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 feel as if sometime in the early 2000s, society collectively decided that it was better to own a home than rent. Property values went up and it seemed like people were willing to go to great personal difficulty simply for the sake of being an owner. It probably didn't hurt that property values kept going up. Still, I never felt a strong urge to own and the prospect seemed more like a burden (fixing your own things, having trouble being able to move) than a blessing. Of course, that may say more about my personality than about owning or renting.
I thought I'd examine the Big 5 personality traits of people who think owning is "better" (e.g believing that home ownership is important to happiness) vs. those who prefer renting (e.g. believing that renting provides significant advantages compared to owneing a home) using ~800 people who answered these questions at yourmorals.org. I had 7 questions about owning vs. renting (alpha = .87). The Big 5 personality traits are 5 personality dimensions that are deemed most parsimoniously able to characterize people. The dimensions are Agreeableness (e.g. how well do you want to get along with others), Conscientiousness (e.g. how detail oriented and tidy are you), Extraversion (e.g. how outgoing are you), Neuroticism (e.g. how tense are you), and Openness to Experience (e.g. how much do you seek out new experiences).
Predictably, people who prefer owning a home vs. renting are more conscientious (r = .08, p=.016) and less open to new experiences (r = -.08, p=.03), but the differences are quite small.
People who want to be owners also also tend to be more conservative (r=.18, p<.001), older (r=.13, p<.001), and tend to prefer buying material things rather than experiences (r=.13, p<.001). Interestingly, there was no relationship to self described social status or gender. Obviously many of these relationships are small, but they certainly are as I would predict, with perhaps the exception of the lack of relationship with wealth and gender (my guess would have been that women and wealthier people would prefer home ownership).
Got any interesting hypotheses relating to the personalities of those who prefer renting vs. owning? I'd happily try them. I'm eager to examing values with regard to owning/renting next.
- Ravi Iyer
I recently attended the Los Angeles Times Book fair, which was held at USC this year. For anyone who lives close to Los Angeles, I would highly recommend it, as over a 2 day period, I saw Andrew Breitbart, Larry Flynt, Father Greg Boyle, Steve Lopez, and countless other interesting people speak about books they had written. I met and bought a book from a guy who biked from Alaska to Chile...on a tandem bike!
One thing that always interests me is attending panels on the book industry, and there happened to be a panel that included representatives from three of the best independent bookstores in the country, Powell's Books, Vroman's Books (that now owns Book Soup too), and City Lights. The panelists talked about the challenges of selling books in an age of Amazon and e-readers, with many of them echoing themes about how independent bookstores have become a "3rd place" where people can browse and discover books, which may or may not lead to a sale of a physical book.
One thing I study is the tendency to make experiential vs. material purchases and I therefore asked a question, which relates both to my research and my own experience in bookstores, which is that what I really value about physical bookstores is the experience of browsing the shelves, not the ability to buy physical books. I normally walk out with a number of books, but I'm not necessarily there to buy something...rather, I'm there to experience the world of ideas. Buying a book there just seems like the polite thing to do. It occurred to me that other readers might be like me and appreciate the experience of browsing books more than owning any physical book. Indeed, this market research that I later found agrees, in that they found that younger buyers appreciate the brick-and-mortars shopping experience of physical bookstores, even as there is significant leakage whereby they actually purchase books online.
Both because I was curious and because I'd like to help booksellers, I decided to look at our yourmorals data to see if I could say anything about the personality profile of readers vs. non-readers. This is certainly a unique sample - over educated and likely non-fiction readers as we get a lot of people who find our website via science articles - but while the mean levels of reading are meaningless, the relationships between variables in our sample often generalize (see this article). We actually have a question, "How many hours a week do you spend reading?", that I used to characterize people as readers and non-readers and my first thought was that readers would be more experiential, as opposed to material purchasers. However, in the 175 people who had taken our experiential vs. material purchasing measure, the correlation was insignificant (and negative), meaning that my hypothesis was likely wrong. Readers are not experiential rather than material purchasers, at least in our data set.
I then thought I'd explore more and below is a graph of the Big 5 personality traits of readers vs. non-readers.
The trend for openness to experience is clear and robust. It replicates within political groups and within each gender. The effect size is about a half of a standard deviation. People who are "original", "curious", "deep thinkers" read more. This is perhaps different than stimulation seeking (readers also do not score higher on valuing stimulation on the Schwartz values scale) or experiential purchasing, in that readers aren't necessarily seeking novelty or thrills (otherwise they might experience the world more directly, rather than reading about it). Here are some related differences between light (under 10 hours per week - in blue) and heavy (more than 20 hours per week reading - in green) readers.
Heavy readers are more comfortable with uncertainty (low need for closure), enjoy deliberate cognitive thinking (high need for cognition), and tend to try to understand how the world works in a systematic way (higher systemetizer scores).
These are hardly earth shattering findings, but sometimes its useful to emphasize what you already know and doing this analysis perhaps crystallizes the question I proposed to the panel. I asked if there was a way for those of us who enjoy the experience of bookstores to pay for the experience, perhaps through memberships, rather than the material goods, which are often more efficiently bought elsewhere. However, readers are not necessarily more experiential purchasers, as I had originally thought and it isn't just an experience that should be offered. Rather heavy readers (at least in this sample) are people who enjoy engaging in the world of ideas. Buying books is one way for readers to engage in effortful thinking and gain understanding of the world, but perhaps independent bookstores can think of other ways to charge people for better access to the world of ideas, leading to more congruence between what readers want and what only brick and mortar stores can provide. The LA Times book fair, though free, is perhaps a good model, where people line up for access to intellectually stimulating panels with live discussions. I am not in the book industry, but I'm hopeful that the idea that booksellers are selling ideas, rather than books, will be generative, in terms of thinking up ideas for supporting the livelihoods of independent booksellers. Charging for panels, better access to authors, or providing a marketplace of ideas that are specific to a very local community are thoughts that come to mind, but I'm sure there are many other ways. Personally, I'd happily give more money to my local bookstore, if they could somehow leverage their physical space in a way that would help me think of and discuss new interesting ideas in new interesting ways.
- Ravi Iyer
I just finished Ted Conover's book, Rolling Nowhere, which I definitely recommend to anyone interested in understanding the human condition. In fact, I'd recommend any/all of Conover's books, where he assumes roles as diverse as a prison guard, illegal immigrant, and in this book, a train jumping hobo. Personally, psychology is always more convincing when placed in a larger context, with conclusions reached from different angles (consilience) and I think there is as much to learn about the human condition from one of Conover's books as in an issue of a psychological journal. In Rolling Nowhere, Conover hops trains for a few months and joins a subculture of 'tramps' that live a wandering, lonely lifestyle on the margins of society.
This may be an odd thing to say, but as a liberal, Rolling Nowhere helped me to appreciate American libertarians better. There are surely lots of differences between liberals and libertarians, but there are similarities as well. The book helped me contextualize the relationships we've found between being libertarian, which implies a sacredness placed on the value of freedom, psychological reactance, and the desire for stimulation. These are traits where liberals tend to score higher than conservatives as well.
The below graphs, taken from our yourmorals.org data, show these characteristics, using the Schwartz Values Scale, comparing liberals, libertarians, and conservatives. Notice that while self-direction is valued highly in all groups, it is highest in libertarians, and the difference between self-direction and the next highest value, is greatest for libertarians. Liberals score higher in self-direction than conservatives.
In the above graph, libertarians also show a relatively high desire for stimulation (equal to liberals, higher than conservatives) and a relatively low value placed on tradition and conformity. This is consistent with the idea that libertarians are experience seekers, an idea further confirmed by the below graph of libertarian big five personality dimensions, where libertarians score relatively high (similar to liberals) on openness to experience.
Conover writes a fair amount about the motivation that made him (who seems to lean liberal) seek to experience life as a tramp:
I hit the rails to learn and because, as Lonny said, when you become afraid to die, you become afraid to live. Confronted by the prospect of entering a laid-out and set-up life largely devoid of the need to be resourceful, I had desired an activity with an unpredictable outcome. Risk-taking, in a way, seemed its own reward.
Notice how in the above graph, libertarians score relatively low in agreeableness (e.g. "likes to cooperate with others"). That converges with the below measure of psychological reactance (e.g. "I become angry when my freedom of choice is restricted").
As Conover writes -
To understand tramps...you have to understand the idea that people cannot always do what they are told. Maybe you are told to get a job, but there aren't any; maybe you return from a crazy war and are told to carry on as though nothing ever happened...Many tramps' careers on the road began when the tramp told society, "You can't fire me-- I quit!"
There may indeed be a lot of overlap between the tea party movement and traditional republicans. But that doesn't mean that there isn't something that liberals can't identify with in the American libertarian. Both groups share a desire to escape established structure (liberals score higher than conservatives on reactance) and seek new experiences (high openness to experience scores), and I bet Rolling Nowhere, with it's portrait of individuals who have escaped life's routines, living by their own resourcefulness, is the kind of book that would appeal to many members of both groups.
- Ravi Iyer
I have recently been following a discussion in my discipline about the peer review process, which led me to this very interesting paper about the history of and alternatives to the peer review process in psychology.
At the same time, I've been working with colleagues on a paper about experiential vs. material purchasing styles, for which we have found convergent correlations all suggesting that experiential purchasers are dispositionally motivated towards seeking new, stimulating experiences to promote positive emotion, while material purchasers often seek to avoid negative emotions. This is supported by the fact that, in the YourMorals.org dataset, experiential purchasers report higher levels of openness to experience, lower levels of neuroticism (both measured by the Big Five Personality Inventory), and lower levels of disgust (as measured by the Disgust Scale). The disgust finding does not necessarily fit with the idea that experiential purchasing is related to seeking new experiences, unless one looks at the literature on disgust. In particular, this study theorized about such a relationship and confirmed it by reporting correlations between disgust and big five personality dimensions.
It occurred to me that I could contribute to the original studies' findings, by examining the same correlations in our dataset, using a more diverse and far larger sample, and perhaps even including some internal cross-validation. The results are summarized in the table below.
The main hypothesis of the original study actually dealt with the two robust relationships found in our dataset, specifically that disgust is negatively related to openness to experience and positively related to neuroticism. In all, these two relationships stand out as robust across groups and in both studies. Interestingly, the correlation between openness to experience and disgust is weaker in the two most 'rational' groups, edge.org and libertarians, which might be worth pursuing later. Given the smaller sample size and restricted diversity of the original study, I'd be inclined to say that conscientiousness and agreeableness are not robust correlates of disgust, though this could be an effect of the fact that yourmorals.org uses a different measures of Big Five personality traits from the original study.
Can I publish this finding? It's only correlational and says nothing about causality. It really doesn't say much that is new, but rather confirms the original study, more or less. Still, the 26 papers which cited the original study would be slightly more improved if they could cite this finding as well, since it's the same basic study with a different (larger and more diverse) sample. This is where the discussion of the peer review system converges with this analysis. According to this paper, "many natural science fields operate on a norm that submissions should be accepted unless they are patently wrong." In contrast, psychology papers are often rejected, not because they are wrong, but because they are not interesting or novel enough.
The paper and the listserve discussion bring up many points related to this, but one relevant one to this finding is that it is hard to build a cumulative science when you don't reward replication, but instead reward novelty. The end result is that you end up with a series of slightly different perspectives on the same subjects, all named differently, where authors are constantly trying to come up with something new rather than building on something existing. This may help academics, but it makes it very difficult for these theories to be used in the real world. Any research on humans is likely flawed in some way. Can anybody do double-blind experiments on representative samples of people with behavioral measures? The public is wisely skeptical of any social science finding as are academics...but the solution might lie in publishing more replications rather than in restricting the publication process toward the mythical goal of the perfect, novel study. No single study proves anything when dealing with research on people. It's the convergence of lots of studies that might potentially be convincing enough to outsiders.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. if anyone wants to write this up and publish it traditionally, feel free to contact me