if he went 10-13 in the second half rather than 6 for 6 again, because going 4 for 7 on the incremental shots would be to the team's advantage.

In general, coaches actively encourage players to regress toward their means and the team's means. If a player is missing hard shots, the coach will run plays where he gets fewer hard shots and fewer shots overall, but achieves a higher percentage because he's more limited to taking easy shots like open-court layups and offensive rebound dunks. If a player is hitting shots at a rate above the expected percentage, especially if he's enjoying a defensive mismatch, the coach will try to get him the ball more and have him take harder shots. The coach wants his hot hand to regress toward his mean, just not quite all the way. Meanwhile, the opposing coach is tearing his hair out trying to come up with a way to stop the man with the hot hand.

These kinds of defensive adjustments that encourage regression toward the mean happen at all levels from the most minutely tactical (shading a player a few inches more in one direction) to the most front-office strategic (trading for a defender to stop an archrival's best shooter). The classic paper cited above about the 1980s Philadelphia 76ers mentions that guard Andrew Toney was universally known as a "streak shooter," but there was no evidence that he went on longer streaks of makes or misses that his teammates. Instead, he was a great outside shooter (before a severe injury in his sixth season wrecked his career) who had the talent to make memorable strings of shots against the mighty Celtics in big games. (His nickname was The Boston Strangler.) To stop Toney, the Celtics traded for Dennis Johnson, one of the greatest defensive players of all time.

So, regression toward the mean just doesn't happen, it's often actively encouraged.

Other questions involve which mean a player should aim to regress toward: his natural mean or his current team's mean.

For example, in 2006 Kevin Garnett averaged 22 ppg on .526 shooting, while Kobe Bryant averaged 35 ppg on .450 shooting. Both teams had bad supporting casts (ladies and gentlemen, Laker's point guard Smush Parkerrrrrrrrrr!), but Kobe's team won 12 more games, in part because he took so many more hard shots than Garnett.

Put Garnett on a good team, however, and he's a wonderful team player. Put Kobe on a good team, and he wins a lot, but you know it will be a soap opera.

What's the most literary sport?

It's a cliche that baseball is the most literary sport, but I think the real winner is mountain climbing, which in my youth supported a vast outpouring of books despite not being a spectator sport, and not even having many participants. (Here's somebody's list of Top 100 Mountaineering Books.)

Mountaineering is half sport / half exploration. Polar exploration is a related field that has generated numerous books.

Novelist Will Self notes:
For many years I liked nothing better than to lie down – preferably in low-lying country such as East Anglia – and lose myself in the halting, pained progress of mountain climbers being winched ever-upwards by their own deranged romanticism.

The most celebrated mountaineering figure before WWII was George Mallory, last sighted within 1,000 feet of the summit of Mt. Everest. (His frozen body was found in 1999.)

Mallory was not just a daring climber and an articulate man, he was on the fringes of Bloomsbury, which didn't hurt his fame.
In October 1905, Mallory entered Magdalene College, Cambridge to study history. There, he became good friends with members of the Bloomsbury Group including James Strachey, Lytton Strachey, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes, and Duncan Grant, who painted several portraits of Mallory. Mallory was a keen oarsman and rowed in the college eight for his three years at Cambridge.

In case you were wondering (and, yes, you should), Mallory left a widow and three small children.

February 6, 2013

Priming: Responses change over time

Cotopaxi, Frederic Edwin Church's 1862
painting (7'x4') of the Ecuadorean volcano
Frederic Edwin Church was America's richest painter around the time of the Civil War. He traveled to spectacular landscapes, such as the Andes and Niagara Falls. He painted giant landscapes which he exhibited, one at a time, to masses of paying customers. Each new Church landscape was an event. His Heart of the Andes sold for $10,000, a vast sum for an American painting in the mid-19th Century. (Here's the 1863 NYT's review of Cotopaxi.)

But then tastes changed and the value of his art plummeted. Some of his pictures wound up in nightclubs and restaurants as cheap decor, as failed attempts to class up the dump.

And then tastes changed again, and Church's work slowly regained stature. By 1980, one of his works became the first American painting to sell for a million dollars. His top paintings now are featured prominently in America's top museums. His stature appears permanently secure.
Artist's conception of the White House's
lost Tiffany Screen
Here's a painting by current artist Peter Waddell, The Grand Illumination, that represents President Benjamin Harrison overseeing the turning on the first electric lights in the White House in 1891. The point of the picture, actually, is to provide an artist's conception of the most legendary work of decor in White House history, the colored class screen installed in the Entrance Hall by Louis Comfort Tiffany when he redecorated the White House for the urbane Chester Arthur. 

Today, glass artworks by Tiffany are once again worth a fortune, but they fell radically out of fashion in the 1900s. Teddy Roosevelt had the Tiffany glass in the White House junked. The great screen, like so much Tiffany glass, was destroyed. So this painting is based on black and white photos and some surviving Tiffany works of the same era to create a speculative image of what once was.

The point of these examples are that people once found that the works of Frederic Edwin Church and Louis Comfort Tiffany primed them to experience very positive emotions, and they work almost as well today. If, say, you are invited to a charity event held in a ballroom decorated by Tiffany, you'd probably feel more privileged, pleased, and generous than if the event were held in, say, a suburban church basement. If you invited a date to the charity bash, you might find she finds the Tiffany ballroom more priming than the church basement.

Yet, both Church and Tiffany also each went through decades when their art primed people in the exact opposite direction: they found their masterpieces depressing.

Why would social psychologists expect that their lame little attempts to prime feelings in subjects in experiments would continue to work the same over the decades when masters like Church and Tiffany couldn't get consistent responses?

February 5, 2013

Social Psychology & Priming: Art Wears Off

One of the most popular social psychology studies of the Malcolm Gladwell Era has been Yale professor John Bargh's paper on how you can "prime" students to walk more slowly by first having them do word puzzles that contain a hidden theme of old age by the inclusion of words like "wrinkle" and "bingo." The primed subjects then took one second longer on average to walk down the hall than the unprimed control group. Isn't that amazing! (Here's Gladwell's description of Bargh's famous experiment in his 2005 bestseller Blink.)

This finding has electrified the Airport Book industry for years: Science proves you can manipulate people into doing what you want them to! Why you'd want college students to walk slower is unexplained, but that's not the point. The point is that Science proves that people are manipulable. 

Now, a large fraction of the buyers of Airport Books like Blink are marketing and advertising professionals, who are paid handsomely to manipulate people, and to manipulate them into not just walking slower, but into shelling out real money to buy the clients' products. 

Moreover, everybody notices that entertainment can prime you in various ways. For instance, well-made movies prime how I walk down the street afterwards. For two nights after seeing the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, I walked the quiet streets swiveling my head, half-certain that an unstoppable killing machine was tailing me. When I came out of Christopher Nolan's amnesia thriller Memento, I was convinced I'd never remember where I parked my car. (As it turned out, I quickly found my car. Why? Because I needed to. But it was fun for thirty seconds to act like, and maybe even believe, that the movie had primed me into amnesia.) 

Now, you could say, "That's art, not marketing," but the distinction isn't that obvious to talented directors. Not surprisingly, directors between feature projects often tide themselves over directing commercials. For example, Ridley Scott made Blade Runner in 1982 and then the landmark 1984 ad introducing the Apple Mac at the 1984 Super Bowl.

So, in an industry in which it's possible, if you have a big enough budget, to hire Sir Ridley to direct your next TV commercial, why the fascination with Bargh's dopey little experiment? 

One reason is that there's a lot of uncertainty in the marketing and advertising game. Nineteenth Century department store mogul John Wanamaker famously said that half his advertising budget was wasted, he just didn't know which half. 

Worse, things change. A TV commercial that excited viewers a few years ago often strikes them as dull and unfashionable today. Today, Scott's 1984 ad might remind people subliminally, from picking up on certain stylistic commonalities, of how dopey Scott's Prometheus was last summer, or how lame the Wachowski Siblings 1984-imitation V for Vendetta was, and Apple doesn't need their computers associated with that stuff.

Naturally, social psychologists want to get in on a little of the big money action of marketing. Gladwell makes a bundle speaking to sales conventions, and maybe they can get some gigs themselves. And even if their motivations are wholly academic, it's nice to have your brother-in-law, the one who makes so much more money than you do doing something boring in the corporate world, excitedly forward you an article he read that mentions your work.

("Priming" theory is also the basis for the beloved concept of "stereotype threat," which seems to offer a simple way to close those pesky Gaps that beset society: just get everybody to stop noticing stereotypes, and the Gaps will go away!)

But why do the marketers love hearing about these weak tea little academic experiments, even though they do much more powerful priming on the job? I suspect one reason is because these studies are classified as Science, and Science is permanent. As some egghead in Europe pointed out, Science is Replicable. Once the principles of Scientific Manipulation are uncovered, then they can just do their marketing jobs on autopilot. No more need to worry about trends and fads. 

But, how replicable are these priming experiments?

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Power of Suggestion 
The amazing influence of unconscious cues is among the most fascinating discoveries of our time­—that is, if it's true 
By Tom Bartlett 
New Haven, Conn. 
Along with personal upheaval, including a lengthy child-custody battle, [Yale social psychologist John Bargh] has coped with what amounts to an assault on his life's work, the research that pushed him into prominence, the studies that Malcolm Gladwell called "fascinating" and Daniel Kahneman deemed "classic." 
What was once widely praised is now being pilloried in some quarters as emblematic of the shoddiness and shallowness of social psychology. When Bargh responded to one such salvo with a couple of sarcastic blog posts, he was ridiculed as going on a "one-man rampage." He took the posts down and regrets writing them, but his frustration and sadness at how he's been treated remain. 
Psychology may be simultaneously at the highest and lowest point in its history. Right now its niftiest findings are routinely simplified and repackaged for a mass audience; if you wish to publish a best seller sans bloodsucking or light bondage, you would be well advised to match a few dozen psychological papers with relatable anecdotes and a grabby, one-word title. That isn't true across the board. ... But a social psychologist with a sexy theory has star potential. In the last decade or so, researchers have made astonishing discoveries about the role of consciousness, the reasons for human behavior, the motivations for why we do what we do. This stuff is anything but incremental. 
At the same time, psychology has been beset with scandal and doubt. Formerly high-flying researchers like Diederik Stapel, Marc Hauser, and Dirk Smeesters saw their careers implode after allegations that they had cooked their results and managed to slip them past the supposedly watchful eyes of peer reviewers.  
Psychology isn't the only field with fakers, but it has its share. Plus there's the so-called file-drawer problem, that is, the tendency for researchers to publish their singular successes and ignore their multiple failures, making a fluke look like a breakthrough. Fairly or not, social psychologists are perceived to be less rigorous in their methods, generally not replicating their own or one another's work, instead pressing on toward the next headline-making outcome. 
Much of the criticism has been directed at priming. The definitions get dicey here because the term can refer to a range of phenomena, some of which are grounded in decades of solid evidence—like the "anchoring effect," which happens, for instance, when a store lists a competitor's inflated price next to its own to make you think you're getting a bargain. That works. The studies that raise eyebrows are mostly in an area known as behavioral or goal priming, research that demonstrates how subliminal prompts can make you do all manner of crazy things. A warm mug makes you friendlier. The American flag makes you vote Republican. Fast-food logos make you impatient. 
A small group of skeptical psychologists—let's call them the Replicators—have been trying to reproduce some of the most popular priming effects in their own labs. 
What have they found? Mostly that they can't get those results. The studies don't check out. Something is wrong. And because he is undoubtedly the biggest name in the field, the Replicators have paid special attention to John Bargh and the study that started it all. 
... When the walking times of the two groups were compared, the Florida-knits-alone subjects walked, on average, more slowly than the control group. Words on a page made them act old. 
It's a cute finding. But the more you think about it, the more serious it starts to seem. What if we are constantly being influenced by subtle, unnoticed cues? If "Florida" makes you sluggish, could "cheetah" make you fleet of foot? Forget walking speeds. Is our environment making us meaner or more creative or stupider without our realizing it? We like to think we're steering the ship of self, but what if we're actually getting blown about by ghostly gusts?

Advertisers, from John Wanamaker onward, sure as heck hope they are blowing you about by ghostly gusts.
John Bargh and his co-authors, Mark Chen and Lara Burrows, performed that experiment in 1990 or 1991. They didn't publish it until 1996. Why sit on such a fascinating result? For starters, they wanted to do it again, which they did. They also wanted to perform similar experiments with different cues. One of those other experiments tested subjects to see if they were more hostile when primed with an African-American face. They were. (The subjects were not African-American.) ... 
Since that study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it has been cited more than 2,000 times. Though other researchers did similar work at around the same time, and even before, it was that paper that sparked the priming era. Its authors knew, even before it was published, that the paper was likely to catch fire. They wrote: "The implications for many social psychological phenomena ... would appear to be considerable." 
Translation: This is a huge deal. 
... The last year has been tough for Bargh. Professionally, the nadir probably came in January, when a failed replication of the famous elderly-walking study was published in the journal PLoS ONE. It was not the first failed replication, but this one stung. In the experiment, the researchers had tried to mirror Bargh's methods with an important exception: Rather than stopwatches, they used automatic timing devices with infrared sensors to eliminate any potential bias. The words didn't make subjects act old. They tried the experiment again with stopwatches and added a twist: They told those operating the stopwatches which subjects were expected to walk slowly. Then it worked. The title of their paper tells the story: "Behavioral Priming: It's All in the Mind, but Whose Mind?"

I come out of the objective side of marketing research. We collected hard data from supermarket checkout scanners on what people were actually buying with their own money. Obviously, we were biased, but we always told clients that the subjective side of research -- phone surveys, focus groups, etc. -- was rife with unconscious bias. Both the researchers and the subjects were good at picking up and passing on clues about what the client wants to hear, and thus tended to produce results backing up whatever you want. That's fine for waging office politics struggles, but if you want to know what consumers really will do with their own money, you have to come to us. That was our pitch, and it was pretty persuasive (for awhile, at least).
The paper annoyed Bargh. He thought the researchers didn't faithfully follow his methods section, despite their claims that they did. But what really set him off was a blog post that explained the results. The post, on the blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, compared what happened in the experiment to the notorious case of Clever Hans, the horse that could supposedly count. It was thought that Hans was a whiz with figures, stomping a hoof in response to mathematical queries. In reality, the horse was picking up on body language from its handler. Bargh was the deluded horse handler in this scenario.  
... Harold Pashler wouldn't. Pashler, a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego, is the most prolific of the Replicators.

I've met Hal. He's a good guy.
He started trying priming experiments about four years ago because, he says, "I wanted to see these effects for myself." That's a diplomatic way of saying he thought they were fishy. He's tried more than a dozen so far, including the elderly-walking study. He's never been able to achieve the same results. Not once. 
This fall, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, sent an e-mail to a small group of psychologists, including Bargh, warning of a "train wreck looming" in the field because of doubts surrounding priming research. He was blunt: "I believe that you should collectively do something about this mess. To deal effectively with the doubts you should acknowledge their existence and confront them straight on, because a posture of defiant denial is self-defeating," he wrote.
... One possible explanation for why these studies continually and bewilderingly fail to replicate is that they have hidden moderators, sensitive conditions that make them a challenge to pull off. Pashler argues that the studies never suggest that. He wrote in that same e-mail: "So from our reading of the literature, it is not clear why the results should be subtle or fragile." ...
The skepticism about priming, says Shanks, isn't limited to those who have committed themselves to reperforming these experiments. It's not only the Replicators. "I think more people in academic psychology than you would imagine appreciate the historical implausibility of these findings, and it's just that those are the opinions that they have over the water fountain," he says. "They're not the opinions that get into the journalism." 
Like all the skeptics I spoke with, Shanks believes the worst is yet to come for priming, predicting that "over the next two or three years you're going to see an avalanche of failed replications published." The avalanche may come sooner than that. There are failed replications in press at the moment and many more that have been completed (Shanks's paper on the professor prime is in press at PLoS ONE). A couple of researchers I spoke with didn't want to talk about their results until they had been peer reviewed, but their preliminary results are not encouraging. 
... In the e-mail discussion spurred by Kahneman's call to action, Dijk­sterhuis laid out a number of possible explanations for why skeptics were coming up empty when they attempted priming studies. Cultural differences, for example.  
Studying prejudice in the Netherlands is different from studying it in the United States. Certain subjects are not susceptible to certain primes, particularly a subject who is unusually self-aware. In an interview, he offered another, less charitable possibility. "It could be that they are bad experimenters," he says. "They may turn out failures to replicate that have been shown by 15 or 20 people already. It basically shows that it's something with them, and it's something going on in their labs."

Okay, but I've never seen this explanation offered: successful priming studies stop replicating after awhile because they basically aren't science. At least not in the sense of having discovered something that will work forever.

Instead, to the extent that they ever did really work, they are exercises in marketing. Or, to be generous, art.

And, art wears off.

The power of a work of art to prime emotions and actions changes over time. Perhaps, initially, the audience isn't ready for it, then it begins to impact a few sensitive fellow artists, and they begin to create other works in its manner and talk it up, and then it become widely popular. Over time, though, boredom sets in and people look for new priming stimuli.

For a lucky few old art works (e.g., the great Impressionist paintings), vast networks exist to market them by helping audiences get back into the proper mindset to appreciate the old art (E.g., "Monet was a rebel, up against The Establishment! So, putting this pretty picture of flowers up on your wall shows everybody that you are an edgy outsider, too!").

So, let's assume for a moment that Bargh's success in the early 1990s at getting college students to walk slow wasn't just fraud or data mining for a random effect among many effects. He really was priming early 1990s college students into walking slow for a few seconds.

Is that so amazing?

Other artists and marketers in the early 1990s were priming sizable numbers of college students into wearing flannel lumberjack shirts or dancing the Macarena or voting for Ross Perot, all of which seem, from the perspective of 2013, a lot more amazing.

Overall, it's really not that hard to prime young people to do things. They are always looking around for clues about what's cool to do.

But it's hard to keep them doing the same thing over and over. The Macarena isn't cool anymore, so it would be harder to replicate today an event in which young people are successfully primed to do the Macarena.

So, in the best case scenario, priming isn't science, it's art or marketing.

February 4, 2013

Which famous individuals are the secret children of other famous individuals?

Here's an interesting tale from Wikipedia's biography of the great Romantic painter Delacroix:
There is reason to believe that his father, Charles-François Delacroix, was infertile at the time of Eugène's conception and that his real father was Talleyrand, who was a friend of the family and successor of Charles Delacroix as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and whom the adult Eugène resembled in appearance and character.[5] Throughout his career as a painter, he was protected by Talleyrand, who served successively the Restoration and king Louis-Philippe, and ultimately as ambassador of France in Great Britain, and later by Talleyrand's grandson, Charles Auguste Louis Joseph, duc de Morny, half-brother of Napoleon III and speaker of the French House of Commons. 

Talleyrand is a major historical figure, who, among much else, negotiated for France at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 a very mild retribution from the victorious Great Powers after two decades of war. The moderate and durable settlement that Talleyrand talked the crowned heads of Europe into agreeing to after France's Revolutionary and Napoleonic adventures is often contrasted favorably with the harsher and shorter-lasting peace dished out at the Versailles Conference after WWI.

Can you think of other examples where one famous individual turns out to have been the quasi-secret child of another? It's a pretty interesting phenomenon, one that is hard not to pay attention to, but likely examples don't come readily to mind.

For example, if you told me that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a 6'-4" biracial adoptee of tremendous athletic ability, is really the son of, say, Michael Jordan's 6'-8" sidekick Scottie Pippen, I might almost believe you. (Note: I just made that up.) But, there are surprisingly few confirmed examples of today's sports stars being the secret sons of yesterday's sports stars.

One reason for the Scandal Shortage is that there just aren't that many famous people. Talleyrand and Delacroix, for example, are of that tiny number of figures of such historical importance that we only use their surnames.

February 3, 2013

Lights out at the Super Bowl: "In Retrospect, I Guess We Might Have Resorted To Cannibalism A Bit Early"


Bill Simmons: Time to say in public what we say in private

On ESPN's Grantland, Bill Simmons finally gets around to pointing out (in "Daring to Ask the PED Question") that in 21st Century America, private conversations and public conversations don't have much to do with each other. (This applies to far more than just the role of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, of course.)

I've been interested in the effects of performance-enhancing drugs since, maybe, the 1976 East German women's swim team wiped out Shirley Babashoff's American team. Steroids and other artificial or natural male hormones have always been more interesting to me than HGH or EPO because the former are related to the sexes, to masculinity and femininity, and thus to the arts and society.

What could be more interesting than a vast experiment in which celebrities artificially up their male hormone levels before our very eyes? What experiment has more fascinating ramifications?

Spectator sports exist largely as celebrations of masculinity. The arts exist, in large part, to celebrate various combinations of masculinity and femininity (see Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia).

For example, 66-year-old Sylvester Stallone has a new action movie out. The role of PEDs in Stallone's unusual career is one that deserves serious analysis that I've never seen it get. Keep in mind that, strange as it seems now, four decades ago, Stallone wrote the most perfect, the most influential commercial movie screenplay since, maybe, Casablanca. He's an interesting guy, yet I've almost never seen anything analyzing the impact of steroids on popular culture.

But let's come back to sports.

Simmons wrote yesterday:
Daring to Ask the PED Question 
If everyone is secretly suspicious of so many athletic achievements in the 21st century, why aren't we talking about it? 
By Bill Simmons on February 1, 2013 
I made a deal with myself a long time ago: My column needed to capture the things I discuss with my friends. Last week, I realized that wasn't totally happening anymore. Something of a disconnect had emerged between my private conversations and the things I wrote for Grantland/ESPN. In essence, I had turned into two people. There's Sports Fan Me, and there's ESPN Me. 
Sports Fan Me is candid, jaded, suspicious of everyone. Sports Fan Me repeatedly gets involved in arguments and e-mail chains centered on the question, "Do you think he's cheating?" Sports Fan Me has Googled athletes' heads and jawlines, studied their sizes, then mailed before/after pictures to friends with the subject heading, "CHECK THIS OUT." ... 
ESPN Me sticks his head in the sand and doesn't say anything. 
ESPN Me occasionally pushes narratives that he doesn't totally believe in. 
ESPN Me didn't have the balls to run two e-mails that you're about to read. 
They nearly landed in each of my last four mailbags. Each time, I pulled both e-mails (and my responses) from those columns at the last minute. 
E-mail no. 1 (from David B. in Concord, North Carolina): "Why isn't anyone questioning [Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl linebacker] Ray Lewis's miraculous recovery from a torn triceps muscle? At age 37, not only did he recover in 10 weeks from an injury that usually takes 6 months minimum for recovery, but, upon returning, he played at a higher level than before he was injured. Are sports 'journalists' incapable of learning from their own mistakes (we JUST HAD both the Baseball HOF vote and Lance admitting to steroid use), or is the sport just bigger than the truth?" 

Come now, Simmons, impugning the spotless character of Ray Lewis? Who ever has a bad word to say about Ray Lewis? (I mean, other than those two guys who got stabbed to death after the 2000 Super Bowl; and they're not here to say anything, now are they?)
E-mail no. 2 (from Ben Miller in Fort Worth, Texas): "Instead of Beyonce, should we change the Super Bowl halftime show to just Adrian Peterson pissing in a cup at midfield? ... 
Sports Fan Me spent most of November and December debating the Lewis/Peterson topics with friends and coworkers, so Sports Fan Me wanted to run those e-mails. ESPN Me overruled him, believing it was unfair to speculate without any real proof … even though ongoing speculation has become as big a part of sports fandom as purchasing tickets or buying a replica jersey. That's the disconnect. 
Before those Miami New Times/Sports Illustrated bombshells dropped this week [about an "anti-aging clinic" and Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees] and we started joking about deer-antler spray, I would have wagered anything that God didn't miraculously heal Ray Lewis's torn tricep. I never actually wrote this. Alluded to it, danced around it, joked about it … just never actually came out and wrote it. I stayed away from Peterson jokes for a different reason: His historic comeback (and historically great season) seemed conceivable. ... 
Then again, I like Adrian Peterson. ... 
Will I look back at Peterson's remarkable season someday and say, "God, how did we NOT know? How stupid were we?" I say no. 
But I don't know for sure. And that's the problem. There is no such thing as "the benefit of the doubt" anymore. Not in sports. Too many people took advantage. All the benefits are gone. 
A few weeks ago, we finished a Baseball Hall of Fame voting process in which nobody was selected. Not a single guy. Keep in mind, the following stars were eligible: one of the greatest outfielders ever, one of the greatest starting pitchers ever, two of the most imposing sluggers ever, one of the greatest offensive first basemen ever, the single greatest offensive catcher ever, a member of the 500–home run club, and someone who reached base more than anyone in history except for 17 players. None of them made it to Cooperstown. Five were shunned because we were getting back at them — they cheated, they burned us, they let us down. Two were bypassed because of circumstantial evidence — we were pretty sure they cheated, and since they never defended themselves that passionately, they were out. The last guy missed out because of our anger toward the other seven guys, and because a few-dozen holier-than-thou baseball writers keep stubbornly protecting a fantasy world that no longer exists. 
Really, those snubs were driven by our residual guilt about what we didn't do during baseball's steroid boom. We ignored their swollen noggins and rippling biceps. We weren't fazed by seemingly inexplicable surges in production, or even something as fundamentally perplexing as a 37-year-old doubles hitter suddenly hitting 50-plus homers. We didn't just look the other way; we threw heavy burlap bags over our heads and taped our eyeballs shut. And because we never stepped up, those enterprising dickheads bastardized baseball and ruined one of its most sacred qualities: the wholly unique way that eight generations of players relate to one another through statistics and records. ...
We look the other way when NFL players are allowed to create any excuse they want for a four-game drug suspension (usually Adderall), or when David Stern tells a reporter that he doesn't see how PEDs would help NBA players (yeah, right). 
We look the other way as the NBA keeps its own little Santa Claus streak going: Of all the running-and-jumping sports that feature world-class athletes competing at the highest level, only the NBA hasn't had a single star get nailed for performance enhancers … you know, because there's no way hundreds of overcompetitive stars with massive egos would ever cheat to gain an edge with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. ...
PED profiling. 
Think about that phrase again. Hasn't it become an essential part of following sports? Why won't we admit it? ... 
 Some of my favorite ways include … 
• Skip the Olympics (which has much stricter drug testing) in your prime for any dubious reason and you're on the list. 
• Enjoy your best season in years in your late 30s, four or five years after your last "best season," and you're on the list. 
• If you're a skinny dude who miraculously managed to add 20 pounds of muscle to your scarecrow frame, you're on the list. 
• If you chopped down the recovery time of a debilitating injury to something that just didn't seem possible a year ago, you're on the list. 
• If you were really good and really ripped at a really young age, and now your body is breaking down much sooner than it should be breaking down, you're on the list. 
• If you're exhibiting a level of superhuman endurance that has little correlation to the endurance of any of your competitors, you're on the list. ...
The following anecdote is 100 percent true … 
NBA players get tested up to four times during the course of a season. The fourth time can happen at any point from October to June, but once it happens, that's it. So if your fourth test occurs after your 71st game, you're clear the rest of the way. It's a running joke within NBA circles, something of a get-out-of-jail-free card: Once you pee in that fourth cup, you're good to go. Put whatever you want into your body. Feel like smoking enough weed to make Harold and Kumar blush? Knock yourself out. Feel like replacing your blood with cleaner blood so you have more endurance for the playoffs? Knock yourself out. Feel like starting a testosterone cycle because you might have to play 25 grueling playoff games over the next 10 weeks? Knock yourself out. Remember how competitive these guys are. What would they do for an edge? How far would they go? And why are we giving them the choice? 
The following anecdote is also 100 percent true … 
When Bertrand Berry and Ty Warren suffered a complete tear of their triceps, it took them six months to recover. When Arizona left tackle Levi Brown suffered a complete tear of his triceps in August 2012, the Cardinals immediately put him on their season-ending injured list. When Ray Lewis suffered a complete tear of his triceps in mid-October, we thought he was finished for the season … only he returned to action a little more than two months later. During the third month of his "recovery," he made 17 tackles in a double-overtime playoff game in Denver. In 13-degree weather. At age 37. 
So when Lewis's name landed in this week's PED scandal, nobody tumbled over in shock. We wasted the rest of Super Bowl week talking about him, wondering whether he cheated, watching his denial for signs that he was lying, Googling "deer antler spray" and talking about everything other than the game. 
Eventually, the moment will pass, like it always does. Nothing will change.  ... 
Henry Abbott's exhaustive piece on the NBA and PEDs made a fantastic point: Why did FIFA make biological passports (the single best way to catch cheaters right now) mandatory for the 2014 World Cup, but the NBA can't even convince its players to allow blood testing?

By the way, the world's greatest athlete is Lionel Messi, global soccer player of the year the last four years in a row. He took HGH medication as a child to help him grow to over five feet tall. Does Messi abuse PEDs now? I looked for pictures of him ripping his shirt off after he scores a goal, but he appears to be just about the only soccer player  who doesn't. Does Messi not take his shirt off because his torso is unnaturally ripped due to all the PEDs he's taking? Or does he not take his shirt off because he's embarrassed that his torso isn't unnaturally ripped because he isn't taking PEDs? Or (as unlikely as this sounds in a 21st Century celebrity), does Messi not take his shirt off after every goal because he has a sense of dignity and manners befitting the world's highest achieving sportsman?
Really? You're that fearful of what we'd find in your blood, NBA players? If you're not fearful, why allow your representatives to make it seem like you're that fearful? How can you expect me NOT to wonder if you're cheating? Especially when so many other world-class athletes are cheating? Are you really expecting me to believe that Don MacLean, Matt Geiger, Soumaila Samake, Lindsey Hunter, Darius Miles, Rashard Lewis and O.J. Mayo — seven guys with a combined two All-Star appearances — were the only NBA players who ever used banned performance enhancers? ...
I believe that Ray Lewis cheated. I believe that to be true based on circumstantial evidence, his age, his overcompetitiveness, the history of that specific injury, and the fact that his "recovery" made my shit detector start vibrating like a chainsaw. 
I believe in my right to write the previous paragraph because athletes pushed us to this point. We need better drug testing. We need blood testing. We need biological passports. We need that stuff now. Not in three years. Not in two years. Now. I don't even know what I am watching anymore. 
I believe we need to fix this disconnect between our private conversations and our public ones. Cheating in professional sports is an epidemic. Wondering about the reasons behind a dramatically improved performance, or a dramatically fast recovery time, shouldn't be considered off-limits for media members. We shouldn't feel like scumbags bringing this stuff up.

A few questions for readers:

- Which current star athletes appear NOT to be on the juice? 

Last summer I pointed out that tennis great Roger Federer, with his shirt off, looks like Sean Connery with his shirt off in an early James Bond movie, not like some anatomical exhibit like many of his rivals. 

A reader suggested that the L.A. Clippers point guard Chris Paul, an MVP candidate this season, seldom looks absurdly ripped.

And then we're down to golfers like Phil Mickelson ... (Has Tiger gotten over his SEAL Team Six phase?)

- Which famous athletes of the past were on The Juice? The history of the Steroid Era is not at all well understood. We really don't even know when the Steroid Era was.

To me, a couple of obvious candidates are local heroes of my boyhood. A candidate for helping pioneer use of the The Juice in college football might be The Juice himself, O.J. Simpson, who at USC in 1967-68 was probably the most famous college football player of all time. 

Now, you might think that writing an article making insinuations that maybe the character of O.J. Simpson wasn't as pure as we had once assumed wouldn't be that daunting to sportswriters. But, it doesn't seem to come up much.

My other candidate is Wilt Chamberlain. He didn't get any taller, but around the time he came out to L.A. he got a lot wider due to weightlifting. Until Wilt's late career, everybody had assumed that the beanpole look was ideal for basketball players.

With Wilt, he never really thought of basketball as a pure sport or as something where victory should be pursued at all costs because of the sacredness of the game. The NBA always seemed to him to be kind of a cross between professional wrestling, with him as the star heel, and a circus freak show, with himself as the prize exhibit. He liked winning and disliked losing, but not quite as much as most famous athletes. Wilt bored easily and he liked trying new things. I could see him trying steroids, less that other athletes to get an advantage on the other players (although certainly for that reason in part), and more because they sounded interesting and would give him something new to try.

Both O.J. and Wilt were plugged into both Southern California's Olympic track and field scene, with field athletes experimenting with Dianabol from the late 1950s onward (O.J. was part of a record setting sprint relay team at USC), and into the Hollywood scene, where steroids were on the fringes for a long time, although not really coming centerstage in the big money movies until Arnold's Conan the Barbarian (in which Wilt had his most important movie role).

Anyway, I don't have any direct evidence about O.J. and Wilt, but they are potential figures to have played a role in the popularization of steroids, which is one of the major untold stories in the cultural history of the last half century.

Note to people in the spotlight: Good journalists like good stories more than they like you

Here's an article by prominent ESPN columnist Rick Reilly on how it's a crying shame that 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick hasn't met his genetic mother in all the years since he was adopted at one month old, and he should really pick up the phone. Yet, when Reilly brought the subject up to Kaepernick last week at a Super Bowl media event, Kaepernick wasn't interested in taking a journey into the depths of his emotional being with the newshound a few days before the Big Game.

But it would be such a great story!
Rae, my 23-year-old daughter, is adopted from Korea. Sometimes I look at her and feel for the woman who gave her up, who never got the joy of knowing her, raising her, watching her. 
The 49ers' 25-year-old starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, is adopted, too. I wonder if he sometimes feels for the woman who gave him up, who didn't get the joy of knowing him and raising him. 
That woman does get to watch him, though. 
She'll watch him again this Sunday, as he plays in the Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens. Her name is Heidi Russo, a 44-year-old nurse from Thornton, Colo. He's declined her requests to visit or talk. She accepts it, but she aches for more. 
Wouldn't you? She was 19, unmarried and nearly broke when she gave him up. She cared for him for five weeks while she looked for an adopting couple who were (A) set for money, (B) had other kids and (C) loved sports. Heidi stands 6-foot-2, and the birth father, now absent, was also 6-2.

My impression going back to Bart Starr 45 years ago is that Super Bowl quarterbacks tend to have roughly the same personalities (just jock version) as astronauts. Occasionally, you see a quarterback in the Super Bowl like Jim McMahon of the Bears 27 years ago who likes extraneous tumult, but not often.