Monday, July 29, 2013

Be Wary of Polls

Polls have become very popular in recent years.  Most of them have to do with politics or current issues.  This makes sense in a democracy where politicians are always looking over their shoulders to guard against being on the “wrong side” of an issue when election time rolls around.  Polls, along with demonstrations, marches, e-mails and phone calls, have become an effective way to influence political decisions between elections.

Many polls ask people about their practices and habits, helping manufacturers, service providers, retailers, or advertisers discover our interests and how our tastes have changed.  (Is that why there are 14 types/colors of the same brand of dishwashing liquid to choose from at the grocery store?)

Since we are constantly inundated with poll results, here are a few tips.

The reason for polling is to find out what people think – all people.  It’s too expensive to ask everyone, so they ask a sample.  Professional outfits carefully plan to get a representative sample.  Others may not, and a non-representative sample, a "non-scientific poll, is pretty much worthless.  They must also get a large enough sample.  Usually around 1200 subjects will yield an accuracy of plus or minus 3%.  This is good enough, because increasing the accuracy requires many more subjects.  Return on the extra effort is marginal, and it’s still not 100% and never will be unless you ask everyone.

Wording of the questions can lead people to a particular conclusion.  Many news reports for the sake of brevity summarize responses.  Often different polls get seemingly conflicting results on the same issue.  This may be due to slightly different wording of the question.  Another wording-related issue comes with the time frame: “Has he experienced X in the last year?” or “Has he ever experienced X?”  Not knowing the precise wording can blur the picture.

I'm always wary of self-reporting.  When polls ask, do you do something or approve of something, it often leads to exaggeration, trying to please or trying to impress.  From this article about a budgeting poll we learn: “People want to be seen as good citizens, so when they’re asked by a pollster whether they do things that are generally seen as positive, good-person activities, they fudge a little. Pollsters call this ‘social desirability bias,’ and a great example of it is voting. Without fail, more people tell pollsters that they turn out to vote than actually do.”  Accordingly, they view the budgeting responses a little skeptically.  Think about how easily this bias could apply to questions on subjects like food choices, hygiene habits, drug usage or sexual activities.  (The above source also gives a good example of two similar polls with different wording.)  

Finally, do they ask facts or opinions on things that can’t be changed or don't really matter?  These are reported frequently in the news and are virtually meaningless.  An example comes from a CBS news poll: “"How likely do you think it is that a major earthquake will happen in the U.S. in the next 20 years?”  Opinions don’t cause or prevent earthquakes, but it might help some politician or marketer to play on people’s fears.  Here’s one on gun laws: "Regardless of how you feel about the issue, how likely do you think it is that the President and Congress will pass any laws that will bring about significant changes to gun policy by the end of this year?”  Do they want some psychic prediction or are they just measuring the general discouragement on progress?  Finally, “Americans are divided as to whether fathers today are more involved or less involved in raising their kids than they were 20 years ago.”  So what?

Polls can be tricky and the polltakers can use them to manipulate us, to unintentionally mislead us or just to clutter our minds with more useless information.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Back to the Basics - A Review

A few days back I learned that the public’s opinion about the direction of the country was very negative.  I wasn't surprised, but my lack of surprise was not politically motivated.  I was not surprised because I recall seeing these numbers for the last 25 years and rarely do a majority of Americans think we are headed in the right direction.  The chart on this page shows that it never happened over the last 5 years – and these polls come out about monthly.  A chart of New York Times polls shows less than half a dozen instances between 1995 and 2008 where more than 50% had a favorable opinion.  Despite changes in Presidents and Congress, Americans consistently believe the country is headed the wrong way.  So why don’t they do something about it?

That’s a good question.  Usually if something hurts, you try to fix it.  Minor irritations may heal on their own, but serious problems get attention.  If it hurts for 25 years or more, I doubt that any sane person would apply the same solution over and over.  But that’s exactly what Americans have done; expecting results from the government or thinking that changing parties will fix things.  It hasn’t worked because the problems are ours to fix.

Is the solution to the obesity epidemic governmental action, as Mayor Bloomberg and others seem to think, or is it eating less and exercising more?  Do we solve education failings with edicts from Washington or when parents take appropriate responsibility, working with teachers not against them to make sure the children learn both academics and respect?  Do we solve poor saving habits and retirement insecurity with bank regulations, consumer protection and AARP-backed legislation or when ordinary Americans begin distinguishing between wants and needs, passing up tempting offers and spending more wisely and frugally?  Our behavior has consequences.  Sometimes the consequences are unpleasant.  As long as we wait for others to solve our problems, the pain will not go away.

This behavioral model takes a personal approach.  By emphasizing behavior, we eliminate name-calling, instead specifying the error without blaming or demeaning.  Our behavioral errors have led to poor outcomes. Americans must take responsibility for the crises of the day and adjust individual behavior, so that the accumulation of consequences doesn’t overwhelm everyone, as it did a few years ago when too many people bought houses they couldn’t afford.  (Blaming greedy bankers won’t keep a similar problem from arising again.  Changing individual choices, actions and expectations will.)

Real solutions come from better actions and decisions in five dimensions.  With discipline we get control of our weight, our finances and correct poor consequences of other bad habits.  With responsibility we are motivated to do what is required of us, not looking for someone else to blame or to pay for our errors.  Using economic understanding, we realize that governments spend tax money taken from us, that corporations spend the money we pay for their products, and that there is no magic money tree, no free lunch – it all gets back to us.  When we use critical thinking, we are not lured by unsubstantiated claims or tricky advertising designed to play on our hopes and emotions.  Critical thinkers hold the media, politicians and advertisers to a higher standard.  Perspective helps us appreciate what we have instead of forever longing for more.  With perspective we practice moderation and learn to lead calmer and more focused lives.  Together these five dimensions outline behavioral changes that can make us better and happier as individuals and as a nation.

Each week in the news, there are dozens of stories about how people miss opportunities to make their lives better, and by extension to start moving the nation in the right direction.  I choose a couple of these examples to illustrate where we are going wrong.  My hope is that readers will develop the skills, the instinct, to recognize these examples and find more on their own.  Politics is not a factor.  If we can slowly change the mindset of America from one of looking to someone else for an answer to one where Americans take responsibility for how their individual choices determine the direction of the country, we can turn it around.  Otherwise, the conclusion must be that it really doesn’t hurt; it’s just people wanting to complain.

Monday, July 22, 2013

How to be Cool

These posts about how right behavior yields favorable consequences, both personal and societal, and how faulty behavior results in personal problems and societal crises will never be considered cool.  Living responsibly, with discipline and perspective, using critical thinking to dissect issues and understanding the economic cycle may lead to a calmer, safer and happier life, but it will never raise an eyebrow, impress the neighbors or develop a following of adoring fans.

Being cool is so important in America today that people will go to great lengths to achieve that status.  An important lesson learned early in school is that cool kids get ahead.  They are recognized and celebrated by their peers, and even the administration – when’s the last time they held a pep rally for the math team?  Teachers are more appreciated and successful if they act cool, exchanging knuckle bumps with middle schoolers and having hip classroom decorations.  (See my comments from September 2012.)  Politicians try to act cool.  They want to be seen in public with film stars, rockers, rappers and professional athletes.  We take our cues from others about the right place to be, right things to wear and right things to say.

The good news is you can buy stuff to make you cool, and these opportunities continue to expand.  Kanye West will sell you a “designer” white t-shirt for a mere $120.  It’s part of his new clothing line that includes jeans for $265 and a long-sleeved hoodie for $280.  This article (from the UK) mockingly presents five much less expensive alternatives.  Although they are all priced at less than £10 (or about $16), they just can’t compete on coolness, and the West-endorsed t-shirts sold out in one day!

Why would so many people spend $120 for a t-shirt that is identical to others selling for much less?  Why are they so desperate to be considered cool?  Cheryl Mendelson in her book The Good Life explains, “…what seems cool to cool people varies with whatever relieves feelings of inferiority and humiliation...” (p.171).  In other words, beneath the facade they don’t feel good about themselves and must rely on the constant ability to surprise, shock or just out-cool others through their dress and attitude to gain the external reinforcement they need.  Perhaps the sale of Kanye West t-shirts and other goods tells us more than about how people make crazy spending decisions.  Perhaps it also means that recent attempts to artificially build self-esteem in our children have failed, leaving them, now young adults, to rely on outside approval to compensate for the undeveloped confidence and satisfaction that comes from real accomplishment.  If I need people to like or look up to me, I buy the shirt.

Perspective, a sense of moderation, an appreciation of what you have – materially, internally, and spiritually – relieves this need to spend money to achieve status or to impress the neighbors (and yourself).  The only drawback is that perspective, along with discipline, critical thinking and responsibililty are just not cool!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Making Connections

Some people who are appalled at the NSA routinely reviewing phone records will sit glued to the TV as an undercover reporter tries to pin down a crooked businessman using a hidden camera.  Some people who start their day with a cup or two of coffee to wake up and end the day with a drink to calm down or have a beer on the weekends to relax are outraged at proposals to legalize marijuana or other recreational drugs.  These people are not being hypocritical.  They just don’t stop to make connections between one behavior and another.  Recognizing the similarities between seemingly unrelated behaviors, opinions or choices uncovers contradictions that often go unnoticed.

This brings us to examples of gasoline prices and student loans.

Early in June, the Midwest was surprised at having the highest gas prices in the country.  Prices jumped to $4.25 per gallon.  Local news stories featured the usual pain-at-the-pump stories.  The temporary price increase was attributed to problems at regional refineries, but not many people paid attention to this detail.  Naturally, the conspiracy theorists came out of the woodwork accusing the oil companies of price gouging.  A short time later the price had gradually dropped by more than a dollar a gallon with no mention in the media of our sudden good fortune.

During the same time period, this news appeared.  “An environmental group that helped push BP PLC to a multimillion-dollar settlement last year over air emissions at its northwestern Indiana oil refinery says the sprawling complex's revised wastewater permit falls short of what's needed to protect Lake Michigan's waters."  Do we recognize the connection between high gas prices attributed to refinery issues and the legal challenges of this environmental group making operation more difficult, risky and expensive for one of those regional refineries?  Clean air and clean water are important, but it’s so easy to forget that it’s not BP or any other corporation that ultimately pays the bill.  It’s you and me as we complain about our pain at the pump.  It’s simple economics.

Another news story getting attention is the failure of Washington to deal with student loans, allowing the interest rate to double.  Many students are struggling to get by and the additional interest will increase their burden.  To make matters worse, news broke that the federal government is making a profit on student loans.  As the story unfolded I noticed this article that tried to personalize the crisis with a real-life example.  It told of Kristy Currier, 26, of Detroit who owes $75,000 in loans.  When I expanded the photo, the caption said that she lives with her fiancé and two dogs and two cats.  One pet would be considered a luxury for someone owing $75,000, but it’s hard to feel sorry for someone who voluntarily takes on the extra costs of feeding, medical treatment and daily care of four!

When we miss the underlying connections and the contradictions they imply, it’s hard to come to a workable solution.  We bumble along and feel like victims of the system, but sometimes it’s not the system’s fault.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Guess What's Bad for You Now

The latest news tells us that the Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil have been linked to a higher risk of prostate cancer. An NBC news item gives a pretty good description of the research leading to this conclusion including the sample size and methods.  It goes on to say how shocking this news will be to many Americans.  My regular readers, however, will know how to handle this news and not be shocked at all.

In summary, researchers tested over 2000 men to determine the level of certain Omega-3 acids in their blood.  “Those with the highest blood levels had a 71 percent higher risk of high-grade prostate cancer, compared to those with the lowest levels. Overall, their risk of any kind of prostate cancer was 44 percent higher.  This is bad news for men who take fish oil supplements or eat large amounts of fish regularly.  Once again something we thought was good for us, has now revealed a downside.  So is it time to be shocked or panic?

First, as my readers know, correlation is not causation.  If A has been linked to B, for example, A may cause B; or A and B may both be caused by some distinct third factor; or A and B may be totally unrelated and any correlation is merely a coincidence.

Second we know that supplements are not generally recommended.  Except in special circumstances, it is preferable, healthier, to get our nutrients from the food we eat.  Further along in the article we learn that “recent studies have shown taking extra omega-3 has little effect on heart disease,” contrary to the current American Heart Association recommendations regarding the possible need for fish oil capsules, i.e., supplements.

Finally, from a perspective standpoint, we know to practice moderation.  More of a good thing is not necessarily better.  In fact, it is often the case that a little may be good, but a lot can be dangerous.  Another aspect of perspective reminds us that we can’t spend our time worrying about or being afraid of everything.  It’s not a good use of our time and energy to readjust our lives after each piece of scary or shocking news.

So relax.  The answer once again is correct behavior according to the model presented (and defended) in these short essays.