What would a better job market look like?

Sep 13 JDN 2459106

I probably don’t need to tell you this, but getting a job is really hard. Indeed, much harder than it seems like it ought to be.

Having all but completed my PhD, I am now entering the job market. The job market for economists is quite different from the job market most people deal with, and these differences highlight some potential opportunities for improving job matching in our whole economy—which, since employment is such a large part of our lives, could have wide-ranging benefits for our society.

The most obvious difference is that the job market for economists is centralized: Job postings are made through the American Economic Association listing of Job Openings for Economists (often abbrievated AEA JOE); in a typical year about 4,000 jobs are posted there. All of them have approximately the same application deadline, near the end of the year. Then, after applying to various positions, applicants get interviewed in rapid succession, all at the annual AEA conference. Then there is a matching system, where applicants get to send two “signals” indicating their top choices and then offers are made.

This year of course is different, because of COVID-19. The conference has been canceled, with all of its presentations moved online; interviews will also be conducted online. Perhaps more worrying, the number of postings has been greatly reduced, and based on past trends may be less than half of the usual number. (The number of applicants may also be reduced, but it seems unlikely to drop as much as the number of postings does.)

There are a number of flaws in even this system. First, it’s too focused on academia; very few private-sector positions use the AEA JOE system, and almost no government positions do. So those of us who are not so sure we want to stay in academia forever end up needing to deal with both this system and the conventional system in parallel. Second, I don’t understand why they use this signaling system and not a deferred-acceptance matching algorithm. I should be able to indicate more about my preferences than simply what my top two choices are—particularly when most applicants apply to over 100 positions. Third, it isn’t quite standardized enough—some positions do have earlier deadlines or different application materials, so you can’t simply put together one application packet and send it to everyone at once.

Still, it’s quite obvious that this system is superior to the decentralized job market that most people deal with. Indeed, this becomes particularly obvious when one is participating in both markets at once, as I am. The decentralized market has a wide range of deadlines, where upon seeing an application you may need to submit to it within that week, or you may have several months to respond. Nearly all applications require a resume, but different institutions will expect different content on it. Different applications may require different materials: Cover letters, references, writing samples, and transcripts are all things that some firms will want and others won’t.

Also, this is just my impression from a relatively small sample, but I feel like the AEA JOE listings are more realistic, in the following sense: They don’t all demand huge amounts of prior experience, and those that do ask for prior experience are either high-level positions where that’s totally reasonable, or are willing to substitute education for experience. For private-sector job openings you basically have to subtract three years from whatever amount of experience they say they require, because otherwise you’d never have anywhere you could apply to. (Federal government jobs are a weird case here; they all say they require a lot of experience at a specific government pay grade, but from talking with those who have dealt with the system before, they are apparently willing to make lots of substitutions—private-sector jobs, education, and even hobbies can sometimes substitute.)

I think this may be because the decentralized market has to some extent unraveled. The job market is the epitome of a matching market; unraveling in a matching market occurs when there is fierce competition for a small number of good candidates or, conversely, a small number of good openings. Each firm has the incentive to make a binding offer earlier than the others, with a short deadline so that candidates don’t have time to shop around. As firms compete with each other, they start making deadlines earlier and earlier until candidates feel like they are in a complete crapshoot: An offer made on Monday might be gone by Friday, and you have no way of knowing if you should accept it now or wait for a better one to come along. This is a Tragedy of the Commons: Given what other firms are doing, each firm benefits from making an earlier binding offer. But once they all make early offers, that benefit disappears and the result just makes the whole system less efficient.

The centralization of the AEA JOE market prevents this from happening: Everyone has common deadlines and does their interviews at the same time. Each institution may be tempted to try to break out of the constraints of the centralized market, but they know that if they do, they will be punished by receiving fewer applicants.

The fact that the centralized market is more efficient is likely a large part of why economics PhDs have the lowest unemployment rate of any PhD graduates and nearly the lowest unemployment rate of any job sector whatsoever. In some sense we should expect this: If anyone understands how to make employment work, it should be economists. Noah Smith wrote in 2013 (and I suppose I took it to heart): “If you get a PhD, get an economics PhD.” I think PhD graduates are the right comparison group here: If we looked at the population as a whole, employment rates and salaries for economists look amazing, but that isn’t really fair since it’s so much harder to become an economist than it is to get most other jobs. But I don’t think it’s particularly easier to get a PhD in physics or biochemistry than to get one in economics, and yet economists still have a lower unemployment rate than physicists or biochemists. (Though it’s worth noting that any PhD—yes, even in the humanities—will give you a far lower risk of unemployment than the general population.) The fact that we have AEA JOE and they don’t may be a major factor here.

So, here’s my question: Why don’t we do this in more job markets? It would be straightforward enough to do this for all PhD graduates, at least—actually my understanding is that some other disciplines do have centralized markets similar to the one in economics, but I’m not sure how common this is.

The federal government could relatively easily centralize its own job market as well; maybe not for positions that need to be urgently filled, but anything that can wait several months would be worth putting into a centralized system that has deadlines once or twice a year.

But what about the private sector, which after all is where most people work? Could we centralize that system as well?

It’s worth noting the additional challenges that immediately arise: Many positions need to be filled immediately, and centralization would make that impossible. There are thousands of firms that would need to be coordinated (there are at least 100,000 firms in the US with 100 or more employees). There are millions of different jobs to be filled, requiring a variety of different skills. In an average month over 5 million jobs are filled in the United States.

Most people want a job near where they live, so part of the solution might be to centralize only jobs within a certain region, such as a particular metro area. But if we are limited to open positions of a particular type within a particular city, there might not be enough openings at any given time to be worth centralizing. And what about applicants who don’t care so much about geography? Should they be applying separately to each regional market?

Yet even with all this in mind, I think some degree of centralization would be feasible and worthwhile. If nothing else, I think standardizing deadlines and application materials could make a significant difference—it’s far easier to apply to many places if they all use the same application and accept them at the same time.

Another option would be to institute widespread active labor market policies, which are a big part of why #ScandinaviaIsBetter. Denmark especially invests heavily in such programs, which provide training and job matching for unemployed citizens. It is no coincidence that Denmark has kept their unemployment rate under 7% even through the worst of the Great Recession. The US unemployment rate fluctuates wildly with the business cycle, while most of Europe has steadier but higher unemployment. Indeed, the lowest unemployment rates in France over the last 30 years have exceeded the highest rates in Denmark over the same period. Denmark spends a lot on their active labor market programs, but I think they’re getting their money’s worth.

Such a change would make our labor markets more efficient, matching people to jobs that fit them better, increasing productivity and likely decreasing turnover. Wages probably wouldn’t change much, but working in a better job for the same wage is still a major improvement in your life. Indeed, job satisfaction is one of the strongest predictors of life satisfaction, which isn’t too surprising given how much of our lives we spend at work.

Sincerity inflation

Aug 30 JDN 2459092

What is the most saccharine, empty, insincere way to end a letter? “Sincerely”.

Whence such irony? Well, we’ve all been using it for so long that we barely notice it anymore. It’s just the standard way to end a letter now.

This process is not unlike inflation: As more and more dollars get spent, the value of a dollar decreases, and as a word or phrase gets used more and more, its meaning weakens.

It’s hardly just the word “Sincerely” itself that has thus inflated. Indeed, almost any sincere expression of caring often feels empty. We routinely ask strangers “How are you?” when we don’t actually care how they are.

I felt this quite vividly when I was applying to GiveWell (alas, they decided not to hire me). I was trying to express how much I care about GiveWell’s mission to maximize the effectiveness of charity at saving lives, and it was quite hard to find the words. I kept find myself saying things that anyone could say, whether they really cared or not. Fighting global poverty is nothing less than my calling in life—but how could I say that without sounding obsequious or hyperbolic? Anyone can say that they care about global poverty—and if you asked them, hardly anyone would say that they don’t care at all about saving African children from malaria—but how many people actually give money to the Against Malaria Foundation?

Or think about how uncomfortable it can feel to tell a friend that you care about them. I’ve seen quite a few posts on social media that are sort of scattershot attempts at this: “I love you all!” Since that is obviously not true—you do not in fact love all 286 of your Facebook friends—it has plausible deniability. But you secretly hope that the ones you really do care about will see its truth.

Where is this ‘sincerity inflation’ coming from? It can’t really be from overuse of sincerity in ordinary conversation—the question is precisely why such conversation is so rare.

But there is a clear source of excessive sincerity, and it is all around us: Advertising.

Every product is the “best”. They will all “change your life”. You “need” every single one. Every corporation “supports family”. Every product will provide “better living”. The product could be a toothbrush or an automobile; the ads are never really about the product. They are about how the corporation will make your family happy.

Consider the following hilarious subversion by the Steak-umms Twitter account (which is a candle in the darkness of these sad times; they have lots of really great posts about Coronavirus and critical thinking).

Kevin Farzard (who I know almost nothing about, but gather he’s a comedian?) wrote this on Twitter: “I just want one brand to tell me that we are not in this together and their health is our lowest priority”

Steak-umms diligently responded: “Kevin we are not in this together and your health is our lowest priority”

Why is this amusing? Because every other corporation—whose executives surely care less about public health than whatever noble creature runs the Steak-umms Twitter feed—has been saying the opposite: “We are all in this together and your health is our highest priority.”

We are so inundated with this saccharine sincerity by advertisers that we learn to tune it out—we have to, or else we’d go crazy and/or bankrupt. But this has an unfortunate side effect: We tune out expressions of caring when they come from other human beings as well.

Therefore let us endeavor to change this, to express our feelings clearly and plainly to those around us, while continuing to shield ourselves from the bullshit of corporations. (I choose that word carefully: These aren’t lies, they’re bullshit. They aren’t false so much as they are utterly detached from truth.) Part of this means endeavoring to be accepting and supportive when others express their feelings to us, not retreating into the comfort of dismissal or sarcasm. Restoring the value of our sincerity will require a concerted effort from many people acting at once.

For this project to succeed, we must learn to make a sharp distinction between the institutions that are trying to extract profits from us and the people who have relationships with us. This is not to say that human beings cannot lie or be manipulative; of course they can. Trust is necessary for all human relationships, but there is such a thing as too much trust. There is a right amount to trust others you do not know, and it is neither complete distrust nor complete trust. Higher levels of trust must be earned.

But at least human beings are not systematically designed to be amoral and manipulative—which corporations are. A corporation exists to do one thing: Maximize profit for its shareholders. Whatever else a corporation is doing, it is in service of that one ultimate end. Corporations can do many good things; but they sort of do it by accident, along the way toward their goal of maximizing profit. And when those good things stop being profitable, they stop doing them. Keep these facts in mind, and you may have an easier time ignoring everything that corporations say without training yourself to tune out all expressions of sincerity.

Then, perhaps one day it won’t feel so uncomfortable to tell people that we care about them.

Terrible but not likely, likely but not terrible

May 17 JDN 2458985

The human brain is a remarkably awkward machine. It’s really quite bad at organizing data, relying on associations rather than formal categories.

It is particularly bad at negation. For instance, if I tell you that right now, no matter what, you must not think about a yellow submarine, the first thing you will do is think about a yellow submarine. (You may even get the Beatles song stuck in your head, especially now that I’ve mentioned it.) A computer would never make such a grievous error.

The human brain is also quite bad at separation. Daniel Dennett coined a word “deepity” for a particular kind of deep-sounding but ultimately trivial aphorism that seems to be quite common, which relies upon this feature of the brain. A deepity has at least two possible readings: On one reading, it is true, but utterly trivial. On another, it would be profound if true, but it simply isn’t true. But if you experience both at once, your brain is triggered for both “true” and “profound” and yields “profound truth”. The example he likes to use is “Love is just a word”. Well, yes, “love” is in fact just a word, but who cares? Yeah, words are words. But love, the underlying concept it describes, is not just a word—though if it were that would change a lot.

One thing I’ve come to realize about my own anxiety is that it involves a wide variety of different scenarios I imagine in my mind, and broadly speaking these can be sorted into two categories: Those that are likely but not terrible, and those that are terrible but not likely.

In the former category we have things like taking an extra year to finish my dissertation; the mean time to completion for a PhD is over 8 years, so finishing in 6 instead of 5 can hardly be considered catastrophic.

In the latter category we have things like dying from COVID-19. Yes, I’m a male with type A blood and asthma living in a high-risk county; but I’m also a young, healthy nonsmoker living under lockdown. Even without knowing the true fatality rate of the virus, my chances of actually dying from it are surely less than 1%.

But when both of those scenarios are running through my brain at the same time, the first triggers a reaction for “likely” and the second triggers a reaction for “terrible”, and I get this feeling that something terrible is actually likely to happen. And indeed if my probability of dying were as high as my probability of needing a 6th year to finish my PhD, that would be catastrophic.

I suppose it’s a bit strange that the opposite doesn’t happen: I never seem to get the improbability of dying attached to the mildness of needing an extra year. The confusion never seems to trigger “neither terrible nor likely”. Or perhaps it does, and my brain immediately disregards that as not worthy of consideration? It makes a certain sort of sense: An event that is neither probable nor severe doesn’t seem to merit much anxiety.

I suspect that many other people’s brains work the same way, eliding distinctions between different outcomes and ending up with a sort of maximal product of probability and severity.
The solution to this is not an easy one: It requires deliberate effort and extensive practice, and benefits greatly from formal training by a therapist. Counter-intuitively, you need to actually focus more on the scenarios that cause you anxiety, and accept the anxiety that such focus triggers in you. I find that it helps to actually write down the details of each scenario as vividly as possible, and review what I have written later. After doing this enough times, you can build up a greater separation in your mind, and more clearly categorize—this one is likely but not terrible, that one is terrible but not likely. It isn’t a cure, but it definitely helps me a great deal. Perhaps it could help you.

Motivation under trauma

May 3 JDN 2458971

Whenever I ask someone how they are doing lately, I get the same answer: “Pretty good, under the circumstances.” There seems to be a general sense that—at least among the sort of people I interact with regularly—that our own lives are still proceeding more or less normally, as we watch in horror the crises surrounding us. Nothing in particular is going wrong for us specifically. Everything is fine, except for the things that are wrong for everyone everywhere.

One thing that seems to be particularly difficult for a lot of us is the sense that we suddenly have so much time on our hands, but can’t find the motivation to actually use this time productively. So many hours of our lives were wasted on commuting or going to meetings or attending various events we didn’t really care much about but didn’t want to feel like we had missed out on. But now that we have these hours back, we can’t find the strength to use them well.

This is because we are now, as an entire society, experiencing a form of trauma. One of the most common long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder is a loss of motivation. Faced with suffering we have no power to control, we are made helpless by this traumatic experience; and this makes us learn to feel helpless in other domains.

There is a classic experiment about learned helplessness; like many old classic experiments, its ethics are a bit questionable. Though unlike many such experiments (glares at Zimbardo), its experimental rigor was ironclad. Dogs were divided into three groups. Group 1 was just a control, where the dogs were tied up for a while and then let go. Dogs in groups 2 and 3 were placed into a crate with a floor that could shock them. Dogs in group 2 had a lever they could press to make the shocks stop. Dogs in group 3 did not. (They actually gave the group 2 dogs control over the group 3 dogs to make the shock times exactly equal; but the dogs had no way to know that, so as far as they knew the shocks ended at random.)

Later, dogs from both groups were put into another crate, where they no longer had a lever to press, but they could jump over a barrier to a different part of the crate where the shocks wouldn’t happen. The dogs from group 2, who had previously had some control over their own pain, were able to quickly learn to do this. The dogs from group 3, who had previously felt pain apparently at random, had a very hard time learning this, if they could ever learn it at all. They’d just lay there and suffer the shocks, unable to bring themselves to even try to leap the barrier.

The group 3 dogs just knew there was nothing they could do. During their previous experience of the trauma, all their actions were futile, and so in this new trauma they were certain that their actions would remain futile. When nothing you do matters, the only sensible thing to do is nothing; and so they did. They had learned to be helpless.

I think for me, chronic migraines were my first crate. For years of my life there was basically nothing I could do to prevent myself from getting migraines—honestly the thing that would have helped most would have been to stop getting up for high school that started at 7:40 AM every morning. Eventually I found a good neurologist and got various treatments, as well as learned about various triggers and found ways to avoid most of them. (Let me know if you ever figure out a way to avoid stress.) My migraines are now far less frequent than they were when I was a teenager, though they are still far more frequent than I would prefer.

Yet, I think I still have not fully unlearned the helplessness that migraines taught me. Every time I get another migraine despite all the medications I’ve taken and all the triggers I’ve religiously avoided, this suffering beyond my control acts as another reminder of the ultimate caprice of the universe. There are so many things in our lives that we cannot control that it can be easy to lose sight of what we can.

This pandemic is a trauma that the whole world is now going through. And perhaps that unity of experience will ultimately save us—it will make us see the world and each other a little differently than we did before.

There are a few things you can do to reduce your own risk of getting or spreading the COVID-19 infection, like washing your hands regularly, avoiding social contact, and wearing masks when you go outside. And of course you should do these things. But the truth really is that there is very little any one of us can do to stop this global pandemic. We can watch the numbers tick up almost in real-time—as of this writing, 1 million cases and over 50,000 deaths in the US, 3 million cases and over 200,000 deaths worldwide—but there is very little we can do to change those numbers.

Sometimes we really are helpless. The challenge we face is not to let this genuine helplessness bleed over and make us feel helpless about other aspects of our lives. We are currently sitting in a crate with no lever, where the shocks will begin and end beyond our control. But the day will come when we are delivered to a new crate, and given the chance to leap over a barrier; we must find the strength to take that leap.

For now, I think we can forgive ourselves for getting less done than we might have hoped. We’re still not really out of that first crate.

Authoritarianism and Masculinity

Apr 19 JDN 2458957

There has always been a significant difference between men and women voters, at least as long as we have been gathering data—and probably as long as women have been voting, which is just about to hit its centennial in the United States.

But the 2016 and 2018 elections saw the largest gender gaps we’ve ever recorded. Dividing by Presidential administrations, Bush would be from 2000 to 2006, when the gender gap never exceeded 18 percentage points, and averaged less than 10 points. Obama would be from 2008 to 2014, when the gender gap never exceeded 20 points and averaged about 15 points. In 2018, the gap stood at 23 percentage points.

Indeed, it is quite clear at this point that Trump’s support base comes mainly from White men.

This is far from the only explanatory factor here: Younger voters are much more liberal than older voters, more educated voters are more liberal than less educated voters, and urban voters are much more liberal than rural voters.

But the gender and race gaps are large enough that even if only White men with a college degree had voted, Trump would have still won, and even if only women without a college degree had voted, Trump would have lost. Trumpism is a white male identity movement.

And indeed it seems significant that Trump’s opponent was the first woman to be a US Presidential nominee from a major party.

Why would men be so much more likely to support Trump than women? Well, there’s the fact that Trump has been accused of sexual harassment dozens of times and sexual assault several times. Women are more likely to be victims of such behavior, and men are more likely to be perpetrators of it.

But I think that’s really a symptom of a broader cause, which is that authoritarianism is masculine.

Think about it: Can you even name a woman who was an authoritarian dictator? There have been a few queen tyrants historically, but not many; tyrants are almost always kings. And for all her faults, Margaret Thatcher was assuredly no Joseph Stalin.

Masculinity is tied to power, authority, strength, dominance: All things that authoritarians promise. It doesn’t even seem to matter that it’s always the dictator asserting power and dominance upon us, taking away the power and authority we previously had; the mere fact that some man is exerting power and dominance on someone seems to satisfy this impulse. And of course those who support authoritarians always seem to imagine that the dictator will oppress someone else—never me. (“I never thought leopards would eat my face!”)

Conversely, the virtues of democracy, such as equality, fairness, cooperation, and compromise, are coded feminine. This is how toxic masculinity sustains itself: Even being willing to talk about disagreements rather than fighting over them constitutes surrender to the feminine. So the mere fact that I am trying to talk them out of their insanely (both self- and other-) destructive norms proves that I serve the enemy.

I don’t often interact with Trump supporters, because doing so is a highly unpleasant experience. But when I have, certain themes kept reoccurring: “Trump is a real man”; “Democrats are pussies”; “they [people of color] are taking over our [White people’s] country”; “you’re a snowflake libtard beta cuck”.

Almost all of the content was about identity, particularly masculine and White identity. Virtually none of their defenses of Trump involved any substantive claims about policy, though some did at least reference the relatively good performance of the economy (up until recently—and that they all seem to blame on the “unforeseeable” pandemic, a “Black Swan”; nevermind that people actually did foresee it and were ignored). Ironically they are always the ones complaining about “identity politics”.

And while they would be the last to admit it, I noticed something else as well: Most of these men were deeply insecure about their own masculinity. They kept constantly trying to project masculine dominance, and getting increasingly aggravated when I simply ignored it rather than either submitting or responding with my own displays of dominance. Indeed, they probably perceived me as displaying a kind of masculine dominance: I was just countersignaling instead of signaling, and that’s what made them so angry. They clearly felt deeply envious of the fact that I could simply be secure in my own identity without feeling a need to constantly defend it.

But of course I wasn’t born that way. Indeed, the security I now feel in my own identity was very hard-won through years of agony and despair—necessitated by being a bisexual man in a world that even today isn’t very accepting of us. Even now I’m far from immune to the pressures of masculinity; I’ve simply learned to channel them better and resist their worst effects.

They call us “snowflakes” because they feel fragile, and fear their own fragility. And in truth, they are fragile. Indeed, fragile masculinity is one of the strongest predictors of support for Trump. But it is in the nature of fragile masculinity that pointing it out only aggravates it and provokes an even angrier response. Toxic masculinity is a very well-adapted meme; its capacity to defend itself is morbidly impressive, like the way that deadly viruses spread themselves is morbidly impressive.

This is why I think it is extremely dangerous to mock the size of Trump’s penis (or his hands, metonymously—though empirically, digit ratio slightly correlates with penis size, but overall hand size does not), or accuse his supporters of likewise having smaller penises. In doing so, you are reinforcing the very same toxic masculinity norms that underlie so much of Trump’s support. And this is even worse if the claim is true: In that case you’re also reinforcing that man’s own crisis of masculine identity.

Indeed, perhaps the easiest way to anger a man who is insecure about his masculinity is to accuse him of being insecure about his masculinity. It’s a bit of a paradox. I have even hesitated to write this post, for fear of triggering the same effect; but I realized that it’s more likely that you, my readers, would trigger it inadvertently, and by warning you I might reduce the overall rate at which it is triggered.

I do not use the word “triggered” lightly; I am talking about a traumatic trigger response. These men have been beaten down their whole lives for not being “manly enough”, however defined, and they lash out by attacking the masculinity of every other man they encounter—thereby perpetuating the cycle of trauma. And stricter norms of masculinity also make coping with trauma more difficult, which is why men who exhibit stricter masculinity also are more likely to suffer PTSD in war. There are years of unprocessed traumatic memories in these men’s brains, and the only way they know to cope with them is to try to inflict them on someone else.

The ubiquity of “cuck” as an insult in the alt-right is also quite notable in this context. It’s honestly a pretty weird insult to throw around casually; it implies knowing all sorts of things about a person’s sexual relationships that you can’t possibly know. (For someone in an openly polyamorous relationship, it’s probably quite amusing.) But it’s a way of attacking masculine identity: If you were a “real man”, your wife wouldn’t be sleeping around. We accuse her of infidelity in order to accuse you of inferiority. (And if your spouse is male? Well then obviously you’re even worse than a “cuck”—you’re a “fag”.) There also seems to be some sort of association that the alt-right made between cuckoldry and politics, as though the election of Obama constitutes America “cheating” on them. I’m not sure whether it bothers them more that Obama is liberal, or that he is Black. Both definitely bother them a great deal.

How do we deal with these men? If we shouldn’t attack their masculinity for fear of retrenchment, and we can’t directly engage them on questions of policy because it means nothing to them, what then should we do? I’m honestly not sure. What these men actually need is years of psychotherapy to cope with their deep-seated traumas; but they would never seek it out, because that, too, is considered unmasculine. Of course you can’t be expected to provide the effect of years of psychotherapy in a single conversation with a stranger. Even a trained therapist wouldn’t be able to do that, nor would they be likely to give actual therapy sessions to angry strangers for free.

What I think we can do, however, is to at least try to refrain from making their condition worse. We can rigorously resist the temptation to throw the same insults back at them, accusing them of having small penises, or being cuckolds, or whatever. We should think of this the way we think of using “gay” as an insult (something I all too well remember from middle school): You’re not merely insulting the person you’re aiming it at, you’re also insulting an entire community of innocent people.

We should even be very careful about directly addressing their masculine insecurity; it may sometimes be necessary, but it, too, is sure to provoke a defensive response. And as I mentioned earlier, if you are a man and you are not constantly defending your own masculinity, they can read that as countersignaling your own superiority. This is not an easy game to win.

But the stakes are far too high for us to simply give up. The fate of America and perhaps even the world hinges upon finding a solution.

Do I want to stay in academia?

Apr 5 JDN 2458945

This is a very personal post. You’re not going to learn any new content today; but this is what I needed to write about right now.

I am now nearly finished with my dissertation. It only requires three papers (which, quite honestly, have very little to do with one another). I just got my second paper signed off on, and my third is far enough along that I can probably finish it in a couple of months.

I feel like I ought to be more excited than I am. Mostly what I feel right now is dread.

Yes, some of that dread is the ongoing pandemic—though I am pleased to report that the global number of cases of COVID-19 has substantially undershot the estimates I made last week, suggesting that at least most places are getting the virus under control. The number of cases and number of deaths has about doubled in the past week, which is a lot better than doubling every two days as it was at the start of the pandemic. And that’s all I want to say about COVID-19 today, because I’m sure you’re as tired of the wall-to-wall coverage of it as I am.

But most of the dread is about my own life, mainly my career path. More and more I’m finding that the world of academic research just isn’t working for me. The actual research part I like, and I’m good at it; but then it comes time to publish, and the journal system is so fundamentally broken, so agonizingly capricious, and has such ludicrous power over the careers of young academics that I’m really not sure I want to stay in this line of work. I honestly think I’d prefer they just flip a coin when you graduate and you get a tenure-track job if you get heads. Or maybe journals could roll a 20-sided die for each paper submitted and publish the papers that get 19 or 20. At least then the powers that be couldn’t convince themselves that their totally arbitrary and fundamentally unjust selection process was actually based on deep wisdom and selecting the most qualified individuals.

In any case I’m fairly sure at this point that I won’t have any publications in peer-reviewed journals by the time I graduate. It’s possible I still could—I actually still have decent odds with two co-authored papers, at least—but I certainly do not expect to. My chances of getting into a top journal at this point are basically negligible.

If I weren’t trying to get into academia, that fact would be basically irrelevant. I think most private businesses and government agencies are fairly well aware of the deep defects in the academic publishing system, and really don’t put a whole lot of weight on its conclusions. But in academia, publication is everything. Specifically, publication in top journals.

For this reason, I am now seriously considering leaving academia once I graduate. The more contact I have with the academic publishing system the more miserable I feel. The idea of spending another six or seven years desperately trying to get published in order to satisfy a tenure committee sounds about as appealing right now as having my fingernails pulled out one by one.

This would mean giving up on a lifelong dream. It would mean wondering why I even bothered with the PhD, when the first MA—let alone the second—would probably have been enough for most government or industry careers. And it means trying to fit myself into a new mold that I may find I hate just as much for different reasons: A steady 9-to-5 work schedule is a lot harder to sustain when waking up before 10 AM consistently gives you migraines. (In theory, there are ways to get special accommodations for that sort of thing; in practice, I’m sure most employers would drag their feet as much as possible, because in our culture a phase-delayed circadian rhythm is tantamount to being lazy and therefore worthless.)

Or perhaps I should aim for a lecturer position, perhaps at a smaller college, that isn’t so obsessed with research publication. This would still dull my dream, but would not require abandoning it entirely.

I was asked a few months ago what my dream job is, and I realized: It is almost what I actually have. It is so tantalizingly close to what I am actually headed for that it is painful. The reality is a twisted mirror of the dream.

I want to teach. I want to do research. I want to write. And I get to do those things, yes. But I want to them without the layers of bureaucracy, without the tiers of arbitrary social status called ‘prestige’, without the hyper-competitive and capricious system of journal publication. Honestly I want to do them without grading or dealing with publishers at all—though I can at least understand why some mechanisms for evaluating student progress and disseminating research are useful, even if our current systems for doing so are fundamentally defective.

It feels as though I have been running a marathon, but was only given a vague notion of the route beforehand. There were a series of flags to follow: This way to the bachelor’s, this way to the master’s, that way to advance to candidacy. Then when I come to the last set of flags, the finish line now visible at the horizon, I see that there is an obstacle course placed in my way, with obstacles I was never warned about, much less trained for. A whole new set of skills, maybe even a whole different personality, is necessary to surpass these new obstacles, and I feel utterly unprepared.

It is as if the last mile of my marathon must bedone on horseback, and I’ve never learned to ride a horse—no one ever told me I would need to ride a horse. (Or maybe they did and I didn’t listen?) And now every time I try to mount one, I fall off immediately; and the injuries I sustain seem to be worse every time. The bruises I thought would heal only get worse. The horses I must ride are research journals, and the injuries when I fall are psychological—but no less real, all too real. With each attempt I keep hoping that my fear will fade, but instead it only intensifies.

It’s the same pain, the same fear, that pulled me away from fiction writing. I want to go back, I hope to go back—but I am not strong enough now, and cannot be sure I ever will be. I was told that working in a creative profession meant working hard and producing good output; it turns out it doesn’t mean that at all. A successful career in a creative field actually means satisfying the arbitrary desires of a handful of inscrutable gatekeepers. It means rolling the dice over, and over, and over again, each time a little more painful than the last. And it turns out that this just isn’t something I’m good at. It’s not what I’m cut out for. And maybe it never will be.

An incompetent narcissist would surely fare better than I, willing to re-submit whatever refuse they produce a thousand times because they are certain they deserve to succeed. For, deep down, I never feel that I deserve it. Others tell me I do, and I try to believe them; but the only validation that feels like it will be enough is the kind that comes directly from those gatekeepers, the kind that I can never get. And truth be told, maybe if I do finally get that, it still won’t be enough. Maybe nothing ever will be.

If I knew that it would get easier one day, that the pain would, if not go away, at least retreat to a dull roar I could push aside, then maybe I could stay on this path. But this cannot be the rest of my life. If this is really what it means to have an academic career, maybe I don’t want one after all.

Or maybe it’s not academia that’s broken. Maybe it’s just me.

How I’d run an airline

Mar 1 JDN 2458910

I’m traveling this week, so I have less time for blogging than usual and airlines are very much on my mind. So I thought I’d write a short post about things I would change if I were to run my own airline.

1. Instead of overpriced first-class seats, offer the option of seats with more space for a proportional amount. First class prices are almost never worth it, and people seem to be figuring that out: Use of first class is in decline. But sitting in that middle seat is so miserable, why not simply eliminate it? I think a lot of people would be willing to pay 50% more for 50% more space.

2. Offer every passenger two free checked bags, but charge for the carry-on. Carry-on bags are far more awkward and disruptive, and slow down boarding and deboarding much more, than checked bags. The airline should be trying to incentivize passengers to use checked baggage as much as possible. I’d still give each passenger a free personal item (like a purse, backpack or laptop bag), and some people would still want a carry-on bag (e.g. for cameras that can be damaged by radiation); but most people really don’t need to have a roller bag as a carry-on.

3. Power outlets in every seat. This is a trivial amount of cost in terms of manufacturing and electricity, compared to what an airplane already requires; but it makes flying much more convenient for your passengers, and thereby allows you to demand higher prices. This is a no-brainer. (Some airlines, like Delta, already do this.)

4. Assign seats and load the plane based on the seating positions. The first boarding group should be the people who sit furthest in the back, so that no one needs to pass seated passengers in order to find their own seat. Ideally window seats would be filled before aisle seats, but since people like to board and sit together, that might not be feasible. But at the very least we can make boarding faster by seating the back rows first.

5. Give pilots and flight attendants reasonable hours and plenty of vacation time. Airline pilots around the world are dangerously overworked and sleep-deprived. This is dangerous for customers, and if it leads to crashes or lawsuits it can be very expensive for the airlines too. Having an aircraft idle overnight really isn’t that great a cost, especially since red-eye flights command lower prices and are thus less profitable for the airline. Working fewer hours makes people more productive per hour—often to the point of making them more productive overall.

6. Explain why you need to put on your own oxygen mask first. Standard airplane safety instructions always include the line “Put on your mask before assisting others.” But since they almost never explain why, I strongly suspect that in a real emergency a lot of parents try to put on their children’s masks first and thereby needlessly endanger themselves. Wording these instructions might be tricky, because any talk of such things is bound to scare people, but the core idea is this: Hypoxia will cause delirium or unconsciousness long before it will cause permanent brain damage or death. You want to first make sure you aren’t incapacitated, and then you can help save others. If you put on your mask first, your kid may get confused or pass out, but you’ll be able to help them and they’ll be fine. If you put on your kid’s mask first, you may get confused or pass out, and your kid won’t be able to help you. Then unless someone else saves you, you may die pointlessly because you didn’t follow instructions. Depending on altitude and how severe the hull breach is, you have about 30 seconds before you lose consciousness. But your kid has at least three minutes before you need to worry about permanent brain damage, and probably as many as fifteen before they’d die.

7. Include carbon offsets in the ticket price, and advertise this aggressively. Despite the fact that airplanes are a major source of carbon emissions, carbon offsets are actually remarkably cheap compared to the cost of airline tickets. Adding offsets would typically raise the price of a ticket by about $30, which on a $300 ticket is unlikely to shock people. And by advertising the carbon-neutrality of your airline, you can probably get a lot of customers who are willing to pay more, potentially even more than the additional cost of the carbon offsets themselves. This could be a win-win for the airline and the environment.

8. Invest heavily in research on more efficient jet engines. The second-biggest cost for an airline is fuel expenditure. (First is the wages of the crew.) If you can install more efficient engines on your aircraft, you can both reduce your environmental impact and dramatically lower your cost. Current state-of-the-art engines can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 20%; future research could improve this even further.

9. Include snacks at every seat before passengers even board. Putting a bag of pretzels and a water bottle at every seat would be trivially easy, and would allow passengers the opportunity to be eating while the plane takes off—and chewing reduces the discomfort of changing air pressure. If the worry is that people will try to put their tray tables down (which is genuinely unsafe during takeoff), install electronic locks that prevent tray tables from being lowered except when authorized.

10. Install seats that don’t recline. The additional comfort for the passenger reclining is far smaller than the reduced comfort for the passenger behind them. Combine that with the additional cost of maintaining the seats and the additional risk of injury during rough landings, and the answer is obvious: Seats shouldn’t recline.

11. Offer better food. Charging less for airplane food honestly isn’t feasible: Because space and weight are at such a premium, it really is that expensive to store and transport food on an aircraft. But the cost comes mostly from the bulk and weight of the food; it really doesn’t much matter what kind of food it is. To that end, airlines should offer high-quality food that people feel more comfortable paying such high prices for. A steak weighs about the same as a hamburger, and champagne has about the same density as Sprite.

12. Reduce, or even eliminate, fees to change flights. Yes, it’s expensive to have empty seats on a moving airplane. But most flights can be filled by standby passengers, and those that can’t often weren’t full anyway. It’s actually fairly rare for a cancellation to result in an empty seat that would otherwise have been full. And the additional goodwill you get from making life easier for your passengers will make up the difference. (Southwest figured this out; other airlines don’t yet seem to have caught on.)

Would these changes revolutionize air travel? No. But I do think they’d make it a bit more pleasant, without greatly reducing the profits of the airline.

A Socratic open letter to transphobes everywhere

Feb 23 JDN 2458903

This post is a bit different than usual. This is an open letter to those who doubt that trans people actually exist, or insist on using the wrong pronouns; above all it is an open letter to those who want to discriminate against trans people, denying trans people civil rights or the dignity to use public bathrooms in peace. Most of my readers are probably not such people, but I think you’ll still benefit from reading it—perhaps you can use some of its arguments when you inevitably encounter someone who is.

Content warning: Because of how sex and gender are tied up together in transphobes’ minds, I’m going to need to talk a little bit about sexual anatomy and genital surgery. If such topics make you uncomfortable, feel free to skip this post.

Dear Transphobe:

First of all, I’m going to assume you are a man. Statistically you probably are, in which case that works. If by chance you’re not, well, now you know what it feels like for people to assume your gender and never correct themselves. You’re almost certainly politically right-wing, so that’s an even safer assumption on my part.

You probably think that gender and sex are interchangeable things, that the idea of a woman born with a penis or a man born without one is utter nonsense. I’m here to hopefully make you question this notion.

Let’s start by thinking about your own identity. You are a man. I presume that you have a penis. I am not going to make the standard insult many on the left would and say that it’s probably a small penis. In fact I have no particular reason to believe that, and in any case the real problem is that we as a society have so thoroughly equated penis size with masculinity with value as a human being. Right-wing attitudes of the sort that lead to discriminating against LGBT people are strongly correlated with aggressive behaviors to assert one’s masculinity. Even if I had good reason—which I assuredly do not—to do so, attacking your masculinity would be inherently counterproductive, causing you to double down on the same aggressive, masculinity-signaling behaviors. If it so happens that you are insecure in your masculinity, I certainly don’t want to make that worse, as masculine insecurity was one of the strongest predictors of voting for Donald Trump. You are a man, and I make no challenges to your masculinity whatsoever. I’m even prepared to concede that you are more manly than I am, whatever you may take that to mean.

Let us consider a thought experiment. Suppose that you were to lose your penis in some tragic accident. Don’t try to imagine the details; I’m sure the mere fact of it is terrifying enough. Suppose a terrible day were to arrive where you wake up in a hospital and find you no longer have a penis.

I have a question for you now: Should such a terrible day arrive, would you cease to be a man?

I contend that you would remain a man. I think that you, upon reflection, would also contend the same. There are a few thousand men in the world who have undergone penectomy, typically as a treatment for genital cancer. You wouldn’t even know unless you saw them naked or they told you. As far as anyone else can tell, they look and act as men, just as they did before their surgery. They are still men, just as they were before.

In fact, it’s quite likely that you would experience a phantom limb effect—where here the limb that is in your self-image but no longer attached to your body is your penis. You would sometimes feel “as if” your penis was still there, because your brain continues to have the neural connections that generate such sensations.

An even larger number of men have undergone castration for various reasons, and while they do often find that their thoughts and behavior change due to the changes in hormone balances, they still consider themselves men, and are generally considered men by others as well. We do not even consider them transgender men; we simply consider them men.

But does this not mean, then, that there is something more to being a man than simply having male anatomy?

Perhaps it has to do with other body parts, or some totality of the male body? Let’s consider another thought experiment then. Suppose that by some bizarre event you were transported into a female body. The mechanism isn’t important: Perhaps it was a mad scientist, or aliens, or magic. But just suppose that somehow or other, while you slept, your brain in its current state was transported into an entirely female body, complete with breasts, vulva, wide hips, narrow shoulders—the whole package. When you awaken, your body is female.

Such a transition would no doubt be distressing and disorienting. People would probably begin to see you as a woman when they looked at you. You would be denied access to men’s spaces you had previously used, and suddenly granted access to women’s spaces you had never before been allowed into. And who knows what sort of effect the hormonal changes would have on your mind?

Particularly if you are sexually attracted to women, you might imagine that you would enjoy this transformation: Now you get to play with female body parts whenever you want! But think about this matter carefully, now: While there might be some upsides, would you really want this change to happen? You have to now wear women’s clothing, use women’s restrooms, cope with a menstrual cycle. Everyone will see you as a woman and treat you as a woman. (How do you treat women, by the way? Is this something you’ve thought carefully about?)

And if you still think that being a woman isn’t so bad, maybe it isn’t—if your mind and body are in agreement. But remember that you’ve still got the mind of a man; you still feel that mental attachment to body parts that are no longer present, and these new body parts you have don’t feel like they are properly your own.

But throughout this harrowing experience, would you still be a man?

Once again I contend that you would. You would now feel a deep conflict between your mind and your body—dare I call it gender dysphoria?—and you would probably long to change your body back to what it was, or at least back to a body that is male.

You would once again experience phantom limb effects—but now all over, everywhere your new body deviated from your original form. In your brain there is a kind of map of where your body parts are supposed to be: Your shoulders are supposed to end here, your legs are supposed to end there, and down here there is supposed to be a penis, not vulva. This map is deeply ingrained into your mind, its billions of strands almost literally woven into the fabric of your brain.

We are presumably born with such a map: By some mindbogglingly complex mix of genetic and environmental factors our brains organize themselves into specific patterns, telling us what kind of body we’re supposed to have. Some of this structuring may go on before birth, some while we are growing up. But surely by the time we are adults the process is complete.

This mental map does allow for some flexibility: When we were young and growing, it allowed us to adjust to our ever-increasing height. Now that we are older, it allows us to adjust to gaining or losing weight. But this flexibility is quite limited: it might take years, or perhaps we could never adjust at all, to finding that we had suddenly grown a tail—or suddenly changed from male to female.

Now imagine that this transformation didn’t happen by some sudden event when you were an adult, but by some quirk of ontogeny while you were still in the womb. Suppose that you were born this way: in a body that is female, but with a mind that is male.

In such a state, surely something is wrong, in the same way that being born with sickle-cell anemia or spina bifida is wrong. There are more ambiguous cases: Is polydactyly a disorder? Sometimes? But surely there are some ways to be born that are worth correcting, and “female body, male mind” seems like one of them.

And yet, this is often precisely how trans people describe their experience. Not always—humans are nothing if not diverse, and trans people are no exception—but quite frequently, they will say that they feel like “a man in a woman’s body” or the reverse. By all accounts, they seem to have precisely this hypothetical condition: The gender of their mind does not match the sex of their body. And since this mismatch causes great suffering, we ought to correct it.

But then the question becomes: Correct it how?

Broadly speaking, it seems we’ve only two options: Change the body, or change the mind. If you were in this predicament, which would you want?

In the case of being transferred into a new body as an adult, I’m quite sure you’d prefer to change your body, and keep your mind as it is. You don’t belong in this new body, and you want your old one back.

Yet perhaps you think that if you were born with this mismatch, things might be different: Perhaps in such a case you think it would make more sense to change the mind to match the body. But I ask you this: Which is more fundamental to who you are? If you are still an infant, we can’t ask your opinion; but what do you suppose you’d say if we could?

Or suppose that you notice the mismatch later, as a child, or even as a teenager. Before that, something felt off somehow, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it. But now you realize where the problem lies: You were born in a body of the wrong sex. Now that you’ve had years to build up your identity, would you still say that the mind is the right thing to change? Once you can speak, now we can ask you—and we do ask such children, and their answers are nigh-unanimous: They want to change their bodies, not their minds. David Reimer was raised as a girl for years, and yet he always still knew he was a boy and tried to act like one.

In fact, we don’t even know how to change the gender of a mind. Despite literally millennia of civilization trying at great expense to enforce particular gender norms on everyone’s minds, we still get a large proportion of the population deviating substantially from them—if you include mild enough deviations, probably a strict majority. If I seem a soft “soy boy” to you (and, I admit, I am both bisexual and vegetarian—though I already knew I was the former before I became the latter), ask yourself this: Why would I continue to deviate from your so ferociously-enforced gender norms, if it were easy to conform?

Whereas, we do have some idea how to change a body. We have hormonal and surgical treatments that allow people to change their bodies substantially—trans women can grow breasts, trans men can grow beards. Often this is enough to make people feel much more comfortable in their own bodies, and also present themselves in a way that leads others to recognize them as their desired gender.

Sex reassignment surgery is not as reliable, especially for trans men: While building artificial vulva works relatively well, building a good artificial penis still largely eludes us. Yet technological process in this area continues, and we’ve improved our ability to change the sex of bodies substantially in just the last few decades—while, let me repeat, we have not meaningfully improved our ability to change the gender of minds in the last millennium.

If we could reliably change the gender of minds, perhaps that would be an option worth considering. But ought implies can: We cannot be ethically expected to do that which we are simply incapable.

At present, this means that our only real options are two: We can accept the gender of the mind, change the sex of the body, and treat this person as the gender they identify themselves as; or we can demand that they repress and conceal their mental gender in favor of conforming to the standards we have imposed upon them based on their body. The option you may most prefer—accept the body, change the mind—simply is not feasible with any current or foreseeable technology.

We have tried repressing transgender identity for centuries: It has brought endless suffering, depression, suicide.

But now that we are trying to affirm transgender identity the outlook seems much better: Simply having one adult in their life who accepts their gender identity reduces the risk of a transgender child attempting suicide by 40%. Meta-analysis of research on the subject shows that gender transition, while surely no panacea, does overall improve outcomes for transgender people—including reducing risk of depression and suicide. (That site is actually refreshingly nuanced; it does not simply accept either the left-wing or right-wing ideology on the subject, instead delving deeply into the often quite ambiguous evidence.)

Above all, ask yourself: If you ever found yourself in the wrong sort of body, what would you want us to do?

Reflections on Past and Future

Jan 19 JDN 2458868

This post goes live on my birthday. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to celebrate much, as I’ll be in the process of moving. We moved just a few months ago, and now we’re moving again, because this apartment turned out to be full of mold that keeps triggering my migraines. Our request for a new apartment was granted, but the university housing system gives very little time to deal with such things: They told us on Tuesday that we needed to commit by Wednesday, and then they set our move-in date for that Saturday.

Still, a birthday seems like a good time to reflect on how my life is going, and where I want it to go next. As for how old I am? This is the probably the penultimate power of two I’ll reach.

The biggest change in my life over the previous year was my engagement. Our wedding will be this October. (We have the venue locked in; invitations are currently in the works.) This was by no means unanticipated; really, folks had been wondering when we’d finally get around to it. Yet it still feels strange, a leap headlong into adulthood for someone of a generation that has been saddled with a perpetual adolescence. The articles on “Millennials” talking about us like we’re teenagers still continue, despite the fact that there are now Millenials with college-aged children. Thanks to immigration and mortality, we now outnumber Boomers. Based on how each group voted in 2016, this bodes well for the 2020 election. (Then again, a lot of young people stay home on Election Day.)

I don’t doubt that graduate school has contributed to this feeling of adolescence: If we count each additional year of schooling as a grade, I would now be in the 22nd grade. Yet from others my age, even those who didn’t go to grad school, I’ve heard similar experiences about getting married, buying homes, or—especially—having children of their own: Society doesn’t treat us like adults, so we feel strange acting like adults. 30 is the new 23.

Perhaps as life expectancy continues to increase and educational attainment climbs ever higher, future generations will continue to experience this feeling ever longer, until we’re like elves in a Tolkienesque fantasy setting, living to 1000 but not considered a proper adult until we hit 100. I wonder if people will still get labeled by generation when there are 40 generations living simultaneously, or if we’ll find some other category system to stereotype by.

Another major event in my life this year was the loss of our cat Vincent. He was quite old by feline standards, and had been sick for a long time; so his demise was not entirely unexpected. Still, it’s never easy to lose a loved one, even if they are covered in fur and small enough to fit under an airplane seat.

Most of the rest of my life has remained largely unchanged: Still in grad school, still living in the same city, still anxious about my uncertain career prospects. Trump is still President, and still somehow managing to outdo his own high standards of unreasonableness. I do feel some sense of progress now, some glimpses of the light at the end of the tunnel. I can vaguely envision finishing my dissertation some time this year, and I’m hoping that in a couple years I’ll have settled into a job that actually pays well enough to start paying down my student loans, and we’ll have a good President (or at least Biden).

I’ve reached the point where people ask me what I am going to do next with my life. I want to give an answer, but the problem is, this is almost entirely out of my control. I’ll go wherever I end up getting job offers. Based on the experience of past cohorts, most people seem to apply to about 200 positions, interview for about 20, and get offers from about 2. So asking me where I’ll work in five years is like asking me what number I’m going to roll on a 100-sided die. I could probably tell you what order I would prioritize offers in, more or less; but even that would depend a great deal on the details. There are difficult tradeoffs to be made: Take a private sector offer with higher pay, or stay in academia for more autonomy and security? Accept a postdoc or adjunct position at a prestigious university, or go for an assistant professorship at a lower-ranked college?

I guess I can say that I do still plan to stay in academia, though I’m less certain of that than I once was; I will definitely cast a wider net. I suppose the job market isn’t like that for most people? I imagine most people at least know what city they’ll be living in. (I’m not even positive what country—opportunities for behavioral economics actually seem to be generally better in Europe and Australia than they are in the US.)

But perhaps most people simply aren’t as cognizant of how random and contingent their own career paths truly were. The average number of job changes per career is 12. You may want to think that you chose where you ended up, but for the most part you landed where the wind blew you. This can seem tragic in a way, but it is also a call for compassion: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Really, all I can do now is hang on and try to enjoy the ride.

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….