Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Hormones of Governmental Trust?

Oxytocin configuration

There was an interesting segment on NPR with Paul Zak (neuroscientist at Claremont)  and Margaret Levi (political scientist at U. Washington).

I’ve written earlier about the role of oxytocin in trust of strangers, but Zak has recently done some research that he believes explains how  oxytocin produces higher trust in strangers which then produces higher trust in government.  A “two-step” process.

Margaret Levi said Zak’s finding is consistent with Robert Putnam’s bottom-up hypothesis of trust that he highlighted in Bowling Alone.

“Putnam argues that the way in which trust in government is generated is basically bottom up. It’s from the relationships that we form with others through various kinds of neighborhood and local organizations – soccer clubs, choir groups. And we come to have confidence and trust in each other. And that trust in people leads to a trust in the institutions of government and the institutions of the economy.”

Both Levi and Putnam recognize that if the government in turn is dishonest, trust in government evaporates.

Zak notes in his controversial work that the connection between lower trust in government and harder economic times may be that economic recessions are stressful and stress is a toxin for oxytocin.

The piece also is interesting in describing a girl (“Isabelle”) with Williams syndrome where due to a hormonal imbalance and an excess of oxytocin, she trusts everyone, in a world where only some can be trusted.  Her mom is incapable of teaching her to be less trusting since she is fighting Isabelle’s biology.

When The ‘Trust Hormone’ Is Out Of Balance” (4/22/10, NPR)

The social spread of autism diagnoses

Flickr photo by alecani

Peter Bearman, from Columbia University, presented work at the Harvard Inequality Seminar on pathways for the spread of autism.  Bearman is most interested in hypotheses about toxic causes of autism (one of his theories of a likely suspect is pesticides, based on a higher prevalence of autism diagnoses for youth who lived along golf fairways, especially along private golf courses, but he has not been able to prove that yet).  Bearman and collaborators hoped to use incidence of autism among Hispanics in the pesticide-rich Central Valley to prove this, but hispanic autism rates were too highly volatile depending on whether autism diagnoses could put families at risk for deportation or being reported to the INS.

What Bearman did present on was findings resulting from pairing millions of birth records with autism diagnoses in California; he and coauthors found that over 50% of the increase in autism in California in recent years may be spread through social networks and proximity to other autistically-diagnosed youth.

Bearman does not know friendship networks specifically but does know place at birth or during various years of childhood.  He finds, controlling for environmental factors and risk factors (like age of mother at birth, gender, education of mother, etc.) that people who lived within 250 meters (basically the length of a cul-de-sac) of someone with an autism diagnosis who shared a social institution (mall, park or preschool) were 38% more likely to be diagnosed as autistic in the following year whereas those who were the same distance apart from someone diagnosed with autism who shared a non-social institution (cemetary, radiation specialist, dentist, etc.) were not any more likely to be diagnosed with autism.

The only persistent cluster in California for higher incidence of autism from 2000-2005 by place of birth (controlling for all known factors) was one in north Hollywood Hills, near Northridge.  Bearman suspects it was an environmental risk that people were exposed to (a nuclear meltdown that occurred there in 1964) that increased number of autism diagnoses slightly, followed by a four-decade-long cascade caused by social processes: parents who lived close to someone diagnosed with autism were sensitized to these factors and were more likely to diagnose their own child as autistic and work with doctors to verify this diagnosis.  The biggest increases were at opposite ends of the spectrum: both among high-functioning individuals and similarly among low-functioning individuals (who pushed doctors for an autism-mental retardation classification, which offered greater access to services and resources, than a sole mental retardation classification).  The diagnosis of autism was generally done between the ages of 3 and 5 and done only on the basis of self-presentation and parental explanation.  These social networks helped parents find physicians and navigate the California bureaucratic process.  He doesn’t think that it was the influence of doctors since closer distance from a doctor that had diagnosed children as autistic did not predict these children being more likely to be diagnosed as autistic themselves.  (And density of pediatricians did not have an effect.)

Bearman ducked a question of whether this outcome was a desirable one.  For the low-functioning autistic children, they would have gotten special ed services regardless of whether they were classified solely as mentally retarded or as autistic-MR, but for the high-functioning children classified as having autism, they would have gotten more in the way of special ed services, presumably at the expense of all other children (as special ed costs absorbed a higher percentage of the budget).  Bearman focused on the benefit to parents of children who got a high-functioning autistic diagnosis and didn’t address whether this concentrated school resources on a small number of high functioning “autistic” children at the possible expense of other same age children who were not diagnosed with special education needs.  He said that children diagnosed at age 3 with autism do not seem to show any higher final performance outcomes than children diagnosed with autism at age 6; the latter group catches up in outcomes to the earlier-diagnosed autistic children by age 9.  He does not believe there is any kind of objective standard of which of these higher-functioning kids is truly autistic or not.

One person asked whether the Internet would obviate the effect of this physical proximity.  Bearman thinks it will not and that we use the Internet for decisions like choosing a restaurant or finding the cheapest place to buy something but not for picking a doctor or navigating bureaucracy.  That geographic proximity continues to play a role in 2000 or 2004 is testament to the staying power of localized real interactions in the age of the Internet.

Bearman notes that there is no relationship between vaccine use as children and autism, but notes that the spread of Autism Advocacy Organizations (which spread as the number of individuals in a zipcode who are diagnosed with autism) is associated with a higher refusal of vaccines.  Thus he expects that in the future we will see a relationship between these advocacy organizations and the downstream increase in mumps, rubella, measles, etc. as more children opt out of these vaccines.

Bearman noted that in recent years, the rates of increase in California among higher-SES households has slowed, presumably he remarked because such families now see other diagnoses that offer a better array of services for their special need children, and because as the SES-gradient has declined, an autism diagnosis conveys less status.

To read some of this work, see for example “Social Influence and the Autism Epidemic“, American Journal of Sociology, 115(5): 1387-14343 (2010).

Putnam: The Perfect (Temporary) Storm in Declining Trust

(Flickr photo Kalieye)

Robert Putnam appeared on Talk of the Nation yesterday concerning the recent Pew Research Center surveys on Trust in Government showing that trust in government is at a several decade low.

Putnam noted that  surveys of trust in local or national government mainly flow from macro assessments of how well things are going in society and whether government is honest and trustworthy, not personal experiences with bureaucracy.

Putnam observed that record high levels of trust in government post WW-II “stemmed from the success of the U.S. government in…getting out of the Great Depression and winning the War….It didn’t mean that they were necessarily happy or unhappy when they…filled out their IRS form…. That high level of trust collapsed first …  around the time of intervention in Vietnam and then another big drop when Watergate was revealed….”

Putnam noted the strong connections between the condition of the economy and trust. Pew’s work and others shows rising trust in the 1980s and much of the 1990s. Given that the economy is now in the worst shape it has been since the Great Depression, Putnam  thinks “it’s not at all surprising that people are expressing very low levels of trust in government…Americans have always been a little skeptical about government. We historically have had a much smaller – and still do today – a much smaller government than most other countries at our stage in rate of development and so on. So it is true that Americans are a little more skeptical than most people in the world about government.”

While Putnam comments that it is hard for any government to overcome recession, mount a new health insurance effort, if the government succeeds, which he is fairly confident it will, the part in power will get credit for that.  “So I am not one of those who thinks that … we’ve entered some kind of dark hole in …which we spiral ever downward to lower trust in the government. I think we are in the midst of a perfect storm, but even perfect storms pass.”

Putnam’s takeaway from the Pew survey:

I think that the survey shows how big the hole is we’re in at the moment. And I do think that this level of distrust in government is a problem for all of us, actually. It’s a problem actually for even those of us who are, regardless of our political views, because we need government to get some basic things done, and it’s harder to get things done … when many of us don’t trust it.

[It’s also]… harder to motivate good workers….I’m not basically deeply pessimistic. I think that this is basically a decent country and that when government starts doing things demonstrably – I don’t mean just passing bills, I mean things start improving, the economy, people’s health care and so on, the government will get credit for it. And so I think this – at the moment, we’re in a particularly unpleasant downward vicious circle, but I think we can turn that around, and I think it’ll be good for the country if we do.

On partisanship: The increased partisanship “… is a serious problem. I think that’s a somewhat unrelated issue, but it is no doubt that…the degree of partisanship has changed enormously, even just over the last 10 or 15 years, and I think that’s bad for the country.”

On variation of trust from place to place: Depending on how good (non-corrupt, efficient) the local government is, in some places residents trust the local government more than the national government.  “Blacks, especially in the South before the civil rights movement, …had extremely low levels of trust in local government and extremely high levels of trust, extremely high levels of trust in the national government. That was not kind of something that was just in their minds, and it didn’t have anything to do with the particular actions about how they were treated at the post office. It had to do with the fact that local government was more racist, and the national government was less racist.”

Hear NPR Talk of the Nation story “What’s It Like to be a Government Worker” (4/19/10)

Growing Disapproval of Congress and government

(Photo by Lergik)

Gallup’s recent Ethics survey showed how low opinions of Congress have fallen.

In late August, a Rassmussen survey suggested that 57% of Americans would prefer getting rid of all Congresspersons and re-electing a new slate.

In a Pew survey from November, 2009: “About About half (52%) of registered voters would like to see their own representative re-elected next year, while 34% say that most members of Congress should be re-elected. Both measures are among the most negative in two decades of Pew Research surveys.”

Of course, there is always a strange discrepancy here:  Americans say that Congress is terrible, but most Americans think highly (or at least more highly) of their OWN representative.  [For example, a 2006 FOX poll found that 27% approve of Congress' performance but 53% approve of their own representative's performance.] And more than 90% of Congresspersons are re-elected each year.

Between 1980 and 1994 net ratings of own representative (% approve minus % disapprove) ranged from 40 to 60 points positive (with highs in 1984 and 1988). Net ratings of Congress ranged from 20 points positive to almost -40.  The trends in both net ratings (Congress and own representative) have been sharply down since 1988.  (See “Great Theatre: The American Congress in the 1990s.”)  See also recent NY Times poll (4/10) that showed 17% approving of Congress and 73% disapproving (or a net approval of -56); this was even stronger among Tea Party sympathizers where net approval of their representative was -9 percentage points and net approval of Congress was -95 (1% approved and 96% disapproved).

Since 1994, net approval ratings have fallen further.  For example, polls by Gallup and FOX in late 2008 had negative net ratings of Congress of -60 (generally with approval rates in teens and disapproval rates in the -70s).   For some of these trends, see here.  Net approval ratings of one’s own Congressperson fell to the high twenties or low thirties by 2006/2007 (in ABC/Washington Post polls).  But a most recent NY Times poll conducted of the general public (in conjunction with a poll on Tea Party sympathizers), found that 46% approved of the job of their representative versus 36% that disapproved.

How is it possible that most Congresspeople are highly rated by constituents but the collective body is poorly rated?  Few bad apples.  Everyone doing a relatively job of representing their constituents but relatively few putting national priorities ahead of their parochial interests.  Ratings are lower for individuals who they just don’t know.  Political parties as an institution are more interested in making other party look bad (to increase number of seats in the next election) than in getting things done.  Increasing role of special interests, PACs, lobbyists.  And the decline of the numbers of moderates in Congress (as articulated by Mo Fiorina and McCarty/Poole/Rosenthal) are decreasingly enabling Congress to find important middle ground.

And this is the graph over time of trust of government from Pew Surveys (darker blue line), which staged a resurgence from 1996-2001 but has been declining steadily since then, and is now at a near all time low.


Folks in your area distrusting? Blame the weather 1500 years ago

Flickr photo by wink

Ruben Durante (PhD candidate from Brown Univ. in political economy, May 2010) has an interesting job-market paper exploring the origins of social trust by examining variability in precipitation and temperature 1000-1500 years ago.

He posits that norms of trust developed as a result of collective action and mutual insurance triggered by farmers coping with dramatic climatic change.  While most of these areas have now become industrialized, these medieval norms lived on.

For a copy of his paper (c. Nov. 2009) see here.   He compares contemporary social trust (using European Social Survey data) with reconstructed paleoclimatic temperatures from 1500-1900.  (For the statistical junkies out there, one standard deviation in precipitation variability corresponds with a .17 standard deviation increase in social trust and this is robust to controlling for average temperature, terrain ruggedness, soil quality, standard deviation in soil quality, etc.).  The effect, while statistically significant, is not that large, but it is still amazing that weather 1000-1500 years ago convincingly predicts social trust today.

While Durante hasn’t run his data on Italy specifically, his results might help explain the puzzling finding of my colleague Robert Putnam who found that high-trust Italian regions in the north were also the same regions that were high trusting in 1500.  My hunch is that there is much greater temperature and precipitation in the high-trusting northern regions of Italy than in the southern regions of Italy so Durante’s results would likely hold up in Italy specifically.  Durante hasn’t run this same analysis within Italy, or worldwide for that matter.

I’m not sure that I see how his study explains another anomaly in social trust.  There is a remarkable similarity if you rank the average trust levels of third generation immigrants to the U.S. sorted by their grandparents’ home country with contemporary levels of social trust in those countries.  In other words, if one looks at third generation immigrants to America, you find, for example, that the third generation Swedes or Norweigians are at the top of the list in social trust and the third generation Brazilians, for example, are among the least trusting American third generation immigrants.  These rankings look remarkably like the rankings of those countries today by social trust.  In other words, for immigrants whose ancestors came over 70-100 years ago and who are doing little to affect social trust back in their origin countries, both their offsprings’ level of social trust and the level of trust of natives who remained in those origin countries 70-100 years later are remarkably similar.  That’s quite a mystery, and doesn’t seem explained by Durante’s paper on temperature and precipitation variability since the immigrants have moved to a new country whose social norms were presumably influenced (according to Durante) by what precipitation and temperature variability were in the “new country” (America), not their old country.

Anyway, food for thought…

Flawless trust?

Flickr photo by TimOve

Scott Andrews Selby and Greg Campbell’s non-fiction page-turner Flawless describes the diamond heist of the century in Antwerp.  [Greg Campbell previously wrote Blood Diamonds.] But along the way, the authors have an interesting discussion of just how essential trust is for the diamond bourses, even amidst all their multi-million dollar security, and the human efforts they undertake to ensure that trust.

The bourses formed in the late 1800s and early 1900s as clubs where diamantaires could wheel and deal with people who had been vetted by a membership committee.

The men in the Beurs voor Diamanthandel – as well as the three other bourses in the [Antwerp Diamond] district…could be as causal as their Pelikaanstraat forebears [who met on a park bench to exchange diamonds] because membership in the bourse was as reassuring as a Brinks truck.  Someone walking in the front doors of any of the bourses would not get through the turnstiles in the lobby unless he was either a member or a guest of a member.  Once inside the building, an invited guest could visit a private office but could not enter the trading hall itself unless he was a member of another bourse….

Bourse memberships were not granted easily; one couldn’t even apply without two current members willing to vouch for them as sponsors.  When a new application was received by a bourse, it was posted along with the applicant’s photograph on a cork bulletin board on the main trading floor of every bourse in the world.  The members browsed these boards not out of curiosity, but for security.  They looked to see if they recognized anyone who might have screwed them in the past.  If they did, they detailed their unsavory experience in a memo to the bourse membership committee.  The allegation was investigated, and if substantiated, the application was denied.  A record of the denial was entered into a database accessible to all bourses, along with the reason.

If an applicant survived two months on the bulletin board without any complaints, he was granted a provisional membership, which was susceptible to revocation.  Even after he passed the trial period, he had to continue to operate aboveboard; if he was ever caught so much as failing to pay his taxes, he could get kicked out of the bourse.  And if a diamantaire was canned at one bourse, he would never get into another.  It was a system that encouraged honest dealings; the trust displayed on the trading floors was well earned.

This is of course pure social capital back to the idea that by spreading people’s negative reputations you counteract any possible gain to be had from cheating on transaction 1, by imposing foregone gains from being able to trade with anyone else.

One weak link of the bourse “social capital” system is that it presumes that people kept their current appearances.  Either through disguises, or plastic surgery one could easily imagine someone changing his or her physical appearance enough that their negative reputation could be wiped clean.  The cost of plastic surgery is high enough that it wouldn’t make financial sense in a low stakes business endeavor, but could very easily be worth it in the millions of dollars trading hands in many bourse deals.

Flawless‘ tale of Leonardo Notarbartolo (the master thief) and his School of Turin compatriots is extremely interesting;  Notarbartolo engenders false sense of trust among the woman renting him the space in Antwerp’s Diamond Building, leading her not to check his past before admitting the fox to the hen-house.  And her trust of Notarbartolo causes her to share the building blueprints with him when he claims he is interested in potentially remodeling his office.  Their heist is undone only by the nervousness of one of the robbers who heedlessly and nervously discards trash near Brussels as they are speeding away, on the grounds of some woods, vigilantly and daily policed by a neighbor to protest desecration to this property.  The man finds small diamonds, currency, security videotapes and calls the police.

For an abridged account of the heist, see the WIRED account here.

For a scholarly account of the importance of trust in the diamond industry, read BD Richman’s “How Community Institutions Create Economic Advantage: Jewish Diamond Merchants in New York (2006).”

Are contagiousness studies contagious?

Social Network representation (Robin Hamman)

Slate has a nice post highlighting the whole history of contagiousness research and putting Christakis’ and Fowler’s recent work in a broader perspective.

Most of these prior works they cite were not based on mapping people’s social networks, although some of the early epidemiological work, for example on the spread of the plague, was.  [See earlier posts on Christakis and Fowler's work.]

Let’s hope that Oprah’s endorsement of Connected for her Fall reading list is not Christakis and Fowler’s kiss of death.

(Tip of the hat to Chaeyoon Lim)