Research Lead: How to Counterargue Using Mass Communications, Conspiracy Clout, the Cost-Benefit Fallacy, and More

You’re reading the Research Lead, a monthly digest connecting you to noteworthy academic and applied research from around the behavioral sciences.

Using a default to reduce gender differences in the decision to compete

Could changing the default on how business promote their employees help reduce the gender imbalance in leadership positions? Joyce Ye and her colleagues offer evidence that it could. Often a promotion, an award, or admissions, requires self-nomination. This means that one must opt in to a competitive selection process, something previous research indicates that women are less likely to do than men. This has downstream effects on who ascends in an organization, and could play a role in the imbalance between the number of men and women who hold high-level leadership positions.

Ye and her team tested whether changing the default from opt-in to opt-out for a competitive task would boost women’s participation. In two lab experiments conducted with undergraduates and in a field experiment conducted on the freelance website Upwork, they demonstrated that an opt-out default increases the likelihood women decide to participate in a competitive task to levels similar to men. 

“Opt-out framing removes some of the bias inherent in current opt-in promotion systems, which favor those who are overconfident, less sensitive to signals of their own performance, and/or like to compete,” they write. “In fact, the benefits of an opt-out scheme may extend well beyond women to make the process more inclusive for everyone who does not fit that mold.” [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

Decoding impressions of political bias on Twitter

To test the extent to which Twitter’s news feed is politically biased, a research team built politically neutral social media bots and tracked their behavior on the network. The bots were fake accounts set up to behave randomly with actions like tweets, likes, replies, follows, and unfollows. Everything about the bots was the same except for the political leanings of the first account they followed, a news source representative of a different part of the political spectrum—The Nation (left), The Washington Post (center-left), USA Today (center), The Wall Street Journal (center-right), and Breitbart News (right). The researchers then measured how these bots behaved on the platform, including who they followed and their followers, the quality of the information encountered by the bot, the political alignment of the content the bots and their followers generated, and the makeup of the bot’s network. 

“We find no strong or consistent evidence of political bias in the news feed,” they write. “Despite this, the news and information to which U.S. Twitter users are exposed depend strongly on the political leaning of their early connections. The interactions of conservative accounts are skewed toward the right, whereas liberal accounts are exposed to moderate content shifting their experience toward the political center. Partisan accounts, especially conservative ones, tend to receive more followers and follow more automated accounts. Conservative accounts also find themselves in denser communities and are exposed to more low-credibility content.”

They conclude: “Our experiment demonstrates that even if a platform has no partisan bias, the social networks and activities of its users may still create an environment in which unbiased agents end up in echo chambers with constant exposure to partisan, inauthentic, and misleading content.” [Nature Communications]

Sharing conspiracy theories for the clout

“People are willing to disseminate conspiracy theories—that they know to be false—if they anticipate large social rewards,” conclude the authors of a new working paper. Across three experiments they explored how and why people would be willing to share inaccurate information. They found that people do value accuracy, but they also value social rewards. “Even when we explicitly remind people that conspiracy theories are inaccurate, people admit that they would be willing to share them, and even after people share conspiracy theories they recognize that they have shared misinformation.” [Social Science Research Network]

The “Poison Parasite Counter” communications strategy

Robert Cialidini and colleagues recently explored how to integrate counterarguments into mass communications. Imagine a watchdog group that wants to correct a misleading political ad, or a social media platform calling out misinformation. Cialdini and co suggest that by including a counterargument within a replica of the original communication, the counterargument functions like a parasite, ultimately overtaking the original message. Here’s how it works, according to the authors:

“By using associative memory to parasitically link a counterargument to a deceptive rival’s original communication, the [Poison Parasite Counter] turns the original communication into a memory-retrieval cue for a negating counterargument. Associating the counterargument with the original communication increases the accessibility and salience of the counterargument with each reexposure to the original communication.” [Psychological Science; open-access]

“Gretchen Whitmer ads used in Study 5: original ad (a), traditional counter ad (b), tailored Poison Parasite Counter ad (c), and full Poison Parasite Counter ad (d).” Source: Psychological Science.

Espousing equality but accepting inequality

Why do many Americans espouse racially egalitarian values yet tolerate a racially inequitable criminal justice system? In a recent review, Julian Rucker and Jennifer Richeson try to answer this question from a psychological perspective. They unravel how factors like education (the lack of a thorough and critical education of structural racism in the United States) and motivation (the desire for white Americans to avoid threats to their self-image) contribute to this mismatch. They also explore how and why this mismatch persists.

“Americans tolerate stark racial inequality in carceral outcomes partly because they fail to appreciate structural racism, focusing instead on the influence of interpersonal racism,” they write. “For members of the dominant group (i.e., white Americans), strong egalitarian motives are insufficient to disrupt the normal psychological processes that result in the justification of racially inequitable criminal justice outcomes. Instead, egalitarian values need to be paired with an appreciation for structural racism.” [Science; open-access]

The link between Confederate monuments and lynchings in the southern United States

“The fight over Confederate monuments has fueled lawsuits, protests, counterprotests, arrests, even terrorism, as we painfully saw in August 2017 in Charlottesville, VA. The fight rests on a debate over whether these monuments represent racism (‘hate’) or something ostensibly devoid of racism (‘heritage,’ ‘Southern pride’)…. We show that Confederate monuments are tied to a history of racial violence. Specifically, we find that the number of lynching victims in a county is a positive and significant predictor of Confederate memorializations in that county.… This finding provides concrete, quantitative, historically and geographically situated evidence consistent with the position that Confederate memorializations reflect a racist history, marred by intentions to terrorize and intimidate Black Americans.” [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; open-access]

“Map displaying county-level number of Confederate memorializations and victims of lynching. Darker colors on the map denote higher numbers of lynching victims. Each dot represents the location of individual Confederate memorializations.” Source: PNAS.

“Both and” to solve climate change

Some have speculated that, when it comes to mitigating climate change, focusing on individual behavior could undercut support for climate policy. The fear is that individual behavior change would have limited effect on sustainability efforts and distract from more substantive policy efforts. However, a new study suggests that both individual- and policy-focused climate change efforts can coexist. 

“Focusing attention on one’s sustainable behaviors rarely results in a decrease in support for a climate policy like a carbon tax,” the authors write. “The only circumstances where this may be a concern is when there are notable financial costs of the policy that are framed as falling on the individual, and people only reflect on their behavior in a way that is devoid of activating their personal or social values and identity.”

“These findings suggest that there is no strong reason to shrink away from campaigns designed to increase individual action to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions as they are often seen as complements rather than substitutes for transformative climate policy. Individual behavior change is a necessary part of the overall solution, although not sufficient alone, and we find engaging or reflecting on such change rarely leads to a belief that climate policy is unnecessary.” [Energy Research & Social Science; open-access]

Beware the biases in cost-benefit analysis

Cost-benefit analyses for public projects, like roads, bridges, power plants, and tunnels, are supposed to help civic leaders and businesses allocate resources more effectively. In a recent paper, analyzing over 2,000 public investment projects from 1927 to 2013, Bent Flyberg and Dirk Bester argue that cost-benefit analysis, as it’s been implemented, doesn’t live up to this promise. 

“We found a fallacy at the heart of conventional cost-benefit analysis: forecasters, policymakers, and scholars tend to assume that cost-benefit forecasts are more or less accurate, when in fact they are highly inaccurate and biased, at an overwhelmingly high level of statistical significance.

“Cost-benefit analysis can undoubtedly be a useful tool in public investment policy and practice, but only after the cost-benefit fallacy has been acknowledged and corrected for.” In their paper they identify ways to do this, including using behavioral science to de-bias cost-benefit estimates ahead of time, incentivizing the use of these methods, and integrating these estimates in the broader decision-making process and debates that goes into public project investment. [Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis]