Tag Archives: money

Ancient bronze rings and ribs were some of the earliest money

Credit: M.H.G. KUIJPERS.

Money makes the world go round, and it all may have started more than 5,000 years ago. In a new study, researchers have described what they believe to be one of the earliest examples of currency. Only instead of paper bills or metal coins, these 5,000-year-old denominations took the form of bronze rings, ribs, and even axe blades.

The odd-looking currencies were identified by a team of researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who examined over 5,000 such objects from more than 100 ancient hoards of artifacts from Europe, ranging from Germany to Scandinavia.

Although some of the objects don’t conjure the familiar image of ‘money’, the researchers are confident they served as currency due to their weight, which falls within the Weber fraction — the idea that if objects differ by very little in mass, a human weighing them by hand won’t tell the difference.

The team performed a statistical analysis of the weighted objects, finding that around 70% of the rings were similar enough to be indistinguishable by hand, averaging 195 grams in mass. Similar results were reported for the bronze ribs and axe blades.

“The euros of Prehistory came in the form of bronze rings, ribs and axes. These Early Bronze Age artefacts were standardized in shape and weight and used as an early form of money,” the researchers said.

Credit: M.H.G. KUIJPERS.

When and how money first appeared is the subject of ongoing research. It also depends on how you define money, which can be either a means of exchange or a means of account (i.e. credit). What’s certain is that initially, people bartered, making direct trades between two parties of desirable objects.

The fact that these objects occurred in hoards and had consistently similar shape and weight, led the researchers to conclude that these objects were employed as a very early form of standardized currency. As technology improved, Middle Bronze Age people in Europe had access to more sophisticated weighing tools that allowed them to mint currencies that had a much more uniform shape and weight, unbiased by the human perception by hand.

According to the researchers, bronze ribs and other objects were a game-changer in the ancient world due to their ability to be duplicated by casting the metal in molds. Over time, these copies naturally gave rise to an abstract concept of weight. Later, such rudimentary forms of money were replaced by coinage which proved extremely successful, largely due to its portability, durability, and the high degree of control of production that it offered to political leaders (hence the state).

And although the ancient objects don’t look like money as we imagine it today, their shape isn’t all that surprising, falling under so-called utensil currency. Elsewhere, scientists have found money shaped like knives and spades in China or like a hoe and axe in Mesoamerica. Alternatively, people have even used live animals such as cows as a form of currency, but the age of this practice is difficult to assess for obvious reasons. Officially, the first known form of currency is believed to be the Mesopotamian shekel, which emerged nearly 5,000 years ago.

The findings appeared in the journal PLOS ONE.

Yes, more money will always make your life better, but that’s not all there is to happiness, says new study

In a twist that’s bound to surprise nobody, a new study finds that there isn’t actually any limit past which more money won’t make you happier. Yes, that sounds disheartening, but the authors also caution that it’s not the only thing that makes us happy by a long shot. Chasing money at the expense of everything else might actually make us less happy.

Image credits Mabel Amber.

The relationship between wealth and happiness has always fascinated researchers. One widely-known bit of research in the past suggested that the magic number is $75,000 per year. You won’t gain more happiness by gaining more than that, it added. But if you’ve had to bear through the pandemic jobless or in a job you hate but had to take, struggling to make ends meet, while watching rich people ‘suffer’ in mansions with gardens or spending their holidays on private islands, you might not put too much stock in that idea.

New research agrees with you.

The more the merrier

“[The relationship between money and well-being is] one of the most studied questions in my field,” says Matthew Killingsworth, a senior fellow at Penn’s Wharton School who studies human happiness, lead author of the paper. “I’m very curious about it. Other scientists are curious about it. Laypeople are curious about it. It’s something everyone is navigating all the time.”

Killingsworth set out to answer the question with a wealth of data. The technique he used is called experience sampling, and it involves having people to fill out short surveys at random times of the day. These serve as ‘snapshots’ of their feelings and moods over time, and how these fluctuate.

All in all, he collected 1.7 million data points (‘snapshots’) from more than 33,000 participants aged 18 to 65 from the US through an app called Track Your Happiness that he developed. This allowed him to obtain measurements from each participant a few times every day, with check-in times being randomized for each participant. These were measured on a scale ranging from “very bad” to “very good”, and every participant also answered the question “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life?” (on a scale of “not at all” to “extremely”) at least once. These all measured evaluative well-being, he explains.

“It tells us what’s actually happening in people’s real lives as they live them, in millions of moments as they work and chat and eat and watch TV,” he explains.

But the study also tracked experienced well-being by asking about 12 specific feelings. Five were positive — confident, good, inspired, interested, and proud — and seven negative — afraid, angry, bad, bored, sad, stressed, and upset. Two other measures of life satisfaction collected on an intake survey were also factored in here. Evaluative well-being measures our overall satisfaction with life, while experienced well-being indicates how we feel in the moment.

All in all, Killingsworth says the findings suggest that there is no dollar value past which more money won’t matter to an individual’s well-being and happiness.

“It’s a compelling possibility, the idea that money stops mattering above that point, at least for how people actually feel moment to moment,” he adds . “But when I looked across a wide range of income levels, I found that all forms of well-being continued to rise with income. I don’t see any sort of kink in the curve, an inflection point where money stops mattering. Instead, it keeps increasing.”

“We would expect two people earning $25,000 and $50,000, respectively, to have the same difference in well-being as two people earning $100,000 and $200,000, respectively. In other words, proportional differences in income matter the same to everyone.”

Killingsworth used the logarithm of a person’s income, rather than the actual income, for his study. In essence, this takes into account how much money someone already has. This approach means that rather than being just as important for everyone, each dollar will matter less the more a person earns.

He found that higher earners are happier in part because they feel more in control over their life. More money means more choices, options, and possibilities in regards to how we live life and spend our time, as the pandemic brutally showed. Someone living paycheck to paycheck will have less autonomy over their choices than someone who’s better-off — such as not having to take any job, even if you dislike it, due to financial constraints. Still, in Killingsworth’s eyes, this doesn’t mean we should chase money, and I feel the same way.

“Although money might be good for happiness, I found that people who equated money and success were less happy than those who didn’t. I also found that people who earned more money worked longer hours and felt more pressed for time,” Killingsworth explains.

“If anything, people probably overemphasize money when they think about how well their life is going. Yes, this is a factor that might matter in a way that we didn’t fully realize before, but it’s just one of many that people can control and ultimately, it’s not one I’m terribly concerned people are undervaluing.”

He hopes the findings bring forth more pieces of that ever-elusive puzzle: what exactly makes us happy? Money definitely plays a part, but, according to the findings, only “modestly”, Killingsworth explains.

The paper has been published in the journal PNAS and on the Penn State University’s blog.

Why is gold considered valuable, even today?

Few metals throughout history can boast the same desirability as gold. It has served as a hard currency for virtually every civilization that had access to it, fueled exploration and exploitation, and directly underpinned the dominant economic policy (mercantilism) for at least two centuries.

Image credits Tim C. Gundert / Pixabay.

It is, by and large, one of the most valuable and impactful metals humanity has ever used, despite it being quite soft and very shiny. So what exactly made gold so valuable and expensive, and why did various peoples show such interest in beating it into coins? Surprisingly, it’s not so much the properties that gold has, it’s what other elements don’t have. The fact that it’s pretty and shiny also helps, too. So let’s get into it.

Coins a’minting

Most transactions today involve either a swap of pieces of paper and plastic, or moving some virtual bits from one account to another. It’s quite a fast and convenient way of buying and selling. On the surface, it’s a very simple process: you give me what I want, I give you these colorful squares in exchange, then we both ride off into the sunset.

But if we delve a bit deeper, this transaction is only made possible by a huge and unseen net of systems and institutions working in concert. For starters, both parties in our hypothetical transaction recognize that the currency involved is desirable and holds value — this is guaranteed by the governments that be. Secondly, money is easy to carry around (portability), either physically in our pocket or on a card, and to count. Thirdly, we know, through various means, that the money swapping hands isn’t fake (it has validity) that it is a finite, often limited, resource (scarcity), and that it won’t rot over time (longevity). Finally, we both know that touching the money won’t kill us — it is safe.

Ultimately, what you want in a coin is for it to be a small but dense repository of value so you can carry a lot of purchasing power easily, long-lasting so you can store it and it won’t just waste away, distinctive (so it’s easy to tell it’s the real deal), in limited supply to some extent (either through natural or policy constraints), and safe to handle.

Which brings us neatly to gold. There are around 118 elements on the periodic table, most of them natural, some of them only seen in the lab for fractions of a second at a time. Not many of them are usable for coinage, because not many of them share in those traits listed above. We’ll look at each of the properties above to understand why certain elements just don’t work as money. However, we’ll leave value out for right now, as it’s a very complex concept that we should look at in a later article.

Gold’s chemical resilience, aesthetic properties, and association with wealth made it highly sought-after for jewelry all throughout history. Image via Pixabay.

Portability: elements that are gaseous or liquid at room temperature just don’t make for very convenient money. They’re not very portable, as you need a vessel to carry them in; such vessels can break, in which case your life savings might easily go ‘poof’ or literally down the drain. Around 13 chemical elements take the form of a gas (nitrogen, oxygen, the halogen group, and the noble gases) or liquid (bromine and mercury) natively, so we can cross these off the list.

Denominations would also be a bit hard to pull off with fluid currencies. Let’s say that the units of choice in our make-believe economy are flasks of mercury and flasks of chlorine gas to serve as subdivisions. What if I need to pay someone three-and-a-half bottles of mercury and don’t have any change on hand — do I pour some out? How do I measure it accurately? How do I know you didn’t dilute the ‘coin’ with some other compound? This problem only gets worse with gases.

Finally, all materials react to changes in temperature and pressure — but fluids react the most. Any such currency would probably require special storage conditions, to avoid both physical damage to their containers, as well as any possible losses that would be incurred by changes in temperatures. Carrying coins on your person over long distances would be much more difficult in this case.

In regards to validity, gold has the benefit of being, well, golden. It’s the only elemental metal bearing this color, which means that it’s quite hard to fake. Alloys and minerals like bronze, brass, and pyrite can pass for it, to an extent, but other properties can be used to check whether a coin is made of gold or not. Pure gold is very soft for a metal, so much so that people used to bite coins to check for gold — human teeth enamel has a Mohs hardness of 5, while gold has only 2.5, so your teeth can put a dent in a piece of gold, but not in a gold-plated coin. Most other metals in the periodic table, with some noteworthy exceptions such as copper, are silvery-gray in appearance, so they can, to an extent, be substituted for one another in a coin.

Its longevity is the product of gold’s very, very limited chemical reactivity. Noble metals and noble gases aren’t called ‘noble’ because they’re expensive (although, they are), they’re called that because, like nobles of old, they don’t mingle with the great masses, chemically speaking. Even runner-ups silver and copper get degraded over time — silver tarnishes due to reactions with sulphur compounds in our sweat or other sources, and copper develops patina due to oxygen. Gold doesn’t rust, it doesn’t tarnish, and doesn’t get splotches on it because gold will react with almost nothing. It doesn’t get degraded by virtually any acid, or bacteria, or alkaline solution. To sum it up, there’s not much you can do to damage gold short of throwing it into some King’s Water (aqua regia), which is a mixture of several strong acids.

Scarcity and safety are pretty straightforward: gold is very rare, so people can’t get the raw materials to make their own coins and ruin the economy. Because it’s so chemically inert, touching gold won’t kill you. You can even swallow some up and still be OK, as fancy pastry-shops are happy to remind you. For comparison, think of sodium, which literally explodes on contact with water.

An ideal mix of qualities and faults

So far, so good — but we’ve yet to answer ‘why gold?’. Sure, it’s portable and distinctive, but arguably so is copper. Mercury is very distinctive, even if harder to carry around safely, and lead is very dense even if somewhat silvery. Carbon is safe to handle; platinum or uranium is much rarer. What gives?

Coins today are typically minted on cheaper metals, but their value is guaranteed by governing bodies. Image credits Kelvin Stuttard / Pixabay.

Well, here we get to the meat of it: gold (and silver to an extent) is uniquely suited to making coins because it has the right proportions of each trait for the time it was used. It’s rare, but not impossible to find and extract. It is supremely long-lasting and safe, easy to verify and carry, easy to work into sanctioned shapes (coins).

Is uranium rarer? Probably — but it’s so rare that we simply didn’t know it existed for the longest time, and it will probably slowly kill you, which is not ideal. Platinum is just as if not less reactive than gold, but it’s way scarcer on Earth, and requires much, much higher temperatures (read: advanced tech and know-how) to extract and process. Carbon is just as safe, but it’s lying around quite literally everywhere, so it’s worthless as coinage. And so on.

Gold imposed itself because it had just the right amount of each of these traits to make it an attractive option. It’s really pretty to look at and shiny, which can only help, as does gold’s softness — allowing for official, state-guaranteed coins to be minted with the proper markings. Silver and copper have established themselves as the runner-up metals for coinage throughout history as they share some of the properties of gold, but not enough to put them on equal footing: silver degrades somewhat and is much less distinctive, while copper degrades and is too abundant to be properly controlled by authorities.

Still, as history has shown, gold is a workable but not ideal medium for an economy. It’s durable and rare enough to be used as a placeholder for value but there’s only a limited amount of gold that’s practically accessible to humanity on Earth. Things will go swimmingly while your economy is small, but, eventually, you mine all the gold out. After that you can’t make more money to accommodate demand, you get deflation (prices drop), the economy grinds to a halt and then there’s riots. Not good.

The reverse of the coin is that you can also have too much gold. It’s a real problem, I assure you, as Spain can attest. After discovering the Americas, Spain set to work becoming ridiculously rich in the 15th and 16th through a combination of exploiting the locals and treasure fleets. These were not named in jest — they were, to the fullest extent of the word, fleets of ships, all laden with treasures, all coming to Spain.

“A single galleon might carry 2 million pesos [1 peso = ~25 grams of silver]. The modern approximate value of the estimated 4 billion pesos produced during the [300-year] period would come to $530 billion or €470 billion (based on silver bullion prices of May 2015),” Wikipedia explains about these fleets.

Part of these treasures were goods including spices, lumber, skins, and all manner of nice, exotic things from the Americas; but a large part was represented by silver and gold, mined for cheap. Europe’s economies at the time were still using gold (and silver to an extent) as their standard currency. This means that prices all over the continent were directly determined by how much each country had in store. Mercantilism, the idea that a country becomes richer by exporting more than it imports and gaining gold (and silver) from its partners would form out of this relationship.

This gold piece (recovered from a treasure fleet sunk in 1715) showcases just how resilient gold is against chemical damage, even underwater. Image credits Augi Garcia / Wikimedia.

But when you have a metal underpinning your currency, keeping a balance between how much of it you hoard and how productive your economy is becomes vital. To give you an idea of just how important this relationship is, know that Spain quickly became one of the, if not the, richest country in Europe at the time. It had so much money by the end of it that the Spanish crown had been throwing it away with both arms for almost two centuries — paying off their national debt, funding religious wars or naval wars with England, colonization of other continents, expensive building projects, fine imports — and they still couldn’t spend it fast enough.

Spain saw massive levels of inflation by the 17th century, to such an incredible extent that the crown had declared bankruptcy (they were the first royal rulers to ever do so) repeatedly, and there is cause to believe that these levels of high inflation affected the rest of Europe, at least Western Europe. It had so much gold relative to goods and services in its economy that it wasn’t really scarce anymore. Coins lost value, prices went right up, the economy stalled because nobody could afford to buy anything, and merchants couldn’t lower prices without incurring a loss. Then the economy ground to a halt and there were riots. Again — not good.

A word of ending

Gold is, to this day, seen as a solid repository of value. But the inability to control its supply (to either increase or decrease it) when needed shackled governments and rulers in regards to their fiscal policy. Once you link your coinage to gold and silver, your economy is at the mercy of how much of them is available in your area.

In olden, golden times, this wasn’t much of an issue; economies were pretty small, local things that moved quite slowly, had low output, and limited technological ability. Gold’s longevity, scarcity, portability, the fact that it was verifiable and safe to use made it an ideal tender, despite its limited supply. There wasn’t a technological base to design artificial money that had those traits, so we used a naturally occurring substance instead.

Today, although its properties haven’t changed and there’s more gold around than ever, it simply is too restrictive; economies are fast, dynamic, with massive outputs and impressive technical possibilities. In this world, being portable, safe, and long-lasting is not enough to keep up with economic reality — so we switched to something that’s all of that, but only artificially scarce.

Gold’s properties made it ideal for the minting of coins, and I hope you gained a better understanding of just what makes a good coin. I’ve done my best to try and discuss this topic without touching on concepts of market value or price, as they’re a whole different kettle of fish that we may open up soon. But as is always the case, gold has value because people say it has value — for its uses, its looks, or its association with status, wealth, and power.

Our happiness is more dependent on money today than in the 70s and 80s

With socioeconomic factors being increasingly polarizing in today’s world, the link between wealth and happiness is stronger than ever, researchers find.

Image via Wikimedia.

A new study from the San Diego State University (SDSU) reports that the link between indicators such as income and education and happiness has been growing ever stronger during the last few decades.

According to the findings, the more income someone has, the happier they’re likely to be. Unlike previous findings in this area, however, the authors didn’t find this effect plateauing at a yearly income of about $75,000.

Happy Franklins

“I was surprised that income was so strongly related to happiness and that happiness didn’t plateau at higher levels of income,” said SDSU psychologist Jean Twenge, one of the study’s two authors. “More money seems to equal more happiness, even after basic needs are met.”

The two authors used data on 44,198 U.S. adults age 30 and over in the nationally representative General Social Survey (gathered from 1972 to 2016).

As a rule of thumb, people with higher incomes in the study reported greater levels of happiness and life satisfaction. This trend has been growing stronger since the 1970s and ’80s, the authors report. In other words, money today seems able to buy more happiness than it did in the past.

These trends also lead to a growing happiness divide. White Americans with no college education saw a drop in happiness after the year 2000, while white Americans with a college degree saw steady levels. For black Americans with no college education, happiness levels have remained steady over the same timeframe, while those with a college degree saw higher levels of happiness.

“We’re not exactly sure why there’s a growing divide in happiness, but it might be because of growing income inequality. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” said Twenge.

Such findings tie into other research which uncovered growing levels of ‘despair‘ among working-class white Americans, Twenge adds. While economic woes could be the root of the issue, another explanation could lie in decreasing rates of marriage. These used to be pretty similar across different socioeconomic groups in the US, but has been steadily dropping among lower-income individuals (and married people tend to report higher levels of happiness on average).

Another take on the matter could be that money buys security, comfort, and quality healthcare, all of which lead to a happier life.

Taken at face value, the findings help showcase just how important economic factors are for our well-being and satisfaction in life. A more concerning implication is that happiness today is increasingly a perk of the rich, which does not bode well for the health of our societies. So stay in school kids and make it rain — it’s the basis of a happy life.

The paper “The expanding class divide in happiness in the United States, 1972–2016” has been published in the journal Emotion.

How scientists used 17,000 wallets to find out just how honest people are

A couple of months ago, I met up with one of my friends for a morning coffee. As soon as I arrived, he asked me not to buy anything. “I just realized I’ve lost my wallet,” he said. “Let’s go look for it.” Luckily enough, we found it at the police station nearby, where someone had returned it. Everything was intact — money, cards, and IDs. My friend evaded a disaster.

Losing your wallet can be very costly. For starters, an ill-motivated person could take your money and use your cards for some transactions. Even more problematic is having to report your lost ID and get a new one — it’s anywhere between a hassle and a disaster. There’s no official statistic, but it’s probably safe to say that millions of people lose their wallets every year.

Some of them are returned, and some of them aren’t. A group of researchers wanted to see if and why people around the world returned wallets, and if the amount of money in it makes a difference. So they did what every sensible person would do: they sent a graduate student all around the world with 17,000 wallets, loads of cash, and about 400 spare keys.

Image via Pixabay.

Everywhere the graduate student went, the world around him became a laboratory. Unbeknownst to them, staff members from museums, banks, and other institutions became part of his research on civic honesty. They were presented with an allegedly lost wallet, with an amount of money in it.

The setup was simple. A young European tourist walked into an institution with a wallet containing a shopping list, a key and a few duplicate business cards written in the local language. The tourist handed the wallet to a member of staff saying “I found this on the street near the entrance. Someone must have lost it. Can you take care of it?”. Then, he would promptly leave.

In some cases, the wallet would have no money. In others, it would have the equivalent of $15 in local currency. In some cases, it had up to $100.

The results were surprising: wallets with money were more likely to be returned than the ones with no money. Furthermore, the more money the wallet had, the more likely it was to be returned.

This came as a shock to researchers, who were expecting to see quite the opposite. A separate survey of 300 economists found that the scholars were expecting people to return more wallets with little or no money and keep the ones with more money.

Interpreting the findings is not easy. It’s always tricky to draw conclusions from studies like this — but at the very least, this study goes to show that people’s reactions to a moral dilemma are not always predictable, and could be quite surprising.

So, that just leaves one question: what would you do if you found a lost wallet on the sidewalk?

The brain rewards new information like it does food, money, or drugs

Credit: Pixabay.

Are you constantly checking your phone even though you’re not expecting any important messages? Well, blame your brain. According to a new study, digital addiction may be pinned to the way the brain rewards new information, which it seems to value in the same way as money and food.

“To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful,” said Assoc. Prof. Ming Hsu, a neuroeconomist. “And just as our brains like empty calories from junk food, they can overvalue information that makes us feel good but may not be useful—what some may call idle curiosity.”

Hsu’s research utilized functional magnetic imaging (fMRI), psychological theory, economic modeling, and machine learning in order to answer two fundamental questions about curiosity. First, why do people seek information, and second, how does curiosity manifest itself inside the brain?

There are two leading theories about the purpose and function of curiosity. Economists tend to view curiosity as a means to an end, helping actors gain information that may improve decision making. Psychologists, on the other hand, see curiosity as an innate motivation that triggers action without the need for any other motive — reading just for the sake of reading or digging in the dirt just to see what lies beneath the soil.

From a neuroscience perspective, Hsu and colleagues analyzed curiosity by scanning the brains of volunteers who had to play a gambling game. Each participant played a series of lotteries where they had the opportunity to pay in order to find out more about the odds of winning. In some lotteries where the stakes were high, this information could be highly valuable — for instance, when what seemed like a longshot was revealed to actually be very likely to happen. However, in other cases, this information was worth very little if the stakes of the lotteries were low.

For the most part, the people in the study behaved rationally from an economic standpoint: they chose to spend money when it made sense, i.e. when it helped them win more. Some choices, however, weren’t rational when seen from an economic standpoint. For instance, the participants tended to overvalue information pertaining to high-priced lotteries. In other words, when the stakes were high, people displayed curiosity in information even when that information had little effect on their decision whether or not to play.

In order to explain the two sets of behaviors, both economic and psychological models had to be taken into account. In other words, people choose to seek out new information for its immediate and actual benefits, as well as for the anticipation of its benefits, whether they were of any use or not.

“Anticipation serves to amplify how good or bad something seems, and the anticipation of a more pleasurable reward makes the information appear even more valuable,” Hsu said in a statement.

The fMRI scans showed that the information about the lotteries’ odds activated the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which are dopamine-producing reward areas activated by food, money, and many addictive drugs. These brain areas were activated no matter if the information was useful and changed a person’s original decision, or not.

Using a machine learning technique called support vector regression, the researchers showed that the brain processes the same neural code for information about lottery odds as it does for money. Hsu says that similarly to how we might convert a steak dinner or a vacation into a monetary value, so can the brain covert curiosity about information using the same common code it uses for less abstract rewards like money.

“We can look into the brain and tell how much someone wants a piece of information, and then translate that brain activity into monetary amounts,” he says.

The new findings might explain people’s tendency to overconsume digital information or why we find notifications of new likes on our social media photos so delicious and irresistible.

“The way our brains respond to the anticipation of a pleasurable reward is an important reason why people are susceptible to clickbait,” Hsu says. “Just like junk food, this might be a situation where previously adaptive mechanisms get exploited now that we have unprecedented access to novel curiosities.

Grant Proposal.

Researchers write grant proposals differently depending on their gender, and it can lead to bias

What you’re describing in a research grant proposal is important but how you say it also matters a lot, new research shows.

Grant Proposal.

Probably the wrong wording.

The study looked at health research proposals submitted to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in particular, the wording they used. It found that men and women tend to use different types of words in this context, both of which carry their own downsides. Female authors tend to use ‘narrow’ words — more topic-specific language — while men tend to go for ‘broad’ words, the team reports. The findings further point to some of the biases proposal reviewers can fall prey to, and may help design effective automated review software in the future.

The words in our grants

“Broad words are something that reviewers and evaluators may be swayed by, but they’re not really reflecting a truly valuable underlying idea,” says Julian Kolev, an assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business in Dallas, Texas, and the lead author of the study.

It’s “more about style and presentation than the underlying substance.”

The narrower language used by female authors seems to result in lower review scores overall, the team notes. However, broad language, which tended to see more use with male authors, let them down later throughout the scientific process: proposals that used more broad words saw fewer publications in top-tier journals after receiving funding. They also weren’t more likely to generate follow-up funding that publications with narrower language.

The researchers classified words as being “narrow” if they appeared more often in proposals dealing with a particular topic than others. Words that were more common across topics were classified as “broad”. In effect, this process allowed the team to determine whether certain terms were ‘specialized’ for a particular field or were more versatile. This data-driven approach resulted in word classifications that might not have been obvious from the outset: “community” and “health” were deemed to be narrow words, for example, whereas “bacteria” and “detection” were deemed to be broad words.

Reviewers favored proposals with broader words — and those words were used more often by men. So, should we just teach women to write like men? The team “would be hesitant to recommend” it, which is basically science-speak for ‘no’. Kolev says we should instead look at the potential biases reviewers can have, especially in cases where they are favoring language that doesn’t necessarily result in better research.

“The narrower and more technical language is probably the right way to think about and evaluate science,” he says.

Kolev’s team analyzed 6794 proposals submitted to the Gates Foundation by US-based researchers between 2008 and 2017 and how reviewers scored them. Overall, they report, reviewers tended to give female applicants lower scores, although the authors’ identities were kept secret during the review process. This gap in reviewer scores stood firm even after the team controlled for a host of conditions, such as the applicant’s current career stage or their publication record. The only element that correlated with the gap is the language applicants used in their titles and proposal descriptions, the team reports.

The team isn’t exactly sure whether their findings are broadly applicable to all scientific grant application review processes or not. Other research into this subject, but this one dealing with the peer-review process at the NIH, didn’t find the same pattern. It might be a peculiarity of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

One explanation could be found in the different takes these two organizations have on reviewing processes. The Gates Foundation draws on reviewers from several disciplines and employs a “champion-based” review approach, whereby grants are much more likely to be funded if they’re rated highly by a single reviewer. This less-specialized body of reviewers may be more susceptible to claims that look good on paper (“I’m going to cure cancer!”) rather than those which actually make for good science (such as “I’m going to study how this molecule interacts with cancerous cells”). This may, unwittingly, place women at a disadvantage.

The Gates Foundation hasn’t been deaf to these findings — in fact, they were the ones who called for the study and gave the team access to their peer-review data and proposals. The organization is “committed to ensuring gender equality” and is “carefully reviewing the results of this study — as well as our own internal data — as part of our ongoing commitment to learning and evolving as an organization,” according to a written statement.

The findings also have interesting implications for automated text-analysis software, which will increasingly take on tasks like this in the future. On the one hand, it shows how altering the wording of a proposal can trick even us — nevermind a bit of code — into considering it more valuable when it’s not. On the other hand, the findings can help us iron out these kinks.

But that’s the larger picture. If you happen to be involved in academia and are working hard on a grant proposal, the study shows how important it is to tailor your paper to the peer-review process. You don’t need to be an expert –he Gates / NIH studies show that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all here, but there are services online that can help you out when the style and terminology of the assignment.

The paper “Is Blinded Review Enough? How Gendered Outcomes Arise Even Under Anonymous Evaluation” has been published in the journal NBER.


Giving, not receiving, is the secret to happiness unceasing

‘Tis the season to be jolly, indeed!


Image via Pixabay.

All those gifts you prepared for your loved ones this Christmas likely made you feel really happy, new research reveals. The study, carried out by a duo of US researchers, suggests that giving really makes us happier than getting.

Big red sack’o’goodies

“If you want to sustain happiness over time, past research tells us that we need to take a break from what we’re currently consuming and experience something new,” says Ed O’Brien, a psychology researcher at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and paper co-author.

“Our research reveals that the kind of thing may matter more than assumed: Repeated giving, even in identical ways to identical others, may continue to feel relatively fresh and relatively pleasurable the more that we do it.”

Our brains do this annoying thing called “hedonic adaptation” — basically, we feel less and less happiness for a particular event or activity each time we experience it. That’s why things stop feeling ‘fresh’ after a while, boredom sets in, and we go for the next thrilling thrill. However, giving to others may be exempt from this type of adaptation, the paper reports.

The team, composed of O’Brien and Samantha Kassirer (Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management), found that participants who repeatedly gave gifts to others felt consistently happy. Those who repeatedly received the same gifts felt declining levels of happiness, they add.

In the first trial, the team worked with a group of 96 participants, randomly assigned to either of two groups. They would receive $5 every day for 5 days, which they had to spend on the exact same item every time. However, one group was asked to spend the money for themselves, while the other was asked to spend it for someone else (by leaving money in a tip jar at the same café or making an online donation to the same charity, for example). At the end of each day, participants were asked to reflect on the ‘spending experience’ and how much overall happiness they felt.

Participants started with similar levels of self-reported happiness, the team explains, but the two groups had diverged significantly by the trial’s end. Those who spend the money on themselves reported a steady decline in happiness throughout the 5-day period. Those who gave their money to someone else, however, felt no such decline: they got just as much joy out of giving the fifth time as they did the first time.

The team carried out a second trial online, which allowed them to keep the tasks consistent for everybody. Working with 502 participants, the researchers set up a 10-round word puzzle game. Players won $0.05 per round, which they could either keep or donate to a charity of their choice. After each round, participants disclosed the degree to which winning made them feel happy, elated, and joyful.

Here, too, self-reported levels of happiness were more stable for those who donated the winnings instead of keeping it for themselves. One of the explanations the team is considering is that participants who gave to others had to think longer and harder about what to give, which could promote higher happiness.

“We considered many such possibilities, and measured over a dozen of them,” says O’Brien. “None of them could explain our results; there were very few incidental differences between ‘get’ and ‘give’ conditions, and the key difference in happiness remained unchanged when controlling for these other variables in the analyses.”

The team writes that when people think in terms of on an outcome (i.e. ‘how much money I made’), they can easily compare with other outcomes — these are quantifiable results. The comparison, however, sours the experience, diminishing an individual’s sensitivity to it. When we focus on the action (such as donating to a charity), however, we’re not as interested in the outcome — because of this, we can focus on the act of giving, treating it as a unique, happiness-inducing event. We may also be slower to adapt to happiness generated by giving because giving to others helps us maintain our prosocial reputation, reinforcing our sense of social connection and belonging.

Still, the results can use some fleshing-out. One particular area of interest for the team is how would the findings hold when dealing with larger amounts of money. They would also be interested to see if giving to friends, rather than strangers, would generate a different experience for the giver. Finally, they would like to expand the research beyond money — prosocial behavior includes a wide range of experiences, they explain.

“Right now we’re testing repeated conversation and social experiences, which also may get better rather than worse over time,” O’Brien explains.

The paper “Impediments to Effective Altruism: The Role of Subjective Preferences in Charitable Giving” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

The richest 1% people could own 64% of all wealth by 2030

Wealth is being overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of the few: a new survey reveals that if current trends continue, the world’s richest 1% are set to control two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030. Survey authors warn world leaders that if this continues, it will fuel growing distrust and anger over the coming decade.

It’s not a surprise that the world’s richest are, well, disproportionately rich, but the disparity has gotten bigger and bigger in recent years. Already, a previous report from earlier this year has shown that just 42 people hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion poorest people in the world. Furthermore, 82% of all wealth created in 2017 went to the top 1%, so this small percentile is set to accumulate even more wealth.

A report by the House of Commons library in the UK found that the wealth of the richest 1% has been growing at an average of 6% a year, whereas the rest of the 99% only grow by 3% a year. If this trend continues, the top 1% of humanity’s population will own almost two-thirds of all economic wealth in just over a decade — that’s amounts to $305tn (£216.5 trillion), up from $140 trillion today.

The research was commissioned by Liam Byrne, the former Labour cabinet minister, who told The Guardian that global inequality was “at a tipping point”.

Commenting on the impact of this inequality in January, Mark Goldring, the chief executive of Oxfam (a charity focused on poverty) said:

“The concentration of extreme wealth at the top is not a sign of a thriving economy, but a symptom of a system that is failing the millions of hardworking people on poverty wages who make our clothes and grow our food.”

This change is not without effect. Polling by Opinium, a market research consultancy, reports that most people feel very negatively about the growing influence of the wealthy, and this is easy to see in all layers of daily life. Those who feel economically insecure especially distrust the rich and the government — and the consequences can be devastating. However, there are even more tangible consequences to extreme economic inequality.

Several studies have established a positive relationship between income inequality and crime. According to a survey of research conducted between 1968 and 2000, most researchers point to evidence economically unequal societies have higher crime rates. That survey concludes that inequality is “the single factor most closely and consistently related to crime.” Inequality also decreases the overall health of a population — something that’s especially true in the US, where more and more people are struggling to cope with increasing health costs (in other countries, which support universal health care, the effect is diminished). Poor health impacts the overall prosperity of a society, so, consequently, economic inequality leads to an even greater impoverishment.

There is also a mountain of research correlating social inequality to a decrease in overall education quality. In unequal societies, government support tends to decline for public education programs, creating a dangerous feedback loop.



Make art not money

Riches make your happiness about yourself, a tight budget makes it about others

Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does seem to make it all about yourself, new research found. People with high incomes were found to experience more emotions associated with happiness that are focused on themselves. By contrast, those with lower incomes were found to derive happiness more from their relationships and interactions with other people.

Make art not money

Image credits Daria Nepriakhina.

If there’s one thing everyone will agree on, it’s that having money is a lot better than not having money. Higher income has many proven benefits, from better health to higher life satisfaction. However, there isn’t a clear answer to whether folk wisdom was right that ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ — yet. So a new paper, lead-authored by Paul Piff, PhD at the University of California, Irvine, looked into how money and happiness tie together.

“Most people think of money as some kind of unmitigated good,” said Piff. “But some recent research suggests that this may not actually be the case. In many ways, money does not necessarily buy you happiness.”

The happiness gap

The team used a survey to quiz 1,519 Americans on their household income and a series of other factors, designed to measure their tendency to experience seven emotions which are believed to make up the foundation of happiness: amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, enthusiasm, love, and pride. The questions were designed to be neutral, so as not to influence the answers. Compassion, for example, was gauged with statements such as “nurturing others gives me a warm feeling inside”.

Crunching the data revealed that well-off participants tended to experience more of the emotions that focus on one’s self — specifically, contentment and pride. Amusement was also tied to socioeconomic status, but more loosely. Surveyees on the lower end of the income scale were more likely to experience emotions that focus on other people, especially compassion and love. Awe was more prevalent among them than in the first group, as was experiencing beauty. Lastly, the team reports that income had no apparent effect on enthusiasm.

“These findings indicate that wealth is not unequivocally associated with happiness,” says Piff. “What seems to be the case is that your wealth predisposes you to different kinds of happiness.”

“While wealthier individuals may find greater positivity in their accomplishments, status and individual achievements, less wealthy individuals seem to find more positivity and happiness in their relationships, their ability to care for and connect with others.”

He believes these differences are borne from higher-income individuals’ aspirations for independence and self-sufficiency. On the other hand, aspects of happiness that center on others help lower-income individuals to form tighter, interdependent bonds with others. This tightly-knit group helps them, in turn, to cope with their less stable, more threatening environment.

According to Piff, poverty “heightens people’s risks for a slew of negative life outcomes, including worsened health,” so any support a community or group can provide is welcome. Wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness, far from it, but the findings suggest that it changes how we experience it at the very least — for example taking joy in “yourself versus in your friends and relationships,” which aligns well with previous research on the subject.

“These findings suggest that lower-income individuals have devised ways to cope, to find meaning, joy and happiness in their lives despite their relatively less favorable circumstances,” he concludes.

The findings are actually kind of a bummer, if I may use a technical term, especially considering that over 43 million people live under the poverty line in the US alone. The income gap is even more abysmal when looking at the whole world, and is still growing according to Inequality.org, a project which has been tracking inequality throughout the world since 2011. That’s a lot of people who have to find “ways to cope, to find meaning”.

And no, it’s not about ‘working hard.’ The single most meaningful factor deciding your socioeconomic status for life is having the right parents.

The paper “Wealth, Poverty, and Happiness: Social Class Is Differentially Associated With Positive Emotions” has been published in the journal Emotion.

The US doesn’t want poor people: concentrated poverty rises for the first time since the ’90s

Concentrated poverty is on the rise in the US again, with the number of neighborhoods where 40% or more of the population lives below the federal poverty levels of all races increasing for the first time since the 1990s, Penn State demographers report.

Venice Beach, California.
Image credits Thomas Galvez / Flickr.

While general poverty levels only look at how many people live on less than a standard income in a particular place, the concept of poverty concentration takes into account how poverty is spread out throughout an area. Poverty on its own is really bad news, but concentrated poverty makes things a lot worse for everyone — it’s a cascading effect of ever-less money available in the community, meaning health services, educational services, and other civic institutions work with reduced efficiency or grind down altogether. Concentrated poverty amplifies the poor’s struggle by making society around them poorer, less able to help, in a self-reinforcing cycle.

And it’s on the rise in the US for the first time in two decades, warns John Iceland, a professor of sociology and demography at Penn state and research associate at the Population Research Institute. Using data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau from 1980-2000 and data gathered through the American Community Survey from 2000-2014, the team says concentrated poverty, which saw a rise in the 1980s and gradually eased during the 1990s, is making a comeback throughout all demographics in the US.

Iceland points to growing residential separation and isolation of the poor from the rest of American society in metropolitan areas, as well as an overall increase in poverty since the early 2000s as the biggest factors driving this rise.

“I personally was curious about this volatility — what explains it? Why did we see this increase in the 1980s and the decline in the 1990s and why has it been rebounding?” said Iceland.

“As a social demographer, I’m particularly interested in the changing composition of people living in certain neighborhoods and what types of broad population processes help explain the general trend.”

New neighborhoods

Shepard, Columbus, Ohio.
Image credits Brandie / Flickr.

Not only is the US experiencing a rise in concentrated poverty levels, but it’s also undergoing a shift in who and where is getting the worst of it. The authors note that the demographics, as well as the location of high-poverty neighborhoods, has changed since the 1990s.

“It used to be thought of as black, inner-city poverty, but now more Hispanics and a higher proportion of whites are living in high-poverty neighborhoods,” Iceland said. “They are less likely to be just in the inner core of cities, but oftentimes in inner suburbs.”

“We find that changes in the segregation of the poor explained the largest share of the change in concentrated poverty over most of the time period, with the exception of the 1990s, where the plunge in both black and white poverty rates had the largest role in explaining the considerable decline in concentrated poverty in that decade for both groups.”

Poverty and poverty concentration are different concepts but it’s possible the two are related, Iceland added. Working together with sociology and demography graduate student Erik Hernandez, Iceland also looked at how fluctuations in overall poverty affected its concentration throughout the US.

“There could be a certain percentage of the population in a country that is poor, but what the concentration of poverty looks at is to what extent are they concentrated in relatively few neighborhoods,” he said.

They found that poverty concentration followed the trends set by overall poverty. The country’s recent economic hardships, such as the 2006-2008 recession, has pushed up individual poverty, neighborhood-wide (social) poverty, the overall percentage of people and that of poor people living in high-poverty neighborhoods, the researchers said.

In the 2000s, some 20.5% of poor blacks lived in high-poverty neighborhoods, a figure which increased to 23.1% between 2010 and 2014. For poor non-Hispanic whites, that number went from 5.8% to 8.2% during this time. Overall, the total percentage of poor Americans living in high-poverty neighborhoods went from 11.4% to 14.1%. This concentration can affect governmental services — health, police, education — as well as limit job opportunities, further impoverishing those living in the affected areas.

“A lot of resources are tied to neighborhoods — the quality of schooling and the amount of a school’s economic resources vary across neighborhoods, for example,” said Iceland.

“People have talked about how there’s more crime and social disorganization in places with high poverty levels. And this all has consequences for quality of life.”

The full paper “Understanding trends in concentrated poverty” has been published in the journal Social Science Research.

five dollar bill autralia

Australia’s new $5 bill is one of the hardest to counterfeit in the world

five dollar bill autralia

The first new Australian currency note in 25 years was released today, making its way to banks and soon enough into people’s pockets. The new fiver features a revamped design, depicting an older Queen Elisabeth, as well as two new species of fauna, the Prickly Moses and a native bird called the Eastern Spinebill.

Most importantly, the new bill features state of the art anti-counterfeiting technology. Australia’s Reserve Bank spent the last ten years researching, consulting, and testing the new bill to keep up with the forgery technology like specialized software and printing techniques.

The plastic banknote is marked with security features which include moving objects like a bird and a 3D star that spins around once you change the fiver’s perspective.

“The security features on it lend themselves to people tilting banknotes looking for things they can’t necessarily see,” Reserve Bank’s assistant governor Michele Bullock told ABC Australia.

“We led the world in plastic banknotes. We are now leading the world in the design and technology in the way we’ve integrated the security features into this banknote.”

Next on the list is the $10 bill which will be upgraded with similar technology next year.


What separates the wolves from the sheep in the stock market?

“Be fearful when others are greedy and be greedy only when others are fearful,” said Warren Buffet, arguably the most astute contemporary investor in the world. Research by Caltech and Virginia Tech backs this sound advice, after delving deep into the investor mind and framework by analyzing stock market behavior at the neurolevel. Apparently, some parts of the brains of wise traders light up differently when they receive a signal that it’s time to maybe back down and sell, even though the market is rising and far from its peak.


Known as “the Oracle of Omaha”, Buffett is Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and arguably the greatest investor of all time. His wealth fluctuates with the performance of the market. For instance, in 2008 he was the richest man in the world; today he’s classed at #3. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Buy low, sell high

The hallmark of the work is the discovery of two key brain mechanisms that describe distinct types of activity in the brains of participants. One such type of brain activity was observed in a tiny fraction of the study participants. It made them nervous, twitchy and prompted them to sell their stocks even though the prices were on the rise. The other mechanism was far more common and was shared by most participants, prompting them to behave greedily and buy shares aggressively  during the bubble and sometimes even after it collapsed.

The lucky few who received the early warning signal got out of the market early and earned the most money. The others displayed what former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance” and lost their proverbial shirts.

The researchers organized 16 trading sessions, each attended by 20 participants or so. Each participant was instructed how a screen trading market worked and was given 100 units of an experimental currency and six shares of a risky asset. Then, over the course of 50 trading periods, the traders indicated by pressing keyboard buttons whether they wanted to buy, sell, or hold shares at various prices.

The fundamental price of the risky asset was set by the researchers at 14 credits, but what’s interesting is that in many of the sessions the traded price of the asset rose far more than this. In fact, in some situations, the trading price was five times higher. Of course, this gave rise to bubble markets that eventually crashed.

“The first thing we saw was that even in an environment where you don’t have squawking heads and all kinds of other information being fed to people, you can get bubbles just through pricing dynamics that occur naturally,” says Camerer. This finding is at odds with what some economists have held—that bubbles are rare or are caused by misinformation or hype.

Throughout the experiment, the participants had their brains scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. In fMRI, blood flow is monitored and used as a proxy for brain activation. If a brain region shows a relatively high level of blood oxygenation during a task, that region is thought to be particularly active.

Based on their performance over 50 trading periods, participants were divided into three main categories: the low, medium and high earners. People in the middle ground didn’t take many risks and as a result neither made nor lost money in the process. The traders who were on the low margin tended to be impulse buyers that traded on momentum. The high earners, on average, bought early and sold when the stocks were on the rise.

“The high-earning traders are the most interesting people to us,” Camerer says. “Emotionally, they have to do something really hard: sell into a rising market. We thought that something must be going on in their brains that gives them an early warning signal.”

Irrational investors are clouded by emotions

When the outcomes of the trading sessions were shared with the participants, fMRI scans revealed how a region called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) lit up.

This region is associated with reward processing—it lights up when people are given expected rewards such as money or a paid off gamble, like in the trading business. A very interesting finding was that poor earners – those who’ve basically lost their shirts – were very sensitive to activity in the NAcc: when they experienced the most activity in the NAcc, they bought a lot of the risky asset.

“That is a correlation we can call irrational exuberance,” Camerer says. “Exuberance is the brain signal, and the irrational part is buying so many shares. The people who make the most money have low sensitivity to the same brain signal. Even though they’re having the same mental reaction, they’re not translating it into buying as aggressively.”

History is written by the victor, however. What makes the high earners better? The researchers hypothesize that a part of the brain called the insular cortex, or insula, is key.

Previous studies have linked the insula to financial uncertainty and risk aversion. It is also known to reflect negative emotions associated with bodily sensations such as being shocked or smelling something disgusting, or even with feelings of social discomfort like those that come with being treated unfairly or being excluded.

“The scans showed that the insula activity shortly before the traders switched from buying to selling. And again, Camerer notes, “The prices were still going up at that time, so they couldn’t be making pessimistic predictions just based on the recent price trend. We think this is a real warning signal.”

Meanwhile, in the low earners, insula activity actually decreased, perhaps allowing their irrational exuberance to continue unchecked.

“Individual human brains are indeed powerful alone, but in groups we know they can build bridges, spacecraft, microscopes, and even economic systems,” says Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and one of the paper’s senior authors. “This is one of the next frontiers in neuroscience—understanding the social mind.”

The findings of the paper were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Money can’t buy happiness the saying goes; but it does buy a longer life, Harvard replies

The richest American men may live up to 15 years longer than the poorest ones, and the richest women 10 years more than their poorest counterparts, a new study found.

More as in years of life. Oh, and “Santa” as in crippling economic inequality.
Image via behance

Life becomes a whole lot better and easier when you have wads of cash to throw at your problems until they go away — but also way healthier and longer, a new Harvard study finds. An analysis of 1.4 billion Internal Revenue Service records, focusing on the link between income and life expectancy, found that low-income residents in wealthy areas such as New York City and San Francisco live longer on average than those in poorer regions.

This comes down in part to a healthier lifestyle in more engaging communities; low-income residents in wealthier cities are less likely to drink as much, they exercise more and have lower rates of obesity than residents with similar incomes in less affluent cities. But by themselves, these factors aren’t enough to explain the life expectancy gap that the team found. And, as David Cutler, the Otto Eckstein Professor of Applied Economics and a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says, it’s unclear what other factors might contribute to the difference.

“It’s not an overwhelming correlation with medical care or insurance coverage,” he said. “It’s not that the labor market is getting better — it’s not correlated with unemployment, or the expansion or contraction of the labor force, or how socially connected people feel. The only thing it seems to be correlated with is how educated and affluent the area is, so low-income people live longer in New York or San Francisco, and they live shorter in the industrial Midwest.”

“Previously, we could say what life expectancy was like in Massachusetts as compared to Michigan, but the problem is that Massachusetts is much richer than Michigan, and we know mortality varies with income,” he continued. “What we wanted to do was compare the same people in both cities — a shopkeeper in Detroit with a shopkeeper in Boston, not a biotech executive. That’s what we can do with this data that people haven’t been able to do previously.”

The richest American men live 15 years longer than the poorest men, while the richest American women live 10 years longer than the poorest women, according to the Health Inequality Project. Image credits David Cutler.

Cutler and his co-authors, including former Harvard Economics Professor Raj Chetty now at Stanford University, mined federal tax records from 1999 through to 2014 for data and sorted people into 100 percentiles according to their income. They then looked at their death records and calculated the mortality rate and life expectancy at age 40 for each income bracket. For men, the gap between the richest and poorest brackets is a staggering 15 years. In women, the difference clocks in at around a 10-year gap between the richest and poorest bracket — the equivalent of the health effects of a lifetime of smoking.

“These differences are very, very troubling,” Cutler said. “The magnitude is startling. You might expect two or three years of life differential — which is roughly what we would get by curing cancer — but 10 or 15 years … it’s an immense difference. We don’t know exactly why or what to do about it, but now we have the tools to ask those questions.”

It’s not hard to figure out that a higher income translates to a longer life, but the researchers were surprised to discover that this trend never plateaus.

“There’s no income [above] which higher income is not associated with greater longevity, and there’s no income below which less income is not associated with lower survival,” he added. “It was already known that life expectancy increased with income, so we’re not the first to show that, but … everyone thought you had to hit a plateau at some point, or that it would plateau at the bottom, but that’s not the case.”

And just like income, life expectancy is unequally distributed around the U.S. When they superimposed their findings on the map, the researcher found that lower brackets tend to concentrate in the Midwest Rust Belt.

“What emerges strongly is that there is a belt from West Virginia, Kentucky, and down through parts of southern Ohio, through Oklahoma and into Texas — it’s not a story of the Deep South,” Cutler said. “The variability in [areas] where high-income people live longest is not as large and is much less geographically concentrated. You don’t see this same type of belt — it’s scattered all over.”

Life expectancy for (right) men and (left) women; bottom quartile. The darker colors on the maps indicate the lowest life expectancy. They range from fewer than 74.5 years for men and 80.1 years for women.
Image credits David Cutler.

Cutler and Chetty then calculated how life expectancy changed over time, and here the ever growing income gap also became apparent. While life expectancy has steadily increased for the wealthiest, it has only barely gone up for low-income Americans.

“The increase has been approximately three years at the high end, versus zero for the lowest incomes,” Cutler said. “This is important, because it has major implications for Social Security policy. People say, ‘Americans are living longer, so we ought to delay the age of retirement,’ but … it’s a little bit unfair to say to low-income people that they’re going to get Social Security and Medicare for fewer years because investment bankers are living longer.”

Cutler, Chetty and their co-authors have made the data publicly and freely available. They hope that this will encourage further research into how life expectancy is impacted by economic and social policies.

“This paper really has two missions,” said Cutler. “One is to present this data, but the other is to create this data set so it can then be used by policymakers and researchers everywhere. This data has never been looked at with this level of granularity before.”

Living with less is something many people are comfortable with, even something that gives them happiness. But living less is a whole different matter, and I think that this study speaks volumes about ever-widening wealth gap in the United States. Not only shorter lives but ones that people will enjoy less — previous studies have also shown how economic growth not accompanied by the distribution of wealth leads to overall unhappiness in lower-income classes.

A fair system of wealth distribution — or at least a fairer one — needs to be set in place so that these effects don’t spiral out of hand and end up leading us to a real-life “1984“. Until then, as income inequality and wealth stratification compound over time, their effects are only going to increase, for better or for worse, depending on how padded your wallet is.

The full study, titled “The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001-2014” has been published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association and can be read here.

People spend more on climate adaptability to protect capital, not lives

A research team from University College in London has calculated that in the last five years, the ten biggest cities have increased their climate adaptation spending by a quarter. But they also found that it’s capital, not people, that we’re investing the most  to protect. Beyond the moral implications this entails, it also means that poor but highly populated cities and their people remain vulnerable.

More than half of the human population lives in cities, and expected to increase to 66% by 2050. Their size, complexity and sheer number of inhabitants however puts cities at risk from climate change — from rising sea levels in coastal cities to heat waves or droughts in densely packed population centers. People living in extreme poverty are especially vulnerable, as developing countries will suffer the brunt of the effects of global warming while having the least monetary resources to protect themselves.

With this in mind, a new study from the University College in London comes to look at how the ten largest megacities across the world are responding to the threat of climate change and if resources are allocated efficiently and fairly. Adaptation spending figures were gathered from over 1,000 sources and analyzed through data triangulation, a method which draws on many different sources and types of data to produce more accurate estimates.

“We started with an overall definition including all economic activities related to adaptation across the ten economic sectors in the study, says lead author Dr. Lucien Georgeson in an interview.

“From there, we isolated the activities that could be directly related to climate change.”

Climate adaptation is an umbrella term that includes any and all steps taken to anticipate the negative effects of climate change; this includes effects on human health, economies and ecosystems. Has your city been extra environmentaly recently? Or if you live somewhere close to the coast, have the sea walls gotten bigger since this whole “global warming” thing? That’s climate adaptation spending at work.

“Building the Thames Barrier was to protect against weather events, particularly storm surges…That cost would not be counted as an adaptation to climate change, says professor Mark Maslin.

“However, the Environment Agency has planned to retrofit it to increase the actual gate height by an extra meter. This is a clear adaptation to increased sea level rise in the future.”

The numbers

Wherever the team looked, spending remains a teeny tiny part of the economy, peaking at 0.33% of GDP, a solid 25% increase over the last five years.

Climate adaptation spending total (left) and per capita (right) between 2014 and 2016.
Image provided by author, Georgeson et al/Nature Comms.

But developed cities spend a lot more money for the cause in total and per person than developing ones. New York for example shells out more than US$260 per capita on adaptation, while Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa spends less than US$7.

“We were expecting there to be disparity between developing, emerging and developed countries, Maslin said in an interview for Carbon Brief.

“However, what we weren’t expecting was for the difference between, say, Lagos and New York to be a 35-times increase in spend to protect the population against climate change.”

Developed cities also spend more as a percentage of city GDP — meaning that a larger chunk of the city’s finances are invested in climate adaptation.

Beijing spends the most on adaptation as a percentage of GDP. Data from 2014-2015.
Image provided by author, Georgeson et al / Nature Comms.

The three richest cities on the chart spend almost one and a half as much as developing cities — 0.22 percent compared to 0.15 percent of GDP. Developing countries understandably have a lot more competition for their expenditure, things like clean running water or basic healthcare systems. But they’re also the ones who will feel the effects of global warming the most. This resource gap is what the authors call a “proof of concept” that money is being spent to protect physical capital, not people.

“You might expect that cities like New York are spending a lot more on climate change adaptation. But the fact that they’re spending more as a percentage of their GDP and much more per capita shows you that adaptation spend now is not necessarily always to protect people that are at risk,” Georgeon says.

“It might be to protect the infrastructure and the insurance risks.”

And it’s a gap we have to close, particularly as between now and 2050 China, India, Indonesia and Nigeria are predicted to see the largest growth in urban populations. These countries need to invest heavily into their cities’ resilience to be able to protect their people from shifting climate.

Beijing tops the chart on investment by city GDP. All Chinese provinces in fact have a comprehensive adaptation plan and a dedicated task-force to deliver it. The authors link this to strong central government policies, which encourage cities to face up to climate change.

Where the money’s going

The team also wanted to know where the money is being invested. Here too the line between rich and poor becomes visible. While each city spends a roughly equal share of its adaptation resources on “disaster preparedness”, the difference in absolute terms is “staggering”, say the authors of the paper.

From 2014 to 2015, Addis Ababa spent US$0.27m on disaster preparedness compared to $29.8m in New York. This covers projects such as building coastal defences, developing early warning systems, relocating vulnerable residents and advanced risk modelling.

Breakdown of spending on climate change adaptation in ten megacities, expressed as a proportion of total spend in the sector. Data from 2014-2015
Image provided by author, Georgeson et al / Nature Comms.

Developed countries spent more on water, energy infrastructure and professional services (such as banking or insurance). Cities in emerging countries prioritized building resilience in the agriculture and forestry sectors, investing almost four times into this as much as the first group. Investments into the built environment (including construction and retrofitting as well as increasing energy efficiency, water supply distribution and water use in buildings) was pretty consistent among all cities, with the exception of Beijing.

“The greater spend on agriculture and forestry, the natural environment and in some cases health demonstrates the very different profile of needs in developing country cities compared with established global financial centres, where professional services, built environment, energy and water dominate,” the paper reads.

Finding that adaptation spending reflects capital interests over human lives is perhaps not unsurprising, says Maslin. But nobody really imagined the difference would be this huge he says:

“I think that policymakers are going to be quite surprised by the disparity in the spend between cities…This will help them adapt their policies to enhance that spend and leverage greater spend from the private sector.”

The full paper, titled “Adaptation responses to climate change differ between global megacities” has been published online in the journal Nature and can be read here.


money brain

What happens inside the brain when you think about money

Nothing really gets us humans nearly as exited as money. Neurons fire like crazy and MRIs can easily distinguish patterns that flare up when money is brought up. But not everyone has the same reaction to money, although it’s ubiquitously strong. For instance, a 2005 study at Stanford investigated what happens when investors choose between stocks (high risks) and bonds (low risk). The MRI scans showed that those who chose stocks over bonds had more intense activity in the  nucleus accumbens, a section of the brain involved in the reward circuitry and the processing of emotions. The risk adverse who chose bonds, however, fired up the anterior insula, also part of the emotional wiring of the brain during anticipation of physical pain, which correlates with selfreported state of anxiety.

money brain

Image: Pixabay

This landmark study showed that the standard economic models of human decision making (such as utility theory) which minimize the influence of emotions and idealize the decision maker as a perfectly rational being are wrong. Neither the investor who chose stocks, nor the one who chose bonds did so out of entire rational reasons. One kept his eyes on the prize anticipating the reward (pleasure) and the other sought to minimize risks (fear). In fact, money is so influential on our behavior – or rather the emotional response we have to money – that it can be likened to taking cocaine (the brain scans of people playing a money game and cocaine addicts were indistinguishable).

Another important study from 2003, looked at how what happens in the brain when we negotiate. Participants were paired and asked to play the Ultimatum Game, where one participant acted as the proponent of a financial deal, and the other as the receiver (a fix sum of money was awarded and the two had to convene how to split it). If the two couldn’t reach a deal, both participants lost money. Rationally speaking, the receiver should accept any kind of deal. Some money is better than no money at all. But even in the comfortable setting of a study group, 50% of low offers were rejected by the receiver. Seeing the offer as insulting, the receiver would rather see the proponent lose money (punishment) than gain money himself.

MRI scans revealed that when a respondent receive the offer on how to split the money, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex fires up which is linked to self-awareness. This part of the brain is heavily engaged in solving complex problems and its what helps us be really successful in navigating the world. When an unfair offer is solicited, though, the anterior insula – yet again – is coupled in. Funny thing about the anterior insula is that it has these cells called “spindle cells”, which incidentally are also found in the digestive system. So, what’s colloquially known as a ‘gut feeling’ is a complex biological link between your brain and stomach, not just an anecdote. Moreover, disturbances of this system have been implicated in a wide range of disorders, including functional and inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders, obesity and eating disorders.

Money makes us do crazy stuff. We’ve all heard the stories. But what’s important to take home is that money or lack of it, can change our character and personalities. One study, for instance, found wealthy people have less empathy than those less well off. One University of Berkeley research found that even fake money could make people behave with less regard for others. Researchers observed that when two students played monopoly, one having been given a great deal more Monopoly money than the other, the wealthier player expressed initial discomfort, but then went on to act aggressively, taking up more space and moving his pieces more loudly, and even taunts the player with less money.

Another study center in San Francisco made by researchers at Berkeley found drivers of luxury cars were four times less likely than those in less expensive vehicles to stop and allow pedestrians the right of way. A study by University of Utah and Harvard University found that even thinking about money  can lead people to act in unethical ways, while some other study shows that people “hate losing money more than they love making it”.

Money. It makes the brain go nuts!

Higher income associated with less sadness, but not more happiness

Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you less sadness – a new study has found that higher income doesn’t really correlate to happiness, but it correlates negatively with sadness.

The relationship between happiness and money is complicated and often hard to understand. Naturally, not having enough money live a decent life interferes with happiness and severely limits its potential, but given one’s ability to live a decent life, do more money bring more happiness? The increasing scientific evidence indicates that the answer is ‘no’ – but it does act as a cushion for sadness, according to psychologist Kostadin Kushlev and his team.

“Money may be a more effective tool for reducing sadness than enhancing happiness,” Kushlev concludes along with associates Elizabeth Dunn and Richard Lucas. “Although extensive previous research has explored the relationship between income and happiness, no large-scale research has ever examined the relationship between income and sadness. We show that higher income is associated with experiencing less daily sadness, but has no bearing on daily happiness.”

In a way, this seems very logical. A broken pair of shoes might be just a minor inconvenience to most people, but for those with low incomes, it can be quite a tragedy. But being sad and having many problems doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the things and the people you love. But doesn’t the lack of sadness imply happiness, or the other way around?

I think not. I think we should also define a neutral state, one in which you are neither happy nor sad. For example – when you’re at work, doing something which is not unpleasant, but you don’t necessarily like it either; it’s simply a neutral state.

The study analyzed data from 12,291 Americans and also found that happiness and sadness are not necessarily two sides of the same coin, concluding:

“Happiness and sadness are distinct emotional states, rather than diametric opposites.”

Aside from its main conclusion, the study also shows that we don’t really understand what happiness is. Kushlev said:

“I hope we can improve our understanding about what makes people happier and educate people to make better choices in their lives,” he said.

Kushlev himself said that his hobbies make him happy: swimming, hiking, travelling, dancing and singing.

Journal Reference: Kostadin Kushlev, Elizabeth W. Dunn, Richard E. Lucas. Higher Income Is Associated With Less Daily Sadness but not More Daily Happiness. Published online before print January 9, 2015, doi: 10.1177/1948550614568161


poor boys antisocial

Poor boys growing up in rich neighbourhoods are more antisocial

Researchers in the UK have found that male children from poor homes growing up in better-off areas are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior. But disadvantaged boys living in areas where three-quarters of the population was poor had the lowest rates of such behaviour. The findings are grim, since they suggest mixed income communities could bear some unforeseen negative consequences, which might outweigh the benefits.

poor boys antisocial

Image: Flickr

Data was used from the  Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study, run by King’s College London, which tracked the development of a group of 2,232 children born in England and Wales in 1994 and 1995. The children’s behavior was assessed at ages of five, seven, 10 and 12 using teacher reports and interviews with parents.

Boys from disadvantaged homes living in economically mixed areas engaged in more antisocial behavior, like lying, cheating, swearing and fighting. This was true for middle-income neighbourhoods and worse still in the wealthiest neighbourhoods. When the boys grew up in a predominantly poor environment, they had the lowest rates of such behaviour. Basically, you never truly know how poor you are unless most people around you have more than you do.  Interestingly enough, the same can’t be said about girls. While the findings were found to be genuine for boys ages of five to 12, no such effect was recorded for girls.

The negative effect of growing up alongside more affluent neighbors on low-income boys’ antisocial behavior held across childhood and after controlling for key neighborhood and family-level factors.

“These findings are troubling,” said psychologist Prof Candice Odgers of Duke University in the United States.

“Our hope was that we would find economically mixed communities that allowed low-income children access to greater resources and the opportunity to thrive.

“Instead we found what appears to be the opposite effect.”

According to Prof Odgers, the findings mirror the “relative position hypothesis”” where children evaluate their social rank and self-wroth through comparisons with those around them. Growing up in the shadow of their peers who have  more resources, social capital and perceived opportunities could make some children feel powerless and frustrated. These feelings are then reflected outside by engaging in antisocial behaviour.

Prof Odgers said the increasing divide between rich and poor made the findings particularly troubling. The findings appeared in a paper published in the  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

“We are not saying that economically mixed communities are universally harmful, however additional care may need to be taken to ensure these communities achieve their intended outcomes for children.”


6 Tips to Cut Costs in a Laboratory


Image source: bizjournals.com

Sadly, science – as vastly important as it is – does not have unlimited funding, and the fact of the matter is that the majority of laboratories in operation today have to work with constricted budgets.

This may be to attempt to maximise profits, or they may simply have few resources to work with; either way, the outcome is the same. If you find yourself in the position where you are managing the budget of such a lab, here are some ways to go about cutting costs, meaning you can put that money to better use elsewhere.

1 – Monitor All the Costs

The first thing to do is get in to accountant mode. Grab a journal (or an Excel spreadsheet) and start making note of every single expense. This includes the overheads, any salaries paid, the necessary supplies and equipment, as well as any fees, fines or benefits.

Make sure you are meticulous and accurate – decent accounting of the lab’s various costs will help inspire strategies to cut costs. Aim these strategies at the bigger expenses first and foremost, as you will likely be able to make the greater savings there.

2 – Determine Which Costs Depend on Volume

What that means is fairly simple – costs which are volume dependent increase as the laboratory’s output does. This includes things such as supplies: the more work you do, the more supplies you’ll burn through, meaning you’ll have to buy more supplies.

This means that supply costs will go up in line with your revenue. Separate volume dependent costs from independent ones, such as the overheads.

3 – Calculate Money per Procedure

First of all, look at how much each procedure is costing you. You can do this by totalling its monthly costs, then dividing that figure by the number of times you’d perform it in a typical month. You want to lower this figure as much as you can.

Then make note of how much it’s bringing in, whether that’s via reimbursement or revenue. Obviously, this is the figure you want to maximise, but changing this is not always possible.

4 – Weed out the Less Productive Work

Now that you’ve compared all the jobs and how much money they bring in, you can start limiting the less financially viable ones. It should be fairly obvious which procedures simply aren’t working, and are instead draining those precious funds.

5 – Increase Efficiency

Look around at the workstations and equipment – are they outdated? If you think they could be causing some less than optimal work, perhaps they need replacing. Take a look at the BES website to see how you could benefit.

6 – Order in Bulk

One simple method of saving money, in any walk of life, is to order all of your supplies in bulk. Of course, this doesn’t apply to any supplies which are time-sensitive or have short lifespans, but for anything else you should be able to secure a lower price when ordering many at once.