One Among Many

The self in social context

Frutti di Bosco

Notes from a forager

frutti di bosco
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Grading—grating. Oh, the agonies of grading student performance! Allow me to indulge (again) in a moment of self-pity. For an earlier Jeremiad, see here. It is a well-known fact—and one that is obvious to any folk psychologist upon reflection—that those students who missed a better grade by a hair feel worst and are most likely to plead with the instructor. Some go on to appeal to what they believe is a higher power (deans) if they remain dissatisfied; others offer to do extra work to improve their grade. Consider the simple world of grades at my university. There really are only two grades, A and B. No plusses and no minuses. The grade C is rare and is understood to be ignominious. A and B, in other words, respectively amount to success and failure in an environment where everyone expects to be better than average. By and large, 40% of the grades are A, 55% are B, and the rest C.

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To work with frequencies, suppose in your class, there are 9 A and 11 B. The highest B complains and gets her way. Now there are 10 A and 10 B. What are the hedonic consequences? The 9 original A will be disappointed because their grade has been cheapened. The climber is happy, and the remaining 10 B are unhappy because their grade now signals worse performance on average; it is now more clearly a poor grade than it was before. Let the cycle continue. Again, there is one individual whose B is the highest. Suppose she pleads with success and receives an A. The 10 A that are already on record will feel worse, and so will the remaining 9 B. And so it continues. At the extremity, the last person with a B will plead into an A, will feel good, while the other 19 A feel worse because now their grade has lost all meaning. Conclusion: Do not yield to the first request to have a B turned into an A.

There is a flipside. No student will request the reverse, that is, the transformation of a low A into a high B. Surely, though, you could make it so even without that request. If you did, you would sacrifice the happiness of that one student for the increased happiness of all the others. The remaining A would feel good because their grade would bear a clearer mark of distinction, and the B students who are already on record will be pleased to see that their comparatively low grade has become a more common one. And the cycle continues. At the extremity, the last A standing will be transformed into a B, making that student miserable, while pleasing all others. The B is no longer the mark of failure. It is not the mark of anything, other than participation.

You see what you need to do to fully exploit this dynamic. Begin with a distribution of N-1 A and 1 B, and then whittle away until all grades are B. Happiness should increases monotonically—if irrationally. In the end, the students will realize their entrapment, and see how short-term increases in happiness undermined long-term happiness. It sounds like an addiction to grade change, no?

A parallel in economic psychology suggests itself. In most countries, the distribution of wealth is highly skewed, such that the modal, the median, and the average wealth are arrayed in this increasing order. Stated differently, the distribution looks like a J lying on its back with its foot sticking up on the left. What would be the effect on national happiness if the wealth of a few people increased at a time? These individuals would be happy, whereas those they leave behind and those they join would not be. All told, there would be more unhappiness than happiness. Put the process in reverse, and you’ll see that if a few people lose wealth, everyone else will be happy. Again, if you let this process run to its tragic conclusion you would have to conclude that the gradual immiseration of a society would be a happy thing in the moment, although general gloom would await at the end.

Back to grading. Suppose a student argues that her B should be turned into an A because the syllabus did not state where the line between A and B would be drawn. If this request is granted, there is no rational reason to withhold an A from the next student, or indeed, from anyone. The argument is thus self-eliminating. In psychological terms, I suppose this plea for a better grade appears to be rational only from an egocentric point of view. But justice (or simple fairness) needs to come from a disinterested or impersonal perspective.

Vernacular. While in Italy, I have to make sure not to use German vernacular designed to sound Italian although it is not. Example: Futschikato means gone without a trace; the word can be used in German school yards or beer halls. It will not be understood in Bergamo.

Kardauner Schwarzbrot
The soul of a German. The German must have his dark bread. Must. Much as I love Italy, the anemic, tired, processed toast for breakfast saps my spirit. I went to the Romanian-run paneficio next door, here in Bergamo, hoping to find a roll of acceptable texture. Instead I found a pack of pane integrale, produced in Kardaun (Cardano) in the Province of Bozen (Bolzano), aka Alto Adige (Obere Etsch - Südtirol). The universe is back in balance, thanks to the Treaty of St. Germain. Who would have thunk it?

Bystander effect. I get the occasional phone call from a radio station with a request to discuss the bystander effect, i.e., the relative unwillingness of people to help when others are around who might do it. After obliging a few times, I have now decided to let others do the interviews.

Shingles [the kind you hang outside your place of business]. Perhaps you consider your ego stroked if you are "googleable." Not that it means much in this day and age. Perhaps what it takes is having your own wikipedia entry. But caution is advised. If you want one, then for the love of all that is holy, don't write it yourself. It is so obvious and cringeworthy. Should it not be possible to find someone to do it for you or write it yourself in such a way that it does not look like you did it yourself? Please, I'm begging you.

Let me press this point a little further. Suppose you give a TED talk on the wonders of oxytocin. Would you want to claim that you (and apparently only you) discovered that oxytocin increases trustworthiness when you were the third author on the paper? Does this not suggest that you yourself failed to take a whiff of the magical hormone with a nasal inhaler? The delivery of the message should not undercut the message itself. Or consider giving a talk on the wonders of striking a power pose (by being open and expansive), and while you're explaining how this works you keep touching your face (a gesture of vulnerability).

Enter Dan Ariely. Dan has arrived at the top of the academic food chain. He has prevailed in a winner-takes-all environment. He studies irrationality, but as far as I know, he has not claimed that he himself is now above all irrationality. He agreed, for example, to make predictions of how funny his jokes would be rated by the audience of his online course. He knew that the results could potentially expose his own self-enhancement bias. And so it was, as reported by fellow blogger Peter McGraw. My impression is that Dan has managed, despite his tremendous success and publicity, to retain a sense of the goofy and not to take himself all too seriously. I think in a round-about way, that adds to his power.

The new science. Here's a peeve (not a pet one, though). There is a simple linguistic way to overvalue your research. You do a few studies on X and then write an essay for the masses in a newspaper calling your work "The new science of X." It was just a few studies, but calling it "the new science of" makes it sound like a new discipline, and that is surely important. I've seen this sort of thing a few times. The case that stimulated this spitball is an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton. They found that spending prosocially increases one's own happiness more than spending selfishly. This is important work, but "the new science of spending points" it ain't.

Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.

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