Darkest Before the Dawn: Bayesian Impostor Syndrome

Jan 12 JDN 2458860

At the time of writing, I have just returned from my second Allied Social Sciences Association Annual Meeting, the AEA’s annual conference (or AEA and friends, I suppose, since there several other, much smaller economics and finance associations are represented as well). This one was in San Diego, which made it considerably cheaper for me to attend than last year’s. Alas, next year’s conference will be in Chicago. At least flights to Chicago tend to be cheap because it’s a major hub.

My biggest accomplishment of the conference was getting some face-time and career advice from Colin Camerer, the Caltech economist who literally wrote the book on behavioral game theory. Otherwise I would call the conference successful, but not spectacular. Some of the talks were much better than others; I think I liked the one by Emmanuel Saez best, and I also really liked the one on procrastination by Matthew Gibson. I was mildly disappointed by Ben Bernanke’s keynote address; maybe I would have found it more compelling if I were more focused on macroeconomics.

But while sitting through one of the less-interesting seminars I had a clever little idea, which may help explain why Impostor Syndrome seems to occur so frequently even among highly competent, intelligent people. This post is going to be more technical than most, so be warned: Here There Be Bayes. If you fear yon algebra and wish to skip it, I have marked below a good place for you to jump back in.

Suppose there are two types of people, high talent H and low talent L. (In reality there is of course a wide range of talents, so I could assign a distribution over that range, but it would complicate the model without really changing the conclusions.) You don’t know which one you are; all you know is a prior probability h that you are high-talent. It doesn’t matter too much what h is, but for concreteness let’s say h = 0.50; you’ve got to be in the top 50% to be considered “high-talent”.

You are engaged in some sort of activity that comes with a high risk of failure. Many creative endeavors fit this pattern: Perhaps you are a musician looking for a producer, an actor looking for a gig, an author trying to secure an agent, or a scientist trying to publish in a journal. Or maybe you’re a high school student applying to college, or a unemployed worker submitting job applications.

If you are high-talent, you’re more likely to succeed—but still very likely to fail. And even low-talent people don’t always fail; sometimes you just get lucky. Let’s say the probability of success if you are high-talent is p, and if you are low-talent, the probability of success is q. The precise value depends on the domain; but perhaps p = 0.10 and q = 0.02.

Finally, let’s suppose you are highly rational, a good and proper Bayesian. You update all your probabilities based on your observations, precisely as you should.

How will you feel about your talent, after a series of failures?

More precisely, what posterior probability will you assign to being a high-talent individual, after a series of n+k attempts, of which k met with success and n met with failure?

Since failure is likely even if you are high-talent, you shouldn’t update your probability too much on a failurebut each failure should, in fact, lead to revising your probability downward.

Conversely, since success is rare, it should cause you to revise your probability upward—and, as will become important, your revisions upon success should be much larger than your revisions upon failure.

We begin as any good Bayesian does, with Bayes’ Law:

P[H|(~S)^n (S)^k] = P[(~S)^n (S)^k|H] P[H] / P[(~S)^n (S)^k]

In words, this reads: The posterior probability of being high-talent, given that you have observed k successes and n failures, is equal to the probability of observing such an outcome, given that you are high-talent, times the prior probability of being high-skill, divided by the prior probability of observing such an outcome.

We can compute the probabilities on the right-hand side using the binomial distribution:

P[H] = h

P[(~S)^n (S)^k|H] = (n+k C k) p^k (1-p)^n

P[(~S)^n (S)^k] = (n+k C k) p^k (1-p)^n h + (n+k C k) q^k (1-q)^n (1-h)

Plugging all this back in and canceling like terms yields:

P[H|(~S)^n (S)^k] = 1/(1 + [1-h/h] [q/p]^k [(1-q)/(1-p)]^n)

This turns out to be particularly convenient in log-odds form:

L[X] = ln [ P(X)/P(~X) ]

L[(~S)^n) (S)^k|H] = ln [h/(1-h)] + k ln [p/q] + n ln [(1-p)/(1-q)]

Since p > q, ln[p/q] is a positive number, while ln[(1-p)/(1-q)] is a negative number. This corresponds to the fact that you will increase your posterior when you observe a success (k increases by 1) and decrease your posterior when you observe a failure (n increases by 1).

But when p and q are small, it turns out that ln[p/q] is much larger in magnitude than ln[(1-p)/(1-q)]. For the numbers I gave above, p = 0.10 and q = 0.02, ln[p/q] = 1.609 while ln[(1-p)/(1-q)] = -0.085. You will therefore update substantially more upon a success than on a failure.

Yet successes are rare! This means that any given success will most likely be first preceded by a sequence of failures. This results in what I will call the darkest-before-dawn effect: Your opinion of your own talent will tend to be at its very worst in the moments just preceding a major success.

I’ve graphed the results of a few simulations illustrating this: On the X-axis is the number of overall attempts made thus far, and on the Y-axis is the posterior probability of being high-talent. The simulated individual undergoes randomized successes and failures with the probabilities I chose above.


There are 10 simulations on that one graph, which may make it a bit confusing. So let’s focus in on two runs in particular, which turned out to be run 6 and run 10:

[If you skipped over the math, here’s a good place to come back. Welcome!]


Run 6 is a lucky little devil. They had an immediate success, followed by another success in their fourth attempt. As a result, they quickly update their posterior to conclude that they are almost certainly a high-talent individual, and even after a string of failures beyond that they never lose faith.

Run 10, on the other hand, probably has Impostor Syndrome. Failure after failure after failure slowly eroded their self-esteem, leading them to conclude that they are probably a low-talent individual. And then, suddenly, a miracle occurs: On their 20th attempt, at last they succeed, and their whole outlook changes; perhaps they are high-talent after all.

Note that all the simulations are of high-talent individuals. Run 6 and run 10 are equally competent. Ex ante, the probability of success for run 6 and run 10 was exactly the same. Moreover, both individuals are completely rational, in the sense that they are doing perfect Bayesian updating.

And yet, if you compare their self-evaluations after the 19th attempt, they could hardly look more different: Run 6 is 85% sure that they are high-talent, even though they’ve been in a slump for the last 13 attempts. Run 10, on the other hand, is 83% sure that they are low-talent, because they’ve never succeeded at all.

It is darkest just before the dawn: Run 10’s self-evaluation is at its very lowest right before they finally have a success, at which point their self-esteem surges upward, almost to baseline. With just one more success, their opinion of themselves would in fact converge to the same as Run 6’s.

This may explain, at least in part, why Impostor Syndrome is so common. When successes are few and far between—even for the very best and brightest—then a string of failures is the most likely outcome for almost everyone, and it can be difficult to tell whether you are so bright after all. Failure after failure will slowly erode your self-esteem (and should, in some sense; you’re being a good Bayesian!). You’ll observe a few lucky individuals who get their big break right away, and it will only reinforce your fear that you’re not cut out for this (whatever this is) after all.

Of course, this model is far too simple: People don’t just come in “talented” and “untalented” varieties, but have a wide range of skills that lie on a continuum. There are degrees of success and failure as well: You could get published in some obscure field journal hardly anybody reads, or in the top journal in your discipline. You could get into the University of Northwestern Ohio, or into Harvard. And people face different barriers to success that may have nothing to do with talent—perhaps why marginalized people such as women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and people with disabilities tend to have the highest rates of Impostor Syndrome. But I think the overall pattern is right: People feel like impostors when they’ve experienced a long string of failures, even when that is likely to occur for everyone.

What can be done with this information? Well, it leads me to three pieces of advice:

1. When success is rare, find other evidence. If truly “succeeding” (whatever that means in your case) is unlikely on any given attempt, don’t try to evaluate your own competence based on that extremely noisy signal. Instead, look for other sources of data: Do you seem to have the kinds of skills that people who succeed in your endeavors have—preferably based on the most objective measures you can find? Do others who know you or your work have a high opinion of your abilities and your potential? This, perhaps is the greatest mistake we make when falling prey to Impostor Syndrome: We imagine that we have somehow “fooled” people into thinking we are competent, rather than realizing that other people’s opinions of us are actually evidence that we are in fact competent. Use this evidence. Update your posterior on that.

2. Don’t over-update your posterior on failures—and don’t under-update on successes. Very few living humans (if any) are true and proper Bayesians. We use a variety of heuristics when judging probability, most notably the representative and availability heuristics. These will cause you to over-respond to failures, because this string of failures makes you “look like” the kind of person who would continue to fail (representative), and you can’t conjure to mind any clear examples of success (availability). Keeping this in mind, your update upon experiencing failure should be small, probably as small as you can make it. Conversely, when you do actually succeed, even in a small way, don’t dismiss it. Don’t look for reasons why it was just luck—it’s always luck, at least in part, for everyone. Try to update your self-evaluation more when you succeed, precisely because success is rare for everyone.

3. Don’t lose hope. The next one really could be your big break. While astronomically baffling (no, it’s darkest at midnight, in between dusk and dawn!), “it is always darkest before the dawn” really does apply here. You are likely to feel the worst about yourself at the very point where you are about to finally succeed. The lowest self-esteem you ever feel will be just before you finally achieve a major success. Of course, you can’t know if the next one will be it—or if it will take five, or ten, or twenty more tries. And yes, each new failure will hurt a little bit more, make you doubt yourself a little bit more. But if you are properly grounded by what others think of your talents, you can stand firm, until that one glorious day comes and you finally make it.

Now, if I could only manage to take my own advice….

Tithing makes quite a lot of sense

Dec 22 JDN 2458840

Christmas is coming soon, and it is a season of giving: Not only gifts to those we love, but also to charities that help people around the world. It’s a theme of some of our most classic Christmas stories, like A Christmas Carol. (I do have to admit: Scrooge really isn’t wrong for not wanting to give to some random charity without any chance to evaluate it. But I also get the impression he wasn’t giving a lot to evaluated charities either.) And people do really give more around this time of year: Charitable donation rates peak in November and December (though that may also have something to do with tax deductions).

Where should we give? This is not an easy question, but it’s one that we now have tools to answer: There are various independent charity evaluation agencies, like GiveWell and Charity Navigator, which can at least provide some idea of which charities are most cost-effective.

How much should we give? This question is a good deal harder.

Perhaps a perfect being would determine their own precise marginal utility of wealth, and the marginal utility of spending on every possible charity, and give of your wealth to the best possible charity up until those two marginal utilities are equal. Since $1 to UNICEF or the Against Malaria Foundation saves about 0.02 QALY, and (unless you’re a billionaire) you don’t have enough money to meaningfully affect the budget of UNICEF, you’d probably need to give until you are yourself at the UN poverty level of $1.90 per day.

I don’t know of anyone who does this. Even Peter Singer, who writes books that essentially tell us to do this, doesn’t do this. I’m not sure it’s humanly possible to do this. Indeed, I’m not even so sure that a perfect being would do it, since it would require destroying their own life and their own future potential.

How about we all give 10%? In other words, how about we tithe? Yes, it sounds arbitrary—because it is. It could just as well have been 8% or 11%. Perhaps one-tenth feels natural to a base-10 culture made of 10-fingered beings, and if we used a base-12 numeral system we’d think in terms of giving one-twelfth instead. But 10% feels reasonable to a lot of people, it has a lot of cultural support behind it already, and it has become a Schelling point for coordination on this otherwise intractable problem. We need to draw the line somewhere, and it might as well be there.

As Slate Star Codex put it:

It’s ten percent because that’s the standard decreed by Giving What We Can and the effective altruist community. Why should we believe their standard? I think we should believe it because if we reject it in favor of “No, you are a bad person unless you give all of it,” then everyone will just sit around feeling very guilty and doing nothing. But if we very clearly say “You have discharged your moral duty if you give ten percent or more,” then many people will give ten percent or more. The most important thing is having a Schelling point, and ten percent is nice, round, divinely ordained, and – crucially – the Schelling point upon which we have already settled. It is an active Schelling point. If you give ten percent, you can have your name on a nice list and get access to a secret forum on the Giving What We Can site which is actually pretty boring.

It’s ten percent because definitions were made for Man, not Man for definitions, and if we define “good person” in a way such that everyone is sitting around miserable because they can’t reach an unobtainable standard, we are stupid definition-makers. If we are smart definition-makers, we will define it in whichever way which makes it the most effective tool to convince people to give at least that much.

I think it would be also reasonable to adjust this proportion according to your household income. If you are extremely poor, give a token amount: Perhaps 1% or 2%. (As it stands, most poor people already give more than this, and most rich people give less.) If you are somewhat below the median household income, give a bit less: Perhaps 6% or 8%. (I currently give 8%; I plan to increase to 10% once I get a higher-paying job after graduation.) If you are somewhat above, give a bit more: Perhaps 12% or 15%. If you are spectacularly rich, maybe you should give as much as 25%.

Is 10% enough? Well, actually, if everyone gave, even 1% would probably be enough. The total GDP of the First World is about $40 trillion; 1% of that is $400 billion per year, which is more than enough to end world hunger. But since we know that not everyone will give, we need to adjust our standard upward so that those who do give will give enough. (There’s actually an optimization problem here which is basically equivalent to finding a monopoly’s profit-maximizing price.) And just ending world hunger probably isn’t enough; there is plenty of disease to cure, education to improve, research to do, and ecology to protect. If say a third of First World people give 10%, that would be about $1.3 trillion, which would be enough money to at least make a huge difference in all those areas.

You can decide for yourself where you think you should draw the line. But 10% is a pretty good benchmark, and above all—please, give something. If you give anything, you are probably already above average. A large proportion of people give nothing at all. (Only 24% of US tax returns include a charitable deduction—though, to be fair, a lot of us donate but don’t itemize deductions. Even once you account for that, only about 60% of US households give to charity in any given year.)

Mental illness is different from physical illness.

Post 311 Oct 13 JDN 2458770

There’s something I have heard a lot of people say about mental illness that is obviously well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided: “Mental illness is just like physical illness.”

Sometimes they say it explicitly in those terms. Other times they make analogies, like “If you wouldn’t shame someone with diabetes for using insulin, why shame someone with depression for using SSRIs?”

Yet I don’t think this line of argument will ever meaningfully reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, because, well, it’s obviously not true.

There are some characteristics of mental illness that are analogous to physical illness—but there are some that really are quite different. And these are not just superficial differences, the way that pancreatic disease is different from liver disease. No one would say that liver cancer is exactly the same as pancreatic cancer; but they’re both obviously of the same basic category. There are differences between physical and mental illness which are both obvious, and fundamental.

Here’s the biggest one: Talk therapy works on mental illness.

You can’t talk yourself out of diabetes. You can’t talk yourself out of myocardial infarct. You can’t even talk yourself out of migraine (though I’ll get back to that one in a little bit). But you can, in a very important sense, talk yourself out of depression.

In fact, talk therapy is one of the most effective treatments for most mental disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy for depression is on its own as effective as most antidepressants (with far fewer harmful side effects), and the two combined are clearly more effective than either alone. Talk therapy is as effective as medication on bipolar disorder, and considerably better on social anxiety disorder.

To be clear: Talk therapy is not just people telling you to cheer up, or saying it’s “all in your head”, or suggesting that you get more exercise or eat some chocolate. Nor does it consist of you ruminating by yourself and trying to talk yourself out of your disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a very complex, sophisticated series of techniques that require years of expert training to master. Yet, at its core, cognitive therapy really is just a very sophisticated form of talking.

The fact that mental disorders can be so strongly affected by talk therapy shows that there really is an important sense in which mental disorders are “all in your head”, and not just the trivial way that an axe wound or even a migraine is all in your head. It isn’t just the fact that it is physically located in your brain that makes a mental disorder different; it’s something deeper than that.

Here’s the best analogy I can come up with: Physical illness is hardware. Mental illness is software.

If a computer breaks after being dropped on the floor, that’s like an axe wound: An obvious, traumatic source of physical damage that is an unambiguous cause of the failure.

If a computer’s CPU starts overheating, that’s like a physical illness, like diabetes: There may be no particular traumatic cause, or even any clear cause at all, but there is obviously something physically wrong that needs physical intervention to correct.

But if a computer is suffering glitches and showing error messages when it tries to run particular programs, that is like mental illness: Something is wrong not on the low-level hardware, but on the high-level software.

These different types of problem require different types of solutions. If your CPU is overheating, you might want to see about replacing your cooling fan or your heat sink. But if your software is glitching while your CPU is otherwise running fine, there’s no point in replacing your fan or heat sink. You need to get a programmer in there to look at the code and find out where it’s going wrong. A talk therapist is like a programmer: The words they say to you are like code scripts they’re trying to get your processor to run correctly.

Of course, our understanding of computers is vastly better than our understanding of human brains, and as a result, programmers tend to get a lot better results than psychotherapists. (Interestingly they do actually get paid about the same, though! Programmers make about 10% more on average than psychotherapists, and both are solidly within the realm of average upper-middle-class service jobs.) But the basic process is the same: Using your expert knowledge of the system, find the right set of inputs that will fix the underlying code and solve the problem. At no point do you physically intervene on the system; you could do it remotely without ever touching it—and indeed, remote talk therapy is a thing.

What about other neurological illnesses, like migraine or fibromyalgia? Well, I think these are somewhere in between. They’re definitely more physical in some sense than a mental disorder like depression. There isn’t any cognitive content to a migraine the way there is to a depressive episode. When I feel depressed or anxious, I feel depressed or anxious about something. But there’s nothing a migraine is about. To use the technical term in cognitive science, neurological disorders lack the intentionality that mental disorders generally have. “What are you depressed about?” is a question you usually can answer. “What are you migrained about?” generally isn’t.

But like mental disorders, neurological disorders are directly linked to the functioning of the brain, and often seem to operate at a higher level of functional abstraction. The brain doesn’t have pain receptors on itself the way most of your body does; getting a migraine behind your left eye doesn’t actually mean that that specific lobe of your brain is what’s malfunctioning. It’s more like a general alert your brain is sending out that something is wrong, somewhere. And fibromyalgia often feels like it’s taking place in your entire body at once. Moreover, most neurological disorders are strongly correlated with mental disorders—indeed, the comorbidity of depression with migraine and fibromyalgia in particular is extremely high.

Which disorder causes the other? That’s a surprisingly difficult question. Intuitively we might expect the “more physical” disorder to be the primary cause, but that’s not always clear. Successful treatment for depression often improves symptoms of migraine and fibromyalgia as well (though the converse is also true). They seem to be mutually reinforcing one another, and it’s not at all clear which came first. I suppose if I had to venture a guess, I’d say the pain disorders probably have causal precedence over the mood disorders, but I don’t actually know that for a fact.

To stretch my analogy a little, it may be like a software problem that ends up causing a hardware problem, or a hardware problem that ends up causing a software problem. There actually have been a few examples of this, like games with graphics so demanding that they caused GPUs to overheat.

The human brain is a lot more complicated than a computer, and the distinction between software and hardware is fuzzier; we don’t actually have “code” that runs on a “processor”. We have synapses that continually fire on and off and rewire each other. The closest thing we have to code that gets processed in sequence would be our genome, and that is several orders of magnitude less complex than the structure of our brains. Aside from simply physically copying the entire brain down to every synapse, it’s not clear that you could ever “download” a mind, science fiction notwithstanding.

Indeed, anything that changes your mind necessarily also changes your brain; the effects of talking are generally subtler than the effects of a drug (and certainly subtler than the effects of an axe wound!), but they are nevertheless real, physical changes. (This is why it is so idiotic whenever the popular science press comes out with: “New study finds that X actually changes your brain!” where X might be anything from drinking coffee to reading romance novels. Of course it does! If it has an effect on your mind, it did so by having an effect on your brain. That’s the Basic Fact of Cognitive Science.) This is not so different from computers, however: Any change in software is also a physical change, in the form of some sequence of electrical charges that were moved from one place to another. Actual physical electrons are a few microns away from where they otherwise would have been because of what was typed into that code.

Of course I want to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. (For both selfish and altruistic reasons, really.) But blatantly false assertions don’t seem terribly productive toward that goal. Mental illness is different from physical illness; we can’t treat it the same.

Procrastination is an anxiety symptom

Aug 18 JDN 2458715

Why do we procrastinate? Some people are chronic procrastinators, while others only do it on occasion, but almost everyone procrastinates: We have something important to do, and we should be working on it, but we find ourselves doing anything else we can think of—cleaning is a popular choice—rather than actually getting to work. This continues until we get so close to the deadline that we have no choice but to rush through the work, lest it not get done at all. The result is more stress and lower-quality work. Why would we put ourselves through this?

There are a few different reasons why people may procrastinate. The one that most behavioral economists lean toward is hyperbolic discounting: Because we undervalue the future relative to the present, we set aside unpleasant tasks for later, when it seems they won’t be as bad.

This could be relevant in some cases, particularly for those who chronically procrastinate on a wide variety of tasks, but I find it increasingly unconvincing.

First of all, there’s the fact that many of the things we do while procrastinating are not particularly pleasant. Some people procrastinate by playing games, but even more procrastinate by cleaning house or reorganizing their desks. These aren’t enjoyable activities that you would want to do as soon as possible to maximize the joy.

Second, most people don’t procrastinate consistently on everything. We procrastinate on particular types of tasks—things we consider particularly important, as a matter of fact. I almost never procrastinate in general: I complete tasks early, I plan ahead, I am always (over)prepared. But lately I’ve been procrastinating on three tasks in particular: Revising my second-year paper to submit to journals, writing grant proposals, and finishing my third-year paper. These tasks are all academic, of course; they all involve a great deal of intellectual effort. But above all, they are high stakes. I didn’t procrastinate on homework for classes, but I’m procrastinating on finishing my dissertation.

Another common explanation for procrastination involves self-control: We can’t stop ourselves from doing whatever seems fun at the moment, when we should be getting down to work on what really matters.

This explanation is even worse: There is no apparent correlation between propensity to procrastinate and general impulsiveness—or, if anything, the correlation seems to be negative. The people I know who procrastinate the most consistently are the least impulsive; they tend to ponder and deliberate every decision, even small decisions for which the extra time spent clearly isn’t worth it.

The explanation I find much more convincing is that procrastination isn’t about self-control or time at all. It’s about anxiety. Procrastination is a form of avoidance: We don’t want to face the painful experience, so we stay away from it as long as we can.

This is certainly how procrastination feels for me: It’s not that I can’t stop myself from doing something fun, it’s that I can’t bring myself to face this particular task that is causing me overwhelming stress.

This also explains why it’s always something important that we procrastinate on: It’s precisely things with high stakes that are going to cause a lot of painful feelings. And anxiety itself is deeply linked to the fear of negative evaluation—which is exactly what you’re afraid of when submitting to a journal or applying for a grant. Usually it’s a bit more metaphorical than that, the “evaluation” of being judged by your peers; but here we are literally talking about a written evaluation from a reviewer.

This is why the most effective methods at reducing procrastination all involve reducing your anxiety surrounding the task. In fact, one of the most important is forgiving yourself for prior failings—including past procrastination. Students who were taught to forgive themselves for procrastinating were less likely to procrastinate in the future. If this were a matter of self-control, forgiving yourself should be counterproductive; but in fact it’s probably the most effective intervention.

Unsurprisingly, those with the highest stress level had the highest rates of procrastination (causality could run both ways there); but this is much less true for those who are good at practicing self-compassion. The idea behind self-compassion is very simple: Treat yourself as kindly as you would treat someone you care about.

I am extraordinarily bad at self-compassion. It is probably my greatest weakness. If we were to measure self-compassion by the gap between how kind you are to yourself and how kind you are to others, I would probably have one of the largest gaps in the world. Compassion for others has been a driving force in my life for as long as I can remember, and I put my money where my mouth is, giving at least 8% of my gross income to top-rated international charities every year. But compassion for myself feels inauthentic, even alien; I brutally punish myself for every failure, every moment of weakness. If someone else treated me the way I treat myself, I’d consider them abusive. It’s something I’ve struggled with for many years.

Really, the wonder is that I don’t procrastinate more; I think it’s because I’m already doing most of the things that people will tell you to do to avoid procrastination, like scheduling specific tasks to specific times and prioritizing a small number of important tasks each day. I even keep track of how I actually use my time (I call it “descriptive scheduling”, as opposed to conventional “normative scheduling”), and use that information to make my future schedules more realistic—thus avoiding or at least mitigating the planning fallacy. But when it’s just too intimidating to even look at the paper I’m supposed to be revising, none of that works.

If you too are struggling with procrastination (and odds of that are quite high), I’m afraid that I don’t have any brilliant advice for you today. I can recommend those scheduling techniques, and they may help; but the ultimate cause of procrastination is not bad scheduling or planning but something much deeper: anxiety about the task itself and being evaluated upon it. Procrastination is not laziness or lack of self-control: It’s an anxiety symptom.

Why do we need “publish or perish”?

June 23 JDN 2458658

This question may seem a bit self-serving, coming from a grad student who is struggling to get his first paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. But given the deep structural flaws in the academic publishing system, I think it’s worth taking a step back to ask just what peer-reviewed journals are supposed to be accomplishing.

The argument is often made that research journals are a way of sharing knowledge. If this is their goal, they have utterly and totally failed. Most papers are read by only a handful of people. When scientists want to learn about the research their colleagues are doing, they don’t read papers; they go to conferences to listen to presentations and look at posters. The way papers are written, they are often all but incomprehensible to anyone outside a very narrow subfield. When published by proprietary journals, papers are often hidden behind paywalls and accessible only through universities. As a knowledge-sharing mechanism, the peer-reviewed journal is a complete failure.

But academic publishing serves another function, which in practice is its only real function: Peer-reviewed publications are a method of evaluation. They are a way of deciding which researchers are good enough to be hired, get tenure, and receive grants. Having peer-reviewed publications—particularly in “top journals”, however that is defined within a given field—is a key metric that universities and grant agencies use to decide which researchers are worth spending on. Indeed, in some cases it seems to be utterly decisive.

We should be honest about this: This is an absolutely necessary function. It is uncomfortable to think about the fact that we must exclude a large proportion of competent, qualified people from being hired or getting tenure in academia, but given the large number of candidates and the small amounts of funding available, this is inevitable. We can’t hire everyone who would probably be good enough. We can only hire a few, and it makes sense to want those few to be the best. (Also, don’t fret too much: Even if you don’t make it into academia, getting a PhD is still a profitable investment. Economists and natural scientists do the best, unsurprisingly; but even humanities PhDs are still generally worth it. Median annual earnings of $77,000 is nothing to sneeze at: US median household income is only about $60,000. Humanities graduates only seem poor in relation to STEM or professional graduates; they’re still rich compared to everyone else.)

But I think it’s worth asking whether the peer review system is actually selecting the best researchers, or even the best research. Note that these are not the same question: The best research done in graduate school might not necessarily reflect the best long-run career trajectory for a researcher. A lot of very important, very difficult questions in science are just not the sort of thing you can get a convincing answer to in a couple of years, and so someone who wants to work on the really big problems may actually have a harder time getting published in graduate school or as a junior faculty member, even though ultimately work on the big problems is what’s most important for society. But I’m sure there’s a positive correlation overall: The kind of person who is going to do better research later is probably, other things equal, going to do better research right now.

Yet even accepting the fact that all we have to go on in assessing what you’ll eventually do is what you have already done, it’s not clear that the process of publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is a particularly good method of assessing the quality of research. Some really terrible research has gotten published in journals—I’m gonna pick on Daryl Bem, because he’s the worst—and a lot of really good research never made it into journals and is languishing on old computer hard drives. (The term “file drawer problem” is about 40 years obsolete; though to be fair, it was in fact coined about 40 years ago.)

That by itself doesn’t actually prove that journals are a bad mechanism. Even a good mechanism, applied to a difficult problem, is going to make some errors. But there are a lot of things about academic publishing, at least as currently constituted, that obviously don’t seem like a good mechanism, such as for-profit publishers, unpaid reviewiers, lack of double-blinded review, and above all, the obsession with “statistical significance” that leads to p-hacking.

Each of these problems I’ve listed has a simple fix (though whether the powers that be actually are willing to implement it is a different question: Questions of policy are often much easier to solve than problems of politics). But maybe we should ask whether the system is even worth fixing, or if it should simply be replaced entirely.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about the academic tenure system, because the peer-review system is largely an evaluation mechanism for the academic tenure system. Publishing in top journals is what decides whether you get tenure. The problem with “Publish or perish” isn’t the “publish”; it’s the perish”. Do we even need an academic tenure system?

The usual argument for academic tenure concerns academic freedom: Tenured professors have job security, so they can afford to say things that may be controversial or embarrassing to the university. But the way the tenure system works is that you only have this job security after going through a long and painful gauntlet of job insecurity. You have to spend several years prostrating yourself to the elders of your field before you can get inducted into their ranks and finally be secure.

Of course, job insecurity is the norm, particularly in the United States: Most employment in the US is “at-will”, meaning essentially that your employer can fire you for any reason at any time. There are specifically illegal reasons for firing (like gender, race, and religion); but it’s extremely hard to prove wrongful termination when all the employer needs to say is, “They didn’t do a good job” or “They weren’t a team player”. So I can understand how it must feel strange for a private-sector worker who could be fired at any time to see academics complain about the rigors of the tenure system.

But there are some important differences here: The academic job market is not nearly as competitive as the private sector job market. There simply aren’t that many prestigious universities, and within each university there are only a small number of positions to fill. As a result, universities have an enormous amount of power over their faculty, which is why they can get away with paying adjuncts salaries that amount to less than minimum wage. (People with graduate degrees! Making less than minimum wage!) At least in most private-sector labor markets in the US, the market is competitive enough that if you get fired, you can probably get hired again somewhere else. In academia that’s not so clear.

I think what bothers me the most about the tenure system is the hierarchical structure: There is a very sharp divide between those who have tenure, those who don’t have it but can get it (“tenure-track”), and those who can’t get it. The lines between professor, associate professor, assistant professor, lecturer, and adjunct are quite sharp. The higher up you are, the more job security you have, the more money you make, and generally the better your working conditions are overall. Much like what makes graduate school so stressful, there are a series of high-stakes checkpoints you need to get through in order to rise in the ranks. And several of those checkpoints are based largely, if not entirely, on publication in peer-reviewed journals.

In fact, we are probably stressing ourselves out more than we need to. I certainly did for my advancement to candidacy; I spent two weeks at such a high stress level I was getting migraines every single day (clearly on the wrong side of the Yerkes-Dodson curve), only to completely breeze through the exam.

I think I might need to put this up on a wall somewhere to remind myself:

Most grad students complete their degrees, and most assistant professors get tenure.

The real filters are admissions and hiring: Most applications to grad school are rejected (though probably most graduate students are ultimately accepted somewhere—I couldn’t find any good data on that in a quick search), and most PhD graduates do not get hired on the tenure track. But if you can make it through those two gauntlets, you can probably make it through the rest.

In our current system, publications are a way to filter people, because the number of people who want to become professors is much higher than the number of professor positions available. But as an economist, this raises a very big question: Why aren’t salaries falling?

You see, that’s how markets are supposed to work: When supply exceeds demand, the price is supposed to fall until the market clears. Lower salaries would both open up more slots at universities (you can hire more faculty with the same level of funding) and shift some candidates into other careers (if you can get paid a lot better elsewhere, academia may not seem so attractive). Eventually there should be a salary point at which demand equals supply. So why aren’t we reaching it?

Well, it comes back to that tenure system. We can’t lower the salaries of tenured faculty, not without a total upheaval of the current system. So instead what actually happens is that universities switch to using adjuncts, who have very low salaries indeed. If there were no tenure, would all faculty get paid like adjuncts? No, they wouldn’tbecause universities would have all that money they’re currently paying to tenured faculty, and all the talent currently locked up in tenured positions would be on the market, driving up the prevailing salary. What would happen if we eliminated tenure is not that all salaries would fall to adjunct level; rather, salaries would all adjust to some intermediate level between what adjuncts currently make and what tenured professors currently make.

What would the new salary be, exactly? That would require a detailed model of the supply and demand elasticities, so I can’t tell you without starting a whole new research paper. But a back-of-the-envelope calculation would suggest something like the overall current median faculty salary. This suggests a median salary somewhere around $75,000. This is a lot less than some professors make, but it’s also a lot more than what adjuncts make, and it’s a pretty good living overall.

If the salary for professors fell, the pool of candidates would decrease, and we wouldn’t need such harsh filtering mechanisms. We might decide we don’t need a strict evaluation system at all, and since the knowledge-sharing function of journals is much better served by other means, we could probably get rid of them altogether.

Of course, who am I kidding? That’s not going to happen. The people who make these rules succeeded in the current system. They are the ones who stand to lose high salaries and job security under a reform policy. They like things just the way they are.

Green New Deal Part 3: Guaranteeing education and healthcare is easy—why aren’t we doing it?

Apr 21 JDN 2458595

Last week was one of the “hard parts” of the Green New Deal. Today it’s back to one of the “easy parts”: Guaranteed education and healthcare.

“Providing all people of the United States with – (i) high-quality health care; […]

“Providing resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States.”

Many Americans seem to think that providing universal healthcare would be prohibitively expensive. In fact, it would have literally negative net cost.
The US currently has the most bloated, expensive, inefficient healthcare system in the entire world. We spend almost $10,000 per person per year on healthcare, and get outcomes no better than France or the UK where they spend less than $5,000.
In fact, our public healthcare expenditures are currently higher than almost every other country. Our private expenditures are therefore pure waste; all they are doing is providing returns for the shareholders of corporations. If we were to simply copy the UK National Health Service and spend money in exactly the same way as they do, we would spend the same amount in public funds and almost nothing in private funds—and the UK has a higher mean lifespan than the US.
This is absolutely a no-brainer. Burn the whole system of private insurance down. Copy a healthcare system that actually works, like they use in every other First World country.
It wouldn’t even be that complicated to implement: We already have a single-payer healthcare system in the US; it’s called Medicare. Currently only old people get it; but old people use the most healthcare anyway. Hence, Medicare for All: Just lower the eligibility age for Medicare to 18 (if not zero). In the short run there would be additional costs for the transition, but in the long run we would save mind-boggling amounts of money, all while improving healthcare outcomes and extending our lifespans. Current estimates say that the net savings of Medicare for All would be about $5 trillion over the next 10 years. We can afford this. Indeed, the question is, as it was for infrastructure: How can we afford not to do this?
Isn’t this socialism? Yeah, I suppose it is. But healthcare is one of the few things that socialist countries consistently do extremely well. Cuba is a socialist country—a real socialist country, not a social democratic welfare state like Norway but a genuinely authoritarian centrally-planned economy. Cuba’s per-capita GDP PPP is a third of ours. Yet their life expectancy is actually higher than ours, because their healthcare system is just that good. Their per-capita healthcare spending is one-fourth of ours, and their health outcomes are better. So yeah, let’s be socialist in our healthcare. Socialists seem really good at healthcare.
And this makes sense, if you think about it. Doctors can do their jobs a lot better when they’re focused on just treating everyone who needs help, rather than arguing with insurance companies over what should and shouldn’t be covered. Preventative medicine is extremely cost-effective, yet it’s usually the first thing that people skimp on when trying to save money on health insurance. A variety of public health measures (such as vaccination and air quality regulation) are extremely cost-effective, but they are public goods that the private sector would not pay for by itself.
It’s not as if healthcare was ever really a competitive market anyway: When you get sick or injured, do you shop around for the best or cheapest hospital? How would you even go about that, when they don’t even post most of their prices and what prices they post are often wildly different than what you’ll actually pay?
The only serious argument I’ve heard against single-payer healthcare is a moral one: “Why should I have to pay for other people’s healthcare?” Well, I guess, because… you’re a human being? You should care about other human beings, and not want them to suffer and die from easily treatable diseases?
I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people.

Single-payer healthcare is not only affordable: It would be cheaper and better than what we are currently doing. (In fact, almost anything would be cheaper and better than what we are currently doing—Obamacare was an improvement over the previous mess, but it’s still a mess.)
What about public education? Well, we already have that up to the high school level, and it works quite well.
Contrary to popular belief, the average public high school has better outcomes in terms of test scores and college placements than the average private high school. There are some elite private schools that do better, but they are extraordinarily expensive and they self-select only the best students. Public schools have to take all students, and they have a limited budget; but they have high quality standards and they require their teachers to be certified.
The flaws in our public school system are largely from it being not public enough, which is to say that schools are funded by their local property taxes instead of having their costs equally shared across whole states. This gives them the same basic problem as private schools: Rich kids get better schools.
If we removed that inequality, our educational outcomes would probably be among the best in the world—indeed, in our most well-funded school districts, they are. The state of Massachusetts which actually funds their public schools equally and well, gets international test scores just as good as the supposedly “superior” educational systems of Asian countries. In fact, this is probably even unfair to Massachusetts, as we know that China specifically selects the regions that have the best students to be the ones to take these international tests. Massachusetts is the best the US has to offer, but Shanghai is also the best China has to offer, so it’s only fair we compare apples to apples.
Public education has benefits for our whole society. We want to have a population of citizens, workers, and consumers who are well-educated. There are enormous benefits of primary and secondary education in terms of reducing poverty, improving public health, and increased economic growth.
So there’s my impassioned argument for why we should continue to support free, universal public education up to high school.
When it comes to college, I can’t be quite so enthusiastic. While there are societal benefits of college education, most of the benefits of college accrue to the individuals who go to college themselves.
The median weekly income of someone with a high school diploma is about $730; with a bachelor’s degree this rises to $1200; and with a doctoral or professional degree it gets over $1800. Higher education also greatly reduces your risk of being unemployed; while about 4% of the general population is unemployed, only 1.5% of people with doctorates or professional degrees are. Add that up over all the weeks of your life, and it’s a lot of money.
The net present value of a college education has been estimated at approximately $1 million. This result is quite sensitive to the choice of discount rate; at a higher discount rate you can get the net present value as “low” as $250,000.
With this in mind, the fact that the median student loan debt for a college graduate is about $30,000 doesn’t sound so terrible, does it? You’re taking out a loan for $30,000 to get something that will earn you between $250,000 and $1 million over the course of your life.
There is some evidence that having student loans delays homeownership; but this is a problem with our mortgage system, not our education system. It’s mainly the inability to finance a down payment that prevents people from buying homes. We should implement a system of block grants for first-time homeowners that gives them a chunk of money to make a down payment, perhaps $50,000. This would cost about as much as the mortgage interest tax deduction which mainly benefits the upper-middle class.
Higher education does have societal benefits as well. Perhaps the starkest I’ve noticed is how categorically higher education decided people’s votes on Donald Trump: Counties with high rates of college education almost all voted for Clinton, and counties with low rates of college education almost all voted for Trump. This was true even controlling for income and a lot of other demographic factors. Only authoritarianism, sexism and racism were better predictors of voting for Trump—and those could very well be mediating variables, if education reduces such attitudes.
If indeed it’s true that higher education makes people less sexist, less racist, less authoritarian, and overall better citizens, then it would be worth every penny to provide universal free college.
But it’s worth noting that even countries like Germany and Sweden which ostensibly do that don’t really do that: While college tuition is free for Swedish citizens and Germany provides free college for all students of any nationality, nevertheless the proportion of people in Sweden and Germany with bachelor’s degrees is actually lower than that of the United States. In Sweden the gap largely disappears if you restrict to younger cohorts—but in Germany it’s still there.
Indeed, from where I’m sitting, “universal free college” looks an awful lot like “the lower-middle class pays for the upper-middle class to go to college”. Social class is still a strong predictor of education level in Sweden. Among OECD countries, education seems to be the best at promoting upward mobility in Australia, and average college tuition in Australia is actually higher than average college tuition in the US (yes, even adjusting for currency exchange: Australian dollars are worth only slightly less than US dollars).
What does Australia do? They have a really good student loan system. You have to reach an annual income of about $40,000 per year before you need to make payments at all, and the loans are subsidized to be interest-free. Once you do owe payments, the debt is repaid at a rate proportional to your income—so effectively it’s not a debt at all but an equity stake.
In the US, students have been taking the desperate (and very cyberpunk) route of selling literal equity stakes in their education to Wall Street banks; this is a terrible idea for a hundred reasons. But having the government have something like an equity stake in students makes a lot of sense.
Because of the subsidies and generous repayment plans, the Australian government loses money on their student loan system, but so what? In order to implement universal free college, they would have spent an awful lot more than they are losing now. This way, the losses are specifically on students who got a lot of education but never managed to raise their income high enough—which means the government is actually incentivized to improve the quality of education or job-matching.
The cost of universal free college is considerable: That $1.3 trillion currently owed as student loans would be additional government debt or tax liability instead. Is this utterly unaffordable? No. But it’s not trivial either. We’re talking about roughly $60 billion per year in additional government spending, a bit less than what we currently spend on food stamps. An expenditure like that should have a large public benefit (as food stamps absolutely, definitely do!); I’m not convinced that free college would have such a benefit.
It would benefit me personally enormously: I currently owe over $100,000 in debt (about half from my undergrad and half from my first master’s). But I’m fairly privileged. Once I finally make it through this PhD, I can expect to make something like $100,000 per year until I retire. I’m not sure that benefiting people like me should be a major goal of public policy.
That said, I don’t think universal free college is a terrible policy. Done well, it could be a good thing. But it isn’t the no-brainer that single-payer healthcare is. We can still make sure that students are not overburdened by debt without making college tuition actually free.

How do you change a paradigm?

Mar 3 JDN 2458546

I recently attended the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) Young Scholars Initiative (YSI) North American Regional Convening (what a mouthful!). I didn’t present, so I couldn’t get funding for a hotel, so I commuted to LA each day. That was miserable; if I ever go again, it will be with funding.

The highlight of the conference was George Akerlof‘s keynote, which I knew would be the case from the start. The swag bag labeled “Rebel Without a Paradigm” was also pretty great (though not as great as the “Totes Bi” totes at the Human Rights Council Time to THRIVE conference).

The rest of the conference was… a bit strange, to be honest. They had a lot of slightly cheesy interactive activities and exhibits; the conference was targeted at grad students, but some of these would have drawn groans from my more jaded undergrads (and “jaded grad student” is a redundancy). The poster session was pathetically small; I think there were literally only three posters. (Had I known in time for the deadline, I could surely have submitted a poster.)

The theme of the conference was challenging the neoclassical paradigm. This was really the only unifying principle. So we had quite an eclectic mix of presenters: There were a few behavioral economists (like Akerlof himself), and some econophysicists and complexity theorists, but mostly the conference was filled with a wide variety of heterodox theorists, ranging all the way from Austrian to Marxist. Also sprinkled in were a few outright cranks, whose ideas were just total nonsense; fortunately these were relatively rare.

And what really struck me about listening to the heterodox theorists was how mainstream it made me feel. I went to a session on development economics, expecting randomized controlled trials of basic income and maybe some political economy game theory, and instead saw several presentations of neo-Marxist postcolonial theory. At the AEA conference I felt like a radical firebrand; at the YSI conference I felt like a holdout of the ancien regime. Is this what it feels like to push the envelope without leaping outside it?

The whole atmosphere of the conference was one of “Why won’t they listen to us!?” and I couldn’t help but feel like I kind of knew why. All this heterodox theory isn’t testable. It isn’t useful. It doesn’t solve the problem. Even if you are entirely correct that Latin America is poor because of colonial and neocolonial exploitation by the West (and I’m fairly certain that you’re not; standard of living under the Mexica wasn’t so great you know), that doesn’t tell me how to feed starving children in Nicaragua.

Indeed, I think it’s notable that the one Nobel Laureate they could find to speak for us was a behavioral economist. Behavioral economics has actually managed to penetrate into the mainstream somewhat. Not enough, not nearly quickly enough, to be sure—but it’s happening. Why is it happening? Because behavioral economics is testable, it’s useful, and it solves problems.

Indeed, behavioral economics is more testable than most neoclassical economics: We run lab experiments while they’re adding yet another friction or shock to the never-ending DSGE quagmire.

And we’ve already managed to solve some real policy problems this way, like Alvin Roth’s kidney matching system and Richard Thaler’s “Save More Tomorrow” program.

The (limited) success of behavioral economics came not because we continued to batter at the gates of the old paradigm demanding to be let in, but because we tied ourselves to the methodology of hard science and gathered irrefutable empirical data. We didn’t get as far as we have by complaining that economics is too much like physics; we actually made it more like physics. Physicists do experiments. They make sharp, testable predictions. They refute their hypotheses. And now, so do we.

That said, Akerlof was right when he pointed out that the insistence upon empirical precision has limited the scope of questions we are able to ask, and kept us from addressing some of the really vital economic problems in the world. And neoclassical theory is too narrow; in particular, the ongoing insistence that behavior must be modeled as perfectly rational and completely selfish is infuriating. That model has clearly failed at this point, and it’s time for something new.

So I do think there is some space for heterodox theory in economics. But there actually seems to be no shortage of heterodox theory; it’s easy to come up with ideas that are different from the mainstream. What we actually need is more ways to constrain theory with empirical evidence. The goal must be to have theory that actually predicts and explains the world better than neoclassical theory does—and that’s a higher bar than you might imagine. Neoclassical theory isn’t an abject failure; in fact, if we’d just followed the standard Keynesian models in the Great Recession, we would have recovered much faster. Most of this neo-Marxist theory struck me as not even wrong: the ideas were flexible enough that almost any observed outcome could be fit into them.

Galileo and Einstein didn’t just come up with new ideas and complain that no one listened to them. They developed detailed, mathematically precise models that could be experimentally tested—and when they were tested, they worked better than the old theory. That is the way to change a paradigm: Replace it with one that you can prove is better.