Thu, 1 December 2022
Historically and into the present day, female workers overall make less than men. Looking at college-educated women in the United States, Harvard University economic historian Claudia Goldin studies the origins, causes and persistence of that gap, which she discusses in this Social Science Bites podcast.
Goldin, whose most recent book is Career & Family: Women's Century-Long Journey toward Equity, details for host David Edmonds how the figures she uses are determined. Specifically, it’s the ratio of female-to-male weekly earnings for those working full-time and year-round, with the median woman compared to the median man. “Expressed in this way, there has been real progress” in the last century, she says. Today in the United States, where Goldin’s studies occur, that number is below 85 cents on the dollar.
While that trend is good news, it’s not the whole story. “By expressing this gap in this single number we miss the really, really important dynamics, and that is that the gender earnings pay gap widens a lot with age and it widens a lot with [having] children, and it widens in the corporate, banking and finance, and law sectors.”
And while the gap may have narrowed, it shows no evidence it’s about to close.
Acknowledging the “persistent frustration” about the pay gap’s durability, Goldin pointed a finger at structural inequities, bias and sexual harassment, but she also argues that “greedy work” was a major factor. Greedy work “is a job that pays a disproportionately more on a per hour basis when someone works a greater number of hours or has less control over those hours.” Hence, the gap persists “not so much [because] men and women go into completely different occupations,” she explains, but that women are financially “penalized” for choosing work that allows flexibility within that occupation.
“The important point,” she adds, “is that both lose. Men are able to have the family and step up because women step back in terms of their jobs, but both are deprived. Men forgo time with their family and women often forgo their career.”
But losers can win – eventually. The more that workers say to their supervisors that “we want our own time” the more the labor market will change, she explains by pointing to current trends. One caveat, though, is that the situation is worse among women without college educations.
Goldin is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and was the director of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Development of the American Economy program from 1989 to 2017. She is a co-director of the NBER's Gender in the Economy group.
She was president of the American Economic Association in 2013 and was president of the Economic History Association in 1999/2000. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and a fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Society of Labor Economists (which awarded her its Mincer Prize for life-time contributions in 2009), the Econometric Society, and the Cliometric Society. She received the IZA Prize in Labor Economics in 2016, the 2019 BBVA Frontiers in Knowledge award, and the 2020 Nemmers award, the latter two both in economics.
Tue, 1 November 2022
Political economist and journalist Will Hutton, author of the influential 1995 book The State We’re In, offers a state of the field report on the social sciences in this Social Science Bites podcast. Hutton, who was appointed in 2021 to a six-year term as president of Britain’s Academy of Social Sciences, addresses various critiques of modern social science – especially in its British incarnations -- from host David Edmonds.
As defined by the academy that he now heads, “social science is the understanding of society in all its dimensions,” and encompasses the societal, economic, behavioral and geospatial sciences. Despite that broad remit, the first question posed is whether social and behavioral sciences take a back seat to the natural sciences in the public imagination.
Hutton, for his part, says no – although he does see them not always getting their due. He notes that in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, yeoman’s work was conducted by social and behavioral science. “It wasn’t called social science, but it was driven by social science.” The same, he continues, is happening as Britain confronts its economic demons.
“Academic prowess is a kind of team,” he details. “You need your humanities, you need your physical scientists, your natural scientists, your medical scientists and your social scientists on the pitch. Sometime the ball falls to their feet and you look to them to make the killer pass.”
One thing that might help in achieving that overdue recognition, he explains later, would be if the social sciences themselves shared their commonality as opposed to denying it. “[T]he Academy of Social Science was established 40 years ago, because we felt that good as the British Academy is, it couldn’t represent humanities and social science co-equally. Social science needed its own voice. Four decades on, I would say that social science’s standing in the world is higher than it was 40 years ago. But if [a score of] 100 is what you want to get to, we probably haven’t gotten beyond 20 or 30.”
Impacting society, meanwhile, is how the sciences must improve their score (although Hutton acknowledges the vagaries of what impact looks like by saying “I’m not willing to castigate people if it looks as if what they are immediately doing is not impactful or having an impact.”) Asked what he sees as the “most fundamental issue” social science should tackle straightaway, Hutton offers four broad avenues to move down: Economics, governance, change behavior to keep the planet in good shape, and constructing a civil society of institutions that serve both individual and community needs. Among those, he concludes, “I think combining ‘the we and the I’ is the most important thing that social science can do.”
Hutton’s wide-ranging answers follow from a wide-ranging career. He served as editor-in-chief of The Observer newspaper, was chief executive of the then Industrial Society, was principal of Hertford College, Oxford from 2011 to 2020, and has authored a number of bestsellers since The State We’re In: Why Britain Is in Crisis and How to Overcome It. Those books include 2008’s The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st Century, 2011’s Them and Us, 2015’s How Good We Can Be, and 2018’s Saving Britain: How We Can Prosper in a New European Future (written with Andrew Adonis).
Mon, 3 October 2022
There’s the always charming notion that “deep down we’re all the same,” suggesting all of humanity shares a universal core of shared emotions.
Batja Mesquita, a social psychologist at Belgium’s University of Leuven where she is director of the Center for Social and Cultural Psychology, begs to disagree. Based on her pioneering work into the field of cultural psychology, she theorizes that what many would consider universal emotions – say anger or maternal love – are actually products of culture. “We’re making these categories that obviously have things in common,” she acknowledges, “but they’re not a ‘thing’ that’s in your head. When you compare between cultures, the commonalities become fewer and fewer.”
In this Social Science Bites podcast, she explains how this is so to interviewer David Edmonds. “In contrast to how many Western people think about emotions, there’s not a thing that you can see when you lift the skull – there’s not thing there for you to discover,” Mesquita says. “What we call emotions are often events in the world that feel a certain way … certain physical experiences.”
She gives the example of anger.
“In many cultures there is something like not liking what another person imposes on you, or not liking another person’s behavior, but anger, and all the instances of anger that we think about when we think about anger, that is not universal. I’m saying ‘instances of anger’ because I also don’t think that emotions are necessarily ‘in the head,’ that they’re inside you as feelings. What we recognize as emotions are often happening between people.”
That idea that emotions are not some ‘thing’ residing individually in each of our collective heads informs much of Mesquita’s message, in particular her delineation between MINE and OUR emotions (a subject she fleshes out in depth in her latest book, Between Us: How cultures create emotion).
MINE emotions, as the name suggests, are the mental feelings within the person. OUR emotions are the emotions that happen between people, emotions that are relational and dependent on the situation. Does this communal emotion-making sound revolutionary to many ears? Perhaps that’s because it deviates from the Western tradition.
“We haven’t done very much research aside from university students in Western cultures,” Mesquita notes. “The people who have developed emotion theories were all from the same cultures and were mostly doing research with the same cultures, and so they were comfortably confirmed in their hypotheses.”
Also, she continued, Western psychology looks at psychological processes as things, such as ‘memories’ or ‘cognition.’ “We like to think if we went deep enough into the brain we would find these things.
“The new brain science doesn’t actually find these things. But it’s still a very attractive way to analyze human emotion.” Just, in her view, the wrong way.
Thu, 1 September 2022
In the West we routinely witness instances of intergenerational sniping – Boomers taking potshots at over-privileged and under-motivated Millennials, and Millennials responding with a curt, “OK, Boomer.” What do we make of this, and is it anything new?
These are questions Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy and director of the Policy Institute at Kings College London, addresses in his latest book, Generations – Does when you’re born shape who you are? (published as The Generation Myth in the United States). In this Social Science Bites podcast, Duffy offers some key takeaways from the book and his research into the myths and stereotypes that have anchored themselves on generational trends.
“My one-sentence overview of the book,” Duffy tells interviewer David Edmonds, “is that generational thinking is a really big idea throughout the history of sociology and philosophy, but it’s been horribly corrupted by a whole slew of terrible stereotypes, myths and cliches that we get fed from media and social media about these various differences between generations. My task is not to say whether it’s all nonsense or it’s all true; it’s really to separate the myth from reality so we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”
One thing he’s learned is that the template for generational conflict is fairly standard over time, even if the specifics of what’s being contested are not.
“The issues change,” he explains, “but the gap between young and old at any one point in time is actually pretty constant. … We’re not living through a time of particularly ‘snowflake,’ ‘social justice warrior’ young people vs. a very reactionary older group – it’s just the issues have changed. The pattern is the same, but the issues have changed.”
Taking a look at climate change, for example, he notes that there’s a narrative that caring young people are fighting a careless cadre of oldsters unwilling to sacrifice for the future good. Not so fast, Duffy says: “The myth that only young people care about climate is a myth. We are unthinkingly encouraging an ageism within climate campaigning that is not only incorrect, but it is self-destructive.” That example, he notes, adds evidence to his contention that “the fake generational battles we have set up between the generations are just that – they are fake.”
In the podcast, Duffy outlines the breakdowns his book (and in general larger society) uses to identify cohorts of living generations:
He notes that people are already talking about Generation Alpha, but given that generation’s youth it’s hard to make good generalizations about them.
These generation-based groupings are identity groups that only some people freely adopt. “We’re not as clearly defined by these types of groupings as we are by, say, our age or educational status or our gender or our ethnicity.” His research finds between a third and half of people do identify with their generation, and the only one with “a real demographic reality” (as opposed to a solely cultural one) is the Baby Boomers, who in two blasts really did create a demographic bulge.
Duffy, in addition to his work at King’s College London, is currently the chair of the Campaign for Social Science, the advocacy arm of Britain’s Academy of Social Sciences. Over a 30-year career in policy research and evaluation, he has worked across most public policy areas, including being seconded to the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. Before joining KCL he was global director of the Ipsos Social Research Institute.
His first book, 2018’s The Perils of Perception – Why we’re wrong about nearly everything, draws on Ipsos’s own Perils of Perception studies to examine how people misperceive key social realities.
Mon, 1 August 2022
Quite often the ideas of ‘risk’ and of ‘uncertainty’ get bandied about interchangeably, but there’s a world of difference between them and it matters greatly when that distinction gets lost.
That’s a key message from psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, who has created an impressive case for both understanding the distinction and then acting appropriately based on the distinction.
“A situation with risk,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “is one where you basically know everything. More precisely, you know everything that can happen in the future … you know the consequences and you know the probabilities.” It is, as Bayesian decision theorist Jimmie Savage called it, “a small world.”
As an example, Gigerenzer takes us a spin on a roulette wheel – you may lose your money on a low-probability bet, but all the possible options were known in advance.
Uncertainty, on the other hand, means that all future possible events aren’t known, nor are their probabilities or their consequences. Rounding back to the roulette wheel, under risk all possibilities are constrained to the ball landing on a number between 1 and 36. “Under uncertainty, 37 can happen,” he jokes.
“Most situations in which we make decisions,” says Gigerenzer, “involve some sort of uncertainty.”
Dealing with risk versus dealing with uncertainty requires different approaches. With risk, all you need is calculation. With uncertainty, “calculation may help you to some degree, but there is no way to calculate the optimal situation.” Humans nonetheless have tools to address uncertainty. Four he identifies are heuristics, intuition, finding people to trust, and adopting narratives to sustain you.
In this podcast, he focuses on heuristics, those mental shortcuts and rules of thumb that often get a bad rap. “Social science,” he says, “should take uncertainty seriously, and heuristics seriously, and then we have a key to the real world.”
When asked, Gigerenzer lauds Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky for putting “the concept of heuristics back on the table.” But he disagrees with their fast-slow thinking model that gives quick, so-called System 1 thinking less primacy than more deliberative thinking.
“We have in the social sciences a kind of rhetoric that heuristics are always second best and maximizing would be always better. That’s wrong. It is only true in a world of risk; it is not correct in a world of uncertainty, where by definition you can’t find the best solution simply because you don’t know the future.”
Researchers, he concludes, should “take uncertainty seriously and ask the question, ‘In what situations do these heuristics that people use (and experts use) actually work?’ and not just say, ‘They must be wrong because they are a heuristic.’”
Gigerenzer is the director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the University of Potsdam and partner at Simply Rational – The Institute for Decisions. Before that he directed the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and at the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research.
His books include general titles like Calculated Risks, Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, and Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions, as well as academic books such as Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart, Rationality for Mortals, Simply Rational, and Bounded Rationality.
Awards for his work include the American Association for the Advancement of Science Prize for Behavioral Science Research for the best article in the behavioral sciences in 1991, the Association of American Publishers Prize for the best book in the social and behavioral sciences for The probabilistic revolution, the German Psychology Award, and the Communicator Award of the German Research Foundation. He was a 2014 fellow at the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind University of California, Santa Barbara (SAGE Publishing is the parent of Social Science Space) and a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science in 2008.
Fri, 1 July 2022
“It’s been said there are three kinds of people in the world, those who can count and those who can’t count.” So reads a sentence in the book Innumeracy in the Wild: Misunderstanding and Misusing Numbers, published by Oxford University Press in 2020.
The author of Innumeracy in the Wild is Ellen Peters, Philip H. Knight Chair and director of the Center for Science Communications Research at the University of Oregon. In this Social Science Bites podcast, Peters – who started as an engineer and then became a psychologist – explains to interviewer David Edmonds that despite the light tone of the quote, innumeracy is a serious issue both in scale and in effect.
As to scale, she notes that a survey from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found 29 percent of the US adult population (and 24 percent in the UK) can only do simple number-based processes, things like counting, sorting, simple arithmetic and simple percentages. “What it means,” she adds, “is that they probably can’t do things like select a health plan; they probably can’t figure out credit card debt,” much less understand the figures swirling around vaccination or climate change.
Peters groups numeracy into three (a real three this time) categories: Objective numeracy, the ability to navigate numbers that can be measured with a math test; subjective numeracy, which is “not your actual ability, but your confidence in your ability to understand numbers and to use numeric kinds of concepts;” and intuitive or evolutionary numeracy, a human being’s natural ability to do things like quickly determine if a quantity is bigger or smaller than another quantity.
That middle type of numeracy, the subjective, is measured by self-reporting. “The original reasons for developing some of these subjective numeracy scales had to do with them just being a proxy for objective numeracy,” says Peters. “But what’s really interesting is that having numeric confidence seems to free people to be able to use their numeric ability.” While freedom is generally reckoned to be good – and objective results back this up – that’s not the case for those confident about their abilities but actually bad with numbers. Similarly, those who have high ability but are underconfident also do poorly compared to high ability and high confidence individuals.
“There are some very deep psychological habits that people who are very good with numbers have that people who are not as good with numbers don’t have,” Peters explains. “It is the case that people who are highly numerate are better at calculations, but they also just simply have a better, more developed set of habits with numbers.”
Less numerate people “are kind of stuck” with the numeric information as presented to them, rather than transforming the information into something that might better guide their decisions. Peters offered the example of a person with a serious disease being told that a life-saving treatment still has a 10 percent chance of killing them. Highly numerate people recognize that that means it has a 90 percent survival rate, but the less numerate might just fixate on the 10 percent chance of dying.
Closing out the podcast, Peters offers some tips for addressing societal innumeracy. This matters because, she notes, research shows that despite high rates of innumeracy, providing numbers helps people make better decisions, with benefits for both their health and their wealth.
Wed, 1 June 2022
The knowledge economy. Intellectual property. Software. Maybe even bitcoin. All pretty much intangible, and yet all clearly real and genuinely valuable. This is the realm where economist Jonathan Haskel of Imperial College London mints his own non-physical scholarship. “In the old days,” relates the co-author of Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy, “the assets of companies, the sort of secret sauce by which companies would generate their incomes and do their services for which they’re employed for, was very tangible-based. These would be companies with lots of machines, these would be companies with oil tankers, with buildings, with vehicles to transport things around. Nowadays, companies like Google, like Microsoft, like LinkedIn, just look very different.” And that difference, he explains to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, is knowledge. “What they have is knowledge,” says Haskel, “and it’s knowledge assets, these intangible assets, which these companies are deploying.”
Intangible investments, as you might expect, have different properties than do tangible ones. Haskel dubbed them the four S’s:
Meanwhile, intangibles help keep modern economies humming – we think. “Accountants and statistical agencies are quite reluctant to measure intangibles because it’s -- intangible. It’s a rather difficult thing to get at; these are often goods that aren’t traded from one person to another …”
Part of Haskel’s research effort is to quantify how much investment in intangibles is going on “behind the scenes,” which fits in with other interests of his such as re-engineering how gross domestic product gets measured. Businesses are now spending more on intangibles then on tangibles: Haskel’s work reveals that for every monetary unit companies spend on tangible assets, they spend 1.15 on intangible ones.
In addition to serving as a professor at the Imperial College Business School, Haskel is director of the Doctoral Programme at the Imperial. He is an elected member of the Conference on Research in Income and Wealth and a research associate of the Centre for Economic Policy Research, the Centre for Economic Performance, LSE, and the IZA, Bonn.
Haskel has been a non-executive director of the UK Statistics Authority since 2016 and an external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee since 2019.
Mon, 2 May 2022
Sheila Jasanoff, the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is a pioneer in the field of STS. That acronym can be unpacked as either ‘science and technology studies’ or ‘science, technology and society.’ Jasanoff -- who describes herself as a sociologist of knowledge and a constructivist, trained in law, working in the tradition of the interpretive social sciences – is content with either use. “I think that represents two phases of the same field,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “First of all, it’s the field that looks in detail at the institutions of science and technology and asks, ‘What are they like?’ ‘What does it feel like to be doing them?’ ‘What do they operate like as social institutions, as cultures, as formations in society?’ The other face of STS – science, technology and society – is more about how science and technology function when they get out into the world at large.”
Amid that expansive view, some areas, of course, particularly interest Jasanoff. “The more interesting turn,” she details, “was the turn that tried to occupy the territory previously given to philosophy of science, and started asking sociological and political questions about it.”
One such question is the eternal “What is truth?” STS, a brash newcomer, took on the inquiry with gusto.
“It took a kind of arrogance, if you will, certainly a bravery, in the 1970s, to say that, ‘Hey, truth isn’t just out there. It’s not just a Platonic thing and we try to approximate it. We can actually study truth as if it was a social production.’ That,” she explains, “was the heartland of science and technology studies.”
In the interview, Jasanoff outlines how science is often presented as a capital-T repository of Truth even in an age where the ‘death of the expert’ has become a common trope.
Citing the pandemic and how scientific advice changed on mask wearing, Jasanoff argues that “people should not be surprised that in crisis mode the way we know things changes and therefore the advice may change. Science has been sold as a bill of goods for so long that it is the Truth, it is reliable, a fact is always fact the moment we assert it, that these sorts of commonsensical things that we ought to understand have become difficult for people to grasp.” (Jasanoff’s own research often looks at cross-national differences in her research, and after looking at mask-wearing in 16 nations she reports that “only in America has it become an article of faith – are you for science or against science” – based on your mask usage.)
Remember, she continues, “The expert is not an embodiment of scientific fact. An expert is a particular kind of person who is qualified in particular ways, and every time we say ‘qualification,’ something about the English language or about language in general, forces us to look at the skills that allow one to be considered qualified.
“In fact, we should look at the external periphery of the qualification; a qualification sets boundaries on what you know, but it also sets boundaries on what you don’t know.” Expertise is this double edged-thing.”
Jasanoff is the founder and director of Harvard’s Program on Science, Technology and Society. She’s the author of several books aimed at both the academy and the public, such as 1990’s The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers, 2012’s Science and Public Reason, and Can Science Make Sense of Life? in 2019.
The University of Bergen, acting for the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, awarded her the Holberg Prize in March. That was the latest in a slew of honors for her research, including the University of Ghent Sarton Chair and the Reimar Lüst Award from the Alexander von Humboldt and Fritz Thyssen Foundations, a Guggenheim fellowship in 2010, and in 2018 the Albert O. Hirschman Prize from the Social Science Research Council. She is an elected foreign member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where she served on the board of directors.
Tue, 5 April 2022
Any work in social and behavioral science presumably – but not necessarily immediately - tells us something about humans in the real world. To come up with those insights, research usually occurs in laboratory settings, where the researchers control the independent variables and which, in essence, rules out research ‘in the wild.’
“For years,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “economists thought that the world is so ‘dirty’ that you can’t do field experiments. They had the mentality of a test tube in a chemistry lab, and what they had learned was that if there was a speck of dirt in that tube, you’re in trouble because you can’t control exactly what is happening.”
Since this complex real world isn’t getting any cleaner, you could conclusively rule out field experiments, and that’s what the ‘giants’ of economics did for years. Or you could learn to work around the ‘dirt,’ which is what List started doing around the turn of the millennium. “I actually use the world as my lab,” the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago says.
Since an early start centering on sports trading cards and manure-fertilized crop land (real field work, a self-described “bucolic” List happily acknowledges), his university homepage details a raft of field experiments:
“I have made use of several different markets, including using hospitals, pre-K, grammar, and high schools for educational field experiments, countless charitable fundraising field experiments to learn about the science of philanthropy, the Chicago Board of Trade, Costa Rican CEOs, the new automobile market, coin markets, auto repair markets, open air markets located throughout the globe, various venues on the internet, several auction settings, shopping malls, various labor markets, and partnered with various governmental agencies. More recently, I have been engaged in a series of field experiments with various publicly traded corporations—from car manufacturers to travel companies to ride-share.”
In the podcast, List explains, “I don’t anticipate or assume that I have a ‘clean test tube,’ but what I do is I randomly place people into a treatment condition or a control condition, and then what I look at is their outcomes, and I take the difference between those outcomes. That differences out the ‘dirt.’
“I can go to really dirty settings where other empirical approaches really take dramatic assumptions. All I need is really randomization and a few other things in place and then if I just take the simple difference, I can get an average treatment effect from that setting.”
His work – in journal articles, popular books like The Voltage Effect and The Why Axis, in findings applied immediately outside of academe – has earned him widespread praise (Gary Becker terms his output as “revolutionary”), a huge list of honors, and a recurring spot on Nobel shortlists.
For this podcast, List focuses on two of the many areas in which he’s conducted field experiments: charitable giving and the gig economy.
He describes one finding from working with different charities around the world over the last 25 years on what works best to raise money. For example, appeals to potential donors announcing their money would be matched when they gave, doubling or tripling a contribution’s impact. When he started, it was presumed that the greater the leverage offered by a match, the more someone would give, since their total gift would be that much greater.
“There was no science around it … it was art, or gut feeling.” It was also wrong.
List tested the assumption, offering four different appeals to four different groups: one with just an appeal for funding, one with a 1:1 match, one with a 2:1 match, and the last a 3:1 match. And the results bore out that matching a contribution amped up the results – but the leverage didn’t matter. “Just having the match matters, but the rate of the match does not matter.”
List was later the chief economist with ride-share behemoth Uber – and then with its competitor, Lyft. He coined the term Ubernomics for his ability to manipulate the tsunami of data the company generated. “It’s not only that you have access to a lot of data,” he says, “it’s also that you have access to generating a lot of new data. As a field economist, this is a playground that is very, very difficult to beat.”
Tue, 1 March 2022
Kathelijne Koops, a biological anthropologist at the University of Zurich, works to determine what makes us human. And she approaches this quest by intensely studying the use of tools by other species across sub-Saharan Africa.
“Look at us now …” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “We are really the ultimate technological species. And the question is, ‘How did we get to where we are now?’ If we want to know why we are so technological, and how do we acquire tool-use skills, etc., it’s really interesting to look at our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and also bonobos.
“Why do, or don’t they use tools, and what do they use tools for, and what environmental pressures might influence their tool use.”
So Koops has been studying, first as a grad student and now as director of her own lab, the Ape Behaviour & Ecology Group at the University of Zurich, several groups of wild apes. (Chimps and bonobos, along with orangutans and gorillas, are labelled as great apes, and with humans, are members of the family Hominidae.) She also directs the Swiss National Science Foundation-funded Comparative Human and Ape Technology Project, which looks at ecological, social and cognitive factors on the development of tool use.
In this interview, Koops focuses on two decades of work she and her team conducts, along with Guinean collaborators from the Institut de Recherche Environnementale de Bossou, in the Nimba Mountains in the southeastern portion of the West African country of Guinea. The field site is remote, and work takes place in 10-day shifts at one of two camps. Researchers gather data on the chimps during daylight hours – if the chimps cooperate. “If the chimpanzees want to get away they can,” Koops details, “so even though we’ve worked there a long time you cannot follow them all day like you can at some other study sites.” The researchers also use motion-triggered cameras near well-trod areas – the humans dubbed them “chimpanzee highways” – where the chimps frequent.
Among the tool-using behaviors Koops has seen in the study group is seeing these chimps use long sticks to dig up ants for a snack without being devoured themselves, and using stones and branches to open up fruit casings. What this group doesn’t do, she continued, is use “percussive techniques” to open up edible nuts, even though another population of chimps a few kilometers away does exactly that.
To see if it is opportunity or is it necessity that spurred tool use and tool evolution, Koops’ team “cranked opportunity up by a million” by scattering lots of nuts that were otherwise less common in the primary forest habitat of the Nimba residents alongside lots of handy stones good for nut-cracking. The result was … not much innovation by the chimps.
“It really seems difficult to innovate on your own,” she comments. “… They really need to see from another chimpanzee how to crack these nuts.” In general, she notes, there’s not much ‘active teaching’ among her subjects but a lot of observation of older individuals.
She cites other experimenters’ similar work on 4- and 5-year-old humans, which in turn saw similar low instances of innovation. While being careful not to overclaim, Koops says “it looks like some of the building blocks of our culture are really already there in chimps.”
Tue, 1 February 2022
The idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is often trotted out as a metaphor for understanding empathy. The act of imagining someone else’s reactions may be hard, but based on the body of work by George Loewenstein, predicting how -- under varying circumstances -- we might walk in our own shoes may not be all that easier.
Loewenstein is the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His enormous range of research interests can be boiled down, after a lot of boiling, to applying psychology to economics and, more recently, economics to psychology.
His career as a founder of both behavioral economics and neuro-economics has seen him delve deeply into how we react when our “affective state” is cold – when are emotions are absent and our physical needs are currently met – compared to when our affective state is hot. The latter is when out emotions are active or when our passions, as the old philosophers might term things like things hunger, thirst, pain, sexual desire, are pulling us.
It turns out, as he explains to interview David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “when we are in one affective state it’s difficult for us to imagine how we would behave if we were in a different affective state. … The worst mistakes we make are when we are in a cold state, because we just can’t imagine how we would behave if we were in a hot state.”
While this may seem like something we know intuitively (or after years of high-profile experiments by Lowenstein, his frequent collaborator Leaf VanBoven, and others have conducted, several described in this podcast), it’s not something we act on intuitively. “No matter how many times we experience fluctuations in affective states,” Loewenstein says, “it just seems we don’t learn about this. We are always going to mis-predict how we’re going to behave when we’re in a hot state if we’re making the prediction when we’re in a cold state.”
This, in turn, affects the products of people who make predictions (or if you prefer, policy prescriptions) as a profession, he adds, such as economists.
“According to conventional economics, when we make decisions about the future we should be thing about what it is will we want in the future. What all of these results show is that your current state influences your prediction about what you’re going to want in the future; it influences these decisions that we make for the future in unproductive, self-destructive ways.”
Mon, 10 January 2022
“I tell my students, ‘If somebody utters the sentence that starts with the words, “History teaches us” the rest of the sentence is probably wrong.’ History has no direct lessons for almost anything. Our own age is sufficiently different, sufficiently unique, from what happened in the past that any facile lessons from history are more likely to mislead than to enlighten.”
For example, he explains that “the good old days weren’t all that good and that the very best time to be born in human history is today. That sounds hard to believe in an age where we’re all running around with face masks and facing quarantine, but it’s still true.”
For his own part, Mokyr tells interviewer Dave Edmonds, “I use economics to understand history, and I use history to understand economics.” Mokyr’s ties to economic history are deep: he was president of the Economic History Association in 2003-04, spent four years in 1990s as senior editor of the Journal of Economic History, was editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, and is currently editor-in-chief of the Princeton University Press Economic History of the Western World series of monographs.
From that perch, he explains, presumably with a smile, that his peers work with ‘expired data.’ Economic historians “scour the past looking for large data sets that we can use in some way to make inferences. The issue of causality becomes somewhat of an obsession in economics these days, and economic history is very much a part of this.”
In this interview, Mokyr details how the improvement in the human condition he cited above is connected to the Industrial Revolution. “The Industrial Revolution is particularly important because that’s where it all started -- before 1750 almost nowhere in the world were living standards approaching anything but miserable and poor.”
Economic activity before the year 1750 was mostly the story of trade, he explains, while after 1750, it became the story of knowledge. “The Industrial Revolution was the slow replacement of trade and finance and commerce by another thing, and that is growing knowledge of natural phenomena and rules that can be harnessed to material welfare of people.”
To demonstrate this approach, he offered the example of steel. While it has been made for centuries it wasn’t until 1780 that anyone knew roughly why this alloy of iron and carbon resulted in such a useful metal, and therefore could exploit its properties more by design than by chance. “If you don’t know why something works,” Mokyr said, “it’s very difficult to improve it, to tweak it.”
Mokyr’s scholarship has earned him a variety of honors, including the biennial Heineken Prize by the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences for a lifetime achievement in historical science in 2006. He has also written a number of prize-winning books, including The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy, and most recently, A Culture of Growth.