Author Archives: Norman Siebrasse

Self-Interest, Intent & Deceit

Anders Sandberg’s post last week prompted a debate on the role of intent in explaining behaviour.  Anders would give significant weight to conscious stated goals, while some commenters preferred the economic methodology of ignoring stated goals and assuming behaviour is ultimately based on self-interest.

Perhaps evolutionary psychology can help reconcile these positions.  The evolutionary methodology, like the economic methodology, takes self-interest to be the ultimate motivation.  But, as Richard Alexander and Robert Trivers have pointed out, being deceived is disadvantageous, which implies that there will be selection to be good at spotting deception, which implies that there will be selection in favour of self-deception.  In short, the best way to lie convincingly is to believe your own lie.  For that reason, there is often likely to be a mismatch between stated and actual (ultimate) motivations; people are likely to posit noble objectives in the pursuit of their own self-interest. 

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The Judo Principle

The principle of judo is to use your opponent’s strength against him, by guiding it rather than resisting it.  A recent Australian campaign against reckless driving, aimed specifically at young men, has adopted the same approach with respect to cognitive biases.  http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article1985802.ece

The traditional campaign, emphasizing the risks involved with speeding by showing graphic road crashes, was ineffective.  This is as would be predicted by evolutionary psychology.  Young males of many species engage in risky behaviour in order to signal their extraordinary prowess to women.  A man who succeeds, mates, and one who fails might as well be dead anyway, in evolutionary terms.  The traditional campaign assumes that young male speeders don’t realize their behaviour is risky, when in fact they speed because it’s risky.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the campaign actually increased the incidence of dangerous speeding by young men.

The new campaign encourages women to signal a small penis by wiggling their pinky at speeders, a sign which apparently signals a small penis.  This hits the mark, in evolutionary terms.  But will it work?  If women in fact find men who are successful risk takers to be more attractive, I doubt that an advertising campaign will make men believe otherwise.  If the campaign succeeds it will be a fascinating example of the triumph of culture over nature.  It’s worth a try.

Anyone have any other applications of the judo principle?

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Privacy rights and cognitive bias

Protection of privacy is a hot topic.  Hardly a day goes by without concerns over protection of privacy hitting the headlines with real impact (today’s example is “Google yields to privacy campaign” in setting their cookies to auto-delete.)  It seems clear that there is a general presumption in favour of privacy, in the sense that if something is seen to invade privacy this is a prima facie reason for stopping it, and the person wishing to go ahead bears the burden of justification.  But is this privacy presumption a rational response to the threat of invasive technology, or is it the result of a cognitive bias?

While I don’t work directly in the area, as a (somewhat bemused) observer I’ve always felt that there is a mismatch between the strength of feelings regarding privacy and the strength of the substantive arguments.  I think it is fair to say that in much of the debate as reported in the media no argument at all is made in favour of privacy.  It is just accepted as presumptively good.  This in itself suggests to me that there is a cognitive bias at play, even if there are ultimately good arguments for the privacy presumption. 

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