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On the CSPI podcast this week, I talked to New York Times contributor Seth Stephens-Davidowitz about his books Everybody Lies and Don’t Trust Your Gut.
It was a fun conversation. Honestly, reading his books I thought that Stephens-Davidowitz got ahead of the data a bit on some of his conclusions, but in the discussion I generally found that he had good answers to many of my concerns and even when I disagreed with his interpretations, they were more reasonable than I had previously thought.
Stephens-Davidowitz calls himself an “Obama fanboy,” and the topics he chooses to study and how he frames them are clearly in a few cases influenced by a political outlook that for the most part I don’t share. But it was useful to question the lens through which he looks at these issues. I particularly enjoyed our discussion about physiognomy and what kinds of priors we should have when thinking about the connections between looks and cognitive traits. He moved me a little bit here. I think his point about overgeneralization from a different sample was a good one. But that different sample is the way it looks for a physiological reason!
Below is a transcript of some highlights. It doesn’t include the parts about how genetically determined skills in different sports are, and porn searches and what they tell us about the strangeness of human sexuality, among other things. You can listen to the whole thing on the CSPI podcast, or watch the video here.
Do Muslim Athletes Prevent Hate Crimes?
Richard: You have data on predicting hate crimes. As you know, hate crimes are a tiny percentage of crimes in the United States, right? We’ve had a massive increase in the murder rate in the last year or two, thousands of lives. And it seems like we’ve had such a disproportionate focus in the media and academia on hate crimes, on things motivated by prejudice. Okay, we want to stop them. But are we maybe paying too much attention to this stuff for ideological and political reasons? When we take the data and focus on it, aren’t we maybe directing our energy in the wrong place?
Seth: When I wrote my first Obama paper, a couple professors said that they don’t find these topics that interesting. And my response was, I played the Holocaust card. [laughs] I said my grandparents were in the Holocaust. I think when you go through human history, the costs of hate have been enormous. Even if we’re at a low level now historically, I do think in human history so many major problems have come from hate that it probably does warrant more attention than a random crime. So I’ll play the Holocaust card.
Richard: [laughs] It’s a country of 300-something million people. You’re going to be able to find hate crimes and evil things that happen. You could be, by putting a disproportionate focus on that stuff, contributing to more of it. You could have hatred going the other way. You could have a reaction, a counterreaction. Raising the salience of racial tensions itself can potentially be dangerous.
Seth: That’s tough, yeah. The study that I did with Soltas was very interesting. It was studying the minute-to-minute when Obama was speaking about anti-Muslim attitudes. This was after the San Bernardino attack. And everything Obama said, he just started lecturing people. He’s like, we have to appeal to freedom, not give in to fear; we have to love our neighbors no matter their religious background. Just classic Obama.
I’m a bit of an Obama fanboy, which maybe people won’t like. I’m like, go Barack! And all the other Barack fanboys like myself, The Boston Globe and Newsweek, were like, yeah this is great stuff, he nailed it. But then we actually look at the searches. There are these really nasty searches which predict hate crimes: “I hate Muslims,” “Muslims must die,” “kill Muslims.” They were all shooting up during the speech.
But then at the end of the speech he goes, we have to remember Muslim-Americans are our friends and neighbors, they’re our sports heroes, they’re the men and women who will die for our country. And then you see the searches for Muslim athletes shoot up and searches for Muslim soldiers shoot up. And people are like, who are these people? You see on social networks young men, the people most at risk of anti-Muslim attitudes, they’re going Shaq is Muslim? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is Muslim? Hakeem Olajuwon is Muslim? They didn’t know some of their sports heroes were Muslim.
So basically, lecturing people to love Muslims is way less effective to a young man than saying Shaq is Muslim. It was my conclusion to that, which I think is, after you say it, pretty obvious.
And then Obama gave another speech in a mosque, and he just totally doubled down on this. Everything was who is Muslim that you didn’t realize was Muslim, or Muslims’ place in American history.
Richard: Did they know about your data?
Seth: I haven’t talked to anybody and confirmed it, but it was so striking I couldn’t imagine it wasn’t influenced. Because you literally see the next speech three weeks later, it was completely just eight paragraphs on everybody who is Muslim and all the Muslims in American history. All these things you wouldn’t have known. That Muslim-Americans built the skyscraper in Chicago, Thomas Jefferson had a Koran in his office or something. All of these you’d have the exact same response. Is that true? I didn’t know that.
Richard: It’s very believable. This is intuitively correct. People don’t like being lectured at. You can see the success of Trump… I think if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last like six years, it’s that people really don’t like being lectured at by the media and establishment people. Yeah, that’s fascinating.
It sort of goes back to what we were just talking about before this. I think focusing on the hate crimes and prejudice people face does feel like lecturing to some people. So it does seem like maybe that does potentially have an unintended consequence. While just saying, hey look, Muslims, athletes, entertainers, your friends, your neighbors…
Seth: This is one study. I think when I finished it, I’m so arrogant I’m like, I’ve solved hate in the United States. I’ve done what Martin Luther King Jr. and all these others failed to do. [laughter] Obviously that would also be taking this study too far, there’s a lot more work to be done. But I think it’s unambiguous that a lot of the time people do things that allow them to pat themselves on the back and congratulate each other. So if I hadn’t done this study with Soltas, everyone would have said to Obama, amazing speech; home run, grand slam, you knocked it out of the park. But I think the data shows it was very far from a grand slam. That must happen all the time in hate.
Stereotypes and Physiognomy
Richard: I liked your chapter in one of the books on people’s looks and how we are prejudiced towards people based on their looks. And one of the studies I thought was funny that you cited, it was about the faces of military men, do you remember? West Point graduates or something. And then you could predict how far they went in the military. The interpretation was, well we’re stereotyping them. Isn’t the other possibility that maybe the facial features do correlate with some underlying real trait?
Seth: The thing is that study controlled for everything else they could think to control for. They controlled for athletic ability in West Point, grade point average, and many other things. It’s a little hard for me to think it’s correlated with something that doesn’t predict athletic ability or grade point average or family background. So I thought it was pretty convincing.
I think the evidence on looks and how superficial they are… The most famous study in this arena is by Alexander Todorov. He shows people two pictures of people running for an election. Senate and congressional races, gubernatorial races. He asks people which one looks more confident, and 70% of elections are won by the candidate that is judged more confident. Try to control for everything else and it pretty much holds.
I was working on that book during the 2020 Democratic primary and I was like, who’s going to win the primary? Well, I said it doesn’t really count because if you advance to this level you already have to look the part. So everybody who’s running, the serious candidates, they already look the part. But, I’m like, Biden clearly looks more like a president than any of these other people. I didn’t stick my neck out and be like Biden’s going to win. But if you lined them up and said which one looks like a president, I think it was pretty clear Biden won that.
Richard: I don’t know. Seth Moulton sort of looks like a president to me, right? He wasn’t the winner.
Seth: Well, I think of the serious candidates.
Richard: Well yeah but why didn’t he get any traction? Because he was a congressman. You might have imagined he’d have done a little bit better. You look at somebody like Amy Klobuchar. There are sex differences. Amy Klobuchar doesn’t really look like…
Seth: Well it’s 70%, so it’s not 100%. I would just look at the height of politicians…
Richard: We as a species, one thing we evolved better to do than anything else is read people’s faces. A human can recognize human faces better than any machine. It’s a thing machines can’t match us on. Maybe we are very good at picking up these cues.
So if you’re looking at military men, yeah maybe you control for everything. But I have this machine in my brain that’s been honed perfectly for exactly this task. Looking at people’s faces and seeing what their underlying traits are. So you can’t dismiss the possibility that maybe we’re discriminating against people based on how they look, but maybe the looks are actually telling us something.
Seth: If everybody’s discriminatory then it might be wise to be discriminatory in this way. A lot of people in the 2020 Democratic primary just wanted to find someone electable. So if they say this guy looks most like the president then the general election voters are going to also think he looks like the president and vote for him and that would be wise.
Peter Thiel said something like this. He always tries to go against conventional wisdom. In an interview for the New York Times he said that Trump cares what people look like. He said maybe we should think more about what people look like; I don’t want my secretary of state looking like a schmuck when he’s negotiating against the other country.
Richard: I think he was talking to Maureen Dowd actually. I remember reading the exact same thing and also being struck by it. That was interesting.
I was reading some kind of summary of a physiognomy study. It was saying you can actually look at men, look at their faces, and predict how racist they are. I don’t know if it’s like the racism definitions they have in political science, but whatever they were measuring you could see this. You could do this for how racist people are because you can say racism is unquestionably bad. But if you wanted to do that for intelligence or criminality, it would probably politically be a lot harder. I think the taboo on genetic determinist stuff and lookism is so strong that we just don’t know what we don’t know. Because I don’t think there’s much good research that can be done on this.
Seth: I was interviewing Todorov for the book, and I asked if there are any studies in which people start acting like the way they look. So if you look really presidential, are you going to start acting more presidential? I always suspected that really attractive people – not always, but with very high probability – converge on this very uncontroversial persona where they’re just very nice to people. Because you don’t need to rock the boat.
If you’re Tom Brady, Tom Brady is always nice to everybody. Always shaking everybody’s hand. Thank you Mr. Kraft, thank you Mr. Belichick, super respectful. It’s just such a successful strategy, there’s no need to shake things up at all. I’ve seen a lot of people in the 99th percentile of looks I feel like act with a similar personality.
Richard: When Judith Rich Harris was talking about twin studies, one of the potential objections was people treat identical twins alike so they become more alike. And then she mentioned a study, I don’t know how solid this is, but they found doppelgangers. They find somebody who looks like me but is in no way related. And apparently they didn’t find any correlations in personality. If that’s true it goes against what I was just saying.
Seth: Todorov said there hasn’t been a good study on this, but I think it would be interesting.
Richard: That would go against people treating them differently and that would also go against physiognomy as a real force. Just intuitively, you look at some people. Looking at military men, they look like military men. Intuitively, I have very strong intuitions about some people.
Seth: But I’ve got to think we’re horrible at actually making these judgements. I agree that it’s a politically sensitive area, I think there are many times where… I follow you on Twitter, I follow a lot of people on Twitter who say things that I’m like, that’s 100% true and nobody wants to say it. I would be surprised. That one doesn’t ring true to me. That one rings as we’re just misled. There’s no reason to think that someone who looks like a general has any better ability to…
Like this example, they’ve also done studies that people who look baby-faced are also more likely to get off on a crime than people who don’t look baby-faced. Because they’re like that person can’t be a criminal. Come on, look at his face. I would be shocked if there was some big correlation that we’re picking up on that really, people who are baby-faced are less likely to commit crimes.
Richard: Well the physiology… If you give people testosterone injections their personality will change, their looks will change too. So the mind and the body are not that separate. Certain hormones and traits will be associated with both. You would think we’d be decent at picking that up. I don’t know about differences between generals, like who is a good general or who is not a good general. But you take generals as a class and compare them to literature professors or something, I would be shocked if there was a universe where all the generals looked like literature professors and all the literature professors looked like generals. How do you feel, what’s your intuition on that?
Seth: Yeah, I agree. I don’t know how to interpret that difference. I think a lot of it is people leaning into what your best shot is at having a successful life. I do suspect if you did studies like the ones I’m recommending that Todorov do, you do see people lean in to their look a little bit. If everybody is drawn to you from a very young age as a leader, as a politician, you’re going to be more likely to become a politician.
Richard: Yeah but these stereotypes and what people think about, they would have to be based in something. Why do we think that this is a general, this looks like a leader, this looks like an intellectual, this looks like a criminal? Maybe they’re leaning into it and exaggerating the natural differences, but it seems like…
Seth: Well I think the criminal one, we’re probably confused by the difference between children and adults maybe? Baby-faced people remind us of kids who do legitimately commit fewer crimes. So we’re like, a kid is not going to murder someone.
Richard: Or a man who looks a little more feminine, same thing. Women are less likely to commit crimes too. So it could just be some kind of faulty overgeneralization.
Seth: Overgeneralization from a different sample, yeah.
Nassim Taleb has this point that if you go to a doctor and there are two surgeons, one who looks like George Clooney and the other who looks like a butcher at the same hospital, go with the butcher. Because the butcher has to be so much better to have reached that point because we give such an advantage to people who look the part.
Increasing Wealth, Stagnating Happiness
Richard: One of the striking things in the book, you show how Americans spend their time between 2003 and 2019. And it’s like, our GDP is significantly higher than 2003 by whatever percentage, and if anything we’re spending less time on the things that make us happy and more time doing the things we hate. What a failure. What was all this economic growth and progress for if we’re just standing in lines or sitting in traffic? Reducing this friction in life should be a goal of public policy, should it not?
Seth: 100%. And I do think that the book, to the degree it’s pushed as a self-help book, that is something people should think about. I’m such a nerd that I got the happiness activity chart printed on an iPhone case, I think everybody could look at that chart. Really the goal of life is to find the activities you hate and find ways to spend less time doing them.
There’s definitely a complication that work scores very low. What do you do with that information? I think a lot of people are going to say they’re different. I think you or I would say that exploring ideas, writing about them, is a big part of what gives us joy, so that’s a complication. But some of the other things in the chart, waiting in line, doing chores, we all have to think how we can minimize the amount of time doing those things we hate.
Richard: It’s a good argument for open immigration. Like people say, oh these poor immigrants that come, they just want people to mow their lawn and watch their kids and clean their houses. It’s like yes, that’s what the happiness data says I should be spending my money on, spending less time doing the things I hate.
The Fake Reality of Academia
Richard: One thing that struck me from the book, it’s a small vignette, it wasn’t like a big thing. You were talking to Larry Summers, and you presented him some data. He looked at it and he believed it. Then you said something like, he basically just assumed that whatever finding I had, that people in the hedge funds had already figured it out.
Seth: That’s a little bit of an exaggeration if I wrote that. First of all, Larry Summers kind of took me under his wing. After I got rejected from the academic market he was trying to help me, and one of the things was possibly that we could write a paper on using this data for finance, and that would be more well-received than my paper on racism and Obama. So it’s a little overdramatized for narrative effect.
That said, I thought that his respect for hedge fund people did strike me as noticeably changing your prior as to how the world works. He’s had some experience in the world, he seemed very respectful.
The reason I was originally able to do all these Google search analyses nobody else could do was I figured out a way to hack around Google Trends’ system to get better data. It was this kind of, I guess, clever trick. Google wasn’t presenting data if it didn’t get above a privacy threshold. And I realized you could do the word you’re looking for, and then do another word that does get above the threshold, and another word plus your word, and then just subtract the two. But I had to download 5000 samples and build an econometric model to actually get the data to work. So it was a little complicated.
I told Larry Summers about this, and he’s like, very very clever. Very impressed. And then I just ask him, do you think Renaissance Technologies would have figured this out? And he’s like, of course they would have figured that out. And I thought, oh, that’s kind of interesting. Because that counts, I think, as extremely clever in academia to the point that nobody else in academia had come up with it or come close to coming up with it or thought of it. It was off-the-charts clever for academia. But according to my read of Larry Summers’ response to it, it counts as obvious in hedge fund world. That made me think that the talent in hedge funds is just way higher than the talent in academia.
Richard: Yeah. Me and you both, we started off wanting to be academics. The Summers story, even the way you tell it – I appreciate that clarification – is still very interesting. I was heading in this direction anyway, but I think ten years ago, before I started in academia, I would have thought, okay, you want the person who knows the most about finance, you go to a finance professor. You want the person who knows the most about the economy, you go to the economics professor. Psychology, you go to the psychology professor. And then I came to realize, probably not.
There’s a lot of data out there in the world and a lot of ways to analyze data. The payoffs for being right in other fields are much higher than being right in academia. Oftentimes there’s no payoff to being right, it’s just convincing other people and the research agenda can go off in strange directions that don’t make a lot of sense or don’t explain much about the world.
Reading that story was a little bit of like, we nerds who are not in hedge funds, are we just playing in a little sandbox and the adults are out there doing the real work? It just gave me a little bit of that when I heard it. Did you have a personal reaction like that?
Seth: I had a similar response to you. I now do a fair amount of consulting. I have done, over the years, a fair amount of consulting for hedge funds. And my experience has to some degree confirmed that. The people in academia are incredibly smart. My advisors, all the professors, they have a talent. I think the people at the top of hedge funds maybe couldn’t climb to the top of academia. But I also think the people in academia wouldn’t be as good at understanding how to build a successful hedge fund. There’s a very different skill that’s off the charts at the top of the business world that, it’s not exactly the same as academia, but it does feel like there’s something a little more real about it. Because there’s this need for practicality.
Academia, without fail, you play these games of what’s acceptable evidence. Even if someone starts very bright, they’re eventually going to be maybe a little bit more focused on whether the evidence counts by the standards of the game, rather than whether the evidence is actually true, that I think you see less of in the business world. But the business world also has its own limitations, they’re just different worlds. But when something counts as off-the-charts clever in academia but would be considered obvious in hedge funds, I did have that exact same response.