November 29, 2020 Leave your thoughts


Problem 1. Wisdom of Crowds

In 1907, Francis Galton showed that if we ask a large group of people “What is the height of Eiffel Tower?” the average error of individuals is much larger than the error of the average of the opinion of all individuals. This is textbook material now and is called “Wisdom of Crowds”.

For the crowd to be wise, it should be (1) large and (2) its members should not talk to each other. Otherwise overconfident individuals take over, independence of opinions is lost and bad things like polarisation and herding happen. On the other hand, we also know that people can benefit from talking to each other and make more accurate decisions. So, here we seem to see a tension between the good and the bad effects of Social Influence.

Is it possible to have a crowd of individual decision makers that exploits the positive benefits of social influence while minimising its bad side effects?

You can find a good answer to this question in this paper.

Problem 2. Attribution of Attitudes

Suppose you are in a party discussing politics. From what you hear, you decide that a man you have just met, let’s call him Gholam-Hassan, is a vegetarian. You ATTRIBUTE an ATTITUDE to him, inferring his internal, subjective preferences from what he told you.

Now imagine that a friend of yours who knows Gholam from beforehand, tells you that he only said what he said because Mina (who is a vocal vegetarian) was also sitting at the table and Gholam is really interested in Mina. We expect that this knowledge should modify your attribution of the vegetarian attitude to Gholam. Knowing that what Gholam expressed was dictated by some external factor should modify your interpretation of his attitude.

Is this a good theory of how we understand other people’s attitudes and preferences? Note that the claim here is that attribution of attitudes should be restricted to cases where statements are made wilfully and voluntarily. To refute this claim, one would have to test if people attribute attitudes to Gholam even if they know that he did not choose to support vegetarianism out of his own free will. How can we test this theory empirically? What factors should we take into account?

One answer to this question can be found in a wonderfully beautiful classic paper by Jones & Harris (1967)

Problem 3. How can we enhance cooperation?

People who have lived in shared apartments know how frustrating it is when dirty dishes pile up in the kitchen sink. When a flatmate decides to leave their dirty tea cup in the sink for others to wash, they are “free-riding” on other people’s sense of cooperation and generosity. How can we reduce such free-riding and persuade people to cooperate more with others and contribute their share to social goods?

From laboratory experiments we know that people cooperate more when they know (or think) that their behaviour is being observed by others. How can we design a field study to test this hypothesis in the real world?

This paper offers an excellent test of this hypothesis. (Interestingly, others who tried to replicate their findings did not exactly find the same outcome. So the question is still open, in case you wanted to do something yourself)

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