RSSCategory: Psychology Cognition

Dotted lines on paper

February 21, 2011 | By | 3 Replies More
Dotted lines on paper

Wray Herbert writes in a Scientific American article titled “Border Bias and Our Perception of Risk” of a study by husband-and-wife team Arul and Himanshu Mishra at the University of Utah on how people perceive events within a bias of arbitrary political borders.

Asked to imagine a vacation home in either “North Mountain Resort, Washington, or in West Mountain Resort, Oregon” the study group was given details about a hypothetical seismic event striking a distance that vacation home, but details differing as to where the event occurred:

Some heard that the earthquake had hit Wells, Wash., 200 miles from both vacation home sites. Others heard that the earthquake had struck Wells, Ore., also 200 miles from both home locations. They were warned of continuing seismic activity, and they were also given maps showing the locations of both home sites and the earthquake, to help them make their choice of vacation homes.

The results revealed a bias in that people felt a greater risk when the event was in-state as opposed to out of state. A second study involved a not-in-my-backyard look at a radioactive waste storage site and the Mishras used maps with thick lines and thin dotted lines to help people visualize the distances and state borders. It isn’t hard to guess which lines conveyed a greater feeling of risk.

I recall a story my brother told me about 17 years ago in which he was helping an old friend change the oil in his farm tractor. My brother asked, “Hey, Jack, where do you want me to put this [the used oil]?” Jack said, “Pour it over there on the stone wall.” (We lived in Connecticut, where they grow those things everywhere). Brother Marshall said, “Jack, you can’t do that anymore.”

Jack thought a short second or two, and said, “Yeah, you’re right. Better pour it on the other side.”

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Openness correlates to moral relativism

February 21, 2011 | By | Reply More
Openness correlates to moral relativism

Yale professor Joshua Knobe has gathered various findings suggesting that the personality trait of openness correlates with moral relativism. These findings suggest “we can start out with facts about people’s usual ways of thinking or talking and use these facts to get some insight into questions about the true nature of morality.”

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Affirmative action for conservatives?

February 20, 2011 | By | 13 Replies More
Affirmative action for conservatives?

I have written several posts holding that we are all blinded by our sacred cows. Not simply those of us who are religions. This blindness occurs to almost of us, at least some of the time. Two of my more recent posts making this argument are titled “Mending Fences” and “Religion: It’s almost like falling in love.” In arriving at these conclusions, I’ve relied heavily upon the writings of other thinkers, including the writings of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Several years ago, Haidt posited four principals summing up the state-of-the-art in moral psychology:

1. Intuitive primacy (but not dictatorship)
2. Moral thinking is for social doing.
3. Morality is about more than harm and fairness.
4. Morality binds and blinds.

In a recent article at Edge.org, Haidt argued that this fourth principle has proven to be particularly helpful, and it can “reveal a rut we’ve gotten ourselves into and it will show us a way out.” You can read Haidt’s talk at the annual convention for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, or listen to his reconstruction of that talk (including slides) here. This talk has been making waves lately, exemplified by John Tierney’s New York Times article.

Haidt begins his talk by recognizing that human animals are not simply social, but ultrasocial. How social are we? Imagine if someone offered you a brand-new laptop computer with the fastest commercially available processor, but assume that this computer was broken in such a way that it could never be connected to the Internet. In this day and age of connectivity, that computer will get very little use, if any. According to Haidt, human ultrasociality means that we “live together in very large

[caption id="attachment_16630" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Image by Jeremy Richards at Dreamstime.com (with permission)"][/caption]

groups of hundreds or thousands, with a massive division of labor and a willingness to sacrifice for the group.” Very few species are ultrasocial, and most of them do it through a breeding trick by which all members of the group are first-degree relatives and they all concentrate their efforts at breeding with regard to a common queen. Humans beings are the only animals that doesn’t use this breeding trick to maintain their ultrasociality.

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Bill Moyers: Facts threaten us.

February 15, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
Bill Moyers: Facts threaten us.

According to Truthout, Bill Moyers recently gave a talk at History Makers, and had this disturbing information: well documented facts often backfire:

As Joe Keohane reported last year in The Boston Globe, political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency “deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information.” He was reporting on research at the University of Michigan, which found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts were not curing misinformation. “Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.” You can read the entire article online.

I won’t spoil it for you by a lengthy summary here. Suffice it to say that, while “most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence,” the research found that actually “we often base our opinions on our beliefs … and rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions.”

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Do they keep forgetting?

February 14, 2011 | By | 22 Replies More
Do they keep forgetting?

Assume that you came to Earth last year (you were a visitor from another planet). Assume that on the first morning you spent on Earth, I showed you how to make toast. I showed you how to put the bread in the toaster and how to turn the toaster on. I taught you how to wait for the toast to pop up, and then I showed you how to spread some butter on the toast after the toast popped up.

Assume that a week later, I took you downstairs and told you I was going to show you how to make toast. Once again, I instructed you to put bread in the toaster, to turn the toaster on, to wait for the toaster and then to put butter on the toast.

Assume that I tried to give you the same lesson one more week later. You would likely stop me at this point and tell me that I had already told you how to make toast. You might say, “You told me twice, in fact. The steps were simple and I truly listened. There’s no need for you to tell me yet again how to make toast.”

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On the value of friendship

February 13, 2011 | By | Reply More
On the value of friendship

In the Wilson Quarterly, Daniel Akst writes about the importance of friendship and the fact that modern distractions are seducing Americans into failing to appreciate or maintain valuable friendships. He defines friendship as “a state of strong mutual affection in which sex or kinship isn’t primary.” What are the important things that friends do?

It’s available to everyone, offering concord and even intimacy without aspiring to be all-consuming. Friends do things for us that hardly anybody else can, yet ask nothing more than friendship in return (though this can be a steep price if we take friendship as seriously as we should).

Here are the disturbing statistics. Half of American adults are unmarried and more than a quarter live alone. A recent survey shows that Americans had one third fewer friends than we did two decades earlier. “A quarter of us had no such confidants at all.” None of this is surprising given that so many of us find ourselves rushing around working so that we can afford things we don’t really need. Akst also cites to the work of Barbara Ehrenreich, who suggest that we fail to develop friendships like we used to because it takes too much of an investment. She blames the “cult of conspicuous busyness” which we pursue to attain “status and perverse comfort even as it alienates us from one another.” Stir in children, spouses and our all too willingness to move in search of jobs that pay more, and we have a social environment that is downright hostile to friendships. None of this is mitigated by the 130 “friends” that the average Facebook user has.

What are we doing in search of this mutual affection in the absence of friends? We have lots of talk therapists, of course. As Akst notes, Americans also own immense numbers of non-human pets, and these seem to be serving as substitutes for friends.

Akst has written a thoughtful piece on friendship in which he stirs in psychology, sociology, philosophy and this conclusion:

[Friendship is] one of life’s highest pleasures… It’s time for us to ease up on friending, re-think our downgrade of ex-lovers to “just” friends, and resist moving far away from everyone we know barely because it rains less elsewhere.

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Logic: Cold and Fuzzy

February 3, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
Logic: Cold and Fuzzy

A recent post on the Good Math blog called “Fuzzy Logic vs Probability” reminded me of a coping skill that I take for granted, yet most people probably don’t know about. The post linked above is about the essential difference between probabilities and values in fuzzy logic.

Fuzzy logic is a sort of analog approach to Boolean logic. Boole constructed a rigid logical framework containing only two values: True and False. In Fuzzy logic, every statement has a rating of how true it is, from 0 to 100%. Decisions can therefore be made when there is not any binary certainty about the input parameters. The result is a degree (or percentage) of how true is the resulting compound statement.

But how can this be a coping skill?

Let’s say a spouse asks if you want to go out for dinner. If you absolutely refuse, or eagerly must, then the answer can be Boolean (Yes or No). But that No might just lead to an argument. A grudging Yes may breed resentment.

What if you are tired, but hungry, and not feeling sociable, nor like more driving, but also would like some entree that you are not likely to get at home, yet thinking about the money? You can go either way. One might call it 40% “want to go out”. By myself, under half is a “No”.

But here is the spouse, and the spouse has also had a hard day with different characteristics, and leans toward going out (as indicated by the issuing of the question). She might counter my 40% with a more urgent 80%. This 80% indicates a willingness to stay home, if I really want to. But the average (logical union) of our two values is 60%. So we go out, each understanding how strongly the other one feels about it.

If there is a near tie, we cast another ballot. As with a flipping coin in the air, one often has second thoughts about which way we want it to land. It does take a little practice to use percentages in gauging each others desires. But it really saves on arguments.

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The Hellhound and HeLa: Recent American Historical Writing At Its Best

February 1, 2011 | By | Reply More
The Hellhound and HeLa: Recent American Historical Writing At Its Best

The last really good history I read was “Hellhound On His Trail, ” which follows James Earl Ray’s path from his childhood in Alton, Illinois through a violent intersection with the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and continues to follow Ray’s trajectory with his quizzical recantations of his “life’s purpose.” With the same cool hand, Sides sketches the strengths and inadequacies of Dr. King’s inner circle and paints larger atmospheric strokes with newspaper headlines on the increasing violence in response to desegregation and the influence of war in Vietnam on national sentiment about federal involvement in heretofore state affairs.

By themselves, vignettes about Ray’s lackluster career as a petty criminal, his stunted attempts at artistic grandeur and addiction to prostitutes would simply depress the reader. Here, the intentional failures and manipulations of Hoover’s FBI and first-hand accounts of Ray’s behavior appear like birds descending on a tragic town, flickering across the broader canvas creating momentum and dread. Awful as the true subject of this thriller may be, I found myself disappointed to reach the end.

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Action-oriented cognitive fallacies

January 27, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
Action-oriented cognitive fallacies

I was reading an article called “15 Styles of Distorted Thinking” when it struck me: People who are extremely action-oriented often make unconscious use of these 15 mental distortions. Further, people of action often fail to think things through carefully. Let me offer a few examples:

1. Filtering: You take the negative details and magnify them, while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. A single detail may be picked out, and the whole event becomes colored by this detail. When you pull negative things out of context, isolated from all the good experiences around you, you make them larger and more awful than they really are.

2. Polarized Thinking: The hallmark of this distortion is an insistence on dichotomous choices. Things are black or white, good or bad. You tend to perceive everything at the extremes, with very little room for a middle ground. The greatest danger in polarized thinking is its impact on how you judge yourself. For example-You have to be perfect or you’re a failure.

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