Sunday, August 30, 2009

The brighter side of religion

We often see the bad effects of organized religion. Fundamentalists of all persuasions cause trouble politically, socially, economically, etc. They make it into the news as terrorists, political oppressors, and other bad habits. But there is a good side as well. A new study found that

o religious people report better health
o they say they have more energy
o that their health is better
o that they experience less pain
o their social lives and personal behaviors are also healthier
o they are more likely to be married
o they are more likely to have supportive friends
o they are more likely to report being treated with respect
o they have greater confidence in the healthcare and medical system
o they are less likely to smoke.”

This was in a study of 300,000 observations in 140 countries, so it’s a pretty powerful sample size statistically. As a religious person myself, it is always good to see the positive side.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The tradeoffs of diversity

Robert Putnam, a pretty well known Harvard Professor and a someone with a tradition of having liberal views, was doing some research on social capital and found some results that disturbed him. He was tempted not to publish them. The ethics and incentives of this decision are a great topic that I will post on later.

But for now, let me focus on the research itself. What he found is not surprising really, but in the context of his research, it has some possibly disturbing implications for a liberal viewpoint.

It turns out that homogeneous populations (people of the same age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc) tend to interact more and better than heterogeneous populations. Men seem to know how to talk to other men than they do to women (surprise surprise!!). But also old people with old people and Catholics with Catholics. This leads to more trust among neighbors in the more homogeneous community.

And the effects on the neighborhood encompass relations among everyone. It seems that just being in a heterogeneous neighborhood reduces trust overall so we even trust people very similar to us less when we live among a diverse group. This difference in trust has broader implications. Trust leads to greater social capital, which increases the overall success and welfare of the community. Less crime, higher income growth, and overall community success. And when you look in detail at the research that shows that diverse teams make better decisions, it turns out that demographics is one of least effective kinds of diversity. Differences in experience, personality, approaches, and thinking styles are all more important. So taken together, demographically homogeneous groups will be more successful in the long run.

Where Dr. Putnam got worried is that this suggests we should stop integrating neighborhoods, schools, companies, and the country at large. Even immigration policy should be affected in countries that are still largely homogenous, such as Scandinavia. This was counter to everything he believed in from a more ethical point of view. Again, the ethics is a topic for a later post.

There is also research that shows smarter people build more social capital, regardless of demographics. So perhaps the solution is to make sure we surround ourselves with smart people. Then we can be integrated. Of course, we quickly bang up against the limitation that not everyone is endowed with the gift of superior smarts. We could try to use immigration policy to let in lots of demographically diverse smart people (which is a good policy for all sorts of reasons). But we would also have to limit immigration for the other half of the curve – another illiberal policy.

So what is the answer to this conundrum? For ethnic and racial differences, maybe all we really need to do is wait a few generations. With the rapid increase in inter-racial mixing, pretty soon there won’t be such big differences among us. I see this in Miami to an extent I never would have dreamed years ago. Almost every couple in the city is mixed in some way. Then we just need to find better ways to communicate between genders and age groups. This is easier than with race and ethnicity because of course we grow up in families that have all different ages and genders so we get more used to it at ages when we are still malleable.

Until then . . . . Let’s just work hard on open communication and trust, even when your gut is not so sure.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Doing the right thing?

I have been reading a lot of research lately that are in different domains but have one common finding that seems to appear over and over again. When we do something that makes us feel virtuous, we feel entitled to go out and do something less virtuous afterwards. Sometimes this is harmless but other times it can be really serious.

A harmless example: When you eat something healthy, you are more likely to eat something unhealthy afterwards. So for example, research shows that when you select a healthy main course from a menu, you are more likely to order unhealthy sides, drinks and desserts with it. You are also more likely to eat unhealthy food in later meals. The problem here is that in the end, you wind up eating more calories at the end of the day then if you selected something neutral in the first place.

Another harmless example: When grocery shopping, when you put a healthy food in your cart, you are more likely to go to the less healthy food aisles and put unhealthy food into your cart. So for every apple you buy, you also get the Oreos.

But then there are the serious examples. Another study gave people ethics scenarios and had multiple choice answers for what the person would do. If they answered ethically for question A, they were more likely to answer unethically for question B. They mixed up the order of the questions for each person to cancel out the differences in the scenarios. So it seems that acting ethically makes you feel like an ethical person – like ethicality is your true nature. So then, you can act unethically and it doesn’t count because it’s not your nature it’s just a choice you made.

The same thing happened when people gave to charity. They were more likely to do unethical things afterwards. Apparently, giving to charity makes you feel like you are a “good” person. So now, you can do whatever you want. I suspect Bernie Madoff had a lot of this in him.

Some of these happen in the reverse also. When people started out behaving unethically, they were more likely to do an ethical thing later. Apparently, they felt bad about themselves and had to make up for it. They tried to see the original unethical act as the “choice” and the later ethical act as their “true nature.”

I am sure that there are some people who don't take advantage of this balancing game and are virtuous all the time. But what bothers me is that this is largely unconscious (the subjects of the studies didn't realize they were doing this). And it is so easy too. All you need to do is one virtuous thing up front, and then you can keep doing less virtuous things forever, always thinking about the virtuous thing as your "true nature" and rationalizing the rest. The human brain is set up to facilitate this kind of behavior, so it is much more common than you might think.

Most of the people reading this do it without even realizing. Even you!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Calorie listings on menus work

I just read a some follow-up research to the study I blogged about earlier. These researchers looked at what happens when you put nutritional information on the menu. They found it to be effective in several ways:

  • When the calories listed were high, it increased the customer’s expectations that they would gain weight and/or get weight-related disease. This may seem obvious, but they compared it to a menu condition with a label of “low calorie” and a menu condition with the ingredients listed. These could have had the same effect, but didn’t.
  • When customers discovered that their food had more calories than they expected, they ate less over the course of the day to compensate. So the calorie listings had real effects on behavior, not just perceptions or expectations. This is important because we often see people say they will do the healthy thing “later” but then don’t. With menus that list calories, there is a real behavior change.
  • Customers that had intentions to eat right rated the menu items lower when they had higher calories. But other customers didn’t change their ratings at all. But they did eat less later.
So what does this tell us? Basically, it means that menus really should have at least the total calories listed. It may be too much to have other things (fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, etc) even though these would help people with specific health issues like diabetes. But because research has also found that people have high perceived correlations among food attributes (when we think something has lots of calories, we also think it has lots of the other bad stuff and vice versa), people with these conditions would stay away from menu items even if they are just listed as high calorie. The sacrifice here is that some foods are high calorie but are really healthy otherwise (e.g. almonds). But on most menus I have seem, usually the perceived correlations are right on target. The hamburger where they add butter to the bun, oil to the meat, and then stack on a few extra slices of cheese and “special sauce” is more likely.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Eating in restaurants

I read some very fascinating research from INSEAD and Cornell Universities. To briefly highlight some of their findings:

  • we significantly underestimate the number of calories in food we order in restaurants, even if we see the list of ingredients and even after we eat it. In one example, a 1000-calorie Subway sandwich was perceived as having only 585 calories.
  • this underestimation is even larger for restaurants that have a brand image that promotes healthy food. The 1000-calorie McDonalds burger was perceived as having 750 calories – closer to the truth (although still pretty far off).
  • when we order main dishes that we think are healthy, we are more likely to order less healthy sides, drinks, and desserts. Subway customers ordered sides with twice the calories as the McDonalds customers.
  • these errors compound with each other: “Good Karma Healthy Foods” customers estimated that their “famous classic Italian sandwich” had 409 calories and were then more likely to order chips with it than customers ordering the same sandwich at “Jim’s Hearty Sandwiches” which they thought had 622 calories. So they thought they were eating less at Good Karma, but were actually eating more.

So when you put these four results together, you can conclude that people are even more likely to gain weight from eating at “healthy” restaurants than at standard restaurants. It’s that large soda and small-looking cookie that get you. Ouch!! They found the same result with customers who said they were trying to eat healthfully. Healthy eaters also underestimated calories and ate more sides and drinks in general, and even worse at “healthy” restaurants.

This is even more evidence that we need to have nutritional information on menus. Food descriptions are just not enough to allow us to make informed decisions. It is too easy for restaurants to generate a “healthy” brand image with images of salads and lean meats and then make it taste incredible with a slathering of butter. We will never know what we are eating and obesity will just get worse.

And for personal advice, next time you are ordering in a restaurant – just assume the meal has several hundred calories more than you think. And just because you are at a restaurant that bills itself as “healthy” doesn’t mean that everything (or even anything) on the menu is actually healthy.