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What Do Hockey Visors and Birth Control Hormone Shots Have in Common?

The New York Times recently reported that using Depo-Provera, one of the most popular contraceptives in eastern and southern Africa, may increase a person’s risk of transmitting HIV. I fear this is a case for The Guardian‘s Ben Goldacre… where a study gets a bit (understatement) too much spin in the media. I first became aware of this while in Uganda and saw the following headline in the local paper: “The injectable contraceptive that could double the risk of women contracting HIV.” That sure sounds like the shot itself does something. Or could this instead be a by-product of behavior change? Huge difference if you are deciding what birth control to use!

The Times article cited a study recently published in The Lancet, which showed that women using hormonal contraception—primarily the injection more commonly known in the U.S. by its brand name, Depo-Provera—were twice as likely to acquire HIV from their infected partners, and twice as likely to transmit the virus to their HIV-negative partners. Read More »



What Percentage of Microfinance Loans Actually Go to Business Investment?

If someone with a clipboard came up to you in the street and asked you if you secretly harbor racist views, have stolen things in the past, had unprotected sex, or some other illicit behavior, how likely would you be to tell the truth?

Probably not very. This causes havoc for any researcher who wants to study behavior that may deviate from social norms in some way. A survey technique called “list randomization” allows researchers to calculate the average response to a question in a population, without being able to identify the response of any one individual. In theory this gives people the freedom to answer truthfully, knowing that even the interviewer won’t be able to tell what they answered.

This method has indeed been used to measure hidden racism and sexism among American voters, as well as all sorts of bad behavior by American teens.

In a paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Development Economics, Jonathan Zinman and I apply this approach to the question of how the poor spend their microfinance loans. Read More »



How to Improve iPhone’s New Charity Snooze App: Pick an Anti-Charity

A new iPhone app links your alarm clock snooze button to your wallet. Every time you hit snooze, you pay. To be precise, 25 cents goes to charity. Whilst I admire the charitable impulse and the entrepreneurialism here, I do wonder how effective this commitment device will be. A quarter isn’t a lot. Particularly when in a deep slumber. And the money goes to a good thing. Two slight twists on this app would intrigue me:

1)      The anti-charity. A popular option at stickK.com (disclosure: Ian Ayres, fellow Freakonomics contributor, and I are co-Founders of stickK.com), is to pick an “anti-charity” such as the Bush or Clinton Presidential Libraries, depending on your particular persuasion (those in the UK can choose their most despised football team).

2)      The reverse: Donate if you do NOT press snooze. Set a goal for money to raise for a charity you love. Every day you do NOT press snooze, you add money to your “to donate” pot. (Yet another disclosure: this would thus work similarly to the American Cancer Society’s http://www.chooseyou.com campaign, which is powered by stickK.com). Read More »



Freakonomics Poll: Will New Cigarette Warning Labels Reduce Smoking?

Soon, new warning labels on cigarette packs will have even scarier messages, and photos too. Canada has been doing this for years. Will it reduce smoking?

Here are three quick thoughts.

1) I strongly doubt it will increase the quantity of information about smoking. Folks know it is bad for you already.

2) This does not mean it won’t work. Maybe people try to forget the health risks in that moment of passion (folks know birth control helps prevent pregnancy, but similarly, when faced with impending temptations, magically forget such trivial details). Will these photos remind them at that moment of temptation? Maybe. Or maybe it will increase how often their kids or friends give them grief for it, thus creating some social pressure to stop. Naturally there is a counter-argument, that this may enhance teenage smoking, if “being bad” makes it cooler. Read More »



More Misadventures in Foreign Aid?

Last week CNN told the story here and here of Derreck Kayongo, a refugee from Uganda now living in Atlanta. His father was a soap-maker, and Mr. Kayongo is following in his footsteps, but with a nonprofit twist: he cleans and reprocesses discarded used soap bars from American hotels and ships them to Africa. He started the Global Soap Project, a U.S.-based non-profit organization, to do this.

An inspiring story of someone trying to turn waste into something good. That of course is great, and I like the ingenuity. And I admire how Mr. Kayongo has managed to navigate both the nonprofit and corporate space to figure out how to mobilize people to contribute the soap, and to coordinate delivery to people in need.

But is the best solution here really half-used soap? Read More »



Why Ranking Charities by Administrative Expenses is a Bad Idea

How does one know whether a charitable donation will make an impact? For this we need a simple formula (easy to write, hard to apply):

Idea X Implementation = Bang for your buck

When I give talks about aid effectiveness, people often comment that they too think this is important. And to make sure they are supporting good charities, they always hone in on the charities’ finances to see how much goes to administrative and fundraising expenses. Charity Navigator, for example, scrubs these numbers and doles out stars to charities that don’t spend “too” much on operations.

Given the title of my book with Jacob Appel, More Than Good Intentions, many assume that they are speaking my language, and that I admire such focus on those numbers too.

But I do not. Those numbers do not tell you what is really happening. Read More »



Winners of Heart + Mind Donations Contest

Earlier I ran a contest for two free copies of More Than Good Intentions. The quick summary: we ran a randomized trial to test whether employing the use of statistics, and worse yet scientific evidence, would raise more or less money when added to a standard emotional appeal in a direct mail marketing solicitation for donations for Freedom from Hunger (a charity I respect and do research with). We split the analysis by size of prior gift. The Freakonomics contest then asked two questions: Read More »



Deciding How to Decide: Taste-Matching Or Expert-Based?

This blog post is co-authored with Jacob Appel, co-author of my recent book, More Than Good Intentions.

Among the many questions David Gomberg and Justin Heimberg pose in their hilarious book Would You Rather is the following:

“Would you rather…

Become increasingly intelligent with the consumption of alcohol, but also become increasingly convinced you are Gloria Estefan

OR

Have a firm grasp of Roman numerals but look exactly like Weird Al Yankovic?”

Well, that’s a tough one. Seriously. It’s a classic problem of apples and oranges—or maybe, given the absurdity of the alternatives, a problem of apples and, say, cut-off jeans shorts—two things that are thoroughly incommensurable. Fortunately, those are not real choices. Read More »