CSAE Conference 2019 Blog

CSAE Conference Day 2: A few thoughts on culture

One of the things about the CSAE conference is that everyone’s experience of it is quite different. With so many parallel sessions, each participant takes an idiosyncratic walk through a forest of research, occasionally emerging into the collective clearings of the plenary and keynote sessions. My path today was a little disjointed, taking me from macro to micro, from management surveys to growth regressions, voter behaviour to mental health. But one thing that kept popping into my head was how culture influences how we behave.

The obvious impetus for these thoughts about culture was Eliana La Ferrara’s great keynote talk about Shuga, a behaviour change intervention that seeks to encourage people to act in a less risky fashion with respect to their sexual life. As the paper title (‘Fighting HIV with MTV’) indicates, that behaviour change was effected through a TV programme, Shuga.

I don’t want to go into the paper – it’s really cool, just read it – but it did make me think a lot about the mechanisms through which behaviour changes. The idea behind Shuga is that just giving information isn’t enough – it might have to be given in a way that either disarms resistance or changes beliefs about how others act or what is socially accepted. This second mechanism strikes me as in some sense cultural – it changes what we consider to be the norm among the people we live among or aspire to be like.

This mechanism fits my priors like a glove. If we believe that culture influences how we behave (and really, such a belief is almost tautological to some definitions of culture), then it shouldn’t surprise us that an intervention that seeks to shift some aspect of received culture influences our beliefs and behaviours. What becomes super interesting, though, is quite how fast it acts, through which media it happens best and on what aspects of behaviour it acts most quickly. And from a policy point of view, we care also about how much we can manipulate received culture.

In a sense this is something Governments have known about and encouraged for a long time. In a crude form, we call it propaganda and it brings to mind early 20th century autocracies; but even in places we don’t consider propaganda-soaked, it’s pretty prevalent. It’s behind those ‘Everyone Welcome’ posters on the tube, the proscriptions on swearing on TV before the watershed, and the movement to discourage ‘glamourous smoking’ in the movies. The Government does manipulate our cultural environment to affect behaviour, almost everywhere – it’s a question of what manipulations we consider acceptable and where. I liked Eliana’s proposed solution, focusing on ‘objective’ rather than ideological behaviours, a higher bar than how most Governments act now.

Two more random thoughts I had, both of which can be boiled down to culture, and which get pretty meta-Conference-y. First, what makes a good discussant? Every paper at CSAE (like many conferences) has a formal response, usually delivered by one of the other researchers presenting in the session. It’s structured to avoid tit-for-tat commenting (and hence mutually assured destruction of all the research papers), but the way in which people approach the task differs wildly. My favourite discussant sessions have really engaged with the conceptual and empirical spirit of the paper they’ve talked about, suggested ways of clarifying and amplifying the concepts being raised and – almost always – made concrete suggestions for the paper. These discussants are setting out with the task of helping build a better piece of research. I always find it easier to find three problems and stop thinking, so I really appreciate how much more effort it takes – anything we can do to develop this as the norm for all discussions will only help all the researchers here.

And my final random thought about culture: why is it that every economist makes the same gestures when they present? You know that odd little move where they bunch their hands up into fists and push and pull them in alternation as if they’re connected by a pulley system? Every time an economist is talking about how one variable might affect another they almost involuntarily do that. I asked Matt about it before his session and minutes after confidently stating that he didn’t do it, he was up their involuntarily doing the same thing, looking like he was moving an invisible puppet. It’s infuriating, and if I present next year I’ve got no doubt I’ll wind up doing it too. It must be our culture.

I’m off for tomorrow, sadly, missing both a bunch of great papers and the after-party, but keep an eye on twitter – much smarter people than I will be live-tweeting the events.


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