Tag Archives: causation

Links for January 15, 2012

The rise of the new group think [Susan Cain/New York Times].

Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has “a room of one’s own.” During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010….

Privacy also makes us productive. In a fascinating study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly.

I work in an open-plan office and I rather like it, mainly because my coworkers are fun and because my clean, small, mostly quiet work area is such a nice change from my sprawling, messy, mostly noisy house. We work on a puzzle together when we’re taking a break from work and wear headphones when we want uninterrupted time. I wonder, though, if I’d be more productive with a private office or even a cubicle. I don’t achieve flow as much I’d like at work. Not sure if that’s because the job is relatively new to me or because the work environment is an obstacle.

Hume, causation & science [Barry Ritholtz/The Big Picture]. “We humans love a grossly over-simplified narrative.” Determining when we can attribute causation to a correlation is one of the major challenges of research design and statistical analysis.

How to work from home like you mean it [Kevin Purdy/Fast Company]. I’m thinking of working one day a week at home to achieve some of that flow I’ve been missing. If I do, I’ll follow some of these tips so it doesn’t devolve into eight hours of Internet surfing.

Lack of interest and aptitude keeps students out of STEM majors [Olga Khazan/Washington Post On Small Business blog]. “A study released this week by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that recent graduates in computer science, mathematics and engineering all had unemployment rates below 9 percent (with the rates dropping below 6 percent among those who had some experience.) Conversely, the rates for graduates in architecture and the arts were 13.9 and 11.1 percent, respectively.”

What is college for? (Part 2) [Gary Gutting/The New York Times].

Concretely, students graduating from high school should, to cite one plausible model, be able to read with understanding classic literature (from, say, Austen and Browning to Whitman and Hemingway) and write well-organized and grammatically sound essays; they should know the basic outlines of American and European history, have a good beginner’s grasp of at least two natural sciences as well as pre-calculus mathematics, along with a grounding in a foreign language.

Students with this sort of education would be excellent candidates for many satisfying and well-paying jobs in, for example, sales and service industries, except for those that require highly specialized skills. From the standpoint of employment, high school graduates would have no need of college unless they wanted to be accountants or engineers, pursue pre-professional programs leading to law or medical school or train for doctoral work in science or the humanities. Apart from this, the only good reason they would have for going to college would be for its intellectual culture.

Compelling idea, but seems unlikely to happen because (1) our high schools are mostly incapable of providing such an education and (2) our culture is overly invested in the idea of college as the basic ticket to success in today’s economy. E.g.: D.C. may require college application for all [Joanne Jacobs].

Social science as rhetorical exercise: An example from research on narrative identity processing

Green, Ha, & Bullock (2010) critique mediation analyses in social science research:

Given the strong requirements in terms of model specification and measurement, the enterprise of “opening the black box” or “exploring causal pathways” using endogenous mediators is largely a rhetorical exercise.

But what is social science anyway? To what extent can we find the “truth” about complex social systems that involve agents with free will and myriad complex, interlinked influences on them?

Perhaps social science is just rhetoric of an advanced sort, carefully constructed arguments based on theory, prior research, data analysis and hunches that describe how the world might work. Over time, some of these arguments are shown to be false, so (ideally) we fix the story up and make it better fit what we’ve observed and what we can deduce from the build-up of evidence and argument so far.

An example from the psychology of narrative identity processing

Pals’ (2006) study of narrative identity processing and adult development is an example of mediation analysis as advanced rhetoric. Here’s the abstract:

Difficult life experiences in adulthood constitute a challenge to the narrative construction of identity. Individual differences in how adults respond to this challenge were conceptualized in terms of two dimensions of narrative identity processing: exploratory narrative processing and coherent positive resolution. These dimensions, coded from narratives of difficult experiences reported by the women of the Mills Longitudinal Study (Helson, 1967) at age 52, were expected to be related to personality traits and to have implications for pathways of personality development and physical health. First, the exploratory narrative processing of difficult experiences mediated the relationship between the trait of coping openness in young adulthood (age 21) and the outcome of maturity in late midlife (age 61). Second, coherent positive resolution predicted increasing ego-resiliency between young adulthood and midlife (age 52), and this pattern of increasing ego-resiliency, in turn, mediated the relationship between coherent positive resolution and life satisfaction in late midlife. Finally, the integration of exploratory narrative processing and coherent positive resolution predicted positive self-transformation within narratives of difficult experiences. In turn, positive self-transformation uniquely predicted optimal development (composite of maturity and life satisfaction) and physical health.

This study was correlational, so that’s the first reason that strict causalists would dispose of it. It also studied mediation, so even if it were some sort of randomized experiment, there would be questions about its suggestions of causality. But the researcher doesn’t just run the mediational analysis and then declare that she’s shown what she wanted to show. She places the correlational findings in the context of theory and makes an overall argument for her hypothesis while noting the limitations of the approach:

A second limitation of this study is that although the hypotheses reflect theoretically driven ideas about cause-effect relations (e.g., coping openness stimulates exploratory narrative processing; coherent positive resolution leads to increased ego-resiliency), the correlational design did not allow for analyses that would support conclusive statements regarding causality. The longitudinal findings were consistent with causal patterns unfolding over time but did not prove them. Thus, an important direction for future research on narrative identity processing will be to examine its causal impact, ideally through studies that closely examine the connection between changes in narrative identity and changes in relevant outcomes. In one recent study, for example, individuals who wrote about a traumatic experience for several days displayed an increase in self-reported personal growth and self-acceptance, whereas those who wrote about trivial topics did not show this pattern of positive self-transformation (Hemenover, 2003). This finding supports the idea that when people fully engage in the narrative processing of a difficult experience, their understanding of themselves and their lives may transform in ways that will make them more mature, resilient, and satisfied with their lives. Findings such as these reflect the growing view that the narrative interpretation of past experiences—the cornerstone of narrative identity—constitutes one way adults may intentionally guide development and bring about change in their lives (Bauer et al., 2005).

Is this research useful even if causality and mediation has not been proven? I think it is. We don’t know for sure which way causality runs among the various traits and behaviors studied (it probably runs in multiple directions) but Pals makes a good argument that someone with coping openness may engage in exploratory narrative processing of difficult life events and this, in turn, may drive a maturing process. In the second mediational hypothesis, she argues that developing coherent positive resolutions in that narrative processing of life events might lead to increased ego-resiliency. Are these analyses and arguments of practical use? I think yes.

The remembering self creates stories and needs those stories to make sense of experience. Research like Pals (2006) gives insight into what sort of stories might be most useful in leading towards maturity and psychological resiliency:

  • Development of the stories should use an open and exploratory style rather than closed and defensive.
  • The ending of the story should reflect some sort of positive resolution.

So mediation analysis, even of the non-experimental sort, can be useful. Okay so maybe it’s not like the scientific finding that lack of Vitamin C causes scurvy, but that doesn’t make it useless or unscientific.

Philosophers of science would have something more sophisticated to say about this. My point is that science doesn’t happen exactly according to the “scientific method” you learned in high school. In many ways it is just advanced rhetoric that’s (ideally) grounded in careful analysis, thoughtful theorizing, and an understanding of prior research.

References

Green, D. P., Ha, S. E. and Bullock, J.G. (2009) Enough Already About “Black Box” Experiments: Studying Mediation is More Difficult than Most Scholars Suppose. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 628, 200-08. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1544416

Pals, J.L. (2006). Narrative identity processing of difficult life experiences: Pathways of personality development and positive self-transformation in adulthood. Journal of Personality 74(4).

A second limitation of this study is that although the hypotheses
reflect theoretically driven ideas about cause-effect relations (e.g., coping
openness stimulates exploratory narrative processing; coherent
positive resolution leads to increased ego-resiliency), the correlational
design did not allow for analyses that would support conclusive
statements regarding causality. The longitudinal findings
1102 Pals
were consistent with causal patterns unfolding over time but did not
prove them. Thus, an important direction for future research
on narrative identity processing will be to examine its causal impact,
ideally through studies that closely examine the connection
between changes in narrative identity and changes in relevant outcomes.
In one recent study, for example, individuals who wrote
about a traumatic experience for several days displayed an increase
in self-reported personal growth and self-acceptance, whereas
those who wrote about trivial topics did not show this pattern
of positive self-transformation (Hemenover, 2003). This finding
supports the idea that when people fully engage in the narrative
processing of a difficult experience, their understanding of
themselves and their lives may transform in ways that will
make them more mature, resilient, and satisfied with their lives.
Findings such as these reflect the growing view that the
narrative interpretation of past experiences—the cornerstone of narrative
identity—constitutes one way adults may intentionally guide
development and bring about change in their lives (Bauer et al.,
2005).A second limitation of this study is that although the hypotheses reflect theoretically driven ideas about cause-effect relations (e.g., coping openness stimulates exploratory narrative processing; coherent positive resolution leads to increased ego-resiliency), the correlational design did not allow for analyses that would support conclusive statements regarding causality. The longitudinal findings 1102 Pals were consistent with causal patterns unfolding over time but did not prove them. Thus, an important direction for future research on narrative identity processing will be to examine its causal impact, ideally through studies that closely examine the connection between changes in narrative identity and changes in relevant outcomes. In one recent study, for example, individuals who wrote about a traumatic experience for several days displayed an increase in self-reported personal growth and self-acceptance, whereas those who wrote about trivial topics did not show this pattern of positive self-transformation (Hemenover, 2003). This finding supports the idea that when people fully engage in the narrative processing of a difficult experience, their understanding of themselves and their lives may transform in ways that will make them more mature, resilient, and satisfied with their lives. Findings such as these reflect the growing view that the narrative interpretation of past experiences—the cornerstone of narrative identity—constitutes one way adults may intentionally guide development and bring about change in their lives (Bauer et al., 2005).