Southeast Asia: My effort at scraping some social science out of a backpacking trip [SE Asia 1]


I just recently wrapped up a multi-year stint teaching EFL in South Korea–an up and down experience I honestly wouldn’t trade for anything smoother. My time abroad has already been an exercise in mind-expansion, and that will hopefully continue as I visit (roughly in this order): Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

This is a famous backpacker area of course, and there’s no shortage of blogs on the region from that perspective. Rather than narrative travel or “tips,” I will focus on digging a little beyond the vacation lens and provide some insight into economic, social, and political realities as they seem to play out on the ground. Where possible, I will pursue conversations and experiences that give me a personal sense of some aspect of life in these countries, which I will then augment with data (not the plural of anecdote, but a very helpful companion).

In reality what will probably happen is: I see something that provokes a question, I research it, and a few paragraphs result. For instance, I have a particular fascination with what Tyler Cowen calls “GDP tourism.” Directly encountering the fuel that drives the country forward is an exhilarating experience. One question I ask when I’m in a new place is generally “Where is the money made here, and what does that look like?”


GDP tourism: South Korea

In the city of Ulsan, where I lived in Korea, the GDP was more obvious than most; you can ride your bike right past the biggest car plant in the world (Hyundai), or take a peek at the world’s biggest shipyard (also Hyundai, I believe). You could go and see the fields upon fields of cars being driven one by one onto massive ships, ready to be shipped along the veins of worldwide trade until they reach their ultimate owner, in some small town you’ve never heard of but where someone produces enough value that they can, through a spiderweb of transactions and networks, trade their skills as a plumber to Hyundai for a car that came from a country they had never been to, yet which built and shipped a car halfway around the world in the anticipation that someone like that plumber would choose to buy a Hyundai.


Grocery store tourism: South Korea

I also have a hobby of checking out grocery stores wherever I go. Preferably a supermarket chain, multinational or no, but traditional markets, convenience stores, or local marts are also objects of interest. You can learn a lot about a culture by looking at what the supermarket carries, and how much it costs. Korea, for example, has a love affair with Spam dating back to the Korean War. Today, if you walk through a typical store you’ll find more varieties of the canned meat than you ever wanted, and around the holidays you shouldn’t be surprised if you receive a few cans of delightful mystery meat and some cooking oil wrapped up in an attractive gift box which, in America, might contain some sort of holiday sweets.

In Korea, brand-name Spam is “fancy” because in the aftermath of the Korean War, when it was the poorest country on Earth, American soldiers had it in their rations, and due to its portability and preservation, it was easily used as a trading good and included in aid packages. Korea’s current love affair with meat (it’s in everything) comes from this period where meat was an occasional luxury, which usually arrived in the form of Spam.

You can also ponder the mysteries of why watermelons cost $20.00 USD, while bananas barely register on your receipt at $0.15-$0.25 USD per banana.

Given that I am spending 1-2 weeks in most of these countries, I will develop at best a tenuous grasp on the realities that shape them–but it should always be interesting, and hopefully factual!

Can moral psychology explain why libertarians are (maybe) bad dancers? (Part 2/2)

In the first part of this post, I summarized a few parts of Jonathan Haidt’s theory of political psychology, particularly the connection between genetics, morals, and brain chemistry. Now let’s apply that specifically to libertarians, given these three traits that Haidt and several coauthors identified:

  1. Libertarians mostly care about individual liberty.
  2. They veer “cerebral” rather than “emotional” in their cognitive styles.
  3. They’re less interdependent and social.

We can assume that, if Haidt’s other research holds true, these traits are at least partially genetic, and that libertarians may be attracted to that political philosophy because it’s associated with a lot of stuff they like, such as not being told what to do, approaching things from a brain over heart perspective, and being mildly to extremely introverted, except at national conventions.

What follows is an extremely non-scientific analysis of why libertarians might, among other things, not be so great at the macarena. It will be short, since you can probably already guess where this is going.

Trait 1: Liberty is all

Libertarians tend to back-burner other priorities in favor of making sure nobody is being told what to do in a way that interferes with their ability to do, within reason, things they want to do. Of course, they apply this to themselves as well, and this points to a pretty (gasp) individualist mode of thought. Let’s assume that someone who is biased towards individualism won’t be so much into things that are other-focused. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–it just means that libertarians don’t value groups as much, though they have great respect for the individuals within those groups. This trait doesn’t directly point towards non-dancing, except in the sense that libertarians might be more vocal and resolute about abstaining from pressure to participate in activities they don’t like, but it’s a great setup for the next two.

Trait 2: It’s all about that brain

Libertarians also are (or perceive themselves to be) cerebral; they demonstrate a preference for approaching things systematically rather than instinctively. There are obvious upsides to this, but a distinct downside is that, like most people with strong political beliefs, they can have trouble empathizing with people with different values–particularly those high on the care index (liberals) or who place high on a variety of other values that libertarians find less important (conservatives). More directly, though Spock wouldn’t agree, libertarians probably experience less emotional range than average given that they don’t seem to dwell on feelings as much.

This might be exemplified, then, by dancing–or lack thereof. Dancing is inherently an emotional activity, whether due to the chemical production it stimulates in the brain (due both to physical exertion and group proximity), or simply due to the music, style, tempo, et cetera and the switches that the environment flips. Libertarians seem to mostly be drawn from a personality range that doesn’t exhibit a preference for high-emotion activities. Whether this is a genetic or a learned trait, the survey responses and my anecdotal experiences would at least seem to indicate that given a choice, someone with these political beliefs would, on average, prefer talking over a fancy beer to feeling their bones vibrate to the latest EDM.

Trait 3: Libertarians don’t need you! They don’t need anyone!

Here comes the killstroke: at least according to the survey data (as well as stereotypes and probably your personal experience with that libertarian guy you met in college), libertarians are kind of about doing their own thing. Again, not surprising, given their name, but very pertinent to my point. Haidt and co. found that libertarians are less connected to others both “broadly” and “tightly” (that is they have fewer friends overall and smaller direct social circles). This has not gone unnoticed among the subjects; those libertarians surveyed reported that they felt less connected to everyone than average, which jives with their narrower social lives.

That can be spun a number of different ways. Libertarians are just lonely ogres who haven’t found love; libertarians are attracted to their political philosophy because it provides justification for their antisocial ways; libertarians are psychologically disturbed and probably prefer to be alone because it gives them more time to burn ants with magnifying glasses. Personally, I’d argue that libertarians generally feel independent of others and, while they enjoy interacting with people as ordinary humans do, their personality makeup just requires less human contact than average. Whatever combination of genes, chemicals, and learned behavior is responsible, they feel less connected–but they are not necessarily worse off for that lack of connection.

An (speculative) explanation that might follow from what we know so far is that libertarians are generally predisposed to need less group contact through some neurochemical mechanism, and thus generally don’t get much of a biological rush in high-contact settings.

Libertarians drink alone (or in small groups)

So, imagine someone who is a bit of a lone wolf and doesn’t seem to need human company in large doses. Now imagine your typical dance setting–any genre is fine. You’ve got a whole lot of human company there, and someone who doesn’t find all that contact very interesting. They try to get into the dance rhythm, and they can probably fake it for the utilitarian value of building social capital with their friend group, but that oxytocin (et al) doesn’t necessarily flare off as much, and even if it does, they don’t seem wired to get that much connectivity benefit anyway.

Even smaller settings, say with just a few people who spontaneously start a dance party in a fairly quiet bar, would be a bit tricky. Libertarians don’t just have lower rates of desiring broad-group-bonding, but aren’t necessarily that into tight-group bonding either. The exercise might be nice, the music might be infectious, but that interactional aspect isn’t high on their to-do list. They’d prefer to hang back, and if any bonding is to be done, it’ll be less emotion-based and probably not so much about grouping as about mutually beneficial information-sharing or something equally utilitarian.

This group has been quite understudied in most academic branches, possibly because they haven’t made much of a difference and have only just managed to be gain broad recognition in the U.S. Nonetheless, as Haidt points out, they are quite distinct from both the left and the right, and if microscopes were applied to them to the same degree as they are to other groups, there would certainly be some interesting results. This is just one of them.

Conclusion: We need more research! Or not.

That said, my application of Haidt’s research is by no means supported by anything beyond me applying the transitive property and some additional assumptions to his findings. In sum, I argue:

  1. Morals and political beliefs have a basis in genetics and biology
  2. Libertarianism tends to be common among people with less groupish, more individual brains
  3. Dancing is groupish
  4. Libertarians do not enjoy dancing

Anecdotally, this has been true for most libertarians I know. As with everything, however, there is bound to be wide deviation from the average; there is bound to be a libertarian out there who is an absolute beast on the dance floor.

Jonathan Haidt is not to blame for any of this; also, my opinions and perceptions, as all behavioral science enthusiasts know by now, are not guaranteed to be correct.

If you read this and have an opinion about libertarian dancing, drop me a line on Twitter at @braunecon.

Can moral psychology explain why libertarians are (maybe) bad dancers? (Part 1/2)


Part 1/2

Here’s a wacky proposition: where you fit on the political spectrum might be a rough indicator of how you feel about dancing.

Anecdotal evidence comes to mind for every political stereotype, but my flash of inspiration came about one group in particular: libertarians. Aside from James Weeks, that one guy who so well exemplified the time-honored tradition of protest through strip-dancing onstage at the 2014 Libertarian Convention, I’d argue that moral and political psychology has a few things to say about why these strange political animals might not enjoy dancing.

Disclaimer: I am not drawing my premise that libertarians are unwilling dancers from any study or previous research; my evidence thus far is mostly personal experience, but I’d be very interested to see any actual data pertaining to it.

Personally, I’m not much of a mover and shaker on the dance floor, particularly regarding solo, club-style, improvisational body movement. Aside from the fact that I’m just not very good at it, I don’t really get the appeal. Rhythmic body movement is popular and often artistic, but I don’t find it entertaining, unless the music is good enough to be independently interesting. Given that I’m a (small-l, non-dogmatic) libertarian, reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and subsequently encountering an unwelcome dancing situation was a combination that struck a chord somewhere between my political mind and my socially awkward one.

I’ll make my argument in two parts: the first will summarize some important main points, mostly derived from Jonathan Haidt; the second will apply these ideas to political groups (libertarians in particular).

Politics = Genetics

Haidt, as part of his overall argument for increasing political understanding between groups, makes the case that our political beliefs may be at least partially a product of genetics. It’s fairly well-proven that our brains have some level of hardwiring, and that they can respond differently to the same inputs or seek out different things to light up their reward centers.

If you have a lower native fear response, for example, you’ll tend to be more rewarded by more adventurous activities. If you have a higher fear response, you’ll find more comfort in the known and the stable. Twin studies and other pieces of evidence seem to support the idea that our politics may not be as rationally constructed as we’d like to think in many other areas as well.

Let’s break down the broad claim into two more specific and relevant ideas.

Politics is a function of morals, which are a function of genetics

Let’s apply this genetic wiring idea to the (highly theoretical) moral and political psychology of dance: Liberals typically score higher on measures of openness and lower on levels of fear–traits that just might push you towards enjoying a night packed in with any number of dubious strangers at the club. Conservatives score high on almost every value Haidt includes in his main six foundations (care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, liberty/oppression. These traits might push you less towards a club and maybe a little more towards a square dance or some other form of less confusing and invasive group bonding. When you value many things, you will tend to have a more tightly constructed view of the world (not necessarily bad; Yin and Yang need each other).

Politics(Morals(brain chemistry(genetics)))
Politics is a function of morals which are a function of brain chemistry which is a function of genetics. 

Also worth mentioning is Haidt’s frequent referral to the brain hormone oxytocin, which is not “the universal cuddle hormone” as it’s been commonly called, but one which plays a critical role in forming in-group attachments and out-group suspicion. Essentially, you generate it by bonding with your group, and it does make you feel more connected–but not to everyone. Working off of my very general knowledge of neuroscience/psychology, I’d theorize that oxytocin has different mechanisms (triggers, production levels, etc) for each individual brain, probably varying to at least some degree with the above-mentioned genetics.

These three things, genetics, their related psychological/moral measures, and oxytocin relate directly to the psychology of group formation and stability, which requires bonding among members. Haidt points out that almost every culture has independently developed rituals of physical bonding in order to strengthen group identity and generally increase a sense of belonging and cooperation. That’s oxytocin and a few other psychological/chemical levers being pulled–most universally, Haidt points out, in the form of dance, which tends to hold similar ceremonial significance across continents, cultures, and times.

These tidbits pulled from The Righteous Mind can now be held up against yet another of Haidt’s projects–this one a paper coauthored with Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, and Peter Ditto: “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Declared Libertarians.”

The paper is worth reading, as libertarians don’t get quite as much academic attention as the mainstream left and right parties. To briefly summarize their three main findings:

  1. Libertarians mostly care about individual liberty. Not so much about Haidt’s other five foundations.
  2. They veer “cerebral” rather than “emotional” in their cognitive styles.
  3. They’re less interdependent and social.

Analyzing responses from a few thousand libertarians, the authors confirmed what we all already suspected: the above three things are pretty accurate when it comes to describing libertarians, or at the very least, how they see themselves (self-reported survey data is at least mostly accurate for that).

In the next post I’ll speculate about how these might work together and be applied speculatively to willingness to dance.

Tl;dr: Jonathan Haidt wrote a book called The Righteous Mind. In part of it, he argues that political beliefs are a function of morals, and that morals can be a function of brain chemistry and structure, which can be a function of genetics.  He also argues that humans are very group-focused, and mentions that dancing is an excellent way of strengthening psychological group bonds through some of the aforementioned avenues.  Some time later, with several coauthors, Haidt produced a paper that specifically applied these insights and survey data to find that libertarians are liberty-focused, cerebral, and less interdependent.  Can we combine these insights to predict how libertarians might feel about dancing? Probably.

MIT, micromasters, and disrupting higher ed

For the past few months I’ve been taking courses with MIT’s Data, Economics, and Development micromasters program. After having completed 2/5 courses I’ve absorbed a lot of very interesting material, some of which will almost certainly be making it onto this page in the future.

Beyond the content, though, what impresses me most is that MIT is offering these courses on an audit basis to anyone who wants to try them, with a potential path to actually attending the school and earning a full masters. Even more fascinating is that there are no set academic prerequisites for entering the full masters program beyond completing the micromasters online. Of course, not all applicants who go through the MM will be accepted, but the raw idea is worth digging into.

MOOCs are edging us towards a path to college admissions that removes significant guesswork from both sides of the equation. On the institution’s side the need for credentials to enter universities is based on the idea that past performance is a reliable indicator of future results; on the student’s side, the assumption is that acceptance is a fairly reliable indicator that the university approximately matches their capabilities. Students may also operate under the assumption that they will find the coursework useful in some way, that they will be interested in their chosen field, and that they won’t for some reason be inspired to drop out.

Of course, past performance is never a guarantee (thanks, Nassim Taleb), but past performance in a different environment is still less of a guarantee. People drop out or fail because they are either poorly matched or because the reality did not meet their expectations in some way. Under MITs system, presenting the material at the actual level of difficulty a student would encounter in the full program, and with some financial commitment (100-1000 dollars, dependent on income, if you choose to take the micromasters track rather than simply auditing, which is free) essentially corrects the information asymmetry.

On the university side, it gets a lot easier to select students that you know will fit you at an academic, and to some extent, a cultural level, without doing a lot of research into their performance in regional spelling bees. This could serve to significantly reduce the time spent per student in the admissions office. In short, MIT knows how you’re doing in their course, regardless of past performance, and the student has a fairly good idea of what they’re getting into.

In the rosiest view, I could see this system correcting for a lot of issues that currently plague higher education. Low to no cost auditing with light credentialling attached would be a way to admit students with real ability who don’t have the formal paperwork in hand. It might improve dropout rates by exposing students to the product before they make the decision to invest. It would certainly help universities by creating a self-selection process based on actual observed performance rather than educated guesswork, making admissions into less of a bureaucratic necessity and more of a competitive process. It could reduce administrative overhead in the long run, create richer technological integration in a stubbornly old-fashioned higher education system, and possibly create a clearer market for universities based on instruction and utility rather than experiences and amenities, which tend to be pushed in promotional materials.

Nonetheless, as Tyler Cown laments in The Complacent Class, universities are already bubbles of like-minded, like-backgrounded individuals. This could get better with self-selection opening up admissions to students who would not traditionally be able to enter, but it might also become worse as the courses will perhaps tend to promote over-matching, appealing to those with a certain worldview and background. Something like Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy project would have to figure into the creation of these courses in order to ensure that diversity in all respects would continue to thrive and that we wouldn’t self-select into even more polarized groups than we already do.

Additionally, those without the time or access to participate would be at a disadvantage, as they wouldn’t be able to rely on the relatively less labor-intensive traditional admissions process to make their transition at the speed they need to. Of course, optimizing for university admissions already tends to be a process that starts around middle school and intensifies throughout high school. Optimistically, self-selection playing a role in the admission process would enable those without the resources to invest in resume-building activities to prove their skills; pessimistically, it would become one more hoop for already-disadvantaged students to jump through. That’s why if this was to be implemented in any form it would need to be clearly separated from other criteria, or even, in a very libertarian implementation of the idea, used as the only criteria to ensure that it didn’t become simply another time suck or long-form standardized test weighing down admissions even more.

A host of other pros and cons exist–I am inclined to lean strongly towards the pros; done right, this could reduce a lot of costs, both financial and social, on both sides. I think in the future we will be seeing a lot more of this trend being built into MOOCs; I doubt they will continue to exist solely as nice, cheap ways for smart people to get smarter. They’ll be turned towards credentialling and program integration eventually, which I think will vastly improve the quality of the market. And of course, at this stage in the existence of the traditional university, disruption in any form that raises efficiency and lowers costs is welcome.