Category Archives: In the news

Survivor bias and the 92% of Southern Black men who support spanking

In today’s New York Times both Michael Eric Dyson and Charles Blow write about spanking. Blow doesn’t mention race and the South, but that’s in the background when we writes:

I understand the reasoning that undergirds much of this thinking about spanking: Better to feel the pain of being punished by someone in the home who loves you than by someone outside the home who doesn’t.

Dyson goes further, and ties the practice back to slave plantations:

Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense. Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.

Here are a couple of logical points, and then some data.

First, please note that the rationale some Black parents use doesn’t need to explain all of the practice of beating children, just the difference between Blacks and Whites. Blacks are more likely to support spanking than Whites, but a strong majority of both groups in this country agree spanking is “sometimes necessary.” So not every case of Black parents beating their children is attributable to slavery and racism. Some may be, and the rationale no doubt is in many cases, but that’s not the whole story.

Second, it’s common for people who suffer some disadvantage and survive to attribute their survival to the hardship they suffered. NFL player Adrian Peterson, who beat his 4-year-old son with a stick, said, “I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.”

If there were 15 boys on a lifeboat, and one survived, he would probably say, “I have always believed that my lifeboat experience has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.” If he were successful in his post-lifeboat life, people might agree with his explanation. In fact, statistics might even show that lifeboat survivors are more successful. Statistically, that’s a survivor bias – the people who should be dragging down the average aren’t alive to weigh in.

A more subtle effect is not just statistical bias but real survival selection — the one lifeboat guy who lives was probably the strongest. So his story seems credible, even though lifeboat populations have very high mortality. In fact, the “Black-White mortality crossover” is a classic puzzle upon which many demographers (including me, though I sadly didn’t get it published) have cut their teeth: At old ages, Blacks have lower mortality rates than Whites (here’s a recent update). That’s partly because to live to old age in Black America you have to be tough (and partly because some old Blacks exaggerate their age, intentionally or unintentionally, which is a cultural expression of the same thing).


Anyway, kudos Harry Enten at 538 for turning to the General Social Survey to show trends in spanking attitudes. He shows that born-again Christians, Blacks, Southerners, and Republicans are all more likely to support spanking. And he did a regression showing those variables all predict spanking agreement when entered together. However, what he doesn’t show is the the interaction most important for today’s news: The support for spanking among Black men raised in the South. (Enten uses the GSS code for where people currently live, when for a question like this I think it’s more appropriate to use the code for where people lived when they were age 16.)

To get a decent sample size (this is down to 211 Southern Black men), I pooled three administrations of the GSS (2008, 2010, 2012), to get this:

spanking race and region.xlsx

Notice the huge gender gaps, which Enten for some reason didn’t consider.  And see that the Southern-at-age-16 people have higher rates of supporting spanking than the currently-Southern. If spanking were a reasonable adaptation to hardship, necessary for children to toughen up and learn to follow orders so they don’t get killed by Whites, why would Black men support it more than Black women?

So 92% of Southern Black men support a “good, hard spanking,” and Charles Barkley was probably right, empirically, when he said spanking was ubiquitous in the South in his childhood. But 75% of non-Southern White men support it, too. So it’s variations on a nearly-universal theme.

And the people who think it helps children because it helped them are not alone among the survivors of difficult childhoods. But that doesn’t mean they’re right.

Clarification: Don’t take the term “survivor” too literally. The lifeboat analogy is just an extreme version of, “15 people experienced harsh beating as a child, and one ended up a successful football player.” People who suffer and succeed often incorrectly attribute their success to their suffering.


Filed under In the news

My rejection of the National Marriage Project’s “Before ‘I Do'”

All day today, “The Decisive Marriage” has topped the New York Times most-emailed list. The piece is a Well Blog post, written by Tara Parker-Pope, which reports on a report published by the National Marriage Project and written by Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley, “Before ‘I Do': What Do Premarital Experiences Have to Do with Marital Quality Among Today’s Young Adults?”

I have frequently criticized the National Marriage Project, run by Bradford Wilcox (posts listed under this tag), and I ignore their work when I can. But this report is getting a lot of attention now and several people have asked my opinion. Since the research in the report has not been subject to peer review, and the Pope piece does not include any expert commentary from non-authors, I figured I’d structure this post like the peer review report I would dash off if I had been asked to review the piece (it’s a little different because I have access to the author and funding information, and I wouldn’t include links or graphics, but this is more or less how it would go if I were asked to review it).

Before “I Do”

This paper reports results from an original data collection which sampled 1,294 people in 2007/08, and then followed an unknown number of them for five years. The present paper reports on the marriage quality of 418 of the individuals who reported marrying over the period (ages 18-40). The authors provide no information on sample attrition or how this was handled in the analysis, or the determinants of marriage within the sample. Although they claim (without evidence) that the sample was “reasonably representative of unmarried adults,” they note it is 65% female, so it’s obviously not representative. More importantly, the analysis sample is only those who married, which is highly select. Neither sexual orientation of the respondents, nor gender composition of the couples described is reported.

The outcome variable in the study is a reasonable measure of “marital quality” based on a four-item reduced-form version of the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (originally developed by Graham Spanier), which includes these items:

  • How often do you discuss or have you considered divorce, separation, or terminating your relationship?
  • In general, how often do you think that things between you and your partner are going well?
  • Do you confide in your mate?
  • Please circle the dot which best describes the degree of happiness, all things considered, of your relationship.

The authors provide no details on the coding of these items, but say the scale ranges from 0 to 21, and their sample included people who scored from 0 to 21. However, the mean was 16.5 and the standard deviation was 3.7, indicating a strong skew toward high scores. Inexplicably, for the presentation of results the authors dichotomize the dependent variable into those they classify as “higher quality,” the 40% of respondents who scored (19-21), versus everyone else (0-18). To defend this decision, the authors offer this non-explanation, which means exactly nothing:

This cut point was selected by inspection of the distribution. While it is somewhat arbitrary, we reasoned that these people are not just doing “above average” in their marriages, but are doing quite well.

The average marriage duration is not reported, but the maximum possible is 5 years, so we are talking about marriage quality very early in these marriages.

The main presentation of findings consists of bar graphs misleadingly labeled “Percent in Higher-Quality Marriages, by…” various independent variables. These are misleading because, according to the notes to these figures, “These percentages are adjusted for race/ethnicity, years of education, personal income, religiousness, and frequency of attendance at religious services.” Here is one:


The method for arriving at these “adjusted” percentages is not given. This apparently confused Parker-Pope, who reported them as unadjusted percentages, like this:

People who lived with another person before marrying also reported a lower-quality relationship. In that group, 35 percent had higher-quality marriages. Among those who had not lived with another romantic partner before marriage, 42 percent had higher-quality marriages.

The statistical significance of this difference is not reported. However, if this were a simple difference of proportions, the difference would not be statistically significant at conventional levels (with a sample of 418, 39% of whom lived with someone else before, the test for difference of proportions for .42 and .35 yields a z-score of 1.43, p=.15). The full report includes an appendix which says they used multilevel modeling, but the form of the regression is not specified. The regression table provided includes no fit statistics or variance components so the efficacy of the model cannot be evaluated.

Regression says: Adding 100 people to the wedding party 5 times would not equal the effect on marital quality of not being Black.

Regression says: Adding 100 people to the wedding party 5 times would not equal the effect on marital quality of not being Black.

Much is made here (and in the Pope article about these findings) about the wedding-size effect. That is, among married couples, those who reported bigger weddings had higher average marriage quality. The mean wedding size was 117. In the regression model, each additional wedding guest was associated with an increase in marriage quality (on the 0-21 scale) of .005. That is, if this were a real effect, adding 100 wedding guests would increase marital quality by half a point, or less than 1/7 of a standard deviation. For comparison, in the model, the negative effect of being Black (-2.69) is more than 5-times greater than the effect of a 100-guest swing in wedding attendance. (The issue of effect size did not enter into Pope’s description of the results.)

The possibility of nonlinear effects of wedding size or other variables is not discussed.

Are the results plausible?

It is definitely possible that, for example, less complicated relationship histories, or larger weddings, do contribute to marital happiness early in the marriage. The authors speculate, based on psychological research from the 1970s, that the “desire for consistency” means “having more witnesses at a wedding may actually strengthen marital quality.”

Sure. The much bigger issue, however, is two kinds of selection. The first, which they address — very poorly — concerns spurious effects. Thus, the simplest explanation is that (holding income constant) people with larger weddings simply had better relationships to begin with. Or, because personal income (not couple income — and note only one person from each couple was interviewed) is at best a very noisy indicator of resources available to couples, big weddings may simply proxy for wealthier families.

Or, about the finding that living with someone else prior to the current relationship is associated with poorer marriage quality, it may simply be that people who have trouble in relationships are more likely to have both lived with someone else and have poor quality marriages later. Cherlin et al. have reported, for example, that women with a history of sexual abuse are more likely to be in transitory relationships, including serial cohabiting relationships, so a history of abuse could account for some of these results. And so on.

The authors address this philosophically, which is all they can do given their data:

One obvious objection to this study is that it may be capturing what social scientists call “selection effects” rather than a causal relationship between our independent variables and the outcome at hand. That is, this report’s results may reflect the fact that certain types of people are more likely to engage in certain behaviors—such as having a child prior to marriage—that are correlated with experiencing lower odds of marital quality. It could be that these underlying traits or experiences, rather than the behaviors we analyzed, explain the associations reported here. This objection applies to most research that is not based on randomized experiments. We cannot prove causal associations between the personal and couple factors we explore and marital quality.

However, because they have rudimentary demographic controls, and the independent variables chronologically precede the outcome variable, they think they’re on pretty firm ground:

With the help of our research, we hope current and future couples will better understand the factors that appear to contribute to building a healthy, loving marriage in contemporary America.

This is Wilcox’s standard way of nodding to selection before plowing ahead with unjustified conclusions. This is not a reasonable approach, for reasons apparent in today’s New York Times. Tara Parker-Pope does not mention this issue, and her piece will obviously reach many more people than the original report or this post.

They hope people will take their results as relationship advice. In Pope’s piece, Stanley offers exactly the same advice he always gives. If that is to be the case, the best advice by far — based on their models — is to avoid being Black, and to finish high school. Living with both one’s biological parents at age 14 helps, too. In relationship terms, unfortunately, most of the results could just as easily reflect wealth or initial relationship quality rather than relationship decisions, and thus tell us that people who have healthy (and less complicated) relationships before marriage have healthy relationships in the first few years after marriage.

Perhaps more serious, however, for this study design, is the second kind of selection: selection into the sample (by marriage). Anything that affects both the odds of marrying and the quality of marriage is potentially corrupting these results. This is a big, complicated issue, with a whole school of statistical methods attached to it. Unless they attend to that issue this analysis should not be published.

On the funding

The authors state the project was “initially funded” by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, but the report also acknowledges support from the William E. Simon Foundation, a very conservative foundation that in 2012 gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Witherspoon Institute (which funded the notorious Wilcox/Regnerus research on children of same-sex couples), the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and other conservative and Christian activist organizations. Details on funding are not provided.

The National Marriage Project is well-known for publishing only work that supports their agenda of marriage promotion. Some of what they publish may be true, but based on their track record they cannot be trusted as honest brokers of new research.


Filed under In the news

Post-summer reading list: The Family, gender, race, economics, gayborhoods, insecurity and overwhelmed

I was extremely fortunate to have a real vacation this summer — two whole weeks. I feel like half a European. In that time I read, almost read, or thought about reading, a number of things I might have blogged about if I’d been working instead of at the beach:


The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change

Yes, my own book came out. I never worked on one thing so much. I really hope you like it. Look for it at the Norton booth at the American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco this week. Info on ordering exam copies here.

About that gender stall

The Council on Contemporary Families, on whose board I serve, published an online symposium titled, After a Puzzling Pause, the Gender Revolution Continues. It features work by the team of David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman on a rebound in gender attitudes; new research on sex (by Sharon Sassler) and divorce (by Christine Schwartz) in egalitarian marriages; and how overwork contributes to the gender gap (by Youngjoo Cha). For additional commentary, see this piece by Virginia Rutter at Girl w/ Pen!, and an important caution from Joanna Pepin (who finds no rebound in attitudes in the trends for high school students). If I had written a whole post about this I would have found a way to link to my essay on the gender stall in the NYTimes, too.

Gender and Piketty

How Gender Changes Piketty’s ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’.” A discussion hosted by The Nation blog between Kathleen Geier, Kate Bahn, Joelle Gamble, Zillah Eisenstein and Heather Boushey

Scientists strike back at Nicholas Wade

Geneticists decry book on race and evolution.” More than 100 scientists signed a letter to the New York Times disavowing Wade’s use of population genetics. This story quotes Sarah Tishkoff, whose work Wade specifically misrepresented (as I described in my review in Boston Review). The article in Science also includes Wade’s weak response, in which he repeats the claim, which I do not find credible, that their objections are “driven by politics, not science.” He repeats this no matter how scientific the objections to his work.

Here comes There Goes the Gayborhood?

Amin Ghaziani’s new book has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention in the last few weeks. Here’s one good article in the New Yorker.

Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times

Marianne Cooper’s book is out now. From the publisher: “Through poignant case studies, she reveals what families are concerned about, how they manage their anxiety, whose job it is to worry, and how social class shapes all of these dynamics, including what is even worth worrying about in the first place.” Cooper led the research for Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, and the book is from her sociology dissertation.

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time

Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post journalist, has written a really good book about gender, work, and family. (I was happy to listen to it during the drive to our vacation, because it helped me let go and ignore work more.) I’ll write a longer review, but let me just say here it is very well written and researched on the issues of time use, the household division of labor, and work-family policy and politics, featuring many of your favorite social scientists in this area. Well worth considering for an undergrad family course. (Also, helps explain why there are so many Europeans on American beaches.)


Filed under In the news

Marriage, divorce, remarriage, age, education (Coontz tabs edition)

Stephanie Coontz has an excellent Op-Ed on the front of today’s New York Times Sunday Review, which draws out the implications for family instability of the connection between increasing gender equality on the one hand, and increasing economic inequality and insecurity on the other. The new instability is disproportionately concentrated among the population with less than a college degree. To help with her research, I gave Stephanie the figure below, but it didn’t make the final cut. This shows the marriage history of men and women by education and age. She wrote:

According to the sociologist Philip N. Cohen, among 40-somethings with at least a bachelor’s degree, as of 2012, 63 percent of men and 59 percent of women were in their first marriage, compared to just 43 percent of men and 42 percent of women without a bachelor’s degree.

I highlighted those numbers in the figure. Also striking is the higher percentage of divorced people among those with less than a BA degree (and higher widowhood rates). Click to enlarge: age marriage history Cross-posted on the Families As They Really Are blog.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Arthur Brooks’s worldliness is showing

Because the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which spends $9 million per year getting its message out, needs help getting its message out, its president, Arthur Brooks is on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Review again this week. When he’s not spending rich people’s money to, for example, advocate for more military funding, Brooks takes time to promote a feel-good, post-materialist message for the rich-who-just-happen-to-be-rich.

But there’s a funny thing in the middle of today’s message to “love people, use things.”

Easier said than done, I realize. It requires the courage to repudiate pride and the strength to love others — family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, God and even strangers and enemies. Only deny love to things that actually are objects.

Wait, God? Why is God in the middle of this list of people we should love? You could say (as he has) that religious people are happier, and that loving God is part of an uplifting selflessness. But I suspect this is more a political nod. Brooks is making a name as a compassionate conservative, dedicated above all to free markets but making American conservatives nervous by dropping in the importance of “safety-net policies for the indigent” (definition of indigent obviously the question being begged).

His brand of right-wing politics is not practically separable from conservative religious groups and ideologies, so regardless of his beliefs (which I don’t know), he can’t exclude God. For example, the Donors Capital Fund (DCF), which at $19 million aince 1990 is one of the top contributors to AEI, and on whose board Brooks sits, gives millions to a mix of education causes (e.g., charter schools), religious organizations (e.g., the Israeli right wing and God’s World Publications), conservative think tanks (Hudson, Ayn Rand, Heritage), and Republican activists (FreedomWorks). It’s hard to get the God out of that mix, even if you wanted to.

It’s too easy to accuse people like Brooks of hypocrisy, so I won’t belabor this, but I also note that DCF in 2012 gave $125,000 to the National Organization for Marriage, which that year pursued a project the “strategic goal” of which was “to drive a wedge between gays and blacks” in their campaign to deny marriage to gays and lesbians. Isn’t love grand?

Other posts on American Enterprise Institute:


Filed under In the news

New York City police killings: 1964 (life) – 1989 (art) – 2014 (life)

In July 1964, just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, White New York City police officer Thomas Gilligan killed Black 15-year-old James Powell. After two days of peaceful protest, police and protesters clashed and six nights of violence followed. This is not James Powell being killed, just another guy being beaten:


In the summer of 1989, Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing featured the killing of Radio Raheem by White police — using the already-infamous chokehold — after they swept into the sweltering neighborhood, where a fight had broken out. The climactic incident sparked an explosive riot (watch the scene on Hulu with membership):


Now, another quarter century later, police on Staten Island have apparently choked 43-year-old Eric Garner to death after he refused to cooperate with whatever random demand they had, as captured on video (and posted by the Daily News):


Now the chokehold is against police department rules, but the number of chokehold complaints — a statistic the department keeps — has been rising and last year reached 233, only a “tiny fraction” of which are substantiated. In the Daily News video, Garner is heard saying, “I can’t breathe” many times.

UPDATE: Spike Lee has now produced a video splicing together the chokehold scenes of Eric Garner and Radio Raheem. It’s embedded on Indiwire here.


Filed under In the news

Border fences make unequal neighbors




There is one similarity between the Israel/Gaza crisis and the U.S. unaccompanied child immigrant crisis: National borders enforcing social inequality. When unequal populations are separated, the disparity creates social pressure at the border. The stronger the pressure, the greater the military force needed to maintain the separation.

To get a conservative estimate of the pressure at the Israel/Gaza border, I compared some numbers for Israel versus Gaza and the West Bank combined, from the World Bank (here’s a recent rundown of living conditions in Gaza specifically). I call that conservative because things are worse in Gaza than in the West Bank.

Then, just as demographic wishful thinking, I calculated what the single-state solution would look like on the day you opened the borders between Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. I added country percentiles showing how each state ranks on the world scale (click to enlarge).


Israel’s per capita income is 6.2-times greater, its life expectancy is 6 years longer, its fertility rate is a quarter lower, and its age structure is reversed. Together, the Palestinian territories have a little more than half the Israeli population (living on less than 30% of the land). That means that combining them all into one country would move both populations’ averages a lot. For example, the new country would be substantially poorer (29% poorer) and younger than Israel, while increasing the national income of Palestinians by 444%. Israelis would fall from the 17th percentile worldwide in income, and the Palestinians would rise from the 69th, to meet at the 25th percentile.

Clearly, the separation keeps poor people away from rich people. Whether it increases or decreases conflict is a matter of debate.


Meanwhile, the USA has its own enforced exclusion of poor people.

Photo of US/Tijuana border by Kordian from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo of US/Tijuana border by Kordian from Flickr Creative Commons.

The current crisis at the southern border of the USA mostly involves children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. They don’t actually share a border with the USA, of course, but their region does, and crossing into Mexico seems pretty easy, so it’s the same idea.

To make a parallel comparison to Israel and the West Bank/Gaza, I just used Guatemala, which is larger by population than Honduras and El Salvador combined, and also closest to the USA. The economic gap between the USA and Guatemala is even larger than the Israeli/Palestinian gap. However, because the USA is 21-times larger than Guatemala by population, we could easily absorb the entire Guatemalan population without much damaging our national averages. Per capita income in the USA, for example, would fall only 4%, while rising more than 7-times for Guatemala (click to enlarge):


This simplistic analysis yields a straightforward hypothesis: violence and military force at national borders rises as the income disparity across the border increases. Maybe someone has already tested that.

The demographic solution is obvious: open the borders, release the pressure, and devote resources to improving quality of life and social harmony instead of enforcing inequality. You’re welcome!


Filed under In the news, Politics