Monthly Archives: June 2007

Biases are Fattening

In addition to all their other effects, biases can also contribute to obesity. Architectures of Control cite the story of how David Wallerstein discovered how unit bias could help sell more fast food. He observed how people were unwilling to buy two packages, but quite willing to buy a double-sized package. Hence the supersizing of everything.

Geier, Ronzin & Doros demonstrated that people tends to regard a unit of some entity is the appropriate and optimal amount by measuring how much people consumed free Tootsie Rolls or pretzels when provided in different sizes, or M&M’s provided with differently sized spoons. This likely explains why people tend to eat more when served larger portions. The authors suggest that the unit bias in food might be social: people don’t want to seem to be gluttons. Another possibility they suggest is that there is a culture-norm interaction: we package things in appropriate sizes, we learn the appropriate amount by being exposed to standard packages.

A third possibility is of course an aversion to wasting, whether instilled by mother or evolution. I have a fourth neurocognitive possibility: we run on hierarchical motor programs and tend to switch behavior when one of them has concluded. So consuming a unit would presumably be a single iteration of one such program. We can certainly learn more elaborate programs like "take unit; consume until full; leave the rest", but that requires ongoing monitoring that may be cumbersome or easily distracted. I would expect unit bias to generalise outside food too. The researchers point out that double features are rare but long movies are not, and that people take one ride on an amusement park ride regardless of whether it is 1 or 5 minutes long. I would also expect unit bias to tend to round our thinking towards the nearest integer number of convenient units.

Some months ago when I moved to the UK I made the deliberate decision to only buy Coca Cola in sixpacks rather than 1.5 l bottles. The result is that I consume much less, since I now only take a can instead of more or less continually refilling my glass. So clearly unit bias can be used to downregulate food intake too. It is just that there is no incentive for the food sellers to do it. Maybe one solution to obesity would be easier ways of dividing bought food into convenient smaller units?

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True Love and Unicorns

In February I posted on David Buss being convinced that "true love" exists, even though he’s never seen it and his job is to study love.  Similarly, Michael Murrin tells (p.11) how Europeans were immune to being told by Marco Polo how real unicorns (rhinoceroses) differed from what they had imagined:

Marco Polo was careful to disabuse Europeans of various fictional marvels that they then accepted as fact or which had considerable popular support. One case provides a good example. It concerns unicorns. Polo saw rhinoceroses in Indonesia and described them minutely. He ended his discussion with the remark that such unicorns do not resemble at all European notions, nor do they allow themselves to be captured by a virgin. Yet despite the fact that the Divisament dou monde had wide circulation and multiple translations, even while Polo was alive, his attempt to dispel or correct such European fantasies failed. The unicorn survived in tapestries like the great series now shared between New York and Paris and in the spiral horns of the narwhal that resembled the European idea of the unicorn’s horn and can still be found in princely collections.

I’ll bet many who study politicians, celebrities, and scientists similarly believe that ideal versions of these types exist somewhere, even if they have never actually found any examples in their studies.  It seems that once we imagine some ideal we have a strong need to believe it exists somewhere, even against all evidence. 

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Bayes: radical, liberal, or conservative?

I wrote the following (with Aleks Jakulin) to introduce a special issue on Bayesian statistics of the journal Statistica Sinica (volume 17, 422-426).  I think the article might be of interest even to dabblers in Bayes, as I try to make explicit some of the political or quasi-political attitudes floating around the world of statistical methodology.

Continue reading "Bayes: radical, liberal, or conservative?" »

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Global Warming Blowhards

On Monday Rush Limbaugh said:

Here’s how we could once and for all prove that global warming alarmists are full of BS.  We create a betting line on any or all of their dire prognostications.  Just go get Gore’s movie, and say, "Okay, what are the odds that New York City will be under water in 20 years?  What are the odds that Greenland is going to melt," whatever is in there, and then let people bet.  Now, I would bet against every one of those assertions, every prediction that the global warming people are making, I would bet against.

And they won’t.  You know damn well that Laurie David will not put her divorce millions on the line, and you know for a fact that Gore won’t put his tobacco cash — that’s where a lot of his money comes from, his book cash or his movie — they will not bet for their own prognostications. … Folks, do you realize how rich we could get here?  We would prove that nobody believes this stuff!  Even the scientists, even the politicians, nobody would bet that their predictions are right.  All we’d have to do is all bet against them and we’d be right on every one of them. 

This brought to mind James Annan from 2005:

I’ve recently been trying to establish consensus on the subject of global temperature rise, by arranging bets with sceptics who claim that the IPCC TAR is overly alarmist. Richard Lindzen was the first I noted who forecast here that over the next 20 years, the climate is as likely to cool as warm, and said he would be prepared to bet on it. However, when challenged to a bet, it turns out that he expects odds of 50:1 in his favour, ie he will only bet on the chances of cooling being at the 2% level or higher, far short of his 50% claim. … He also suggested an alternative bet … Again, no-one who believes the IPCC summary would find his offer attractive, since it has negative expected value. … The list of sceptics who have refused to bet against the IPCC position has grown steadily since then, and now also includes Michaels, Jaworowski, Corbyn, Ebell, Kininmonth, Mashnich and Idso

I’ll offer at least $1000 at ten to one odds against Rush putting even a quarter million dollars of his own at risk in anti-IPCC-odds bets with Annan or similar others in the next year.  Do I have any takers?  (Hat tip to Chris Masse.) 

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Extraordinary Physics

In January Eliezer warned:

Our own eyes can deceive us.  People can fool themselves, hallucinate, and even go insane.  The controls on publication in major journals are more trustworthy than the very fabric of your brain.  If you see with your own eyes that the sky is blue, and Science says it is green, then sir, I advise that you trust in Science.

If you trust the scientific establishment enough, you should explain odd personal experiences via odd arrangements of familiar science, rather than rejecting established science claims.   In cosmology today, physicists seem to face a related choice.

For 35 years, the standard model in particle physics has passed every test with flying colors.  Yet we see some odd phenomena in cosmology — how willing should physicists be to invoke radically new physics to explain this phenomena, rather than looking to odd arrangements within or close to the standard model?  For example:

  • The flat uniform universe we see, as well as its small initial deviations, could come from adding one more scalar (the simplest possible particle type).
  • The universe of matter see, with almost no anti-matter, could be explained by a small change to the way the electroweak force violates C and CP symmetries.
  • Dark matter could be axions, scalar particles predicted by a small change to the standard model introduced to explain how the strong force respects CP, while the electroweak violates it.
  • Dark energy could be just ordinary large magnetic fields, which stretch as the universe expands.

It is striking to me, and somewhat puzzling, that physicists seem to prefer to explain these odd facts via more radical changes to the standard model, such as string theory with extra dimensions.  I understand that radical changes would be more interesting to learn about, but it seems to me that the least radical changes should be the most likely explanations.

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Are Your Enemies Innately Evil?

Followup to:  Correspondence Bias

As previously discussed, we see far too direct a correspondence between others’ actions and their inherent dispositions.  We see unusual dispositions that exactly match the unusual behavior, rather than asking after real situations or imagined situations that could explain the behavior.  We hypothesize mutants.

When someone actually offends us – commits an action of which we (rightly or wrongly) disapprove – then, I observe, the correspondence bias redoubles.  There seems to be a very strong tendency to blame evil deeds on the Enemy’s mutant, evil disposition.  Not as a moral point, but as a strict question of prior probability, we should ask what the Enemy might believe about their situation which would reduce the seeming bizarrity of their behavior.  This would allow us to hypothesize a less exceptional disposition, and thereby shoulder a lesser burden of improbability.

On September 11th, 2001, nineteen Muslim males hijacked four jet airliners in a deliberately suicidal effort to hurt the United States of America.  Now why do you suppose they might have done that?  Because they saw the USA as a beacon of freedom to the world, but were born with a mutant disposition that made them hate freedom?

Continue reading "Are Your Enemies Innately Evil?" »

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How to be Radical

Recently I posted on how freethinkers are obstacles to innovation, by being both undiscriminating on ideas and undesirable as social associates.  Today let me outline how best to be radical, if you must.

Freethinkers who work on a radical idea or project tend to shoot themselves in the foot by trying to be radical on as many dimensions as possible.  For example, if they manage to get funding for a startup pursuing their radical software product, they try to also be radical on software tools, project management, office location and organization, personnel, compensation, meeting times, work hours, marketing, and so on.  In their personal lives they try to be radical on romance, household organization, medical care, education, clothing, music, and so on.  This freethinker strategy of being radical on every possible dimension pretty much guarantees that something will go very wrong with at least one of these dimensions. 

To have the best chance of succeeding in a radical project, you should instead choose just a few related dimensions on which to make radical choices, and then make conservative conventional choices on all the other dimensions.  This strategy minimizes the chance that some other project dimension will go badly wrong and take down your central radical idea with it.

While all-dimension-radical freethinker projects have little chance of success, their looming wreckage can be a great place to look for promising radical ideas to pursue – many a successful radical project idea was "stolen" from freethinker predecessors.   So if you are shopping for a radical idea to pursue, make friends with ambitious freethinkers – but don’t pick up their undiscriminating habits. 

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Fair Landowner Coffee

Many people feel proud of buying "fair trade" coffee, because it is supposed to help the poor people who grow the coffee.   But it turns out that the benefits go to landowners, not laborers: 

In Costa Rica, less than 2% of the coffee produced is certified and sold as Fair Trade. In Guatemala, farmers report the meager benefits promised by Fair Trade, if they materialize, are not worth the costs which must be borne. … Certification, for the producer cooperative, costs between US$2,000 and US$4,000. …  A coffee farm is not eligible for Fair Trade certification if it employs even one person as a permanent full-time employee.  Most family farms, while not enormous, can be tended during the 7-8 months of the growing season quite easily by an average size family. However, during the harvest (November to March) large numbers of seasonal employees are needed . …  immigrants flood into Costa Rica from Nicaragua, Colombia, and to a lesser extent, Panama. These individuals are too poor to own land, but supply the much needed labor for the harvest period. While Fair Trade notes that any seasonal labor should be paid at least the country’s minimum wage, no records are required of the individual landowner-farmers. The wages paid are never verified as part of the certification or annual inspection processes.

Now admittedly these landowners are a lot poor than the average American who drinks Fair Trade coffee.  But it is still curious that coffee landowners elicit more of our sympathy than coffee field workers.   Human altruism is a complex beast

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Death Risk Biases

A recent Journal of Risk and Uncertainty paper confirms very standard results; low risk people overestimate their risks, high risk people underestimate their risks, overall people underestimate risk, and men are worse than women:

Individuals’ perception of their own road-traffic and overall mortality risks are examined in this paper. Perceived risk is compared with the objective risk of the respondents’ peers, i.e. their own gender and age group, and the results suggest that individuals’ risk perception of their own risk is biased. For road-traffic risk we obtain similar results to what have been found previously in the literature, overassessment and underassessment among low- and high-risk groups, respectively. For overall risk we find that all risk groups underestimate their risk. The results also indicate that men’s risk bias is larger than women’s.

We could fill up this blog just with abstracts of papers like this, but what would be the point? 

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Correspondence Bias

The correspondence bias is the tendency to draw inferences about a person’s unique and enduring dispositions from behaviors that can be entirely explained by the situations in which they occur.
Gilbert and Malone

We tend to see far too direct a correspondence between others’ actions and personalities.  When we see someone else kick a vending machine for no visible reason, we assume they are "an angry person".  But when you yourself kick the vending machine, it’s because the bus was late, the train was early, your report is overdue, and now the damned vending machine has eaten your lunch money for the second day in a row.  Surely, you think to yourself, anyone would kick the vending machine, in that situation.

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