Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Big Questions in Social Science

Robert Wiblin interviews Tyler Cowen
WIBLIN: What would be your top three questions that you’d love to see get more attention?

COWEN: Well, what’s the single question is hard to say. But in general, the role of what is sometimes called culture. What is culture? How does environment matter? I’m sure you know the twin studies where you have identical twins separated at birth, and they grow up in two separate environments and they seem to turn out more or less the same. That’s suggesting some kinds of environmental differences don’t matter.

But then if you simply look at different countries, people who grow up, say, in Croatia compared to people who grow up in Sweden — they have quite different norms, attitudes, practices. So when you’re controlling the environment that much, surrounding culture matters a great deal. So what are the margins where it matters and doesn’t? What are the mechanisms? That, to me, is one important question.

A question that will become increasingly important is why do face-to-face interactions matter? Why don’t we only interact with people online? Teach them online, have them work for us online. Seems that doesn’t work. You need to meet people.

But what is it? Is it the ability to kind of look them square in the eye in meet space? Is it that you have your peripheral vision picking up other things they do? Is it that subconsciously somehow you’re smelling them or taking in some other kind of input?

What’s really special about face-to-face? How can we measure it? How can we try to recreate that through AR or VR? I think that’s a big frontier question right now. It’d help us boost productivity a lot.

Those would be two examples of issues I think about.
One of my favorite questions has always been, how do decisions that people feel they are making for personal, idiosyncratic reasons add up to social trends? For example, nobody thinks, I'm not married yet because of a worldwide trend toward later marriage, they think they haven't met the right person yet or what have you. People don't think, I don't want to move out of state because that is no longer popular; they have their own reasons that feel particular to them for wanting to stay close to home. And yet age at marriage is way up and far fewer people move between states. How, exactly, does that work?


Unknown said...

I think the question of how individual psychology adds up to social phenomena is one of the crucial ones of our time--or any time. The main reason we still haven't begun to approach a good understanding of this is, of course, that it's a huge and difficult question, made up of a whole, bristling phalanx of other hard questions. Simply understanding individual human motive is itself fiendishly difficult. As far as I can tell, human motive works more like a kaleidoscope than, for example, a set of syllogisms. But the syllogistic model does not want to let go. A subordinate problem has been a tendency, mercifully on the wane as far as I can tell, for social analysis to discount individuals' perceptions and claims about their own motives in favor of one or another general theory about what motivates people.

Unknown said...

An article in today's NYT I think points a way forward. If I knew how to put a link in a comment, I'd do that; but the title is "How One Journalist’s Death Provoked a Backlash That Thousands Dead in Yemen Did Not." The key is to start with psychology, individual and group, and their interaction. Social phenomena, in this view, are essentially aggregates of psychological phenomena.

John said...

I agree. But how do psychological phenomena come to be aligned, so that they add up to mass movements?