Friday, January 25, 2013
Annenberg 121

Course Ombudspeople Lunch

TEDxCaltech: If You Click a Cookie with a Mouse

This week we will be highlighting the student speakers who auditioned and were selected to give five-minute talks about their brain-related research at TEDxCaltech: The Brain, a special event that will take place on Friday, January 18, in Beckman Auditorium. 

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TED has created a program of local, self-organized events called TEDx. Speakers are asked to give the talk of their lives. Live video coverage of the TEDxCaltech experience will be available during the event at http://tedxcaltech.caltech.edu.

When offered spinach or a cookie, how do you decide which to eat? Do you go for the healthy choice or the tasty one? To study the science of decision making, researchers in the lab of Caltech neuroeconomist Antonio Rangel analyze what happens inside people's brains as they choose between various kinds of food. The researchers typically use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the changes in oxygen flow through the brain; these changes serve as proxies for spikes or dips in brain activity. Recently, however, investigators have started using a new technique that may better tease out how you choose between the spinach or the cookie—a decision that's often made in a fraction of a second.

While fMRI is a powerful method, it can only measure changes in brain activity down to the scale of a second or so. "That's not fast enough because these decisions are made sometimes within half a second," says Caltech senior Joy Lu, who will be talking about her research in Rangel's lab at TEDx Caltech. Instead of using fMRI, Lu—along with postdoctoral scholar Cendri Hutcherson and graduate student Nikki Sullivan—turned to the standard old computer mouse.

During the experiments—which are preliminary, as the researchers are still conducting and refining them—volunteers rate 250 kinds of food for healthiness and tastiness. The choices range from spinach and cookies to broccoli and chips. Then, the volunteers are given a choice between two of those items, represented by pictures on a computer screen. When they decide which option they want, they click with their mouse. But while they mull over their choices, the paths of their mouse cursor are being tracked—the idea being that the cursor paths may reveal how the volunteers arrive at their final decisions.

For example, if the subject initially feels obligated to be healthy, the cursor may hover over the spinach a moment before finally settling on the cookie. Or, if the person is immediately drawn to the sweet treat before realizing that health is a better choice, the cursor may hover over the cookie first.

Lu, Hutcherson, and Sullivan are using computer models to find cursor-path patterns or trends that may offer insight into the factors that influence such decisions. Do the paths differ between those who value health over taste and those who favor taste more?

Although the researchers are still refining their computer algorithms and continuing their experiments, they have some preliminary results. They found that with many people, for example, the cursor first curves toward one choice before ending up at the other. The time it takes for someone's health consciousness to kick in seems to be longer than the time it takes for people to succumb to cravings for something delicious.

After graduation, Lu plans to go to graduate school in marketing, where she'll use not only neuroscience techniques but also field studies to investigate consumer behavior. She might even compare the two methods. "Using neuroscience in marketing is a very new thing," she says. "That's what draws me toward it. We can't answer all the questions we want to answer just using field studies. You have to look at what's going on in a person's mind."

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Top 12 in 2012

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Credit: Benjamin Deverman/Caltech

Gene therapy for boosting nerve-cell repair

Caltech scientists have developed a gene therapy that helps the brain replace its nerve-cell-protecting myelin sheaths—and the cells that produce those sheaths—when they are destroyed by diseases like multiple sclerosis and by spinal-cord injuries. Myelin ensures that nerve cells can send signals quickly and efficiently.

Credit: L. Moser and P. M. Bellan, Caltech

Understanding solar flares

By studying jets of plasma in the lab, Caltech researchers discovered a surprising phenomenon that may be important for understanding how solar flares occur and for developing nuclear fusion as an energy source. Solar flares are bursts of energy from the sun that launch chunks of plasma that can damage orbiting satellites and cause the northern and southern lights on Earth.

Coincidence—or physics?

Caltech planetary scientists provided a new explanation for why the "man in the moon" faces Earth. Their research indicates that the "man"—an illusion caused by dark-colored volcanic plains—faces us because of the rate at which the moon's spin rate slowed before becoming locked in its current orientation, even though the odds favored the moon's other, more mountainous side.

Choking when the stakes are high

In studying brain activity and behavior, Caltech biologists and social scientists learned that the more someone is afraid of loss, the worse they will perform on a given task—and that, the more loss-averse they are, the more likely it is that their performance will peak at a level far below their actual capacity.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Eyeing the X-ray universe

NASA's NuSTAR telescope, a Caltech-led and -designed mission to explore the high-energy X-ray universe and to uncover the secrets of black holes, of remnants of dead stars, of energetic cosmic explosions, and even of the sun, was launched on June 13. The instrument is the most powerful high-energy X-ray telescope ever developed and will produce images that are 10 times sharper than any that have been taken before at these energies.

Credit: CERN

Uncovering the Higgs Boson

This summer's likely discovery of the long-sought and highly elusive Higgs boson, the fundamental particle that is thought to endow elementary particles with mass, was made possible in part by contributions from a large contingent of Caltech researchers. They have worked on this problem with colleagues around the globe for decades, building experiments, designing detectors to measure particles ever more precisely, and inventing communication systems and data storage and transfer networks to share information among thousands of physicists worldwide.

Credit: Peter Day

Amplifying research

Researchers at Caltech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed a new kind of amplifier that can be used for everything from exploring the cosmos to examining the quantum world. This new device operates at a frequency range more than 10 times wider than that of other similar kinds of devices, can amplify strong signals without distortion, and introduces the lowest amount of unavoidable noise.

Swims like a jellyfish

Caltech bioengineers partnered with researchers at Harvard University to build a freely moving artificial jellyfish from scratch. The researchers fashioned the jellyfish from silicon and muscle cells into what they've dubbed Medusoid; in the lab, the scientists were able to replicate some of the jellyfish's key mechanical functions, such as swimming and creating feeding currents. The work will help improve researchers' understanding of tissues and how they work, and may inform future efforts in tissue engineering and the design of pumps for the human heart.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Touchdown confirmed

After more than eight years of planning, about 354 million miles of space travel, and seven minutes of terror, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory successfully landed on the Red Planet on August 5. The roving analytical laboratory, named Curiosity, is now using its 10 scientific instruments and 17 cameras to search Mars for environments that either were once—or are now—habitable.

Credit: Caltech/Michael Hoffmann

Powering toilets for the developing world

Caltech engineers built a solar-powered toilet that can safely dispose of human waste for just five cents per use per day. The toilet design, which won the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Reinventing the Toilet Challenge, uses the sun to power a reactor that breaks down water and human waste into fertilizer and hydrogen. The hydrogen can be stored as energy in hydrogen fuel cells.

Credit: Caltech / Scott Kelberg and Michael Roukes

Weighing molecules

A Caltech-led team of physicists created the first-ever mechanical device that can measure the mass of an individual molecule. The tool could eventually help doctors to diagnose diseases, and will enable scientists to study viruses, examine the molecular machinery of cells, and better measure nanoparticles and air pollution.

Splitting water

This year, two separate Caltech research groups made key advances in the quest to extract hydrogen from water for energy use. In June, a team of chemical engineers devised a nontoxic, noncorrosive way to split water molecules at relatively low temperatures; this method may prove useful in the application of waste heat to hydrogen production. Then, in September, a group of Caltech chemists identified the mechanism by which some water-splitting catalysts work; their findings should light the way toward the development of cheaper and better catalysts.

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In 2012, Caltech faculty and students pursued research into just about every aspect of our world and beyond—from understanding human behavior, to exploring other planets, to developing sustainable waste solutions for the developing world.

In other words, 2012 was another year of discovery at Caltech. Here are a dozen research stories, which were among the most widely read and shared articles from Caltech.edu.

Did we skip your favorite? Connect with Caltech on Facebook to share your pick.

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Reducing 20/20 Hindsight Bias

PASADENA, Calif.—You probably know it as Monday-morning quarterbacking or 20/20 hindsight: failures often look obvious and predictable after the fact—whether it's an interception thrown by a quarterback under pressure, a surgeon's mistake, a slow response to a natural disaster, or friendly fire in the fog of war.

In legal settings, this tendency to underestimate the challenges faced by someone else—called hindsight bias—can lead to unfair judgments, punishing people who made an honest, unavoidable mistake.

"Hindsight bias is fueled by the fact that you weren't there—you didn't see the fog and confusion," says Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Furthermore, hindsight bias exists even if you were there. The bias is strong enough to alter your own memories, giving you an inflated sense that you saw the result coming. "We know a lot about the nature of these types of judgmental biases," he says. "But in the past, they weren't understood well enough to prevent them."

In a new study, recently published online in the journal Psychological Science, a team led by Camerer and Shinsuke Shimojo, the Gertrude Baltimore Professor of Experimental Psychology, not only found a way to predict the severity of the bias, but also identified a technique that successfully reduces it—a strategy that could help produce fairer assessments in situations such as medical malpractice suits and reviewing police or military actions.

Hindsight bias likely stems from the fact that when given new information, the brain tends to file away the old data and ignore it, Camerer explains. Once we know the outcome of a decision or event, we can't easily retrieve those old files, so we can't accurately evaluate something after the fact. The wide-ranging influence of hindsight bias has been observed in many previous studies, but research into the underlying mechanisms is difficult because these kinds of judgment are complex.

But by using experimental techniques from behavioral economics and visual psychophysics—the study of how visual stimuli affect perception—the Caltech researchers say they were able to probe more deeply into how hindsight emerges during decision making.

In the study, the researchers gave volunteers a basic visual task: to look for humans in blurry pictures. The visual system is among the most heavily studied parts of the brain, and researchers have developed many techniques and tools to understand it. In particular, the Caltech experiment used eye-tracking methods to monitor where the subjects were looking as they evaluated the photos, giving the researchers a window into the subjects' thought processes.

Subjects were divided into those who would do the task—the "performers"—and those who would judge the performers after the fact—the "evaluators." The performers saw a series of blurry photos and were told to guess which ones had humans in them. The evaluators' job was to estimate how many performers guessed correctly for each picture. To examine hindsight bias, some evaluators were shown clear versions of the photos before they saw the blurry photos—a situation analogous to how a jury in a medical malpractice case would already know the correct diagnosis before seeing the X-ray evidence.

The experiment found clear hindsight bias. Evaluators who had been primed by a clear photo greatly overestimated the percentage of people who would correctly identify the human. In other words, because the evaluators already knew the answer, they thought the task was easier than it really was. Furthermore, the measurements were similar to those from the first study of hindsight bias in 1975, which examined how people evaluated the probabilities of various geopolitical events before and after President Nixon's trip to China and the USSR. The fact that the results between such disparate kinds of studies are so consistent shows that the high-level thinking involved in the earlier study and the low-level processes of visual perception in the new study are connected, the researchers say.

In the second part of the study, the researchers tracked the subjects' eye movements and found that hindsight bias depended on how the performers and evaluators inspected the photos. Evaluators were often looking at different parts of the photos compared to the performers, and when that happened there was more hindsight bias. But when both groups' gazes fell on similar locations on the photos, the evaluators were less biased. Seeing the wandering gazes of the first group as they tried to make sense of the blurry images seemed to allow the evaluators to internalize the first group's struggles. In other words, when the two groups literally saw eye to eye, the evaluators were less biased and gave a more accurate estimate of the first group's success rate.

Based on these results, the researchers suspected that if they could show the evaluators where people in the first group had looked—indicated by dots jiggling on the screen—then perhaps the evaluators' gazes would be drawn there as well, reducing any potential hindsight bias. When they did the experiment, that's exactly what happened.

Other studies have shown that merely telling people that they should be aware of hindsight bias is not effective, Camerer says. Something more tangible—such as dots that draw the evaluators' attention—is needed.

Although the experiments were done in a very specific context, the researchers say that these results may be used to reduce hindsight bias in real-life situations. "We think it's a very promising step toward engineering something useful," Camerer says.

For example, eye-tracking technology could be used to record how doctors evaluate X-ray or MRI images. If a doctor happens to make a mistake, showing eye-tracking data could reduce hindsight bias when determining whether the error was honest and unavoidable or if the doctor was negligent. Lowering the likelihood of hindsight bias, Camerer says, could also decrease defensive medicine, in which doctors perform excessive and costly procedures—or decline doing a procedure altogether—for fear of being sued for malpractice even when they have done nothing wrong.

As technology advances, our activities are being increasingly monitored and recorded, says Daw-An Wu, the first author of the paper and a former postdoctoral scholar at Caltech who now works at the Caltech Brain Imaging Center. But the study shows that having visual records alone doesn't solve the problem of fair and unbiased accountability. "For there to be some fair judgment afterward, you would hope that the other component of reality is also being recorded—which is not just what is seen, but how people look at it," he says.

The Psychological Science paper is titled "Shared Visual Attention Reduces Hindsight Bias." In addition to Camerer, Shimojo, and Wu, the other author is Stephanie Wang, a former postdoctoral scholar at Caltech who is now an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. This research collaboration was initiated and funded by Trilience Research, with additional support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Tamagawa-Caltech Global COE Program, and the CREST program of the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

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Snap Judgments During Speed Dating

Caltech researchers identify two regions of the brain whose behavior predicts the outcome of speed dating

PASADENA, Calif.—For speed daters, first impressions are everything. But it's more than just whether someone is hot or not.

Whether or not we like to admit it, we all may make snap judgments about a new face. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in speed dating, during which people decide on someone's romantic potential in just a few seconds. How they make those decisions, however, is not well understood.

But now, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have found that people make such speed-dating decisions based on a combination of two different factors that are related to activity in two distinct parts of the brain.

Unsurprisingly, the first factor in determining whether someone gets a lot of date requests is physical attractiveness. The second factor, which may be less obvious, involves people's own individual preferences—how compatible a potential partner may be, for instance.

The study, which is published in the November 7 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, is one of the first to look at what happens in the brain when people make rapid-judgment decisions that carry real social consequences, the researchers say.

"Psychologists have known for some time that people can often make very rapid judgments about others based on limited information, such as appearance," says John O'Doherty, professor of psychology and one of the paper's coauthors. "However, very little has been known about how this might work in real social interactions with real consequences—such as when making decisions about whether to date someone or not. And almost nothing is known about how this type of rapid judgment is made by the brain."

In the study, 39 heterosexual male and female volunteers were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and then shown pictures of potential dates of the opposite sex. They were given four seconds to rate, on a scale from 1 to 4, how much they would want to date that person. After cycling through as many as 90 faces, the participants then rated the faces again—outside the fMRI machine—on attractiveness and likeability on a scale from 1 to 9. Later, the volunteers participated in a real speed-dating event, in which they spent five minutes talking to some of the potential dates they had rated in the fMRI machine. The participants listed those they wanted to see again; if there were any matches, each person in the pair was given the other's contact information.

Perhaps to no one's surprise, the researchers found that the people who were rated as most attractive by consensus were the ones who got the most date requests. Seeing someone who was deemed attractive (and who also ended up with more date requests) was associated with activity in a region of the rater's brain called the paracingulate cortex, a part of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), which is an important area for cognitive control and decision making. The paracingulate cortex, in particular, has been shown to be active when the brain is comparing options.

This phenomenon was fairly consistent across all participants, says Jeff Cooper, a former postdoctoral scholar in O'Doherty's lab and first author of the paper. In other words, nearly everyone considers physical attraction when judging a potential romantic partner, and that judgment is correlated with activity in the paracingulate cortex.

"But that's not the only thing that's happening," Cooper adds. When some participants saw a person they wanted to date—but who was not rated as very desirable by everyone else—they showed more activation in the rostromedial prefrontal cortex (RMPFC), which is also a part of the DMPFC, but sits farther in front than the paracingulate cortex. The RMPFC has been previously associated with consideration of other people's thoughts, comparisons of oneself to others, and, in particular, perceptions of similarities with others. This suggests that in addition to physical attractiveness, the researchers say, people consider individual compatibility.

While good looks remains the most important factor in determining whether a person gets a date request, a person's likeability—as perceived by other individuals—is also important. For example, likeability serves as a tiebreaker if two people have equal attractiveness ratings. If someone thought a potential date was more likeable than other people did, then that someone was more likely to ask for a date.

"Our work shows for the first time that activity in two parts of the DMPFC may be very important for driving the snapshot judgments that we make all the time about other people," O'Doherty says.

As for the results of the speed-dating event? A few couples were still together six weeks afterward, Cooper says, but the researchers have not followed up. The study was focused on the neural mechanisms behind snap judgments—how those judgments relate to long-term romantic success, he says, is another question.

In addition to Cooper and O'Doherty, the other authors of the Journal of Neuroscience paper are Caltech graduate student Simon Dunne and Teresa Furey of Trinity College Dublin. The title of paper is "Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex Mediates Rapid Evaluations Predicting the Outcome of Romantic Interactions." This research was funded by an Irish Research Council on Science, Engineering, and Technology Fellowship, the Wellcome Trust, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Avery Library

Spring Teaching Assistant Orientation

Literature in the Middle Ages: An Interview with Jennifer Jahner

This fall, Jennifer Jahner joined Caltech as an assistant professor of English. As an undergraduate, she planned to study environmental science at Western Washington University. But as a lifelong reader, she couldn't elude the lure of literature, and she ended up majoring in English instead, receiving her BA in 1998. Afterward, she spent several years as a book editor before returning to academia as a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she took a seminar on medieval literature—a class that she says changed her life. Discovering a passion for the time period and for studying old, rare manuscripts, she got her MA in 2005 and then went to the University of Pennsylvania, where she received her PhD last spring. Jahner recently answered a few questions about her research and her thoughts on joining Caltech.

What do you study?

I study medieval England and particularly the relationships between legal writing and literary writing. My research looks at the writing, copying, and transmission of political lyrics, which are often short poems that try to tackle very thorny legal and political questions. What I look at are the legal ideas and discourses that these poems engage in, what sorts of manuscripts they are copied in, and what these poems can tell us about how people understood forms of community and legal obligation in the Middle Ages.

What's interesting about these poems?

One of the interesting questions about these poems is that, especially in England, they're anonymous. They survive in all sorts of settings, so they get copied into chronicles and they get copied on the flyleaves of manuscripts. They're in all sorts of languages. They're in English, they're in French, and they're in Latin. They suggest to scholars an educated milieu of readers who could understand those languages but who also were looking for entertainment, so they're propaganda pieces, they're advocating revolution against the king, they're condemning revolution against the king. They're interesting, but we don't know a lot about who wrote them or necessarily why.

How does your research straddle the line between history and literature?

Political poems in particular are interesting works for thinking about the difference between literature and history and how we mark something as literary and something else as historical. In fact, one of the reasons they don't tend to be talked about as much as other medieval texts is because they fall right on that boundary line and aren't actually very comfortable in either category.

They're poetic and they're clearly engaging in the conventions of poetic composition. They have rhyme. They have meter. They use allusions and metaphor. And they're very rich rhetorically. But their subject matter is intrinsically historical. They're talking about people and events that happened. They're talking about battles and political controversies. That means that for literary scholars, they're often thought of as somehow less literary than something that might be entirely invented. For the historians, they are useful to a degree as evidence of what people might have been thinking or talking about around a given event. But precisely because they're poetic and they're taking license with those events, they don't measure up to the standards of a true or trustworthy source.

What excites you about your work?

There's so much about the Middle Ages that we still don't know. There are so many texts that remain to be read, thought about, and edited. I love the fact that my job requires and allows me to look at things that are 600 or 700 years old that were copied out by hand and were bound by hand. I find the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the Middle Ages also really compelling. You can't take for granted any of your own assumptions about what it meant to read things, what it meant to listen to things. It's also just really hard. You have to know dead languages. I like the challenge of it.

What excites you about coming to Caltech?

Caltech is actually a really great place to be a humanist. My work tends to be interdisciplinary and it's really common for medievalists to be interdisciplinary because the period doesn't recognize the same boundaries that we do now. It's great to be at a place like Caltech, where our division is a de facto interdisciplinary department. We're made up of literature scholars, historians, and philosophers. It's an exciting place for me to be, because I get to work really closely in a daily setting with people who are doing different kinds of things from me, that are related in ways that I wouldn't necessarily expect.

The other thing that's great about being here is that it's a mile away from the Huntington Library, which is one of the premier manuscript and rare-book libraries in the world and has a terrific medieval-manuscript collection. I feel like I couldn't have landed in a better place.

Having to read and write so much for your work, do you still get to read for pleasure?

I read now less for fun than I ever have at any point in my life. But I will always have a novel on the bed stand. The reward for getting some project done is to relax with a book.

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Technology Has Improved Voting Procedures

New report assesses voting procedures over the last decade

PASADENA, Calif.—Thanks to better voting technology over the last decade, the country's election process has seen much improvement, according to a new report released today by researchers at Caltech and MIT. However, the report notes, despite this progress, some problems remain.

Spurred by the debacle of hanging chads and other voting problems during the 2000 presidential election, the Voting Technology Project (VTP) was started by Caltech and MIT to bring together researchers from across disciplines to figure out how to improve elections. The VTP issued its first report in 2001.

"Since that report came out and since our project was formed, a lot of progress has been made in improving how American elections are run," says Michael Alvarez, professor of political science at Caltech and codirector of the VTP.

For example, the report found that getting rid of outdated voting machines has caused a drop in the number of votes lost to ballot errors. To assess how many votes are lost in each election due to voting mistakes, the researchers calculate the number of residual votes—or the difference between the number of votes that are counted for a particular office and the total number of votes cast. If there are no voting errors, there should be no residual votes.

In their first report in 2001, the researchers found that older voting technology—like punch cards—led to a high residual vote rate. But their new research now shows that the rate has dropped. In particular, Charles Stewart III, a professor of political science at MIT and the other codirector of the VTP, and his colleagues found that the total number of residual votes decreased from 2 percent in 2000 to 1 percent in 2006 and 2008, meaning that fewer votes were lost due to voting errors. The drop was greater in states that instituted more modern voting technology.

"As we moved away from punch cards, lever machines, and paper ballots and towards optical scan systems and electronic systems that have voter verification, we have seen the voter residual rate plummet," Alvarez says. Voter-verification technology gives voters immediate feedback if they make a mistake—by filling in a circle incorrectly, for example—and a chance to correct their error to ensure that their votes are counted.

In addition, the report urges officials to continue and expand election auditing to study the accuracy of registration and voting procedures. For example, after an election, officials can recount ballots to make sure the electronic ballot counters are accurate. "Postelection ballot auditing is a great idea and states need to continue their efforts to use those election ballot-auditing procedures to increase the amount of confidence and integrity of elections," Alvarez says.

The researchers also describe concern with the rise of absentee and early voting, since voter verification is much harder to do via mail. Unlike with in-person voting, these methods offer no immediate feedback about whether a ballot was filled out correctly or if it got counted at all. Once you put your ballot in the mailbox, it's literally out of your hands.

The report also weighs in on voter-identification laws, which have been proposed in many states and subsequently challenged in court. Proponents say they are necessary to prevent voter fraud while opponents argue that there is little evidence that such fraud exists. Moreover, opponents say, voter identification laws make it much more difficult for people without government-issued IDs to vote. But, the report says, technology may resolve the conflict.

"Technology may help ensure voter authentication while alleviating or mitigating the costs that are imposed on voters by laws requiring state-issued identification," says Jonathan Katz, the Kay Sugahara Professor of Social Sciences and Statistics and coauthor of the VTP report.

For example, polling places can have access to a database of registered voters that is also linked to the state's database of DMV photos. A voter's identification can then be confirmed without them having to carry a photo ID. For voters who do not have an ID, the polling place can be equipped with a camera to take an ID picture immediately. The photo can then be entered into the database to verify identification in future elections.

Click here to read the complete report and learn more about the VTP.

In addition to Alvarez, Stewart, and Katz, the other authors of the Caltech/MIT VTP report are Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard, Thad Hall of the University of Utah, and Ronald Rivest of MIT. The report was supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The project has been supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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Handicapping the Election: An Interview with Erik Snowberg

Erik Snowberg—a Caltech professor of economics and political science who is an expert on the relationship between economics and politics—has more than an academic interest in politics: he was an intern for the House Committee on Science in 1998, worked for Ted Kennedy from 1998 to 1999 on immigration issues, and then ran for Cambridge City Council in 1999 when he was an undergraduate at MIT. Despite a record student voter turnout, he lost. After getting bachelor's degrees in mathematics and physics, he went off to Stanford to study economic policy, receiving a PhD in business in 2008, the year he joined the Caltech faculty.

With the election just about a month away, Snowberg recently answered a few questions about the presidential election and what we can expect on November 6.

The economy seems to be the major focus of the presidential election this year. How do you see it playing out? 

It is not a stretch to say that economics is the issue in every presidential campaign. Certainly in my lifetime, economics seems to have determined every election, with the exception of Bush versus Gore in 2000. While the economy was turning down then, we were still coming off a very long period of growth, and the economic models said that Gore should have won.

Now, we are in this middle ground where even though the overall level of the economy is awful, the economy has slowly been getting better over the past year. So the economic models we use to try to predict election outcomes based on economic fundamentals say we can't predict who is going to win.

You have studied people's perceptions of the economy and how that is affected by their economic situation. From that perspective, do you have any insights into this election?

I showed that people's perceptions of unemployment were largely grounded in their own experience. So, you can talk all you like about the economy, but that is not really going to change many people's minds; you can say that the economy is really doing great, but people who have many unemployed friends or family members are not going to feel that way. Or, you can say that the economy is doing terribly, but people who just got a big bonus are generally not going to feel that way. So, we are in this place where issues other than the economy might matter, such as the candidates' character.

With the election in the homestretch, there has been a tremendous amount of attention on the candidates' performances in the debates. Can debate performances decide elections?

Very rarely. Generally it has been the case that following a debate, the challenger gains on average two percentage points in the polls, which is not usually enough to be decisive. So it is difficult to tell if debates affect much of anything. The only recent time where a debate might have decisively influenced an election was in 1980 when Carter and Reagan debated about a week before the election. In that debate, Reagan famously asked voters, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The economy actually had not been doing too badly until Carter brought in Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1979. Inflation was fairly out of control at that point, and Volker clamped down on it, which damaged economic growth. So the economy had a downturn in Carter's last six months in office, and Carter paid the price.

In early October, the latest jobs numbers showed that unemployment has dropped below eight percent. While Obama has been claiming that the economy is getting better, Romney has argued that with his business background, he would be doing a much better job steering the economy. How do you see voters responding?

I don't have any particular reason to believe that people would think that a businessman would have any particular expertise in managing the economy. You could equally turn that around and ask, "Why isn't Obama assured of reelection because he is the only one running who has experience managing the entire economy?" It is not clear to me why voters would perceive it one way or another. Romney was in a type of business where the emphasis was not on creating jobs. It was on creating value for shareholders. If people are concerned about job growth, the guy who has a lot of experience making sure that capital gets a better return on investment is not necessarily going to be the guy they are going to choose for president.

Who do you think is going to win?

If I had to put money on it, I'd put money on Obama, based on the improvement in the economy. I have to say, Romney's performance in the first debate was amazing. But in general, surveys find that he has extremely low likeability ratings—lower than any challenger in a long time. 

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Friday, October 19, 2012
Beckman Institute Auditorium

Last Will. & Testament on Tour

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