Murders Down Again in NYC (but will many people notice?)

“The number of murders in New York City has dropped to what years ago would have seemed like an impossible low: 328 killings recorded in 2014, the lowest figure since at least 1963, when the Police Department began collecting reliable statistics.  The New York Times

The cold-blooded murder of two police officers in Brooklyn, and Eric Garner’s choke hold death in Staten Island, will be what people remember about 2014. Many fewer will remember the record low homicide rate.

The deaths of Eric Garner, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were awful tragedies. I hope (and feel confident that) the problems of police tactics and police safety that led to the deaths of these men will be studied and debated. But these deaths account for less than 1% of NYC homicides. I fear that few will study what keeps going right in New York City public safety.

More and More Little Wins

Since I read Nudge by Richard Thaler a few years back, I’ve been happily surprised how quickly the idea of “nudges” is spreading around the world. In a recent New York Times piece, David Brooks catalogues many successful nudges, notably in places like Kenya and Zambia. David Cameron is a noted supporter of using the gleanings of behavior economics to get citizens in the UK to “do good by default.”

The way nudges work is that governments and organizations set up “decision architecture” such that the default option–or an easy option–has a socially beneficial outcome. A well known nudge is making the default option in organ donation “yes.” (In the past the default option was nearly always “no organ donation.”) A more whimsical one is to put some kind of target–say a picture of a fly or seashell–inside men’s urinals to induce them to aim better.

The most important findings of behavioral economics are that humans often do not make rational decisions…but they’re predictably irrational (in the words of scholar Daniel Ariely).  Scientists like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann pioneered studies that showed subtle biases and decision-making “errors” that humans make in some situations. That said, just as we are sometimes led astray, we can use behavioral economics to unconsciously guide people to make prosocial decisions while allowing individuals freedom and control to make decisions.

Brooks’ examples from Africa were most intriguing to me:

“Too many people die in auto accidents. When governments try to reduce highway deaths, they generally increase safety regulations. But, also in Kenya, stickers were placed inside buses and vans urging passengers to scream at automobile drivers they saw driving dangerously.”

“In Zambia, hairdressers were asked to sell female condoms to their clients. Some were offered financial incentives to do so, but these produced no results. In other salons, top condom sellers had a gold star placed next to their names on a poster that all could see. More than twice as many condoms were sold. This simple change was based on an understanding of the human desire for status and admiration.”

Now these behavioral economics inspired nudges are not going to end malaria or cure cancer, but this kind of clever policy making can have an impact. Nudges like these can get well-meaning programs–like the female condom scheme in Zambia–to perform better. And while I don’t think that a sticker encouraging Americans to yell at drivers would work in our culture, I do like how the Kenya government encouraged its citizens not to stand for dangerous behavior. At their best, nudges get people to make small, prosocial decisions at the grassroots level. Like the improvements in life that this blog chronicles, nudges bubble up from the bottom and make the world a better place.

The 50% Myth

For a long time we’ve heard this saw repeated again and again: “Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce.” Like so much other bad news, this is no longer true. Since peaking in the 1980s, the divorce rate has been falling. Even so, news outlets like Fox and ABC still say things like “the divorce rate is going up” or it’s “50 percent and climbing.”

What has really happened? According to a recent New York Times article by Claire Cain Miller, “The Divorce Surge Is Over but the Myth Lives On,” the divorce rate will probably fall to about one in three. But isn’t that worse than divorce rates from the “good ole days?” Maybe so. However, over time the institution of marriage has changed, and this may be why divorces became much more common in the 60s, 70s and 80s. For most of its history in the Industrial Age, marriage has been, in many respects, an economic institution. The husband left home to work and make money; the wife worked at home and ran the household. (Of course this wasn’t true for all women, especially poor woman, who have often had to work to make ends meet.)

By the end of the 60s, attitudes changed a great deal. Many people felt less compelled to conform to a role and more motivated to carve out a life that transcended societal strictures. Today most people marry for love. And millions of committed couples who start families choose not to marry.

I doubt we will ever return to a time where divorces are extremely rare. Life is too good nowadays for most people to bear a bad marriage. In this era of equality, a match, to a greater degree, must be made in heaven for it to be made. As marriage becomes more of a life option and not an expectation, I think we’ll have more happy marriages and fewer divorces.

The institution of marriage continues to change as gay marriage has become legal. Innovation happens at all levels of society, and I look forward to emerging forms and types of marriage, partnership and family structure.

Women CEOs and Stay-at-Home Dads

The increase of working professional women and stay-at-home dads is one of many positive demographic trends of the past couple generations. Poor women have always been in the workforce, doing their best to keep their families clothed and fed. For nearly all of historical times, middle- and upper-class women have been kept at home to raise children, manage households and play hostess. Exceptional women sometimes loosed these shackles, but the vast majority were kept from their full potential. In recent centuries, more professions opened, notably education, but professions have only opened slowly and with some prying.

Today nearly every profession is open to woman, though Old Patriarchy still holds sway in parts of the world. There’s even a decent chance that our next President will be a woman. Meantime, more and more fathers are staying home and raising children. I have no qualms with working dads and stay-at-home moms. But I do think that it’s a good thing that gender is not destiny.

Diversity is a good thing, and not just for “We Are the World” warm and fuzzy reasons. Gender diversity is important, too. I teach elementary school, and it’s becoming more and more common for men to choose to teach young children. It’s great that the world of children includes more men who take teach and take care of children full time.

Diverse people usually produce diverse perspectives, which contribute to better decisions. Groupthink decisions are made by homogenous leader bodies. Data sets that don’t represent diverse reality won’t reap real results. Many see the “decline” of the traditional family as a bad thing. I see an opportunity to experiment with new kinds of family structures. Diversity in action.

This New York Times article describes a recent convention of stay-at-home fathers. In this age of persistent tinkering, innovation and creativity in technology, medicine, education and business, it’s reassuring to see that the same is happening in millions of families, and new paradigms of fatherhood are emerging.

Renewables Where They’re Needed

Rational centralization was an organizing paradigm of the 20th century. Our age of innovation is all about decentralization. In our pockets we carry access to far more information than that contained at the Library of Congress. And phones (smart & dumb) now allow banking and ecommerce even for the poorest of the planet. Right now I’m blogging on my iPhone as I wait for a hot dog at a baseball game. Nowadays you can do everything anywhere.

For many, renewable energy is all about saving the planet, but for others it’s a way to get power to remote places that are off the grid. That’s much of the developing world. For example, the school and orphanage I help support in rural Kenya has several solar panels. This helps them charge computers and turn on some lights for evening study time, but its most important benefit is the recharging of cell phones, the great connectors and agents of positive change in places like Kenya, the rest of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Renewables get cheaper and cheaper, and thus more and more feasible for remote places in the developed world and remote and off-the-grid places in the developing world. Is getting on the grid impossible or prohibitively expensive? Install (increasingly cheaper) solar or wind power.

Check out this NYTimes article about the many benefits of renewables in remote places:

Talk to Strangers!

One thing I love about modern neuroscience is that old tropes like “Don’t Talk to Strangers” get tested in labs, in this case by researchers Nicholas Epley and Julianna Schroeder. Their work, and other research related to it, was written about in the story “Hello, Stranger” in the April 25 New York Times.

They “approached commuters in a Chicago area train station…. In return for a $5 Starbucks gift card, these commuters agreed to participate in a simple experiment during their train ride. One group was asked to talk to the stranger who sat down next to them on the train that morning. Other people were told to follow standard commuter norms, keeping to themselves. By the end of the train ride, commuters who talked to a stranger reported having a more positive experience than those who had sat in solitude.”

Echoing one of Daniel Gilbert’s theses in Stumbling on Happiness, the researchers found that people are often poor predictors of what will make them happy. “When Dr. Epley and Ms. Schroeder asked other people in the same train station to predict how they would feel after talking to a stranger, the commuters thought their ride would be more pleasant if they sat on their own.”

The article goes on to examine another common assumption, that we should invest our emotional time and energy in those closest to us. Of course this is true, but Gillian M. Sandstrom found in a study that both introverts and extroverts alike had a better day if they interacted with more people–friends, acquaintances and strangers alike.

I’ve often bristled at the idea of some that Americans are “too friendly.” I have always said “Hi” to strangers because it just felt good and right. This intuition seems to have a sound scientific basis. Talking to folks on the train or in the supermarket certainly can’t hurt, and I believe the more we knit ourselves into communities big and small, friend and stranger alike, the more we’ll all thrive.