Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

5 reasons lists are awesome

I often deride the list-based blog posts and articles that have overtaken the internet, things like “6 Cat Photos That Will Have You On The Floor With Laughter.” That said, I stumbled across this semi-recent New Yorker piece that explains lists’ effectiveness.

One point of appeal is that we have an easier time remembering the content of lists, partly because we think spatially. So we remember a list bullet point partly because we recall where it was in the list. It’s not just a ethereal piece of info, it’s something that was halfway down the page.

As the article intones…

When we process information, we do so spatially. For instance, it’s hard to memorize through brute force the groceries we need to buy. It’s easier to remember everything if we write it down in bulleted, or numbered, points. Then, even if we forget the paper at home, it is easier for us to recall what was on it because we can think back to the location of the words themselves.

Also, lists let you know what you’re getting into; they tell you how much time you’ll have to commit to read them. (This is probably why articles like “786 Reasons to Vote for Hillary Clinton” would never fly.)

The more we know about something—including precisely how much time it will consume—the greater the chance we will commit to it. The process is self-reinforcing: we recall with pleasure that we were able to complete the task (of reading the article) instead of leaving it undone and that satisfaction, in turn, makes us more likely to click on lists again.

Is it best to watch debates with the sound off?

As should be obvious, I continue to ruminate on Scott Adams’ argument that our judgement of politicians is based less on reason and rumination and more on emotional gut reactions. Adams argues that what matters is not what a person says but how “well” they say it. And Adams argues that Donald Trump is a master of this kind of persuasion.

Now, I admit this can be a tough argument to buy. I often find Trump’s words to be totally devoid on any substance and meaning. But I’m starting to observe how the content of a person’s message takes second chair to how they express it.

Recently I was watching some video of English right winger, Milo Yiannopoulos*, arguing with a feminist woman about equal pay in the workplace. Milo made at least one statement that was, I’m pretty sure, completely false. He was lying, as Trump is prone to do.

*For some reason, after I watched a bunch of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones videos, youtube started throwing Milo videos at me and I finally broke down and watched a few.

But, Milo is an entertaining and effectively public speaker. He has verve, you might say. And he projects utter confidence in what he is saying. (It reminds me of the old Seinfeld line: “It’s not a lie, Jerry, if you believe it.”) Meanwhile, the woman spoke with this kind of flat, passive tone and generally seemed on the verge of falling alseep. Her words may have been true, but that’s not really what stuck in my head. After I watched the video, what I remembered was how they spoke (e.g. with confidence and flair, or not) as opposed to what they said. If I had to rank them, I would say Milo “won” the argument although I’m not convinced of his point.

You can watch the video here. Ignoring what is actually being said, I think you’ll find this Milo guy comes across as more engaging, albeit in a very smarmy kind of way. I’m guessing he trained himself in this style of presentation.

It then struck me that there’s a simple way to see who is the more compelling speaker in a debate: turn the volume off. Just watch how the speakers present themselves. Who projects the most confidence and charisma? I would argue that, if you turned off the volume during the Republican primaries, you would see Trump clearly defeat his opponents, fellows like Bush, Rubio and Kasich. I have a sense Cruz might have a fighting chance and he was the strongest of Trump’s opponents.

If you like, watch the Milo video again with the sound off. The contrast between the two debaters is profound. It’s also interesting to watch the anchor at around the 4:40 mark. Note how she seems to find Milo amusing but also isn’t buying his schtick.

So, what I’m saying is that winning candidates use how they look and other cues to project a confident attitude and that counts more than their actual arguments. I vaguely recalled a recent psychological study that seemed to provide details for this argument. This New Yorker article provides info.

When people are asked about their ideal leader, one of the single most important characteristics that they say they look for is competence—how qualified and capable a candidate is. Todorov wondered whether that judgment was made on the basis of intuitive responses to basic facial features rather than on any deep, rational calculus.
….
In other words, when we think that we are making rational political judgments, we could be, in fact, judging someone at least partly based on a fleeting impression of his or her face.
….
Starting that fall, and through the following spring, Todorov showed pairs of portraits to roughly a thousand people, and asked them to rate the competence of each person. Unbeknownst to the test subjects, they were looking at candidates for the House and Senate in 2000, 2002, and 2004. In study after study, participants’ responses to the question of whether someone looked competent predicted actual election outcomes at a rate much higher than chance—from sixty-six to seventy-three per cent of the time. Even looking at the faces for as little as one second, Todorov found, yielded the exact same result: a snap judgment that generally identified the winners and losers. Todorov concluded that when we make what we think of as well-reasoned voting decisions, we are actually driven in part by our initial, instinctive reactions to candidates.

Obviously, many things affect voting decisions, from political platforms to sexting scandals. But if we control for the underlying factors, the research suggests that a thin-slice judgment retains its predictive validity, and it emerges as the single strongest predictor of victory beyond external factors such as broad economic data, like the unemployment rate; personal data, like age or gender; or any other single political measure, like whether someone is an incumbent or how much has been spent on the campaign.

So, this “voting by looks” method isn’t perfect, it doesn’t always predict the outcome. But it’s clearly a major factor.

The obvious question here is who projects more confidence: Clinton or Trump? I have to confess I really haven’t watched any of their speeches so I have a hard time deciding. There’s something about Trump I find so smarmy, but maybe others would interpret that as confidence. I’ll have to wait to watch the debates with the sound off.

Is Facebook controlling you?

Much of what I’ve been reading about and thinking about over the past several months has to do with the notion that people are controllable. Scott Adams’ theories on Donald Trump, which I often mention, state that Trump is a master persuader—he uses rhetorical flourishes and various emotional cues to get people to support him. Parts of the Howard Bloom books I’ve been reading tout the idea that everything is social and that creatures, humans in particular, live and die by whether they and their ideas are accepted by those around them. So we have a strong motivation to go along with the crowd and gain their approval. (I talked a bit about this in my recent article “Are You A Hive Mind?“)

The NY Times has a new op-ed piece called “How Facebook Warps Our Worlds.” It’s pretty familiar stuff: the web and Facebook in particular reinforce our ideas and shield us from contrary notions. (I’m not sure it’s quite true since I see some arguing on Facebook, but I think the idea holds up.) I can definitely see a lot of pressure to think a certain way emanating from one’s social network, pressure that might be subtle enough to not be consciously detected. And that falls right into Adams and Blooms argument: we can be easily swayed to go along with the crowd. To really fight this you have to examine almost all of your assumptions and who’s got the time for that?

As the article notes:

THOSE who’ve been raising alarms about Facebook are right: Almost every minute that we spend on our smartphones and tablets and laptops, thumbing through favorite websites and scrolling through personalized feeds, we’re pointed toward foregone conclusions. We’re pressured to conform.

But unseen puppet masters on Mark Zuckerberg’s payroll aren’t to blame. We’re the real culprits. When it comes to elevating one perspective above all others and herding people into culturally and ideologically inflexible tribes, nothing that Facebook does to us comes close to what we do to ourselves.

I’m talking about how we use social media in particular and the Internet in general — and how we let them use us. They’re not so much agents as accomplices, new tools for ancient impulses, part of “a long sequence of technological innovations that enable us to do what we want,” noted the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who wrote the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind,” when we spoke last week.

“And one of the things we want is to spend more time with people who think like us and less with people who are different,” Haidt added. “The Facebook effect isn’t trivial. But it’s catalyzing or amplifying a tendency that was already there.”

Howard Bloom on information theory

I’ve been reading through Howard Bloom’s book “The God Problem.” What is this book about? I’m not totally sure. In essence, Bloom is trying to figure out how the universe creates things of degrees of complexity if there is no intelligent God to guide the process. Human beings would be a good example of one of these things.

At the point I’ve gotten to, he is criticizing the idea of information theory. This sits well with me because I’ve never really understood information theory. As I basically get it, it’s the idea that “information” is somehow the core currency of the universe. All things—sub-atomic particles, dogs and cats, human beings, galaxies—pass information to each other (according to the theory.) But what does the word information really mean?

Bloom separates the term “information” from “meaning.” (I think I’m getting this right.) He applies the use of the term information that was devised by Claud Shannon, the inventor of information theory. In this use, information is more like a signal. For example, let’s say I picked up the phone and heard a bunch of sentences in Japanese. These sentences (which are really sound waves that have been converted from the electronic signals of the phone line and system) are information. But they aren’t meaning. Because I don’t understand Japanese.

So, I guess, for things to have meaning, they have to be observed by a conscious agent. Well, not exactly, according to Bloom. Two sub-atomic particles like quarks can interact—they can attract or repulse each other—and even if they don’t consciously feel anything (and Bloom says they don’t and I tend to agree) they are still passing on meaning.

This is dense, complex stuff. It seems to me, ironically, to lead to the question of: what is the meaning of the word meaning? Of course as you define the word, you are defining your definition of the word, if that makes any sense. What a headache.

I think we can ignore some of these problems and at least theorize that appreciating meaning requires consciousness (contra to Bloom.) Basically we can say that humans can appreciate the meaning of a statement like “I’ll meet you at 6 PM at Burger King.” and sub atomic particles cannot. Humans mentally digest such a statement whereas quarks just kind of respond. But not every statement passed to humans is consciously appreciated; some meaning is passed only to human’s sub-conscious. (Look up priming experiments
or the work of Micheal Gazzaniga for discussion on this.
) In this case we are sort of appreciating meaning in the way a quark would—un-consciously.

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—then 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.