Thursday, December 31, 2009

African Music of the 1970s

Much as I'd like to be, I'm just not a fan of most modern African music. With few exceptions (Malian music for instance), it just doesn't do it for me.

What I really love, though, is African music from the 1970s, particularly from West/Central Africa and Ethiopia. This podcast of a European radio show called Radio Freetown (with free downloadable archives!) plays mostly obscure but great 70s West African music. In terms of individual musicians, Fela Kuti is the superstar of this era; his song "Zombie" has been credited with playing a role in brininging down one of Nigeria's military regimes. The Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke (whose music was featured in Jim Jarmusch film "Broken Flowers") haunting organ music is fantasic and unique. There is a record label called Soundway that releases a lot of compilations and reissues of this kind of music, the "Nigeria Special!" albums in particular are excellent.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology is something that I've become interested in recently. The basic idea is to apply the way we think about evolutionary biology to psychology. Just as our biological selves have evolved over millions of years, so have our psychological selves. Many human psychological traits are thus "adaptations-" evolved responses that help us overcome dangers and difficulties in our environments that would otherwise reduce our likelihood of survival and reproduction.

Where it gets interesting is when you consider that the world is a different place now that it was for the majority of human history. The problems that our psychologies have evolved to deal with are those of primitive societies, which are very different from the problems we face today. Our psychologies are geared to deal with the problems that cavemen face, not those of global citizens in an information economy. As a result, our psychological selves might not be serving us very well in our present environment, leading to all sorts of behaviors that are difficult to explain or rationalize as we subconsciously follow our caveman imperatives.

My introduction to this topic was through Robin Hanson's blog and particularly this wonderful podcast. Robin is convinced that one evolutionary story in particular explains a lot of seemingly inexplicable human behavior today. He thinks about primitive societies where people live in tribal sorts of groupings. He argues that one of the biggest threats that an individual faces in this kind of environment is essentially tribal politics- shifting alliances between members that alter the power structure and could leave you on the outside looking in, denied access to preferred resources or mates, or even killed. In an environment like this, it becomes very important to be able to convince others of your worthiness as a coalition partner- to effectively demonstrate to them that you are both capable and loyal, and thus someone that they would want to ally themselves with.

As result, Robin argues, much of our psychologies have evolved around the imperative of engaging in "signaling behavior." He believes that much of seemingly inexplicable human behavior can be understood as an subconscious attempt to signal to other our worthiness as coalition partners.

I think Robin is on to something very interesting, though I don't quite agree with his story. Much of what Robin sees as people trying to convince others of their worth I would see as people trying to convince themselves of their own worth. I think everyone has a narrative about who they are and what they're good at. Almost everyone spends a lot of time trying to validate and reinforce that story, and make it a more favorable one. Why do people do things like take golf lessons? Robin might say, because of a subconscious need to show off their golfing ability to others. But I would say it's usually more that people want to see a better golfer when they look in the mirror. And ultimately that's because being a better golfer makes it that much easier to convince yourself that you are capable and successful more generally.

I'm hoping to learn more in the future about other theories of evolutionary psychology, and how human behavior today can be explained by our evolved adaptations to out of date problems.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nagging things you still don't understand about yourself

I found this very interesting when it first came out a few months ago. It's a compilation of psychologists- experts in explaining other peoples' behavior- revealing the one thing about their own behavior that they understand the least. For example, David Buss perceives his own biases:
One nagging thing that I still don’t understand about myself is why I often
succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I’m acutely aware
of these biases. One example is my failure at affective forecasting, such as
believing that I will be happy for a long time after some accomplishment (e.g.
publishing a new book), when in fact the happiness dissipates more quickly than
anticipated. Another is succumbing to the male sexual overperception bias,
misperceiving a woman’s friendliness as sexual interest. A third is undue
optimism about how quickly I can complete work projects, despite many years of
experience in underestimating the time actually required. One would think that
explicit knowledge of these well-documented psychological biases and years of
experience with them would allow a person to cognitively override the biases.
But they don’t.

Tyler Cowen comments intriguingly on this exercise,

I wonder if those our their real answers; I wouldn't tell you mine.

I've just realized what mine is. It's that every time I've had a personal breakthrough in life- overcoming a fear, successfully adopting a good habit, turning a bad situation around, etc.- I'm completely unable to explain how or why it happened at that particular time. These kinds of breakthroughs never seem to be a result of my own efforts or intentions- they just sort of happen.

For example, one thing that has plagued me for years is that I don't read enough. Specifically, I never find the time or energy to read things that don't fall into one of two categories: either part of a literature review for something I'm working on, or "bedtime reading;" i.e. novels or light non-fiction that I read for fun. It drives me nuts because there's so many things I'm interested in and would like to know more about, but I'm cursed with being a strong INTP personality type with a touch of ADD. I've tried a million strategies to get myself to read more- blocking off time during the day, going to bed early and reading in bed, etc., but nothing has ever worked.

Just recently, though, I seem to have gotten past this. The catalyst was that I had some money from the university that I needed to spend by a particular deadline, and nothing obvious to spend it on. So, I bought a big stack of about 10 books with the idea that hopefully I'd get around to reading them some time or another. As a strategy to get myself to read more, this would seem to me like a bad one- I would imagine having a big stack of unread books would just seem overwhelming and I'd never getting around to reading any of them. To my surpise, though, I have been diligently plowing through them, reading for at least an hour or two every day for the past few months. What's interesting is that this was not in any way part of a strategy I consciously adopted- it did not stem from being more disciplined about scheduling myself, or coming up with a trick to make it easier, or whatever. It just sort of happened, I started reading.

And it always seems to happen like that- instead of climbing the mountain, the mountain just isn't there anymore. Where did it go?

What's the one nagging thing you don't understand about yourself?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Send in the anthropologists?

I'm currently working on a project on land conflict, and I've been thinking about Paul Collier's "feasibility hypothesis" from Wars, Guns, and Votes. Collier's argument is that the best way to understand civil war in Africa is to think about it in the context of "feasibility-" i.e., do the conditions exist that allow one side to start a conflict? These include resources first and foremost- he points out that the Tamil Tigers have something like eight times the budget of the British Conservative Party- but also things like whether the country is moutainous, the proportion of young men in the society, etc. The main argument is that when you look at the data, you can predict the likelihood of civil war fairly accurately by just looking at these factors related to feasibility. An interesting implication is that if the feasibility hypothesis is true, then the details of a particular case become less important- we don't need to know what Group A's historical grievances are with Group B, we just need to know that Group A is in power, Group B is in opposition, and Group B has access to diamonds and guns.

Collier is talking about civil wars, but what about different kinds of conflicts like more localized land disputes? In fact, a very interesting book on land conflict that I'm currently reading argues for an almost polar opposite perspective. Land conflicts defy generalization, the authors claim, and can only be understood through the idiosyncracies of the particular context. The most general statement they allow is that “when multiple forms of inequality coincide, and when these in turn are aligned along divisions of identity, then the probability of violent conflict increases.” And the particular forms of inequality and identity that are relevant will vary from case to case. I think it's worth noting that this is a book by anthropologists, and to some extent that perspective serves to justify the discipline of anthropology- after all, if we can't generalize, the only people who can tell us what's really going on are going to be anthropologists.

I'm not sure if the anthropologists are right, but this suggests interesting question that I hope to look at in future research- how accurately can we predict the incidence of conflict in a particular area given data on the characteristics (resources, economic activity, ethnic makeup, etc.) of that area? If the answer is, "reasonably well," then the anthropologists are wrong- the best strategy to deal with land conflicts should be based on looking at the factors that tend to give rise to conflict, rather than detailed contextual nuances. On the other hand, if the answer is, "not very well," then we'll have to send in the anthropologists.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Paul Collier's Wars, Guns, and Votes

Just finished Paul Collier's outstanding Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, his follow-up to the development blockbuster The Bottom Billion. Once again, Collier has managed to summarize a line of quantitative macroeconomic research in a way that is lively and engaging for a general readership. Wars, Guns, and Votes is more limited in scope than the Bottom Billion, and I found it more convincing as a result (though I did like Bottom Billion as well). The focus is on the causes and consequences of political violence, and Collier uses both theory and empirical work to advance a number of provacative conclusions. Some highlights:

  • Elections are not enough to generate accountability and legitimacy for governments (something readers of the New York Times Letter to the Editor Page have known for over a decade). But it's even worse than that- in very poor countries, holding elections appears to lead to worse policies and governance outcomes, and increase the risk of civil war.
  • About 12% of foreign aid ends up financing militaries, regardless of what the aid money is actually going towards. Governments of beneficiary countries simply spend less on whatever issues donors are involved in, and more on their militaries.
  • Most interesting is Collier's "feasibility hypothesis" of civil war. The idea is that the best way to understand civil war is to look at whether rebellion (as opposed to peaceful opposition) is a feasible means for the opposition to contest the ruling government's authority. He makes the case by showing that you can actually predict whether or not a country will have a civil war fairly well just by looking at the circumstances that make it feasible (access to resources that rebels can exploit, mountainous terrain that is more difficult to police, etc.) This is a bolder statement than it sounds, because it implies that preventing civil war is less a matter of understanding or fixing the underlying grievances, and more a matter of making it harder to pull off (more on this later).

Wars, Guns, and Votes is a fine illustration of how the methodology of economics- rational agent models and econometric analyses of data- can yield important insights when applied to other fields, such as political science. The book also illustrates the critical importance of contextual knowledge in this kind of thing. Collier's expertise in African politics is evident, and it is only in bringing this expertise to bear that the results of his economic analysis are convincing. Some have criticized Collier for "data mining," and undoubtedly some of the details of his findings will not bear further empirical scrutiny. However, what seperates Collier's work from other more egregious data mining exercises is that Collier's empirical findings are supported by both coherent theories and an extensive knowledge of context, and as a result his stories tend to tend ring true.