Category Archives: vote

Social capital and disaster recovery

I recently heard a talk by Daniel Aldrich (Purdue).  He has been pursuing a handful of projects over the last 5-6 years looking at how local social capital (at the neighborhood or zip code or prefecture) predicts more resilient disaster recovery. Aldrich points out that people are far more likely to be hit by a disaster in their life than be the victim of a terrorist attack and asserts that the number of disasters is increasing in recent years.

Aldrich has studied 4 different disasters (1923 Tokyo earthquake; 1995 Kobe earthquake; 2005 Katrina disaster; 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami).  I think he is currently doing some work on the recovery from the recent Japanese tsunami (early thoughts by him here).  Aldrich measures social capital with local measures like: voting and participation in rallies (1923 Tokyo); non-profit organizations per capita (1995 Kobe); number of funerals attended in past year (Indian Tsunami); and voter turnout (Katrina). His outcome variables for economic recovery are things like population growth (1923 Tokyo; Kobe) in an area or amount of aid received (Indian Tsunami) or ability to keep FEMA trailers out of an area (Katrina).  [It wasn’t clear to me that this last measure is a measure of disaster recovery as much as NIMBY-ism, a topic that Aldrich has also written about.]

At one level, Aldrich’s findings are not surprising since places with low social capital tend to wait for the state to repair devastation and places with high social capital take more immediate self-action to repair.  This is reflected in Emily Chamlee-Wright’s recent book “The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery: Social Learning in a post-disaster environment” and Robert Putnam observed this about Italian recovery from earthquakes: in places with high social capital one was unaware there had been an earthquake there several years later, whereas in low social capital places, the results of an earthquake were apparent 30-40 years later and residents were still blaming government for not adequately responding.

Aldrich’s work is very interesting and will appear next year as a U. Chicago press book “Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery”.  [Brief presentation of his work here.] I would find his work even more interesting if he examined whether it is only the more political forms of social capital (like voting or protesting) that help in disaster recovery or whether it extends to “schmoozing” type variables at well (e.g., number of close friends, or knowing neighbors).   He might also be able to use volunteering data gathered by the CPS since 2002 to test that as a predictor or use datasets gathered by Rick Weil on social capital in New Orleans.  He also talks about the various types of social capital (bridging, bonding, linking) but his work doesn’t help sort out whether one type of social capital is more important than another for disaster recovery.  Also, given that social capital always rises after disasters and then most typically rapidly tails off, it would be useful if he tracked local social capital by neighborhood after a disaster since the shape of this drop-off in social capital need not be the same across communities; one might have more of a sustained burst of social capital than another.

His case study work does suggest that social capital is more important in disaster recovery than physical capital, physical infrastructure, or financial capital and more important than the conventional explanations that experts claim predict disaster recovery: amount of aid (positively predicting recovery); governance (stronger governance increases recovery); amount of devastation (less predicts greater recovery); wealth (positively predicting recovery); and population density (negatively predicting recovery).  He controls for these factors in his model and finds consistent and robust effects of social capital on post-disaster recovery.

Aldrich’s colleagues have also done some experiments of paying people to participate in focus groups, of giving people local “scrip” if they volunteer (which can be spent locally at farmers’ markets) and found that these built social capital and helped partially “inoculate” communities from the effects of disasters.  He didn’t present in any detail the methods or the results of these mini experiments.  He also recommends that post-disaster if we need to move survivors, we do them conscious of the clustering in their social networks,  so that they minimize the hit they take to their social capital.

Against this good news for social capital, there are three studies that find negative findings in the short-term, after disasters on outcomes like stress, health, etc. [I should note that Aldrich in his book addresses some negative outcomes of social capital in recoveries, for example, groups blocking certain castes from getting aid, or the Japanese promoting vicious attacks on Koreans after the 1923 Tokyo earthquake or ostracizing mercury victims in Minamata Bay from the late 1950s onward.] Basically the story of these other scholars is either that greater commitment to a community or greater social ties lead to worse ST outcomes, either because you feel it is really costly to leave or you are besieged by social and financial requests from other victims, which puts great strain on you unless you are wealthy.  The Rhodes et. al paper finds over longer term, people with more social capital do better, so this is a short-term finding only.  Weil and Lee, to my knowledge, have not looked at longer-term impacts.

See Jean Rhodes, Christian Chan, Christina Paxson, Cecelia Rouse, Mary C. Waters and Elizabeth Fussell. (2010) “The Impact of Hurricane Katrina on the Mental and Physical Health of Low-Income Parents in New Orleans.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 80(2):233-243. Not sure that their longer-term findings have been published.  See also manuscript from their project by Lowe, S. R., Chan, C. S., & Rhodes, J. E. “Pre-disaster social support protects against psychological distress: A longitudinal analysis of Hurricane Katrina survivors.”

Community Attachment and Negative Affective States in the Context of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster” by Matthew Lee and Troy Blanchard (LSU @ Baton Rouge) American Behavioral Scientist 55(12).  October 3, 2011

Weil, Frederick, Shihadeh, Edward, and Lee, Matthew. “The Burdens of Social Capital: How Socially-Involved People Dealt with Stress after Hurricane Katrina” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, 2006.

See also earlier blog post on disaster recovery from 2011 Japanese tsunami.


2010 voter turnout up, but not for youth and blacks (UPDATED)

Flickr photo by Dean Terry

Preliminary evidence suggests that voting turnout among all Americans was up in the November 2010 election.  Compared with the last non-presidential election (2006), both voting turnout experts (Curtis Gans and Michael McDonald) agree that turnout among eligible voters rose 1.1-1.2 percentage points (based on preliminary estimates that will obviously change as all ballots are counted and certified). Regardless of whether one likes the outcome in 2010, it is civic good news that more Americans got involved.

Preliminary evidence suggests electoral turnout rose in at least nine states, and significantly in Texas, Florida and Minnesota.  Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states, seems to have experienced a turnout decline.  [Curtis Gans projects voting turnout at 42 percent of registered voters; Michael McDonald believes that 41.5% of voting-eligible Americans turned out to vote.]  Note: McDonald has now lowered his turnout estimate 1.2 percentage points to 40.3% (VEP Highest Office Turnout, as of 11/8/10).

But the bad news is what voices are being heard or not heard. Voting turnout rates were down among young voters (18-29) and blacks made up a lower percentage of voters in 2010 than in 2008 when Obama’s candidacy excited African-Americans to vote.  For example, blacks made up 12% of voters in 2008 and appeared to make up just 10% of voters in 2010 (based on exit polls).  This drop, if it holds up in more authoritative numbers like the Current Population Survey would  negate this encouraging finding reported in 2008 that the black-white voting gap had disappeared.    [Exit polls suggest that Hispanics maintained their share of the electorate, rising from 7% in 2008 to 8% in 2010, although one would have to compare this rise against their expanding voting-eligible numbers to truly understand whether their political voice was diluted, and if so, how much.]  It wasn’t a simple story of the richest folks’ accounting for more of the votes, since those earning $100,000 or more accounted for 26% of the votes in both 2008 and 2010, but due to the elimination of restrictions on corporate campaign contributions in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United case, the wealthy disproportionately had chances to influence election outcomes even before voters got to their polling places.

[For information on 2008 turnout, click here.]

Priming people to vote

Priming you to vote for Obama? (Obama mosaic of people image by tsevis)

Priming you to vote for Obama? (Obama mosaic of people image by tsevis)

Priming is the influencing of an outcome by exposing people to some stimulus in advance (a picture, a concept, an advertisement) that then influences their subsequent outcome in systematic ways.  Nobelist Daniel Kahneman and others talk about the pervasiveness of this effect and how it can influence voting…

KAHNEMAN: “…We are all aware that our behavior and our thoughts and feelings are highly context-dependent: none of us is quite the same person at home and in the office, in bed or in the subway. We are used to the context-dependency of our behavior and we have stories that make sense of it—social pressure, norms etc. What we are learning from the priming-anchoring effects is that context-dependency is mediated in part by multiple subtle cues of which we are not necessarily aware. ”

The effects according to Kahneman are systematic and pervasive (with a HOST of examples).  The magnitude of the effect is not negligible but not overpowering.  And the effect doesn’t always persist.  It happens without us being aware of the prime (and even consciously explaining that the priming influence did NOT influence our behavior), but it affects us nonetheless, unless on issues on which we have irrevocably made up our mind.

This dialogue is taken from a fascinating conversation on Edge 262 with W. Daniel Hillis, Kahneman, Nathan Myhrvold, Richard Thaler, Elon Musk, France LeClerc, Salar Kamangar, Anne Treisman, Sendhil Mullainathan, Jeff Bezos, and Sean Parker.

MYHRVOLD: You can make Democrats and Republicans by threatening them with death? That’s fascinating!

KAHNEMAN: Those effects would be small at the margin, but there are those effects that are small at the margin that can change election results.

You call and ask people ahead of time, “Will you vote?”. That’s all. “Do you intend to vote?”. That increases voting participation substantially, and you can measure it. It’s a completely trivial manipulation, but saying ‘Yes’ to a stranger, “I will vote” …

MYHRVOLD: But…suppose you had the choice of calling up and saying, “Are you going to vote?”, so you prime them to vote, versus exhorting them to vote.

KAHNEMAN: The prime could very well work better than the exhortation because exhortation is going to induce resistance, whereas the prime ‚the mild embarrassment causes you to make what feels like a commitment, and the commitment, if it’s sufficiently precise, is going to have an effect on behavior.

THALER: If you ask them when they’re going to vote, and how they’re going to get there, that increases voting.

KAHNEMAN: And where….Here is a study, this one will demonstrate that those effects are not so weak. You look for support for school bonds, and what you look for is where were the polling stations. When the polling station is in a school, you get measurable effects on the support for school bonds. They increase. That is non-trivial, it’s in the real world, except that you have something that is focused, you know what the direction is. You expose a lot of people to the prime, and you observe the behavior, and it’s quite measurable.

THALER: And to answer your question, on that one, my recollection is the magnitude is something like 2 or 3 percent. It’s not a huge effect, but a noticeable effect.

KAHNEMAN: Yes, that’s what you would expect.

MULLAINATHAN: There is another response to this question. And I’ve struggled a lot with this question. If these effects are so big, how can it be, right?

There is another more controversial response to that, which is, let’s say that the two phenomena that are opposing each other is that people are relatively consistent and stable, but these effects suggest a lot of instability. One resolution to that is that, in fact, people are not consistent and stable …… and, the bias is that we think ourselves and others are consistent and stable when we’re not. There is good evidence that if you take even something as simple as stated preference for Democrat, Republican, test-retest validity on these things is tiny, risk aversion measures have tiny test-retest validity. One possible resolution control of this is that the mistake is on our end in presuming stable interpersonal characteristics.

KAHNEMAN: That’s a beautiful way of putting it, because one of the things that psychologists have been exercising over and over for decades is the relative impact of personality, if you will, or character or temperament—internal factors as against environmental factors in the control of behavior. We have a hugely powerful bias against the environment as a determinant of behavior. We tend to believe that somebody is behaving that way because he wants to behave that way, because he tends to behave that way, because that’s his nature. It turns out that the environmental effects on behavior are a lot stronger than most people expect.

KAHNEMAN: …Another condition is a pile of Monopoly money on a neighboring table. What would you guess, by the way? Those of you who have read it shouldn’t guess, but can you guess? I was stunned by the result, which I wouldn’t have predicted. But can you guess what priming people with money will do? They don’t want help. They’re on their own. They also don’t want to give help. You’ve got very clever ways of manipulating that, of observing that, but my favorite is the experimenter that comes in clutching a batch of pencils, and the pencils drop on the floor. The dependent variable of the study, the number of pencils the person picks up, is fewer if there is money on that screen saver.

MYHRVOLD: [On effect of playing Monopoly in advance]…Makes them Democrats?

HILLIS: Republican.

KAHNEMAN: It’s closer to making them Republican. It makes them individualists. And it’s quite deep, and very unexpected. It doesn’t make them good or bad, it just makes them different.

Here is the whole conversation on Edge 262.

Note: in another recent priming example relevant to social capital, scientists found that you feel warmer to someone you just met if you are holding a hot cup of coffee rather than a cold beverage. Not kidding…See study by Lawrence Williams (Univ. of Colorado) and John Bargh of Yale here in Science magazine.

For an interesting post not on priming, but on getting individuals to make commitments to voting, see the Freakonomics blog post on how to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the voting process through enforcable commitments to vote in Ian Ayres’ “A Political Do Not Call List“.

Does a flurry of e-mail get one to vote?

Freakonomics Blog summarizes a recent study finding no effect of organizational GOTV (get out the vote) e-mail campaigns.

“If an e-mail message from a campaign or non-profit group were to pop up in your inbox on election day asking you to please go down to your polling place and cast your vote, would you do it?

“Probably not, if the results of a study by Notre Dame political scientist David Nickerson are any indication. Nickerson conducted 13 field experiments during elections between 2002 and 2004, and found that aggressive e-mail get-out-the-vote campaigns have virtually no effect on voter turnout.

“What does seem to persuade people to vote is personal contact, with door-to-door canvassers and especially with co-workers, friends, and family.

“That latter point is driven home by another Nickerson paper, published in the American Political Science review, which asks: ‘Is Voting Contagious?

“Dubner and Levitt have written previously about the incentives to vote (or not vote). And Ian Ayres touched on the social aspect of voter persuasion in a recent post, saying that voting might be rational if you do it because you care about your fellow citizens. That squares with research showing that people are more likely to vote if they believe it is socially expected of them.

“Okay, now let’s say that election day e-mail is from your friend, or one of your parents: would it convince you to vote?”

See earlier Social Capital blog post about how face-to-face GOTV efforts in conjunction with technology do work.  And there is evidence that talking about politics with others has a multiplier effect because you persuade others (if you are persuasive) and they in turn persuade others, etc.