Friday, May 20, 2011

A Mater of Truthiness

I’ve been doing some research on lying lately. There’s a wealth of really interesting literature out there, but most of it is (IMHO) flawed. The main method of collecting data is based on surveys. Basically, this means the researchers are asking people to honestly tell them about instances of dishonest behaviour. I’d be counting on you to tell me the truth about lying.

I’ve been using a different technique. I give subjects an opportunity to lie to another subject for money. Depending on the situation, a little more than half the people I had as subjects (about 200) lied. Not all that surprising. What surprised me is the types of things that seem to influence a person’s likelihood of lying.

I designed the experiment to see if there was a difference in lying based on if the subject faced a potential gain or a potential loss. An asymmetric value function, like the one I’ve written about here before, predicts that people are more likely to lie when facing a loss. This is actually what I discover. So pay extra attention when dealing with someone who has something to lose.

The common perception is that women are more trustworthy than men. Well, not in this experiment. Men and women were equally likely to lie. Some other researchers using similar environments found that women were actually less likely to lie for monetary gain. These experiments were done in Sweden and the US. Canadian women,it seems, are more like males than their Swedish or American sisters. Score one for Canadian equality?

Having divorced parents is known to mess kids up. I found that people who’s parents are divorced are more likely to lie than others. What I found really interesting though was that people who reported being raised by a single parent were a lot less likely to lie. I’m not sure why that might be. Keep in mind that I’ve got a sample selection problem in that the people I’m talking about are all university students. So it might be that only the most well adjusted/honest kids raised by a single parent make it that far.

One of my favourite results of this work is that the faculty of the student seems to make a difference. In particular, business students lie a lot more than others. There are a couple of interesting possibilities. First, business students may be more sensitive to monetary reward and are therefore more likely to lie for cash. It could also be that business students have a lower “cost” of lying and are more likely to do it. These are similar, but not quite the same thing. It could also be that business students are more competitive. Lying meant you ended up with more money than the other person in this environment. That could have been a key motivating factor.

In short, we don’t really have a handle on why and when people lie. We’re getting better at catching them in the act, but predicting when it will happen? Not really sure.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Building silos

This is about something I've noticed on and off over my years in the alternate universe that is the academy.  A great many faculty and other people bemoan the formation of discipline silos, and yet nobody seems to have a grasp on how and why they form.  I'm starting to think they are the inevitable result of a number of forces that aren't going to disappear soon.

Let's start with one that's near and dear to every economist's heart; specialization.  There are huge gains to be made in almost every field of human endeavor by having different people focus on different things.  Knowledge creation is no different than any other human endeavor in this regard.  We can delve more deeply into things through specialization.  As our body of knowledge increases, the number of things someone needs to know to be able to make a meaningful contribution increases.  The number of academic articles published across disciplines every month is more than a life time's reading, never mind an entire discipline's worth of background material.  So the silos are in part a natural part of the growing body of knowledge.

Specialized methods of analysis:  An increasing number of disciplines have moved away from the ancient philosophy mode of figuring out how things work, namely words and thought experiments.  The use of formal mathematic models can create a barrier to entry that is hard for many to overcome.  This division between disciplines, even when studying the same problems, makes cross understanding difficult.  A small, but growing, number of academics are able to translate complex mathematical concepts into something more accessible.  It's a long between theoretical physics and postmodern art.

Resources:  This is the dirty little secret of universities in developed countries.  A growing share of a university's budget is not devoted to academic staff.  Instead it is being spent on a variety of other things, some legitimate, others ...  let's just say I'm not convinced yet.  The resulting fights for resources tend to make interdisciplinary cooperation difficult.  In order get new positions or often to even replace retiring faculty, a remarkable battle with highly uncertain rules and potential outcomes ensues.  Often, but not consistently enough to make it truly workable, resource allocations come down to the number of students who have declared a discipline as their major.

Confirmation bias:  Now we focus on students.  People choose disciplines and view disciplines based on their own preconceptions.  How could they not?  Which discipline will someone who believes poverty is the result of an oppressive system choose?  It likely isn't evolutionary biology.  It isn't likely to be economics, though it does happen.  By the same token someone who believes in self determination isn't likely to pursue a degree in sociology. This self selection reenforces the things that make the disciplines different.  Thus a difference between disciplines that starts out small will be continually reenforced until the gulf between the disciplines becomes almost impossible to cross.  

All of these processes combine to make the gulf between disciplines hard to transcend.  Maybe, just maybe, the gains of these silos out weigh the costs.