Part of my job at Ranker is to talk to other companies about our data. While people often talk about how "big data" is revolutionizing everything, the reality of the data marketplace is that it still largely revolves around sales, marketing, and advertising. Huge infrastructures exist to make sure that the most optimal ad for the right product gets to the right person, leveraging as much data as possible. For example, I recently presented at a data conference at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco, which meant that I spent some time on their website. For the past few weeks, long after the conference, I've been getting ads specifically for the Westin St. Francis on various websites. At some level, this is an impressive use of data, but at another level, it's a failure, as I'm no longer in the market for a hotel room. The data to solve this problem is out there as someone could have tracked my visitation of the conference website, understood the date of the conference, and better understood my intent in visiting the Westin. However, this level of analysis doesn't scale well for an ad that costs pennies, and so nobody does this level of behavioral targeting.
I bring up this story because I believe this illustrates a difference between how people who think of themselves as businesspeople and people who think of themselves as technologists often think. When talking about Ranker data, I often see this dichotomy. People who are more traditionally business minded want a clear business reason to use data, while people who think of themselves as technologists seem more open to trying to envision a world where data does all sorts of neat things that data should be used for. For example, I recently graphed opinions about beer, illustrating that Miller Lite drinkers were closer to Guinness drinkers than to Chimay drinkers. As a technologist, I'm certain that a world will soon exist where bartenders can use data about me and others like me (e.g. the beer graph), to recommend a beer. I don't worry as much about the immediate path from the conception of such data to monetization. I know that the beer graph should exist and I'm happy to help contribute to it, confident of my vision of the future.
This division between people who think like businesspeople and people who think like technologists is important for anyone who does business development or business to business sales, especially for those of us in the technology world where the lines are often blurry. Mark Zuckerberg is a CEO, but clearly he thinks like a technologist. My guess is that a lot of the CTOs of big companies actually think more like businesspeople than technologists. If I were trying to sell Mark Zuckerberg on something, I would try to sell him on how whatever I was offering could make a huge difference to something he cared about. I would sell the dream. But if I were selling a more traditional businessperson, I would try to sell the benefits versus the costs. I would have a detailed plan and sell the details.
I actually have a bit of data from YourMorals.org to support this assertion. We have started collecting data on visitors' professions and below I compare businesspeople to technologists on two of the Big Five personality dimensions that are said to underlie much of personality: Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience. As you can see, businesspeople are more conscientious (detail oriented, fastidious, responsible), while technologists score higher on openness which is indicative of enjoying exploring new ideas and thinking of new possibilities.
The reality is that every business needs a balance between those who are detail oriented and precise (Conscientious) and those who think about a vision for the future (Openness to Experience). Often, technologists who start a company will eventually hire professional businesspeople who provide this balance (e.g. Sheryl Sandberg or Eric Schmidt). Clearly, the best sales pitch will be both detailed and forward thinking. However, if you're talking to someone and have limited time and attention, considering whether you are speaking to someone who is more of a businessperson or more of a technologist may give you better insight into how to frame your pitch.
- Ravi Iyer
I want to invest in "big data stocks". After all, everyone is saying that big data is the future of health care, education, government, business, and will literally change the world. As someone who works with data both as an academic at USC and as the principal data scientist at Ranker, I am the type of person who is likely to make and believe in such hyperbolic claims. I recently put money into my IRA and needed to invest it and as someone who believes in investing in what I know about, naturally I wanted to invest in our data driven future.
Where should I invest? If you look around the internet, you'll find a number of recommendations from places like Forbes or The Street. The general consensus appears to be to take the "picks and shovels" approach to investing in big data, where you invest in the companies that make the tools that enable people to use data, rather than in the data itself. I'm writing this post because I think this is absolutely the wrong approach. I believe in investing in data, not in tools. Why do I believe that?
- My experience in academia has taught me that simple statistics and tools are often the most reliable. If there is signal to be detected, any analysis and/or tool should be able to find it. Many people turn to more complex statistics when they don't find the right relationship using simple statistics. In psychology, people are finding that the use of more complex models (e.g. covariates) is often an indicator that the study's results may be less likely to be reliable. Given the size of datasets that we often have in data science, we often don't need special statistical techniques to find relationships in data as we have so much statistical power that most tools and techniques should give you convergent results. Put simply, the tools matter less than the data.
- The most popular tools and techniques are often open source. You can do a lot with R, Python, Gephi, Mahout, etc.
- Yes, there are advantages to using particular distributions of open source tools (e.g. Hadoop distributions that come with particular features), but there are so many companies out there offering different flavors of products that do essentially the same thing, that I can't see how any particular company is going to be the next Apple or Google, in terms of stock growth. There are no barriers to entry in the tools market. Perhaps a company will be the next RedHat, which may be a fine business to be in, but I don't believe that that is the revolutionary wave that investors in big data stocks are looking for.
So what should you do if you want to invest in big data? Buy stock in companies that have the best, biggest, most unique sets of data and/or the most defensible ways of collecting that data. I invested my IRA money into Facebook, which has the biggest and best dataset of human behavior that ever existed. I invest my academic time into scalable data collection projects such as YourMorals, BeyondThePurchase, and ExploringMyReligion, confident that that will lead to the most long-term knowledge. And I invest my professional time into Ranker, which has a scalable process for collecting an opinion graph, that will be essential for the kinds of intelligent applications that big data futurists have been promising us.
Do you want to invest in big data? Generally, you'll get better returns if you invest your money, time, and energy in data, rather than in tools.
- Ravi Iyer
I was recently asked about the Moral Foundations scores of those who are more concerned about the environment and so I analyzed the 15,522 individuals who took the Moral Foundations Scale on YourMorals.org and also answered a question on the Schwartz Values Scale concerning how much of a guiding principle of their life it was to "Protect the Environment". I limited this analysis to those who placed themselves on the liberal-conservative spectrum, so that I could also control both for ideology and extremity of ideology, to some degree. The results (beta weights controlling for other variables) of the regression analyses, predicting a desire to "Protect the Environment", are below.
My initial intuition was that ideology would be the greatest predictor, given how political the issue has become, but it appears that the Care/Harm foundation actually predicts as much unique variance as ideological identification. From an intuitionist standpoint, this makes sense as the specific care you feel for Polar Bears may drive one's values more than more abstract concerns about the ocean's water level, similar to the way that charities appeal to emotions with specific cases of need as opposed to statistics. Still a great deal of variance is indeed predicted by which ideological team you are on.
Also interesting to me was the significant, but small, negative relationship between ingroup loyalty and attitudes toward the environment. The item I used from the Schwartz Values scale is part of a subscale designed to measure Universalism, which relates to Peter Singer's idea that we should expand our moral circles. While it is certainly possible to care both about one's smaller circle/family and one's larger circle/animals/trees, there is some tension there, especially in a world with limited resources where environmental choices that benefit the world at large, may negatively impact one's local community.
There are certainly limitations to these results taken from a particular sample, so take them with a grain of salt. And there remains a healthy debate about which moral concerns are more central, so there certainly are moral concerns that may predict environmental attitudes that are not measured here. Still, these results converge well with what we see in the world. Environmentalists tend to be liberals who are particularly concerned about the welfare of distant others, perhaps expanding their moral circle to include animals, oceans, and trees.
- Ravi Iyer
Human beings are storytelling animals. There is no other species that spends large amounts of time watching the lives of others - fictitious or real - through the stories we read or watch. Stories do not just relate to the entertainment we consume, but are also central to the news we read or the companies that we resonate with. One of my favorite personality psychology theories concerns how our entire lives can be thought of as a set of narratives that bring coherence to our goals, desires, values, dispositions, and experiences.
I've recently been working with Zenzi, a communications company based in San Diego, that is attempting to leverage research on values to, among other things, better inform how companies can better engage with consumers. A good marketing campaign is one which doesn't feel like someone is trying to sell something to you, but rather where there are shared goals between the company and consumer that are highlighted. Whereas these goals can be mundane (e.g. trading money for food), they are increasingly becoming more value driven. As such, a key communications strategy for the post-modern world is learning to tell a company story that resonates with one's clients deeper motivations. How can research on values help you do that?
One of the central tenets of the research we do is that values are not monolithic. Different people value different things and these values predict the kinds of stories that one enjoys. I recently conducted some research on yourmorals.org, where I examined the kinds of stories that different value types prefer. The below graph shows the correlations between dimensions of the Schwartz Values scale and questions concerning story type preferences, specifically relating to whether a person likes stories that provide an escape (e.g. I like stories that provide an escape from my real life) or stories that people can identify with (e.g. I like stories about situations that I can relate to). Note that it is entirely possible to enjoy both kinds of stories and most people do. Still, there is an inherent tension between giving people an escape and giving people stories they can relate to, and the below graph suggests how one might resolve that tension differently, depending on the values of one's target audience.
People who value Power, Achievement, Spirituality, Tradition, Conformity, and Security seem to prefer stories that are closer to them, which they can relate to. In contrast, individuals who value Universalism, Self-Direction, Stiumulation, and Hedonism report a greater preference for stories that provide more of an escape from their everyday existence.
Whether you are a journalist considering how to frame a story, a screenwriter considering a plot twist, a marketer considering how to position a brand, or a novelist considering one's next book, it helps to know your target audience's values when considering the kind of story you want to tell.
- Ravi Iyer
I've been meaning to write this post for awhile, not just in response to the recent tragedy in Connecticut, but anytime I read an article about homelessness or people who are mentally disturbed. Many people wonder what we can do to address the mentally ill, whether it is to prevent them from engaging in violence or prevent them from lapsing into homelessness. Medical professionals have many tools to help those with chemical imbalances, but the reality that the medical model of mental illness fails to capture, is that many (though not all) mental illnesses are qualitatively different than many physical illnesses. Mental illnesses are often matters of degree rather than of the categorical presence or absence of a condition, despite the categorical nature of mental health diagnoses. You either have AIDS or Malaria or you don't, whereas many of us have some degree of anxiety, depression, mania, addiction, hyperactivity and other conditions, rather than being clearly normal or ill. Because we often think of mental illness using this medical model, we often think two things that are often untrue:
1. We believe that we can't do anything about mental illness and only experts can help.
2. We believe that the mentally ill are "others" and that the people we know are categorically different.
Sometimes people break. All types of people break, but you can help. On occasion, I have spent some time at Dorothy's Place, a shelter in Salinas where they care for a lot of the local homeless and the director would often tell visiting students about how people break. Imagine being a teenager who is dropped off at the shelter because your parents don't want you any more. Imagine spending day after day in Iraq, looking around corners for snipers and explosives, one of which happened to kill several of your friends, and then trying to enter normal society without retaining the vestiges of that experience. Some mentally ill individuals certainly have brain chemistry issues, but others are people who would otherwise live relatively normal lives, save for an experience or series of experiences that break them.
What are these stressful life experiences? Below is a common, though perhaps outdated (from 1967!) ranked list of common life stressors that psychologists sometimes use to diagnose how much life stress people are undergoing, based on which of these events have been experienced recently.
How can you prevent mental illness? Many of your friends have the potential for mental illness and when they undergo the inevitable stresses of life, they need the support of their friends and family, before things get serious enough for a medical diagnosis and a prescription. You can be that support to the people around you, especially when you notice events such as divorce, breakups, and death that are especially strong stressors.
Consider the times in your life when you felt like you might break. Perhaps they involved the loss of someone you cared about, whether through a death or through a breakup. As an ultra-social species, these are deeply painful events. Consider how you got through those events. Why didn't you break? I know that in my own life, the support of my friends and family helped me in those times. It is that social support that perhaps explains why mental illness is more prevalent in individualistic societies and less so in collectivist nations.
How can you prevent mental illness? Be the change you want to see in the world and help those around you when they go through life's inevitable ups and downs. When you notice one of the events in the above list in someone's life, even someone you aren't that close to, make the effort to go out of your way to show them that you care and they are not alone.
- Ravi Iyer
On Thanksgiving evening, I started reading Greg Smith's book, Why I left Goldman Sachs late in the afternoon. I finished it around midnight. It's a relatively easy read with a relatively straightforward message: That Wall Street, as exemplified by Goldman Sachs' evolution, has increasingly become a place where we send many of our brightest students to outwit the people who manage our pensions and retirement accounts.
Greg Smith is famous for resigning from Goldman Sachs via an op-ed published in the New York Times, accusing Goldman of evolving from a firm that serves its customers to one that often profits by taking advantage of them. Nothing illegal is documented in the book, but it does show how employees are encouraged to sell ever more complex products to customers in the hope of generating more fees, without consideration of whether these products make their customers' lives better. Who are these customers? They are the people who manage the money in our retirement accounts, pension funds, and the wealth of philanthropic organizations. Like many Americans, they look to investment bankers like Goldman Sachs for advice on how to help their money grow.
There is little dispute about this, but not everyone believes it is morally wrong. The CEO of Goldman Sachs asserts that they have no obligation to tell customers when they sell them something that they believe will lose money. The Wall St. Journal's review of the book essentially says that he should have known that Goldman Sachs was not built on selflessness, but rather on "tawdry commerce" and the "sometimes morally ambiguous business of sales". Bloomberg News seems more interested in tearing him down personally than examining the morality of what he says in the book, asking "Hasn't it always been about making money and isn't it okay to be a bank that makes money?"
At the heart of this, is the question that recent financial reforms were designed to change. Specifically, should investment professionals have a fiduciary responsibility to their clients? More simply, should they be required to put their clients' interests over their own, when making recommendations? I can't say objectively whether it is morally wrong to take advantage of clients lack of knowledge, but I can examine our data from YourMorals.org to see which individuals believe that it is ok to conduct a "negotiation where not everyone completely understands the process" involved (e.g. opaque fees hidden in the fine print of investment products). The below table shows correlations of Schwartz Values Scale scores and demographics with belief that negotiations with information assymetries are wrong, with positive correlations first.
Clearly, people disagree about how wrong it is to conduct a negotiation without complete understanding by all parties. People who hold self-transcendent values such as benevolence and universalism are the most likely to believe that such conduct is wrong. People who hold traditional values are also likely to believe that this is wrong. In contrast, younger, educated, more conservative males who tend to value power, of the type that populate most investment banks, are less likely to feel that such information asymmetry is wrong. As such, it is perhaps not surprising that the reaction of many in the business world to Smith's book is a collective "so what?"
Those of us who are mere consumers of financial services, via our 401ks, pensions, and college funds, would do well to understand what is behind this collective yawn. What some in the finance world are telling us is that the primary goal of these financial companies is to make themselves money, not serve clients, and given that the average money manager fails to beat the market, we would all probably be better off simply buying broad, transparent index funds, rather than taking their sales calls. We should urge our city officials, counties, and pension managers to stop trying to beat the market with the advice of ostensibly wise finance professionals, who don't really have their clients interests at heart, lest they suffer the fate of the city of Oakland or Jefferson County, Alabama who both ended up on the wrong side of deals with Goldman Sachs. And if there ends up being less demand for their products, perhaps we can move some of the genius that creates arcane financial products into creating things that people actually need.
- Ravi Iyer
Those of you interested in political psychology and data science might enjoy my latest post on the Ranker Data Blog entitled Mitt Romney Should Have Advertised on the X-Files. In it, I explore correlations between liking Mitt Romney and liking various TV Shows on lists on Ranker.com, replicating analyses which the Obama campaign purportedly conducted in the last campaign season, and finding that the X-Files and Mitt Romney have a surprising correlation. From the post:
As you can see, the X-Files appears to be the highest correlated show, by a fair margin. I don’t watch the X-Files, so I wasn’t sure why this correlation exists, but I did a bit of research, and found this article exploring how the X-Files supported a number of conservative themes, such as the persistence of evil, objective truth, and distrust of government (also see here). The article points out that in one episode, right wing militiamen are depicted as being heroic, which never would happen in a more liberal leaning plot. Perhaps if you are a conservative politician seeking to motivate your base, you should consider running ads on reruns of the X-Files, or if you run a television station that shows X-Files reruns, consider contacting your local conservative politicians leveraging this data.
- Ravi Iyer
One of my favorite Mother Theresa quotes is: "I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there."
The current conflict in Gaza between Hamas and Israel requires the thoughtful liberal to navigate a few seemingly conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, liberals generally believe that peaceful means are more effective than military means at achieving long term success. This often manifests itself in opposition to military action, such as the Iraq war, Vietnam war, etc.. On the other hand, there is no country or government that would tolerate missiles being launched at their large civilian populations and the Israeli response to missiles being launched from Gaza is a response that every nation would take if in the shoes of the Israelis. Defending civilians against attack is just.
The point of this blog post is to point out that you don't have to choose between being pro-peace and remaining anti-war, as these attitudes, while related, are not perfectly correlated. In a paper that is forthcoming in the journal Political Psychology, we found that you can find meaningful differences in what being pro-peace and being anti-war predict. Being pro-peace relates to caring about others, while being anti-war is related to attitudes toward authority, for example. The multi-dimensional nature of peace-war attitudes is reflected in the real world in the above quote by Mother Theresa, and by the assertions of soldiers and politicians everywhere that their ultimate goal is peace. In the current conflict, it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the Israelis have every right to defend themselves against attack (therefore not being anti-war), while also faulting both Hamas and the current conservative Israeli leadership for not pursuing peace more vigorously (therefore being pro-peace).
Indeed, I'm writing this in part as a response to a beautifully written essay by Jessica Apple, a writer who lives in Tel-Aviv, which ends:
And as Israel pummels the Gaza Strip, there is no Israeli political leader saying, as Rabin did, “Enough of blood and tears.” [the leader of the opposition party] has, in fact, supported the government’s actions as just, without questioning whether they are wise.....I do agree that Israel has the right to protect its citizens. But I condemn Israel’s current leaders for failing to recognize that the best defense is peace.
The full essay is well worth reading. I pray for the welfare of all the innocent people caught between forces beyond their control in the region and hope to see peace prevail before it is too late for both sides' welfare.
- Ravi Iyer
Losing an election is tough and I have immense empathy for those who have a heartfelt vision for their country that was not fulfilled on election day. Most people who care deeply about the election, Democrats and Republicans, do so out of a real desire for the country to do better and it's unfortunate that the results have to disappoint so many well-meaning people.
That being said, there are some conservatives who have implied that those who vote for Obama simply want free stuff, while some liberals imply that billionaires who support Romney do so out of self-interest. Consider this quote from Sarah Palin:
We're not explaining to the rest of America, who thinks that they're going to get a bunch of free stuff from Obama, that you have a choice. You either get free stuff or you get freedom. You cannot have both, and you need to make a choice.
Or consider this quote from Paul Krugman:
billionaires have always loved the doctrines in question, which offer a rationale for policies that serve their interests....And now the same people effectively own a whole political party.
And in reaction to the election results, Bill O'Reilly opined that the reason that Obama gets support is that...
There are 50% of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.
What these three quotes have in common is that they all make a common mistake about how we view the motivations of others. Chip and Dan Heath call this "getting out of Maslow's basement", which refers to Maslow's hierarchy of needs depicted below.
Maslow's idea was that motivation can be grouped from lower level needs such as wanting "stuff" to higher order needs like caring about others, fulfilling values, etc. The implication of O'Reilly, Palin, Krugman, and many partisans, is that the other side is motivated by these lower level needs. It is a common mistake, made in many domains to believe that others are motivated by lower level needs. Chip and Dan Heath have shown that we all assume that other people are motivated by lower level needs, but that we ourselves are motivated by higher order needs. The truth is that most everyone is actually motivated by higher order needs. In the below video, they explain one of many studies showing this.
It is easy to let partisanship help you impugn the motives of others. And there is no doubt that some amount of self-interest helps shape our values. However, most people who care enough to vote do so out of higher order considerations. Indeed, nobody stands in an 8 hour line to vote out of self-interest. They really do want to help the poor or promote economic growth and freedom. And if we ever want to fulfill the bipartisanship we desire in the world, we would do well to understand the sincere motivations of others.
- Ravi Iyer
As a political junkie, I've been reading the spin on early voting with interest as each side talks about how they are using their ground game to get people to the polls. Some have suggested that early voting doesn't matter as it simply gets those people who would have voted anyway to vote earlier. That may or may not be true, but I believe that such analysis is missing one of the most important aspects of early voting. Specifically, it creates a longer period for social influence to influence voter turnout.
One of the more interesting practical findings in social psychology is the finding that injunctive norms (e.g. telling people that they should vote) often do not work as well descriptive norms (e.g. telling people that everyone else voted). In work made famous by Robert Cialdini, psychologists have found that telling people not to litter works quite badly if they perceive that litter is common. This paradigm has been put to practical use in hotels which often tell you about the towel recycling behavior of other guests, rather than just asking you to recycle your towel. The below graph shows the rate of towel recycling given injunctive vs. descriptive norms.
Does this principle apply to voting? Absolutely! Indeed, in the largest study I've ever seen, involving 61 million Facebook users, the Facebook data team successfully increased voting, verified by actual public voting data, by giving users the opportunity to see which of their friends had voted. However, this occurred over a single day, where users had to login to facebook, report their voting, and have their friends see it in time to affect their behavior. Imagine if social influence could occur over a period of days or weeks. This is the true power of early voting. It creates an environment where voting becomes the norm and who wants to be the person left out? So even if early voting turnout efforts are bringing in people who would have voted anyway, it's likely that their behavior affects others.
Most polls show that the more people who vote, the more likely Obama will win this election, as polls of registered voters tend to show higher support for Obama than polls of likely voters, given that conservatives tend to vote more consistently. Obama wants more people to vote. As such, it makes sense that Obama's campaign would promote early voting as they need to create an environment where the normative thing to do is to vote. Everybody is doing it and who wants to be the one left out. In contrast, Republicans do better in low turnout elections since their supporters tend to be more consistent voters. It is no accident that Democrats consistently want polls to be open longer, while Republicans often resist. As such, it is questionable whether Republican efforts to get conservatives to vote early are useful, especially if the voters are people who would already vote anyway. The effect of an environment where everyone is voting is likely to stimulate voting amongst groups that traditionally vote less often and lean Democratic (younger voters and hispanics).
For people who want to affect the vote, the task is clear. If you are a Republican, it might pay to be more subdued about your voting, and share it only with those who you know agree with you. If you are a Democrat, tell everyone you can about your vote to broaden the electorate, and take advantage of early voting to tell people that you voted over a longer period of time.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. I voted two days ago. It felt good.
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Last 10 Posts:
- May 7, 2013
Personality Types in Business: Conscientious CEOs & Open Technologists
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Big Data Stocks? Invest in Data, not in Tools.
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The Moral Foundations of Environmentalists
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Your Values Predict the Stories You Choose
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How to Prevent Mental Illness: Help others with their stressful life events
- November 24, 2012
When is investment banking immoral? A review of Greg Smith’s book, Why I left Goldman Sachs.
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On Mitt Romney and The X-Files
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The Gaza Conflict and Being Pro-Peace rather than Anti-War
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Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin and Paul Krugman need to get out of Maslow’s Basement.
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Early Voting is a Social Influence Tool, so tell everyone when you vote!
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