Survey Monkey and Mechanical Turk – The Verification Code

Survey Monkey and Mechanical Turk

Mechanical Turk (MTurk) has become an important data collection tool for social scientists – especially experimental political science research. For a very low cost, one can collect thousands of responses and there is a growing literature regarding the representativeness of the samples collected from MTurk (see this 2011 article by Berinsky, Huber, and Lenz). I have used MTurk several times with the Qualtrics Survey Suite. It is easy to link Qualtrics with MTurk by using their Web Service element (see this fantastic tutorial for how to link Qualtrics with MTurk). Essentially, MTurk allows “requesters” to link “workers” to an external survey link. The way that the “workers” verify that they took the entire survey is to enter a randomly generated code into MTurk after completion. The survey software that the requester uses must be able to generate this code and store it within the dataset. The requester then verifies that the code that was entered is the code that was generated and then approves the submission so the worker can get paid.

I love Qualtrics! It is by far the best survey software I have ever used. When your institution is willing to pay the cost, it is the best option. However, when you work at a smaller institution or have a reasonable budget, Qualtrics might be off the table. Survey Monkey can do almost anything Qualtrics can do. If you pay for the base subscription it is about 1/3 of the cost per year than Qualtrics with unlimited surveys and survey responses. It allows for randomization of the treatment, skip logic, question, logic, etc. I switched from Qualtrics to Survey Monkey mainly because of the cost and I have been reasonably happy. However, when I went to collect responses form MTurk I quickly realized that Survey Monkey does not allow the user to generate random strings and show it to the user. It also does not allow scripts or custom HTML or Java code. The most expensive subscription allows for custom variable collection, but for the cost you might as well get Qualtrics and the custom variable option is unnecessarily complex and does not really get the job done. I scoured the web looking for solutions and finding none. I contacted Survey Monkey and they were also without solution. So after some thought I have come up with an answer – it is not perfect but it works!

The Solution

If you are in this position, this information might be of use to you. After creating your survey, create a text variable to be shown to the user at the end of the survey. Find a random string generator on the web such as and generate some random strings. I used a 10 character string with both letters (upper and lower case) and numbers and made sure they were all unique. In Survey Monkey I used the Random Assignment feature to construct 20 different “text” variables each consisting of one of the random strings that I generated earlier. Survey Monkey only allows random assignment for up to 20 treatments, each with a 5% chance of being displayed. When the user completes the survey they will be shown one of the randomly generated strings which will then be stored in the dataset. The worker copies the random string and pastes it into MTurk. This makes it easy to verify that a worker has taken your survey and simulates an actual random number generator. At the end of the survey, your randomly assigned string will be shown to the user and they will enter that code into MTurk making verification easy.

It is not perfect, but it works. There are a few precautions. First, make sure to only allow one survey per IP address to make sure that workers cannot stack responses. Second, always verify the code submitted with the results in the Survey Monkey dataset. The reason for this is that even with the random assignment the same code can be shown more than once (this is because each text string has a 5% chance of being displayed and thus strings have the possibility of being shown multiple times). However, this will not matter if the code matches with the variable in the dataset with the proper time stamp. If a user were to copy a previous code and use it again, you would be able to verify that that code was actually generated in Survey Monkey by looking at the code that was actually displayed to the user at the time of survey completion. Also, do not use the same set of 20 codes for every batch. It is time consuming, but for every batch I replace the random assignment “text” variables with a different set of random strings.  You can also be sure that different workers are taking the survey by checking their Worker ID in MTurk.

Of course, this is not as good as having an actual random number generator built into the survey itself – as Qualtrics has successfully done. Hopefully, Survey Monkey will add something similar in the future. But it does get around the problem with a simple fix that allows for verification and gets your workers paid.

If you have comments or suggestions I would love to hear them. Maybe I am overlooking something that could go wrong with the process. But generally all you are trying to do is get a code you can match up in both MTurk and the dataset that can verify your workers. This is the only solution that I have found for Survey Monkey without paying for more functionality and then messing around with custom variables (see the link to learn more about Custom Variables in Survey Monkey). I find it odd that Survey Monkey does not allow scripts to be embedded into their surveys. I also find it strange that even free services like Google Docs can do this sort of thing. Anyway, the functionality in Survey Monkey is adequate and with the simple fix anyone can use the software with MTurk.

I hope someone finds this useful! If you have a better solution please let me know!

Posted in Experimental Political Science, Interesting Stuff, Survey Monkey, Survey Software | Leave a comment

Interview With KGCS-TV

This month was a very interesting time for Middle Eastern politics and American Foreign Policy. The Missouri Southern State University television channel KGCS-TV interviewed Dr. Conrad Gubera and myself for their Newsmakers television program. We tackle recent issues on the Syrian diplomatic effort currently underway in the United Nations, Middle Eastern politics, and American Foreign policy. This is local channel 22 in Joplin, Missouri but you can watch it on as well. I have posted the video below.

Posted in Interesting Stuff, International Relations | Leave a comment

LaTeX Dissertation Template for the University at Buffalo, SUNY

$\LaTeX$ Template for UB Thesis/Dissertation

As I was preparing to consolidate what I have written into the first draft of my dissertation I began looking for a $\LaTeX$ template that already contained UB’s guidelines. This search was to no avail (unless someone knows otherwise?), so I began to look at other schools.

I looked over a bunch and Penn State’s template was by far the most visually appealing. It was developed by Gary L. Gray, who is an Associate Professor of Engineering and Mechanics at Penn State. You can find the link to that package here. The template is a fantastic resource but was not commensurate with all of UB’s guidelines. So I spent some time with the code and adapted it for use with the Guidelines for Electronic Thesis / Dissertation Preparation and Submission. The title page now matches UB’s requirements, the sections are in the order UB desires, and I added the option for a Copyright page.

You can download the .RAR file on my website’s Research Page or just click here.

The only feature I cannot get working is the hyperref package and I cannot figure out why. The template has a section dedicated to the hyperref package and even some code to fix some issues with the template. But no matter what I do, the package simply does not work. If anyone has any suggestions let me know!

Otherwise it woks great. Simply copy your information over my own and being typing up that dissertation :).

Posted in LaTeX, My Dissertation | Leave a comment

Politicizing War Preliminary Results

The Experimental Prediction

In past posts I outlined two different equilibria from my Wartime Elections game which sets the stage in the first chapter of my dissertation. See here for the Opposing Victory  equilibrium and here for the Prolonging Defeat equilibrium. In the game the public is given two signals in the context of an election where the nation is engaged in a salient war. Nature selects the true value for whether or not the war is worth fighting and then sends a noisy signal to Media. The Mass Media, is assumed to be unbiased and reports Nature’s noisy signal. The Media gives the public a general idea of whether or not the current war is worth continuing, but they can be wrong. The second signal is from the Opposition Party who is biased in favor of getting elected, but also cares about some objective national welfare. The Opposition Party is assumed to know the true state of the war and tells the public that if elected they will continue or end the war. At the end of the game the public has to make the decision of whether to reelect the Incumbent or elect the Opposition Party. The model also allows the public to vary on whether they prefer the Incumbent or the Opposition on the economy/domestic issues. In short, when the Opposition Party states that they will end the war, they politicize the issue and the public makes their decision based on whether or not they believe the war is worth continuing. However, if the Opposition fails to politicize the war, the public’s decision is solely based on their preference on the economy. This simple model produces many equilibria, but I focus on two interesting and tragic outcomes.

Prolonging Defeat

The equilibrium I test using an experiment is called Prolonging Defeat. In this case, the true state of the war is not worth fighting, in the sense that the costs outweigh the benefit. The Media mistakenly reports that the war is worth continuing. The public favors the Opposition on the economy/domestic issues. In this case, if the Opposition politicizes the war and the public believes it to be worth fighting, they are likely to lose the election. However, if the Opposition states they will continue the war then the public cannot differentiate their choice based on different foreign policies. Rather they make their decision based on the economy. This is exactly what happens and the Opposition Party wins the election, continuing a war that wasn’t worth fighting. This tragic case is driven by both the Media’s inaccuracy and the Opposition’s strategic behavior. An observable implication drawn from this equilibrium is that those voters who believe the current war is worth continuing would be less likely to vote for the Opposition Party if they state they will end the war if elected. The experimental design is intended to test this exact prediction.

Experimental Design

The design of the experiment is simple. All respondents first read a vignette which sets the stage for the election. They are given a series of economic indicators (GDP Growth, Unemployment) that show the economy is struggling. Then they are given a series of expert statements regarding the war. The vignette includes war casualties, financial costs, strategic/national security importance, and other information which paints of a picture of a war that is worth continuing. In fact, the respondent is told that the Mass Media has generally reported that the war is worth continuing. However, the vignette also leaves some doubt in the respondent’s mind using expert statements that warn that the war is not yet over and will require more work and higher costs. This vignette is designed to give respondents information that paints a picture of a struggling economy and a relatively successful war, just as in the Prolonging Defeat equilibrium.

Respondents are then randomly given one of two treatments.

On The Equilibrium Path Treatment

The first is a speech by the Opposition Party focusing on how poorly the Incumbent’s policies have been on the economy and emphasizing how they will do better. In this speech the Opposition candidate also states that they will continue the successful war policy, thus failing to politicize the conflict.

Off The Equilibrium Path Treatment

The second is a speech by the Opposition candidate focusing on the war. The candidate highlights the parts of the early vignette that paint the war in a negative light. For example, the Opposition highlights casualties and future economic costs. They also discuss how the was isn’t vital to national security. They state they will end the war if elected. Of course they also highlight the economy as well, but primarily focus on the war.


As stated above, the model predicts that those respondents who believe the war is worth continuing would be less likely to vote for the Opposition Party Candidate if they advocate putting an end to the war. Below I will highlight some preliminary results from the experiment. Thus far, I have only received about 200 respondents – not enough to say anything definitive, but I couldn’t resist running some models, now that the semester is coming to an end.


The simplest way to look at the results is to treat each treatment as a mini-election and look to see if the treatments play a role in who wins. With only 200 respondents, and about 100 respondents for each treatment, it is hard to make any generalizations. When a simple cross tabulation is conducted using the treatment conditions and the vote choice, the incumbent wins both elections, but does receive less votes when the Opposition Party chooses not to politicize the war. However, the difference in treatments does not approach statistical significance with standard tests like Kendell’s Tau-b. However, when the responses are combined it is possible to run a Logistic Regression using vote choice as the dependent variable.

Table 1 is a Logistic Regression with 210 respondents. The dependent variable is whether or not the respondent voted for the Opposition Candidate. It is clear that if the respondent read the speech where the Opposition states they will end the war, they are less likely to vote for the Opposition – the p-value is 0.068. It is also clear that if the Opposition’s speech was convincing the respondent is more likely to vote for the Opposition. Just as the model predicts if the respondent believed the war was worth continuing they are less likely to vote for the Opposition. These initial results seem to show that the treatment has a statistically significant result. Table 2 sheds more light on the picture.

The primary difference in Table 2 is an interaction effect between the treatment (Off the Equilibrium Path) and whether or not the respondent believed the war was worth continuing. Below Table 2 is a cross tabulation containing the predicted probabilities from the interaction effect. When the Opposition Party does not politicize the war (treatment = 0 or on the EQ Path) there is no difference in the probability for whether the Opposition gets elected depending on whether the respondent believes the war is worth continuing – the probability is about 77%. However, when the Opposition Party politicizes the war (treatment = 1 or off the EQ Path) their probability for winning the election drastically decreases from 83% to about 45% when the respondent believes the war is worth continuing! This is exactly what the model would predict under these conditions.

Of course  these are very, very preliminary results and there are no where near enough respondents to invoke the law of large numbers or be secure in the findings. But the results are interesting for the first trial. Next semester I hope to add another 500 or more respondents to the data set. There are also some issues with how long well the respondents payed attention to the vignettes. If I reduce the sample to respondents that spend 1 minute or more on each vignette the results become more stark, but about 50 respondents get dropped from the data.

Thus, while there is more work to be done, the first set of results look promising.

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The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear

I watched this documentary last night. Like most documentaries most of the information is true but framed in a way which persuades viewers to come to a certain conclusion. The documentary’s thesis (if you want to call it that) argues that for the last 60 or so years two groups have come to relatively the same conclusion: modern liberalism, which emphasizes individualism and self-interest, has corrupted society to the core and is a disease which needs to be wiped from the earth. Who are these groups? Fundamentalist Islam and the American Neo-Conservatives.

The documentary begins with the philosophies of Sayyid Qutob and Leo Strauss who are the originators of a particular type of Islamic and Conservative philosophies, respectively. In the 3-hour long documentary they take the audience through the rise of each group. Essentially, the Neo-Cons, armed with Strauss’s teachings, set out to “create” great enemies – such as the Soviet Union and then Terrorist Networks – in order to control and unify the public, thus preserving society and keeping individualism in check. Along the way the Neo-Cons try to destroy realist (or pragmatist) thinkers like Henry Kissinger and liberal leaders like Bill Clinton who are getting in the way of their master plan to preserve society. The Neo-Cons accused the Soviets of sponsoring terrorist networks all around the world, using them as agents of conquest. All the while the Neo-Cons have hijacked the CIA with “Team B” so they can fabricate their claims by literally making up wild stories about how the failure to find evidence actually means that the Soviets are doing things that we cannot see – what really matters is Soviet “intentions”. They wanted us to believe that Detente was a failure because the Soviets were building weapons arsenals that we could not find (because they were new) and that they were sponsoring terrorist networks in their expansionist efforts.

While the Neo-Cons are creating fake enemies, the Islamist group is trying to overthrow Middle Eastern dictators which value Western ideals (especially in Egypt and Algeria). Eventually, the fundamentalists come to the conclusion (after many attempts to assassinate leaders in order to get the masses to rise up) that anyone that values Western Ideals (including the masses at this point) should be killed and the killing is justified because anyone who isn’t “with them is against the Koran”.

Eventually, these two groups meet in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and both use the Soviet threat in Afghanistan as the epitome of the fabled enemy that threatens their society (the Fundamentalists also hate communism). When the Soviets withdraw from Afghanistan both groups claim credit (although the documentary argues that is was really the American Neo-Cons and the money they spent which forced victory) for the win. However, with the threat gone the Neo-Cons need a new “monster” and the Fundamentalists need a new strategy.

At first the Neo-Cons turn to dictators like Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War, but President Bush thwarted their plans when he wound’t invade Iraq – he was also a pragmatist thinker that didn’t understand the need to preserve society. The Neo-Cons then single handily mobilize the religious right in order to bring morals back into politics to keep society in check – they really don’t care about religion but they are using it to preserve society, just as Strauss taught them. However, this backfires and traditional Republicans stray from the Republican party and vote for Clinton. So the Neo-Cons have to attack Clinton and remove the evil liberal threat – get ready for Whitewater, sexual harassment claims, Vince Foster’s Death (the Neo-Cons claimed it was murder), and of course Monica Lewinsky.

Meanwhile, the Islamist need a new strategy. They decide to attack the source of the threatening values directly; this meant a massive attack on the U.S. (i.e. 9/11). At this point Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (a student of Sayyid Qutob) are acting alone with a small group of volunteers to plan 9/11. There is no Al Qaeda or terrorist network.

After 9/11 the Neo-Cons, which now surround George W. Bush, seize the opportunity and “create” the threat of a transnational terrorist organization to again scare the people and preserve society. They use this threat to erode Civil Liberties so that they can directly attack sources of societal threats in the U.S. – not to catch domestic sleeper cells. The U.S. and now the UK build up the imaginary threat of Al Qaeda. While they are doing this the Islamic threat begins to gain some power specifically due to the U.S. inflating their existence. There are no sleeper cells, there is no real terrorist threat and in reality 9/11 was an isolated incident carried out by a handful of people. Nevertheless, the Neo-Cons used it to Invade Iraq and Afghanistan and create a politics of fear to keep society and liberal ideals in check. The most important part is the adoption of the precautionary principle which argues that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. Thus, the Neo-Cons can arrest whoever they want (including American citizens) if they think a threat is possible and invade countries if they believe them to be a threat in the future. All of this can happen without any evidence whatsoever. And that is the current state of the world, as argued by the Politics of Fear.

That is the entire documentary in a nutshell. I think it gives way to much credit to the Neo-Conservatives. It was interesting, but definitively a piece of propaganda against the Bush Administration – I think it was done in 2004 or 2005. I wonder what the Neo-Cons are plotting next? :)

Posted in Documentaries, Interesting Stuff, International Relations, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Morality and Political Science

Often I get into a debate with people (mostly students) about the role of morality in politics. The argument usually begins after I after I have articulated some theory of politics which invokes incentive based explanations for some phenomena where the outcome is normatively distasteful. The view that political actors should act in some way preferable to one’s subjective morals is ubiquitous. Moreover, the argument also follows discussions of formal models making the rationality assumption (or as my mentor likes to say models where “actors have preferences that won’t cycle”).

As a student of politics I am trying to understand how the political world around me works. Generally, this involves developing new ways of looking at the world and building interesting theoretical models which can produce testable hypothesis. Of course we can debate Hypothetical-Deductive Reasoning, but that is not the point of this post. Simply put, I want to explain the world and morality rarely plays a huge role as an independent variable. I am not saying that morality cannot play a role in politics; in fact, we can easily model morality or altruistic based incentives. But denying theoretical explanations and empirical evidence because it does not fit with our normative priors does not help us explain the world.

Take the Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) as an example. This simple model can be used to explain arms races, common-pooled resource problems, and noncooperation in international relations. The model is of course a simplification and illustrates how individual incentives can lead to collectively poor outcomes. People often have trouble believing that both actors would defect on each other. The reason is often based on some type of moral exhortation about how the actors will cooperate because that is the “right thing to do”. But the fact remains that in many cases one shot PD games are very useful for describing the behavior of individuals. One may think that the world looks more like the Stag Hunt than a PD game, but it is still based on incentives, not morality.

For example, economists have argued that the rise in SUV purchases can be explained by a PD game. Given that SUVs are larger than other vehicles and weigh more, it can be argued that they are safer when experiencing an accident with smaller cars. When people begin to buy SUVs it makes those with smaller cars less safe. A rational response to an increase in SUVs on the road would be to purchase an SUV for oneself as to not be at a safety disadvantage. In the aggregate this means more SUVs on the road which may increase emissions and decrease safety for everyone. Of course a lot more goes into SUV purchases, but using the PD game is still a useful and interesting way to look at the world.

The House is  considering the Smith/Amash Amendment which will alter the NDAA so that  the military may not imprison terrorism suspects captured on United States soil without trial. I recently had a discussion with someone who argued that the the U.S. should pass this amendment because the NDAA violates the natural rights of human beings – for both citizens and non-citizens. Support of the NDAA, for this person, implies that we are relegating fundamental human rights to the state. Philosophically, I tend to agree. But the fact is that the state has a monopoly on force and power is primary in politics. Even if the NDAA violates our “natural rights” it does not prevent the state from passing such as law and implementing it. My ultimate point was that we needed to understand the way the law was written in order to understand the protections it provides for U.S. citizens; if there is going to be a fight it will most likely take place in the courts and understanding the language of the law can be a powerful tool for those trying to combat it.

There is also the implication that democracy is normatively better than other systems and thus ought to do the right thing and stop suppressing civil liberties. But this overlooks several times in history when the U.S. and other democracies used their power to suppress civil rights and liberties. For example Japanese Interment camps during WWII, the institution of slavery, the separate but equal doctrine, the suppression of women’s rights, and we can go on. People often wonder why the U.S. hasn’t intervened in Darfur based on morality. The answer is quite simple, those in power are unwilling to risk blood and treasure in an area which holds little interest for U.S. foreign policy.

I tend to talk about politics outside of morality – although I am aware that it can in fact play a role. Some people take this to mean that I am promoting amoral ideas. I am not promoting anything. I am simply trying to understand the world for what it really is and this means distilling it down to what I (and others) hypothesize are the most important factors. Even so, if you really want to impact public policy you would be better off spending your time learning about how the world really works so that you find strategic points of entry in the policy process and make a difference. Otherwise, debating the morality of theoretical explanations and empirical evidence seems futile – or at least relegated to philosophy.

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New Graduate Student Conference on the EU and World Politics!

I am the co-adviser to the University at Buffalo’s SUNY Model European Union organization, which is a transatlantic collegiate simulation of the European Union in the US. At this year’s simulation, held at the University of Exeter in the UK, several colleagues from Buffalo State College and I decided to organize an inter-campus graduate student conference on the European Union’s role in world affairs.

I am happy to announce that the conference will take place this fall on October 5-6, 2012. The conference is open to all relevant disciplines and sub-disciplines including political science, international law, European law, international political economy, economics, policy sciences, international studies and history. We are hoping to make this an annual event.

Papers may cover any policy area of interest, including topical issues such as, the EU’s response to recent conflicts in the Middle East, the Eurozone crisis, the EU’s foreign policy and role in global affairs after the Lisbon Treaty, and the general interaction between domestic politics of member states and EU foreign policy-making.

There will also be an undergraduate panel and an award for best undergraduate paper.

For more information, the call for papers, and to submit a paper, please visit our conference website here. Also, Please pass the word on to those that might be interested.



The European Union and World Politics: The EU, its Member States, and International Interactions


October 5th and 6th 2012


University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College

Posted in EU Conference, International Relations, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Media Bias and the Ability to Uncover the Truth

Media Bias

Those of you familiar with my Wartime Elections model know that I assume the actor, I call the Media (M), to be “unbiased”. Specifically, Nature send a noisy signal to M, and M sends that “unbiased” but potentially noisy signal to the Electorate (E) about the “true” state of the war.

You may already be thinking, “the Media is clearly biased, so that assumption is wrong”. I am not going to present a rant about why simplifying assumptions need only be useful, not necessarily true, in order to tell us something interesting about the way phenomena works (although I do believe this to be true).

Moreover, when we think about the democratic process, we often think that if citizens were better informed they would be better democratic citizens. And of course – whether it is true or not – journalists often claim that “the central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society” (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2007). Thus, my assumption of an unbiased, yet potentially inaccurate, Media is not far from what we think the world should look like based on normative evaluations. In fact, I find it interesting that such tragic possibilities (see here and here) are possible given the assumption of an unbiased Media.

More Bias, Yet Closer to the Truth?

Nevertheless, I have just come across an interesting and revealing formal model of news consumption and media bias, by Xiang and Sarvary, which actually demonstrates that the ability to uncover the true state of the world is higher (what they call information efficiency) when the media is more biased! Yes, when competing media outlets are more biased “conscientiousness consumers”, who seek the truth, are actually better able to uncover reality – but they must pay a higher price for said media because they must purchase from multiple media outlets.

The authors assume that there is some true state of the word – $\theta$ – which is bound between 0 and 1 – this parameter can be whether the war is actually worth fighting or the true value of a new healthcare law. The true state of the world is not observable to the Media, rather they they have to collect data which is modeled as a series of random draws from a Bernoulli process. The draws make up a string (D) which consists of 0s or 1s; these represent negative or positive signals about the truth, respectively. Thus, assume the string $d=[1,0,0,1,1,1,0,0,1,1]$. The unbiased estimate of the truth is $\hat{\theta} =\frac{6}{6+4} = 0.6$. Thus, is the string $d$ contains $n_{1}$ of 1’s and $n_{0}$ of 0’s, the unbiased estimate of the truth is $\frac{n_{1}}{(n_{1}+n_{0})}$. The authors then assume that the Media can “slant” what they report by selectively omitting parts of the string and thus changing $\hat{\theta}$ or the estimated true state of the world. But slanting is costly for the Media because they have to collect more data (which are random draws) to be able to slant. Moreover, the Media cannot manufacture data; slanting is constrained by the truth and the cost of data collection.

In the authors’ model there are two types of consumers – “biased” and “conscientiousness”; the former uses mass media for entertainment purposes, while the later actually seeks the truth. Media outlets can report how biased their messages are in order to attract specific consumers ($m = \theta$ or $m = s$) – $\theta$ being as close as possible to the real state of the world and $s$ being some purported amount of slant.

Under monopolist media conditions the media simply caters to whichever consumer represents a larger portion of the population – biased or conscientiousness . Under a duopoly there exists an interesting equilibrium. When there exists a significant number of conscientiousness consumers and their disutility for biased media is high, media outlets will actually collect more data in order to present highly slanted views. The existence of a significant amount of conscientious consumers with a high disutility for bias forces them to buy both pieces of media and thus the media outlets are more willing to increase prices to capitalize on this consumer segment. In fact, these media sources also report news which is more biased than the average “biased” consumer desires.

What is even more interesting is that Xiang and Sarvary show that under these conditions information efficiency is also very high. Because biased consumers’ consumption preferences are heterogeneous the conscientiousness consumer knows that the truth will be on the the left of the message $m <s$ and on the right of messages $m> s$. Thus, when consuming both slanted news sources (which share the same random draws of information) the conscientiousness consumer can come closer to the “true state of the world”.

Thus, the punch line of the model is that a significant number of conscientiousness consumers can actually drive media to be more biased in a competitive setting, but these same consumers “may actually recover more information from multiple, increasingly biased news than from a single nonpartisan news provider” (Xiang and Sarvary 2007, p. 623).

Interesting Implications

Xiang and Sarvary’s model has some interesting implications. The most provocative implication is that increasing media bias may actually make it easier (albeit more costly) for “truth-seeking” consumers to figure out the true state of the world. Moreover, this model rejects the notion that media bias is driven by consumer demand for bias; rather increased bias is a function of more truth-seeking consumers and competing media outlets ability to drive up price, knowing these consumers will purchase both types of media in order to maximize their utility for unbiased media.

This model would also imply that given a biased media environment (as so many scholars contend) those that want to find the truth can do so with more, not less, efficiency. Thus,  my “unbiased” media actor assumption may not be so problematic if we look at the ability of truth-seeking consumers to gather unbiased data in the context of the authors’ model.

We can also look at my assumption another way. Instead of Nature reporting a noisy signal to the Media who faithfully reports that signal with accuracy $\alpha \in [0.5,1]$, we can think of the Media as being predictably biased with the same parameter $\alpha \in [0.5,1]$. Either way the math is the same. Nevertheless, given the discussion in this blog post, the reality may very well be that “truth-seeking” consumers can use multiple media outlets to gather an unbiased signal from the “mass media” writ large.


Xiang, Yi and Miklos Sarvary. (September-October, 2007). “News Consumption and Media Bias.” Marketing Science. Vol. 26, No. 5: pp. 611-628.

Posted in Formal Modeling, My Dissertation | Leave a comment

LaTeX Math WordPress Plugin: Jetpack vs. Simple Mathjax

Jetpack LaTex vs. Simple-Mathjax

I just recently discovered the Simple Mathjax plugin. I was suggesting to someone that they could use HTML code to embed math into their blogger blogs using the HTML editor and Peter Krautzberger (one of the developers of the Simple Mathjax plugin for WordPress) suggested this plugin for WordPress (Mathjax also has a plugin for Blogger and others). I figured I would give it a try and let those interested see the Jetpack and Mathjax presentation side-by-side.

This is the in-line math code for a basic multiple regression equation with JetPack: $latex \hat{Y} = \alpha + \hat{\beta}_{1} x_{1} + \hat{\beta}_{2} x_{2} + \hat{\beta}_{3} x_{3} … \hat{\beta}_{n} x_{n} + \epsilon $. The Jetpack font is darker and I think slightly larger than my blog’s default font.

This is the in-line math code for a basic multiple regression equation with MathJax: $\hat{Y} = \alpha + \hat{\beta}_{1} x_{1} + \hat{\beta}_{2} x_{2} + \hat{\beta}_{3} x_{3} … \hat{\beta}_{n} x_{n} + \epsilon$. It is clear that the MathJax presentation looks more like my blog’s default font – which is really nice. The Mathjax presentation does not increase the horizontal space between lines either.

Mathjax also has this nice equation feature which automatically centers the equation and places it on the next line: $$\hat{Y} = \alpha + \hat{\beta}_{1} x_{1} + \hat{\beta}_{2} x_{2} + \hat{\beta}_{3} x_{3} … \hat{\beta}_{n} x_{n} + \epsilon$$

However, from this test they look very similar. Let’s look at some other examples. How about, $\frac{1}{2}$ vs. $latex \frac{1}{2} $. The first fraction is the MathJax presentation, while the second is the Jetpack presentation. It is clear, the MathJax is nicer and does not look out of place like the Jetpack presentation.

It seems like MathJax has a more fluid feel when using it in-line. For example, here is the The Cauchy-Schwarz Inequality (sample code I was able to pull right from the Mathjax website) written in-line with Jetpack: $latex \left( \sum_{k=1}^n a_k b_k \right)^2 \leq \left( \sum_{k=1}^n a_k^2 \right) \left( \sum_{k=1}^n b_k^2 \right)$.

Here is the same inequality written in-line with MathJax: $\left( \sum_{k=1}^n a_k b_k \right)^2 \leq \left( \sum_{k=1}^n a_k^2 \right) \left( \sum_{k=1}^n b_k^2 \right)$. Again, I think that MathJax just looks nicer and fits better with my blog’s default .CSS.

This is true especially when I write an inequality within a paragraph. Here the Paradox of Voting inequality: $(p_{i})\beta_{i} \geq c_{i}$. Look how nicely the text and the math just flow together seamlessly. When I do the same thing with Jetpack $latex (p_{i})\beta_{i} \geq c_{i}$ the .PNG images look out of place and forced.

Here is a proposition from a pooling EQ from one of my recent posts: $latex \exists$ a pooling equilibrium where the true value of $latex \omega = \underline{\omega}$; $latex \xi\leq 0$; O signals $latex \rho=c$ regardless of $latex \omega$; M mistakenly reports $latex s=h$; and E elects O with the belief $latex q_{h} \geq \hat{q}$, where $latex \frac{-(\underline{\omega} + \xi)}{\overline{\omega} – \underline{\omega}} \equiv \hat{q^{e}}$.

Here is that same proposition with Mathjax: $\exists$ a pooling equilibrium where the true value of $\omega = \underline{\omega}$; $\xi\leq 0$; O signals $\rho=c$ regardless of $latex \omega$; M mistakenly reports $s=h$; and E elects O with the belief $q_{h} \geq \hat{q}$, where $\frac{-(\underline{\omega} + \xi)}{\overline{\omega} – \underline{\omega}} \equiv \hat{q^{e}}$.

What a difference! The second proposition looks much nicer and flows with the text, rather than standing out. I am really impressed with this plugin, which works not only with WordPress but Blogger as well. Thanks to Peter Krautzberger for telling me about it. It is definitely superior to the Jetpack $\LaTeX$ plugin.

The only thing I have noticed is that the page takes a little longer to load – but not too much longer. In the end, I think I am sold on the Simple Mathjax plugin.

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Link Between Wealth and Homo Economicus Behavior?

Do individuals who earn higher income behave more like John Stewart Mill’s Economic Man? In other words, does wealth increase the likelihood of greedy predispositions and thus increased “unethical behavior”? New research published in the early edition of  the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences seems to suggest this very result.

Researchers from the the University of California, Berkeley and Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto have conducted a series of studies (several of the them experimental) which suggest that wealthier people participate in more unethical behaviors; specifically because they view greed in a more positive light.

In the first two studies Piff et. al. (2012) literally observe whether vehicles cut-off other vehicles at a four way intersection. Research assistants coded the age, make, and model of the vehicles in each case to index social class (with the assumption that more expensive cars indicate higher social status. They also looked at whether cars would cut-off crossing (confederate) pedestrians. Both behaviors defy California Vehicle Code. They find that people driving cars associated with higher socioeconomic status (SES) were (statistically) significantly more likely to participate in both “unethical behaviors”. OK, not convinced?

In the third study participants reported their SES and other demographic information. Participants then read eight stories about actors “unrightfully” benefiting or taking something and then asks respondents if they would be likely to participate in the same behavior. One again, individuals with higher SES were more likely to say they would participate in the same behaviors (the behaviors were not reported but I can only assume they involved monetary benefits of some sort).

The fourth experiment is the best. Essentially, “Participants experienced either a low or high relative social-class rank by comparing themselves to people with the most (least) money, most (least) education, and most (least) respected jobs… This induction primes subjective perceptions of relatively high or low social-class rank” (Piff et. al. 2012, p. 2). This process activated social-class mindsets in the participants. The researchers then presented the participants with a bowl of candy and told them it was for children in the study in the next room, but they could have some if they wanted. The number of pieces of candy was then self-reported by the participants after a series of mock tasks unrelated to the experiment. Yep, you guessed it, people with a higher SES mindset took more candy from children – what is more unethical than that! Again, the candy can be looked at as something of monetary value or material benefit.

Study five linked positive attitudes toward greed to unethical behavior. Participants not only reported their SES but also took a survey which gauged the extent to which they believed it is justified and moral to be greedy. Participants were then placed in the position of bargaining over salary with an employee seeking “long-term” employment at their organization. However, the participants had a vital piece of information, the job position was only “short-term”. Would the participants tell the applicant? Once again, those of higher SES status were less likely to tell the applicant. But there is a twist, once “greed” was taken into account SES was no longer a statistically significant predictor of telling the applicant about the short-term position. Thus, the researchers conclude that it is actually one’s predisposition toward greed that accounts for “unethical” behavior and predisposition toward greed tends to be highly correlated with wealth. Negotiating over salary for a long-term position vs. a short-term position is very different and the private information can be a valuable during the negotiation. Again this relates to monetary value.

In study six, participants were told to roll a fair die (on a computer simulation) several times and then report the total number of points from all rolls. They were told that higher rolls would give them a higher chance of “winning” money. The participants didn’t know that the simulation was rigged and capped at 12 total points every time. Those with higher predispositions toward greed were more likely to lie and say their total was higher than 12 – again without the greed measure in the regression SES was significant, but once the greed measure was included SES no longer mattered. This was blatant monetary incentive.

In the final study, the researchers primed participants of both high and low SES to be greedy. They asked participants three things about their day (which was the neutral group) or three benefits of greed (the treatment group). After the prime, the researchers measured attitudes toward greed. Again SES was reported as well. The researchers then asked questions which gauged their propensity toward greed (i.e. stealing cash, receiving bribes, or overcharging customers). They found that those that were primed to be greedy were more likely to participate in unethical behavior. In fact,

“lower-class individuals were as unethical as upper-class individuals when instructed to think of greed’s benefits, suggesting that upper- and lower-class individuals do not necessarily differ in terms of their capacity for unethical behavior but rather in terms of their default tendencies toward it” (Piff et. al. 2012, p. 3).

Once again, the “unethical behaviors” were in relation to greater monetary incentives.

This study has garnered a lot of press today and has been interpreted broadly with what I would call normative  biases (i.e. see I told you rich people were evil). A lot of people including the researchers have used the 2008 crisis as anecdotal evidence of wealthy people partaking in unethical behavior. The researchers also remind us that, “Religious teachings extol the the poor and admonish the rich with claims like, ‘It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven'”.

However, I think it is important to note that the study demonstrates evidence that greed is linked with unethical behavior – not necessarily wealth. It may very well be that higher SES is correlated with greed, but we don’t know whether a default predisposition toward greed leads to greater wealth over one’s lifetime rather than increased wealth leading to greed. In fact, I think the former is more compelling that the latter. After all, we do live in a capitalist economy where greed tends to be rewarded.

What I find strange is the title of the piece, “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior”. This is not what the study finds, however. It is clear that the researchers find that “greed” trumps SES – as people with lower SES are just as likely to participate in unethical behavior when primed to believe that “greed is good”. Moreover, outside of the vehicle behavior studies, the research seems to equate wealth seeking behavior with unethical behavior.

After all, Homo Economicus, according to Mill, “is concerned with him [man] solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end.”


Mill, John Stuart. (1836) “On the Definition of Political Economy, and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It.” London and Westminster Review.

Piff, Paul K., Daniel M. Stancato, Stéphane Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner. (2012). “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior”. PNAS (Early Edition).


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