Saturday, March 14, 2015

1 million hits

After 8 glorious years, the blog passed 1 million pageviews a few days ago. Fortunately one centre member was awake to screenshot the magic moment (see right).

Congrats to Liam for his stewardship of the best behavioural science blog around!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Call for papers: Stirling PhD Conference in Behavioural Science (25th of June 2015)

Call for papers: Stirling PhD Conference in Behavioural Science

25th of June 2015

Stirling Behavioural Science Centre (StirBSC)

The Stirling Behavioural Science Centre is pleased to announce its 2015 PhD Student Conference in Behavioural Science. The PhD conference will be held at the University of Stirling on the 25th of June 2015, followed by our invited speakers Workshop on Behavioural Science and Public Policy on June 26. You are invited to attend the workshop on the next day as well.

The conference aims to give PhD students in Behavioural Science the opportunity to meet other researchers, present their work, and get feedback from peers and researchers in the field. The PhD conference will deal with all areas of behavioural science (or behavioural economics, economic psychology, judgement and decision making, depending on your terminological preference). 

Topics include, but are not limited to
  • Nudging and Behavioural Policies 
  • Evaluation of Behavioural Policies
  • Mechanisms of Behavioural Interventions
  • Inter-temporal Choice
  • Self-control
  • Risk Preferences
  • Social Preferences
  • Heuristics
  • Personality and Economics
  • Subjective Well-Being
  • Identity in Economics
  • Emotions and Decision Making 
  • Behavioural Medicine
  • Early Influences on Later Life Outcomes
  • Behavioural Science and the Labour Market
  • Research Methods in Behavioural Science 

Speakers will have 25 minutes to present followed by 20 minutes of discussion. Speakers have the opportunity to send their papers/slides to their discussant about 2 weeks before the conference in order to get more detailed feedback. Discussants who will be available to give feedback on the 25th are listed below. Further discussants will be added shortly.

Located in the heart of Scotland’s central belt, Stirling is a 45 minute journey from both Glasgow and Edinburgh airports. There will be no conference fee. For affordable accommodation in Stirling, have a look at this link (to be added).

Important dates:
  • April 30th: Abstract submission deadline (up to 500 words).
  • May 7th: Notification of acceptance.
  • May 25th: Registration deadline.
  • June 10th: Submission of paper/more detailed abstract to the discussant.

We welcome you to submit an abstract for your paper using the link below. 

We look forward to welcoming you to Stirling.

Helpful links:

Stirling Behavioural Science Centre

How to get to Stirling

Two good links from 538

1. A look at the enormous disparity between the data the US government has access to and what it is allowed to use.

2. A summary of recent NBER papers on the topics of broadband, school spending and organ donation.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Lecture on Identity, Motivation and Incentives

I am currently giving a set of lectures as part of modules on behavioural economics in Stirling. I am posting brief informal summaries of some of these lectures on the blog to generate discussion. Thanks to Mark Egan for a lot of help in putting these together online. 

The section on Identity, Motivation and Incentives contains a lot of interlocking aspects. Many of these topics are very heavily connected to the idea that emotions influence behaviour and peoples responses to outcomes and we will revisit some of these ideas in the next topic - also many of them are connected to other topics in the course such as rationality more broadly and well-being, which we will look at also. 

1. Introduction

The basic idea behind the lecture is that self-interest is generally conceived as the main motivation for different types of behaviour such as saving, investing, working and so on but that, increasingly, behavioural economics is examining how other motivations such as altruism and the desire to conform might influence economic behaviour and outcomes. The first point we make in the lecture is that self-interest is an "add-on" to rationality. Technically, it is quite possible to be rational, as outlined in the first few lectures, and also be motivated by concern for others and so on. However, there are a number of points during the lecture where wider influences on behaviour clash with the idea that people are rational, as defined by having stable preferences and making consistent choices. A way of thinking about this topic is to ask some questions like: do I care about other people outside my family so much that I would genuinely give up things to help them? Do I change my core preferences as those around me change theirs? Would I be independent in situations where I was asked to do something wrong by someone in a position of authority?

2. The influence of peers and groups
The first aspect of motivation that goes beyond self-interest is the idea of herding and peer effects. There is a high correlation between an individual's behaviour in any economic domain and the behaviour of their peer group. We looked at the very famous "Dartmouth paper" that showed that the pre-college characteristics of flatmates that students were randomly assigned to live with had big effects on their behaviour. If you are randomly assigned to someone who drank before coming to college, you are more likely to drink during college - similarly, you are more likely to study if you are assigned to someone who did well at school. These results raise questions about the idea of fully stable economic preferences. 

Fig 1. The set-up
Moving on from this, we examined the idea that "group processes" may influence behaviour. The most striking example of this is Milgram's 'Behavioural Study of Obedience'. During the most famous of these experiments, Stanley Milgrim had 40 male participants between the ages of 20 and 50 play the role of 'teacher' to the 'learner' in the adjacent room. In the room with the teacher was a stern looking experimenter wearing an official looking coat (Fig 1). The task of the teacher was to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to the learner whenever he made a mistake on the ostensible memory task he was working on - in reality the learner was a confederate working with the experimenter. There were no real electric shocks being administered, although the learner was trained to react to them as if they were real.

Anticipating that many of the participants would become uncomfortable as they heard increasing pained screams from the next room, the experimenters were allowed to prod them. In the case of objections, the experimenter told the teacher "Please continue". If objections continued, they would reply in the following order: "The experiment requires that you continue", followed by "It is absolutely essential that you continue" and lastly "You have no other choice, you must go on".

Fig 2. The results
Before running the experiment, Milgram polled 40 psychiatrists who agreed that "only 0.1% of the subjects would administer the highest shock on the board" - essentially it was thought that only a psychopath would continue all the way to the end where the voltage level was marked XXX and clearly hazardous. In reality (Fig 2), almost 2/3rds of participants went all the way to the end, even when some of them were clearly uncomfortable with the process.

It seems, from a long line of psychological research, that people will do extreme things well beyond what they would predict they would if they are told to do so by someone in a position of authority. In terms of historical context this study came out in the same year as Eichmann in Jerusalem, which popularized the concept of the 'banality of evil'.

As an addition factor, conformity to norms and reaction to persuasion may also have complex effects on individual behaviour. The Zimbardo prison experiment is a classic example of how randomly assigned social categories can have strong effects on people's actions.

3. Motivation to Behave in Group Situations

Fig 3. The Ultimatum Game
We focus on complex social and economic situations, as are represented in the Prisoner's Dilemma and Ultimatum (Fig 3) bargaining games which are two of the most famous experiments in economics.

The key paper for this topic is the paper by Ernst Fehr on Trust. While this paper does not discuss every aspect of how people behave in group situations, it serves as a good example of how this works and is sufficient to use to explain these concepts. Fehr provides a very useful working definition of trust and explains how trust can help to solve social problems that mirror those of the prisoner dilemma. He argues that trust, in some sense, involves processing risk but that it involves more than just risk preferences. Specifically, trust contains elements of an emotional engagement with others and that "betrayal aversion" can lead people to feel a lot worse if they lose in a game involving trust than simply if they lose a gamble. This is a key insight for behaviour economics; namely that one solution to cooperative games is that people trust each other and reach the pareto-optimal solution.

Fehr argues that countries with better social institutions arguably grow better and have better all-round outcomes, basically because in such countries it is easier to do business and interact in economic and social contexts because there is a basic degree of confidence in other people. We have spoken a lot about the difference between libertarianism and paternalism. This is another concept that we will talk a lot about - namely that markets are not perfect and a pure libertarian solution has many flaws but the state is not the only solution. The basic idea is that many economic problems are solved not by contracts but by social norms and implicit cooperation that is regulated not by laws or by fines but rather by complex social emotions such as trust. Trust is the example you should focus on, but in the next section of the lecture we will look at other examples of complex emotions and motivations that regulate economic behaviour in different ways. The basic idea is still the same.

4. Other Emotions & Economic Behaviour

We will look at this topic in more depth in the Emotion lecture. One consequence of relaxing the assumption of pure self-interest as a driver and looking at a broader range of emotions is that we open up a number of facets of human economic behaviour and attitudes that may have seemed outside of the realm of economics beforehand. As discussed above, trust and the emotions surrounding it are involved in some of the most important non-financial motivations of behaviour - but there are many other different types of motivations and emotions that arguably play a role in regulating complex economic situations involving groups. A few of them are discussed below:

(i) Discrimination and Hate: One consequence of being in different groups is that we may form a preference for our group over other groups. I referred in the lecture to a series of experiments that show that women and ethnic minorities are less likely to get called back to job interviews compared to whites even when the characteristics of each group have been randomly assigned on the CVs. Furthermore, we know that many people dislike people not of their own ethnicity and that many people favour restrictions in trade and migration. The real question (and one we will speak about in the Emotion lecture also) is whether such preferences are actually just irrational hangovers from the fact that we are basically animals with faulty cognitive equipment or whether they are rational preferences (albeit selfish preferences). For example, I may oppose globalization because of an irrational fear of foreigners but I may also oppose it because my industry has lots of nice protections from competition that would be eroded if restrictions were lifted. The Ku Klux Klan may have outwardly behaved in very silly and deplorable ways but as well as spreading hate it is arguable that their members may have been using the situation to improve their economic position.

(ii) Abhorrence: We discussed the idea that we may have motivations beyond just self-interest. For example, we may have strong beliefs that some markets simply should not exist. Al Roth, who won the Nobel Prize partly for his work on market design in organ donation, has a paper called "Repugnance as a constraint on markets" that addresses this in the context of whether it should be legal for a person to sell their own organs. 

(iii) Reference Effects: Another consequence of being in groups is that we evaluate ourselves relative to others. We will look at this in more depth in the well-being lecture.

(iv) Intrinsic Motivation: As discussed by Fehr and Falk and others, many people engage in tasks because they are intrinsically interested. Furthermore, people may have a desire to keep control over their own behaviour. 

5. Identity & Economics
The key paper for this is the paper on Economics and Identity by Akerlof and Kranton. This paper takes the view that looking at identity is vital to understand a wide range of economic phenomenon such as welfare dependency, ghettos, integration into the labour market, globalisation and economic growth. Identity emerges from the social categories we identify with or are members of by default. They outline a very simple model, which we will cover in the lecture, where membership of social categories enters directly into utility functions and use this to explain a range of economic phenomena such as gender discrimination 

Recommended Readings:
2. Akerlof (1998), Men without Children, The Economic Journal.
4. Fehr (2008), On the economics and biology of trust, IZA Discussion Paper.
3. Fehr & Falk (2001), Psychological Foundations of Incentives, Schumpeter Lecture at the European Economic Association Meeting.
4. Falk, Fehr & Fischbacher (2005), Driving Forces Behind Informal Sanctions, Econometrica.
5. Falk & Kosfeld (2006), The Hidden Costs of Control, American Economic Review.
6. Andreoni (1995), Cooperation in Public-Goods Experiments: Kindness or Confusion?, American Economic Review.
7. Milgram (1963), Behavioral Study of Obedience, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.
8. Sacerdote (2001), Peer effects with random assignment: results for Dartmouth roommates, Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Supplementary Material:

Sunday, March 08, 2015

June 2015 Workshop on Behavioural Science and Public Policy

This is the sixth Behavioural Science Workshop in a series of six that will take place in 2014/15. These workshops are funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The venue is the Court Room on the 4th Floor of the Cottrell Building at Stirling University. It will take place on June 25th and 26th. 

The workshop will be dedicated to the interface between behavioural science and public policy. Researchers involved in the empirical estimation of policy effects and in the understanding and shaping of the theoretical principles that inform policy have agreed to present. A key theme of this workshop will be the measurement and data needs and priorities of those conducting policy research and methods through which key measures such as well-being, preference parameters, personality, and biological measures could be integrated into policy research to a greater extent and the advantages that this approach may yield.

The programme will last over 2 days. The first day is explicitly aimed at PhD students and we welcome submission of abstracts. The format will be themed sessions with faculty discussants. Speakers will have 25 minutes to present followed by 20 minutes of discussion of their papers (10 minutes discussant time and 10 minutes of questions). The deadline for submission of abstracts is April 30th. 

The second day is an invited speaker workshop that will address key questions at the interface of policy and the academic literature on behavioural science. 

The full programme will be made available here in due course. 

Click here to sign up to attend the June 26 workshop.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Weekends Links: 4000th Blogpost

This is the 4000th post on this blog! Suggestions for developing further always welcome and thanks for reading and to the others for posting.

1. Useful one from last year. "Nudging Safer Road Behaviours".

2. "Would you like to know what makes people happy? An overview of the data sets on subjective well-being". Very useful paper by Nick Powdhatvee

3. Video, audio, and slides available from last week’s Irish Economic Policy Conference #ieconf 2015.

4. New ESRC Ethics Guidelines 

5. Programme for the Centre for Longitudinal Cohort Studies conference on March 16th/17th.

6. Recent RAND research on mental health in the UK.

7. The Financial Conduct Authority occasional papers are extremely useful and also give a sense of the extent to which behavioural ideas are becoming routinely debated in financial regulation in the UK.

8. Deaton/Tortora "People In Sub-Saharan Africa Rate Their Health And Health Care Among The Lowest In The World". Relevant to the debate about use of subjective measures, adaptation etc.,

9. RAND blog on the link between cigarette companies and schools in China.

10. Our MSc in Behavioural Science currently taking applications 

Summary of the ESRC Workshop on Biomarkers and Social Science

Thanks to everybody who participated in our fifth ESRC Workshop on Biomarkers and Social Science. Below are some impressions of the workshop which was a huge success. 

Michael introduced the participants to our fifth ESRC Workshop (with new table arrangement).

Jovan Vojnovic (Behavioural Science Centre, University of Stirling)
Education and Health: The Role of Time Preferences

The aim of this paper is to examine the role time preferences play in the widely observed correlation between education and health. It is the first paper that uses several health biomarkers as measures of health in examining this type of correlation and it provides a contribution to the evolving literature that deals with direct measurement of heterogeneity in time preferences in economics. The data used for the empirical analysis of this paper originates from waves 4 and 5 of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) dataset. The main finding, among a large sample of UK older people, is that both time preferences and education strongly predict health and smoking behavior, but that time preferences are not the explanation for the education effect. Additionally, a role for time preferences in explaining some of the health biomarkers has been less apparent, than in case of self-reported health, obesity and smoking behavior.
Dr. Gabriella Conti (Department of Applied Health Research, University College London)
Biomarkers and Human Development 
Dr. Cathal McCrory (The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), Trinity College Dublin) 
Socio-Economic Variation in the Heart Rate Response to a Cardiovascular Stressor

It is well established that individuals from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and lower life expectancy than their more advantaged peers. Indeed, the pernicious effects of living in low SES environments can be seen in just about every major organ system of the body, including the heart.  The active stand (i.e. vertical stand from a supine position) in TILDA is a potent cardiovascular stressor that offers a fleeting but potentially informative two minute time horizon for observing how socio-economic status influences cardiovascular reactivity to stress in a controlled laboratory environment.  Social scientists are interested in modelling socio-economic variation in these biomarkers because they believe that low SES mimics the effects of biological ageing and can help illuminate the pathways through which life course stresses, both material and psychosocial, can accelerate the ageing process. This talk will explore the epidemiology of the heart rate response to stress across different indicators of SES in a nationally representative sample of community dwelling older persons. 

Professor Meena Kumari (Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Essex)

Understanding the biological pathways that connect social position with health.

Social position is traditionally measured in terms of indicators such as social class, income and occupation. By these criteria, an extensive and extraordinarily consistent body of evidence has accumulated documenting the negative health outcomes associated with greater disadvantage. A number of pathways are proposed by which social position and health are connected throughout the life-course.  Increased risks for poor health outcomes associated with disadvantage are hypothesized to result from the relatively greater exposure to environmental stress.  

As differential exposure to both chronic and acute stressors constitutes one of the foremost factors postulated to contribute to observed health differentials by social position, this presentation will focus on biomarkers associated with the stress response. In particular, markers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein and a measure of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, salivary cortisol will be described. Analyses will be presented from a number of British longitudinal studies including the Whitehall II study, the 1958 British Birth cohort, the English Longitudinal study of Ageing and Understanding Society. Data will be presented which describes a) how these biomarkers are associated with socially patterning throughout the life-course, b) the association of these biomarkers with clinical health outcomes and c) whether these biomarkers of stress play a role in socially patterned differences in health. 

Dr. Anna Phillips (School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences , University of Birmingham) 
How to get Biomarkers into Psychological Stress Research 

Psychologists and social scientists studying stress through a range of methods often seek to expand their data by adding in objective biomarkers of underlying chronic stress levels or the acute response to stress.  This talk will cover in brief some of the main markers used in behavioural medicine research to attempt to biologically quantify psychological stress.  We will discuss the measurement of stress hormones, like cortisol, immune system measures as biomarkers of the impact of stress on health, and then finally consider cardiovascular system measures in response to acute stress, and how these can be used to understand biological individual differences related to chronic stress, and other psychosocial and behavioural factors.

Professor Alissa Goodman (Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education)
Biomarkers in the National Child Development Cohort Study 
In this short presentation I will give an overview of the existing and upcoming biomedical data in the CLS birth cohort studies, and some of the uses made of it so far in economics, psychology and other social science disciplines.


Professor Ian Deary (Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, University of Edinburgh) 
Environmental and genetic contributions to intelligence, education and social status

This presentation will give an overview of what is know about the environmental and genetic contributions to people's differences in cognitive abilities, educational achievements, and social status. It will draw from family- and twin-based studies, and from molecular genetic studies (candidates gene studies and GWAS) that include single cohort studies and GWAS consortia. It will examine both the heritability of the measures and their environmental and genetic correlations. It will consider what has been discovered about mechanisms of people's differences in these measures.