RSSCategory: Psychology Cognition

On reading misspelled words

April 20, 2012 | By | Reply More

One of my daughters recently showed me an email containing following. This is apparently making the rounds on the Internet, and for good reason:

I was quite surprised at how easy it was to read this passage. Here’s another test, though. Try to type the above passage exactly as it is above. You’ll find that your body’s motor routines strongly interfere with your ability to accurately type this. I was reminded of the Stroop Effect.

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Life by the numbers

April 15, 2012 | By | 3 Replies More
Life by the numbers

In years past, I used to rest assured that I was in good shape, physically, economically and socially. That was before computers gave me the ability to know exactly how I’m doing.

It used to be easier to pretend that one was in good health. Nowadays, hundreds of websites let you know about all of the diseases that threaten you, complete with many symptoms that undoubtedly match some of your symptoms. Of course there have always been books and magazines with medical information, but never before could you so easily pinpoint so many symptoms with a free Google search or a quick visit to the symptom-checker at Wrongdiagnosis.com.

Economically, we used to put our money into some sort of mutual fund or other investment, and we considered that we were “married” to the account. Computers now give us the ability to track our financial health second by second. Computer-programmed trading also creates crazy jumps and plunges in the market. Ignorance was bliss, and many advisers argue that you should go back to finding a reasonable place to put your money, then ignoring it for long periods of time.

Then there is one’s social health. It used to be that I could assume that I had an indefinite (large) number of people with whom I had a friendship. That was before Outlook came along to tell me exactly who I did (and did not) know well enough to have a phone number or an email address. In Outlook, you’ll get the exact number. Ooops. My social circle is not nearly as big as I’d like to believe.

Perhaps you are thinking that Outlook is not the right place to look, and that one ought to look, instead, to Facebook. Thanks to the precision statistics offered by Facebook, we can see that the typical Facebook user has 190 friends. That’s it? But what if I get in a bind or I get sick, and I need the help of a “friend.” It seems like you could run through 190 “friends” all too quickly. It ultimately presents the same problem as Outlook. It gives you a finite number, and many of them are not really good friends, anyway, as much as I enjoy sharing information with them.

A new article in The Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely,” by Stephen Marche, should make us even more suspicious of the Facebook phenomenon (the article is in the May 2012 edition, not yet online). We learn (p. 66) that neurotics and lonely individuals spend greater amounts of time on Facebook per day than non-lonely people. He also writes that Facebook has become a place to pretend that one’s life is better than it is, and that “believing that others have strong social networks can lead to feelings of depression.” He also cites to research showing that “surrogates can never make up completely for the absence of the real thing . . . actual people in the flesh.” He concludes that the idea that a website “could deliver a more friendly, inter-connected world is bogus.” Further research shows that “the greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are . . . [and] The greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are.” He adds that Facebook is not always a bad thing. Like many things, it is a tool that can be used or misused. “It’s like a car. you can drive it to pick up your friends. Or you can drive alone.”

Then again, Facebook puts us into the business of competing with our “friends.” “Facebook imprisons us in the business of self-presenting, and this, [according to author Jaron Lanier], is the site’s crucial and fatally unacceptable downside.” Facebook gratifies “the narcissistic individual’s need to engage in self-promoting behavior.”

So think about this next time you smugly react to your “friend” count. Marche’s article is far more nuanced than the above summary, and he would admit that there are many ways to use Facebook. I, for instance, use it to share article, including many articles from this website. I can’t help but notice, though, that many people post on Facebook 8 times per day, and they would seem to fall into his description of those having a “narcissistic personality disorder.” When you add up your Facebook “friends,” then, to see how rich you are with “friends,” you might want to set those narcissistic friends aside before counting.

So this is life by the numbers, at least if you include this final number, which I take as a challenge, rather than a depressing fact (or use this alternate method of calculating your approximate number of remaining days). In sum, it appears that you will be happier (or at least you will think you are happier) if you get away from the computer and, instead, spend time with a good friend, face-to-face, talking about something other than your health, your investments, and you cyber social circle.

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Morality without religion

April 10, 2012 | By | 1 Reply More
Morality without religion

In this TED talk, primatologist Frans de Waal asserts that human morality has evolved, and that the existence of morality doesn’t depend on religion. He observes that “humans are far more cooperative and empathic than they are given credit for,” and that they are, in many ways similar to other primates.

From de Waal’s experiments, one can learn that chimpanzees (who have no religion) often reconcile with one another after fights. The principle “is that you have a valuable relationship that is damaged by conflict so you need to do something about it.”

What are the “pillars of morality,” that which morality is based on? Reciprocity (fairness) and Empathy (compassion) are two constants. He indicates that human morality includes more than these two factors, but not much more.

Check out the beautiful 1935 video of chimpanzees at the 3:35 min mark; they cooperate in synchronized fashion to pull in a heavy box of fruit. Then check out at 4:20 what happens when one of the two chimps is not hungry, thus not motivated to work hard. This is incredible footage that will remind you of a species you often see in the mirror. What makes the uninterested chimp to work at all, according to de Waal, is receipt of a past or a future favor, i.e., reciprocity.

[More . . . ]

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The constant quest for transcendence by half-bee humans

April 9, 2012 | By | 7 Replies More
The constant quest for transcendence by half-bee humans

Contrary to what so many of us want to believe, humans are not wired to act only as individuals; we are also wired to be intensely social. In his March 14, 2012 TED presentation, Jonathan Haidt characterized humans as half-bee. We aren’t completely socially integrated like bees–our social side clashes with our individualistic side. These two aspects of what it means to be human—our proud individualism and our craving to meld our selves with each other in large social groupings–often conflict with each other. As a result, human “hives” (the many types of human social groupings) don’t run as smoothly as the hives of true bees. Haidt argues that the scientific study of this inner-conflict offers us powerful insights into such things as religion, existential angst and warmongering.

Haidt began his 18-minute talk by asking for a show of hands. How many people in the audience consider themselves to be “religious?” Only a few raised their hands, yet a strong majority of the audience members declared themselves to be “spiritual.” Why is it that that so many people who don’t consider themselves to be religious do consider themselves to be spiritual?

[More . . .]

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Laughing at silly old record album covers.

April 3, 2012 | By | Reply More
Laughing at silly old record album covers.

Have you ever seen this collection of record album covers that are no longer cool … No longer hip … Or are they no longer funky, rakish, chic, ultracool or spiffy? You see, even the words for fashionable go out of fashion.

And as we chuckle at these album covers, there is something a bit uneasy about what we’re doing. Yes, some of these covers were failures from Day One, but others have that high school yearbook thing going on–they look silly to us because they have elements of oldness to them that should remind us that no matter how fashion-tuned we are, some of the photos of us will someday be snidely chuckled at. If not our clothes, it will be our phone or our food or our method of transportation or the type of gadget we use for playing our music.

The only constant is that everything is social.

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Advice for misfits

April 2, 2012 | By | Reply More
Advice for misfits

I just finished reading Susan Cain’s excellent new book about and for introverts (I posted my review of her book in the comments here). In this post, I’d like to highlight simple yet powerful advice she offered in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She provided this test in the context of introverts, but this test applies to everyone who feels like a misfit at work.

Ms. Cain was an attorney who struggled in the field of law, finding herself deprecating her own efforts and abilities because they didn’t match up to the extroverts at the firm. Eventually, she started forcing herself to listen better; people were telling her that she was a actually a skilled negotiator, not inept. One reason for the compliments is that she invited lots of feedback from the participants. She started recognizing that her introversion gave her many advantages as a lawyer.

But she kept asking herself whether she was a good “fit” for her job, mainly due to her exhaustion trying to keep up with the social end of her job, including the constant pressure to hang out with co-workers after work, to “have a drink.” Was she in the right career? If not, what was the right “fit”? Here are three questions that lead her to change her career:.

First, think back to what you loved to do when you were a child.

Second, pay attention to the work you gravitate to.

Third, pay attention to what you envy.

These strike me as excellent tests, and they make me wonder how many of us are well suited for our jobs?

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On the concept of relevance

April 1, 2012 | By | 1 Reply More
On the concept of relevance

Whenever you engage in high level discussions, many of the points made by you and your opponents are founded on claims that some things are “relevant” to other things. Those who engage in arguments usually make it sounds like “relevance” is an objective concept, almost algorithmic. They often suggest that what is relevant can be clearly determined by necessary and sufficient conditions. They make it sound as though all reasonable people would come to the same conclusions about what is (and is not) relevant, if only they pondered long enough. It is my position there is no meaningful simple definition of “relevance” in any real world field (the concept works in math and logic).

This is how I used to think many years ago. Now, however, I am convinced that what is “relevant” is always a matter of the emotional tuning of the person claiming relevance. No, it’s not a completely subjective measure, given that we all inhabit human bodies and thus have a shared basis for our observations. But neither is it an objective measure, applying to all people at all times.

What is relevant to morality? Tradition, upbringing, what the powers-that-be decree, logic, distribution of resources, the Bible, the Koran, whatever comes clear through personal meditation, patriotism, sustainability, or what respects personal liberties? We humans are tuned in a million different ways. Perhaps if we were all tuned the same, we could speak of some objective concept of relevance, but that is not the case. Also, add to the nuance of the word “relevant” that humans are incredibly symbolic, meaning that they have the power and imagination to make anything at all meaningful to anything else. We can even turn meaning upside down, in Orwellian fashion. What is “relevant”? What do you want to be relevant?

My views are quite sympathetic to notion (of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) of experientialism: Namely, that the verbal expression of the facts of life is, at bottom, indeterminate despite our most persistent attempts to capture them with language (which often border on the heroic). Most people nevertheless have faith in “objectivity,” (e.g., that “relevance” refers to necessary and sufficient conditions). People cling to objectivism because, perceiving no middle ground, they fear that the only alternative is a free fall to nihilism. They cling not to just any “objectivity,” of course, but their own version of objectivity. Experientialism makes a strong case in showing the “objective” use of language to be a myth: there is no such thing as abstract and disembodied thought. Truly “objective” thought would require the impossible: a “logical propositional trajectory from principle to concrete application.”

Under the cover of “objectivism,” however, the widely-shared meanings of concepts have always been grounded in and constrained by our widely-shared biological, cognitive, social, and linguistic interactions. These interactions, which constitute our bodily existences, extend imaginatively and metaphorically to give what substance there is to high-level concepts. “Objectivity,” as used in the context of legal decision-making (and elsewhere), can exist only to the extent that these interactions are widely shared. It must not be overlooked that such interactions are widely shared, enabling extensive meaningful communication, even among people of divergent languages and cultures. No radical deconstruction of language is being suggested.

I am always on high alert when someone makes an argument, indicating that something is “relevant,” much less “highly relevant.” Whenever such a claim occurs, it is time to puncture the bubble and force the participants to put their emotional baggage on the table, as best they can. There is no other way to have a meaningful conversation regarding contentious topics.

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What You See is All There Is: Not-much information usually seems like enough.

March 26, 2012 | By | 1 Reply More
What You See is All There Is: Not-much information usually seems like enough.

Back in 1996, I wrote a paper I called “Decision Making, the Failure of Principles, and the Seduction of Attention,” in which I claimed that most of our dramatic “moral lapses” are not the result people intentionally trying to hurt others. Rather, most of the harm humans inflict on other humans results from the manner in which we deploy attention. We are able to make any moral issue vanish simply by not paying attention to it. Quite often we develop habits of not paying attention to certain aspects of the world—a classic habit for Americans is not considering that on planet Earth, a child starves to death every 5 seconds. If you have habituated yourself to not-think about this horrible and undeniable fact, it is quite easy to blow a large sums of money on things like poodle-haircuts, vacation homes, and even a steady stream of fancy meals.

Near the beginning of my paper, I argued that human animals are more than happy to act out of ignorance because it never actually seems that we are acting out of ignorance. Instead, humans readily assume that they have sufficient information for making important decisions even when a smidgeon of self-critical conscious thought would instantly reveal that they are woefully under-informed. When it comes to making decisions, we are fearless in our ignorance.

In the paper I mentioned above, I described various ways that cognitive science has demonstrated that human attention is severely limited. Thanks to cognitive science (but not thanks to common sense) we know that we can only see eighteen characters of text per saccade while we read, which invites computer-assisted experimenters to continually, and in real-time, fill extra-foveal regions with garbage, unbeknownst to readers. See “A Critique of Pure Vision,” P. Churchland, V. Ramachandran, & T. Sejnowski, p. 37-38. Using conversation shadowing, Broadbent and Treisman demonstrated that one’s ability to absorb multiple simultaneous conversations is severely limited. Attention is bottlenecked at the site of working memory, as well as during perception. As George Miller pointed out long ago, “[T]he span of absolute judgment and the span of immediate memory impose severe limitations on the amount of information that we are able to receive, process and remember.” George A. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information,” The Psychological Review, Vol. 63, No. 2 (March, 1956). Given that humans have such tiny attentional windows, it is surprising the extent to which we take it for granted that we share the same world. The world is laughingly beyond our capacity to fathom without rampant simplification.

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The roots of human difference and conflict

March 22, 2012 | By | Reply More
The roots of human difference and conflict

My prejudice has long been that most human conflicts can be traced to base-level differences, minor seeming micro-differences, until they clash at macro levels.   I tried to describe this by reference to an incident in the movie “Apollo 13.” Here’s another way of expressing this same idea:

We proceed from the working hypothesis that inferential and judgmental errors arise primarily from nonmotivational—perceptual and cognitive—sources. Such errors, we contend, are almost inevitable products of human information-processing strategies. In ordinary social experience, people often look for the wrong data, often see the wrong data, often retain the wrong data, often weight the data improperly, often fail to ask the correct questions of the data, and often make the wrong inferences on the basis of their understanding of the data. With so many errors on the cognitive side, it is often redundant and unparsimonious to look also for motivational errors. We argue that many phenomena generally regarded as motivational (for example, self-serving perceptions and attributions, ethnocentric beliefs, and many types of human conflict), can be understood better as products of relatively passionless information-processing errors than of deep-seated motivational forces.

R. Nisbett and L. Ross Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment, p. 12 (1980).

The solution to most social conflict, then, is not fighting wars or even yelling at each other.  It is striving to be smart–working hard to identify those low-level differences.    That is one of the main reasons why I find Jonathan Haidt’s ideas so valuable.   Rather than demonize (which we should avoid at all costs), we should work hard to determine why we disagree.  Where is it that our world-views diverge?

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