Sunday, February 28, 2010

Name That Heuristic!

Five years after a major and mediagenic tsunami, there's a tsunami warning along the west coast of North America as a result of the earthquake in Chile. If there's a heuristic besides "be really stupid" that describes this, I don't know what it is:

After I got back to the car [a reporter] came over and pointed out the apparent low tide. Woh! I had never seen anything like it. It looked lower than the lowest tide I had ever seen at La Jolla shores. After watching it for about 10 minutes, I did exactly what you are warned not to do during a suck out during a tsunami. Yeh, that’s right, I walked out there.

At least the people in Thailand could say they didn't know what the low tide meant, and didn't have an official warning. This person (and others like him) didn't have that excuse, and still went for a walk on the seabed. What would his friends have said if he'd been swept out? That he didn't realize the danger? I suppose that's true.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sarcasm and Theory of Mind

The British Psychological Society Digest has posted a paper inexplicably investigating the onset of sarcasm in child development. Kids get sarcasm at least by 10, but not yet by 5. [Added later: no word on whether British children develop sarcasm earlier than normal children.]

Why? For sarcasm you need a theory of mind. For me to appreciate (and enjoy) the incongruity of your saying something that you don't believe, I have to understand that a) you're not saying it to deceive me (that is, your intent) and b) you don't believe it (that is, I have to use what I know about you to form a model of your true beliefs, independent of the statement that you're making right now).

Blattman's post ends with the inevitable crack on the supposed lack of sarcasm of earnest Midwesterners, though in my experience I find this to be more true of Southern Californians. In my own anecdotal experience, Midwesterners understand
sarcasm just fine, they're just clear communicators averse to saying the opposite of the truth, and furthermore they're not so self-centered as to expect you to internalize a model of their belief states in order to get their brilliant jokes.

But while we defend geographic sarcasm stereotypes - since sarcasm relies on theory of mind, i.e. on the ability to quickly form and evaluate models of other human beings (who you may have just met within the hour), is there a link between sarcasm ability and number and breadth of humans you're exposed to? In other words, in a dense cosmopolitan area, are people more likely to be sarcastic? Certainly New York is the sarcasm capital of the United States. Meanwhile, Southern California is not dense, and diverse though it may be, people here have an unfortunate tendency to hunker down in ethnic colonies, both of which conspire to keep them from "practicing" modeling a wide range of other humans.

So are London and Paris notoriously more sarcastic than the rest of their respective countries? What about Hong Kong relative to rural China? Another possible explanation is that people in cities tend to be more educated. You could control for this by finding a dense city with low education levels and compare against more educated people in the suburbs; this model predicts the people in the city would still be more sarcastic.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

That Geographic Facebook Map

...that's been making the rounds (original article here) is interesting because of the social boundaries it shows:

Two perennial questions I have about American demographic boundaries are reflected on this map:

1) Why the boundary between western Stayathomia and northern Greater Texas? Really this just revisits the Upper Midwest vs. Lower Midwest. Iowa and Minnesota are better educated, less religious, and have higher per capita incomes than Kansas and Oklahoma. Echoes of slavery are often raised, not unreasonably, as the source of many of the cultural differences between Northerners and Southerners - but that's really an argument for the Eastern Seaboard, since it was never well-established in Kansas or Oklahoma. So is the reason for this that settlers of the Upper Midwest came from the Northeast and settlers of OK and KS from the Old South or Texas? Something to do with crops there or the early discovery of oil and the subsequent impacts of those resources? The much larger Native American populations in Oklahoma and longer history of conflict in Kansas? I'm at a loss.

2) The boundary between Dixie and Stayathomia tracks the Bad Stripe fairly well. The Bad Stripe is an area of poverty and general unhappiness trending basically along the western side of the Appalachians from West Virginia down through eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, then trending west through Arkansas and to the edge of Oklahoma. (It's not just economics; for crying out loud even the weather is worse - it's cloudier there. Most recent article here). The Stripe first came to my attention when I noticed that people there voted more strongly GOP in the 2008 presidential election than they had in 2004. This could be a coincidence, or it could be that someone in North Carolina is unlikely to be friends with a lower-status, less-educated, less-happy person in Kentucky and Tennessee, and likewise somebody in Ohio, so the chance for a connection from OH to NC through the Stripe is low. (Sorry KY and TN, those are the unpleasant realities.) It's also interesting to ask whether there's a general problem with border regions, i.e. two regions of roughly equal parity have a region between them of lower parity. Is there a similar bad stripe between, say, northern and southern Japan, or northern and southern Germany?