Research Lead: Hypocrisy, Soccer’s Geisterspiele, the Causation Taboo, Reasons to Doubt Anti-Bias Parenting Advice, and More

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

What makes a hypocrite?

We typically understand hypocrisy to mean when someone’s private behavior is less virtuous than their public image (like a prominent family-values activist subscribing to an infidelity website so he can cheat on his wife). But new research suggests that we also consider it hypocritical if someone’s private behavior is more virtuous than their public image. One such example used in the study is a tobacco executive who donates to anti-smoking causes. This seems to irk people because these non-virtuous folks are alleviating their guilt, thereby feeling better than we think they should. [Journal of Personality and Social Psychology]

When is experimental evidence actionable? 

A school district struggled for decades to increase kindergarten readiness, but each new fix failed to bring about successful change. After a board member read about a field experiment that showed impressive results elsewhere, educators implemented the science-based program in their district. They expected a “silver bullet to address the district’s pervasive issues.” The result? “Unequivocally mediocre,” according to the paper’s authors. 

Results from field experiments are increasingly being used to inform public policy, but scaling these experiments and applying them to different contexts can be fraught with challenges. Taking an economic approach, a group of scientists have developed a model and checklist to help academics, policymakers, and practitioners understand when experimental research scales—and when it probably won’t. [Behavioural Public Policy]

Algorithms to detect rather than entrench discrimination 

There’s plenty of troubling evidence that algorithms can be discriminatory and biased—think predictive policing (which has been used to guide sentencing outcomes), Google’s photo identification foibles, and biased hospital software that results in black patients getting worse care than white patients. But with the right legal and regulatory structures, these authors argue that algorithms can be used to detect discrimination in human decision-making for more equitable outcomes. [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

The potential and limitations of building social cohesion through soccer after war

How can different groups come together after war? In a creative and ambitious study, political scientist Salma Mousa used soccer to understand how positive contact between a Christian minority, displaced by ISIS, and the Muslim majority in Iraq could improve social cohesion. Mousa created soccer leagues in which Muslim and Christian players were on the same team (treatment) or in which the team was made up only of Christian players (control). Her goal was to understand how Christian players’ on- and off-field behavior and attitudes changed toward Muslims.

She found that Christian players on-field behavior was boosted positively—like continuing to play on a mixed team or voting for a Muslim player for a sportsmanship award—but that off-field behaviors—like patronizing a Muslim restaurant or attending a mixed social event—did not change compared to the control. The results highlight the potential for interventions to build cooperative contact among groups in conflict, but also the limitations and challenges that come with trying to establish cohesion more broadly in the community. [Science]

No crowd, no home field advantage? The case of COVID-19 geisterspiele (ghost games)

When soccer leagues in Europe started back up after shutting down for the coronavirus, there was one very visible change—stadiums, normally packed with tens of thousands of screaming and cheering fans, were empty. TV networks did their best to mask the resulting odd silence by piping in prerecorded crowd sounds to their broadcasts, but on the field the quiet was disconcerting … and, it seems, game-altering. For economists who count themselves as soccer fans, COVID-19 produced an intriguing natural experiment: What happens to home field advantage when there’s no fans? 

A slurry of working papers popped up on the topic, looking at the results from Europe’s professional leagues. Studies found that referees issued fewer yellow and red cards to away-team players, fewer fouls were awarded to the home team, the win percentage and number of goals scored by home team decreased, the effects are stronger for teams used to full stadiums (if no fans attended before, players might be used to an empty stadium), and players adapt over time. Several of the studies point to a social pressure explanation—that the crowd affects referees in a way that is biased to favor the home team. Though it’s likely more must be going on that isn’t teased out in these studies—if players are used to performing in front of thousands of people and that’s taken away, there presumably would be an adjustment period. Still, these studies provide interesting insights on the role of audience-level social pressure on decision-making. [Working papers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]

Correlation doesn’t mean causation, except when it kind of does

“Correlation does not imply causation. This truism justifiably reminds researchers that they should not carelessly draw causal conclusions on the basis of nonexperimental evidence. However, instead of motivating psychologists to exercise due diligence and face the challenges of causal inference, it seems to have resulted in a widespread taboo against explicit causal inference in nonexperimental settings. This taboo has resulted in a dilemma in some fields of psychology. 

“On the one hand, causal relationships are of central interest; on the other hand, they are ‘forbidden’ when experiments are unfeasible or unethical. As a result, one might expect nonexperimental researchers to limit themselves to descriptive or predictive research questions. But nonexperimental researchers do not actually avoid asking causal research questions or drawing causal conclusions; it simply happens implicitly, opaquely, and without an articulation of the underlying assumptions … Being unclear about the purpose of a study opens the door to such motte-and-bailey strategies in which researchers profit from the more interesting but difficult-to-defend causal interpretation of their effect (the bailey), but once challenged, they retreat to the almost trivial yet difficult to attack descriptive finding (the motte).” [Perspectives on Psychological Science]

Lacking evidence for how to raise kids to be less biased 

Over the last several months as the United States has had yet another racial reckoning, we’ve seen a slew of content on how white parents can raise less biased white children. While there’s evidence that racial biases emerge early in development, the recommendations on raising less biased children isn’t sufficiently evidence-based. These authors argue that “recommending an untested suggestion is ill-advised at best and irresponsible at worst.” Consider this a call for more research that provides specific, empirical suggestions for how parents can productively engage with their children on matters of race. [Perspectives on Psychological Science]

Getting out the vote with health in mind

Those who are leading voting-related efforts in the United States face a Herculean challenge. Prepandemic, fundamental issues like increasing voter registration and turnout were already seen as incredibly challenging problems to overcome. Insert an infectious disease a few months before this year’s general election, intense partisanship, and the threat of foreign election-meddling and you have the recipe for a democratic disaster. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Doing their part on the behavioral side of things, consulting firm ideas42 has released a new guide with evidence-based behavioral design strategies with the dual aim to help people vote and stay healthy. [Safe Voter Playbook] (Full Disclosure: ideas42 is a founding partner of the Behavioral Scientist.)

To get skeptics to believe in climate change, tell personal stories 

As a behavioral scientist I (Michaela) really should know better, but I continue to be guilty of countering skepticism with statistics and what (to me) are compelling, evidence-based arguments. Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t been an effective strategy. What I really should be doing instead is telling personal stories, according to a new study that affirms the efficacy of the identifiable victim effect in climate change communication. Using a radio story in which a North Carolina outdoorsman describes how climate change is affecting the places he loves, researchers found that personal stories can effectively sway conservative Americans’ climate change beliefs and risk perceptions. Those who listened to the story—in comparison to a control group—were more likely to believe climate change was happening, consider it personally important, be worried about it, and consider it an issue the government should take action on. Effect sizes weren’t huge, but this study provides initial evidence that storytelling should have a prominent place in climate change communication. [Communication Reports]

Threats to job and culture—automation exposure predicts anti-immigrant sentiment 

Nativist fears, anti-immigrant attitudes, and policies aimed at restricting immigration are rampant. New research suggests that exposure to automation could be compounding anti-immigrant sentiment. Why? Study authors argue that people view both immigrants and automation as threats to resources (e.g., jobs) and threats to culture. It also didn’t matter how personally vulnerable study participants’ jobs were to automation, further suggesting that the driving fear is that “people feel that their current way of life is changing and that society’s shared values are eroding.” The authors didn’t provide recommendations on how to mitigate these fears, but maybe sharing a piece from our archives on how immigrants drive entrepreneurship, spur innovation, and bolster the economy could help. [Psychological Science]