Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

Thinking about trade agreements

So I was walking along this morning and thinking a bit about an issue you see mentioned during these campaigns: trade. Specifically trade between countries that is regulated by various trade agreements like NAFTA.

Both Sanders and Trump, it seems, are against such agreements and think these agreements have screwed America. Clinton is a bit more complex—I think she was for them before she was against them. (That’s probably a cheap shot but I couldn’t resist.) The other Republicans are probably for the agreements though I don’t know for sure.

So what is the right answer? The Sanders/Trump complaint is something like this, I believe, and I’ll use US/Chinese trade relations as an example: The US is letting Chinese products in with few tariffs added on top. The Chinese can keep their prices low because their workers work for little and there are few environmental protections of the sort that American factories have to impose. So Chinese products are cheaper and can compete with US products in local and inetrnational markets.

The Sanders/Trump solution is, I believe, to renegotiate these trade agreements to impose tariffs on these Chinese products. (Sanders would probably lower tariffs if the Chinese added environmental protections, which would, of course, cost money.) As a result, Chinese products would become more expensive and US products would be better able to compete.

So would the Chinese go along with that? It seems they have a couple options. One is to kowtow to the new agreement and keep access to the US Market. Another is to say, “screw you guys,” and focus on other markets like India, Africa, their own, etc. Another option would be to impose tariffs on our products, thus limiting US manufacturers appeal to the huge Chinese market. (The problem there is that while there are many Chinese, a lot of them are poor and thus not able to buy much.)

What would China do? I have no idea. Thinking about this stuff really makes me realize how little I know about it.

But here’s my main thought. This kind of analysis of these is not something you really see in news coverage of the candidates, or in speeches from the candidates and their proxies. Most of the arguments seems to be that this candidate is better than another for some other reason – he or she is more “qualified,” or has leadership qualities, or whatever.

So why is that? I suspect that for some kind of evolutionary reason people are wired towards cult leaders, not dudes who sit around explaining why their approach to trade agreements is better (YAWN!). If anything, we chose the guy we like, then talk ourselves into his ideas on trade agreements. And this would seem another example where our behavior is not particularly rational at all.

P.S. As a side note to all this I reaffirm my belief that the threat posed to Americans workings by fluid trade will be dwarfed by that of robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing.

Collective humans

I was strolling through the shelves of the library the other day and picked out a book titled “Global Brain” by Howard Bloom. The book’s premise—one I’ve heard before—is that individual life forms, whether they be bacteria or human, thrive by forming groups. All creatures, the book would seem to argue, are essentially social creatures. Hive or colony type creatures, like bees and ants, are especially demonstrative of this fact; they accomplish far more as a giant organism of many nodes (the individual bees and ants) than they would if they were all living separate lives.

This is true for humans as well. On one level, humans exist in societies. These societies seems to have a kind of meta-intelligence that decides to move towards democratic governments or embrace Justin Bieber. (Hmmm…) On another level, each human is really a collection of trillions of cells. Just as the decisions of a society emerge from the choices of individual humans, so to do the decisions of human individuals emerge from a chorus of cells. Your wants and needs and opinions are really the result of millions (or more) of votes. (At least this is what I think the book is gearing up to argue, as others have before. I’m only about five chapters in.)

This idea, that we as individuals are the result of many, seems both exciting and disconcerting. I don’t feel like a group, I feel like an individual. But we do have a certain sense of our compartmentalization. I say, “my stomach is telling me I’m hungry.” “My hand is tired after thumb wrestling for hours.” “My penis is aroused as it watches this naked woman walk by.” (A regular occurrence in my life.) The “I” that is the storyteller of our lives is being informed by other parts of the body. And even if we observe just the brain/mind, we can suss out how information kind of rises up to our top decision maker. We’re thinking of a way to solve a problem and the answer just arrives in a Eureka moment. Because a coterie of cells beneath our consciousness have been working at the problem and have arrived at an answer.

In theory, you could have some complex network of nodes, doing all sorts of calculations, without consciousness. That’s basically what we presume a computer to be doing: thinking (in a way) without being aware of it. But we humans have consciousness riding atop all this. Attention is a big part of it. When we are hungry our attention turns to our hunger. When we are horny our attention turns to our horniness. The conscious attention is what makes us feel like an individual as opposed to a million voters.

Which leads to that most perplexing of questions: what is consciousness?

The war within ethics

So I just finished the book “Soul Machine” which I have been commenting on recently. Its main focus is on the mind, but the mind is related to ethics and politics and I find myself musing upon those subjects as well.

It all leads me to wonder whether’s there’s an interesting schism in the world of ethics that can be explored. I break it down to this…

On one hand, we’ve been trying to use logic and empiricism to figure out the proper ethics for living in our world. We’ve been trying to figure out if there is a god and what he wants, or whether or not ethics can be somehow divined the way the law of gravity or the boiling point of water were deduced from observation. And I would have to say that these efforts have all failed. There’s no convincing proof of god, nor is there any proof of any sort of built in moral ruleset to the universe. (I refer to my timeless piece on Arthur Leff for more thoughts related to this.)

On the other side, we do seem to have some kind or moral behavior encoded into us (probably via evolution.) By this I mean, behaviors generally thought of as immoral—drowning a baby, for example—provoke a negative response in our bodies when we seriously contemplate performing them*. Morality seems to be built into our brains in some way

* This isn’t true for everyone, of course; psychopaths being an obvious exception.

So it’s the age old battle between the heart and the brain. We intellectually recognize the moral emptiness of the world but refuse to acknowledge this because our bodies revolt.

Francis Hutchenson on morality

Not long ago, in an article entitled “What is Morality,” I offered up the argument (not original to me) that moral behavior is built into our brains via evolution. I noted…

We want to believe that by being moral we are following a set of rules — perhaps divine rules, or perhaps rules dictated by some kind of universal logic. But I am saying morality is neither divine nor logical; moral rules are simply the rules of socialization that have evolved through the history of our species. Our brain applies these rules, much the same way it applies rules for emotions. When we are contemplating or performing an immoral action, we are prodded with a sting of discomfort, similar to the sting of fear. When we are contemplating or performing a moral action, we get a “good feeling,” similar to joy or pride.

The idea being that we literally sense which behaviors feel good and which feel bad. At the time I thought this was a fascinating development in moral psychology. But, while reading the book “Soul Machine,” a history of the development of the concept of the mind, I find…

Hutchenson accepted Locke’s argument that sensations created ideas which then furnished the mind, but he also believed with Shaftsbury that an innate moral sense was the primary motivation for humans, and the source of their emotions. Sentiments arose from that moral barometer—joy from acts of charity and remorse from deceit. Through this moral sense, we experienced another’s emotional state deeply and directly. Ethics and social stability rested, not on the Good Book, but on this natural state of shared compassion, what he called “sympathy” between human beings. Like muscles in the body, this shared emotion balanced private desires and yielded both personal and social harmony.

This Hutchenson fellow basically nailed the idea back in the early 1700s. Interestingly, his idea of experiencing others’ emotional states ties into the the recent, still somewhat controversial, discovery of mirror neurons.

The general sense I get with this book is that all the great philosophical thoughts were thunk centuries ago. Now people are just arguing around the edges.

Hobbes, Spinoza and Trump

For a while now, I’ve been highlighting Scott Adams’ analysis of the rise of Donald Trump. He argues that Trump influences his followers by stimulating their faculties for emotions, not so much reason. Therefore, attempting to dissuade his followers by highlighting Trump’s factual errors is folly. Further, Adams argues that humans in general are emotional decision makers, not rational ones. I have at times suggested, half-jokingly, that the fact that people are so susceptible to emotional bias means that democracy is a flawed system. If the masses can be prodded towards un-rational decisions, they shouldn’t be granted the duty of decision-making.

I’ve been reading the book “Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind” and it points out how this debate goes back hundreds of years. Specifically to opposing views presented by two famous philosophers…

Hobbes considered the passions wild and uncontrollable and therefore rationalized the need for absolute monarchy. Since Spinoza believed reason could control inner urges and freedom of thought ensured morality, he insisted that the most sound political structure was a democratic republic.

Decartes’ Error and Donald Trump

I continue my mental exploration of the idea that Donald Trump is a master persuader who is using brilliant tactics to convince a needed segment of the population to grant him the Republican nomination (and eventually the presidency.) I’ve mentioned that Scott Adams has been talking a lot about this idea but so have many people interested in the science of persuasion.

It strikes me that this ties in with a book I often talk about: “Descartes’ Error” by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. I’ll quote a description of one relevant point of the book:

A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, yet they found it very difficult to make even simple decisions, such as what to eat. Many decisions have pros and cons on both sides—shall I have the chicken or the turkey? With no rational way to decide, these test subjects were unable to arrive at a decision.

The article continues…

This finding has enormous implications for negotiation professionals. People who believe they can build a case for their side using reason are doomed to be poor negotiators, because they don’t understand the real factors that are driving the other party to come to a decision. Those who base their negotiation strategy on logic end up relying on assumptions, guesses, and opinions. If my side of the argument is logical, they figure, then the other side can’t argue with it and is bound to come around to my way of thinking. The problem is, you can’t assume that the other party will see things your way.

This describes some people’s frustrations with followers of Donald Trump, doesn’t it? Detractors of Trump don’t get how he can blatantly lie and exaggerate and still have fans. But, if you allow that people are not rational decision makers, but rather emotional ones, then the facts (or un-facts) Trump uses are not the relevant factor. Rather it’s the emotions he generates in his audiences.

As I’ve said before, if this is really true—that people are not swayed by facts—than democracy itself is a joke or at least can be manipulated to rather unpleasant outcomes. I return again to the idea that we should nominate a philosopher king to make society’s decisions. I humbly offer myself.

More on Trump the persuader

I still find myself fascinated by Scott Adam’s arguments that Donald Trump, in his attempt to become President, is employing persuasion techniques used by master salespeople and politicians. To quote Adams

As far as I can tell, Trump’s “crazy talk” is always in the correct direction for a skilled persuader. When Trump sets an “anchor” in your mind, it is never random. And it seems to work every time.

(“Anchors” are a particular kind of persuasion technique. See a description here.)

I’m finding that Adams is not the only one making these claims. For instance, here is an article that goes into the subject of what are called triggers. These are essentially switches in the mind that activate specific emotional responses. Once the trigger has been switched, the theory goes, a person’s decision has been made. Any reasons provided for the decision are merely rationalizations to support the emotional decision.

Trump is activating what in neurological terms are referred to as emotional triggers, which the brain uses to avoid the energy and difficulty of analytical thinking. Whether consciously or by instinct, great persuaders tap into the functions of the emotional brain, where decisions are made with great speed and intensity.

One especially potent emotional trigger Donald Trump is clearly activating in the limbic brains of his most ardent supporters is the contrast trigger. Sales and marketing people know the contrast trigger well enough. They use it to varying degrees of success all the time. Differentiation is a well-worn corporate branding trope used to emphasize the importance of distinction — of being different from the other brand or product.

Do I buy this concept? Not entirely, I think the mind is messier and more complex. But I will say that the idea of triggers corresponds to a lot of what neuroscience and psychology have observed in the past 30 years (particularly in the work described in Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes’ Error.”)

Also, keep in mind that these persuasion techniques doesn’t have to have 100% successful to be worth using. A persuasive car salesman doesn’t have to convince everyone who comes on the lot to buy a car, just many people. Trump doesn’t have to convince all voters that’s he’s the best choice, just slightly over 50%.

Another assertion from Adams is that when Trump makes outrageous statements, he is doing so intentionally to capture the public and media’s attention. I see here that even Mario Rubio is wising up to this.

“Look, this is a pattern. This is a game he plays. He says something that’s edgy and outrageous and then the media flocks and covers that and then no one else can get any coverage on anything else,” Rubio said.

Related to all this: here’s an article that argues that Trump is using extreme statements to cover up his liberal past.

The thought of a world in which Donald Trump is president feels more like an apocalyptic nightmare to most reasonable Americans. His bigoted statements regarding Mexican immigrants and Muslims, as well as his hotheaded temper, make him appear especially dangerous for international relations. But given certain evidence, one must wonder whether some of Trump’s behavior is part of a strange but strategic charade designed only to win him the Republican nomination.

I have some complaints about that article but it does correspond to my sense that Trump himself doesn’t believe some of his own touted opinions.

I will say, this argument—that we are not really rational in our own decisions—”feels” right to me and I find evidence in myself all the time. I’m finding myself analyzing everything from why I like the politicians that I do to why I buy a certain brand of beef jerky and I have a hard time coming up with really solid, logical reasons. What I experience is more in the vein of gut reactions that I then have to qualify. Adams blogs on this topic have really got me noticing this.

On a final note: I recognize that Adam’s has planted this idea in my head (an anchor) that Trump is a master persuader. Is that why I take notice whenever I see articles like the ones above that support this notion?

Will Donald Trump actually build a wall?

One of Trump’s most hyped statements has been the idea that he will build a wall across the southern border that separates the United Staes from Mexico. It sounds crazy and very difficult, both in the act of actually constructing it and getting funding from a likely unsympathetic congress. Why would Trump propose such a thing?

I’m going to take a page from Scott Adams’ argument that Trump has a master plan with such outrageous statements. I suspect Trump’s thinking goes along these lines. He knew, before he made this statement, that a certain percentage of Americans are unhappy with illegal immigrants and would like something to be done about it. Those potential voters were observing the solutions other politicians were proposing, all basically variations of “more enforcement with some amnesty.” Then Trump comes out with, “I’ll build a wall.” This is a loud, definitive statement in the opposite direction of the (far more do-able) amnesty proposals. Trump becomes “their guy.” He has branded himself as the anti-illegal immigrant candidate. And he gets a lot of attention from the media in the process. To people who only pay cursory attention to the news, Trump becomes a serious contender. After all, look at all the attention he’s getting.

The moral is: to get noticed, make big, extreme statements, even if they are ridiculous.

But I suspect there’s another reason. I’ve been reading an interesting book, “You Are Not So Smart,” about the various foibles of the human mind. One chapter starts with the following imagined scenario.

You walk into a clothing store and see what is probably the most bad ass leather jacket you’ve ever seen.

You try it on, look in the mirror and decide you must have it. While wearing this item, you imagine onlookers will clutch their chests and gasp every time you walk into a room or cross a street. You lift the sleeve to check the price – $1,000.

Well, that’s that, you think. You start to head back to the hanger when a salesperson stops you.

“You like it?”

“I love it, but it’s just too much.”

“No, that jacket is on sale right now for $400.”

It’s expensive, and you don’t need it really, but $600 off the price seems like a great deal for a coat which will increase your cool by a factor of 11. You put it on the card, unaware you’ve been tricked by the oldest retail con in the business.

The chapter then recounts several studies observing “the anchoring effect” a tendency to value things based on an arbitrary number placed in your head. (Here’s a link to the chapter online.) The chapter closes with…

Remember this study if you are ever in a negotiation – make your initial request far too high.

You have to start somewhere, and your initial decision or calculation greatly influences all the choices which follow, cascading out, each tethered to the anchors set before.

You probably see where I’m going with this. Trump’s initial offer on the issue of what to do about illegal immigrants is way too high—let’s build a wall. People negotiating with him will realize this and will settle for terms they would have considered unseemly had they been negotiating with someone with a more reasonable initial offer. They will pay 400$ for a $300 jacket (originally marked at $1000) so to speak.

Of course, Trump will never get to make that offer if he doesn’t become President. But by proposing his wall he is saying to voters opposed to illegal immigrations, “I will drive a hard bargain on your behalf.” The details of his rather outrageous proposal are not important, the willingness to make it is.

It seems like there’s a lot that could go wrong with this tact. Are there enough voters opposed to illegal immigrants to create a voting bloc? Will such statements turn off a big segment of other voters? Perhaps. But I don’t think Trump, a guy who is not a career politician, had many other options to work his way into people’s minds as a serious contender. He had to think big, and so far it’s worked.

People vote with their guts

I find myself returning to Scott Adams’ discussions of Donald Trump. Adams alleges, as I’ve mentioned in the past, that Trump is using various persuasion techniques to make himself felt as a presence in the current presidential nomination process. Basically, when Trump says something crazy, it’s not an off-the-cuff remark but part of a developed strategy. To quote Adams

Part of Trump’s persuasion talent involves picking the right policies not only in terms of popularity but in terms of how he can influence that conversation. Trump looks for simple, visual anchors, such as his wall idea. He picked an idea that has legs, guarantees him all the available television time, and for which no one can flank him to his right. None of that is by accident.

So, it might seem that Trump is blithely proposing a crazy and offensive idea: let’s build a wall separating us from our southern neighbor. But this actually accomplishes a couple things. First, it sends the message that when you bargain with Trump, he will start with an extreme offer. He’s the guy who goes up to a guy who is selling a car for $3,000 and offers him 30$.

It also helps Trump stand out from the crowd. What are Ted Cruz’s policy proposals exactly? Well, I’m not sure really. But Trump? He’s the “wall guy,” he’s the “let’s deport all the Muslims guy.”

Will Trump actually be able to build a wall or deport all the Muslims? Probably not, but by then he’ll be President. (Could he win a second term after failing to do these things? That’s an interesting question.)

What Trump has effectively done, Adams argues (and I tend agree), is go from being a joke candidate written off by 90% of the media (both conservative and liberal) to a very serious contender. He’s done this by using words and imagery to speak to people’s subconscious. What Trump is doing is putting to bed the notion that voters rationally consider candidates’ positions and vote accordingly. Trump assumes that people respond to knee jerk, lizard brain biases built into their heads and vote with them.

Frankly, I’d say Bernie Sanders is a similar case. I’ve yet to have anyone explain to me how, exactly, he would provide free college and health care. I’m not saying it can’t be done; other countries have done it. But how, exactly, will Sander’s do it? It’s doesn’t matter—Sanders is talking the language of the guts. And notice that, as Adams would say, with these proposals in place, no one can flank Sanders from the left. He is well defined.

This notion, that people vote with their guts and their heart and not their brains is hardly new, but it’s pretty frightening really. It really implies that democracy is a joke.

Many people don’t seem to get this. Gloria Steinem recently alleged that young, female supporters of Bernie were in it to meet guys. A lot of people have commented on how offensive that is on it’s face (alleging that these women are boy crazy nimrods.) But it’s also just lousy politics. I doubt there’s a single woman who thought, “Gee, Ms. Steinem thinks I’m just supporting my candidate to meet men. I really should sit down and think about my reasons for not supporting Mrs. Clinton.” But, I bet a lot of women torn between the two candidates leapt into the Bernie camp. Because that’s how people work—they get indignant. Steinem’s actions actually had the exact opposite effect than what was intended.

In some ways Obama would seem to be a refutation of all this. After all, he is a calm, reasonable guy who offers actual policy proposals as reasons to vote for him. But let’s look at Obama’s history. His opponent for the Democratic nomination was Clinton who, I think we can safely say at this point, isn’t the most capable campaigner in the world. And Obama’s Republican opponents—McCain and Romney—were pretty unspectacular. On top of that, I think Obama presented a nice combination of dreamy idealism (speaking to people’s guts and heart) and policies (speaking to their heads.)

Let’s beat up on the media

I’ve been reading an interesting pop psychology book called “You Are Not So Smart.” The book details various ways that our brains and minds can trick us into misreading reality.

In one chapter the author argues that in times of emergency, instead of freaking out like you might think, many people refuse to acknowledge the peril around them. They seek normalcy and discard any incoming information that interferes with that interpretation.

As the author points out, we can more easily convince ourselves that things aren’t as bad as they seem because the media often inflates dangers that turn out to be nothing.

Regular media overhyping and panic building over issues like Y2K, swine flu, SARS, and the like help fuel normalcy bias on a global scale. … With so much crying wolf, it can be difficult to determine in the frenzied information landscape when to be alarmed, when it is really not a drill.

I’d almost forgotten all the media hand-wringing over Y2K and the total non-event it turned out to be.

This comes around to a related thought I’ve been having. When Donald Trump announced his candidacy, the media treated as a joke. The same is basically true with Bernie Sanders. Frankly, I thought of these candidates as jokes. But we may be approaching a point where the final contest will be Trump versus Sanders. Whatever you might think about either of them, you have to give them credit for believing in themselves when “the establishment” did not.