Monthly Archives: June 2012

This Is A Group Blog Again

The first stop to overcoming a problem is to admit you have one. So: I admit I’m addicted to blogging. In terms of total interesting intellectual insight, I’m actually pretty proud of my 5.5 years of blogging – I doubt I would have produced more insight had I blogged less. But my friends, colleagues, academia, patrons, etc. don’t want me to just find insights, they want me to gain prestige and have influence. And at this point in my life, they are right — intellectual influence *is what I should want. My insights will matter little if I can’t package them in a form that will tempt others to assimilate and build on them.

So, I am writing a book (which I’ll say more about in due time). Which feels great. Alas, I think readers prefer near-daily blogs, I’m reluctant to let this blog die, and as it is I get too easily engrossed in blog post topics. My solution: move Overcoming Bias back to a group blog, by including the young rising stars Katja Grace and Robert Wiblin, of whom I’ve long been a fan. We have mutual respect, similar interests, and similar styles of thought. With them posting more, I’ll hopefully be ok posting less. Overcoming Bias will continue at a similar rate and on similar themes, my less frequent posts will be more thoughtful and less newsy, and I’ll actually get a book written. What’s not to like? 😉

Btw, we aren’t seeking more authors – just the three of us are ok for a while.

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Pure Evil

This is about as close to pure evil as I’ve seen:

Destructive behavior has mostly been investigated by games in which all players have the option to simultaneously destroy (burn) their partners’ money. In the destructor game, players are randomly paired and assigned the roles of destructor versus passive player. The destructor player chooses to destroy or not to destroy a share of his passive partner’s earnings. The passive partner cannot retaliate. In addition, a random event (nature) destroys a percentage of some passive subject’s earnings. From the destructor player’s view, destruction is benefit-less, costless, hidden and unilateral. Unilateral destruction diminishes with respect to bilateral destruction studies, but it does not vanish: 15% of the subjects choose to destroy. This result suggests that, at least for some, destruction is intrinsically pleasurable. (more)

Mind you, its not an especially large evil. But it is an unusually pure evil. And 15% of lab subjects do it!

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Who Believes These?

“Fifty Shades” … tells the story of Anastasia Steele, an inexplicably virginal recent college graduate, and Christian Grey, the impossibly handsome and twisted 27-year-old billionaire who falls for her. Boy meets girl, boy whips girl, boy loses girl. In the end, … Ana has it her way: She declines to sign Grey’s “submissive” contract; they keep on having kinky sex, but not too much; and Steele helps Grey recover from his wounded childhood. …

It has ushered in a moment of frank talk about women’s sexual needs and desires. … Leonard, the author, makes the key distinction: between women’s fantasies and their realities. “In real life, I think it’s something very, very different,” she told NBC. “You want someone who does the dishes.” (more)

A symbiotic relationship [is] developing between the Obama campaign, with its style-conscious first lady who dons a wide variety of American designers, and a deep-pocketed, largely Democratic fashion industry, which has been increasingly coordinating its support of Obama. … Name an American designer. Vera Wang. Michael Kors. Diane von Furstenberg. Michelle Obama wears these American luxury labels and a host of others, earning her consistent praise from a fickle industry. …

The first lady’s campaign spokeswoman Olivia Alair said: “The first lady thinks that women should wear whatever makes them feel good and be comfortable. That’s how the first lady chooses her own clothes and based on no other considerations.” (more)

Right. Most women have no interest in impossibly handsome 27 year old billionaires who don’t do the dishes. And Michelle Obama only wears Democrat donor fashion items because they just happen to be the most comfortable clothes available.

These people didn’t believe these things when they said them, and 95% of people who hear them don’t believe them either. Yet we all know they are the things these people are supposed to say to avoid seeming unacceptably cynical.

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Hypocrisy In The Lab

We show with a laboratory experiment that individuals adjust their moral principles to the situation and to their actions, just as much as they adjust their actions to their principles. We first elicit the individuals’ principles regarding the fairness and unfairness of allocations in three different scenarios (a Dictator game, an Ultimatum game, and a Trust game). One week later, the same individuals are invited to play those same games with monetary compensation. Finally in the same session we elicit again their principles regarding the fairness and unfairness of allocations in the same three scenarios. Our results show that individuals adjust abstract norms to fit the game, their role and the choices they made. …

The strong side bends the norm in its favor and the weak side agrees : Stated fairness is a compromise with power. … The adjustment of principles to actions is mainly the fact of individuals who behave more selfishly and who have a stronger bargaining power. The moral hypocrisy displayed (measured by the discrepancy between statements and actions chosen followed by an adjustment of principles to actions) appears produced by the attempt, not necessarily conscious, to strike a balance between self-image and immediate convenience. (more; HT Dan Houser)

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War Injustice

As frequent WWII movies continue to show, our culture uses that war as our clearest icon of a just war. So it is important to remember how much injustice there was on the “just” side:

Between 1945 and 1950, Europe witnessed the largest episode of forced migration, and perhaps the single greatest movement of population, in human history. Between 12 million and 14 million German-speaking civilians—the overwhelming majority of whom were women, old people, and children under 16—were forcibly ejected from their places of birth in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and what are today the western districts of Poland. … They were deposited among the ruins of Allied-occupied Germany to fend for themselves as best they could. The number who died as a result of starvation, disease, beatings, or outright execution is unknown, but conservative estimates suggest that at least 500,000 people lost their lives in the course of the operation.

Most disturbingly of all, tens of thousands perished as a result of ill treatment while being used as slave labor in a vast network of camps extending across central and southeastern Europe—many of which, like Auschwitz I and Theresienstadt, were former German concentration camps kept in operation for years after the war. … Ironically, no more than 100 or so miles away from the camps being put to this new use, the surviving Nazi leaders were being tried by the Allies in the courtroom at Nuremberg on a bill of indictment that listed “deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population” under the heading of “crimes against humanity.”

By any measure, the postwar expulsions were a manmade disaster and one of the most significant examples of the mass violation of human rights in recent history. Yet although they occurred within living memory, in time of peace, and in the middle of the world’s most densely populated continent, they remain all but unknown outside Germany itself. …

Contradicting Allied rhetoric that asserted that World War II had been fought above all to uphold the dignity and worth of all people, the Germans included, thousands of Western officials, servicemen, and technocrats took a full part in carrying out a program that, when perpetrated by their wartime enemies, they did not hesitate to denounce as contrary to all principles of humanity. (more)

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More On Music Function

I read up a bit more on theories of music’s function – quotes below.

For any signal a key question is why observers should believe it. For example, many animal sounds come with clear simple reasons to believe them. A loud roar can show the physical strength of its source, and its willingness to expend energy. A soft coo, in contrast, can show that the source is relaxed and comfortable.

With language we humans can say far more things than we can directly show via the way we say it. Even so, speakers and listeners usually have a common interest in agreeing at least on what was meant by what was said. So a listener can often at least credibly believe that the speaker meant to claim a certain thing, even if that listener doesn’t have further reasons to believe that what was said is true.

Music seems to tell emotions, and sometimes it is enough to tell what emotion you claim to have, even if listeners have no further reason to believe that claim. But we seem to have far more types of music than we have kinds of emotions to tell. And the main music puzzle seems to be on the listener end – why are we built so that hearing emotional music evokes similar emotions in ourselves, at least when we are in a receptive frame of mind. Why does music evoke emotions more reliably than does hearing a simple verbal description of the same emotions?

A similar thing happens with stories, at least when we are in a receptive frame of mind. Story-tellers can make us like some people, things, and events, and dislike others, using simple tricks that we all know are evidentially unfair. Why are we as listeners so often eager to enter story and music receptive frames of mind, allowing others to more directly control our emotions, attitudes, and opinions about people, acts, and events?

Yes going through a process like this together that can bond people, as they end up knowing that they have acquired similar emotions and opinions. But why does such a capacity even exist? Why are our minds so vulnerable to raw back door control over what we think and feel?

Yesterday I suggested that this capacity exists exactly because it lets people see that they acquire similar emotions, attitudes, and opinions, a similarity that goes beyond any similar evidence they may each hold supporting such things. As long as we are confident that our associates’ emotions and attitudes are so manipulable, we can be reassured that their attitudes are similar to ours.

But if so, why haven’t some of us evolved a capacity to fake such vulnerability, appearing to enjoy music and stories, but not allowing them to change their attitudes and opinions toward people, acts, and events? A similar issue arises with wanting our associates to internalize key social norms, such as against murder. If our associates could act horrified by murder, but not actually be reluctant to murder, we’d have to be a lot more wary of them.

While some of us do seem especially good at faking feelings, most of us are lousy liars. That combined with our strong censure of apparent fakers produces an equilibrium where most of us stay pretty close to acting vulnerable to key norms, stories, and music.

Those promised quotes: Continue reading "More On Music Function" »

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What Function Music?

Darwin argued that music evolved mainly by sexual selection through mate choice—and that we’re uncomfortable acknowledging that fact. (more)

My students … don’t talk about music very eagerly. In class I can get a conversation going about God with no problem. And students love talking about alcohol and its effects on the human mind and spirit, theirs in particular. A conversation about sex is easy to start and quickly goes way further than I’d imagine — and sometimes further than I want. … [Yet] when I ask what role music plays in their lives or why they listen to what they do, there is silence. (more)

I can also feel in myself a reluctance to analyze music, a fear that awareness might kill something precious. Yet this also suggests there’s an important hypocrisy here, a truth we’d rather not face. Digging, I found a summary of music’s functions:

Seven main functions of music listening were identified: music in the background, memories through music, music as diversion, emotions and self-regulation through music, music as reflection of self and social bonding through music. (more detail below)

Anything that we can do several different ways can help to identify us and our groups. Anything we can do together can bond us. And anything that can be done well or badly can signal ability. Any different activity could be a diversion. And any stimulation can sit in the background while we do other things. Because these functions can apply to most anything, they seem last-resort explanations for why we developed a musical capacity. More likely, such functions were layered onto an activity that had a more unique base function.

It certainly feels helpful that music can adjust our mood and emotions. The question is why we’d be built with something so expensive as our mood adjustment knobs. If we needed conscious control of mood, why not just evolve a direct control? I’m also struck by how important lyrics are to music – none of the above functions explain why we prefer songs with meaningful words.

Compared to other sorts of speech, we especially like stories to be accompanied by music. And the lyrics of songs are similar to stories in many ways. This suggests that stories and music perform similar or complementary functions.

If the lower levels of our minds tend to treat story events like real events, then we can use our stories to influence our beliefs about what happens in the real world. By consuming stories socially, and preferring stories preferred by our leaders and created by impressive story tellers, we coordinate to believe what our associates believe, and what our high status leaders choose us to believe, even against the evidence of our eyes. And by letting others see the stories we consume, we can signal this choice to others.

Thus we can use stories to signal our allegiance to our leaders’ and groups’ norms. Of course if some people evolved an ability to prevent stories from influencing their expectations about real events, they’d be able to fake this conformity signal. Which might be why we feel revulsion for “inhuman” folks who are not moved by stories.

Similarly, imagine music can directly influence our emotions and moods, but that we have only limited direct conscious control over such things. In this case by associating music with people and verbal claims, we can influence our attitudes toward such things. And by sharing music with our groups, and preferring music preferred by our leaders and created by impressive artists, we can coordinate to have have the attitudes our associates do, and the ones our high status leaders prefer. By consuming music together, we can signal this choice to others. And we’d naturally feel revulsion against those who could fake this signal, because music didn’t influence their moods.

Homo hypocritus likes to think that his beliefs and attitudes are based only on his evidence; he doesn’t believe things just to please his associates or leaders. But he in fact needs to believe what his associates do, and what his leaders like, often against his evidence. And he needs to signal this fact to his associates and leaders.

By visibly exposing himself to shared stories and music, that directly influence his beliefs, while consciously believing that stories and music do not change his beliefs, homo hypocritus can accomplish all these things. This can also explain why we are reluctant to seriously examine the function of music (and stories) in our lives.

Those promised function details: Continue reading "What Function Music?" »

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The Smart Are MORE Biased To Think They Are LESS Biased

I seem to know a lot of smart contrarians who think that standard human biases justify their contrarian position. They argue:

Yes, my view on this subject is in contrast to a consensus among academic and other credentialed experts on this subject. But the fact is that human thoughts are subject to many standard biases, and those biases have misled most others to this mistaken consensus position. For example biases A,B, and C would tend to make people think what they do on this subject, even if that view were not true. I, in contrast, have avoided these biases, both because I know about them (see, I can name them), and because I am so much smarter than these other folks. (Have you seen my test scores?) And this is why I can justifiably disagree with an expert consensus on this subject.

Problem is, not only are smart folks not less biased for many biases, if anything smart folks more easily succumb to the bias of thinking that they are less biased than others:

The so-called bias blind spot arises when people report that thinking biases are more prevalent in others than in themselves. … We found that none of these bias blind spots were attenuated by measures of cognitive sophistication such as cognitive ability or thinking dispositions related to bias. If anything, a larger bias blind spot was associated with higher cognitive ability. Additional analyses indicated that being free of the bias blind spot does not help a person avoid the actual classic cognitive biases. …

Most cognitive biases in the heuristics and biases literature are negatively correlated with cognitive sophistication, whether the latter is indexed by development, by cognitive ability, or by thinking dispositions. This was not true for any of the bias blind spots studied here. As opposed to the social emphasis in past work on the bias blind spot, we examined bias blind spots connected to some of the most well-known effects from the heuristics and biases literature: outcome bias, base-rate neglect, framing bias, conjunction fallacy, anchoring bias, and myside bias. We found that none of these bias blind spot effects displayed a negative correlation with measures of cognitive ability (SAT total, CRT) or with measures of thinking dispositions (need for cognition, actively open-minded thinking). If anything, the correlations went in the other direction.

We explored the obvious explanation for the indications of a positive correlation between cognitive ability and the magnitude of the bias blind spot in our data. That explanation is the not unreasonable one that more cognitively sophisticated people might indeed show lower cognitive biases—so that it would be correct for them to view themselves as less biased than their peers. However, … we found very little evidence that these classic biases were attenuated by cognitive ability. More intelligent people were not actually less biased—a finding that would have justified their displaying a larger bias blind spot. …

Thus, the bias blind spot joins a small group of other effects such as myside bias and noncausal base-rate neglect in being unmitigated by increases in intelligence. That cognitive sophistication does not mitigate the bias blind spot is consistent with the idea that the mechanisms that cause the bias are quite fundamental and not easily controlled strategically— that they reflect what is termed Type 1 processing in dual-process theory. (more)

Added 12June: The New Yorker talks about this paper:

The results were quite disturbing. For one thing, self-awareness was not particularly useful: as the scientists note, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.” … All four of the measures showed positive correlations, “indicating that more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots.”

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Wither The Industrial Revolution?

The Numbers, hundreds, thousands of Numbers in light blue unifs (probably a derivative of the ancient uniform) with golden badges on the chest – the State number of each one, male or female – the Numbers were walking slowly, four abreast, exaltedly keeping step. (more)

Over the last year I’ve reviewed several ~1900 era future dystopias, such as Metropolis, We, and Pictures of the Socialistic Future. I wanted to see fears of the industrial revolution, from an era when that revolution was still young enough for people could see things from a farmer era point of view, and yet old enough that people had some idea of where the revolution was going.

A wide mix of concerns are expressed, from aversion to change to fear of weakened connections to nature. But the strongest concerns were about the new scales of social organization, arguably the central distinguishing feature of the industrial era. People saw the rapid increase in the scale of factories and firms, and projected that trend forward to imagine a rapid change to coordinating in this way on even larger scales, and over more areas of our lives. People imagined entire cities and nations being organized as were factories and firms, with commands sent down from above, and little room for local discretion. They also imagined such commands telling people not only what job to do when, but also what to read and eat, who to marry, where to live, etc.

Many of the concerns were about who would control these new organizations. But there were also concerns about there being such organizations, no matter who controlled them, and how they would change humanity.

Today, it seems that such fears were overblown. Yes, the size of cities, firms, and nations has increased, but this increase has been far slower than feared. The scope of activities run by these large organizations increased for a while, but that trend mostly stopped and arguably reversed. For example, cafeteria scale organization of meals increased for a while, but today most folks avoid such structure.

These fears of regimentation were most realized by folks, such as communists, who seemed to take trend projections as destiny, and purposely tried to create the large scale and scope command style organizations they thought inevitable soon. Which shows how dangerous can be overconfidence on future trend projections.

But it is also too soon to claim that these fears will not be realized. The scale of cities, firms, and nations continues to climb. More jobs become more regimented, regulated, and structured, leaving fewer dimensions of discretion. More jobs focus on dealing with other parts of organizations, instead of dealing directly with customers or the physical world.

The non-increase in the scope of regimentation in our lives seems to be mainly due to our increasing wealth. We choose to spend our increased wealth keeping our leisure lives small scale and easily changed. But if per capita wealth were to greatly decrease in the future, this trend could easily reverse. Future very poor descendants, for example, might find it hard to resist the cost savings of cafeteria style food service, or dorm style sleeping arrangements.

The industrial revolution continues, and we have not seen its end. We’ve heard one shoe drop – another may be on its way.

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Krugman On Future Econ

While Paul Krugman and I disagree on some things, but those disagreements are small compared to our common ground, from being both economists. Especially on the future, where most folks rely way too much on their intuitive naive social science. So it was a pleasure to read Krugman being reasonable on the future:

Maybe by the 24th century it’ll be different again, but I’m not so sure about that optimistic view of Captain Picard. One thing I think we see is that greed has a way of breaking through, no matter what we do on other fronts. … I think we’re probably going to have something like a market as far as the eye can see, although actually by the 24th century, since the artificial intelligences will probably be doing everything … I don’t know how they’ll do it, but we don’t need to know because they’ll do it. …

You’d like to imagine that we could eventually get to a point where we really are post-scarcity. But it’s a hard road. John Maynard Keynes wrote an optimistic essay called “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” [PDF] in the ’30s where he talked about once the world was four times or eight times as rich as it was when he was writing, at that point we would no longer be concerned about material things and we could get past all of this striving and greed. And actually we are about as much richer as we were supposed to be according to [Keynes] projection, and somehow the striving and greed is still with us. So it’s a further away goal than we’d like to imagine. …

When I’m having a bad day, I try to think, “What are the possible routes by which we don’t turn into a dystopian society?” I mean, we’ve got the environmental threat, … [and] there’s real echoes of the 1930s in a lot of what’s going on politically, mostly in Europe, but there’s some of it here too. And information technology has been so far by and large a force for liberation, but it’s not too hard to see how it could turn into a force for the opposite. …

It’s quite possible that the long run state, that the natural state, except for special episodes, is one of extreme inequality. … I was asked to write something … written as if looking backwards from the year 2096. … I wrote of a society where basically not just the middle class was gone but education was devalued and wealth came largely just from owning resources — back to the old days of a resource-based aristocracy. We still think of that “Ozzie and Harriet society,” … that we had for a generation after World War II as being somehow the natural end state of modern technology, modern development, and I guess the balance of the evidence says, no, that’s not how it works. …

I’m not sure exactly how major media organizations are going to survive in the long run. … We thought for a while that it was going to be very democratizing, and it turns out not to be. … You end up with what is a very hierarchical system, in which a few people really do garner the great bulk of the attention in any particular area of discussion. (more; HT Tyler)

It seems here that for Krugman a society with extreme inequality must be dystopian, no matter what its other features. With that view I heartily disagree. But that’s a political value judgment, not economics.

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