Stories tagged human behavior

Have scientists finally found a Rock n' Roll gene? Not really, but researchers have made some interesting discoveries about the genetic basis of birdsongs, which are passed down from generation to generation through social interaction much in the same way that you or I learn to talk, sing, dance, cook or create. When the authors of a new study on the transmission of birdsong behaviors in zebra finches isolated and raised birds in silence, they expected them to sing off-key. While the mating songs of these 'untrained' birds were much less appealing to the opposite sex, after several generations the untrained lineage produced offspring that were able to sing just like those in the wild. You can listen to the experiment here. This news has left researchers wondering where birdsongs originally began, and to what extent cultural behaviors are hard wired. While zebra finches and humans are only very distant relatives, researchers think we may be able to learn about human culture and genetics from studies like these. After all, as the authors point out, our human cultures (including language, music and a whole host of other things) are very different, but they all share common elements across the globe. In the end, these cultural underpinnings may turn out to be part of our biology.


So, I open up my web browser this weekend to check the news, and I see the following three polls, all on the same page:

  • Rasmussen: Obama up by 5 points
  • Gallup: Obama up by 10 point
  • Zogby: McCain up by 1 point

These can’t all be right, can they?

Actually, they can. Or, at least, they can all be properly conducted, and just lead to wildly different results.

The only way to get a perfect result is to interview everyone in the country. (In fact, that’s exactly what we do on Election Day.) But that takes so much time and money that no individual pollster can do it. Instead, they interview several hundred people, maybe a couple thousand, and from there extrapolate what the country as a whole will do.

Now, mathematically, you can do this. You just can’t be sure of your answer. Here are a few of the reasons why.

Margin of error

Most opinion polls will state the margin of error. For example, they may say that that Candidate X is ahead by, say, 5 points, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3 points. Meaning, the real answer could be as high as 8 points or as low as 2 points.

(Sometimes, the margin of error is actually larger than the result. The poll shows Candidate X leading by 2 points, but with a margin of error of 4 points. Meaning, he could be ahead by 6, or he could actually be behind by 2! This seems to have happened a lot this year.)

A range of a few percentage points, when applied to a country with over 100 million voters, can lead to some pretty huge differences.

Confidence interval

In addition to reporting a margin of error, polls also report a confidence interval, usually 90% or 95%. This means that, according to the laws of mathematics, there is a 95% probability that the real result is the same as the poll result, within the margin of error.

But what about the other 5% or 10% of the time? Well, the folks reporting the numbers don’t like to tell you this, but, mathematically speaking, the poll can do everything right, and still be completely wrong, as much as 10% of the time.

There have been over 700 polls released this election season, and over 200 just in October. No doubt, many of the polls you have heard about fall into this category.


In most elections, more women vote than men. If you conduct a survey and talk to 100 men and 100 women, you are going to have to give the women’s answers more weight to accurately reflect the Election Day results.

How much more weight? That depends. Do you think this election will be pretty much the same as previous years? Is there something happening this year that will make a lot more women come out to vote? Or, perhaps, something that will attract a lot more men?

The fact is, nobody knows. Weighting is just educated guesswork. And this year, it is more complicated than usual:

  • Black voters are expected to come out in record numbers to support Barack Obama. How many will actually vote? Nobody knows.
  • Young people generally do not vote as much as other groups. But many analysts expect more young people to vote this year. How many more? Nobody knows.
  • Democrats, having lost the last two elections, are likely to turn out in larger numbers. How much larger? Nobody knows.
  • New voters. There has been a great push to register new voters, many of them poor or minority members. These groups tend to vote Democratic. But, the NY Times reports that as many as 60% of those registrations may be fake. If you are a poll taker, you really have no idea how many new voters there actually are.
  • Likely voters. Every pollster ends up talking to some people who will not vote on Election Day. Different polls use different methods of figuring out who is likely to actually vote—based on whether they voted last time, how much interest they have in the election, or just taking the voter’s word for it.

The different weighting factors used by the different polls probably accounts for most of the variability we see in the results.

Human factors

Let’s face it – humans are complicated and sometimes uncooperative beings. There are lots of ways they can foul up a perfectly good poll.

  • Lying. People have a tendency to tell a pollster what they think he wants to hear. Maybe they just want to be nice; maybe they want to avoid an argument. This skewing has been found in many, many types of polls.
  • Refusal. In any poll, a certain number of people refuse to participate—they don’t want to be bothered, or they don’t want to talk politics with a stranger. If refusals are more likely to come from one party than the other, this can skew results.
  • Hard-to-reach folks. For years, pollsters called people on the telephone. But today more and more people have cell phones, or call screening, and are hard to reach. Again, if people with such gadgets are more likely to support one candidate or the other, it will skew the results. (One blogger has noticed that John McCain does better in polls conducted during the week than on the weekend, and speculates that's when McCain supporters are home.)
  • Bias. Poll takers are only human. They have their own thoughts and opinions. And while they take great pains to be neutral, those opinions sometimes come through in the questions asked or the way the answers are interpreted. Most of the major polling companies are based in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, or Washington, DC – all cities that are heavily Democratic. This may explain why, in the last two elections, the Democrats did better in the polls than they did on Election Day.

So, with all these problems, how can we figure out who is going to win the election? Well, never fear – there is one sure-fire way to find out the winner:

Read the newspaper Wednesday morning.

And don’t forget to vote!


Um... if you say so: Well, no, not even then.
Um... if you say so: Well, no, not even then.Courtesy
Remember how you said that grapes are good in pasta salad, and I said, no, they’re not, it’s like eating soggy little cat eyeballs?

I was right about that. You were wrong. Grapes in pasta salad are gross. You just like pasta salad so much that you can’t tell that you’re eating something like cold, swollen lymph nodes and bloated, dead wood ticks. Deal with it.

And you know how you’re all about Natalie Portman? Well you’re wrong about her too. You saw her in Star Wars, and you’ve got a weird space fetish thing brewing, and that’s cool, but don’t be telling me that this passably attractive actress is Venus on Earth (or whatever planet). No, I’m right, and you’re wrong on this one buddy.

Oh, also, the rest of the world and I had a talk, and we think you should shut up about Dane Cook. And we don’t want to see the superfinger anymore. It’s clear that you like him, yes, but you’re the only one now, and if you put that album on in the car again, I’m afraid that the citizens of earth and I will have to throw you into a volcano. We’re very sorry, it’s not that we don’t like you (you’re great!), it’s just that he isn’t funny at all.

How can I be so sure of all this? Why is it that I’m so frighteningly accurate here, while you’re shredding your fingernails as you scramble for a grip on reality? Simple—because I don’t like these things, I’m able to use a little power I like to call objectivity. Because you’re all about this garbage, you are unable to recognize the many inherent flaws in the things you like. Not only that, but you think that we should like them too.

Oh? Home Improvement reruns are on? Sure, we can watch that. Do you have any liquor?

Remember the time your dog chewed up one of my mittens? You said she was just playing, and that it was cute. As it happens, it wasn’t cute, and you have an awful dog. An awful, bad dog. I needed two mittens. Two hands, two mittens. Easy. Even a dog should be able to figure that out—well, a good dog should.

At the time, I was surprised that you didn’t realize that about your dog (what a horrible, horrible creature she is). But that was my fault. Thankfully, science—as it tends to do—has done me a favor by removing the surprise from such situations. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research has shown that when a person likes a thing, even just some small part of it, they are unable to recognize its faults, and are likely to think most other people will like it as well. On the other hand, when a person dislikes something, they are able to look at the thing more objectively, and predict much more accurately both who might like or dislike said thing.

Now this might all seem a little obvious—anecdotal evidence has suggested as much for as long as there have been both people and things people might like. But, then again, if it’s so obvious, why did you keep wearing that Hooters shirt. What? No, actually, it’s not ironic. It’s obnoxious.


Be Aggressive: Image courtesy of fawn on
Be Aggressive: Image courtesy of fawn on
Some Poindexter at the University of California, Davis, has recently decided that it’s all right for him to go around slandering people with older brothers. Professor Nerdlinger claims that older brothers fuel aggression in siblings.

According to his study, “Having a brother or a highly aggressive sibling of either gender can lead to greater increases in aggression over time.” These results were obtained through the cast of Revenge of the Nerds observing the behavior of 451 sibling pairs, and by having the subjects rate their own aggressive behavior. Nice facts, I say, but does Dr. Milquetoast have anything more forceful to back them up with?

As it happens, I’m proposing my own “study,” and I’m looking for test subjects. I’m hypothesizing that getting smacked in the back of the head can lead to certain scientists being a little more courteous around younger siblings, and that fat lips can help prevent boldfaced lies from escaping mouths.

What do you think of that? Huh?


A researcher in Chicago is making novel use of the Internet, according to this article in the Tribune. (Registration may be required, but it's free.) Emily Noelle Ignacio, a professor at Loyola University, studies the way people interact and form communities on-line. She focused her attention on the Filipino-American community.

Over 21 months, while working on her doctoral dissertation, Ignacio printed out and analyzed about 2,000 of the best postings from about 20,000 members of that Internet newsgroup, a forum of interest to Filipinos with a yearning for news and talk of their homeland.

"People really wanted to make it a virtual home, to go online, to hear what's going on, to talk with other Filipinos around the world," she said.

Unlike others in her trade who have gone to Samoa or the forests of Borneo to glean insights from those they were studying, Ignacio turned to her computer to show how Filipinos "have used subtle, cyber, but very real social connections to construct and reinforce a sense of ... identity with distant others."


Here we go again. There's another report claiming to find a link between human behavior and the environment — in this case, lead supposedly makes you violent.

The problem with studies like these is that human behavior is incredibly complex. It's an interplay of both nature (something in our genes or our environment that favors a particular behavior) and nurture (something in our culture or our upbringing that favors a behavior). It's almost never a clear-cut cause-and-effect type of thing.