Bad nudges – organ donation edition

It’s a favourite behavioural science story. Countries that have opt-in organ donation have lower rates of organ donation than countries where you have to opt out of being an organ donor. If we change the way the choice is framed from opt in to opt out, we can dramatically increase the rate of organ donation.

Except, it’s not that simple. For countries where there is an opt-out system, there is no simple point where the choice is presented to them as the default and they can easily tick the box to be removed from the organ donation register. Instead, they need to find and fill out forms or call various government agencies to overcome a presumed consent.

Further, although opt-out countries tend to have higher donation rates, some countries with opt-in systems have higher donation rates than those with opt-out. The high numbers that get reported – 99.98% of Austrians are organ donors – are the numbers who haven’t opted out, not the number who donate. When it comes to the point of donation, other issues become more relevant, including the wishes of the family. It’s no surprise that the family might wish to intervene, particularly given that in an opt-out system there is no moment where the donor is required to express their wish.

It seems to have been on the cards for a while now, but I’ve just realised Wales is shifting to being an opt-out country. The rolling out of this nudge is lazy.

Instead of trying to design a system where they actually determine the wishes of the person and their family, they rely on the inconvenience of having to opt out to boost registered numbers. At the time of death, the family will have no sense of what the deceased wished for- after all, the number of people who choose to opt out is far less than the number who than indicate in surveys that they do not wish to donate.

There is no shortage of alternative approaches that don’t rely on granting (or attempting to grant) the right to organs through omission. Active choice is one option – when people get a driver’s licence or tax file number, ask them to choose whether they wish to be an organ donor or not. It will likely increase the number of registered organ donors over an opt-in system, while proving some indication of people’s wishes. An active choice also indicates these wishes to the family, with those wishes one of the major factors in families agreeing to donation.

Then there are the more interesting options that could be tested – markets for organs, preferential treatment for those on registers (as occurs in Israel), or systems to match donors. These options are often prohibited.

Instead of increasing the freedom to develop new solutions, we have a misunderstood story about a nudge gaining momentum, inadvertently placing the burden on family members at the time of death.

As an aside, I’m still hunting for examples of nudges introduced explicitly to increase freedom by allowing a hard requirement to be relaxed. Current count remains at zero.

*Searching around for information on the changes in Wales, I came across another perspective from Eric Crampton.

A week of links

Links this week (or more like two weeks):

  1. The problem with satisfied patients.
  2. Happiness inequality.
  3. Explaining the growth mindset.
  4. Gender-blind economists.
  5. Logical versus ecological rationality.
  6. Slaughter scientific peer review. HT: Christopher Snowdon.
  7. Poor children have smaller brains.

And if you missed them, my posts from the last two weeks:

  1. Unemployment and self control.
  2. Uncertainty and understanding behaviour.

Life is busy at the moment, so posting will continue to be sparse over the next month.

Returns to self control – unemployment edition

A new paper in Psychological Science by Michael Daly and friends:

Childhood Self-Control and Unemployment Throughout the Life Span: Evidence From Two British Cohort Studies

The capacity for self-control may underlie successful labor-force entry and job retention, particularly in times of economic uncertainty. Analyzing unemployment data from two nationally representative British cohorts (N = 16,780), we found that low self-control in childhood was associated with the emergence and persistence of unemployment across four decades. On average, a 1-SD increase in self-control was associated with a reduction in the probability of unemployment of 1.4 percentage points after adjustment for intelligence, social class, and gender. From labor-market entry to middle age, individuals with low self-control experienced 1.6 times as many months of unemployment as those with high self-control. Analysis of monthly unemployment data before and during the 1980s recession showed that individuals with low self-control experienced the greatest increases in unemployment during the recession. Our results underscore the critical role of self-control in shaping life-span trajectories of occupational success and in affecting how macroeconomic conditions affect unemployment levels in the population.

HT: Stirling Behavioural Science Blog

Uncertainty and understanding behaviour

From Cameron Murray on the trolley problem:

In Scenario A a trolley is barreling down the tacks toward five people who will be killed unless the trolley is stopped. Luckily, there is a fork in the tracks, and by simply pulling a lever, the trolley can be diverted onto a second set of tracks. Unfortunately there is a single person in the path of the tolled on this track who will be killed if you pull the lever.

The dilemma is whether you should pull the lever and save five people by sacrificing one? In surveys most people say they would.

In Scenario B you find yourself on a bridge next to a fat man where below the same dilemma is playing out, with a trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five people. The question here is whether it is permissible to pushing the person next to you onto the tracks if you knew it would stop the trolley and save the five people.

Most people in this scenario would not push the man off the bridge, even though the same welfare gains in terms of lives saved would be the same as Scenario A (so you know, 68.2% of philosophers would push the man to save the five). …

Fundamentally the incompatibility of these two outcomes arises because we are presented with a dilemma in terms of risk, or knowable probabilities. …

Let us now look at the question in terms of uncertainty. For a start, how do we know the trolley is out of control? Is it possible to delay the decision to get more information?

… [I]n Scenario A, switching the tracks leads to a new situation that opens up the set of possible choices … while eliminating others. Switching the trolley onto the side track buys time and keeps options open without killing anyone.

In Scenario B, most people choose not to push the fat man. Here what the are doing is buying time before anyone gets killed. Even after the decision is made not to push the man, there will be time available for many other as-yet-unknowable situations to arise. …

The whole rationale of making decisions in a world of uncertainty revolves around keeping options for desirable outcomes open, and often this involves buying time by not making a decision at all.

A couple of practical examples:

In criminal behaviour, Becker’s expected utility framework has been called into question due to the radical difference between human behaviour in a world of uncertainty versus a world of risk. Increasing chances of being caught and increasing punishment if caught are substitute methods for changing probability distributions of expected outcomes in a world of risk, but in a world of uncertainty they will have far different effect on criminal decisions.

The same logic of uncertainty can be applied in social psychology to understand the bystander effect. The bystander effect is the label given to the occasionally observed inverse relationship between the number of people witnessing a victim in need, and the number of people offering help. Various reasons for this empirical phenomena have emerged, with the idea of a diffusion of responsibility dominating explanations.

But when we dig a little deeper we can see the logic of uncertainty at play. Repeated experiments on the bystander effect show that the degree of ambiguity is a crucial determinant of the willingness to assist, with reaction times being much slower in the presence of more ambiguous situations.

Read his full post.

A week of links

Links this week:

  1. Behavioral Public Choice: The Behavioral Paradox of Government Policy. HT: Ryan Murphy
  2. Happiness and growth.
  3. The genetic component of sex offending.
  4. “[I]is growth mindset the one concept in psychology which throws up gigantic effect sizes and always works? Or did Carol Dweck really, honest-to-goodness, make a pact with the Devil in which she offered her eternal soul in exchange for spectacular study results?”
  5. A new Charles Murray book – By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission
  6. Evolution continues.
  7. The weird belief that people follow dietary guidelines. A question – to what extent do food manufacturers respond to the guidelines, especially to earn “heart smart” certifications and the like?
  8. Economics melts the brain. One alternative which I’ve often seen is, because the model assumptions simply don’t work, they throw every bit of economics they’ve ever learnt out the window and revert to storytelling.

And if you missed it, my one post this week:

  1. Predicting replication.

And a blast from the past: Why isn’t economics evolutionary?

Predicting replication

The Behavioural Economics Replication Project:

This project will provide evidence of how accurately peer prediction markets can forecast replication of scientific experiments in economics.

In order to incentivize prediction market activity, and collect evidence on actual replication, eighteen (18) prominently published studies in experimental economics were chosen for trading in prediction markets, followed by replication. They are laboratory studies, using student participants, that were published in the American Economic Review (AER) or in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (QJE) in the years 2011 to 2014, testing specific hypotheses using between-subjects designs.

It is neat that a prediction market will be opened up to allow experimental economists to bet on which studies will be replicated. How much faith do those familiar with the workings of academia have in these studies?

Looking at the 18 studies, I suspect there will be a higher rate of replication than occurred in last year’s special issue of Social Psychology, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a majority fail to replicate.

A week of links

Links this week:

  1. Misrepresentation of Asch’s studies.  HT: Stuart Ritchie
  2. Don’t pretend sports events have big economic effects. And this holds for the Olympics too.
  3. Get rid of all the ordinary accidents, and you are left with the weird. HT: Tyler Cowen
  4. If told obesity is a disease, obese people are less worried about their weight.
  5. Jerry Coyne on the new paper arguing kin selection is a factor in eusociality.
  6. Yes to marine reserves.

And if you missed them, my posts this week:

  1. The gender reading gap and love of learning.
  2. The law of law’s leverage.

The law of law’s leverage

Last week I posted on Owen Jones’s 2000 article Time-Shifted Rationality and the Law of Law’s Leverage: Behavioral Economics Meets Behavioral Biology and his argument that behavioural economics (and law) requires the theoretical backbone of evolutionary biology.

The second half of that article has a neat idea – what Jones calls the law of law’s leverage. The basic idea is that the effectiveness of laws will vary with the adaptiveness (in ancestral environments) of the behaviour the law is trying to change. Jones describes it as follows:

The law of law’s leverage predicts that less legal intervention will be necessary to shift a behavior in ways that tended to increase reproductive success in ancestral environments than will be necessary to shift behavior in ways that tended to decrease reproductive success in ancestral environments. Put another way, the slope of the demand curve for historically adaptive behavior that is now deemed to be socially (in some cases even individually) undesirable will be far steeper than the slope of the demand curve for behavior that was comparatively less adaptive in ancestral environments. Importantly, this relationship between the slopes will hold, even when the costs that an individual actually and foreseeably incurs in behaving in an historically adaptive way will exceed presently foreseeable benefits of such behavior

As an example:

Evolutionary analysis predicts that, and explains why, the slope of the demand curve for adulterous behavior is likely to be comparatively steep (as is the slope for most sexual behavior) and thus comparatively insensitive to the imposition of legal prohibitions (or other costs, such as effect on career). Evolutionary analysis also predicts that, and may help explain why, marriage, separation, divorce, and remarriage behavior will be less sensitive to legal changes than will be many other forms of behavior. Because, as we know, natural selection disfavors inbreeding among close relatives, evolutionary analysis also and separately predicts that it will be far less costly to discourage incest among parents and their natural children, and between siblings reared together, than among stepparents and stepchildren, and among stepchildren. Because we know that natural selection favors discriminative parental solicitude rather than indiscriminate parental solicitude (that is, it generally favors psychological mechanisms that bias resources toward offspring over non-offspring), we can explain and anticipate that the cost of reducing child abuse will be greater, per capita, for stepparent households than for non-stepparent households. Similarly, we can predict that men under court-order to provide child support payments for a child they know or suspect they did not father will be less likely to comply than will biological fathers.

Another nice example brings the point home strongly:

Take, for example, a hypothetical legal rule that required an adult, in a crisis situation involving both her children and the children of others, to save children in order of their ranked intelligence (or any other desirable characteristic), irrespective of her own relatedness to each. We know that such a legal rule would be absurd. But why? It is not because the rule would lead to inefficient outcomes. To the contrary, the outcome might increase social wealth compared to the alternative.

It is not enough to say that powerful social norms would generate irresistible emotions in the woman to save her own children, because it so happens that we would expect the same behavior from parents all over the world, regardless of the many vicissitudes of culture. We know the rule would be absurd because we intuitively sense that the preference to save one’s own child would be insensitive to variations in legal costs we might impose in an effort to shift the behavior—all over the planet, in every human culture. The theoretical basis for that sense of relative inelasticity of the demand for certain behaviors, in certain contexts, is not simply acculturation alone, but the law of law’s leverage, as derived from the effects of evolution on human behavior-biasing psychological predispositions.

The concept of the law of law’s leverage reminded me of a section in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, when he pointed out that evidence of a biological basis to crime could be used both by advocates of stronger punishment and advocates of weaker punishment. Evidence of a biological disposition could be argued to reduce culpability. Alternatively, a strong disposition needs to be countered by even stronger incentives.

As such, the law of law’s leverage may lead us to look at a steep demand curve for a particular behaviour and acknowledge that we can’t change it. Or, we may want to massively change the price.

The gender reading gap and love of learning

Two interesting education snippets.

First, Brookings has released a new report that looks at the gender gap in reading:

Girls outscore boys on practically every reading test given to a large population. And they have for a long time. A 1942 Iowa study found girls performing better than boys on tests of reading comprehension, vocabulary, and basic language skills. Girls have outscored boys on every reading test ever given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—the first long term trend test was administered in 1971—at ages nine, 13, and 17. The gap is not confined to the U.S. Reading tests administered as part of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveal that the gender gap is a worldwide phenomenon. In more than sixty countries participating in the two assessments, girls are better readers than boys.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that Finland, celebrated for its extraordinary performance on PISA for over a decade, can take pride in its high standing on the PISA reading test solely because of the performance of that nation’s young women. With its 62 point gap, Finland has the largest gender gap of any PISA participant, with girls scoring 556 and boys scoring 494 points (the OECD average is 496, with a standard deviation of 94). If Finland were only a nation of young men, its PISA ranking would be mediocre.

And where does love of learning come from? From a new twin study:

Little is known about why people differ in their levels of academic motivation. This study explored the etiology of individual differences in enjoyment and self-perceived ability for several school subjects in nearly 13,000 twins aged 9–16 from 6 countries. The results showed a striking consistency across ages, school subjects, and cultures. Contrary to common belief, enjoyment of learning and children’s perceptions of their competence were no less heritable than cognitive ability. Genetic factors explained approximately 40% of the variance and all of the observed twins’ similarity in academic motivation. Shared environmental factors, such as home or classroom, did not contribute to the twin’s similarity in academic motivation. Environmental influences stemmed entirely from individual specific experiences.

A week of links

Links this week:

  1. “If compulsory voting were to help Democrats at all, it would probably help the bad Democrats. The Democrats would end up running and electing more intolerant, innumerate, hawkish candidates.”
  2. The management / bureaucratic speak of World Bank reports. It’s worth clicking through to the full article.
  3. Paul Meehl was talking about today’s problems in psychology 30 years ago.
  4. The problems of financially strapped Americans are not caused by private jets and billionaires buying islands.
  5. Does adoption increase IQ?
  6. An attempt to pull apart the recent breastfeeding study, but still no mention of genetics.
  7. Accessing doctor or lawyer track records.
  8. Might GMO labelling backfire? HT: Ryan Murphy. My guess is that if people avoided foods containing GMOs, their health would improve in the short term by decreasing their consumption of processed foods. In the longer-term, as GM fruit and vegetables start to become prevalent, I am not so sure.
  9. Relatednesss and eusociality. HT: Stuart West

And if you missed them, my posts this week:

  1. The Gell-Mann amnesia effect
  2. Giving behavioural economics an evolutionary perspective.