Category Archives: Psychology

Political Signaling Theories

My conversation with Andrew Gelman inspires me to elaborate my position on politics:

Policy wonks talk about political ideologies as sets of value weights to use in policy tradeoffs … I’m suggesting instead that “Politics Isn’t About Policy.”  In large polities, the main function of our politics in our lives is how it influences the way others see us; its influence on us via policy is far weaker.   But it looks bad to admit we do politics to selfishly show off, instead of to help society make better policy.  So we are built to instead talk, and think, as if we do politics for its influence on policy; we are build to be self-deceived about how politics matters to us.

Modern political science does a pretty good job understanding the behaviors of politicians and bureaucrats, given how the public behaves; we fail most in understanding how ordinary folks relate to political processes.  And our best hope for doing better there is, I think, the idea that we are executing strategies that evolved long ago among our distant ancestors.

Our ancestors argued beliefs and negotiated actions in groups ranging from size two to a hundred.  No doubt they evolved to adapt their behavior to the size of the group, at least within this range.  And for the largest groups, the main payoffs from their arguing and negotiating behavior was not via influencing the resulting group beliefs and actions, but from how their words and deeds influenced how others thought of them.  This is all the more true for modern group sizes, and I suspect our strategies are adaptive enough to emphasize impression management even more for larger groups. Continue reading "Political Signaling Theories" »

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

You Don’t Know Why You Act

Psychologists document choice blindness:

As anyone who has ever been in a verbal disagreement can attest, people tend to give elaborate justifications for their decisions, which we have every reason to believe are nothing more than rationalisations after the event. …

In one recent study we invited supermarket customers to choose between two paired varieties of jam and tea. In order to switch each participant's choice without them noticing, we created two sets of "magical" jars, with lids at both ends and a divider inside. The jars looked normal, but were designed to hold one variety of jam or tea at each end, and could easily be flipped over.

Immediately after the participants chose, we asked them to taste their choice again and tell us verbally why they made that choice. Before they did, we turned over the sample containers, so the tasters were given the opposite of what they had intended in their selection. Strikingly, people detected no more than a third of all these trick trials. Even when we switched such remarkably different flavours as spicy cinnamon and apple for bitter grapefruit jam, the participants spotted less than half of all switches.

Continue reading "You Don’t Know Why You Act" »

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

The what-pisses-you-off heuristic

This post by Robin, in which he is annoyed that an organization of interior designers has persuaded state legislatures to license their profession (such as it is), and which he is also annoyed that his fellow economists don’t make more of a fuss about such regulations, reminds me of a principle that I heard once (I don’t remember where) that you can really understand someone’s deeper ideology by looking at what pisses him or her off.

As Robin himself notes, the licensing of florists, funeral directors, and interior designers is not a big deal–certainly nothing on the order of the problems caused by overfishing, say, or by various trade and migration restrictions, or even the (arguably) large problems caused by policies such as the mortgage tax deduction which reduce people’s ability to move.

Nonetheless, Robin writes of economists’ disinclination to fight the licensing battle that it “saddens me more than I can say.” I don’t doubt his sincerity. but what’s most interesting to me here is to think about why this bothers him so much.

P.S. I certainly don’t mean this to be a personal criticism of Robin in any way. I certainly have my own things that piss me off for no particular reason, ranging from socks lying around on the floor–they’re not a practical obstacle so why does the messiness bother me so much–to misinterpretations (as I see them) of Bayesian statistics–things that are probably lower on the scale of importance than the net welfare loss caused by economists not fighting the licensing of florists.

There are so many things to be pissed off about, that the choice of what we decide to let bother us can perhaps be revealing.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:

When Eyes Weigh

Even our "direct" perceptions, such as of how much a box weighs, are greatly influenced by our expectations.  From a recent New Scientist:

Get hold of two cardboard boxes of different sizes and put a brick in each one. Check they weigh the same, then get somebody to lift them and tell you which is the heavier. The vast majority of people will say that the smaller box is heavier, even though it isn't, and will continue to maintain that it is even after looking inside both boxes and lifting them several times. … Curiously, experiments show that even though people initially use greater force to lift the larger box than the smaller one, on subsequent lifts they unconsciously equalise the amount of force they use to lift them. Despite their bodies apparently "knowing" that the boxes weigh the same, their minds still perceive the smaller box as being heavier. …

[Someone] showed that we can unlearn the size-weight illusion. He got volunteers to spend several days manipulating boxes that became lighter the larger they were. At the end of the process he found that their size-weight illusion was reversed. … This is good evidence that the illusion arises out of experience of the world, where larger objects tend to weigh more than smaller objects of the same kind.

This makes me more forgiving of people whose mistaken beliefs are contradicted by evidence right "before their eyes."  Our eyes don't see nearly as much as we'd like.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:

I’ll Be Different

A young colleague recently said he didn't want to end up like older folks he knew who didn't keep up with new music fashions.  Some of us older folks suggested he probably would become like us, and he would probably like it.  He was horrified.

People often wonder what it will be like for them to be old, or married, or with a successful career, etc.  They usually conclude they just can't know, and must wait and see.  Yet all around them are other folks who are old, married, etc. – why not just accept those experiences as a good predictions of such futures? 

People usually respond that they are too different from these other folks for their experiences to be a good guide.  A paper in the latest Science suggests otherwise

Two experiments revealed that (i) people can more accurately predict their affective reactions to a future event when they know how a neighbor in their social network reacted to the event than when they know about the event itself and (ii) people do not believe this.

We mistakenly prefer an "inside" view, imagining how we'd respond to particular details, but in fact the "outside" view of others' reactions is more reliable.  

This seems to me more than a simple cognitive error.  It seems folks feel that they would not be motivated enough to exercise, marry, work, etc. if they thought their future was going to be much like the futures of others around them.  Are they right?  More from that paper:

Continue reading "I’ll Be Different" »

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Echo Chamber Confidence

We should realize that we gain far less info in an echo chamber than from being around folks with diverse views.  The latest Journal of Experimental Psychology says we just don't get this

The experimental task involved estimating the number of calories in measured quantities of different foods (e.g., a cup of yogurt, a bowl of cooked rice). … Participants were asked to generate a calorie estimate for each food and then indicate their confidence in it. … [Then] they were provided with the opinions of three advisors, and were given the opportunity to revise their initial estimates. They were told that they would receive a bonus for making accurate judgments, … [and] were also asked to indicate their confidence in their final (revised) estimates and to bet on their accuracy.  …

On half the trials (independent condition) the [screen] header stated that “these estimates were randomly drawn from a pool of 100 estimates made by participants in a previous study,” whereas on the remaining trials (opinion-dependent condition) the header stated that “these estimates were selected from those closest to your own initial opinion in a pool of 100 estimates made by participants in a previous study.” …

Receiving advice increased participants’ confidence in the dependent condition, but not in the independent condition.  Participants indicated greater confidence in their final estimates in the opinion-dependent than in the independent condition.  In accord with the confidence results, the participants bet more often in the dependent (58%) than in the independent condition (42%).

Please, please, don't let yourself succumb to the very common bias to confidence in views because "everyone" at your favorite website agrees with them, if those people have been selected for this very agreement!  Once you realize that many others elsewhere disagree, that disagreement should weigh heavily on your estimation. 

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Toddlers Avoid Dissenters

The majoritarian instinct arrives very early.  The latest Psychological Science says toddlers prefer advice from toddlers who agreed with a majority: 

In two experiments, 3- and 4-year-olds were tested for their sensitivity to agreement and disagreement among informants. In pretest trials, they watched as three of four informants (Experiment 1) or two of three informants (Experiment 2) indicated the same referent for an unfamiliar label; the remaining informant was a lone dissenter who indicated a different referent. Asked for their own judgment, the preschoolers sided with the majority rather than the dissenter. In subsequent test trials, one member of the majority and the dissenter remained present and continued to provide conflicting information about the names of unfamiliar objects. Children remained mistrustful of the dissenter. They preferred to seek and endorse information from the informant who had belonged to the majority. The implications and scope of children's early sensitivity to group consensus are discussed.

Of course this can be interpreted either as an info or conformity strategy.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

An African Folktale

This is a folktale of the Hausa, a farming culture of around 30 million people, located primarily in Nigeria and Niger but with other communities scattered around Africa.  I find the different cultural assumptions revealed to be… attention-catching; you wouldn't find a tale like this in Aesop.  From Hausa Tales and Traditions by Frank Edgar and Neil Skinner; HT Robert Greene.

The Farmer, the Snake and the Heron

    There was once a man hoeing away on his farm, when along came some people chasing a snake, meaning to kill it.  And the snake came up to the farmer.
    Says the snake "Farmer, please hide me."  "Where shall I hide you?" said the farmer, and the snake said "All I ask is that you save my life."  The farmer couldn't think where to put the snake, and at last bent down and opened his anus, and the snake entered.
    Presently the snake's pursuers arrived and said to the farmer "Hey, there!  Where's the snake we were chasing and intend to kill?  As we followed him, he came in your direction."  Says the farmer "I haven't seen him."  And the people went back again.
    Then the farmer said to the snake "Righto – come out now.  They've gone."  "Oh no" said the snake, "I've got me a home."  And there was the farmer, with his stomach all swollen, for all the world like a pregnant woman!

Continue reading "An African Folktale" »

GD Star Rating
loading...

Conscious Control

Our conscious minds control less than we think.  From the latest Nature:

A person's responses can often be explained by non-linguistic behaviours of other people and simple instincts for social display and response, without any recourse to conscious cognition. This `second channel' of human communication acts in parallel with that based on rational thinking and verbal communication, and it is much more important in human affairs than most people like to think. …

The researchers could predict how around 70% of the students would rate an instructor just by analysing the instructor's body language in 30 seconds of soundless video. … The researchers were able to devise an algorithm that could predict whether a call would result in a sale from only a few seconds of data.  Successful operators, it turned out, spoke little and listened more. And when they did speak, their voices fluctuated strongly in amplitude and pitch, suggesting interest and responsiveness. … In an experiment involving a 45-minute mock salary negotiation between students in a business school, [Alex] Pentland says that by combining several display signals from the first 5 minutes of the negotiation, his team could predict who would come out on top with 87% accuracy. …

As a result of such experiments, the MIT group has identified a handful of common social signals that predict the outcomes of sales pitches, the success of bluffing in poker, even subjective judgements of trust. These signals include the `activity level', effectively the fraction of time the person speaks; their `engagement' or how much a person drives the conversation; and `mirroring', which occurs when one participant subconsciously copies another's prosody and gesture. …

Humans lived in social groups long before language evolved, and the language function presumably exists on top of a more archaic brain system for non-linguistic social signalling. … Apes, chimpanzees and other primates – our close evolutionary cousins – lack anything like our facility for language, yet still lead sophisticated social lives through displays of power, meaningful noises and facial expressions.

Our conscious minds are more PR folks than CEOs of our total minds.  We are much better at explaining than predicting ourselves.  So the first step to wisdom is to realize how little we know about why we do what we do, or why we think what we think. 

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:

Beware Detached Detail

Yesterday I talked about how "social minds must both make good decisions, and present good images to others" and suggested "the near-far brain division can be handy when facing this problem; let the far system focus more on image, and the near system focus more on decisions." But I didn't follow this thought very far down the game tree. To an economist going down the game tree is like going down the rabbit hole; it shows us just how deep and strange are the underlying drivers of top behavior.

If our far thoughts are more distorted to present good images, then the next step down the rabbit hole is this: to judge how we will typically act, others should prefer to see our near thoughts, at least if they can distinguish near versus far thoughts. After all, near thoughts drive most day to day actions. And we should each look more to our own near thoughts to judge our own sincerity.

Once we evolved to weigh near others' thoughts more heavily, the next step would be to look for cheap ways to have good-looking near-thoughts, without paying the full price of distorting important actions. That is, our mind designer would look for ways to show "detached" near thoughts, consistent with good-image far-thoughts, but not actually impacting much on important near decisions. This could be accomplished by vivid engaging detail that can clearly occupy our near thought systems, but which isn't much connected to substantial personal decisions.

Continue reading "Beware Detached Detail" »

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,