5 Things About that “Republicans are More Attractive than Democrats” Study

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! Given the spirit of the day, I thought it was a good time to post about a study Korora passed along a few days ago called “Effects of physical attractiveness on political beliefs”, which garnered a few headlines for it’s findings that being attractive was correlated with being a Republican. For all of you interested in what was actually going on here, I took a look at the study and here’s what I found out:

  1. The idea behind the study was not entirely flattering. Okay, while the whole “my party is hotter than your party” thing sounds like compliment, the premise of this study was actually a bit less than rosy. Essentially the researchers hypothesized that since attractive people are known to be treated better in many aspects of life, those who were more attractive may get a skewed version of how the world works. Their belief/experience that others were there to help them and going to treat them fairly may cause them to develop a “blind spot” that caused them to believe people didn’t need social programs/welfare/anti-discrimination laws  as much as less attractive people might think.
  2. Three hypotheses were tested Based on that premise, the researchers decided to test three distinct hypotheses. First, that attractive people were more likely to believe things like “my vote matters” and “I can make a difference”, regardless of political party. Second, they asked them about ideology, and third partisanship. I thought that last distinction was interesting, as it drew a distinction between the intellectual undertones and the party affiliation.
  3. Partisans are more attractive than ideologues. To the shock of no one, better looking people were much more likely to believe they would have a voice in the political process, even when controlled for education and income. When it came to ideology vs partisanship though, things got a little interesting. Attractive people were more likely to rate themselves as strong Republicans, but not necessarily as strong conservatives. In fact in the first data set they used (from the years 1972, 1974 and 1976) only one year should any association between conservatism and attractiveness, but all 3 sets showed a strong relationship between being attractive and saying you were a Republican. The later data sets (2004 and 2011) show the same thing, with the OLS coefficient for being conservative about half (around .30) of what the coefficient for Republicanism was (around .60). This struck me as interesting because the first headline I saw specifically said “conservatives” were more attractive, but that actually wasn’t the finding. Slight wording changes matter.
  4. We can’t rule out age cohort effects When I first saw the data sets, I was surprised to see some of the data was almost 40 years old. Then I saw they used data from 2004 and 2011 and felt better. Then I noticed that the 2004 and 2011 data was actually taken from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, whose participants were in high school in 1957 and have been interviewed every few years ever since. Based on the age ranges given, the people in this study were born between 1874 and 1954, with the bulk being 1940-1954. While the Wisconsin study controlled for this by using high school yearbook photos rather than current day photos, the fact remains that we only know where the subjects politics ended up (not what they might have been when they were young) and we don’t know if this effect persists in Gen X or millenials. It also seems a little suspect to me that one data set came during the Nixon impeachment era, as strength of Republican partisanship dropped almost a whole point over the course of those 4 years. Then again, I suppose lots of generations could claim a confounder.
  5. Other things still  are higher predictors of affiliation. While overall the study looked at the effect of attractiveness by controlling  for things like age and gender, the authors wanted to note that those other factors actually still played a huge role. The coefficients for the association of Republican leanings with age (1.08) and education (.57) for example  were much higher than attractiveness the coefficient for attractiveness (.33). Affinity for conservative ideology/Republican partisanship was driven by attractiveness (.37/.72) but also by income (.60/.62) being non-white (-.59/-1.55) and age (.99/1.45). Education was a little all over the place…it didn’t have an association with ideology (-.06), but it did with partisanship (.94). In every sample, attractiveness was one of the smallest of the statistically significant associations.

While this study is interesting, I would like to see it replicated with a younger cohort to see if this was a reflection of an era or a persistent trend. Additionally, I would be interested to see some more work around specific beliefs that might support the initial hypothesis that this is about social programs. With the noted difference between partisanship and ideology, it might be hard to hang your hat on an particular belief as the driver.

Regardless, I wouldn’t use it to start a conversation with your Tinder date. Good luck out there.

5 Things About the GLAAD Accelerating Acceptance Report

This past week a reader contacted me to ask what I thought of a recent press release about a poll commissioned by GLAAD for their “Accelerating Acceptance” report. The report struck me as pretty interesting because the headlines mentioned that in 2017 there was a 4 point drop in LGBT acceptance, and I had actually just been discussing a Pew poll that showed a 7 point jump in the support for gay marriage in 2017. 

I was intrigued by this discrepancy, so I decided to take a look at the report (site link here, PDF here), particularly since a few of the articles I read about the whole things seemed a little confused about what it actually said. Here are 5 things I found out:

  1. The GLAAD report bases comfort/acceptance on reaction to seven different scenarios In order to figure out an overall category for each person, respondents were asked how comfortable they’d feel with seven different scenarios. The scenarios were things like “seeing a same sex couple holding hands” or “my child being assigned an LGBT teacher”. Interestingly, respondents were most likely to say they’d be uncomfortable if they found out their child was going to have a lesson in school on LGBT history (37%), and they were least likely to say they’d be uncomfortable if an LGBT person was at their place of worship (24%).
  2. The answers to those questions were used to assign people to a category Three different categories were assigned to people based on the responses they gave to the previous seven questions. “Allies” were respondents who said they’d be comfortable in all 7 situations. “Resisters” were those who said they’d be uncomfortable in all 7 situations. “Detached supporters” were those whose answers varied depending on the situation.
  3. It’s the “detached supporter” category that gained people this year. So this is where things got interesting. Every single question I mentioned in #1 saw an increase in the “uncomfortables” this year, all by 2-3%. While  that’s right at the margin of error for a survey this size (about 2,000 people), the fact that every single one went up by a similar amount give some credence to the idea that it’s an uptick. To compound that point, this was not driven by an uptick of people responding they were uncomfortable in every situation, but actually more people saying they were uncomfortable in some situations but not others:
  4. The percent of gay people reporting discrimination has gone up quite a bit. Given the headlines, you’d think the biggest finding of this study would be the drop in the number of allies for LGBT people, but I actually thought the most striking finding was the number of LGBT people who said they had experienced discrimination. That went from 44% in 2016 to 55% in 2017, which was a bigger jump than other groups: That red box there is the only question I ended up with. Why is the 27% so small? Given that I saw no other axis/scale issues in the report, I wondered if that was a typo. Not the biggest deal, but curiosity inducing nonetheless.
  5. Support for equal rights stayed steady For all the other findings, it was interesting to note that 79% of people continue to say they support equal rights for LGBT people. This number has not changed.

So overall, what’s going on here? Why is support for gay marriage going up, support for equal rights unchanged, but discrimination reports going up and individual comfort going down? I have a few thoughts.

First, for the overall “comfort” numbers, it is possible that this is just a general margin of error blip. The GLAAD survey only has 4 years of data, so it’s possible that this is an uptick with no trend attached. Pew Research has been tracking attitudes about gay marriage for almost 20 years, and they show a few years where a data point reversed the trend, only to change the next year. A perfectly linear trend is unlikely.

Second, in a tense political year, it is possible that different types of people pick up the phone to answer survey questions. If people are reporting similar or increased levels of support for concrete things (like legal rights) but slightly lower levels of comfort around people themselves, that may be a reflection of the polarized nature of many of our current political discussions. I know my political views haven’t changed much in the past 18 months, but my level of comfort around quite a few people I know has.

Third, there very well could be a change in attitudes going on here. One data point does not make a trend, but every trend starts with a data point. I’d particularly be interested in drilling in to those discrimination numbers to see what types of discrimination were on the uptick. Additionally, the summary report mentions that they’ve changed some of the wording (back in 2016) to make it clearer that they were asking about both LGB and T folks, which makes me wonder if the discrimination is different between those two groups. I wasn’t clear from the summary if they had separate answers for each or if they just mentioned each group specifically, so I could be wrong about what data they have here.

Regardless, the survey for next year should shed some light on the topic.

5 Things About the Perfect Age

When people ask me to explain why I got degrees in both family therapy and statistics, my go to answer is generally that “I like to think about how numbers make people feel.” Given this, I was extremely interested to see this article in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, about researchers who are trying to figure out what people consider the “perfect” age.

I love this article because it’s the intersection of so many things I could talk about for hours: perception, biases, numbers, self-reporting, human development, and a heavy dose of self-reflection to boot.

While the researchers haven’t found any one perfect age, they do have a lot of thought provoking commentary:

  1. The perfect age depends on your definition of perfect Some people pick the year they had the most opportunities, some the year they had the most friends, some the years they had the most time, others the year they were the happiest, and other the years they had a lot to reflect on. Unsurprisingly, different definitions lead to different results.
  2. Time makes a difference Unsurprisingly, young people (college students) tend to say if they could freeze themselves at one age, it would be sometime in their 20s. Older people on the other hand name older ages….50 seems pretty popular. This makes sense as I suspect most people who have kids would pick to freeze themselves at a point where those kids were around
  3. Anxiety is concentrated to a few decades One of the more interesting findings was that worry and anxiety were actually most present between 20 and 50.  After 50, well-being actually climbed until age 70 or so. The thought is that generally that’s when the kids leave home and people start to have more time on their hands, but before the brunt of major health problems hits.
  4. Fun is also concentrated at the beginning and end of the curve Apparently people in the 65 to 74 age range report having the most fun of any age range, with 35 to 54 year olds having the least. It’s interesting that we often think of young people as having the “fun” advantage due to youth and beauty, but apparently the “confusion about life” piece plays a big part in limiting how fun those ages feel. Sounds about right.
  5. How stressed you are in one decade might dictate how happy you are in the next one This is just me editorializing, but all of this research really makes me wonder how our stress in one decade impacts the other decades. For example, many parents find the years of raising small children rather stressful and draining, but that investment may pay off later when their kids are grown. Similar things are true of work and other “life building” activities. Conversely, current studies show that men in their 20s who aren’t working report more happiness than those in their cohort who are working….but one suspects by age 40 that trend may have reversed. You never know what life will throw at you, but even the best planned lives don’t get their highs without some work.

Of course after thinking about all this, I had to wonder what my perfect age would be. I honestly couldn’t come up with a good answer to this at the moment, especially based on what I was reading. 50 seems pretty promising, but of course there’s a lot of variation possible between now and then. Regardless, a good example of quickly shifting opinions, and how a little perspective tweak can make a difference.

5 Things to Know About Hot Drinks and Esophageal Cancer

Fun fact: according to CNN, on New Year’s Day 90% of the US never got above freezing.

Second fun fact: on my way in to work this morning I passed an enormous fire burning a couple hundred yards from where the train runs. I Googled it to see what was happened and discovered it was a gas main that caught on fire, and they realized that shutting the gas off (normal procedure I assume) would have made thousands of people in the area lose heat. With temps hitting -6F, they couldn’t justify the damage so they let the fire burn for two days while they figured out another way of putting it out.

In other words, it’s cooooooooooold out there.

With a record cold snap on our hands and the worst yet to come this weekend, I’ve been spending a lot of time warming up. This means a lot of hot tea and hot coffee have been consumed, which reminded me of a factoid I’d heard a few months ago but never looked in to. Someone had told me that drinking hot beverages was a risk factor for esophageal cancer, but when pressed they couldn’t tell me what was meant by “hot” or how big the risk was. I figured this was as good a time as any to look it up, though I was pretty sure nothing I read was going to change my behavior. Here’s what I found:

  1. Hot means HOT When I first heard the hot beverage/cancer link, my first thought was about my morning coffee. However, I probably don’t have to worry much. The official World Health Organization recommendation is to avoid drinking beverages that are over 149 degrees F. In case you’re curious, Starbucks typically servers coffee at 145-165 degrees, and most of us would wait for it to cool for a minute before we drank it.
  2. Temperature has a better correlation with cancer than beverage type So why was anyone looking at beverage temperature as a possibly carcinogen to begin with? Seems a little odd, right? Well it turns out most of these studies were done in part to rule out that it was the beverage itself that was causing cancer. For example, quite a few of the initial studies noted that people who drank traditional Yerba Mate had higher esophageal cancer rates than those who didn’t. The obvious hypothesis was that it was the Yerba Mate  itself that was causing cancer, but then they noted that repeated thermal injury due to scalding tea was also a possibility. By separating correlation and causation, it was determined that those who drink Yerba Mate (or coffee or other tea) at lower temperatures did not appear to have higher rates of esophageal cancer. Nice work guys.
  3. The risk has been noted in both directions So how big a risk are we looking at? A pretty sizable one actually. This article reports that hot tea drinkers are 8 times as likely to get esophageal cancer as those who drink tea at lower temperatures, and those who have esophageal cancer are twice as likely to say they drank their tea hot before they got cancer. When assessing risk, knowing both those numbers is important to establish a strong link.
  4. The incidence rate seems to be higher in countries that like their beverages hot It’s interesting to note that the US does not even come close to having the highest esophageal cancer rates in the world. Whereas our rate is about 4.2 per 100,000 people, countries like  Malawi have rates of 24.2 per 100,000 people. Many of the countries that have high rates have traditions of drinking scalding hot beverages, and it’s thought that combining that with other risk factors (smoking, alcohol consumption, poverty and poorly developed health care systems) could have a compounding effect. It’s not clear if scalding your throat is a risk in and of itself or if it just makes you more susceptible to other risks, but either way it doesn’t seem to help.
  5. There is an optimum drinking temperature According to this paper, to minimize your risk while maximizing your enjoyment, you should serve your hot beverages at exactly 136 degrees F. Of course a lot of that has to do with how quickly you’ll drink it and what the ambient temperature is. I was pretty impressed with my Contigo thermos for keeping my coffee pretty hot during my 1.5 mile walk from the train station in -3 degrees F this morning, but lesser travel mugs might have had a problem with that. Interestingly I couldn’t find a good calculator to track how fast your beverage will cool under various conditions, but if you find one send it my way!

Of course if you really want to cool a drink down quickly, just move to Fairbanks, Alaska and throw it in the air:

Stay warm everyone!

5 Interesting Resources for Snowflake Math Lessons

Happy National Make a Paper Snowflake Day (or National Make Cut Out Snowflakes Day for the purists)!

I don’t remember why I stumbled on this holiday this year, but I thought it would be a really good time to remind everyone that snowflakes are a pretty cool (no pun intended) basis for a math lesson. My sister-in-law teaches high school math and informs me that this is an excellent thing to give kids to do right before winter break. I’m probably a little late for that, but just in case you’re looking for some resources, here are some good ones I’ve found:

  1. Khan Academy Math for Fun and Glory  If you ever thought the problem with snowflake cutting is that it wasn’t technical enough, then this short video is for you. Part of a bigger series that is pretty fun to work through, this video is a great intro to how to cut a mathematically/anatomically(?) correct snowflake.
  2. Computer snowflake models There’s some interesting science behind computer snowflake models, and this site takes you through some of the most advanced programs for doing so. It seems like a fun exercise, but apparently modeling crystal growth has some pretty interesting applications. Gallery of images here, and an overview of the mathematical models here.
  3. Uniqueness of snowflakes Back in the real world, there’s an interesting and raging debate over the whole “no two snowflakes are alike” thing. According to this article,  “Yes, with a caution”, “Likely but unprovable” or “it depends on what you mean by unique” are all acceptable answers.
  4. Online snowflake maker If you’re desperate to try out some of the math lessons you just learned but can’t find your scissors, this online snowflake generator has you covered.
  5. Other winter math If you’re still looking for more ideas, check out this list of winter related math activities. In addition to snowflake lessons around symmetry, patterns and Koch snowflakes, they have penguin and snowman math.

Happy shoveling!

 

5 Things About Personality and Cold Weather

As I mentioned on Sunday, I’ve been itching to do a deep dive in to this new paper about how people who grow up in cold regions tend to have different personalities than those who don’t. As someone who grew up in the New England area, it’s pretty striking to me how every warmer weather city in the US seems more outgoing than what I’m used to. Still, despite my initial belief I was curious how one goes about proving that people in cold-weather cities are less agreeable. While the overall strategy is pretty simple (give personality tests to different people in different climates, compare answers) I figured there’d likely be some interesting nuance I’d be interested in.

Now that I’ve finally read the paper, here’s what I found out:

  1. To make the findings more broadly applicable, study multiple countries One of the first things I noticed when I pulled up the paper is that there were a surprising number of Chinese names among the author list. I had assumed this was just a US based study, but it turns out it was actually a cross-cultural study using both the US and China for data sets. This makes the findings much stronger than they would be otherwise.
  2. There are 3 possible mechanisms for climate effecting personality I’ve talked about the rules for proving causality before, and the authors wasted no time in introducing a potential mechanism to explain a cold weather/agreeableness link. There are three main theories: people in cold weather were more likely to be herders which requires less cooperation than farming or fishing, people in cold weather are more susceptible to pathogens so they unconsciously avoid each other, and people may migrate to areas that fit their (group) personalities. Thus, it’s possible that the cold doesn’t make people disagreeable, but rather that disagreeable people move to cold climates. Insert joke about Bostonians here.
  3. The personality difference were actually present for every one of the Big 5 traits. Interestingly, every one of the Big 5 personality traits was higher in those who lived in nicer climates: extraversion, agreeableness, openness to new experience, conscientiousness and emotional stability. The difference in agreeableness was not statistically significant for the Chinese group. Here are the differences, along with what variables appear to have made a difference (note: “temperature clemency” means how far off the average temperature is from  72 degrees):
  4. Reverse causality was controlled for One of the interesting things about the findings is that the authors decided to control for the factors listed in #2 to determine what was causing what. They specifically asked people about where they grew up to control for selective (adult) migration, and in the Chinese part of the study actually asked about prior generations as well. They controlled for things like influenza incidence (as a proxy for pathogen presence) as well. Given that the finding persisted after these controls, it seems more likely that weather causes these other factors.
  5. Only cold climates were examined One of the more interesting parts of this to me is what wasn’t studied: uncomfortably warm temperatures. Both China and the US are more temperate to the south and colder to the north. The “temperature clemency” variable looked specifically at temperatures that deviated from 72 degrees, but only in the low temperature direction. It would be interesting to see what unreasonably hot temperatures did to personalities….is it a linear effect? Do some personality traits drop off again? I’d be curious.

Overall I thought this was an interesting study. I always appreciate it when multiple cultures are considered, and I thought the findings seemed pretty robust. Within the paper and in the notes at the end, the authors repeatedly mentioned that they tried most of the calculations a few different ways to make sure that their findings were robust and didn’t collapse with minor changes. That’s a great step in the right direction for all studies. Stay warm everyone!

5 Interesting Things About IQ Self-Estimates

After my post last week about what goes wrong when students self-report their grades, the Assistant Village Idiot left a comment wondering about how this would look if we changed the topic to IQ. He wondered specifically about Quora, a question asking/answering website that has managed to spawn its own meta-genre of questions asking “why is this website so obsessed with IQ?“.

Unsurprisingly, there is no particular research done on specific websites and IQ self-reporting, but there is actually some interesting literature on people’s ability to estimate their own IQ and that of those around them. Most of this research comes from a British researcher from the University College London, Adrian Fuhrman.  Studying how well people actually know themselves kinda sounds like a dream job to me, so kudos to you Adrian. Anyway, ready for the highlights?

  1. IQ self estimates are iffy at best One of the first things that surprised me about IQ self-estimates vs actual IQ was how weak the correlation was. One study found an r=.3, another r=.19.  This data was gathered from people who first took a test, then were asked to estimate their results prior to actually getting them. In both cases, it appears that people are sort of on the right track, but not terrific at pinpointing how smart they are. One wonders if this is part of the reason for the IQ test obsession….we’re rightfully insecure about our ability to figure this out on our own.
  2. There’s a gender difference in predictions Across cultures, men tend to rank their own IQ higher than women do, and both genders consistently rank their male relatives (fathers, grandfathers and sons) as smarter than their female relatives (mothers, grandmothers and daughters). This often gets reported as male hubris vs female humility (indeed, that’s the title of the paper), but I note they didn’t actually compare it to results. Given that many of these studies are conducted on psych undergrad volunteers, is it possible that men are more likely to self select when they know IQ will be measured? Some of these studies had average IQ guesses of 120 (for women) and 127 (for men)….that’s not even remotely an average group, and I’d caution against extrapolation.
  3. Education may be a confounding factor for how we assess others One of the other interesting findings in the “rate your family member” game is that people rank previous generations as half a standard deviation less intelligent than they rank themselves. This could be due to the Flynn effect, but the other suggestion is that it’s hard to rank IQ accurately when educational achievement is discordant. Within a cohort, education achievement is actually pretty strongly correlated with IQ, so re-calibrating for other generations could be tricky.  In other words, if you got a master’s degree and your grandmother only graduated high school, you may think your IQ is further apart than it really is. To somewhat support this theory, as time has progressed, the gap between self rankings and grandparent rankings has closed. Interesting to think how this could also effect some of the gender effects seen in #2, particularly for prior generations.
  4. Being smart may not be the same as avoiding stupidity One of the more interesting studies I read looked at the correlation between IQ self-report and personality traits, and found that some traits made your more likely to think you had a high IQ. One of these traits was stability, which confused me because you don’t normally think of stable people as being overly high on themselves. When I thought about it for a bit though, I wonder if stable people were defining being “smart” as “not doing stupid things”.  Given that many stupid actions are probably more highly correlated with impulsiveness (as opposed to low IQ), this could explain the difference. I don’t have proof, but I suspect a stable person A with an IQ of 115 will mostly do better than an unstable person B with an IQ of 115, but person A may attribute this difference to intelligence rather than impulse control. It’s an academic distinction more than a practical one, but it could be confusing things a bit.
  5. Disagreeableness is associate with higher IQs, and self-perception of higher IQs  Here’s an interesting chicken and egg question for you: does having a high IQ make you more disagreeable or does being disagreeable make you think you have a higher IQ? Alternative explanation: is some underlying factor driving both? It turns out having a high IQ is associate both with being disagreeable and being disagreeable is associated with ranking your IQ as higher than others. This probably effects some of the IQ discussions to a certain degree….the “here’s my high IQ now let’s talk about it” crowd probably really is not as agreeable as those who want to talk about sports or exchange recipes.

So there you have it! My overall impression from reading this is that IQ is one of those things where people don’t appreciate or want to acknowledge small differences. In looking at some of the studies of where people ranking their parents against each other, I was surprised how many were pointing to a 15 point gap between parents, or a 10 point gap between siblings. Additionally, it’s interesting that we appear to have a pretty uneasy relationship with IQ tests in general. Women in the US for example are more likely to take IQ tests than men are but less likely to trust their validity. To confuse things further, they are also more likely to believe they are useful in educational settings. Huh? I’d be interested to see a self-estimated IQ compared to an actual understanding of what IQ is/is not, and then compare that to an actual scored IQ test. That might flesh out where some of these conflicting feelings were coming from.