Monthly Archives: May 2010

Church-shopping and polarization

Flickr photo by StormCrypt

David Campbell, Professor at Notre Dame, and co-author of American Grace, is cited in this blog piece on how church-shopping is polarizing the country.  The argument is consistent with themes that will be discussed in American Grace when it comes out this Fall.  For other posts on American Grace, visit here.

See Dave Campbell’s original piece on the Culture Wars, “A House Divided“.

Social Capital Nudges [UPDATED 3/27/13]

In Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler‘s wonderful book Nudge (2008), they note that individuals’ choices can be influenced by countless factors that people are unaware of (where food is positioned in a cafeteria or a grocery store, what the default settings are on an iPhone, whether programs like retirement contributions are opt-out or opt-in, etc.).  The authors advocate libertarian paternalism: that American leaders be choice architects, trying to arrange society so that Americans maximize good outcomes, but enabling Americans to opt out of these arrangements if they disagree.

Reading the book made me wonder how “choice architects” trying to maximize social capital (social interaction) or civic engagement in society would arrange affairs.

1) Physical space: Architects, as Nudge points out, often are choice architects.  Architects can influence anything from how comfortable we are in our homes or communities to how efficiently we move, to how much we interact.  On the latter, think about front porches or stoops, walkable streets, vibrant public squares, or farmers’ markets as only a few examples of this.  The Forum at Harvard Kennedy School (where public and private leaders come to give talks) was designed based on the Roman Forum and Greek agorae.  It has little nooks along staircases that take you to higher floors, maximizing the chances for interacting, encountering others and conversing.  Of course there are limits to this, as can be seen in “Social Capital and New Urbanism: Leading a Civic Horse to Water?

2) Asking people their intentions in advanceNudge points out that asking people about their intentions (“priming”), increases their chance of doing so.  See this earlier blog post about asking people of their intention to vote to increase voting.   One can also increase the likelihood of voting by having them draw a map of how to get from their home to their voting location.  One wonders what other civic actions we could effectively prime: volunteering, attending a public meeting that discussed town affairs, joining a group, attending a block party, etc.

3) Social norming:  I’ve written about this earlier, but publicizing that most people do things differently than individuals expect can nudge people toward the actual norm. For example, administrators  found that describing the actual infrequency of  college binge drinking (lower than what most college students had believed), lowered the rate of binge drinking further among those who were binge drinking. What are the opportunities to capitalize on this for civic engagement.  We could observe that 40% of Americans attend a house of worship weekly or more frequently and close to three quarters attend at least monthly. We could tell Americans that 62 million fellow Americans volunteer, contributing 8 billion hours of volunteer service worth $162 billion.  And there are undoubtedly other facts we should bring to their attention to increase civic behavior.  [One does have to worry that the folks who are doing a civic behavior far more than the average may be induced to lower their behavior.]  [For an article on social norming, see Tina Rosenberg, ‘The Destructive Influence of Imaginary Peers“, New York Times, 3/27/13]

Another example of this is OPower that is trying to induce people to use less electricity by pointing out how energy conscious their neighbors are.

4) Offer rewards for civic behavior?  We might provide a deduction on health insurance rates for those participating in community groups (a la Samaritan Ministries’ self-insurance or discounts for health club memberships). Similarly, neighborhood stores might offer discounts or coupons for students engaged in regular community service.  Tax deductions are likely more controversial.

5) Civility check: Sunstein/Thaler recommend in Nudge an invention that detects an uncivil e-mail that a user is considering sending and asks the user if he/she is willing to have a 12 hour cooling off period and see if he/she still wants to send the message as is.  [This is reminiscent of Google Mail Goggles which was set up to avoid people sending embarrassing e-mails when drunk.]

6) Get civic commitments up front: Nudge highlights the effectiveness of getting individuals to commit to take action and depositing monthly checks with a third party.  For every month that this commitment is not honored, a group reviled by this individual gets a contribution.  So for example, an advocate of women’s right to choose would deposit checks with this third party made out to the National Right to Life.  She would  vow to attend a book group every month or conversely to attend a church committee’s meetings each month.  Any month that she did attend, her check for that month would be ripped up.  Any month that she didn’t attend, her check would be sent to the NRL.

7) Using groups to reinforce promises:  Many studies have found that commitments made to groups are more likely to be honored.  That is why AlAnon or Weight Loss Groups or Self-Help groups have groups at their core.  We should pursue opportunities like the New Year’s Nudge to encourage people to stick to commitments and might have a Pledge Day where people pledged to take certain pro-civic or pro-social capital activities over the next year.

8) Hanging around other civic types: In James Fowler’s  and Nick Christakis’ Connected, they detail how many social practices are spread through social networks (drinking, depression, obesity, etc.).  It appears from their research that hanging around others who are civic works in the same way;  part of this effect may be the “social norming” effect described earlier, that being around lots of civicly active people changes one’s reference group for citizenship in the same was as being surrounded by overweight people changes one’s sense of how heavy or thin one is.

9) Behavioral placement.  Public health advocates like Jay Winsten were very successful in getting television shows to popularize behavior like “designated drivers.”  More recently, television programs have interwoven wellness behaviors (like exercise or eating right) into show themes.  These may be more effective since a viewer observes a character that the viewer likes or respect undertaking these behaviors.  (Note: it may not be advisable to have Homer Simpson displaying the civic behavior you want to encourage.)

10) metering people’s health and happiness benefits from civic engagement.  Not sure that the studies of the links between social capital and health and social capital and happiness are finely enough calibrated, but it is clear that people alter their behavior in response to more immediate feedback (e.g., the instantaneous MPG feedback on Toyota Priuses or on some GPS devices, the smart meter readouts in some homes of how much electricity they are using instantaneously).  What if there were an iPhone app where you daily plugged in your amount of socializing, volunteering, attendance at public meetings  on town affairs and club going? The iPhone app would generate an instantaneous readout with a face with differing expressions of how well you were doing (with a scowl showing the most displeasure and a smile showing the most) or a stylized body that looked healthier or less healthy depending on your habits.  [A Brazilian bar had an interesting experiment to make people aware of the hidden costs of drunk driving.]

11) Positive deviance: Learn from outliers so others can do the same.  We might do more studies of places that are unusually civic (like Minnesota) to understand what it is that they do differently from communities where there is far less civic behavior and whether nudges could help spur people towards the positively deviant (e.g. very civic community).

12) Setting up defaults.  Here is a graphic on how best to choose a default (not focused on civic engagement).  I haven’t thought of good ideas of how defaults could be used to boost civic engagement, but I’m sure this could be used more.

13) Take advantage of fact that people are  more willing to increase their civic behavior in the future. Sunstein and Thaler capitalize on research that shows that people give more when asked to make a donation in the future than if asked to make it today; they propose a project called “Give More Tomorrow“.  I haven’t seen any research on this but one wonders whether “Volunteer More Tomorrow” or “Coach Little League Tomorrow” or other civic or community engagement  would show similar patterns.

14) Publicize non-civic behavior.  “In a 2005 study, Alan Gerber of Yale got Michigan voters to increase their turnout an amazing 8.6% with a single peer-pressure mailer that listed the previous voting records of their neighbors and noted that a follow-up would be sent indicating who voted this time. (The Obama [presidential] campaign actually priced out a similar mailer but decided not to risk a backlash.)” (From Nudge Blog)

We welcome your thoughts about what nudges might have the biggest impact on increasing social capital or civic engagement/volunteering.   Sunstein and Thaler note that nudges are most helpful where: a) the consequences of bad decisions are delayed (true for many social capital decisions); b) the decision is complex or confusing; c) where you face overwhelming number of choices (true of how we spend our free time); d) where people would benefit from greater feedback from their decisions (true of many social capital decisions); and e) where such decisions are infrequent.

Read  long interview with Thaler here (Fall 2009 Yale School of Management), BBC interview (2009), a To The Point roundtable and Firedoglake conversation.

See “Cass Sunstein Wants to Nudge Us” (NYT Magazine section, 5/16/10)

Read the Nudge Blog.

Alternative measures to US GDP to air this summer

Flickr Commons photo

The NYT Magazine section (5/16/10) had a long article describing efforts of economists and other social scientists to develop measures for the US that go beyond GDP.  As many have remarked before, what’s good for the GDP is not necessarily good for the US or its citizens:  post hurricane rebuilding efforts, a crime wave that forces people to buy burglar alarms, clear-cutting old growth forest, are but a few examples of activities that boost GDP but don’t necessarily boost welfare.  The article summarizes this as “High GDP Man” vs. Low GDP Man” with the former engaged in lots of activities that boost GDP (hiring a nanny, running a dryer, commuting to work) but don’t necessarily increase his welfare or happiness.

The article discusses the efforts of Chris Hoenig, spurred by the august National Academy of Sciences and various leading national foundations, to develop scores of alternative measures to the GDP.  His effort, called State of the USA, will go live this summer.

Jon Gertner reports: “Hoenig’s State of the USA will become a national-indicators panel, run by the National Academy of Sciences. Think of it as a report card meant to show a country’s citizens the exact areas — in health, education, the environment and so forth — where improvement is called for; such indicators would also record how we improve, or fail to improve, over time. The State of the USA intends to ultimately post around 300 indicators on issues like crime, energy, infrastructure, housing, health, education, environment and the economy. All areas of measurement will be chosen by members of the National Academy; all will be reviewed for rigor and accuracy by a panel of accomplished experts. With easy access to national information, Hoenig told me optimistically, Americans might soon be able ”to shift the debate from opinions to more evidence-based discussions to ideally a discussion about what solutions are and are not working.”

The article also summarizes the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission, that advised Nicholas Sarkozy, on potential alternative measures to GDP to measure French wellbeing.  Robert Putnam, was on the all-star commission, and was quoted in this article.  [See earlier blog post on blue-chip Sarkozy Commission’s recommendation of measuring social capital.]

Putting a Number on Happiness

As difficult as it might be to compile sustainability indicators, it’s equally challenging to create measures that describe our social and emotional lives. In this area, there’s a fair amount of skepticism from the academic establishment about putting happiness onto a national dashboard of well-being. William Nordhaus of Yale told me that some of the measurements are ”absurd.” Amartya Sen, too, told me that he has reservations about the worth of statistics that purport to describe human happiness.

Stiglitz and his colleagues nevertheless concluded that such research was becoming sufficiently rigorous to warrant its possible inclusion. At first the connection to G.D.P. can be puzzling. One explanation, however, is that while our current economic measures can’t capture the larger effects of unemployment or chronic depression, providing policy makers with that information may influence their actions. ”You might say, If we have unemployment, don’t worry, we’ll just compensate the person,” Stiglitz told me. ”But that doesn’t fully compensate them.” Stiglitz pointed to the work of the Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who served on the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi commission, which suggests that losing a job can have repercussions that affect a person’s social connections (one main driver of human happiness, regardless of country) for many years afterward.

When I caught up with Putnam, he said that the ”damage to this country’s social fabric from this economic crisis must have been huge, huge, huge.” And yet, he noted, ”We have plenty of numbers about the economic consequences but none of the numbers about the social consequences.” Over the past decade, Putnam has been working on measures — having to do with church attendance, community involvement and the like — to quantify our various social links; just recently, the U.S. Census Bureau agreed to include questions of his in some of its monthly surveys. Still, his efforts are a work in progress. When I asked Putnam whether government should be in the business of fostering social connections, he replied, ”I don’t think we should have a government Department of Friendship that introduces people to one another.” But he argued that just as registering the social toll of joblessness would add a dimension of urgency to the unemployment issue, it seemed possible that measuring social connections, and putting those measures on a national dashboard, could be in society’s best interests. As it happens, the Canadian Index of Well-Being will contain precisely such a measure; and it’s very likely that a related measure of ”social capital,” as it’s often called, will become a State of the USA indicator too. ”People will get sick and die, because they don’t know their neighbors,” Putnam told me. ”And the health effects of social isolation are of the same magnitude as people smoking. If we can care about people smoking, because that reduces their life expectancy, then why not think about social isolation too?”

It seems conceivable, in fact, that including various measures of emotional well-being on a national dashboard could lead to policies quite different from what we have now. ”There’s an enormous inequality of suffering in society,” Daniel Kahneman told me recently. By his estimate, ”if you look at the 10 percent of people who spend the most time suffering, they account for almost half of the total amount of suffering.” Kahneman suggested that tremendous social and economic gains could therefore be made by dealing with the mental-health problems — depression, say — of a relatively small fraction of the population. At the same time, he added, new measures of emotional well-being that he has been working on might soon give us a more enlightened perspective on the complex relationship between money and happiness.

Currently, research suggests that increased wealth leads us to report increased feelings of satisfaction with our lives — a validation, in effect, that higher G.D.P. increases the well-being in a country. But Kahneman told me that his most recent studies, conducted with the Princeton economist Angus Deaton, suggest that money doesn’t necessarily make much of a difference in our moment-to-moment happiness, which is distinct from our feelings of satisfaction. According to their work, income over about $70,000 does nothing to improve how much we enjoy our activities on a typical day. And that raises some intriguing questions. Do we want government to help us increase our sense of satisfaction? Or do we want it to help us get through our days without feeling misery? The two questions lead toward two very different policy options. Is national progress a matter of making an increasing number of people very rich? Or is it about getting as many people as possible into the middle class?

While Jon Gertner notes that there is some political opposition to this, Enrico Giovannini, the head of Italy’s national statistics agency, observes that a half-dozen countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom and France, have expanded their “productivity” measures to focus on wellbeing rather than merely economic growth.    The Stiglitz Commission recommended a “dashboard” approach, honing in on a few more critical dimensions; so far in the US, the metrics are diffuse enough that it may be harder to keep one’s eye on all the instrumentation and see how we are doing.

Some fear that while the US looks great internationally on GDP measures (for example, because Americans take very little vacation), it may look less stellar measured in “well-being terms”.  To those who exalt our free markets and entrepreneurship as a singular deity, this is heading us toward troubled waters; to the architects of such a revamped system, that’s exactly the point — we ought to keep our eyes on the prize (our wellbeing) and not be heeding a flawed gauge.

See “The Rise and Fall of the GDP” (NYT Magazine, Jon Gertner, 5/16/10)