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A Mind for Data


Achievement. Ambition. American Dream. Capitalism. Free Competition. Free Enterprise. Maybe the most challenging part of the research for Andrew Wei ’20 was constructing the dictionary of terms he would use to mine Google News data. But on the trail of research, Wei is seemingly unstoppable. He created a dictionary of not the typical one or two search terms but 38. That brought him some 30,000 data sets with which to work.

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And if that doesn’t hit “big data” heights, the project required him to learn and employ big data research techniques. Wei analyzed data generated between 2008 and 2015 from all 50 states. His pressing question was why income inequality has grown persistently in the United States for 25 years. He wondered, too, why both the rich and the poor became more conservative — meaning opposed to income redistribution — as inequality grew. Could those things be related to the news they consume?

His research quest was to determine whether increases in income inequality cause people to seek out news stories that affirm the American dream — the belief that hard work leads to success. Call that belief personal individualism. He also looked at searches for stories that show that the economy functions best with minimal government intervention — economic individualism.

Wei found that yes, people do look for more stories about individualism when income inequality increases. He also found evidence of confirmation bias, meaning that people sought out news stories that reinforced what they already believed. Finding that bias is the really interesting part of his research, says Ann Owen, the Henry Platt Bristol Chair, Public Policy, and professor of economics, who advised Wei on the project.

“His results could explain increasing polarization about economic policy as people just seek out news that confirms what they already believed to be true. So, I think it is a very relevant conclusion,” Owen says.

In the case of income inequality, reading news stories that emphasize individualism, the notion that hard work leads to success, can cause voters to overestimate social mobility and choose inefficiently low levels of redistribution.

Among other things, Wei has learned that he loves doing research, even though it doesn’t always go smoothly. “In research, you’ll come up with setbacks constantly, and it can be just about the most frustrating thing ever. You’ll think you’ll never find the solution, but you do. And when you do, well, it’s quite awesome,” he says.

Wei is a double major in economics and math who met Owen when he was that rare first-year student enrolled in her Intermediate Macroeconomic Theory course. In class, he was fairly quiet, but afterward he would buttonhole her to delve into the hardest stuff they’d covered. That made them kindred spirits; Owen, too, likes the hardest stuff, which in this case was long-run economic growth and income inequality.

The next academic year, Wei asked Owen for an opportunity to do research with her, and they successfully applied for a Levitt Center grant that funded a summer’s worth of work with the Google News data.

At the end of the summer in the paper he produced, Wei pointed out that the news plays a role in voters’ ability to make informed policy choices. Bias in the demand for news or in the supply of the news can cause voters to misperceive economic reality. “In the case of income inequality, reading news stories that emphasize individualism, the notion that hard work leads to success, can cause voters to overestimate social mobility and choose inefficiently low levels of redistribution,” he wrote.

The rise in demand for stories of individualism as inequality grows implies that people seek out the stories to reassure themselves that they, too, can move up, or that they want to justify their positions at the upper end of income distribution. Wei also found that more conservative and more educated states demand more news stories of individualism, which implies that people tend to prefer news that aligns with their socioeconomic and ideological backgrounds.

His Levitt research concluded, Wei is exploring a related subject in an independent study with Owen. “The question now is, how does the supply of news stories of individualism respond to economic conditions and demand?” he says.

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