Doc Opp

Doc Opp claims to be a professor of psychology and public affairs at an Ivy league school. Of course, Doc Opp also claims that he went into zero gravity, that cookies are a nutritious food group, and that his jokes are funny. And at least two of those things are disputable. Nonetheless, he does seem to know something about psychology and public policy, so we let him contribute to the site.


Two years ago, I noted that Valentines Day isn’t as aversive when you’re not generally miserable. I am pleased to report that my hypothesis appears to be true. It turns out, I didn’t hate Valentines Day – I hated winter. And now that I’m back on the west coast, I don’t have to experience true winter anymore. I get to complain when it drops into the 50s. Today, I had ice cream outside in a t-shirt. That’s what winter is supposed to be like! And living on the west coast, where I’m actually happy most of the time, Valentine’s Day is just a minor annoyance. Not even that, because there’s free chocolate.

I think there is little doubt that being with people you love is generally better than being alone. But that truth is exacerbated when under times of stress and hardship. When you’re unhappy, that’s the time it’s most painful to be alone (and be reminded of that fact on Valentine’s Day). Ironically, that unhappiness also makes you much less pleasant to be around, and thus increases the odds that you will be alone. It’s a vicious cycle.

Many commenters on my V-day posts have noted that Vday isn’t really for couples. It’s a time when romantic gestures seem unromantic. So perhaps a new Valentine’s day tradition is in order. If you’re with somebody you love, celebrate your love the other 364 days a year. On Valentines Day, find somebody who’s lonely, and make their lives a little cheerier. Invite them to lunch, stop by their office for a chat, maybe give them chocolate. And if you’re lonely, well, do the same – there are a lot of other lonely people out there too, and you can make both of your lives a little better.

Now for the rant: Today while I was on the bus, some idiot cut the bus off – he was reading a work document and not watching the road. What’s wrong with you, you idiot? Can you really not spare to wait a few minutes and not read while driving so you don’t cause accidents and nearly get killed?!?! I mean, the bus is 10 times the size of your car! And you shouldn’t be reading and driving anyway, you could hit a pedestrian. (It’s an ANNUAL rant… I had to come up with something…)

Dec 152012

On August 30th, 2012, an elderly driver backed up on to a crowded sidewalk hitting 11 people including 9 children . And this wasn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened: In October 2006, an elderly driver by the name of George Weller drove his car through a crowded marketplace killing 10 people and injuring more than 60 others .

It’s time for this senseless car violence to stop. We need to outlaw cars. Mass car injuries have happened dozens of times over the past decade, and the car lobby has managed to keep any meaningful reform from happening. Even aside from these large scale tragedies, cars account for a huge number of deaths in America – over 32,000 in 2012 so far . But enough is enough – how many more tragedies need to happen before we realize that cars are too dangerous to have on our streets.

In Israel, where there are fewer cars per capita (.35) than in the US (.81) they have less than half the per capita death rates caused by cars. Clearly the U.S. is a nation of car violence. We need to stop glorifying car violence and reckless driving in movies (e.g. Fast and the Furious)! We should pressure the media to send safer messages…

ok, I think I’ve made my point.

Look, I’m not a gun nut. I don’t own a gun – in fact, I’ve never even held a gun. I’m scared of them, and I don’t particularly like them. And the tragedy in Connecticut this week was a horrible, senseless, awful thing. But all those people who are claiming that it was guns that caused the tragedy and that this should be a wakeup call for gun bans need to start taking a more nuanced approach. Guns may have enabled the tragedy – or maybe not. The crime was perpetrated by a seriously mentally disturbed individual. Maybe he would have built a bomb out of fertilizer if he hadn’t had access to guns, and even more people would have been killed. Maybe he would have taken his car, and done what George Weller did in 2006. The point is, blaming guns for the tragedy is missing the point. This should be more of a wakeup call about getting help to people who are mentally ill than the vehicle of delivery of the tragic events.


A recent Yahoo News article asks the creative question of whether your name can predict your politics . It turns out, it can. On some level this isn’t terribly surprising – names vary based on gender, ethnicity, and region of the country, all of which predict electoral choices. On a different level, it is sort of cool that you can predict who a person is going to vote for based on the name. Regardless, I’d like to offer a word of praise, and a word of complaint about this article.

First, the praise – the author makes the source code for the analysis freely available. This is a wonderful move, as it allows others to delve into the methodology and determine whether there are errors, false assumptions etc. I think this should be standard for data mining analysis. So many numbers and stats are thrown about and we have no idea how they were arrived at. It’s nice to see somebody be so upfront about exactly what was done.

Now the complaint. “if you want to raise a Democratic son, name him Willie. Democrats expecting a daughter should go with Gwendolyn, the most pro-Obama girl’s name on the list.” This is a classic correlation vs. causation error. Willie’s are more likely to be Democrats but that doesn’t mean that being a Willie causes you to vote Democrat. It may be that people who lean republican prefer to go by Bill or Billy or Mac or Buddy.  So, it’s not that being a Willie makes you a democrat, but rather that being a democrat makes you a Willie.  Or maybe there’s a third variable that causes people to both be democrats and be Willies.  Maybe it has to do with regional/demographic differences in names and political attitudes, for example.

The point is, that you can’t draw causal inferences from correlational data. Being a Willie doesn’t chain you to the democratic ticket, even though many people who share your name vote democrat, you are still a  free Willie.

The data from this article are useful in helping candidates identify likely voters or campaign contributors, but it’s not necessarily useful for interventions by parents to try and influence the politics of their kids.

School Vouchers – Assumptions vs. reality

 Posted by  Education, Uncategorized  Comments Off on School Vouchers – Assumptions vs. reality
Sep 042012

I was recently having a discussion with a cousin about school vouchers which forced me to articulate my opposition to school vouchers. Many people are surprised that I’m opposed to vouchers, since I have libertarian inclinations and generally favor individual choice over government mandate. And indeed, my concerns with voucher programs are not the typical liberal concern that it undermines public education (for an example of such an argument, see Mike’s comments on charter schools . My concern is that vouchers wouldn’t actually solve the problem. For vouchers to work, there are a number of assumptions that have to be made:

1) There exist enough good private schools with open slots in their classrooms that kids could actually have a choice to move to better schools.
2) The parents know enough, and care enough about which schools to send their kids to that they can effectively make the choice on behalf of their kids
3) The voucher would allow the parent to cover the cost of private education
4) The issues are primarily institutional (school based) rather than individual (student or family based).

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When Adverstising Goes Awry

 Posted by  Book Related  Comments Off on When Adverstising Goes Awry
Jul 222012

There’s a big publicity poster at the El Pollo Loco down the street that proudly proclaims that they use ‘farm raised chickens’. I was perplexed. How else would one raise a chicken? In an apartment?

I looked it up when I got home. It turns out that the alternative is free-range chicken. To the extent that there’s a difference in the taste, healthiness, or quality of life of the chicken (and there’s good reason to suspect there isn’t , free range would generally be the more appealing option. So, why would you advertise that you have farm raised chickens? My guess is that most people don’t actually think about what the ad actually means. They hear the word ‘farm’ and it harkens associations with local farms, and farmers markets, as opposed to large scale industrial poultry farms. And that’s as far as they think about it, and they go away with a positive impression. The effectiveness of the ad has little to do with conveying useful information, as opposed to packing an emotional punch or giving impressions through non-conscious associations that advertisers are tapping into.

Pay attention to political ads this season. Listen to what is actually said, and what that actually means. There’s often a lot less content than you might think.

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