What if We Treated Prisoners Like Humans?

There was an excellent article in last week’s New York Times Magazine about a maximum-security prison in Norway. Though, when you read about this prison, it sounds nothing like any prison you’ve probably heard about in the US or Canada:

Norway’s newest prison was marked by a modest sign that read, simply, HALDEN ­FENGSEL. There were no signs warning against picking up hitchhikers, no visible fences. Only the 25-­foot-­tall floodlights rising along the edges hinted that something other than grazing cows lay ahead.

[…]

I walked up the quiet driveway to the entrance and presented myself to a camera at the main door. There were no coils of razor wire in sight, no lethal electric fences, no towers manned by snipers — nothing violent, threatening or dangerous. And yet no prisoner has ever tried to escape. I rang the intercom, the lock disengaged with a click and I stepped inside.

If you think the description of the appearance is surprising, I’d encourage you to read the article as the journalist who wrote the article did a wonderful job painting the picture of what it’s like inside the prison. Here’s another snippet about what it was like to be with the most dangerous prisoners (i.e. violent crimes like murder, assault, rape, etc.) that I found… enlightening:

I met some of the prisoners of Unit A one afternoon in the common room of an eight-­man cell block. I was asked to respect the inmates’ preferences for anonymity or naming, and for their choices in discussing their cases with me. The Norwegian news media does not often identify suspects or convicts by name, so confirming the details of their stories was not always possible. I sat on an orange vinyl couch next to a wooden shelving unit with a few haphazard piles of board games and magazines and legal books. On the other side of the room, near a window overlooking the unit’s gravel yard, a couple of inmates were absorbed in a card game with a guard.

An inmate named Omar passed me a freshly pressed heart-­shaped waffle over my shoulder on a paper plate, interrupting an intense monologue directed at me in excellent English by Chris Giske, a large man with a thick goatee and a shaved head who was wearing a heavy gold chain over a T-­shirt that strained around his barrel-­shaped torso.

The thing that struck me most about this article was the underlying philosophy of the Norwegian prison system: prisoners are humans, too. Think about for a minute what it might like to be in a maximum-security prison in the US. How much freedom do you think you’d have? I’ve never visited a maximum-security prison, but based on what I’ve read, it’s certainly not somewhere I’d like to spend my afternoons. What’s worse is that some of the people in those kinds of facilities are meant to reintegrate into society when they’ve completed their sentence. If they spend so much time by themselves and then when they do get to socialize, they do so in a manner that would be wholly unacceptable when they’re ‘out,’ how can we, as a society, expect them to be ‘better’ once they’re out of prison?

I’m not arguing for every prison in the US and Canada to look switch over and look like this one in Norway (though, imagine what that would look like), but I think it’s important for us to consider the way we treat our fellow humans — even if they’ve done some unspeakable acts. Even if you’re not willing to consider treating someone like that in a more humane way, consider that it could be you. And before you get all high and mighty, remember that not all prisoners are guilty of what they’ve been accused of and subsequently convicted for.

We will never know for sure, but the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).

Tyler Cowen Convinced Me to Stop Eating Dessert

It’s been a couple of months since my last post, but with the academic semester waning, I should have a bit more time to get a few things written and posted here in the next month. Several weeks ago, I came across a post from a colleague, Tyler Cowen, who wrote about desserts. From Cowen:

Let me stress there are two different propositions:

1. “I don’t like desserts.”

2. “I don’t like desserts (with economist’s hat on).”

I meant mainly the latter, although I do also find many desserts overrated.

In any case, the sugar and calories “shadow price” of most desserts is pretty high.  I’d rather consume my health sins in other ways, and so relative to their actual net prices I find few desserts are worth it.

The green pepper is a food which as a human I like a small amount but as an economist I like a great deal.

I read this post, as luck would have it, a few days before I got the flu. When I get sick, I usually eat ice cream. While I know that’s very counterintuitive and probably contraindicated, for me, so far in this life, eating ice cream has done the trick in making me feel better and nursing me back to health quickly. I suppose it also helps that I don’t often get sick and so the eating of ice cream when I’m sick doesn’t have much of an effect on my health (or at least I like to think that it doesn’t). So this time, upon falling ill, I decided I wasn’t going to eat ice cream and upon regaining my health, I kicked desserts altogether.

This was a big move for me as I’m known to have a sweet tooth for Ben & Jerry’s (coffee coffee buzz buzz buzz, in particular). On a side note, I wonder if this decision would have been harder if my favourite kind of ice cream were sold in Ottawa. The closest thing I can get to my favourite flavour of Ben & Jerry’s is Coffee Heath Toffee Bar Crunch. Anyway, so even though Cowen didn’t write a treatise on the matter, the simple yet eloquent argument about the negative effect that dessert has on a nation’s health and the effect that this can have in so many other areas, made me want to give up dessert.

It’s been over a month since I’ve given up dessert and while I’ve certainly thought about “cheating” and having something here or there, I’ve held strong to my conviction.

At this point, I should also add that I expanded my “no desserts” decision to sugar, in general. I’ve made a conscious decision to try and select foods that don’t have any (or very little!) sugar in them. For instance, did you know that some organic saltines (!) have sugar (evaporate cane juice, but still) in them? Or, some organic crackers, in general? A more obvious choice in cutting out sugar comes from trips to Starbucks. My drink of choice used to be vanilla lattes or caramel macchiato’s, but what do you think is in those flavour shots? Back to americano’s or cappuccino’s for me.

At some point, I do imagine that I will begin to eat “dessert” again, but there’s something that I’ll want to remember if/when I do decide to eat dessert again — just because I’m served a plate of dessert doesn’t mean I have to eat a plate of dessert.

There’s a story that I remember being told about Kate Hudson. I tried to find it just now, but Hudson recently mentioned something about a story in France that has similar keywords to the search I ran and so I’m not able to find it. It may or may not be true, but let’s just say that it is. When Hudson was young, her mother (Goldie Hawn), taught her an important lesson when it came to dessert: only take one bite. That is, when you’re served a piece of pie or a piece of cake, it’s not necessary to eat the entire piece. Instead, just take one bite of the dessert to “enjoy” the taste of the dessert and let that be it.

So, if/when I go back to eating dessert, my plan is to just take one bite and then push my plate forward.

Is “A” Really the Best Option or is it Just that It’s Better Than “B”: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 18

The other day, someone was talking to me about my series on biases in judgment and decision-making and it made me realize that I was missing a rather important bias — the contrast effect! I’m not sure how this one slipped through the cracks, but I’m glad to be able to write about it for you today.

It’s been almost a year and a half since I wrote something for this series, so let me refresh your memory. Each week, I took a cognitive bias and explained it. I provided an example and then I offered some ways for mitigating that cognitive bias in your own life. So, without further adieu, the contrast effect.

What’s the contrast effect? Well, as with many of the biases, it’s exactly what it sounds like: an effect that occurs because of a comparison. That is, people are more likely to perceive differences that are bigger or smaller because of something they’ve seen first. This is something that is used in sales — all — the — time. If you’re shopping for a new car, the salesperson may show a series of cars that are way out of your price range and then show you one that’s just a little out of your price range. After having seen so many cars that are way out of your price range, the one that’s just a little out of your price range won’t seem that far out of your price range. The contrast effect.

That’s not to pick on folks who sell cars, it can even happen with smaller purchases, shoes, for instances. Let’s say you’re looking for a particular kind of footwear. The salesperson may show you a bunch of shoes that don’t quite fit your needs and happen to be priced rather cheaply. Then, the salesperson shows you a shoe that does fit your needs, but is quite a bit more expensive. As you’ve seen all these shoes that aren’t what you need and now you’ve finally come to one that meets you’re needs, you may ignore the price and buy the shoes.

One of my favourite examples of the contrast effect comes from Dan Ariely‘s book, Predictably Irrational:

One day while browsing the World Wide Web (obviously for work-not just wasting time), I stumbled on the following ad, on the Web site of a magazine, the Economist.

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I read these offers one at a time. The first offer-the Internet subscription for $59 seemed reasonable. The second option-the $125 print subscription-seemed a bit expensive, but still reasonable.

But then I read the third option: a print and Internet subscription for $125. I read it twice before my eye ran back to the previous options. Who would want to buy the print option alone, I wondered, when both the Internet and the print subscriptions were offered for the same price? Now, the print- only option may have been a typographical error, but I suspect that the clever people at the Economist‘s London offices (and they are clever-and quite mischievous in a British sort of way) were actually manipulating me. I am pretty certain that they wanted me to skip the Internet- only option (which they assumed would be my choice, since I was reading the advertisement on the Web) and jump to the more expensive option: Internet and print.

But how could they manipulate me? I suspect it’s because the Economist‘s marketing wizards (and I could just picture them in their school ties and blazers) knew something important about human behavior: humans rarely choose things in absolute terms. We don’t have an internal value meter that tells us how much things are worth. Rather, we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another, and estimate value accordingly. (For instance, we don’t know how much a six- cylinder car is worth, but we can assume it’s more expensive than the four- cylinder model.)

In the case of the Economist, I may not have known whether the Internet- only subscription at $59 was a better deal than the print- only option at $125. But I certainly knew that the print and-Internet option for $125 was better than the print- only option at $125. In fact, you could reasonably deduce that in the combination package, the Internet subscription is free! “It’s a bloody steal-go for it, governor!” I could almost hear them shout from the riverbanks of the Thames. And I have to admit; if I had been inclined to subscribe I probably would have taken the package deal myself. (Later, when I tested the offer on a large number of participants, the vast majority preferred the Internet- and- print deal.)

Before we movie into some of the ways for avoiding the Contrast Effect, I wanted to make it clear that sales isn’t the only place where this bias can creep up on us. Another good example is in evaluations (be they interviewing job candidates or marking term papers). If one doesn’t have a rubric by which one is scoring candidates (or papers), it can be easy to slip into the contrast effect: “Well, that candidate was much better than the last candidate, let’s put them through to the next round.” It could be that the latter candidate, while better than the first, still doesn’t meet your criteria to make it the next round, so putting them through would be wasting valuable resources — both yours and theirs.

Ways for Avoiding the Contrast Effect

1) Standardized Evaluation

In our most recent case involving interview candidates or term papers, creating a rubric or standardized method of evaluation prior to examining candidates/papers will go a long way to help one avoid falling into the trap of the contrast effect. This method could also be applied when it comes to shopping (i.e. sales). For instance, let’s say you’re looking for a car. Prior to arriving at the dealership, you could create a table for how you’re going to evaluate the cars you view while at the dealership. In this way, you can guard against the salesperson knowingly (or unknowingly) showing you cars at either end of the spectrum before showing you the cars you might actually purchase.

2) Are There Other Options?

Often times, when we’re succumbing to the contrast effect, we’re looking at option A versus option B. This is why it’s so important to have some sort of standardized evaluation (see #1), but short of a standardized evaluation, it’s important to remember that almost never are those two options your only two options. “Should I get this car or that car?” Well actually, you have another option — neither of those cars. And another option, you could consider buying a bike or maybe taking public transportation. Whenever you find yourself faced with a decision between two options, it can be useful to consider other options, just in case you’ve fallen into the trap of the contrast effect.

Note: the images in this post are all examples of the contrast effect.

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:

What if We Learned That Objects Aren’t Meant to Be Owned?

Now that I’ve got a little one to look after, I spend a lot of time watching him interact with the world around him. At this point in his life, that means he’s interacting with just about anything he can get his hands on. Sometimes, I wish it were just his toys and then that got me thinking… his toys. What if we taught our young ones that the things they use aren’t actually theirs? What if we taught our young ones that the things they use aren’t meant to be possessed?

Part of these thoughts stem from watching other little ones interact with their toys. They can be quite possessive about what’s theirs and what they’ll allow different people to touch and/or play with. So, I was thinking, what if, from a very early age, we instilled within our young ones a sense that these things that they’re playing with aren’t theirs. Instead, we helped them understand that they were simply using these things.

There are certainly implications for them when they’re young, assuming that this is something that we could teach them. For instance, let’s say that they lose a toy. Instead of having a “melt down” over losing this toy, they just realize that they toy is gone. Since it wasn’t theirs to begin with, there’s no need to ‘mourn’ its loss. A similar thing could play out when our little ones are playing with other little ones. There’s often differing levels of development in play-groups, so some kids may physically take toys from other kids. This could lead to the proverbial “melt down,” but what if the kid who was about to “melt down,” didn’t, and it was because they learned that the toy was never meant to be theirs forever.

As I write this, I realize how difficult this may be to teach to someone at a very, very young age, but that shouldn’t be a reason not to try.

Let’s talk about how this might affect adulthood.

The first thing that comes to mind is the idea of renouncing materialism, which immediately made me think of Hinduism and Sannyasa. Of course, that’s a bit beyond what I had in mind when I was imagining our little ones learning about possessing objects. In fact, I was thinking more about Buddhism and Upādāna, which has to do with the idea of “grasping.” So, I wonder… if we were raised with the idea that objects aren’t meant to be owned/possessed, how different would our lives be? Maybe the whole idea of materialism fades away. Maybe we don’t spend much of our early adulthood (and for some, middle and late adulthood) acquiring things. Maybe we focus more time on enjoying ourselves and less time wishing we had a better car, house, or some other object that we deem desirable.

The Science of Us: Hank Green’s Crash Course in Anatomy and Physiology

As a professor, it’s probably not surprising that I like to learn. Even though I’ve completed a few degrees, I still try to make time to learn new things — daily. In fact, I’ve even shared these learning experiences. There was the Harvard University’s course on Justice with Professor Michael Sandel (I also went through one of his books chapter by chapter), there was my series on cognitive biases, there was MRUniversity’s course in economics, and before all of that, there was Crash Course.

This was probably one of the first video series that I came across that I felt like I actually learned (and remembered!) something 20 minutes after the video finished. I first went through John Green’s (the same John Green who wrote The Fault in Our Stars) crash course in world history. Later that year, John’s brother, Hank, did a crash course in ecology. John also did a crash course in literature. I didn’t realize it, but Hank also went on to do a crash course in psychology.

There are more crash courses than what I’ve just shared, but those are just a few to give you a taste. Anyway, the reason I’m writing today’s post is because I just learned that Hank is doing a crash course in anatomy and physiology.

Anatomy and physiology are two subjects that I’ve always wished that I spent more time with. In fact, they’re two subjects that I think we all should have spent some time with when we were younger. I used to have the idea that it seemed like a good idea if as part of our basic education, we learned anatomy and physiology and not as some form of “punishment” (as I understand some people don’t necessarily like these subjects), but because anatomy and physiology is/are us. Anatomy and physiology are the reason that you’re alive right now. This seems an appropriate reason to try and understand it.

More specifically, ‘anatomy is the study of the structure and relationships between body parts and physiology is the science of how those parts come together to function.’ Hank calls it, “The Science of Us.”

I’m not going into this expecting to remember every minute detail, but I am expecting that I will have a better understanding of how some of the parts of the body come together to function to make me, me! As an example, I was speaking with a massage therapist the other day and she told me that massage therapists often have to translate what their clients tell them. For instance, a client will often come in complaining that they want to work on their shoulder, while reaching for the area immediately adjacent to their neck. As it turns out, our shoulder is actually far closer to the place where our arm connects to our body. The place that this person was pointing to was, in fact, their neck.

“What’s Your Background:” Cultural Differences Between Canada and the US

Growing up in the Greater Toronto Area, it was fairly common to meet people of different ethnicities and cultures. As a kid, when you’re first meeting someone — at least when I was growing up — one of the first questions (after learning someone’s name) was probably some iteration of: “What’s Your Background?”

Until I moved to mid-Michigan for university after high school, I didn’t realize that asking this question may have been a norm where I grew up and not anywhere else. I still remember when I first asked someone about their “background” when I arrived at university. They looked at me funny and so then I rattled off some possible answers, Irish, Italian, English, etc. The response I received was a stern: “I’m American.” I responded by saying I assumed that, but that I was also curious to know about their cultural heritage. The person reaffirmed that they were American.

And thus was the eye-opening experience for me — ingrained in a Canadian’s identity is that they aren’t necessarily from Canada or that they didn’t necessarily start in Canada. Canadians know that there was something before Canada.

At this point, I should clarify that it’s really not fair to make sweeping generalizations about all Americans or all Canadians. It’s probably not even fair to make generalizations about Americans from mid-Michigan or Canadians from the Greater Toronto Area. While I might hypothesize that something along the lines of what I just said in the above paragraph, my point in sharing this today is to highlight to you that there may be some “blind spots” that you’re unaware of, if you remain nestled in your own culture.

In fact, you may not even have to leave the country to notice your “blind spots.” Simply by taking up a new activity or popping into a different community, you may find that the way you think about something is vastly different from the way someone else thinks about that same thing. You may also find that your group’s “norms” are borderline blasphemous to another group (sidenote: while asking about someone’s background as a kid was normal, I learned that continuing to do this after moving to mid-Michigan was seen as ‘rude.’)

Best Posts of Jeremiah Stanghini’s Blog in 2014

If you read last year’s “best of” post, you’ll notice that there’s some overlap with this year’s “best of” post. However, some of the posts that didn’t overlap surprised me. Similar to last year, at first, I’m inclined to do a best of 2014 and a best of all-time, but after looking at the statistics, the best of 2014 and the best of all-time are pretty close, so it won’t be all that interesting to do separate posts. As a result, I decided to just do the one post of the best posts of 2014. I also considered picking a bunch of articles and calling them “underrated” because they hadn’t garnered the views that some of the other posts had. I might still do that, but not in the next few weeks.

Before revealing the top 6 posts along with an excerpt, there is one thing to keep in mind. On this site, I specifically chose a theme where folks wouldn’t have to click a link to view the whole post (only to share or comment because those links are on the post’s page). As a result, the statistics for the most popular posts are sure to be skewed because people may have read a certain post more than another, but without them clicking the link for the post, there’s no way (that I know of) for me to know. On top of that, the theme I’ve chosen here allows the viewer to scroll (all the way to the first post!) What does that mean? When you’re on the homepage, you can continue to scroll down and more posts will load… all the way ’til you get to the first post. And in looking at the statistics of the top posts, it’s clear that “scrolling down” is far and away the most popular “post” on this site (this was true last year and the year before and will probably be true for as long as the site’s theme remains the same). With that in mind, here they are with an excerpt for each:

The Official Final Jeopardy Spelling Rules [UPDATED]

If you know me, you know that I’m really good at finding things on the Internet. After doing a couple of cursory google searches (Final Jeopardy RulesOfficial Final Jeopardy RulesOfficial Jeopardy Rules), I was surprised that I couldn’t find them. Sometimes, the site that hosts a document like this doesn’t do a good job of using keywords. So, I thought I’d poke around the official Jeopardy site — nothing.

After some more derivations of “Rules of Jeopardy,” I was beginning to think that maybe the rules aren’t online. I thought that maybe the contestants were handed a paper copy that they signed before going on the show and that document wasn’t online. Having never been a contestant on Jeopardy (though I’d like to be some time!) I couldn’t confirm whether this was true. However, given that it’s a game show, I’m sure they signed something before going on the show. Regardless, I didn’t have access to that document.

Sheldon Cooper Presents “Fun With Flags”: A YouTube Series of Podcasts

The other day I happened to be eating lunch and staring off out the window. While that may not seem important, it is. Most of the time, I like to be reading or doing something, while I’m eating. I completely understand that it’s probably better to not do this, but I often can’t help myself. Anyway, as I was sitting and justeating, an idea came to me. (Don’t you find that ideas come to you when you’re not thinking about them?) The idea, as the title of this post suggests, a web series from one of The Big Bang Theory’s main cast members: Sheldon Cooper.

Advancing America’s Public Transportation System: High-Speed Rail in the USA

When it was first announced that the US was going to work on , I was very excited! Growing up in the , I am very familiar with the value of public transportation. I often rode a bus to and from school. As I matured and wanted to explore downtown with my friends, we’d ride the  to get there from the suburban area we lived. Beyond that, when I needed to make trips between Detroit and Toronto, I would ride the  between Toronto and Windsor instead of taking the 45 minute flight. Public transportation is a great way, in my opinion, to feel better about reducing one’s .

Chapter 2 – Fines vs. Fees: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 2

In the first post in this series, I chewed on the material from chapter 1 of Professor Michael Sandel‘s book, What Money Can’t Buy. The first chapter was all about jumping the line (or budding, as I remember it from my elementary school days). In Chapter 2, the theme was incentives.

In The End, Everything Will Be OK – If It’s Not OK, It’s Not Yet The End

It’s no secret that I like quotes. Since converting my Facebook profile to a Facebook page, I’ve gotten into the habit of sharing a “quote of the day.” If my calculations are correct, I’ve been sharing quotes of the day for over 80 days now. As you’ll notice that I also have a quotes category, I’ve shared a number of quotes here on this site, too. And if I think back to the days of AIM (AOL Instant Manager), I often had quotes as my “away” message. And even before then, I remember really liking quotes in high school and in elementary (or grade) school. So, like I said, it’s no secret that I like quotes.

Chapter 3 – Fairness and Inequality: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 3

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last finished a chapter in Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy. I recently completed chapter 3 a couple of nights ago and there were some intriguing things to think about. Let’s get right to it!