The Issue of Proxies and Choice Architectures. Why EU Law Matters for Recommender Systems


Paper by Mireille Hildebrandt: “Recommendations are meant to increase sales or ad revenue, as these are the first priority of those who pay for them. As recommender systems match their recommendations with inferred preferences, we should not be surprised if the algorithm optimizes for lucrative preferences and thus co-produces the preferences they mine. This relates to the well-known problems of feedback loops, filter bubbles, and echo chambers. In this article, I discuss the implications of the fact that computing systems necessarily work with proxies when inferring recommendations and raise a number of questions about whether recommender systems actually do what they are claimed to do, while also analysing the often-perverse economic incentive structures that have a major impact on relevant design decisions. Finally, I will explain how the choice architectures for data controllers and providers of AI systems as foreseen in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the proposed EU Digital Services Act (DSA) and the proposed EU AI Act will help to break through various vicious circles, by constraining how people may be targeted (GDPR, DSA) and by requiring documented evidence of the robustness, resilience, reliability, and the responsible design and deployment of high-risk recommender systems (AI Act)…(More)”.

The Power of Narrative


Essay by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Mallerett: “…The expression “failure of imagination” captures this by describing the expectation that future opportunities and risks will resemble those of the past. Novelist Graham Greene used it in The Power and the Glory, but the 9/11 Commission made it popular by invoking it as the main reason why intelligence agencies had failed to anticipate the “unimaginable” events of that day.

Ever since, the expression has been associated with situations in which strategic thinking and risk management are stuck in unimaginative and reactive thinking. Considering today’s wide and interdependent array of risks, we can’t afford to be unimaginative, even though, as the astrobiologist Caleb Scharf points out, we risk getting imprisoned in a dangerous cognitive lockdown because of the magnitude of the task. “Indeed, we humans do seem to struggle in general when too many new things are thrown at us at once. Especially when those things are outside of our normal purview. Like, well, weird viruses or new climate patterns,” Scharf writes. “In the face of such things, we can simply go into a state of cognitive lockdown, flipping from one small piece of the problem to another and not quite building a cohesive whole.”

Imagination is precisely what is required to escape a state of “cognitive lockdown” and to build a “cohesive whole.” It gives us the capacity to dream up innovative solutions to successfully address the multitude of risks that confront us. For decades now, we’ve been destabilizing the world, having failed to imagine the consequences of our actions on our societies and our biosphere, and the way in which they are connected. Now, following this failure and the stark realization of what it has entailed, we need to do just the opposite: rely on the power of imagination to get us out of the holes we’ve dug ourselves into. It is incumbent upon us to imagine the contours of a more equitable and sustainable world. Imagination being boundless, the variety of social, economic, and political solutions is infinite.

With respect to the assertion that there are things we don’t imagine to be socially or politically possible, a recent book shows that nothing is preordained. We are in fact only bound by the power of our own imaginations. In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow (an anthropologist and an archaeologist) prove this by showing that every imaginable form of social and economic organization has existed from the very beginning of humankind. Over the past 300,000 years, we’ve pursued knowledge, experimentation, happiness, development, freedom, and other human endeavors in myriad different ways. During these times that preceded our modern world, none of the arrangements that we devised to live together exhibited a single point of origin or an invariant pattern. Early societies were peaceful and violent, authoritarian and democratic, patriarchal and matriarchal, slaveholding and abolitionist, some moving between different types of organizations all the time, others not. Antique industrial cities were flourishing at the heart of empires while others existed in the absence of a sovereign entity…(More)”

How Do We End Wars? A Peace Researcher Puts Forward Some Innovative Approaches


Interview by Theodor Schaarschmidt: “Thania Paffenholz is an expert in international relations, based in Switzerland and Kenya, who conducts research on sustainable peace processes and advises institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). She is executive director of Inclusive Peace, a think tank that accompanies peace processes worldwide. Paffenholz talked with Spektrum der Wissenschaftthe German-language edition of Scientific American, about new ways to think about peacekeeping…

It is absurd that the fate of the country is mainly discussed by men older than 60, as is usual in this type of negotiation. Where is the rest of the population? What about women? What about younger people? Do they really want the same things as those in power? How can their perspectives be carried into the peace processes? There are now concepts for inclusive negotiation in which delegations from civil society discuss issues together with the leaders. In Eastern Europe, however, there are only a few examples of this….(More)”.

A Behavioural Theory of Economic Development: The Uneven Evolution of Cities and Regions


Book by Robert Huggins and Piers Thompson: “Innovation, entrepreneurship, knowledge, and human capital are widely acknowledged as key levers of development. Yet what are the sources of these factors, and why do they differ in their endowment across regions? Motivated by a belief that theories of economic development can move beyond the generally accepted explanations of location and the organization of industries and capital, this book establishes a behavioural theory of economic development illustrating that differences in human behaviour across cities and regions are a significant deep-rooted cause of uneven development.

Fusing a range of concepts relating to culture, psychology, human agency, institutions, and power, it proposes that the long-term differentials in economic development between cities and regions, both within and across nations, is strongly connected to the underlying forms of behaviour enacted by humans on an individual and collective basis. Given a world of finite and limited resources, coupled with a rapidly growing population — especially in cities and urban regions — human behaviour, and the expectations and preferences upon which it is based, are central to understanding how notions of development may change in coming years. This book provides a novel theory of the role of psychocultural context and human behavioural and institutional frameworks in uneven economic development on a global scale….(More)”.

Letters and cards telling people about local police reduce crime


Article by Elicia John & Shawn D. Bushway: “Community policing is often held up as an instrumental part of reforms to make policing less harmful, particularly in low-income communities that have high rates of violence. But building collaborative relationships between communities and police is hard. Writing in Nature, Shah and LaForest describe a large field experiment revealing that giving residents cards and letters with basic information about local police officers can prevent crime. Combining these results with those from Internet-based experiments, the authors attribute the observed reduction in crime to perceived ‘information symmetry’.

Known strangers are individuals whom we’ve never met but still know something about, such as celebrities. We tend to assume, erroneously, that known strangers know as much about us as we do about them. This tendency to see information symmetry when there is none is referred to as a social heuristic — a shortcut in our mental processing…

Collaborating with the New York Police Department, the authors sent letters and cards to residents of 39 public-housing developments, providing information about the developments’ local community police officers, called neighbourhood coordination officers. These flyers included personal details, such as the officers’ favourite food, sports team or superhero. Thirty control developments had neighbourhood coordination officers, but did not receive flyers….

This field experiment provided convincing evidence that a simple intervention can reduce crime. Indeed, in the three months after the intervention, the researchers observed a 5–7% drop in crime in the developments that received the information compared with neighbourhoods that did not. This level of reduction is similar to that of more-aggressive policing policies4. The drop in crime lessened after three months, which the authors suggest is due to the light touch and limited duration of the intervention. Interventions designed to keep officers’ information at the top of residents’ minds (such as flyers sent over a longer period at a greater frequency) might therefore result in longer-term effects.

The authors attribute the reduction in crime to a heightened perception among residents receiving flyers that the officer would find out if they committed a crime. The possibilities of such findings are potentially exciting, because the work implies that a police officer who is perceived as a real person can prevent crime without tactics such as the New York City police department’s ‘stop, question and frisk’ policy, which tended to create animosity between community members and the police….(More)”

Where Do My Tax Dollars Go? Tax Morale Effects of Perceived Government Spending


Paper by Matias Giaccobasso, Brad C. Nathan, Ricardo Perez-Truglia & Alejandro Zentner: “Do perceptions about how the government spends tax dollars affect the willingness to pay taxes? We designed a field experiment to test this hypothesis in a natural, high-stakes context and via revealed preferences. We measure perceptions about the share of property tax revenues that fund public schools and the share of property taxes that are redistributed to disadvantaged districts. We find that even though information on where tax dollars go is publicly available and easily accessible, taxpayers still have significant misperceptions. We use an information-provision experiment to induce exogenous shocks to these perceptions. Using administrative data on tax appeals, we measure the causal effect of perceived government spending on the willingness to pay taxes. We find that some perceptions about government spending have a significant effect on the probability of filing a tax appeal and in a manner that is consistent with the classical theory of benefit-based taxation. We discuss implications for researchers and policy makers…(More)”.

On the Dynamics of Human Behavior: The Past, Present, and Future of Culture, Conflict, and Cooperation


Paper by Nathan Nunn: “I provide a theoretically-guided discussion of the dynamics of human behavior, focusing on the importance of culture (socially-learned information) and tradition (transmission of culture across generations). Decision-making that relies on tradition can be an effective strategy and arises in equilibrium. While dynamically optimal, it generates static `mismatch.’ When the world changes, since traits evolve slowly, they may not be beneficial in their new environment. I discuss how mismatch helps explain the world around us, presents special challenges and opportunities for policy, and provides important lessons for our future as a human species…(More)”.

A 680,000-person megastudy of nudges to encourage vaccination in pharmacies


Paper by Katherine L. Milkman et al: “Encouraging vaccination is a pressing policy problem. To assess whether text-based reminders can encourage pharmacy vaccination and what kinds of messages work best, we conducted a megastudy. We randomly assigned 689,693 Walmart pharmacy patients to receive one of 22 different text reminders using a variety of different behavioral science principles to nudge flu vaccination or to a business-as-usual control condition that received no messages. We found that the reminder texts that we tested increased pharmacy vaccination rates by an average of 2.0 percentage points, or 6.8%, over a 3-mo follow-up period. The most-effective messages reminded patients that a flu shot was waiting for them and delivered reminders on multiple days. The top-performing intervention included two texts delivered 3 d apart and communicated to patients that a vaccine was “waiting for you.” Neither experts nor lay people anticipated that this would be the best-performing treatment, underscoring the value of simultaneously testing many different nudges in a highly powered megastudy….(More)”.

Consumer Reviews and Regulation: Evidence from NYC Restaurants


Paper by Chiara Farronato & Georgios Zervas: “We investigate the informativeness of hygiene signals in online reviews, and their effect on consumer choice and restaurant hygiene. We first extract signals of hygiene from Yelp. Among all dimensions that regulators monitor through mandated restaurant inspections, we find that reviews are more informative about hygiene dimensions that consumers directly experience – food temperature and pests – than other dimensions. Next, we find causal evidence that consumer demand is sensitive to these hygiene signals. We also find suggestive evidence that restaurants that are more exposed to Yelp are cleaner along dimensions for which online reviews are more informative…(More)”.

When Do Informational Interventions Work? Experimental Evidence from New York City High School Choice


Paper by Sarah Cohodes, Sean Corcoran, Jennifer Jennings & Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj: “This paper reports the results of a large, school-level randomized controlled trial evaluating a set of three informational interventions for young people choosing high schools in 473 middle schools, serving over 115,000 8th graders. The interventions differed in their level of customization to the student and their mode of delivery (paper or online); all treated schools received identical materials to scaffold the decision-making process. Every intervention reduced likelihood of application to and enrollment in schools with graduation rates below the city median (75 percent). An important channel is their effect on reducing nonoptimal first choice application strategies. Providing a simplified, middle-school specific list of relatively high graduation rate schools had the largest impacts, causing students to enroll in high schools with 1.5-percentage point higher graduation rates. Providing the same information online, however, did not alter students’ choices or enrollment. This appears to be due to low utilization. Online interventions with individual customization, including a recommendation tool and search engine, induced students to enroll in high schools with 1-percentage point higher graduation rates, but with more variance in impact. Together, these results show that successful informational interventions must generate engagement with the material, and this is possible through multiple channels…(More)”.