Mythbusters! Academic Papers on Incest, the Endowment Effect, and Job Training Programs

Here are three social science papers taking on views popular among social scientists and the educated wider public. In the order of decreasing accessibility.

1. Everybody's favourite theory about incest avoidance appears to be wrong
Eran Shor and Dalit Simchai, 2009: "Incest Avoidance, the Incest Taboo, and Social Cohesion: Revisiting Westermarck and the Case of the Israeli Kibbutzim", American Journal of Sociology 114: 1803-42

Abstract: During the past 50 years, a consensus has been forming around Edward Westermarck’s idea that incest avoidance results from an aversion that develops when individuals are brought up in propinquity. The argument here presented counters this emerging consensus. Reexamining the case of the Israeli kibbutzim, the authors show that individuals who grew up in the kibbutzim’s communal education system were in fact often attracted to their peers, and only rarely did they develop sexual aversion toward these peers. This article offers an alternative explanation to the problem of incest avoidance and the incest taboo, one that brings sociological factors back into the picture.

2. There may be no such thing as an "endowment effect"
Charles R. Plott and Kathryn Zeiler, 2007: "Exchange Asymmetries Incorrectly Interpreted as Evidence of Endowment Effect Theory and Prospect Theory?", American Economic Review 97: 1450-66

The American Economic Review, in its continuing fight against The Hegemony of Epistemological Reductivism, still refuses to adopt the innovation called "abstract". The first paragraph is a decent stand-in, though:

Jack L. Knetsch (1989) reported an important discovery. Using a simple experiment, he demonstrated the existence of asymmetries in exchange behavior. More precisely, when he followed a specific set of procedures to endow subjects with mugs and provided each subject an opportunity to exchange the endowed mug for a candy bar, he found that very few subjects gave up the endowed mug. By contrast, when he endowed a different group of subjects with candy bars using the same set of procedures, very few gave up the candy bar in exchange for a mug. While Knetsch, and many of those who followed him, interpreted the asymmetry as evidence of a special shape of preferences related to loss aversion (Knetsch 1989, 1277), our results demonstrate that observed asymmetries should be attributed instead to well-established alternative economic theories that influence choices through the experimental procedures employed.

3. Naive interpretation of social experiments in general, and recent US job training programs in particular, can lead to an underestimation of treatment effects
James Heckman, Neil Hohmann, Jeffrey Smith and Michael Khoo, 2000: "Substitution and Dropout Bias in Social Experiments: A Study of an Influential Social Experiment", Quarterly Journal of Economics 115: 651-694

Abstract: This paper considers the interpretation of evidence from social experiments when persons randomized out of a program being evaluated have good substitutes for it, and when persons randomized into a program drop out to pursue better alternatives. Using data from an experimental evaluation of a classroom training program, we document the empirical importance of control group substitution and treatment group dropping out. Evidence that one program is ineffective relative to close substitutes is not evidence that the type of service provided by all of the programs is ineffective, although that is the way experimental evidence is often interpreted.

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