PhD Research Showcase - Levi Boxell and Jacob Conway

Levi Boxell and Jacob Conway

During the PhD program at Stanford, graduate students Jacob Conway and Levi Boxell formed a close-working relationship across multiple projects. These research projects often focus on how attitudes and beliefs, such as political ideology or environmental attitudes, influence human behavior in the marketplace and affect society as a whole. They note that the ideas for these projects often come observing the world and events around them.

“We pay attention to the news. We read a diverse set of news outlets. We try to get a sense of how Americans, regardless of their political persuasion, are interpreting and responding to events,” says Levi.

Their awareness has paid off. During the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the two students quickly realized the importance of political ideology in shaping beliefs and behaviors. They paired up with Economics Professor Matthew Gentzkow and other scholars to study this question formally. Using GPS location data from mobile phones combined with an incentivized survey of American attitudes, the research team found that Democrats were more likely to believe the pandemic was a serious threat and socially distanced more in response.

“We were surprised by the persistence of partisan gaps in beliefs and behavior, even as the stakes were raised around the pandemic,” says Jacob.

While politics led to divergent behaviors in response to the pandemic, this doesn’t mean the pandemic made politics worse. In a separate paper, Jacob and Levi partnered again with Professor Gentzkow as well as Northwestern Professor Jamie Druckman to examine how political polarization changed with the onset of the pandemic. In contrast to what may have been expected, the research team found that affective polarization—or the degree to which you feel animosity towards the other side—actually fell during the onset of the pandemic.

Jacob and Levi also partnered with Professor Gentzkow and other researchers to quantify the impact of shelter-in-place policies on mobility, health, and economic outcomes, and to explain variation in coronavirus outcomes across geographies and time.

The duo is working together on two other projects that they hope will form the basis of their dissertations.

In the first project, Jacob and Levi are studying the supply and demand for corporate social responsibility (CSR). Using granular data on consumer purchases and an incentivized survey experiment, the pair estimate the extent to which consumers are willing to pay for products from companies that engage in certain CSR behaviors.

“Our initial findings show that corporate social responsibility can be an important driver of consumption in some circumstances, and we’re working on better understanding this demand and its implications for firms and society,” says Jacob.

The second project focuses on how a journalist’s ideology shapes the content they write. Leveraging a full-text database with millions of news articles and state-of-the-art machine learning models, the students measure political slant at the article-level and the extent to which journalists, as opposed to outlets themselves, drive the slant of the content they produce.

“Our preliminary estimates suggest journalists are important and explain much of the variation in media slant we see today. The work is still ongoing, but these results have important implications for thinking about whether we should care about the distribution or diversity of journalists in the market today,” says Levi.

While the two students have developed a successful working relationship, they emphasize that this relationship is really part of a larger social network of feedback and support at Stanford.

The two students hope to continue working together as they launch their careers beyond Stanford.