Fairy tales and city slickers

Top of the Charts 'Insights' round-up: November 2019

The latest from Resolution Foundation Chief Executive Torsten Bell’s weekly Observer column, Insights. Read more of the latest economics and policy research in our weekly reading email, Top of the Charts (sign up here).

Even though it makes us unhappy, city life has never been more popular

Cities make us richer, but not happier. To be more specific, people living in cities are less happy than those living elsewhere in the UK, despite often earning more. That’s a concern, given the trend for more of us to live in cities. The UN says two-thirds of the globe will live in one by 2050.

Cities have driven much of the rise in living standards that has transformed humanity, but there are less positive features. Some are integral to what it means to live in an urban area – a faster pace of life and crowding. Others are merely associated – think poverty and crime. As a result, there has been a long debate about whether urban living itself or other problems get us down.

Two academics set out to answer that a few years ago. They looked at data from more than 200 US counties, finding that the least happy places were large cities, while the happiest were rural, but near large cities. As a Londoner, their conclusion is disappointing: urban living itself gets us down even without its problems. But perhaps the fact that people still flock to the capital goes to show that, while there is more to life than money, there’s also more to life than happiness.

Before city dwellers get more depressed, note that some see a brighter future. The residue of industrialisation and deindustrialisation and traffic jams might reduce the perkiness of urban life but perhaps the future of cities is pure joy – greener places where amenities are concentrated and long commutes avoided. Here’s hoping.

Originally published in The Observer.

Not too difficult, not too easy… let’s learn the Goldilocks way

Learning something new is satisfying but hard. In fact, if it’s not hard enough, we won’t do a very good job of learning because we get bored. But if it’s too hard we also don’t learn – we get disheartened.

This explains why, on those rare occasions we do get round to learning something new, we opt for something at the fringes of our ability. This sweet spot, researchers report, is called the “Goldilocks zone”, where learning progresses most quickly. This was worked out from research into how newborn babies avoid spending time on things that are either “too simple” or “too complex”. Long before they can understand the story of Goldilocks, babies appear to have mastered the heroine’s art of decision-making.

However, those of us who prefer cold hard stats might like to know the optimum level of difficulty for expanding our horizons. And it turns out the answer is 85.

New research argues that optimal learning is achieved when we face a task at which we have an 85% accuracy rate. Training at this level dramatically improves the rate of learning. The bad news is that this magic formula is calculated on the basis of training an artificial-intelligence algorithm. However, there are grounds to believe it applies to our brains as well.

So, going for something that you’ve got an 85% chance of getting right seems good advice for anyone taking up a sport or computer game. It’s less useful for politicians, who only get one go at winning an election or not stuffing up Brexit.

Originally published in The Observer.

Plenty of promises… but which US party is the biggest spender?

Borrowing is going up, whoever wins the election. Both the Conservatives and Labour want to borrow lots of cash to invest in infrastructure – more houses, roads and railways.

But while the upward direction of travel is shared, Labour is clearly aiming for the bigger ramping up. Something like an extra £55bn a year versus £15-20bn under Tory plans. Clearly, your judgment of those plans should depend on how well you think the different parties would spend the money, but the scale of extra borrowing fits stereotypes of leftwing parties being less fiscally restrained than their conservative rivals.

But are those stereotypes fair? Not across the Atlantic, where Republican Donald Trump has blown the budget with massive tax cuts. He’s been accused of abandoning traditional Republican prudence. But new analysis suggests that on this one issue Trump is in fact normal. Republican administrations since the last war have, if anything, been more likely to expand government debt than Democrat ones despite all the posturing about the need for balanced budgets. Switching from a Republican to a Democratic presidency is associated with an annual reduction in debt of 1.8% on average.

The authors suggest this is because Democrats worry that if debt is high it will undermine public services in future. Maybe, but it’s also true that leftwing parties are under more pressure to show they’re responsible with the public finances. That might explain why Republican administrations have repeatedly got away with implementing tax cuts they couldn’t afford. The lesson? In politics as in life, let’s judge people on what they do, not what they say.

Originally published in The Observer.

You’ll have to swipe a lot on Tinder if you’re in the mood for love

You may have heard rumours of an online dating app called Tinder. Most people see it as an easy way to make connections, intimate or otherwise, with new people. Economists, however, see something different – a golden opportunity for new data and research. Two recent studies have delved into the world of Tinder, illuminating the weird and wonderful world of online dating.

The first piece of research examines whom we do and don’t choose to hook up with. Specifically, it digs into whether the qualifications of a potential date make any difference to us. Maybe this won’t surprise you, but it turns out women go looking for a highly educated lover. Men, however, are far less fussed about how educated a potential partner is. Interestingly, this runs counter to the depressing case other researchers have made that men actually hide from more educated women.

More surprising, perhaps, is the second study. Its conclusion is that the app involves far more effort and leads to fewer one-night stands than is commonly thought. You need a lot of matches to even get a date, it appears, and the world of seven flings a week is a myth. Indeed, the research finds that only 20% of those sampled have had one-night stands via Tinder. I’m nervous about drawing too many firm conclusions, but all that swiping doesn’t seem to be getting people (other than the researchers) very far…

Originally published in The Observer.