• Quite often the ideas of ‘risk’ and of ‘uncertainty’ get bandied about interchangeably, but there’s a world of difference between them and it matters greatly when that distinction gets lost.

    That’s a key message from psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, who has created an impressive case for both understanding the distinction and then acting appropriately based on the distinction.

    “A situation with risk,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “is one where you basically know everything. More precisely, you know everything that can happen in the future … you know the consequences and you know the probabilities.” It is, as Bayesian decision theorist Jimmie Savage called it, “a small world.”

    As an example, Gigerenzer takes us a spin on a roulette wheel – you may lose your money on a low-probability bet, but all the possible options were known in advance.

    Uncertainty, on the other hand, means that all future possible events aren’t known, nor are their probabilities or their consequences. Rounding back to the roulette wheel, under risk all possibilities are constrained to the ball landing on a number between 1 and 36. “Under uncertainty, 37 can happen,” he jokes.

    “Most situations in which we make decisions,” says Gigerenzer, “involve some sort of uncertainty.”

    Dealing with risk versus dealing with uncertainty requires different approaches. With risk, all you need is calculation. With uncertainty, “calculation may help you to some degree, but there is no way to calculate the optimal situation.” Humans nonetheless have tools to address uncertainty. Four he identifies are heuristics, intuition, finding people to trust, and adopting narratives to sustain you.

    In this podcast, he focuses on heuristics, those mental shortcuts and rules of thumb that often get a bad rap. “Social science,” he says, “should take uncertainty seriously, and heuristics seriously, and then we have a key to the real world.”

    When asked, Gigerenzer lauds Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky for putting “the concept of heuristics back on the table.” But he disagrees with their fast-slow thinking model that gives quick, so-called System 1 thinking less primacy than more deliberative thinking.

    “We have in the social sciences a kind of rhetoric that heuristics are always second best and maximizing would be always better. That’s wrong. It is only true in a world of risk; it is not correct in a world of uncertainty, where by definition you can’t find the best solution simply because you don’t know the future.”

    Researchers, he concludes, should “take uncertainty seriously and ask the question, ‘In what situations do these heuristics that people use (and experts use) actually work?’ and not just say, ‘They must be wrong because they are a heuristic.’”

    Gigerenzer is the director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the University of Potsdam and partner at Simply Rational – The Institute for Decisions. Before that he directed the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and at the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research.

    His books include general titles like Calculated Risks, Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, and Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions, as well as academic books such as Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart, Rationality for Mortals, Simply Rational, and Bounded Rationality.

    Awards for his work include the American Association for the Advancement of Science Prize for Behavioral Science Research for the best article in the behavioral sciences in 1991, the Association of American Publishers Prize for the best book in the social and behavioral sciences for The probabilistic revolution, the German Psychology Award, and the Communicator Award of the German Research Foundation. He was a 2014 fellow at the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind University of California, Santa Barbara (SAGE Publishing is the parent of Social Science Space) and a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science in 2008.

  • “It’s been said there are three kinds of people in the world, those who can count and those who can’t count.” So reads a sentence in the book Innumeracy in the Wild: Misunderstanding and Misusing Numbers, published by Oxford University Press in 2020.

    The author of Innumeracy in the Wild is Ellen Peters, Philip H. Knight Chair and director of the Center for Science Communications Research at the University of Oregon. In this Social Science Bites podcast, Peters – who started as an engineer and then became a psychologist – explains to interviewer David Edmonds that despite the light tone of the quote, innumeracy is a serious issue both in scale and in effect.

    As to scale, she notes that a survey from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found 29 percent of the US adult population (and 24 percent in the UK) can only do simple number-based processes, things like counting, sorting, simple arithmetic and simple percentages. “What it means,” she adds, “is that they probably can’t do things like select a health plan; they probably can’t figure out credit card debt,” much less understand the figures swirling around vaccination or climate change.

    Peters groups numeracy into three (a real three this time) categories: Objective numeracy, the ability to navigate numbers that can be measured with a math test; subjective numeracy, which is “not your actual ability, but your confidence in your ability to understand numbers and to use numeric kinds of concepts;” and intuitive or evolutionary numeracy, a human being’s natural ability to do things like quickly determine if a quantity is bigger or smaller than another quantity.

    That middle type of numeracy, the subjective, is measured by self-reporting. “The original reasons for developing some of these subjective numeracy scales had to do with them just being a proxy for objective numeracy,” says Peters. “But what’s really interesting is that having numeric confidence seems to free people to be able to use their numeric ability.” While freedom is generally reckoned to be good – and objective results back this up – that’s not the case for those confident about their abilities but actually bad with numbers. Similarly, those who have high ability but are underconfident also do poorly compared to high ability and high confidence individuals.

    “There are some very deep psychological habits that people who are very good with numbers have that people who are not as good with numbers don’t have,” Peters explains. “It is the case that people who are highly numerate are better at calculations, but they also just simply have a better, more developed set of habits with numbers.”

    Less numerate people “are kind of stuck” with the numeric information as presented to them, rather than transforming the information into something that might better guide their decisions. Peters offered the example of a person with a serious disease being told that a life-saving treatment still has a 10 percent chance of killing them. Highly numerate people recognize that that means it has a 90 percent survival rate, but the less numerate might just fixate on the 10 percent chance of dying.

    Closing out the podcast, Peters offers some tips for addressing societal innumeracy. This matters because, she notes, research shows that despite high rates of innumeracy, providing numbers helps people make better decisions, with benefits for both their health and their wealth.

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  • The knowledge economy. Intellectual property. Software. Maybe even bitcoin. All pretty much intangible, and yet all clearly real and genuinely valuable. This is the realm where economist Jonathan Haskel of Imperial College London mints his own non-physical scholarship. “In the old days,” relates the co-author of Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy, “the assets of companies, the sort of secret sauce by which companies would generate their incomes and do their services for which they’re employed for, was very tangible-based. These would be companies with lots of machines, these would be companies with oil tankers, with buildings, with vehicles to transport things around. Nowadays, companies like Google, like Microsoft, like LinkedIn, just look very different.” And that difference, he explains to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, is knowledge. “What they have is knowledge,” says Haskel, “and it’s knowledge assets, these intangible assets, which these companies are deploying.”

    Intangible investments, as you might expect, have different properties than do tangible ones. Haskel dubbed them the four S’s:

    Scale. Once you have a handle on a successful intangible, like software, that can generally scale up without more capital spending; Sunk Costs. These are invested costs you can’t get back, such as the costs of developing software; Spillovers. Aspects of your intangibles that others can copy or adopt for themselves; and Synergies. “If you put all these intangibles together,” he explains, “you get more than the sum of the parts.”

    Meanwhile, intangibles help keep modern economies humming – we think. “Accountants and statistical agencies are quite reluctant to measure intangibles because it’s -- intangible. It’s a rather difficult thing to get at; these are often goods that aren’t traded from one person to another …”

    Part of Haskel’s research effort is to quantify how much investment in intangibles is going on “behind the scenes,” which fits in with other interests of his such as re-engineering how gross domestic product gets measured. Businesses are now spending more on intangibles then on tangibles: Haskel’s work reveals that for every monetary unit companies spend on tangible assets, they spend 1.15 on intangible ones.

    In addition to serving as a professor at the Imperial College Business School, Haskel is director of the Doctoral Programme at the Imperial. He is an elected member of the Conference on Research in Income and Wealth and a research associate of the Centre for Economic Policy Research, the Centre for Economic Performance, LSE, and the IZA, Bonn.

    Haskel has been a non-executive director of the UK Statistics Authority since 2016 and an external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee since 2019.

  • Sheila Jasanoff, the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is a pioneer in the field of STS. That acronym can be unpacked as either ‘science and technology studies’ or ‘science, technology and society.’ Jasanoff -- who describes herself as a sociologist of knowledge and a constructivist, trained in law, working in the tradition of the interpretive social sciences – is content with either use. “I think that represents two phases of the same field,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “First of all, it’s the field that looks in detail at the institutions of science and technology and asks, ‘What are they like?’ ‘What does it feel like to be doing them?’ ‘What do they operate like as social institutions, as cultures, as formations in society?’ The other face of STS – science, technology and society – is more about how science and technology function when they get out into the world at large.”

    Amid that expansive view, some areas, of course, particularly interest Jasanoff. “The more interesting turn,” she details, “was the turn that tried to occupy the territory previously given to philosophy of science, and started asking sociological and political questions about it.”

    One such question is the eternal “What is truth?” STS, a brash newcomer, took on the inquiry with gusto.

    “It took a kind of arrogance, if you will, certainly a bravery, in the 1970s, to say that, ‘Hey, truth isn’t just out there. It’s not just a Platonic thing and we try to approximate it. We can actually study truth as if it was a social production.’ That,” she explains, “was the heartland of science and technology studies.”

    In the interview, Jasanoff outlines how science is often presented as a capital-T repository of Truth even in an age where the ‘death of the expert’ has become a common trope.

    Citing the pandemic and how scientific advice changed on mask wearing, Jasanoff argues that “people should not be surprised that in crisis mode the way we know things changes and therefore the advice may change. Science has been sold as a bill of goods for so long that it is the Truth, it is reliable, a fact is always fact the moment we assert it, that these sorts of commonsensical things that we ought to understand have become difficult for people to grasp.” (Jasanoff’s own research often looks at cross-national differences in her research, and after looking at mask-wearing in 16 nations she reports that “only in America has it become an article of faith – are you for science or against science” – based on your mask usage.)

    Remember, she continues, “The expert is not an embodiment of scientific fact. An expert is a particular kind of person who is qualified in particular ways, and every time we say ‘qualification,’ something about the English language or about language in general, forces us to look at the skills that allow one to be considered qualified.

    “In fact, we should look at the external periphery of the qualification; a qualification sets boundaries on what you know, but it also sets boundaries on what you don’t know.” Expertise is this double edged-thing.”

    Jasanoff is the founder and director of Harvard’s Program on Science, Technology and Society. She’s the author of several books aimed at both the academy and the public, such as 1990’s The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers, 2012’s Science and Public Reason, and Can Science Make Sense of Life? in 2019.

    The University of Bergen, acting for the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, awarded her the Holberg Prize in March. That was the latest in a slew of honors for her research, including the University of Ghent Sarton Chair and the Reimar Lüst Award from the Alexander von Humboldt and Fritz Thyssen Foundations, a Guggenheim fellowship in 2010, and in 2018 the Albert O. Hirschman Prize from the Social Science Research Council. She is an elected foreign member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where she served on the board of directors.

  • Any work in social and behavioral science presumably – but not necessarily immediately - tells us something about humans in the real world. To come up with those insights, research usually occurs in laboratory settings, where the researchers control the independent variables and which, in essence, rules out research ‘in the wild.’

    Enter John List.

    “For years,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “economists thought that the world is so ‘dirty’ that you can’t do field experiments. They had the mentality of a test tube in a chemistry lab, and what they had learned was that if there was a speck of dirt in that tube, you’re in trouble because you can’t control exactly what is happening.”

    Since this complex real world isn’t getting any cleaner, you could conclusively rule out field experiments, and that’s what the ‘giants’ of economics did for years. Or you could learn to work around the ‘dirt,’ which is what List started doing around the turn of the millennium. “I actually use the world as my lab,” the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago says.

    Since an early start centering on sports trading cards and manure-fertilized crop land (real field work, a self-described “bucolic” List happily acknowledges), his university homepage details a raft of field experiments:

    “I have made use of several different markets, including using hospitals, pre-K, grammar, and high schools for educational field experiments, countless charitable fundraising field experiments to learn about the science of philanthropy, the Chicago Board of Trade, Costa Rican CEOs, the new automobile market, coin markets, auto repair markets, open air markets located throughout the globe, various venues on the internet, several auction settings, shopping malls, various labor markets, and partnered with various governmental agencies. More recently, I have been engaged in a series of field experiments with various publicly traded corporations—from car manufacturers to travel companies to ride-share.”

    In the podcast, List explains, “I don’t anticipate or assume that I have a ‘clean test tube,’ but what I do is I randomly place people into a treatment condition or a control condition, and then what I look at is their outcomes, and I take the difference between those outcomes. That differences out the ‘dirt.’

    “I can go to really dirty settings where other empirical approaches really take dramatic assumptions. All I need is really randomization and a few other things in place and then if I just take the simple difference, I can get an average treatment effect from that setting.”

    His work – in journal articles, popular books like The Voltage Effect and The Why Axis, in findings applied immediately outside of academe – has earned him widespread praise (Gary Becker terms his output as “revolutionary”), a huge list of honors, and a recurring spot on Nobel shortlists.

    For this podcast, List focuses on two of the many areas in which he’s conducted field experiments: charitable giving and the gig economy.

    He describes one finding from working with different charities around the world over the last 25 years on what works best to raise money. For example, appeals to potential donors announcing their money would be matched when they gave, doubling or tripling a contribution’s impact. When he started, it was presumed that the greater the leverage offered by a match, the more someone would give, since their total gift would be that much greater.

    “There was no science around it … it was art, or gut feeling.” It was also wrong.

    List tested the assumption, offering four different appeals to four different groups: one with just an appeal for funding, one with a 1:1 match, one with a 2:1 match, and the last a 3:1 match. And the results bore out that matching a contribution amped up the results – but the leverage didn’t matter. “Just having the match matters, but the rate of the match does not matter.”

    List was later the chief economist with ride-share behemoth Uber – and then with its competitor, Lyft. He coined the term Ubernomics for his ability to manipulate the tsunami of data the company generated. “It’s not only that you have access to a lot of data,” he says, “it’s also that you have access to generating a lot of new data. As a field economist, this is a playground that is very, very difficult to beat.”

  • Kathelijne Koops, a biological anthropologist at the University of Zurich, works to determine what makes us human. And she approaches this quest by intensely studying the use of tools by other species across sub-Saharan Africa.

    “Look at us now …” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “We are really the ultimate technological species. And the question is, ‘How did we get to where we are now?’ If we want to know why we are so technological, and how do we acquire tool-use skills, etc., it’s really interesting to look at our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and also bonobos.

    “Why do, or don’t they use tools, and what do they use tools for, and what environmental pressures might influence their tool use.”

    So Koops has been studying, first as a grad student and now as director of her own lab, the Ape Behaviour & Ecology Group at the University of Zurich, several groups of wild apes. (Chimps and bonobos, along with orangutans and gorillas, are labelled as great apes, and with humans, are members of the family Hominidae.) She also directs the Swiss National Science Foundation-funded Comparative Human and Ape Technology Project, which looks at ecological, social and cognitive factors on the development of tool use.

    In this interview, Koops focuses on two decades of work she and her team conducts, along with Guinean collaborators from the Institut de Recherche Environnementale de Bossou, in the Nimba Mountains in the southeastern portion of the West African country of Guinea. The field site is remote, and work takes place in 10-day shifts at one of two camps. Researchers gather data on the chimps during daylight hours – if the chimps cooperate. “If the chimpanzees want to get away they can,” Koops details, “so even though we’ve worked there a long time you cannot follow them all day like you can at some other study sites.” The researchers also use motion-triggered cameras near well-trod areas – the humans dubbed them “chimpanzee highways” – where the chimps frequent.

    Among the tool-using behaviors Koops has seen in the study group is seeing these chimps use long sticks to dig up ants for a snack without being devoured themselves, and using stones and branches to open up fruit casings. What this group doesn’t do, she continued, is use “percussive techniques” to open up edible nuts, even though another population of chimps a few kilometers away does exactly that.

    To see if it is opportunity or is it necessity that spurred tool use and tool evolution, Koops’ team “cranked opportunity up by a million” by scattering lots of nuts that were otherwise less common in the primary forest habitat of the Nimba residents alongside lots of handy stones good for nut-cracking. The result was … not much innovation by the chimps.

    “It really seems difficult to innovate on your own,” she comments. “… They really need to see from another chimpanzee how to crack these nuts.” In general, she notes, there’s not much ‘active teaching’ among her subjects but a lot of observation of older individuals.

    She cites other experimenters’ similar work on 4- and 5-year-old humans, which in turn saw similar low instances of innovation. While being careful not to overclaim, Koops says “it looks like some of the building blocks of our culture are really already there in chimps.”

  • The idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is often trotted out as a metaphor for understanding empathy. The act of imagining someone else’s reactions may be hard, but based on the body of work by George Loewenstein, predicting how -- under varying circumstances -- we might walk in our own shoes may not be all that easier.

    Loewenstein is the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His enormous range of research interests can be boiled down, after a lot of boiling, to applying psychology to economics and, more recently, economics to psychology.

    His career as a founder of both behavioral economics and neuro-economics has seen him delve deeply into how we react when our “affective state” is cold – when are emotions are absent and our physical needs are currently met – compared to when our affective state is hot. The latter is when out emotions are active or when our passions, as the old philosophers might term things like things hunger, thirst, pain, sexual desire, are pulling us.

    It turns out, as he explains to interview David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “when we are in one affective state it’s difficult for us to imagine how we would behave if we were in a different affective state. … The worst mistakes we make are when we are in a cold state, because we just can’t imagine how we would behave if we were in a hot state.”

    While this may seem like something we know intuitively (or after years of high-profile experiments by Lowenstein, his frequent collaborator Leaf VanBoven, and others have conducted, several described in this podcast), it’s not something we act on intuitively. “No matter how many times we experience fluctuations in affective states,” Loewenstein says, “it just seems we don’t learn about this. We are always going to mis-predict how we’re going to behave when we’re in a hot state if we’re making the prediction when we’re in a cold state.”

    This, in turn, affects the products of people who make predictions (or if you prefer, policy prescriptions) as a profession, he adds, such as economists.

    “According to conventional economics, when we make decisions about the future we should be thing about what it is will we want in the future. What all of these results show is that your current state influences your prediction about what you’re going to want in the future; it influences these decisions that we make for the future in unproductive, self-destructive ways.”

  • “I tell my students, ‘If somebody utters the sentence that starts with the words, “History teaches us” the rest of the sentence is probably wrong.’ History has no direct lessons for almost anything. Our own age is sufficiently different, sufficiently unique, from what happened in the past that any facile lessons from history are more likely to mislead than to enlighten.”

    That series of caveats comes from Joel Mokyr, who, perhaps counter-intuitively, is an economic historian. And in fact, the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history at the Chicago-area Northwestern University shows in this Social Science Bites podcast that there’s quite a bit to learn from history if you keep your expectations in check.

    For example, he explains that “the good old days weren’t all that good and that the very best time to be born in human history is today. That sounds hard to believe in an age where we’re all running around with face masks and facing quarantine, but it’s still true.”

    For his own part, Mokyr tells interviewer Dave Edmonds, “I use economics to understand history, and I use history to understand economics.” Mokyr’s ties to economic history are deep: he was president of the Economic History Association in 2003-04, spent four years in 1990s as senior editor of the Journal of Economic History, was editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, and is currently editor-in-chief of the Princeton University Press Economic History of the Western World series of monographs.

    From that perch, he explains, presumably with a smile, that his peers work with ‘expired data.’ Economic historians “scour the past looking for large data sets that we can use in some way to make inferences. The issue of causality becomes somewhat of an obsession in economics these days, and economic history is very much a part of this.”

    In this interview, Mokyr details how the improvement in the human condition he cited above is connected to the Industrial Revolution. “The Industrial Revolution is particularly important because that’s where it all started -- before 1750 almost nowhere in the world were living standards approaching anything but miserable and poor.”

    Economic activity before the year 1750 was mostly the story of trade, he explains, while after 1750, it became the story of knowledge. “The Industrial Revolution was the slow replacement of trade and finance and commerce by another thing, and that is growing knowledge of natural phenomena and rules that can be harnessed to material welfare of people.”

    To demonstrate this approach, he offered the example of steel. While it has been made for centuries it wasn’t until 1780 that anyone knew roughly why this alloy of iron and carbon resulted in such a useful metal, and therefore could exploit its properties more by design than by chance. “If you don’t know why something works,” Mokyr said, “it’s very difficult to improve it, to tweak it.”

    Mokyr’s scholarship has earned him a variety of honors, including the biennial Heineken Prize by the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences for a lifetime achievement in historical science in 2006. He has also written a number of prize-winning books, including The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy, and most recently, A Culture of Growth.

  • Verbal arts, explains Karin Barber, emeritus professor of African cultural anthropology at the University of Birmingham, are “any form of words that have been composed in order to attract attention or invite interpretation which is intended to be repeatable in some way.” They are, she continues, central to all sorts of social processes, “just as much a part of people’s lives as kinship or economic activities.”

    In this Social Science Bites podcast, Barber offers a specific case study of the application of the verbal arts by examining in depth some of the genres common in the Yoruba-speaking areas of Western Africa. Barber said there are more than 30 million people who speak Yoruba, with the largest number in southwestern Nigeria, where much of Barber’s own scholarship has taken place. She describes the study of Yoruba as a large field in academe, with “hundreds and hundreds” of Yoruba scholars building it up.

    Barber herself grew up in Yorkshire and did her first degree, in English, at Cambridge University. She next studied social anthropology at University College London and after a stint in Uganda was told that if she really wanted to pursue her examination of African theater she should go to Nigeria. Her Ph.D. – based on 37 months of field work studying oral poetic performance in everyday life in a Yoruba town - came from Nigeria’s University of Ifẹ (now Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ University). Barber then spent the next seven years as a lecturer in the Department of African Languages and Literatures at the University of Ifẹ, where courses were taught in Yoruba.

    Barber’s scholarship has resulted in several notable books and monographs. The 1991 monograph I Could Speak Until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women and the Past in a Yoruba Town won the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology; 2000’s The Generation of Plays: Yoruba Popular Life in Theatre won the Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association; The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics from 2007 won the Susanne K. Langer Award of the Media Ecology Association; and 2012’s Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel won the Paul Hair Prize of the African Studies Association and the Association for the Preservation and Publication of African Historical Sources.

    In this interview, she tells host David Edmonds about two particular genres of Yoruba verbal arts: ifa, or divination poetry, and oríkì, translated as praise poetry. “Divination is how people govern and manage their lives,” she explains, “so this poetry is really central to how people analyze what’s happening to them and take steps to make sure that things work out as they wish.”

    Praise poetry, “strings and strings of epithets hailing the subject’s qualities,” meanwhile, “celebrates and commemorates and highlights the essential characteristics of a person or god or a family or town or an animal. Somehow it evokes the inner essence, the inner properties, and activates them, galvanizes them.” This genre, she details, has changed over the years, emphasizing wealth in the 19th century but more personal qualities and achievements today. “Changing power dynamics are revealed, not necessarily in what the verbal arts specifically say, but in the way they are formed, in the way they are transmitted, who reads them or who listens to them.”

    And so verbal arts matter in a social science context. “All verbal arts are produced in an economic and institutional context. You could ask, why did this new genre appear in this context, this particular moment in history. What caused people to devise this way of commenting on society and formulating ides in this particular way? It’s because of the prevailing interplay of social forces.”

    For her work, Barber has received a number of high honors, ranging from a Yoruba chieftaincy title - she is the Iyamoye (“mother who has insights”) of Okuku – to appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2012 and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire earlier this year.

  • COVID-19 has changed everything, including how we work (and to be more precise, are employed). But in order to best understand how things have changed, and hopefully to grapple with how they will be, it helps to have studied how they were. Enter Melanie Simms, professor of work and employment at the University of Glasgow ‘s Adam Smith Business School, and the author – in 2019 – of What Do We Know and What Should We Do About the Future of Work?

    In this Social Science Bites podcast, Simms explains that while the idea of working from home seemed to be the dominant narrative during the pandemic, it’s only one of two “real headlines.” That’s in large part because the people who talk publicly about working from home are academics and journalists, both groups that did work from home. In fact, Simms relates, in the United Kingdom about 70 percent of workers spent some or all of their time at their workplace.

    The less public headline, she notes, is that there seems to be a large group of people who have left the labor market during the pandemic – often women with children. And while improving options for childcare might see more mothers in employed positions, Simms notes a different trajectory for older workers -- almost anyone over 50 who has left the workforce in the last year-and-a-half struggles to re-enter it -- regardless of kind of work they do.

    In discussion with interviewer David Edmonds, Simms details that while she does look at global trends, her research mostly focuses on the United Kingdom, and thanks to the regulatory ecosystem and a skew toward the service economy, what’s true in the UK can’t automatically be applied elsewhere.

    Among the subjects Simms and Edmonds touch on are the “regrowth” of the middle class female workforce starting in the 1960s; the difficulties that a lack of childcare routinely creates for working women; the aging of the workforce as young people stay in school longer (delaying their entry into the labor marker) while at the same time older workers remain active in the labor market for longer; de-industrialization; labor unions; and the gig economy, which Simms sees as more about how work is allocated than a change in work itself.

  • “Convict criminology,” Jeffrey Ian Ross explains in this Social Science Bites podcast, is “a network, or platform, that’s united in the perception that the convict voice has been either neglected or marginalized in scholarship or policy debates in the field of criminology in general, and corrections in particular.”

    Ross, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Baltimore, is one of the originators of the concept, he tells interviewer David Edmonds. Seeing “a big gap” in the work of criminology and corrections, in the early 1990s he and Stephen Richards focused on tapping “the lived experience of convicts” for this academic work. Both men had experience with the corrections system – Ross had worked for several years in a correctional institution and later was a social science analysts with U.S. Department of Justice, while Richards had spent three years in federal prison for marijuana distribution before becoming a professor.

    About half of the people in the field of convict criminology are either ex-convicts, have impacted by the prison system or are prison activists who have or are in the process of getting a PhD in criminology, Ross says. “Many people who have a criminal conviction try to keep it quiet,” Ross says about jobseekers in academe (or anywhere), and he’s proud of the strides convict criminologists have made. “We’ve managed to forge a beachhead and produce very impressive scholarship,” he says, all the while offering authenticity and degree of inside knowledge.

    Convict criminology, he details, rests on three pillars: scholarly research, mentorship, and some sort of service or activism. All three pillars arise from a “desire and goal to make a meaningful impact on prison conditions.”

    So mentorship, for example, might involve having ex-cons be mentors in re-entry programs, while scholarly research benefits from both having an inside view that pays extra dividends when interviewing incarcerated or formerly incarcerated subjects and in understanding the nuances of their accounts.

    Ross has written, co-written or edited a number of books on criminology, including the Routledge Handbook of Street Culture and Convict Criminology for the Future, both out this year.

    He has received a number of awards over the years, including the University of Baltimore’s Distinguished Chair in Research Award in 2003; the Hans W. Mattick Award, “for an individual who has made a distinguished contribution to the field of criminology and criminal justice practice,” from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2018 Last year he received both the John Howard Award from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences’ Division of Corrections and the John Keith Irwin Distinguished Professor Award from the American Society of Criminology's Division of Convict Criminology.

  • Molefi Kete Asante, the chair of the Department of African American Studies at Philadelphia’s Temple University, has long been at the forefront of developing the academic discipline of Black studies and in founding the theory of Afrocentrism, “the centering of African people in their own stories.” In this Social Science Bites podcast, Asante offers an insiders view of the growth of the Afrocentric paradigm, from the founding of the Journal of Black Studies a half century ago to the debates over critical race theory today.

    “Afrocentricity,” Asante tells interviewer David Edmonds, “is a paradigm, an orientation toward data, a perspective, that says that African people are subjects, rather than objects, and that in order to understand narratives of African history, culture, social institutions, you must allow Africans to see themselves as actors rather than on the margins of Europe, or the margins of the Arab culture, or the margins of Asian culture.”

    While that might seem a mild prescription, it’s one that has been often ignored. Asante offers the example that the waterfalls between Zimbabwe and Zambia had a name (Mosi-oa-Tunya for one) before European explorer David Livingstone arrived and dubbed them Victoria Falls.

    “Livingstone is operating in the midst of hundreds of thousands of African people – kings and queens and royal people – yet the story of southern Africa turns on David Livingstone. The Afrocentrist says that’s nonsense; here's a white guy in the midst of Africa and that you turn the history of Southern Africa on him does not make any sense to us.”

    Asante then details some of his own efforts in centering the stories of Africa and the African diaspora in their own narratives, including the founding of the first academic journal focused on doing so. He details how as a PhD student in 1969, he and Robert Singleton started the effort to create the Journal of Black Studies as a forum for the nascent academic discipline. (The story sees SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space, and its founder Sara Miller McCune taking an important role as the one publisher that embraced Asante’s proposal in 1970.)

    “The journal survives,” he explains 50 years later, “based on its relevance to contemporary as well as historical experiences.”

    At the time the journal was founded, Asante directed the University of California Los Angeles’ Center for Afro American Studies from 1969 to 1973. He chaired the Communication Department at State University of New York-Buffalo from 1973 to 1980. After two years training journalists in Zimbabwe, he became chair of the African American Studies Program at Temple University where he created the first Ph.D. Program in African American Studies in 1987. He has written prodigiously, publishing more than 75 books, ranging from poetry on Afrocentric themes to high school and university texts to the Encyclopedia of Black Studies.

  • There is inequality in the United States, a fact most people accept and which data certainly bears out. But how bad do you think that inequality is, say, based on comparing the wealth held by the average Black person in America and the average white person?

    This is one of the questions that Jennifer Richeson, a social psychologist at Yale University, studies. She has news -- bad news -- about both the actual gap and what people across the board think that gap is.

    First off, the facts. The Black-white wealth gap in the United States is, in Richeson’s words, “staggeringly large.” Citing figures from 2016, she notes that “the average Black family had about 10 percent of the wealth of the average white family.” The actual percentage in wealth improved slightly in the five years since, “but the important thing is that it’s a huge, staggering gap that has been persistent for 50 to 60 years.”

    With the gap so large and so persistent, you might expect estimates of its size to reflect reality. You would be mistaken, as Richeson tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “If you ask the average American on any given day, they will probably say the wealth gap is around 65, 70 percent. … That’s not only wrong, it’s very wrong compared to the actual wealth gap. … Part of the reason we’re so wrong is because we really believe that since the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, things have gotten dramatically better and are continuing to get better.”

    The perception is that roughly since the Civil Rights era the gap narrowed from about half to near parity. Respondents to these sorts of questions “feel compelled to conform to this narrative of racial progress” in their estimates, a narrative that Richeson has likened to a mythology.

    “No, things are not fine – they are similarly bad as they were in the 60s. That’s true for the wealth gap, that’s true for the wage gap. Income is slightly better, but not much. It’s a persistent and pervasive staggering inequality that’s stubborn, and our psychology refuses to believe that.”

    Visions of this delusional economic advancement are shared broadly across the nation’s economic and ethnic strata; “Black Americans,” Richeson says, “are more accurate but still really wrong.” Her research has found that the more you believe in a just world, the more your estimate will underestimate the gap. This suggests in part why Black Americans – with daily experiences of structural inequality – give estimates that are at least a little closer to the mark. “One reason we believe there is this gap between Black Americans and white Americans is because of the differential tendency to believe that outcomes are fair and only determined by your individual effort, talent, hard work.”

    This massive misperception matters. While “being this wrong about anything is interesting” academically, Richeson says, the magnitude of this misperception affects individual and societal wellbeing; it also undermines the idea behind the so-called American dream, that American society is a meritocracy. American cannot, she says, “just know the truth and do nothing about it.”

    Richeson, the Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology at Yale, received the SAGE-CASBS Award in 2020 for her work and will deliver a COVID-delayed lecture at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University later this year. That was one of a number of honors she has accumulated, including a 2007 John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (known as the “genius award”), a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2015), the Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth B. Clark Distinguished Lecture Award from Columbia University (2019), the Career Trajectory Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (2019), and a Carnegie Foundation Senior Fellowship (2020).

  • The twin prods of a U.S. president trying to rebrand the coronavirus as the ‘China virus’ and a bloody attack in Atlanta that left six Asian women dead have brought to the fore a spate of questions about Asian Americans in the United States.

    Columbia University sociologist Jennifer Lee has been answering many of those questions her entire academic career, and across four books, dozens of journal articles and untold media appearances. One of the first questions she answers in this Social Science Bites podcast is who are ‘Asian Americans’? As she tells interviewer David Edmonds, “No one comes to the United States and identifies as an Asian American.” Instead, if asked, they are likely to identify with national origin or ethnicity – say Chinese, or Japanese, or Filipino – rather than with the umbrella construct of Asian American.

    “’Asian American,’” Lee explains, “was originally conceived as a political identity by student activists at Berkley in the 1960s who coined the term as a unifying pan-ethnic identity to advocate for Asian-American studies in university curricula and to build coalitions with other marginalized groups.” Since then, it evolved into a demographic category, and in 1997 the U.S. Census Bureau grouped together people from East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia under the classification of ‘Asian.’ (Those regions, of course, don’t include everyone from the continent of Asia – where are the Kazakhs and the Uzbeks, for example – and does include people from the islands adjacent to the land mass – Japanese, Malaysians, Filipinos.)

    “These are groups don’t have a whole lot in common in terms of language, culture, religion, history,” Lee notes, but they are bound by various forms of exclusion in the U.S. But their presence in the United States in growing rapidly. Combined, Asians are the fastest growing demographic in the U.S.; their population is up 27 percent in the last decade to about 23 million people, or 7 percent of the total U.S. population.

    Immigration is a key component of that growth, notes Lee, who herself emigrated to the U.S. with her Korean parents when she was 3. Some four out of five current Asian Americans are foreign-born, she explains, and continuing immigration replenishes the cohort of ‘new’ Asian Americans. That, she suggests, will keep the category of Asian-American alive for some time.

    Immigration also contributes to the trope – a trope Lee rejects – that “‘Asians have some set of values that make them successful.” Instead, she argues that due to who has emigrated, America “engineered this idea that Asians are successful.”

    Asian immigrants coming to the United States are not just a random sample of the population in their countries of origin; they are extremely educated, more likely to hold a B.A. than those who don’t immigrate, and they’re also more likely to have a college degree than the U.S. mean. It’s this ‘hyper selectivity’ that largely accounts for educational and economic accomplishments of America’s Asians, she argues here and in her latest award-winning book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox, written with Min Zhou.

    Lee offers several data points during the podcast to buttress the idea that innate cultural values are not driving success. For one thing, the distribution of Asian American accomplishments are not evenly distributed: Indian-Americans have exceptionally high educational achievements while Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong Americans have relatively low graduation rates. Plus, Lee says, if ‘values’ drove the success, we’d see the same successes in the immigrants’ Asian countries of origin or in other areas where Asian diasporas are represented – and we don’t.

    Lee is the Julian Clarence Levi Professor of Social Sciences at Columbia and past president of the Eastern Sociological Society. She is or has been a fellow at the Center for the Study of Economy and Society, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation and a Fulbright Scholar to Japan. She will join the board of trustees for the Russell Sage Foundation this fall.

  • Despite being someone who doesn’t “particularly enjoy the game,” cognitive anthropologist Martha Newson is drawn to football. “Football is one of the most exciting games to watch as an anthropologist,” she explains in this Social Science Bites podcast. “I’m not watching the ball go around the pitch – I’m watching the fans. I’m transfixed by them! You go through all the emotions in a single match.”

    Newson, based at the universities of Kent and Oxford, describes for interviewer David Edmonds how fans of football often fuse their own identities into a tightly bonded group (even as they retain their individuality). This “identity fusion,” in which fans feel completely immersed in their group, is widely seen outside of sports. Some obvious venues are national identity, religion, or family group, places where individuals will go to extreme ends to defend or protect our group. “The research has expanded to look at how we can fuse to a value or an idea,” Newson notes.

    But studying football (or soccer) offers some pragmatic advantages to the researcher. For one, the bonding is very public and very passionate. Fused fans will tattoo themselves, for example, an indelible statement that demonstrates they’re much easier to access and observe than say a terrorist cell or secretive political group.

    And football fandom is diverse culturally and geographically. One study Newson is working on currently taps into fanbases in Indonesia, Australian, Britain, Brazil and Spain. While there are differences in each country, “the love of the fans is quite consistent.” (And it is also love for the fans, Newson says, since it seems to be fusion to their fellow fans, and not necessarily the team or town, that’s the real driving force of cohesion.)

    Newson has taken an innovative and interdisciplinary approach in her research, conducting surveys of fans, measuring their physiological responses and even drawing on existing and disparate databases like police records of fan violence.

    And while violence or hostility may be linked in the popular imagination with extreme fandom, Newson’s research offers a more nuanced view. When someone feels their group is being threatened, like a mother bear they may wade in to defend their group. But when things are pleasant, like that same bear, so are they. “Fused fans preferred to be cooperative and altruistic to their rivals over being hostile toward them,” Newson has found. “The more fused you are, you are more likely to be violent than the less-fused fans,” she adds, “but that’s only because you’re looking out for your group in some way.”

    Identity fusion research also finds that having bonded is a lifetime commitment, regardless of losses (and perhaps abetted by them!). “Once you are fused, you don’t unfuse – fusion really sticks,” Newson explains, adding that the primacy of the bond may wax and wane over time.

  • When human judgment enters the picture, so too will errors in human judgment. Think of this as “noise,” just as you might think of a signal-to-noise ratio in an audio signal. And just as in listening to music, this noise is not a feature, but a flaw.

    In the context of human action, management professor at HEC Paris and former McKinsey senior partner Olivier Sibony defines “noise” as the unwanted variability in human judgment. “When you look at how people make a professional judgment, there is an average error … and that is what has traditionally been called bias in statistics and in the study of judgment. But when you have already identified bias, there is something left, and that is the unshared error, the unwanted variability of errors, that is noise.”

    In a new book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, by psychologist and Bites alumnus Daniel Kahneman, Sibony, and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein (author of Nudge), the trio look at the lottery that noise creates in social outcomes, and discuss ways to practice better “decision hygiene” to prevent noise from infecting important outcomes.

    Coinciding with the release of Noise, Sibony spoke with interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast about noise as a concept, the types of noise, why acknowledging it matters, and a little on what we can do to avoid it. This is an area of great interest for Sibony, whose own research centers on reducing the impact of behavioral bias.

    “Bias and noise,” Sibony explains, “are mathematically equivalent in the effect they have on error. Noise causes exactly as much error as bias does for the same quantity of noise or bias.

    “And so, if you can reduce noise, you can reduce error.” Or put another way, make better decisions.

    He gives the example of insurance claims adjusters. “When you look at how two of these people judge the same case, what price they set on the same insurance policy or the price they set on the same claim, and you ask them how much they expect to disagree, they say, ‘Of course we’re not going to be in perfect agreement; it’s a matter of judgment, after all. It’s still a calculation – we’re not just adding up numbers and saying, “The answer is X.” Otherwise our job would just be automated. That’s what makes the job interesting – it’s a matter of judgment. So we expect some disagreement between us. But hey! We are all highly qualified, competent people, so we are more or less interchangeable depending on who is available.’”

    If you ask the adjusters, or their bosses, about how much variability they expect, the answers come back around 10 percent. And if you ask business executives in general what they would expect the difference to be – and Sibony talked to hundreds -- the answers came back at 10 to 15 percent.

    But looking at the actual variability in real life, he reveals, the differences vary by as much as 55 percent.

    This isn’t just some peculiarity of insurance. “This was,” Sibony said, “something we found everywhere we looked!” He offers many examples: assessments by financial professionals, x-rays read by skilled doctors, professors grading essays, and many more. What he terms “big differences” appeared repeatedly

    “More worrisome, perhaps, if you look at how judges sentence people who have been found guilty of a crime … [W]hen the average sentence is seven years in prison, the average difference, the mean difference between two judges is three-and-a-half.” And so, as Sibony notes, when appearing before two judges, you’ve already been sentenced to five years, or to nine years, “just based on the luck of the draw.”

    This variability, this happenstance in outcomes, matters for a trio of reasons: fairness (“when similarly located people are not treated similarly, it is unfair”); credibility of the underlying institutions; and because we’re routinely making bad (or at least not the best) decisions.

    In addition to teaching strategy, decision making and problem solving at HEC Paris, Sibony is an associate fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. He writes often on strategy and decision making in the academic and popular press, and his book Vous Allez Commettre Une Terrible Erreur ! (published in English as You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake!) received the was awarded the Manpower Foundation Grand Prize in 2019 for best management book. He is also a knight in the French Order of the Légion d’Honneur.

  • "That’s such a hard question,” Gina Neff, a sociologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, responds when asked what social science research or thinker most influenced her. “It’s like a busman’s holiday for an academic, because so many things have influenced my thinking.” Her answer, by the way, was Ulrich Beck’s concept of the risk society, as explained in this 1986 book.

    In this montage drawn from the last two years of Social Science Bites podcasts, interviewer David Edmonds poses the same question to 25 other notable social scientists.

    For many of the guests, the answer proves difficult to pin down to just one person or work (“That’s like asking who’s your favorite kid,” was David Halpern’s first response). For a few guests, the response is instant.

    “A simple answer, really,” replies Rupert Brown, naming a fellow social psychologist, Turkish-American Muzafer Sherif, and his work in the 1950s. And sociologist Les Back, too, answers instantly: “Don’t even have to think about it: WEB DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois is the writer who captures both the heat and the passion of life and also the cool historical perspective and analysis in the most extraordinary compound of literary expression.”

    Back, in turn, was mentioned by one scholar: Kayleigh Garthwaite as her great influencer.

    A number of the guests cited titans from the early days of social science – Max Weber, Karl Marx, Pierre Bourdieu, Emile Durkheim, while others named modern-era titans like Stephen Pinker, Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt or Jean Piaget. And many named creators of the new canon – Jim Scott cited A.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, Alondra Nelson picked Troy Duster’s Backdoor to Eugenics, and Gurminder Bhambra tabbed Danielle S. Allen’s Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education.

    And no such list would be complete without a wild card, and for that we turn to Michelle Gelfand, who turned to Herodotus’ The Histories and the lessons a 2,500-year-old post-mortem of an ancient war can teach us today: “He was a brilliant cross-cultural psychologist … he also had a really interesting observation — that all humans are ethnocentric. They don’t just think that their culture is different, they think it’s better.”

    This is the fourth collection in this series (and the 100th Social Science Bites podcast).

  • When Jim Scott mentions ‘resistance,’ this recovering political scientist isn’t usually talking about grand symbolic statements or large-scale synchronized actions by thousands or more battling an oppressive state. He’s often referring to daily actions by average people, often not acting in concert and perhaps not even seeing themselves as ‘resisting’ at all.

    The ‘problem’ with political scientists, he tells interviewer David Edmonds, in this Social Science Bites podcast, “is that when they’re talking about resistance they’re tending to talk about overt declarations – protests in the streets, marches, or potentially armed combat. What I’ve found is that throughout history, open resistance of this kind is impossible or suicidal. The result is a lot of what I call ‘unobtrusive forms of resistance.’”

    There are, he notes, “very many different kinds of resistance: forms of resistance that announce themselves publicly and forms that are more subtle and unobtrusive in order to protect the people who are protesting from massive retaliation.”

    He offers several examples of this unobtrusive resistance, such as poaching, squatting, and desertion - “common weapons of people who don’t have formal power.”

    In this podcast, Scott draws on the year and half he spent in a Malaysian village, in the late 1970,s to discuss insights he gained about resistance (and which resulted in his Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance). Scott learned the Malay language, acquainted himself with the local Kedah dialect, and studied first the rich and then the poor in this village. Mechanized, combine harvesters had taken over rice harvests in the area, leaving many people out of work and many tenants homeless. While there was no organized public protesting – that would have been foolhardy – he witnessed sabotage in the fields and ousted tenants killing the chickens of those who had evicted them.

    In a “a subtle showing of contempt,” people who felt badly treated would look the other way when someone they hated crossed their path. “The kind of shunning was extraordinarily effective and humiliating in a face-to-face community of such a small size.” It reflected, in turn, the psychic violence done to the poor -- “Inequality and injustice almost always is reflected in a loss of cultural dignity and standing.”

    Scott sees resistance from several vantage points in large part because he’s untethered himself from many academic restrictions, “defecting” from a discipline when he finds its approaches miss the point. He trained as a political scientist, for example, but as he saw how it studied elites and mass populations differently -- conducting social science “behind their backs,” as he put it -- he decamped to anthropology. ( But he argues every anthropologist should come with a historian strapped to their back.

    “James Scott has taught us to see how art can fuel resistance, how social planning can undermine social justice, how anarchic principles inform everyday acts of resistance, and how agriculture led to the rise of state control,” said Tamar Szabó Gendler, the dean of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, when the Social Science Research Council awarded him the Albert O. Hirschman Prize last year.

  • The study of stigma, , says Michèle Lamont, is a “booming field.” That assessment can be both sad and hopeful, and in this Social Science Bites podcast the Harvard sociologist explains stigma’s manifestations and ways to combat it, as well as what it takes for a researcher to actually study stigma.

    Lamont defines stigma “as the negative characterization of any social attribute,” and offers examples such as mental illness, social status, or obesity as conditions routinely stigmatized. And while stigma can attach itself to an individual or to a group, stigma requires intersubjective agreement for it to function.

    As that intersubjectivity would suggest, the specifics of stigma varies by culture, a point brought home by Lamont’s own research among stigmatized groups in the United States, Brazil, Israel (and which saw her 2016 co-authored book Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and Israel). The work involved more than 400 interviews, conducted by members of the stigmatized groups, in the three countries, and Lamont offers insights into how stigma plays out.

    The project paid people $20 in the U.S. to be interviewed, but the Brazilian team said Brazilians would be insulted if they were offered money to participate. In Israel, Palestinians being surveyed didn’t trust Tel Aviv University, so that created obstacles even though the team members were themselves Palestinian

    Lamont cites the work of Erving Goffman, who studied this experience of having a negative mark. (See this earlier Social Science Bites podcast for a look at Goffman’s legacy.) One key concept is that of “front stage” and “back stage,” where someone manages their life in a public way (the domain of stigma) but also in a private way.

    Lamont, professor of sociology and of African and African American studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard, directs the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She was president of the American Sociological Association in 2016-17 and chaired the Council for European Studies from 2006-09.

    She received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, a Gutenberg research award in 2014, the 2017 Erasmus Prize, and an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship for 2019-21.

    To download an MP3 of this podcast, right-click HERE and save.

  • What we tell people about ourselves is not exclusively, or often not even majorly, what comes out of our mouths. A host of nonverbal messages emanate from us, many of them intentionally sent to create or reinforce a narrative for a recipient who is left trying to judge the veracity of the sum total of the information. The study of this signaling in the content of an asymmetry of information is known as ‘signalling theory.’

    In this Social Science Bites podcast, Diego Gambetta, a professor of social theory at the European University Institute in Florence, discussing his research around signaling theory and the applications of his work, whether addressing courtship, organized crime of hailing a cab.

    “The theory,” he tessl interview Dave Edmonds, “has to do with the unobservable qualities of interest. The question is, how much scope do we have to con each other, to cheat each other. … What I would like to know about you is more than is what is apparent. The things that we are interested in are not written on our foreheads.”

    Signaling theory’s value, he continues, comes in “trying to establish when truth can be communicated even in conditions that are difficult, in which we expect the interests of the parties communicating to diverge, or to not completely overlap.”

    This gives the theory a wide range of applications, which is reflected in its own birthing. Initially formalized by economists, particularly Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence. Who used it to show how can an employer can determine if a job applicant in likely to be highly productive or not. At roughly the same time, Gambetta explains, there was a “an intuitive expression of the theory” by an animal behaviorist, Amotz Zahavi.

    In the social and behavioral realm where Gambetta works, signally theory shows in utility whether the parties are in conflict – hence his work examining the Italian mafia -- or cooperation – studying taxi drivers in Belfast and in New York City.

    “In a conflict,” Gambetta details, “I may want to persuade you that I am really, really tough. If this is true, and you believe me, then we may sort the conflict out cheaply for both of us because we don’t enter into a damaging fight.” And in cooperation, how do you accept the accuracy of someone’s representations (or convince someone of your own honest representation) that they do indeed possess the qualities they feel, or say, they have.

    Given the current mass trial of alleged members of the 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate in Italy, perhaps Gambetta’s work among the mafiosos is is most salient at the moment. “I was alerted to the importance of symbolic communication in the mafia by the way they communicated with each other, and also, on a couple of occasions, with how they communicated with a researcher, myself included. They display a subtlety in communication that surprised me. We tend to expect an organized criminal to excel at brutality and intimidation, but we can’t really expect them to be a lot subtler than we are in communicating.”

    He gives the example of a Canadian researcher who announced plans to research the mafia. The researcher’s car was burglarized, his dirty laundry stolen, and a few days later the laundry came back, cleaned and ironed, with a note that said, “Goodbye.” It was, Gambetta noted, “a more enthusiastic rendition of ‘I know where you live.’”

    “Violence,” he adds, “is known to us because it leaves a body on the ground, it attracts attention. But there is a subtlety in threatening.” And in Palermo, for instance, there is “an obsessive search for meaning” – the workaday side of the signaling theory coin.

    Another workaday aspect revolved around his work studying taxi drivers, who had to determine which passengers they would pick up based on the drivers’ perception of the person hailing them being a fare that was safe and trustworthy. These instant assessments can rely, however, on short-cuts that reek of racial profiling. In New York, for example, Gambetta that even Black drivers wouldn’t pick up young Black people. This essentially removes the service from that population – “the cost of proving your bona fides, that you are a real passenger despite your age and color, is too costly, is too complicated.”

    In addition to his professorship at the European University Institute, Gambetta is the Carlo Alberto Chair at the Collegio Carlo Alberto in Turin, and an official fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Among his books are 2016's Engineers of Jihad, Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate from 2009, and 1993's The Sicilian Mafia. The Business of Private Protection.