Tuesday, May 4, 2010


It's been a while since I've been in this empty room. Much has happened since.

These days, I am not doing much empirical work anymore. I'm kind of burnt out - it seems at times that all this laboring is for naught. Instead, I'm working on my spirit. But I've been learning a lot lately. I was somewhere - perhaps on a train, or in an airport - where I heard the following message:

If you always do what you always did,
You'll always get what you always got.

I think there is more wisdom in that statement than any empirical study can provide.

Good luck, everyone. I will post on occasion again.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Letters to a young academic

I enjoyed Rainer Marie Rilke’s excellent book Letters to a Young Poet, where the older poet gave advice to a younger, aspiring poet. Recently, a few undergraduates asked me about whether they should attend psychology graduate school. The following is the essence of my reply:

In my method and theory class, I give assignments to students in which they have to design and carry out their own experiment. Since they have never had to do this, most students express dismay and frustration, and they complain like there’s no tomorrow, but I don’t relent. But the funny thing is that the most common thing they do is look around the room, notice the horrible shade of yellow in the walls of the Armitage Hall where I teach, and they look down and see a quiz before them. They then come to me and say, “I know! I’m going to conduct a study on whether the color of the walls of the room influence test performance.”

Now, I’m sure there’s a study in that topic, and I know that the sickly yellow walls probably don’t contribute to either the performance of the students or their professor. I wouldn’t be surprised that people would feel better in a well-painted room, and feeling better would influence people to be more relaxed and make fewer errors. But I always tell them that they can’t do that study. They look even more frustrated and complain like there is no next week, but I explain to them that such a study lacks imagination.

“Imagination?” They ask. “You didn’t tell us the study had to be imaginative!”

But as I see it, the underlying problem is that all they did was look around the room, see an ugly colored wall and a test in front of them, and put two and two together and voila, they have their experiment. Yet beyond these walls are other walls, and beyond those walls are other buildings, and beyond those buildings is an entire world. By sticking to immediate perceptions, they elude the most important part of experimentation: the imagination that goes into crafting a well-designed study.

In pushing them to leave the world of perceptions and enter the imaginative domain, I think they come up with designs so creative that they humble me. One student wore worn clothes, sat on the streets of Philadelphia with a cup, begging for money, with the aim of determining whether males or females were more generous. Another went to 10 bars dressed as himself, and 10 bars dressed in a fat suit, to determine whether there is a relationship between weight and the probability that a woman would accept an offer of a free drink. Another recorded the relationship between wearing a suit or clothes typically worn by urban African American youth would influence the amount of time required for store clerks to approach them at the mall.

I have them do these studies because ultimately, imaginative experiments are far more interesting to read than unimaginative ones. Ones about the influence of wall color on test performance. And I think my students learn a great deal more about the nature of the world by going into it, armed with the tools of psychological science, and listening to what the world has to tell them. And in the end, they express satisfaction and pride, and there are few complaints.

So what does this have to do with the question of psychology graduate school. Well, I think most people, including myself, pursued psychology graduate school because they were psychology undergraduates, and they looked around the classroom, saw graduate student TAs and professors who went to psychology graduate school, and say, “I know what I will do with my life! Go to graduate school in psychology!” But beyond those walls were other majors, and beyond those majors other schools, and beyond those schools and entire world. By limiting oneself to doing what is around you, you risk being unimaginative.

For some, that gamble pays off. For instance, I’ve come, if not to love, to at least appreciate what I do, but I was one of the lucky few. Far more common is the legion of graduate school dropouts who never complete because it was the absolute wrong thing for them to do with their lives. Ever heard of the term A.B.D.? All But Doctorate. Yeah…there are a lot of them out there. Most of them were people who looked around the room, but were afraid to walk outside of it and see that there are myriad things to do with one’s life, and that maybe the right thing to do is to explore alternative paths.

Now this is not to say there are not people out there who are A.B.D. and have extraordinary careers doing things outside of academia. I’ve met some. One owns a multi-million dollar consulting business. Loves what he does. Another owns a car repair shop. Loves what he does. Another is a teacher. Loves what she does. So in the end, for most people, things work out, because even if they don’t, cognitive dissonance covers our asses pretty quickly, because we don’t like to think we’ve made the wrong decisions in life. In an experiment done in a methods class, if you choose an unimaginative study, well it’s over in a semester, and you move on. With your life and career, these are the best years of your life. You don’t want to waste several of them on a failed pursuit.

But I know some miserable A.B.D.s who never found themselves. One is a very angry and bitter bartender. Another is a very angry and bitter law clerk. Another is a very angry and bitter secretary. You don’t want to end up like these folks. No one wants to be around them.

So my first piece of advice is “look beyond the walls.”

My second piece of advice is to look beyond grad school. First, graduate school is a very weird place, and it will warp your mind in a way college doesn’t. I have to confess, I didn’t enjoy graduate school. Maybe graduate school is one of those things not meant to be enjoyed, but more importantly, I didn’t like myself much when I was a graduate student. To this day, I don’t like graduate students very much. I find them to be like myself, an unpleasant mixture of confidence and loathing, ambitious and anxious, hope and despair. They have a mean and hungry look…such men and women are dangerous, particularly when you know they want your job. Has a predatory animal ever looked at you at the zoo? You feel sort of safe, but in the back of your mind you can’t shake the feeling that nothing is stopping that lion from leaping over that moat and jumping over that wall and devouring you? That’s the sense I get when I stumble into a graduate student.

Maybe it is just that time in your life, or being an apprentice at something just sucks because you are so at the whim of your master (or adviser), but if you want to ruin an otherwise perfect evening – hang out with a graduate student. If you want to destroy it, just ask how their thesis project is going.

Ask yourself: what do you want out of life, because it goes by so quickly. Do you want to spend your twenties pursuing a career path that might land you a job at some cow college in rural Idaho, or no job at all? I know many a very talented, yet miserable young academic at such a place, who is trapped there because there is no job market for academics in the city where she dreams of living. It’s sort of sad to see people expire their youths in this way, and become bitter and jaded and ultimately abandon their academic careers because of the stupefying dullness of life in a college towns like Ann Arbor or worse still, sleepy small college towns like Juniata, PA, tucked away in the Pennsyltucky mountains.

There are other interesting things in life. Explore them before committing yourself to the academic pathway! You’re only 21 years old, how the hell are you supposed to know that you want to study perceptual categorization or language development for the rest of your damn life? You’re basically a stupid kid, not because you are innately stupid, but because you lack the years of experience that provide wisdom. Experience a summer unpaid internship at a law firm or court of law. Ask lawyers how their lives are, and what they do, and what their friends do. Go volunteer for a summer at a hospital, and ask doctors and nurses what they do, and what their friends do. See the kind of lives they lead, and ask yourself if this is the kind of life you can see yourself leading. Work in a psychology lab for a summer to see what that’s like. Ask professors what they do, and what their friends do. But at such a young age, don’t commit to anything. People used to start their careers after high school, now everyone needs college, and these days, everyone clamors that you need grad school as well. And that may be true, but you don’t need grad school, you need the right grad school for you. And finding the right one – whether it be a med school, a vet school, a law school, a journalism school, an art school – whatever it is, is the most important task.

But don’t just look around the room, spot me, and think, “I know what I’ll do with my life! I’m going to be a psychology professor!” Because then you will be as unimaginative as I once was, and although I am happy that it worked out well for me (mostly) it may not work out well for you. Because there is a lot more to the job that you don’t see than what you do see in the 2.45 hours a week we are together. You might not even like those other parts, like writing papers, crafting grants, and going to conferences (which I am doing tomorrow – I am spending a weekend in Denver, meeting a group of people who looked around their classrooms and thought, “I know what I’m going to do…”). And I’d hate for you to think of me, years down the road, and wish I had warned you, rather than blindly encourage you.

So consider yourself warned, kid. But if you do decide to go to graduate school, I have five short pieces of advice.

1. Ask lots of questions. You’ll be judged more by the questions you ask than the answers you provide in all of life. But importantly, ask the low people on the totem poll. Ask the lowly undergrad RA what it is like to work in Professor X’s laboratory, or how they perceive they are treated by Professor X. These undergrads, having the least to lose, will have no fear in being honest, and if you bribe them with lunch they might tell you the gossip you need to hear. Why does this matter? Because YOU are going to be that low person on the totem pole once you arrive! And although you think your special, and that what applies to others could never apply to you, you’d be wrong about that.

2. Look at the record of the person whom you hope to work with, and that person’s student. Do they publish many articles with students, or mainly sole authored works. Do they publish a few papers a year, or a few years a paper. Because later on for getting a job, the first place people will look on your CV is your publication record, and if you work with someone who never publishes, and their students never publish, then that section on your CV will be considerably sparse.

3. Work with different people. Don’t stick with one adviser. Have several – two or three. Like suitors, they will all vie for your attention (aka time) and if the relationship with one goes sour, you are not cast adrift in your third or fourth year with no adviser. I’ve seen many an academic career end this way. Don’t put your eggs in one basket unless you like broken eggs.

4. Your relationship with faculty and your fellow students will be valuable for the rest of your life. Do not squander this! Later on, they may be invaluable in ways that you can not imagine sitting in this room. Don’t burn bridges, even if you are thoroughly tempted to.

5. Explore options outside of academia at all junctions. Remember what I said about the room. There is a whole world out there, and things to do that may be far more rewarding than an academic career. Don’t let those of us who haven’t left this room for 40 years of our careers convince you that this is the best room in the house. That’s the biggest mind warp of graduate school – they make you believe the only good you can do on earth is find an academic job and continue publishing research. What they are REALLY are doing is trying to increase their own article impact factor by sending out little clones that form colonies of people who continually cite their original articles and make them appear more important than they are. Remember: There are many rooms, and many houses, and many worlds, and many dreams. You’ll find yours somewhere, even if it is far from here. Just be happy with whatever it is you end up doing.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Going there, and coming home

I wrote the following two years ago around the time I brought a group of students to Japan. Sometimes I try and break writing blocks by writing more freely, as academic writing is stilted and, well, boring. At least when I write. As I am going there in a few weeks to bring a second batch of students there, I figured I'd post this. The second part is my favorite story from my time in Japan.

I. The man in the moon and the rabbit in the sky

It was Mariko who first alerted me to the fact. I didn’t know a word of Japanese when I first traveled to Japan seven years ago, and so I could hardly have known that the sign in Narita airport did not simply greet travelers with the usual, “Welcome” but rather O-kuni-nasai, “Welcome Home.” But I noticed it this time.

Mariko was one of those people who appear in upon the stage of one’s life for a brief moment, deliver a few important soliloquies, then departs, never to appear in subsequent acts. She was a research assistant in a psychology laboratory at Kyoto University. She was half Japanese and half German, but married to the very idea and notion of Japan. For her, Japan was home. For me, Japan was simply an apartment that I learned to love and regretted giving up the lease once the year was up.

But there we were, thrown together, and spent many an evening talking along the Kamo river that divides Kyoto in half, sitting on stone turtles that span the river near Dematchiyanagi station. There, we sat, and talked in English, a language she hated.

But in one of those moments, she told me an interesting fact. We in the West we look at the night sky and see a man on the moon. In Japan, they see a rabbit on the moon making mochi (a type of Japanese candy). The rabbit's name is tsuki no usagi. And in one of those nights, when the moon was full and hordes of Japanese teenagers set fireworks into the night sky, I tried to see the rabbit, but to no avail. It is difficult to divorce oneself from 25 years of seeing a man on the moon, and suddenly see a rabbit.

But perhaps this is the nature of the work I was doing at the time: to show that in different cultures, we see the world in different ways. On one of those nights, I told Mariko about the fact that different cultures look at the sky and see different constellations. While most of us look at the sky and see the big dipper, the Ancient Egyptians saw a man laying down being pulled by a bull, and a Hippopotamus with a crocodile on its back. The same stimulus, and wildly divergent interpretations. At that time, I had been reading Jerome Bruner’s work from the 1950s on perceptual readiness, the idea that perception is a dynamic and active process, that we construct our percepts by imposing our desires, needs, wants, expectations, and so on, upon the sensory information that we receive. Different people, in different cultures, in different economic conditions, in different historical periods, in different geographic locations, may have a plethora of divergent wants, needs, desires, goals, and expectations, and thus perceive the world in vastly different ways. But I imagine there are some universalities. For instance, I imagine two people are at this very moment sitting on the Turtles of the Kamo River in Kyoto, sharing their dreams. Some things never change. Some things truly are universal.

II. The secret of lost things

There are others who appear for their soliloquies, never to be seen or hear from again. Like Matsuda-san.

I was naked in the sento, sitting in a bath next to a seventy year old Japanese man named Matsuda. I spoke enough Japanese and he enough English that we could get by simply through hobbling together words from both our languages.

“You must be marry, right?”
“No, not married.” I replied.
“But you handsome guy. Girls fall over you.”
“I wish, Matsuda-san! No, I recently broke up with a woman I dated for several years. I thought it would last but life took us in different directions.”
“Ah. Love. Muzukashi, Ne?” (Difficult, isn’t it?)
“Hontoni!” (True!)
“But you have, how do I say, memories are good?”
“Good memories? Of course. Many of them.”

“That’s good to have good memories. When I was child, I had a toy, uh, how do you say…fire truck. I played with many times. But we moved from Tokyo to Kansai region, and somehow during moving it was lost. I still think of this toy, I am a seventy year old man. But it is to me, object of my childhood times when I was very happy. I don’t think I was ever so happy again as in childhood, playing with that toy. But I think the most valuable thing we own in life are the things we lost. I lost fire truck, but I remember many happy times. Same is true for woman. You lose pretty woman, but you gain good memories. Don’t worry about losing things. In losing things, you gain more important things: good memory things. There is nothing more important than good memories. The things you lose in life are the most valuable things you own in life. This is what I believe.”

I remember thinking then that I would never forget this moment on earth, when two naked guys in a bath house in a small neighborhood in Kyoto from vastly divergent worlds spoke. The most important things we own in our lives, on this earth, are the things we have lost. The very beauty of the appreciation of the beauty in things that pass by, rather than stand still, is uniquely Asian. In America, we tend to collect things. Jay Leno has something like 100 classic cars.

Years later I sat at a table in Tokyo with some of my own students who I brought to Japan. They were saddened by the fact that they would soon be leaving the country, with no plans to return. I told them this story. But I reminded them that they can never truly lose Japan, for it is always here as a place to return. You can only miss being home, you can never truly lose it. And I told them that there is nothing more important in life than good memories.

III. Behind closed doors.

There is something special about revealing secrets. Kyoto was my secret. In my time in Kyoto, I walked its streets, ate at its restaurants, danced in its nightclubs, sung karaoke in its bars, hiked its mountains, saw its temples, meditated in its shrines. But Kyoto was always mine, secret memories locked up that I could reveal and no one really ever could understand.

Like the time I stayed at a capsule hotel.
Like the time I ate a live shrimp.
Like the time I met that old man on the train from Hakkodate to Sapporo, we shared about ten words of each other’s language but managed to entertain each other for an hour.
Like the old women of Kyoto, who each morning go outside with their watering cans and water the pavement in front of their houses and sweep the water into the gutter to reduce the dust.
Like the couple who owned the tofu factory down the street, who would marvel at this foreigner buying bricks of tofu.
Like the time I was on a train in Tokyo, and saw a woman whom I felt I must have known in another life. I exited the train when she did, and followed her down the confusing labyrinth of streets until she got to her house. I watched the lights go on and smiled, knowing that in this universe we are not alone. I walked back and continued my journey.
Like the time I walked over fire.
Like the time I stood and watched Chinese characters burning on the mountainside, guiding the ancestors back to the land of the spirits.

All of these things, and more, are part of my secret world. And it is wonderful to have the chance to share my secret world again and again.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The day after the big day

So on January 21, 2009, I went to Washington DC to review grants for the National Science Foundation. But the very day before, January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as president. Everyone at the NSF seemed jubilant (do you know what a jubilee is? It is a biblical term for a celebration in which debts are canceled.)

The very next day, after a long series of discussions over grants, my friend Shannon and I went to see the White House and have dinner. Shannon lives in Puerto Rico with his wife and two kids, who would be thrilled to see a video of their father by the White House so close to the inauguration. I myself have a few friends who would enjoy the fact that I was able to get so close to history, both physically and temporally.

Here they are:

Honestly, I don't know who that angry guy is next to me. From the looks of it, probably a republican...

Next we went to the Lincoln Memorial.

The woman in the pink shirt behind me had a shirt that read "Virginity Rocks!" It was the Pro-Life March on Washington day. Virginity may rock, but unfortunately, it rarely works as a viable long-term strategy for preventing teen pregnancy. Just ask Sarah Palin.

Funny - there was a different air at NSF this time. People were actually happy. Maybe having a leader who doesn't aim to squash scientific progress through polemic and draconian executive orders is a good thing. Maybe now we can begin to do stem cell research and come up with cures to diseases like diabetes and parkinson's. Maybe now we can really begin to address climate change in an intelligent way. Who knows? Maybe we have a president who thinks with his head rather than knows with his heart.

The past eight years have not been great for science. Let's hope the future bings a renewed interest and trust in the value of science. There is no other way.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

You're WELCOME, world.

You're welcome, for helping elect the distinguished senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, as President of the United States.

For the last several weeks, in what free time I had, I volunteered at the South Philadelphia Obama campaign headquarters. Normally, I don't get involved in politics, but this time was different. I cared because in the past eight years, I witnessed our country go from being a beacon of hope to being the world's most defiled nation, hated and scorned by nearly everyone. While there are a number of reasons for this, most can be traced back to the irresponsible actions of the George W. Bush administration.

It was most clear to me in 2004, when I was living in Kyoto, Japan, and a stumbled into an Iraq War protest. I have always been against all form of war, and was particularly confused about the Iraq war, because I never quite understood its necessity. But a group of Japanese approached me, trying to pick a fight, asking me if I am an American. Quickly, I responded in Japanese, "No, I am from Europe. I can't stand America."

I said those words. At the time, only one of them was a lie.

But I went back to my Japanese apartment and cried - literally. There was part of me I saw slipping - a patriotic side that respected the nation and saluted the flag. And in that moment, I spat on my country just to get out of a confrontation. I opened my computer and emailed my republican senator Rick Santorum, a notorious conservative Pennsylvanian who earned the nickname "Smegma" - that thanks to the republican neoconservative war, I am no longer proud to be an American. He must not have cared - I never received a response.

I couldn't stand what America had become - hawkish and arrogant, unilateral and imposing, unnecessarily menacing and fearful. Within America, I saw changes too. Just to take one small example, I saw in my own field that fewer and fewer scientific articles were published by authors at American Universities. To take another example, I watched as bridges collapsed and crushed unfortunate Americans. To take another example, I saw housing prices increase at insane and irrational levels, with no one stopping to question whether a humdrum 3 bedroom colonial in Florida should REALLY be worth 1.5 million dollars.

I stood by as America became an unrecognizable and bizarre country. Then we began to see the meteoric rise of Barack Hussein Obama. I knew Obama from my days at the University of Chicago, where I was a student. I'd pass him on campus, recognizing him from the cover of the book he wrote, which I saw on the shelves of the Coop bookstore. I thought at the time. He once came into a restaurant I was at and shook everyone's hand at my table, sitting down with us and asking for our support. I told him I was a student and registered in another state. He said, "Too bad, but it doesn't mean you can't stop by my campaign office and work for the cause." (I never did, and kick myself now for that lack of judgment...who knows what governmental post I might have gotten if I joined in those early days). People would always talk about this Obama guy, and I didn't really think much of the talk at the time because the guy was a state senator. "Big deal"

Boy was I wrong. I watched his speech during the 2004 campaign and thought, "damn." There was always speculation that he would run for office, but there was always a big mountain in the way: Hillary Clinton and her political machine. I watched the primary with great interest, although I was ambivalent - I wanted both Hillary and Obama as president, because I think the nation needed a symbol of what that represents: equality of gender, equality of race. But it was not to be. Obama somehow battled his way, gaining the support of African-Americans who pundits believed did not see Obama as one of their own, and prevailed. History spoke.

I am not much into politics but I would have continued to have sat in the sidelines but for one factor that mobilized me to action. You know what is coming.

The nomination of Sarah Palin. As an east coast elitist quasi-intellectual, I look at Palin and see her for what she is - someone who thinks Africa is a country, who can't name the signatories of NAFTA. Someone who can't even dredge up the Dred Scott Supreme Court case that legalized slavery in the territories in the 1850s as an example of a decision she would disagree with. Someone who can't name a single newspaper when asked what she reads, and subsequently blames her ignorance on her frustration at the question.

THAT Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin represents an American concept that disgusts me: exceptionalism. Exceptionalism, to me, is the notion that we as Americans are exceptional without having the excellence to back it up. It is a philosophy adopted by many Americans in their inflated self-esteem and self-indulgence that places the Joe the Plumbers and Tito the Builders as heroes, as if they are any different from the plumbers anywhere. The only difference is probably that in Japan, a plumber who says they will show up at noon comes not one minute late, unlike the American plumber I called a few months ago who failed even to show up, resulting in my having to run down the street to the corner wine bar to pee for a night. Exceptionalism is a philosophy that places dangerously unqualified people like Sarah Palin in dangerously powerfully positions of authority.

When McCain chose Palin, I read her biography, almost vomited, donated money to the Obama campaign, found where the nearest Obama headquarters was, left my apartment, slammed my door, walked to the Obama campaign headquarters, walked up to the first person I saw and said "use me."

I did a whole bunch of things while volunteering for the campaign, none of it very intellectual, but that was okay. I sat on South Street, asking people if they were registered to vote. I personally registered over 150 people, increasing my vote from 1 to 151. Other days I manufactured pins using the button-making machine (which was fun! I used to joke that I felt like I was in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but no one, except for an economics professor I met understood that joke! What? Me? Elitist?) Other days I knocked door to door, handing out information. Other days I entered data from people who had knocked on doors. Some days I would spend the whole day working, others I spent just a few hours.

And an amazing thing happened. People would come up to me, and thank me for what I was doing. A big guy in a military uniform approached - I thought he was going to knock out my teeth - but he shook my hand and said that as a member of the military he was unable to volunteer for a political campaign but that he's voting for Obama because the war in Iraq is hell. People would shake my hand while I sat at the table and ask if I wanted a coffee from the shop next door. They would high five me, chanting "GoBaMa!"

In my real life as an academic, I write journal articles that maybe a handful of people actually read, tiny and unseen bricks in the wall of knowledge. No one ever writes, "Thank you for that great chapter" - you send your work into the world, and the reaction is typically silence. But here, African Americans, Hispanics, Caucasians, whoever, would come in the office and say, in their own way, "use me." From perfect strangers, we would work on a common cause, however trivial it might seen, in order to elect a leader who doesn't see the world through a narrow ideological lens, and who not only knows that Africa is a continent, but has expressed enough interest in the place to visit the place.

In the end, I don't know in exactly what way my help changed the nature of this campaign, and I doubt that it was my individual influence that was the critical straw that broke the camel's back. Pennsylvania was won by far more votes than doors I knocked or pins I handed out.

But in the end, it was not just ME, but a city, and a state, and a nation of WEs, all of us who were so enraged at the status quo and the anti-intellectualism Palin represents collectively slamming the doors of our apartments and yelling ENOUGH! ENOUGH of this collective self-loathing of being American, ENOUGH of these collective excuses of being from Europe, ENOUGH of this Republican bullshit...America, WE ARE TAKING OUR COUNTRY BACK. And we did, door by door, pin by pin, excel spreadsheet by excel spreadsheet...we who believed in change, created change we believed in.

I met many great people along the way. Juan, Matt, Sula, Greg, Seth - a whole community of people who like me, could not accept someone like Palin one heartbeat away from the Presidency, and one finger press away from nuclear annihilation. Who were desperate for change.

There are those who question change as an empty promise, and in some ways it lacks solvency in itself. But what change means is something more fundamental and ephemeral, something that motivates the spirit. It means adopting a new philosophy for negotiating the challenges of the 21st century, something George Bush utterly failed to do. It means negotiating with words rather than with bombs. It means that instead of running off of a cliff, our nation may somehow redeem itself, reenter the 21st century, and reverse the course of history. It will be a tough mountain for all of us to climb, but I imagine the view is breathtaking and worth the work.

Election day volunteering

My last volunteer effort was to help manage lines at the polls. I found that unlike in other cities, Philadelphia does a pretty good job of managing elections (who would have thought?) Here are a few of the events of the days, via youtube, for posterity. note that I didn't try and make the best videos for an academy award - these are just some snapshots.

My friend Matt calls me from our poll at 7 AM, saying there is a long line and he needs help. I get there and there are lots of people waiting, so I go to a local coffee shop to get coffee. The coffee shop girl gives me a whole huge coffee dispenser full of coffee for free. There was a 45 minute wait.

Lines subside. There were no further lines during the day so we stood there handing out free coffee and doughnuts. I got to vote at my own polling station.

This is the polling place I was helping at. The guy electioneering was some republican who was described variously as "creepy" or "insane" - too bad he only garnered 55 votes against several hundred for his democratic opponent:

At some point a bunch of children walked by, chanting "Don't forget to vote!"

We waited all day and until 8 PM for lines to show up, but we knew they wouldn't because by noon, already about 2/3rds of registered voters had already voted. At 8 PM, they closed the polls.

Afterwards, Matt and I went to his girlfriend house, we had Vietnamese hoagies, and went to a local tavern where many people seemed to be filling in.

We watched as they called Pennsylvania and Virginia. We knew at that point that Obama had won (McCain would have had to win California for that to happen), but they did not announce the winner until 11 o'clock. Watch the reaction in South Philly when CNN calls the election:

We did not watch history last night, we MADE history last night, one button, one door, one vote at a time.

You're welcome, world. I'm an American, and I am once again proud to admit it.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Obama WILL NOT win Philadelphia so say window signs.

In the past few days, I have gone around counting political campaign signs in my neighborhood in Philadelphia. The purpose was to see whether the number of signs in the neighborhood would predict the election. Now - this was shoddy science - I know that this is a big country, and that a small sample of signs in the windows of some streets in Philadelphia is no way to call an election. But that was going to be my point.

But understand: I live in South Philadelphia, home of the Phillies Stadium and most of the neighborhood consists of hard core Phillies fans, the type who go to the games even as the Phillies are losing, which they have a long history of doing.

However, this year, the Phillies are most decidedly NOT losing - in fact, last night, they won the world series - the first time in 28 years. I walked to Broad Street after the win, where tens of thousands of fans literally were hooting and hollering well into the night, and woke up this morning to overturned newspaper boxes and almost every passerby wearing Phillies sweatshirts. It was an electric experience, and perhaps a once or at most twice in a lifetime event.

But in walking around, looking for campaign signs, I found that if I didn't know better, there was a third candidate for the general election for president, someone with the name "Phillies" who must be running in the election because his signs are literally everywhere. So the final tally of signs resulted in the following:

Obama signs: 135
McCain signs: 17
Phillies signs: 197

That's it. Sorry, distinguished senators from Arizona and Illinois - this guy Phillies has won in an electoral landslide! Who would have thought that a third-party candidate would have struck such a home run in this largely democratic section of the city of Brotherly Love? Maybe Chase Utley?

Friday, October 24, 2008

The social psychology of campaign signs

Recently, I have been volunteering a bit for one of the presidential candidates in the 2008 general election. A few weeks ago, people were approaching me at the campaign office requesting window signs so that they could show their support for the candidate. Unfortunately, we didn't have any at the office where I was working. People were devastated and desperate for these political signs, in no small part due to the historic nature of this election season, and also, for psychological reasons associated with the psychology of our political climate, on which I admit I am not an expert.

So I ask one of the head volunteers whether we could get some signs. This volunteer is a University of Pennsylvania student. Now, I have to admit I used to be an academic elitist. I thought that the fact that I was educated at THE University of Chicago meant that I was some kind of genius and could make carte blanche statements about just about anything. Penn is a very similar institution - Penn students think that because they are Penn students, the world should bow to them and that their farts smell like roses. I know better.

"The campaign doesn't want to waste resources with signs. Research shows that signs don't work."

Really? So for a while, I told people that they could go to the campaign website and print out signs as pdf files. People weren't convinced. "More money has been spent this year than any other, and you can't print signs? This is ridiculous." "I donated $100 to your campaign and I can't even have a sign? Go to hell." "I will stop by every day until you get them in." I didn't know that people were so connected with their political signs, but it was getting so bad that I went to kinkos and printed 100 xeroxed pages so these people would have something to put up in their damn windows. I ran out within an hour.

Later, I looked into how this research was conducted. Apparently, pollsters go around asking people questions like, "What factors were important to you in your decision to vote for X candidate." People then rank ordered the importance of the various factors. Somewhat unsurprisingly, people ranked things like the Iraq war and the economy very high. They ranked window signs near the bottom. Why not? People don't think they would be influenced by something as ridiculous as a little sign on one's lawn! Based on this evidence, the researchers concluded that candidate window signs were not effective in persuading people to vote for a particular candidate, and so people in the campaign have not provided signs.

This is also why, in my research methods courses, I am somewhat critical of a lot of survey research. Simply put, people don't understand themselves. Now this may seem elitist and pompous for me to say, and I don't mean it to be this way. I too, don't understand myself, at least in how I think and make decisions. When you ask me what 2 + 2 equals, I have no idea how I come up with the correct answer of 4. What influenced me to say 4 and not 5? I don't know. I can't see my thought processes, and I can hardly fathom them. I know something is going on up there, but I have no idea how it works. Much of psychology since behaviorism has been about illuminating those processes that work up there, and we're not all that much closer now than we were when we started.

So I don't know how I know that 2 + 2 = 4. Then how on earth will I know what factors, of the thousands of factors, that influence me to vote for a particular candidate? How am I supposed to remember all the many times I thought of economic issues, or thee Iraq war, or window signs I passed. Humans have limited processing capacity - although we spend our lives convincing ourselves otherwise. We take mental shortcuts, or heuristics, or we trust our gut over trusting our minds.

This all reminds me of two clever experiments. The first is a classic, performed by Solomon Asch (who spent part of his career at Penn, incidentally). Asch ran an experiment in which he had a naive participant come into a room. Then two confederates (actors) walk in who pretend to be other participants. Asch then shows the three lines that vary in length, and asks the participants to determine which is the longest.The two actors say that the medium sized line is in fact the largest, and far more often than not, the naive participant ends up agreeing with them, even though the line is clearly shorter.

The second is a more recent study by Robert Cialdini, of Arizona State University. He has one person standing below a high rise, staring up at the building. No one stops and looks up. But get a group of 2 or 3 people to be staring up at the top of the high rise, and suddenly you find scores of passersby stopping and looking up, wondering what the heck the original few were staring at.

What's my point here? Well, people are influenced by things they don't even recognize they are being influenced by. So when you ask the guy in the Asch experiement, he doesn't necessarily understand that the opinions of the others are tacitly influencing his perception of the length of the line. And second, that it is possible that a few window signs on each block might convince several other people on the block to look up and put a window sign up, or even vote for the candidate in question.

There is a lot of poorly designed research out there. There has to be - if not, there would be very little demand for researchers to improve upon what we know. But the first step in evaluating the world is to begin by noticing patterns. If every person who stops by a campaign office is asking for window signs, but you have some research report by some pollster showing that window signs are not very effective, then maybe you need to reevaluate whether the research report is in fact valid. Scientists are in the business of possibly being wrong. For no other reason than the fact that any result may be due to chance, or that some finding occurs because you don't have the tools necessary to evaluate your hypothesis.

But what disappointed me the most was the Penn student's response. "People are so stupid. Perhaps if they wern't such cows they would realize that their stupid window signs don't make an ounce of difference. It is so infuriating."

Tell that to the woman to contributed $100 and only wants, in return, a sign that costs less than a cent to manufacture. The worst thing a scientist can do is attribute a phenomenon to the stupidity of the participants. None of us should be presumptuous to have the intellect of a messiah, and we should always be both respectful, as well as skeptical, of any scientific finding. Just ask this guy: