Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

How the Electoral College affects the psychology of voting

Recently, an online petition circulated demanding that the electoral voters voting for Trump change their vote to Clinton. One argument made was that the electoral voters should do this because Clinton won the popular vote by handy margins.

The counter argument to this was that Trump could say, “Look, I pursued a specific campaign strategy to win this election and that stategy was to win the electoral college. If you now say I needed to win the popular vote, you are changing the rules after we all played the game.” And it would be a fair point.

Now there’s currently a bit of rumbling from some Democrats that the country should get rid of the electoral college. And they’ve got a legitimate grievance. Twice in 16 years a Democrat has won the popular vote but lost the electoral college. It would seem that getting rid of the college would benefit Democrats, no?

But it may not be that simple. We realize that all of a state’s electoral votes go to whoever wins the majority vote in that state. (There are rare exceptions to this.) And certain states reliably swing one way. My state of California is a good example; it always swings towards Democratic candidates. As a result, Republican voters in this state are disincentivized to vote—why vote for your guy when you know he or she has no chance of getting your state’s electoral votes?

However, if we switched to a popular vote, that disincentive disappears. Suddenly a lot of people who might not be that eager to vote have a reason to do so. Suddenly their vote does count. And suddenly political parties have a lot more reason to actively pursue those votes. (Right now, I suspect a lot of Republicans don’t even bother with California.)

Now, does this mean the popular vote would swing more Republican? Obviously there are plenty of Red states where, under a popular vote system, Democratic voters might be more incentivized to vote. The only way to really figure this out would be to examine the populations and voting tendencies of each state and take some educated guesses. I did look up the voting tendencies of the current US population and it’s about an even split between Dems and Repubs. (There are more registered Democrats, but independents tend to slightly swing Red which evens it out.) So it’s hard to really predict what the results of a popular vote would be.

The larger point here is that you can’t make predictions about one system based on the results from another. Or, more boldly, don’t fuck with shit unless you really know what you’re doing.

Now, of course, there’s a reasonable, non-partisan argument that we should just switch to the popular vote system because it is more democratic.

Is Kanye West a fan of Scott Adams?

I’m currently working on an acid logic piece taking a look at Scott Adams’ predictions about Trump and seeing how they stand up to the election results. Obviously Adams was right on his main prediction that Trump would become President.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of Adam’s arguments. One comment he makes often is that reality doesn’t exist. Physical reality like molecules might exist (though Adams is at times dubious of that; very Buddhist of him) but social reality and political reality are not real. Trump, I think Adams would say, created a new political reality via masterful powers of persuasion. People who clung to the old reality, who did not see how Trump was changing the rules of the game (I might fall into this category) got played.

I just stumbled across an article about rapper Kanye West going on a long political rant onstage in Sacramento. He make comments that sound Adams-esque.

During his rant West said: “If your old a– keeps following old models, your a– is going to get Hillary Clintoned. You might not like it, but you need to hear it.”

Frankly, that would be a great motto for the Democratic Party going forward.

West, it should be noted, states he is going to run for President in 2020. Before the Trump victory I would have presumed the likelihood of this actually happening to be low. Now I’m not so sure.

Are emotions the necessary antidote to reason?

I’ve been reading a rather dense, philosophical book called “Freedom Evolves” by Daniel Dennett. I’m not sure how much I’m getting out of it but it does have one interesting nugget worth reporting on.

To understand this nugget I have to first describe our general view of reason and emotion. This view is that reason is sort of the antidote to emotion. Men’s emotions run wild and a stern application of reason is necessary to “talk them off the ledge.” (You see this point brought up often during this contentious election cycle.)

The view intimated the Dennett book is that, in fact, emotion is a cure for reason. Evolution “created” emotion to ward of the potential dangers of reason.

What do I mean? Well let’s say you were captured by some fiend and he asked you to make a choice. He was going to kill one person and that person could be your son or some guy in China whom you’d never met. A person operating on pure reason would have trouble with this decision. He or she might factor in the relative ages of these two people, deciding who still had the most life to live. He or she might try to take a guess at what productive things each potential target might do in their lives in order to ascertain who was the most valuable person.

An emotional person (e.g. the rest of us) would say “kill the Chinese guy.” We might be torn about it, but I think that’s the decision most of us would ultimately make because we would would have a strong emotional connection to our child and very little emotional connection to a stranger. (This brings to mind Peter Singer’s “Drowning Child” thought experiment.)

This idea—that emotion helps us make decisions—ties in with the work of Antonio Damasio. In his book, “Descartes’ Error” he described people who, due to some pathology, had lost their ability to really feel emotions. As a result, their decision-making abilities went in the toilet. I think Damasio described a fellow who was fired from his work because he couldn’t prioritize tasks. The boss would tell the guy to finish a report and he would miss the deadline because he spent 8 hours arranging staplers. He could not prioritize because every option had equal emotional “weight” (and that is to say, none.)

This also ties in with some fears I’ve seen expressed about artificial intelligence. The concern is that A.I. might be programed to do some task like construct a new kind of material and then decide that human bones are the best source for this new material and therefore the A.I. would instigate massive genocide to farm for human bones. It would do this because it would operating using only logic and no emotional weighting. (I’m using a vastly simplified example of this fear, but you get the drift.)

What separates man from machine?

I just finished an article on computers writing music which got me thinking about computers thinking. (Thinking being a big part of music writing.) When humans compose music, or write stories, or do any artistic pursuit, we are consciously processing our decisions, deciding to do this or that or try this or that idea. If computers can start to replicate these processes, they would be doing them unconsciously. (Unless we want to consider, as some have, that computers are conscious in some weird way, but that’s a debate for another time. For now I will presume they are not conscious.)

So let’s think about this. Let’s say I’m writing a story about a character named Bob who drives his car a lot. In my mind, Bob is a person and his car is an object an I shuffle them through various scenarios that create tension in fiction etc. How would a computer approach writing a story about Bob and his car. (Computers writing fiction is not that far off.)

Well, computers would never really be aware of Bob and his car. Ultimately a computer is simply turning the states of millions of transistors from on to off or vice versa. Bob would essentially just be several bytes worth of data, data simply being a collection of transistors in various states. All words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.—are simply data captured by the state of transistors. The point being the computer never really knows the meaning of the words. At best it “knows” the flow of electricity (and even that statement is a stretch.)

Essentially, computer programs map symbols (letters, music notes, patches of color, etc) on to these transistors. And then they manipulate these mapped symbols to do various things, one of which is to create art. The symbols only have meaning to the audience, which is us humans. In a sense, a novel writing by a computer could be said to not exist until a conscious human reads it.

So what makes us different from computers? We are conscious, obviously, but also these symbols have actual meaning to us. The word “Bob” can have an actual meaning, referring to particular guy, fictional or not, who has various behavioral tendencies, characteristics, a certain appearance etc. To us, Bob (the word) can represent a real person. We can map symbols to ideas/concepts/entitities.

And yet, our brains work in a way pretty similar to computers. Our neurons are powered by electricity and we, in some weird way, hold information in our synapses. So why do we humans experience meaning when computers don’t?

I dunno…

Do we think the way we think we think?

In the Alan Turing biopic, “The Imitation Game,” there’s a moment when an interlocutor asks Turing, a math genius, “Can machines think the way men do?” As Turing answers it becomes apparent there were really two questions in that query. One is, “Can machines think (at all)?” Second is “Can machines think in the manner of men?” (For the record, Turing’s answers are yes and no.)

So how do we humans think? I think (ha ha) that we believe we largely think in a sort of logical fashion, almost like a series of programmatic steps. We may think, “I’m hungry. I should go to the store to get a sandwich. It’s hot out so I will take the car.” And we do often think this way though we don’t really “think out” all the dialogue. For this kind of thinking we are largely consciously aware of what’s going on. We don’t suddenly find ourselves buying a sandwich for no reason.

But we are also aware that some of our thinking is subconscious. We muse upon a problem, decide to put it away or “sleep on it,” then suddenly a day later the answer appears to us magically. (I solved a particularly pesky VPN issue this way years ago.) It seems clear that some part of our brain was working on the problem without us being aware of it.

Buried in the dialogue in the Turing film is, perhaps, the idea that machines, specifically computers, can’t consciously think. They’re thinking is more like our unconscious processing.

Let me throw in an added complexity. Let’s say a guy looks at a beautiful woman and says, “I’d sure like to have sex with her!” It would appear he wants sex, as everybody does, and his brain is voicing a thought that occurs to him upon the appearance of a attractive mate. The thinking is all conscious. But we humans also have the idea of evolution and the notion that what really drives us is our cells’ desire* to pass on their genes. According to this idea, somewhere along the line there’s some kind of information processing (something like thinking) that says, “Ah, here’s a chance to pass on our genes. Let’s dupe this guy into thinking he merely wants to put his penis in this attractive female.” So there’s two levels of “thought” here—the guy’s conscious thought and some weird level of informational processing occurring well below the brain.

*Of course, we don’t really think cells are conscious in such a way that they can have desires. But on some level are cells are driven to the goal of duplicating themselves.

Anyway, I don’t what to make of all this but thought (ha ha) I would put it down.

The power of the road

I recently took a trip that involved a lot of driving, going from San Diego to Portland and back. We took a leisurely pace, not driving for more than 5 hours or so in a day. But I found the whole experience quite calming. I’ve always found something almost hypnotic about long drives on the freeway.

So why is this? I think there’s something substantially different about your experience on the road as compared to day to day. What is your day to day existence? For most people, myself included, there’s a lot of repetition. I get up in the same bedroom, eat breakfast in the same kitchen. Go off to various coffeehouses or parks to work. I see a lot of the same stuff day in and day out. But when you are driving, the scenery—the visual input—is always changing. Your round a bend and here’s a lake you’ve never seen before. You take an off ramp and here’s a little town that’s totally new. You are bombarded with constant new stimulus. And for the most part, it’s quite nice—pleasant nature, small towns, etc.

My theory is that this gentle stimulus has a calming effect on your brain. And this is ultimately what we’re after when we travel, this combination of the new and the pleasant. Very few people take vacations to war torn countries after all.

I suppose this kind of stimulation could be a goal of VR technology. Strap on a headset and you could be in outer space, the medieval past, heaven or who knows where else.

Thoughts that pop into our heads

Having finished Sam Harris’s tome on meditation, “Waking Up,” I’ve decided to re-read the first Ekhart Tolle book, “The Power of Now” which explores similar themes, albeit from a point of view Harris would probably criticize as unscientific (although Tolle largely avoids ethereal, new-agey content.)

Both Harris and Tolle would say, I think, that our “self”—the entity with particular likes/dislikes, political beliefs, favorites movies etc.—is nonexistent. And most of the dialogue running through our head is basically just noise caused by the mental tics of the brain. Both books are about getting that noise to silence and to experience a more pure form of consciousness.

Of course, that’s contrary to how most of us view ourselves, including me. I operate (most of the time) on the assumption that those voices in my head are me. But I had an experience while reading Tolle’s books that gave me another way of looking at things. I was reading a section where he was making a point about why we shouldn’t look to our past or our future (or possible future) to define ourselves. I put the book down and thought something like, “Got it. No more looking.” Into my head popped the words “I know that I’ve been tooken.” These are drawn from the Hank Williams song “Hey Good Looking” which has a verse that says:

No more lookin’
I know that I’ve been tooken

It’s one of my favorite lyrics and one I’m familiar with since I sing the song often.

The thing here is that I was aware that “I” wasn’t thinking the lyrics, they just kind of popped into my head (because I happened to think the first part of the lyric.) So maybe we need to make a distinction between thoughts that you feel that you are the author of and thoughts that just sort of appear there. We’re all familiar with this second kind of thought. For example, if I say, “The early bird…” you almost cannot avoid hearing “gets the worm” in your head. It just pops up.

I think Tolle and Harris’s argument is that most thought is of this variety. Your brain or mind is doing some processing and the words just pop up. You think you are the author of these thoughts (unless you are schizophrenic and feel disconnected from the voices in your head) but if fact, the entity saying these things is not you. Rather, you* are the person hearing them.

*To reinterate a point, both authors would ultimately say there is no “you.”

I also feel these “thoughts that pop into your head” instances aren’t that different from another common occurrence. Say someone walks up to you and says, “Can you show me how to get this printer working?” You launch into a spiel about how frustrating the printer is and how you have to set it into this mode before it will print in color, blah, blah. But you don’t really plan this spiel out, it just kind of pours out of you. You direct the larger themes and points, but it many ways it just seems like the words are being handed to you. Again, perhaps it’s not you doing the talking, but rather “you” doing the listening.

Has Adams lost it?

For about nine months or so I’ve been commenting on Scott Adams’s blog posts alleging that Donald Trump has achieved his political success by being a master persuader. By Adam’s descriptions, Trump has a learned or intuitive sense of exactly how to push people’s buttons and get their political support. The term hypnosis has occasionally been thrown around though not in the “woo-woo” carnival side-show sense.

To some degree, Adams must be on to something as Trump’s rise really was unanticipated by almost all of the “serious” political pundits. Adams’ writing on this topic has caused me to reflect on why I make the decisions I do and I’m starting to see how ethereal those reasons can be. I do think the subconscious can be prodded to lead the conscious mind to make decisions, sometimes stupid or bad ones.

That said, currently Trump really is looking weak as a presidential contender. Clinton has a healthy lead in the polls even with two third-party candidates – Jill Stein and Gary Johnson – taking some votes that would otherwise go to Clinton. (I’ve always presumed a Libertarian candidate like Johnson would take votes from the right, but I read something the other day that argued otherwise. Who really knows?)

Despite all that, Adams continues to insist that Trump will win in a landslide (though he has given the Clinton team credit for improving their persuasion skills, mainly by setting Trump up as a figure to be feared.) Here’s Adams today arguing in favor of Trump. (One of Adams’ most annoying predilections is his insistence that he supports Clinton when he clearly is in the Trump camp.)

To many people – if not most – Donald Trump looks like the type of candidate who would become a “strongman” president, ignoring the advice of experts and the opinion of the people. That’s the persuasion framework that Clinton has created in your mind, probably with the help of the Master Persuader I call Godzilla.

But does the evidence support that view? I see the opposite.

Months ago, when Trump stumbled on his answer about criminal penalties for women who seek illegal abortions, the public went nuts, and Trump immediately corrected his position. That’s direct democracy. Trump heard the opinion of the majority and instantly adopted it.

Consider Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigration. The public felt his position was too extreme, and let him know. Eventually, Trump softened his stance to talk about countries of origin, not religion. The public still wasn’t pleased, so Trump softened again to his current position of “extreme vetting.” That evolution in policy looks like direct democracy to me. The public told Trump what it wanted, and Trump evolved to it.

Likewise, we found out this week that Trump’s plan to deport 11 million Mexicans living in the United States illegally has some wiggle room. Maybe there won’t be so much deporting after all. Because the public doesn’t want it.

Consider also Trump’s public persona. We witness that he is using the teleprompter (as advised) and crafting a friendlier version of himself, which is exactly what the public asked of him.

One interesting point: Adams alleges that the “Master Persuader” in Clinton’s camp is none other than Robert Cialdini who wrote the book “Influence” that I recently commented on.

So what to make of all? Certainly it seems like Trump is softening his positions, but months after he should have. Can he possibly pull out of the spiral he’s in?

My suspicion is no. But I’ve been wrong before. And Adams isn’t the only one on this page. Here’s a CNBC article I just stumbled across.

Donald Trump still has an uphill battle in this election. But when it comes to controlling the news cycle in this election, he’s running unopposed.

Consider the recent pivot in the Trump campaign. It began with a speech expressing his regrets for his past hurtful comments, followed by a visit to flood ravaged Louisiana. And it continued this weekend with a meeting with Latino supporters where he signaled a desire to temper his immigration policies and shift away from his previous support for mass deportations.

Trump’s recent pivots won’t convince any of his most ardent detractors and Clinton’s biggest fans to change their minds, but there are still a good number of undecided voters out there who might. And then there’s the traditional Republican voters who have been a little embarrassed by Trump, who will now be able to point to the plausible excuse of Trump’s “maturing process” to vote for and more publicly support him.

This article is basically saying that Trump is doing what Adams has been saying Trump will do—creating a “third act” in the story of Trump’s rise, an act characterized with deference and humility. Is it in time to win over voters?

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? And yet, a lot of people don’t like Hillary. If the third parties suck up enough of her votes and undecideds and “embarrassed” Republicans swing towards Trump, I suppose it could happen.

Taking seriously the possibility of multiple consciousnesses

Years ago I posted a blog posted asking whether we have multiple consciousnesses in our heads. I described the basic concept thusly:

A while back I was considering an idea for a fiction character. The conceit was that the character had multiple consciousnesses in their brain, but each consciousness generally arrived at the same decisions. So, if this person received an coffee from a waitress, one consciousness might think, “Wow, she sure brought the coffee fast, I better thank her,” while another consciousness might think, “Look at this whore. I bet she thinks by bringing me coffee quickly she’ll get a tip! Oh, well, I better thank her in the interests of conforming to society. Bleg.” In addition, neither consciousness was aware of the other.

I was, frankly, only half serious. But I’ve been reading Sam Harris’s recent book, “Waking Up,” and he takes the possibility seriously. Referring to the famous split brain experiments, he throws out the possibility of one consciousness in the right brain and one in the left. He even addresses an obvious problem: if we have multiple consciousness, how do they avoid conflict with each other (especially if they aren’t even aware of each other)? The answer is found in the theory of a philosopher quoted in the book.

The non-speaking hemisphere has know about the true state of affairs from a very tender age. It has known this because beginning at age two or three it heard speech emanating from the common body that, as language development on the left proceeded, became too complex grammatically and syntactically for it to believe it was generating… Being inured to this status of cerebral helot, it goes along. Thankless cooperation becomes a way of life.”

The idea is that you have this other consciousness sort of enslaved to “your” consciousness. It is so used to being powerless that it goes along with the dominant self.

Of course Freud’s theories were all about inner conflict. Perhaps that conflict is between these two consciousnesses.

And, I believe Harris leaves open the possibility of even more consciousnesses within one brain. What a trip that would be.

UPDATE: I feel I should clarify one thing here. In the case of the split brain patients, each hemisphere has been separated from the other and the patients seem to behave as if they are two selves in one body. Us normal folks have connections between the two hemispheres and most of us behave as one self. But Harris argues that the connecting tissue cant possibly pass all the information in one hemisphere to the other, so were are really more like two selves that have some limited communication with each other.

More thoughts on “Influence”

I recently finished the book “Influence” by Dr. Robert Cialdini. The book explores six tendencies of the human brain that can be exploited to trick us into making decisions we might not otherwise make. One tendency, for example, is the valuing of scarcity. We walk past a shoe store and see some nice shoes and are informed that only two pairs are left. We become agitated—if we don’t buy the shoes now we may never get another chance. So we buy the shoes, go home and realize that they really aren’t that great. We were tricked by our brain’s proclivity for lusting after scarce things.

In an earlier post I mentioned a con man who, years ago, knocked on my door, cooked me some food and then asked for money. He played on an tendency Cialdini refers to as reciprocity. Basically, when someone helps us or gives us something we feel we “owe” them. The example Cialdini gives in the book is Hare Krishnas approaching people in airports with the gift of a flower and then asking for a donation. These travellers are already flustered, looking for their gate, and they give up the cash just to move past the the situation. Of course they never asked for the flower and it’s worth only pennies. Why give money? They got taken.

Basically, by abusing these proclivities of the mind, con men and sales people can trick you into doing things against your best interests. And it happens to all of us, all the time. As I reflect on my experiences, I realize that the pull towards the unwise decisions is almost subconscious. There’s a sense of “why am I doing this?”