Pursuit of Truthiness

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Productivity Notes to Past-Me

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I’m not the most productive academic out there, but my improvement from the start of graduate school 9 years ago is huge. I used to chronically procrastinate, saving problem sets and studying for the last minute and so not spending enough time on them to do well. I spent most of graduate school stressed about how I should be working more and worrying about failing out (which I almost did 3 times).

Now I’m able to publish several papers per year while teaching 3 classes and chasing a toddler, all with much less stress and anxiety. What happened?

Honestly, part of it is likely just a few more years of brain development together with a kind of work that I find more enjoyable. But think another part is the discovery of some tricks that would have been helpful all along.

1. The idea that you should be working 80 hour weeks is actually harmful. 30-40 hours is plenty if it is quality time. Rather than thinking you should be working all the time and feeling bad when you don’t, set specific realistic goals (solve these problems, or write this section, or work for 3 hours) and be happy when you accomplish them and ready for more the next day, setting up a virtuous circle. The classic “work smart, not hard” advice applies.

2. A lot of “working smart” is finding ways to avoid or minimize non-crucial work. You want to have clear medium-term goals (like pass this class, or get this paper to a journal) and figure what the most important proximate step is to accomplish it. This sounds obvious but it is amazing how much work does not proceed in this manner. For coursework, the most important proximate step is usually doing problem sets; if you are spending your time doing something else like reading the notes/textbook this should be because you think it is actually the best way to solve a specific problem. Reading blogs is definitely not work.

Right now, I have a paper I want to get published. If that’s going to happen, it must be submitted to a journal; for that to happen, I absolutely need to update the background/theory section to indicate how I expect the variable of interest to affect the dependent variables. There are all kind of other things I could do that I could call “working on the paper”, like reading more of the literature or running more regressions. Doing those things might improve the paper 10% but only the background/theory section is going to bump it from unpublishable-at-a-legitimate-journal to publishable, so that’s what I’m going to start with (and possibly, end with; I have other things to get to).

3. Related to this, the Pareto Principle is everywhere- there are just so, so many situations where putting in 20% of the effort gets you 80% of the way there. A big part of what “working smart” means is to figure out what that 20% is and always do it, and do it first; then to figure out what is the 80% of the work that gets the last 20% and do it second or possibly not at all.

4. This is probably a good time to talk about exercise. You think you are “too busy”, but you’re wrong. For one, in the long-run exercise up to at least 1hr/day is a free lunch because it puts you in a mental state that improves your productivity that much (the same thing applies to 8hrs/night of sleep). And yes, you should be thinking about the long-run and not just the next deadline; there is always a next deadline and you’ll be at this for a lifetime. Also, the Pareto principle goes even further with exercise than it does with most of the rest of life. You don’t bother lifting weights because you imagine you need to spend 1hr/day in the gym to make a difference, but actually 0.5hrs/WEEK is enough to make huge improvements if you’re doing it right and consistently.

5. You’re reading a lot less than you used to, with non-fiction books going almost to zero, because it feels like reading is using the same mental muscles that work/school does. I’m reading more non-fiction than ever, largely because I’m not reading but listening (audiobooks). You have this vague prejudice against them, thinking that you don’t absorb the material as well this way. This might actually be true, but think Pareto- better to absorb 80% of all the books I’m listening to than 100% of the zero books you are reading. Lots of free audiobooks at the library, now downloadable to your phone. E-books on the phone also provide a higher quality of distraction than e.g. social media.

6. I know you want to hear about software, since that seems like the easiest thing to change, and in some way’s you’re right. The combination of Google Calendar and Workflowy has made me much less likely to totally forget about things while also reducing stress somewhat (I’m not worrying about what I’m forgetting to do). The challenge is to remember to enter events and deadlines into the calendar as soon as you hear about them, and to remember to check it every day for what’s happening; this is hard at first but soon becomes second nature. The same applies for to-do lists in Workflowy, which is also a great way to take notes or keep things like paper ideas (I now have 11k words worth of paper ideas stored in there; coming up with ideas might sound hard now but once you start reading the recent literature and going to conferences you’ll get plenty). Workflowy is free to use, but charges $5/month for a pro version, which you’ll only need if you actually find it super useful. Which makes this a good time to talk about money…

7. You’re super-cheap, which isn’t a bad thing generally but is pretty dumb when it comes to anything likely to enhance productivity. Think what better productivity means for your expected lifetime income and happiness. Anything that could detectably improve it is likely to be quite valuable, whether that is software or coffee or books or proper climate control. Think- if it were logistically and ethically possible to buy outputs like higher grades or more papers, wouldn’t your willingness to be huge? Now, there are all these inputs that are easily and ethically available that will probabilistically raise those outputs, so shouldn’t your willingness to be be an appreciable fraction of that huge number? Also, if you’re such a fan of Milton Friedman, maybe you could at least 10% act like the Permanent Income Hypothesis is true.

8. Some things just work differently for different people or different types of work. I feel like there has to be a lot you can learn from how Eleanor does what she does, but 2018 me still hasn’t figured that one out.

Overall though, it does get much better, keep at it.

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What makes popular academics popular?

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While most academics work in obscurity, we still show up in the media more than most professions, and a few of us approach genuine celebrity status. What makes these outliers so popular?

An article in the latest New Yorker on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon makes for an interesting case study, particularly as he suddenly became internet-famous in his mid-’50’s following relative obscurity in his field and with the public.

Popularity outside the field often stems from success within it; winning a Nobel, for instance, guarantees a lot of coverage. But some academics succeed wildly with the public following an indifferent reception by their peers, as Peterson shows. He has other features common to popular academics- working on topics that a lot of people find accessible and interesting, and speaking with confidence that borders on hyperbole (most of us might as well be in a competition for ‘most nuanced’).

Another important example, especially for people who aren’t already at the top of their fields, seems to be focusing on a new communication technology that the more established players aren’t using yet. A lot of current public intellectuals are those who jumped into blogging, podcasting or Twitter early and put a lot of time and effort into it. In economics, Tyler Cowen has succeeded best at converting this internet popularity into the trappings of more traditional public-intellectual success: best-selling books and New York Times columns.

Of course, now blogging, podcasting and Twitter are relatively saturated, and no longer present such an opportunity for those that aren’t already well-known. Oddly for a platform that most Americans use, Facebook still seems underused as a platform for reaching people you don’t already know; in economics, Robert Reich seems to have gained popularity by realizing this, along with a good dose of hyperbole. For Peterson, the underused platform was Youtube- again, hugely popular but not really used by academics to popularize their work.

The most under-appreciated reason for why most academics aren’t popular is probably that most simply don’t want to be. Either they don’t see fame as a positive, or they recognize that if they get lots of attention, much of it is likely to be negative. At a minimum, anyone with much internet presence is guaranteed to get criticized in the comments, and often in the main articles. Perhaps more importantly for academics, while a few media mentions increase your standing in the field, getting too popular with the public and the press is a near-universal recipe for having your own field turn on you. This can be from jealously, envy, disappointment that you are taking time away from “real work”, or the perception that you are using too much dumbing-down and hyperbole. For instance, economists often express disappointment in Paul Krugman’s journey from great economist in the 1980’s, to good economist and good public intellectual in the 1990’s, to not-an-economist and famous-but-mediocre pundit after turning up the hyperbole in the 2000’s.

Paul Krugman, Slavoj Zizek, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Jared Diamond, Niall Ferguson, Stephen Pinker…. you can debate how much the hate is deserved vs misplaced but it is always there. For Peterson it has come with unusual speed and intensity. Is it that his hyperbole and dumbing-down is really worse than other celebrity psychologists or self-help types? Is it his “anti-radical-left” political stances? Much of it seems to stem from his audience being primarily young men. Focusing on an audience largely ignored by other academics is part of how he succeeded in the first place; most of us are targeting middle-aged NYT-reading, NPR-listening types, without explicitly realizing it of course.

The easiest way to win is always to be playing a different game than everyone else.

Personally, I hope to do work that people will find interesting enough to read and discuss, but this level of fame does not seem appealing.

Written by James Bailey

March 11, 2018 at 11:08 am

Why I Don’t Post About The Latest Outrage

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Most of all, because when a dozen of my Facebook friends are already posting about the same thing, it would be boring to repeat them.

But I also seriously wonder if making that 13th post might do more harm than good. Not just because it might lead people to hasty over-reactions that do obvious harm. But because talking about problems doesn’t always have therapeutic effects; sometimes it can very directly make things worse.

First, because it can be bad as therapy. Second, because making it seem as if the outrageous behavior in question is common makes people more likely to do it– even for the worst crimes. Finally, because making it seem as though more people are victims facing an unjust world they can’t do anything about removes their internal locus of control, leading to all manner of worse outcomes.

Near my house, there is a billboard that keeps a running count of how many transgender people have been murdered this year. I assume it was put there by some well-meaning group that sees raising awareness as a necessary first step to reducing the number of murders. But suppose there was a group whose goal was to make transgender people live in fear, scare others away from transitioning, and encourage more copycat murders- wouldn’t they want to put up the exact same billboard?

Next time you see some story that makes you angry, think before sharing it with everyone else. If it makes you feel better to post it, then I suppose you might as well, but please don’t post merely out of a misguided sense that you are necessarily making the world a better place by doing so.

Written by James Bailey

October 2, 2016 at 11:59 am

Thinking, Fast and Slow

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Daniel Kahneman’s new book amazes me. Not so much due to the content, though I’m sure that will blow your mind if you haven’t previously heard about it through studying behavioral economics or psychology or reading Less Wrong. It is the writing style: Kahneman is able to convey his message succinctly while making it seem intuitive and fascinating. Some academics can write tolerably well, but Kahneman seems to be on a level with those who write popularly with a living- the style of a Jonah Lehrer or Malcolm Gladwell, but no one can accuse the Nobel-prize-winning Kahneman of lacking substance.
This made me wonder if it is simply an unfair coincidence that Kahneman is great at both writing and research, or causation is at work here. True, in more abstract and mathematical fields great researchers do not seem especially likely to be great writers (Feynman aside). But to design and carry out great psychology experiments may require understanding the subject intuitively and through introspection. This kind of understanding- an intuitive understanding of everyday decision-making- may be naturally easier to share than other kinds of scientific knowledge, which use processes (say, math) or examine territories (say, subatomic particles) which are unfamiliar to most people. Kahneman says that he developed the ideas for most of his papers by talking with Amos Tversky on long walks. I suspect that this strategy leads to both good idea generation and a good, conversational writing style.

Written by James Bailey

April 13, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Institutionalism: Neoclassicism’s Big-Government Twin

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It was not inevitable that economics would end up in anything like its current form.

In fact, even well after much of the basics of economics were developed, Institutionalism remained as a viable alternative. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, two of the four major economics graduate programs in the US (Columbia and Wisconsin) were primarily Institutionalist. The Institutionalists thought of themselves as the wave of the future, creating a more scientific economics that would displace the old.

Nowadays, of course, if modern economists think of Old Institutionalists at all, they often say something like Ronald Coase did: “American institutionalists…. had nothing to pass on except a mass of descriptive material waiting for a theory or a fire”.

So what happened? What is Institutionalism? As you might expect, it focuses on institutions. These are notoriously tricky to define, but their definition is something like “rules both explicit (like laws) and implicit (like social norms)”. Their method was to try to be empirical (focus on the real world) and try to avoid unrealistic simplifying assumptions in theories.

The best-known example of Institutional empiricism is Wesley Mitchell’s founding the National Bureau for Economic Research (now a stronghold of orthodox neoclassical economics) to collect data about business cycles. In terms of goals, Institutionalists wanted to be scientific (which nowadays we might interpret as being impartial, doing positive rather than normative work), but also to achieve social control. According to Malcolm Rutherford, “the phrase ‘social control’ became almost a mantra for the Institutionalists of the time”. Institutionalist Helen Everett said that social control was “perhaps their central organizing principle”. By “social control”, the Instituionalists meant that they wanted society generally to control business, though I can’t help but hear the phrase as meaning that Institutionalists wanted themselves to control society and business. Certainly,  as the “social control” mantra suggests, they were almost always pushing for more government rather than less.

The best-known Institutionalist is Thorstein Veblen, the author of “Theory of the Leisure Class”, after whom Veblen goods are named. Reading his work I have thought he is funny and a master of criticism and satire, but it starts to grate that all his criticism is unconstructive. Apparently other Institutionalists agreed: Rexford Tugwell said Veblen “had discredited orthodox economics and had undermined the business culture” but that “all the constructive work remained to be done”, and Wesley Mitchell started trying in 1910 to push Veblen toward more scientific and constructive work.

Some criticism proved constructive, in that it spurred others to create new and useful tools. Institutionalist economists criticized neoclassicals for not being consistent with the findings of other fields, especially psychology. This should remind you of behavioral economics today, and it sounds quite reasonable to try to be consistent, but it also reveals a possible flaw in behavioral economics: sometimes, economics is actually right and psychology is actually wrong. At least, the early-1900’s psychology the Institutionalists wanted to incorporate was behaviorism (confusingly named since its ideas are unrelated to behavioral economics). Behavioralists wanted to refer only to observable things, not unobservable states of mind. This criticism helped spur the creation of indifference curves (so we don’t refer to cardinal utility, which was thought to be unobservable), and the general economist insistence on only using revealed preference. That’s right, two of the very things heterodox critics of economics like to complain about today were actually developed to answer a previous generation of heterodox critics.

The movement slowly faded away after World War II, after neoclassicals proved themselves more useful in the war planning, answered some critiques of institutionalists (through the Ordinal Revolution and the Keynesian Revolution), and Samuelson and Arrow pushed ahead with their mathematics.   The Institutionalists provide an important reminder that, for better or worse, economics does not have to be the way it is and may not remain this way forever. Institutionalism was the most recent movement to pose a credible threat to orthodox economics from the outside and fail to be co-opted (the way game theory is now at the core of neoclassical economics, and behavioral economics has been appended as an asterisk), but it may not be the last.

Written by James Bailey

April 12, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Does Politics Actually Make Us Dumber?

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It is sometimes said that while talking about politics the average person loses 15 IQ points. You could look for evidence that this effect persists with a classic priming experiment: people are randomly assigned to answer questions about either current political issues or something innocuous before taking an IQ test. See if the people who recently had politics on the brain did worse than those who didn’t.

This test may already have been done inadvertently by someone trying to figure out which political groups have higher IQ scores, since the same experiment could also provide evidence on that front.

Bonus: If the experiment finds the predicted effect, calculate what the lengthening US election cycle may be doing to average effective IQ (and therefore GDP, et c).

Written by James Bailey

August 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm