Monthly Archives: August 2011

What We Should Study

Me a few days ago:

We usually explain human capacity to create and evaluate chains of reasoning in terms of [seeking] truth. … [But] once you give it a bit of thought, you can see many [other] possible and even plausible explanations.

More generally, we humans not only do things, we explain why we do things. Individuals and organizations stand ready to give reasons why we do each of the things we do. While such explanations are often self-serving, they are usually considered the standard default in ordinary conversation, popular media, and in academia.

I have a colleague here at GMU econ who recently expressed to me his feeling that we academics should usually accept such standard explanations unless we see clear strong evidence to the contrary. That is, if an academic journal has a statement of purpose or aim or mission, then we should believe what that statement says about the main social function of that journal in the world — if it says the journal exists to advance knowledge, that is what we should believe. He thinks we should similarly accept official purpose statements of hospitals, universities, charities, and government agencies. (He might not accept mission claims by firms, e.g., “Wal-Mart’s mission is to help people save money so they can live better”; apparently only admired non-profits deserve such deference.)

The most powerful insufficiently-appreciated insight I’ve ever learned is the one intellectual legacy I’d leave, if I could leave only one: we are often wrong about why we do things. Yes it is hardly original, and it might sound trivial, but few appreciate its full depth.

People are way too quick to assume that the main forces shaping the details of common human behaviors and institutions are their standard claimed missions. For example, people assume that the main force shaping doctors and hospitals is their declared mission to make people healthy, that the main force shaping universities and their research patrons is their declared the mission of advancing the frontiers of knowledge, that the main force shaping human capacities to make and evaluate reasons is the estimation of truth, and so on.

Once a social scientist starts to look seriously look for non-standard explanations, however, it is pretty easy to find them. Standard explanations leave many puzzling phenomena poorly explained, phenomena for which non-standard explanations often better account. Yes, there is an unfortunate tendency to latch onto the first plausible non-standard explanation one finds, instead of continuing to search for more possible explanations. I’ve probably been guilty of this myself, such as by perhaps focusing too much on signaling explanations.

But now I understand: today our priority should be a back-to-basics skeptical re-evaluation of human behavior.  That is, we should search for plausible non-standard explanations of our most common behaviors, even those we think “obvious,” and then seek simple matches between the simple robust predictions of each explanation and the puzzling phenomena we need to explain. I’m very interested in participating in such efforts, and uncertain about the best way to proceed.

Within academia, one important obstacle to this project is the tendency of “rigorous” folks like my colleague to insist that non-standard explanations are “extraordinary”, and so require “extraordinary” evidence. They aren’t worth much math modeling until stronger data support is offered, and they aren’t worth collecting much new data to test since they are not yet well supported. (Standard datasets, collected with standard explanations in mind, are usually poorly suited to this task.) Alas the first-cut math models and data analysis appropriate for this first stage of analysis tend to be poor places for academics to signal their math or statistics sophistication.

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Concept Inflation

Many places in the world claim to make the “world’s greatest hamburgers.” So many places, in fact, that one is tempted to conclude that many folks have adopted some new meaning for the phrase “world’s greatest.” OK, the temptation is weak in this case, but I suspect that such meaning drifts are common, and that they make positive concepts less positive, and negative concepts less negative. Let me explain.

Many words, like “excellent”, “genius”, “rude”, or “tyrant” have ambiguous borderlines, so that it isn’t clear to what cases the concepts do or don’t apply. In such borderline cases, we should expect people to choose their words strategically, to make they and their allies look good, and to make their rivals look bad. That is, we expect people to try be especially generous and loose in order to let them apply positive words to themselves or their allies, but to be especially strict and stingy in order to avoid applying such words to their rivals. For example, my modest insight seems “genius” to me, but your modest insight seems to me insufficient for such a lofty title. We also expect negative words to be applied reluctantly to allies, but generously to rivals. You were “rude,” but I was merely “thoughtless.”

If the tendencies to apply a concept generously are not equally balanced by opposing tendencies to apply that concept strictly, then its meaning should drift in one direction or the other. For example, if people more often use a certain positive concept to describe themselves and their allies, and less often apply the concept to rivals, then we should expect its perceived meaning based on recent usage to drift to cover more cases. And since we expect the newly covered cases to be intrinsically less positive, we expect the concept to drift toward a less positive connotation. When more students get “A” grades, then “A” is less positive a distinction. Similarly, if we use negative concepts more often on rivals, we should expect those concepts to drive toward a less negative connotation.

We do seem to use positive concepts to describe ourselves and our allies, more often than we use such concepts to describe rivals, mainly because we talk about ourselves and allies more than we talk about rivals. So we should expect such positive concepts to broaden and become less positive with time. Yet we still have many concepts with both ambiguous borderlines and substantially positive connotations. So there must be some opposing tendency that makes positive concepts get more positive. What is that tendency?

Our tendency to talk more about ourselves and our allies than our rivals should make it more possible for negative concepts to retain a narrow application and strong negativity. Is this what we see – do negative concepts tend to be stronger and more restricted?

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Theory And Fashion

Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world.

They could penetrate the general culture and make celebrities out of thinkers — notably Albert Einstein, but also Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, to name a few. The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.” A big idea could capture the cover of Time — “Is God Dead?” — and intellectuals like Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal would even occasionally be invited to the couches of late-night talk shows. How long ago that was. If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. …

The real cause may be information itself. … In the past, we collected information … to convert it into … ideas that made sense of the information. … But if information was once grist for ideas, over the last decade it has become competition for them. We are like the farmer who has too much wheat to make flour. We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to. … If a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention. (more)

While this article adds little to the basic concept, it is a basic concept worth pondering: are big ideas actually less popular today, and if so why? This claim fits with my perception of idea fashion today vs. my memory of thirty years ago, but I have personally changed so much that I don’t trust such memory comparisons.

If this trend is real, I don’t find the “more information” explanation compelling. The amount of available information has been increasing relatively steady for centuries, yet this trend, if real, has only been going for a half century or less. I expect this is more just a long term cycle in intellectual fashion. Once the old established elites get really good at theory, new “young turks” can better make their mark via switching to a fashion where details matter most, and then once those folks are old established elites, there’s a new opening for a fashion favoring theory. Alas for me that, being more a theorist, I happen to reach my peak when theory is most out of fashion.

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My Stossel Clip

My five minute pro-blackmail segment appeared on the Stossel show Thursday:


I gave a simple version of my gossip-plus argument. Alas they cut the part where I made it personal, telling John Stossel that, with legal blackmail, be would personally have to be more careful. A moment of delicious silence followed.

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What Is Reasoning For?

People and institutions usually prefer to explain their behaviors in self-serving and self-flattering ways. For example, we usually explain human abilities to create and evaluate chains of reasoning in terms of truth – by reasoning we can better see what is true (including truths about what we want to do).

I’m a little late to the response party, but back in April Mercier and Sperber published their theory that reasoning is designed more to help people persuade others, than to infer truth:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. … Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. … A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. … Reasoning is not only for convincing but also for evaluating arguments, and that as such it has an epistemic function. (more; ungated)

Many of their critics, however, noted that reasoning could serve even more functions. Mercier and Sperber responded that such other functions were of only minor importance:

Several commentators, while agreeing that argumentation may be an important function of reasoning, suggest that it may serve other functions, as well. … Our claim is that argumentation is the main function of reasoning. …

Dessalles and Frankish suggest that argumentation could have evolved as a means to display one’s intellectual skills. Indeed, argumentation can be put to such a use. However, … reasoning is more like a crow’s than a peacock’s tail: It may be a bit drab, but it serves its main function well. Its occasional use, for instance, in academic milieus, to display one’s intellectual skills is unlikely to contribute to fitness to the point of having become a biological function, let alone the main function of reasoning. …

Pietraszewski … draws attention to a … class of cases … [where] who is arguing should be just as important as what they are saying when considering the ‘goodness’ of an argument” … The main relevance of a communicative act may be … in the very fact that it took place at all; it may have to do with … signaling agreement and disagreement. This can be done in particular by using arguments not so much to convince but to polarize. …

Frankish points out that reasoning can be used to strengthen our resolve by buttressing our decisions with supporting arguments.

Notice that, relative to the usual story of reasoning’s function, Mercier and Sperber offer a less flattering than usual explanation for argument speakers, but not for argument listeners. That is, Mercier and Sperber accept the self-flattering story of those who hear arguments, that they mainly just want to figure out what is true about the content of the topics argued.

So what might listeners of arguments be up to instead? As the critics above suggest, listeners could be trying to gauge speaker impressiveness, or the social support the speaker can muster in his or her conflicts. Also, listeners could be trying to figure out what they will say in response, in argumentation contests with many possible criteria for who wins. And argument listeners might try to gauge what positions will become accepted by a wider community, to help them decide what positions to personally support.

Once you give it a bit of thought, you can see many possible and even plausible explanations for human reasoning abilities, beyond the simple self-flattering story that we are trying to figure out what is true about the topic of our reasoning.

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How Many Levels?

Some firms teach students how to apply to MBA schools:

Graham Richmond, founder of Clear Admit, helped one client get into Wharton by persuading her to scrap her essay about an energy deal she worked on and focus on something else: shooting guns. The Texas-based private-equity firm she worked at was a male-dominated environment where the senior executives liked to talk business at the shooting range. So the Asian American learned to fit in by joining them for target shooting.

“I was all about getting her to understand who’s reading the file,” Richmond said. “The people reading the file are more like your high school English teacher than the colleague sitting next to you at an investment bank,” he said; they’re more interested in getting a good sense of who you are than your business experience. (more)

This seems a vivid example of learning to signal. You may recall a month ago I said school need not be simple learning nor simple signaling; it could be learning how to signal:

People in business signal to each other all the time. In fact, most of the on-the-job business learning that employees do after college, such as how to dress well, how to give presentations, how to write memos, how to talk with clients, etc. might be skills that are mainly useful to signal innate features to bosses, co-workers, clients, etc. So employers might pay more for students with prestigious degrees because such degrees show an ability to learn how to later send good business signals. (more)

So we could have firms helping applicants learn to signal to MBA schools, schools that teach students how to signal well to businesses that such students will be good at learning on the job how to signal to bosses, co-workers, clients, etc. How many levels of signaling are there anyway?!

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New Scientist Contest

New Scientist magazine set up a contest between new prediction techniques, including prediction markets:

We decided to see how the latest techniques would stand up to the task of predicting what people will buy. … Over the past four months, we have set four teams the task of trying to predict the sales of each issue of New Scientist, using some of the most promising and innovative approaches available. … Continue reading "New Scientist Contest" »

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Hypocrites Have Flings

Interesting clues about short vs. long term mating:

Participants accurately identified an opposite sex person’s sociosexuality (i.e., how comfortable one is in engaging in short-term mating), … by attending to how often the individual gazed at a confederate, how much time they spent trying to solve a puzzle (as opposed to looking at the confederate), and the number of eyebrow flashes the target displayed. … A few behaviors led participants to misidentify sociosexuality … includ[ing] smiling, laughing, closeness to the confederate, and the confederate’s attractiveness and provocativeness of dress. …

The Big Five traits of extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience were positively correlated with short-term mating, while agreeableness and conscientiousness were negatively correlated with short-term mating. …

Self-monitoring … measures one’s ability to change his or her behavior depending on the particular situation; thus, it refers to responsiveness to social and interpersonal cues of situations. A high self-monitor would be a person who easily changes with the situation, while a low-self monitor tends to be very consistent across situations. …

Individuals with high self-monitoring tend to not establish committed relationships and maintain an unrestrictive sexual orientation. … High self-monitors seek to obtain mates who can provide rewarding outcomes such as social approval, status, or new opportunities. In contrast, low self monitors, seek mates for mutual satisfaction, and aim to derive pleasure from simply being with their partners. … This correlation leads high self-monitors to prefer partners with high social status, physical attractiveness, financial resources, and sex appeal, and low self-monitors to prefer partners with loyalty, honesty, kindness, and similar beliefs and education. (more; HT Rob)

So those who are better able to read and respond to subtle social clues are more likely to engage in short term mating, which presumably includes a fair bit of cheating on concurrent long term mates. What else would you expect from homo hypocritus?

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Emotionally, Men Are Far, Women Near

Me theorizing two weeks ago:

We should expect men to be more self-aware, transparent, and simple regarding their feelings about short-term sexual attractions, while women have more complex, layered, and opaque feelings on this subject. In contrast, women should be more more self-aware, transparent, and simple regarding their feelings about long-term pair-bonding, while men have more complex, layered, and opaque feelings on this subject. By being more opaque on sensitive subjects, we can keep ourselves from giving off clear signals of an inclination to betray. (more)

Now add two more assumptions:

  1. Each gender is more emotional about the topic area (short vs. long term mating) where its feelings are more complex, layered, and opaque.
  2. Long term mating thoughts tend to be in far mode, while short term mating thoughts tend to be in near mode. (Love is far, sex is near.)

Given these assumptions we should expect emotional men to be more in far mode, and emotional women to be more in near mode. (At least if mating-related emotions are a big part of emotions overall.) And since far modes tend to have a more positive mood, we should expect men to have more positive emotions, and women more negative.

In fact, even though overall men and women are just as emotional, men report more positive and less negative emotions than women. Also, after listening to an emotional story, male hormones help one remember its far-mode-abstract gist, while female hormones help one remembrer its near-mode-concrete details. (Supporting study quotes below.)

I’ve been wondering for a while why we don’t see a general correlation between near vs. far and emotionality, and I guess this explains it – the correlation is there but it flips between genders. This also helps explain common patterns in when the genders see each other as overly or underly emotional. Women are more emotional about details (e.g., his smell, that song), while men are more emotional about generalities (e.g., patriotism, fairness). Now for those study quotes: Continue reading "Emotionally, Men Are Far, Women Near" »

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Indulging In Indirection

Readers actually enjoy stories more when authors are less coy:

Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck. Subjects read stories as-is and with introductory paragraphs that gave away the endings, or spoilers. In almost all cases, they preferred the “spoiled” stories. The same held true for mysteries. … Subjects liked the literary, evocative stories least overall, but still preferred the spoiled versions over the unspoiled ones. (more; study; HT Patrick Salsbury)

Students also learn from teachers who are more direct:

When Detterman began teaching…

I thought it was important to make things as hard as possible for students so they would discover the principles for themselves. … Now … I try to make it as easy for students as possible. Where before I was ambiguous about what a good paper was, I now provide examples of the best papers from past classes. Before, I expected students to infer the general conclusion from specific examples. Now I provide the general conclusion and support it with specific examples. (more; HT Bryan Caplan)

If readers enjoy stories without surprises better, and if students learn better from teachers who are similarly direct and unsurprising, why are authors and teachers so often indirect, and why do readers and students support them?

Two obvious complementary explanations stand out:

1) Readers and students prefer to signal their cleverness at figuring out what an author or teacher is saying. Overly direct authors or teachers insult us via visibly presuming our inability to follow subtleties.

2) Homo hypocritus is in the habit of speaking indirectly:

It is easier to use play talk to evade talk rules if groups develop a very local culture and language – particular words and associations that have particular meanings due to the local history. This makes it harder to clearly convince outsiders that something illicit was communicated. (more; see also)

I recently read Pride & Prejudice, and noticed how much the author flatters the reader, and how much the characters flatter each other, by speaking indirectly yet presuming that listeners understand the intended meanings. Only fools speak directly when indirection is possible, it seems.

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