27 April 2008

NBER Ice Cream Flavor of the Day

When I was a kid, the younger four of us nine kids would pile with our parents into my dad's Buick and ride from Southeast Minneapolis an eternal two hours and forty-five minutes to visit our aunt and uncle and cousins in Hayward, Wisconsin.

Upon arrival, we would jump out of the car, rush through an obligatory greeting of our aunt, then race to the corner and just around it to "The Dairy"---our name for West’s Hayward Dairy. Our uncle owned it.

I’d blast in the glass door, be boosted by some older sibling up onto a swivel chair at the soda fountain, and begin to scan the ice cream flavors from which I could command of my cousin my first ice cream cone of the weekend. This ice cream sitting in round manila buckets was not that low-fat rubbery muck. It was thick high-cholesterol creamy freshly made Hayward Dairy ice cream. I disinctly remember saliva rushing into my mouth as I sat in ecstatic agony choosing.

Why do I recall this scene today, 40 years later? Because this morning, my weekly free subscription e-mail The Latest NBER Research” arrived. And, upon scanning 33 new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper abstracts, I drooled.

Now you're asking urgently, Jenny, which flavor did you choose! Miguel, Edward, Sebastián M. Saiegh, and Shanker Satyanath (2008), "National Cultures and Soccer Violence.

This study reports findings of "a strong relationship between the history of civil conflict in a [soccer] player's home country and his propensity to behave violently on the soccer field, as measured by yellow and red cards."

The researchers measured player home country histories of civil conflict by the number of years that country were stricken with civil war between 1980 and 2005. They justify using civil war experience as a proxy for cultural attitudes to violence by citing findings from ethnographic studies that national tolerance for violence goes up after a civil war. I did not read the cited ethnographic studies, so don't know how the sociologists who conducted them measured the change in norms. I wonder why Miguel et al didn't use the same metrics as the sociologists. (Why measure norms by proxy if we know how to measure them directly?)

According to the authors, how does war act to change norms? And translate into violent soccer habits? They explain that the data "tentatively suggest that childhood and adolescent exposure to national violence may be the causal channel", given that "the proportion of years before a player reached age 18 that his home country experienced civil war strongly predicts violence on the soccer field."

Sadly, the results also suggest that violent norms acquired through childhood exposure to war tend to persist:

If individuals can be socialized into a violent culture, then they could also potentially unlearn their national culture over time if they moved to a different society, yet our data do not offer strong support for this hypothesis. In a variety of specifications not reported above, we tested whether the impact of a player’s home country civil war history diminishes over time for older players, or for those with more experience in the European professional leagues, but in no case are these interaction terms statistically significant at traditional confidence levels (not shown). Violent national cultures appear quite persistent, at least over the time frame of the typical soccer playing career. (Page 14.)

My first reaction is that this reinforces my long-term bleak outlook for the size of the risk premium in global oil prices. I believe that, long after the civil war in Iraq officially ends, violence (including sabotage to oil installations) will persist for decades, rendering Iraqi oil supplies persistently chancy. As they are today in Nigeria.

My second reaction is more academic. I have some ideas for follow-up studies. The authors might consider testing whether alternative norms or clusters of norms--distinct from but related to or underlying social tolerance for violence--are what truly drive the correlation between a player's home country and his propensity to collect yellow cards in soccer.

One candidate alternative norm to study is social tolerance for breaking formal rules generally, not just rules prohibiting violence. Dependent variables in the follow-up study would include soccer fouls that are not violent, such as the illegal use of hands.

A second alternative norm is empathy, or solidarity, especially among elites toward those not in power. I suspect that the two things, empathy and adherence to rules, are connected. And believe that they might underlie a social propensity to violence.

As a proxy for empathy, I would consider formal institutional checks against dictatorship, which, for democracies, could be checks against dictatorship by the majority. I suspect that higher empathy among the powerful toward the weak raises the likelihood that minority rights protection will be written into law. I also suspect that such societies with the highest empathy levels are the most most rule abiding.

Digging more deeply into causality, my hunch is that empathy is driven in the first place by people's experience with authority. Over history, have those in power generally been fair? Have they voluntarily subjected themselves to controls that limit their conduct? Or have they behaved capriciously and illegally?

By my (surely unoriginal) theory, well-founded trust in authority bumps societies up a spiritual step from adherence to jungle-like norms (screw others, lest they screw you) to adherence to empathetic norms (do unto others as you would have them do unto you).

Conversely, a sense of vulnerability derived from governance by capricious and rapacious rulers leads people to watch out for themselves only. This becomes manifest in a calculating approach to following rules (apply selfish cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether to adhere to rules), versus an empathetic approach (treat opponents fairly, even at the risk of temporarily losing power to them--do this because you trust that you won't be burned).

Because norms depend on a nation’s historical experience of authority, social norms are path dependent.

Finally, the rise to power of individual leaders can be path-switching events. A particular leader—often a charismatic one—can reshape norms and thus change a nation's cultural tracks for decades or centuries. Gandhi, Hitler, King, Chávez, Lincoln, Hussein, Bush, Bin Laden all have shaped societal norms.

Norms that later become manifest on soccer fields.

(The Spanish translation of this post is still pending.)


  1. Like most academic studies, this shows data for what we already know or think we know. In other words, it's no surprise that people brought up in a culture that uses violence to settle conflicts will use violence to settle conflicts. The only thing novel about this study is using the soccer data to confirm it.

    Therefore, beyond a "long-term bleak outlook for the size of the risk premium in global oil prices" this should reinforce your long-term bleak outlook for the human race. For example, how would you answer the question, "does propensity for using violence to solve conflict cause civil wars or is it the effect?" I'd say it's the effect.

    The above comment follows from my doubt about the author's selection of countries under the rubric of "civil conflict". How did they get this list of countries? However they did it, though, it wouldn't be enough to measure the true extent of "civil conflict" since much of this takes place under the radar of any kind of news coverage at a local level. It's obvious that using violence to solve political conflicts is much more common at the local level (that's where we all live, after all) than at the level where it would show up as data for these author's study.

    Something bothers me about, "If individuals can be socialized into a violent culture, then they could also potentially unlearn their national culture over time if they moved to a different society, yet our data do not offer strong support for this hypothesis." This runs contrary to my experience, where people from violent cultures are assimilated into more non violent ones. It runs contrary to my belief that "people are people" and all that. Without having even looked at the data, I suspect that the authors did not control for those soccer players who were brought up in ethnic enclaves within the so-called different society. This is typical immigrant demographics, as you know, and it would certainly blunt the impact of the different country's ethics, if not cancel it entirely (as is the case amongst the majority of Muslims in Europe). The study's conclusions are even more disturbing from this perspective because of the current multicultural policy most European nations adopt. If they don't demand assimilation, then they'll never get it. Just the opposite, demographics suggest that the violent ethics of the immigrant culture will someday overwhelm those of the host country simply by causing more violence, which tends to socialize individuals into a culture of violence.

    This comment may also be a "post hoc" fallacy: "I suspect that higher empathy among the powerful toward the weak raises the likelihood that minority rights protection will be written into law." The two may be connected, as you suggest, but here you're talking about causes, which is where you get into "post hoc" trouble. It's the oldest fallacy in the book of the scientific method: "correlation is not causation", or something like that. As a matter of fact, I suspect that the causality runs in the opposite direction--we got protection for minority rights, which demands that politicians be "empathetic" towards minorities if they ever want to get elected. A good example of this is Truman. He was a political hack who made it into the presidency. His views on race would certainly be considered beyond the pale today. But he stepped up to the plate to integrate the armed services and to promote other civil rights laws just because of that: a political hack needs the votes of his constituents. A lot of his constituents were black.

    Finally, your comment on Iraq bears some thinking-through. The culture of violence there did not begin with the 2003 US invasion. It began thousands of years ago.

    Just as an afterthought, I'd amend your evolutionary sequence of "law of the jungle/golden rule". I'd say it's more like, "law of the jungle/eye for an eye/rule of law/golden rule" (where "golden rule" is obviously pie-in-the sky).

    PS: If you're not going to respond to comments, then don't activate them. It seems rude for a blog like yours to ignore people's comments. At least you'll lose this commenter by this sort of behaviour.

  2. A follow up:

    You say, "Over history, have those in power generally been fair? Have they voluntarily subjected themselves to controls that limit their conduct?"

    First, I'd like to see just one example of such so-called selfless conduct by "those in power". Because I can't think of one. I say that the opposite is true: those in power have never been fair (whatever that means) and have never voluntarily..." and so on. If this is true, (and you can't come up with some examples), then this shows that "people's experience with authority" is generally of an arbitrary dictatorship.

    Next, history shows without a doubt that this has changed to become more empathetic (in your words) at the point of a gun (or of a bayonet, as the case may be). Example number one: the French Revolution. Example number two: post-war Japan (this was at the point of the A-bomb).

    The most illustrative study of this kind of thing is Britain. How did it all begin? Remember the Magna Carta? How the nobles kidnapped the king and demanded their rights? Not too much so-called empathy there, was there?

    Closer to home, there's the second amendment to the US constitution: "...the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed". Sounds pretty clear to me that Hamilton and Madison thought that guns were directly related to "empathy". So-called gun control was a fact of life in Europe (as it is today): only the elite had the right to bear arms (and usually only they could afford the lifelong training needed to do so). Firearms changed this asymmetry forever: lifelong training, mastery of arms and horsemanship means very little against some serf armed with a firearm defending his miserable plot of land. Kind of equalizes things right away, without any great introspection about "empathy".

    Therefore, your "empathy" for the weak happens not from any "spiritual steps" but from active and usually violent struggle. Yes, such "empathy" is written into the law, but that's only the result of such violence. And the elite will comply with such laws not because they are at a higher spiritual level, but because they're afraid not to. In today's world, this will imply losing elections, not being beheaded and having your head paraded around town on the end of a pike (like in the good old days), but the motive is the same: fear and loathing.