Monday, April 11, 2011

Emotions, reactions and type of hazard

A paper in the last issue of Risk Analysis was remarkably timely. A team of Chinese researchers did a study comparing how people react (emotionally and behaviorally) to technological (manmade) hazards versus natural (Act of G-d) hazards. What they found is that technology hazards elicit stronger emotions, are more directed (anger and blame at SOMEONE), and lead to more aggressive and disruptive behaviors. Natural hazards elicit less strong emotions, are more loss-based (avoidance or helping), and more productive behaviors.

They didn’t know about the recent earthquake/tsunami/nuclear reactor problem in Japan at the time. But it applies perfectly. If you look at how people are reacting to the simultaneous events, it follows the paper pretty closely. People are mad at Tokyo Power and want to blame them and penalize them. Their reaction to the earthquake/tsunami victims is sympathy and a desire to help. We want to send TEPCO execs to jail but send money to the earthquake victims.

In Haiti's earthquake last year, a lot of the death and damage was because of contractors who took short cuts on building codes. But it was a natural disaster so the second tendency won out in general.

Congressional District Social Network

[Attribution: This is loosely based on an idea I heard on “On the Media” this afternoon. But I have taken it in a different direction.]

The results of last year’s Census are about to be converted into redesigned Congressional Districts. As usual, the political hacks are salivating at the opportunity to gerrymander districts. There is so little real competition in elections because incumbents can stay as long as they want and safely pass off the seat to their hand selected successor. And when competition moves to the back room lobbying for fundraisers, or even to the party primary, it leads to more extreme candidates because that is who donates money and votes in primaries. Fact of life folks. Every ten years, with advances in statistics, the pols get even better at district design and we get worse politicians.

So here is the idea. Why do Congressional districts have to be geographic? I know it’s in the Constitution, but we have amended that before. Why don’t we do something like this:

Create a social network that matches people up based on their responses to a detailed questionnaire that focuses on real policy priorities. Google could be in charge of developing the algorithm (or maybe E-Harmony?) that matches people who are closest in what they value the most. The size of the groups would be based on the Census results just like today but the districts would be virtual. Our representation in Congress would really reflect the views of the people, in proportion to how they are distributed around the country.

I haven’t solved the problem that people could lie in their campaigns and not always legislate the way they campaigned. But we would have the results of their questionnaire to verify their principles. 99% of the people would have an incentive to be honest on their questionnaire because they would want a representative that agrees with their values. The only people who would lie are people who think they can fake majority values, get elected, and then try to get some other viewpoint into legislation. But alone, that would be hard. It would take a widespread conspiracy to pull that off effectively.