Saturday, November 9, 2013

Sociology? I thought it was an economic experiment.

From Learning to Compete and Cooperate by Alex Tabarrok.

Tabarrok discusses an experiment.
What drives individualism and competitiveness as opposed to collectivism and cooperation? Leibbrandt, Gneezy and List have a great paper studying this question with an ingenious experiment. LGL study two types of fishermen in Northeastern Brazil. The two types live within ~50km of one another but one type are lake fishermen and the other sea fishermen. Lake fishing favors individual fisherman in small boats while sea fishing favors team production on larger boats.


Perhaps you won’t be too surprised to learn that 45.6% of the lake fishermen chose to compete compared with just 27.6% of the sea fishermen. What makes the paper great is all the secondary tests the authors do to understand this result at a deep level. The result, for example, is not due to differences in throwing ability or risk preferences.
Tabarrok goes on in some detail, but you get the gist. New study, interesting results confirming of an existing theory, clever experimental work, etc. This is from the blog site Marginal Revolution which has some pretty bright readers and commenters. It is always worth reading the comments about research such as this, to get some pretty pointed identification of weak points in the argument - small sample size, no controls, issue of definitions, etc.. And they do not disappoint in this case.

Human activities are inherently causally dense - there is always a lot going on, most of it not apparent. In this case, the commenters are pointing out that it is conceivable that what is actually being measured is developed risk aversion rather than learned competitiveness.

But there is one step further in this instance. The article is illustrated with a photograph of the experiment (which involved tossing tennis balls into a bucket) in process.

One of the commenters points out one of the innumerable incidental variables that so often are not addressed or even considered in experiments such as these. The commenter points out that the observer taking notes of the experiment is a pretty young woman. The participants are middle aged men.

So the experimenters think they are conducting a study of economic behaviors in terms of cooperation and competition among lake and sea fishermen. But what if they are inadvertently conducting a sociological study of male behavior in the presence of attractive women? What if the patterns of gender behavior among the lake fishermen differs in a material way from those of the sea fishermen and for reasons having nothing to do with their respective fishing techniques?

I don't know that having an attractive young woman as the recorder of the experiment would actually make any difference in the outcomes but it is an example of one of those exogenous variables that don't ostensibly have anything to do with the experiment but which, unless controlled for, might actually skew the results.

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