Tag Archives: Art

Why We Believe

Long ago, I first believed in religion as a young kid because I believed what I was told. Then I also believed because religious claims seemed to explain the strong emotions that religious contexts induced. This is how religion works – you feel strong emotions due to candles, buildings, clothes, music, well crafted and button-pushing words, charismatic empathetic leaders, social support and status. And if respected leaders and supporters around you then claim that your emotions are caused by God, well that makes sense. Even though many religious claims are transparently crazy, at least to people who well understand the world, they are easy for the young or inexpert to accept.

Recently while watching an emotional movie with political and moral overtones, I was reminded that the same is true for art. Art can make us feel strong emotions via all the same mechanisms. When high status artists and art supporters around us tell us these emotions are caused by our recognizing the emotional truth of art’s moral, political, and legal claims, that can make sense to us. Yet most of the channels by which art makes us feel emotions are irrelevant to the truth of its key claims. When we come to see this, we usually make excuses and tell ourselves that we aren’t fooled by all that other stuff; we really are just evaluating only the key moral/political/legal arguments. But the many correlations we see between features of art and who is persuaded when make it hard to believe this applies to most people most of the time.

The same likely also holds for essays like this one, or academic papers. While such writings may contain logical arguments, they also transmit writing styles, author charisma, status, and impressiveness, and clues about who supports or opposes them. You might think that you correct for all those influences when you read such writings and evaluate their claims, but the patterns above in religion and art suggest this is unlikely. The fact that people aren’t very interested in the accuracy of their pundits suggests we usually give a high priority to presentation style.

Could we do better? On subjects that have implications for future observations we could use prediction markets. But what about other subjects? Well, we might try to control for presentation variation by having a group of neutral writers rewrite common arguments in a standard style. That is, a single neutral writer could present all the different arguments on some subject, all using the same writing style. Readers of such presentations would have a better chance of drawing conclusions on each subject based on the logic of arguments, instead of writing styles. The fact that we aren’t very interested in these sort of presentations suggests that we aren’t very interested in reducing the influence of other writing style related factors.

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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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Death of a Salesman

A recent NYT article intrigued me:

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” … is the most devastating portrait of punctured middle-class dreams in our national literature. … [It] has consolidated its prestige as an exposure of middle-class delusions. … Mr. Miller later wrote …. that he had hoped the play would expose “this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.” … Mr. Miller remembered worrying in 1949 that “there was too much identification with Willy, too much weeping, and that the play’s ironies were being dimmed out by all this empathy.” … Miller’s outrage at a capitalist system he wanted to humanize has become our cynical adaptation to a capitalist system we pride ourselves on knowing how to manipulate. (more)

I didn’t remember the play offering a critique of capitalism, but looking around I see this view is common:

Critics have maintained that much of the enduring universal appeal of Death of a Salesman lies in its central theme of the failure of the American Dream. Willy’s commitment to false social values—consumerism, ambition, social stature—keeps him from acknowledging the value of human experience—the comforts of personal relationships, family and friends, and love. … Some commentators perceive the play as an indictment of American capitalism and a rejection of materialist values. … Willy’s … penchant for blaming others has been passed onto his sons and, as a result, all three men exhibit a poor work ethic and lack of integrity. Willy’s inability to discern between reality and fantasy is another recurring motif. (more)

So I just re-read the play. And it does contain critiques of status, ambition for status, and self-delusion to gain status. It is indeed sad to see a success-driven man unwilling to admit his failure, or to accept charity from friends, choose instead to kill himself. But I see no further critiques of materialism or capitalism in the play.

On materialism, Willy Loman and his similar son Happy mainly want to be liked and respected. Sometimes they care about money, but mainly to keep score, and get respect. When they want luxury goods, such as stockings or fancy drinks, it is mainly to get women to sleep with them. In contrast, Willy’s other son Biff wants “to be outdoors, with [my] shirt off.” Perhaps those other women are materialistic, but not these men.

On capitalism, the play might hold critiques of failing to save for hard times, or of success based on who you know, good looks, and likability. But these are not intrinsic to, or even obviously correlated with, capitalism. For example, North Korea today is nothing like capitalism, yet it has strong status differences, people who struggle for status, in part to gain sex, and success based in part on good looks and who you know. A story about an old self-deluded status-seeking North Korean failure would make just as much sense as Willy Loman’s story.

This seems to me a common situation – things said to be critiques of capitalism are often just critiques of humanity. Humans vie selfishly and self-deludedly for status. Some succeed, while others fail. The struggle, and the failures, aren’t pretty. Yes capitalism inherits this ugliness, but then so does any other system with humans.

It is interesting to note that, compared to most occupations, the world of Miller the playwright was especially like the salesmen Miller described:

For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. … He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. … A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

Like salesmen, playwrights succeed when others like them. Even though most fail, most self-deludedly think they will be the exceptions, and can be crushed when they eventually learn otherwise. But few playwrights lament this, or blame it on capitalism. Why?

I suspect this is because playwrights see even failed playwrights as high status, and successful salesmen as low status. A hidden message of the play is “Poor Willy can’t see that even if he sold a lot, he’d still be a failure in our eyes.” Which is part of why it bothered Arthur Miller that his audiences empathized so much with Willy. Audiences thought Willy could have high status.

Some key quotes from the play: Continue reading "Death of a Salesman" »

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Jiro Lives Worth Living

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a well-reviewed documentary mostly celebrating the world’s best sushi chef. Which is worth pondering, because Jiro is an extreme workaholic. Roger Ebert:

Jiro Ono is 85 years old. As a young boy, he ran away from home to become an apprentice in a restaurant and has been making sushi for more than 70 years. He is apparently not happy doing anything else and prefers to work all day, seven days a week, every day in the year. … You realize he must be a rich man. But to what end? … While watching it, I found myself drawn into the mystery of this man. Are there any unrealized wishes in his life? Secret diversions? Regrets? If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough? (more)

Jiro’s life is also quite routine – he repeats the same actions over and over and over, always seeking slight adjustments to improve quality.

I haven’t seen anyone says this movie describes a terrible tragedy of a wasted worthless life. Most seem to accept Jiro’s life as worth living, and many consider his an exemplary life. Yet let’s imagine some variations on Jiro’s life, and ask if they are also worth living.

First, imagine that Jiro is not rich. He is still the very best, but he gives his sushi away. He has enough to eat, stays warm, and is healthy, but has few luxuries. But since he spends most of his time at the office, it probably doesn’t make that much difference to his quality of life if he is rich or poor.

Second, imagine someone with Jiro’s unsurpassed skill, overwhelming dedication, and fascination with their work, except that this person makes plywood, not sushi. Would that also be a life worth living? It would be a lower status life, as our culture lauds sushi chefs more than plywood makers. But he would still be the very best plywood maker in the world. Isn’t that enough?

Third, imagine holding constant this person’s skill, while increasing other workers’ skills, so that this person is now only of median quality. His subjective experience of working on the job would be similar, except he couldn’t feel superior to everyone else. Would his life be worth living then? That is, can status by itself make the difference between a life worth living and one not? If when he isn’t noticing his status, he has the same feeling of flow, immersion, and fascination in his work, wouldn’t that be enough for a life worth living?

Some of you probably see where I am going with this. Imagine we take the few hundred very best most dedicated workaholic humans, and fill a world with trillions of em copies of them, so that they are mostly working at near subsistence wages, yet have enough food, warmth, health, etc. Is this a world full of creatures with lives worth living?

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Unpainted For Far

We usually think of very old buildings and statues as plainly colored, with just the color of the stone, but in fact they were usually painted colorfully, as the Greek pictures below show. Mayan temples and gothic churches were also wildly colored. But if so, why don’t we see the remaining buildings, statues, etc. painted like that today, so people can see what they looked like? They are often painted, but with plain stone color paint!

You might say it is because we can’t be sure exactly what colors were where. But we often renovate the buildings themselves extensively, and add in missing statutes, even when we aren’t sure exactly what the original buildings or statues looked like.

Also consider that cities like Paris and Washington DC designed their buildings and building codes to look like ancient buildings, except without the paint. Same for many universities like U. Chicago. You might explain this as due to people believing incorrectly that the ancients didn’t have paint. But paint isn’t remotely a recent invention, why would anyone think it was?

Here’s another explanation: thinking of the distant past evokes our far mental mode, in which we tend to think of objects having fewer relevant surfaces and less texture detail. Unpainted buildings and statues appear to have fewer surfaces and less texture – they look more far. We subconsciously think that unpainted things make more sense as something associated with the distant past.

Since power evokes a far mode, your architecture can evoke a far mode that suggests power if it has fewer relevant surfaces and a simpler texture. So people have seen the unpainted ancient style as more distinguished, and places like Paris and Washington DC required such a style as a way to assert their power.

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The Tree of Life is Far

Experiencing awe may have all sorts of tonic effects, including a better sense of perspective on time and priorities, more patience and charity toward others, and generally more satisfaction with life. … Those who were primed to feel awe—those volunteers also saw time as much more expansive, less constricted. They felt free of time’s pressure. … Those who felt they had more available time were less impatient; they were more willing to volunteer their time to help others; and they were less materialistic. (more)

The Tree of Life is up for Best Picture and Best Director Oscars tonight. Though it has only 0.6%, 1.3% chances of winning, it is a great illustration of the ties between far mode, awe, and spirituality. I’ll need spoilers to explain – you are warned. Continue reading "The Tree of Life is Far" »

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Ideals Can Conflict

The usual wisdom says we are most creative when working in groups that avoid criticism. This is wrong:

His book … was published in 1948. … Osborn’s most celebrated idea was … the essential rules of a successful brainstorming session. The single most important … was the absence of criticism and negative feedback. … Brainstorming was an immediate hit and Osborn became a popular business guru. …

But … brainstorming … doesn’t work. The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. … Groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientist gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. … The solo students came tip with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” … Numerous follow up studies have come to the same conclusion. …

Nemeth … divided two hundred and sixty-five female undergraduates into teams of five. … The first set of teams got the standard brainstorming spiel, including the no-criticism rules. Other teams were told … “Most studies suggest that you should debate and criticize each other’s ideas.” The rest received no further instructions. …The brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, but teams given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On average, they generated twenty per cent more ideas. And after the teams disbanded, … brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas; the debaters produced seven. …

“There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings. … Well, that’s just wrong.” (more)

Since the usual wisdom has resisted robust data for so long, it must be that people want to believe it. But why?

First note that we tend to believe this more about other people, and less about ourselves. It is a good idea for a good cause non-profit, or perhaps for our firm somewhere at some future date. But when we have a big immediate problem we really want to solve, we rarely invoke this process. So we believe this more in far mode.

Second, we tend to believe that idealistic things go together. For example, if art is good and peace is good, then art must promote peace, peace must promote art, and so on. Third, since far mode is more idealistic and less analytically critical, in far mode we are more willing to set aside analytic doubts to believe the simple correlation that all good things go together. Fourth, since we are especially creative, social, and uncritical in far mode, and we see all of these as idealistic good things, we are especially willing to believe that they all go together.

We are more idealistic in far mode, and all else equal far mode tends to promote idealistic things. So in far mode we tend to think all idealistic things promote each other. Peace, art, relaxation, positive moods, agreement, cooperation, altruism, creativity, love, etc. But in fact, there are usually tradeoffs – some ideals come at the cost of others.

Interestingly, the article I quote above goes on to talk about patterns of interaction that promote productivity, and it repeatedly just assumes that whatever promotes productivity promotes creativity. For example:

People who worked on Broadway were part of a social network. … The density of these connections [was] a figure he called Q. … A musical created by a team of strangers would have a low Q. … The relationships among collaborators emerged as a reliable predictor of Broadway success. When the Q was low … the musicals were likely to fail. Because the artists didn’t know one another, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas. … But, when the Q was too high, the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation.

Note that this just assumes that a musical’s success is mainly a tradeoff between communication and innovation. Since a successful musical is good, and innovation and communication are good, then musicals must be good because of their innovation and communication. But lots of things that influence success could correlate with how many people you know on Broadway.

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Why Work Hour Limits?

Many laws discourage and limit work hours. Laws require holidays and vacations, limit hours per day and week, and require extra payment for work over these limits. And of course income taxes discourage work more generally. The standard economic explanation for these limits is to prevent inefficient signaling. People motivated to gain relative status, to show their extra dedication to success, and to appear more able, work extra hours, for a net social loss. Work hour limits can reduce such losses. (Academic articles here, here, here, here, here.)

This argument makes some sense, but it would make a lot more sense if we set broader and more consistent limits. Yet we don’t at all limit housework, and place few limits on self-employed work. Furthermore, high status occupations are especially exempt. Doctors, lawyers, managers, financiers, artists, writers, athletes, academics, and software engineers often work crazy hours. Yet the signaling argument would seem to apply nearly as well if not better to such high status work. Why are we so selective in our limits?

One explanation is a battle for relative status between professions and activities. Areas where work hours are limited produce less, and so look less impressive. Ambitious folks who want to show their high abilities then choose other areas, leading to an equilibrium were observers reasonably less respect folks who work in limited areas. On this story, work hour limits were set in manufacturing and manual labor in order to reduce the status of such activities.

A second related explanation is that each society is eager to look good to other societies. So each society prefers to encourage, not discourage, activities that are especially visible to outsiders. When outsiders evaluate societies more on the basis of their athletes than their shop technicians, societies naturally subsidize the former relative to the latter.

Another third explanation is that voters support limits on work hours in some jobs mainly as a way to defy and “stick it to” employers, who are seen as evil and in need of taking down. Firms who employ low status workers may themselves seem lower status and “exploitive,” and thus more acceptable targets of ire. Work hour limits serve as a quantity limit which raises wages and thus employer expenses. Any reduction of signaling losses is nice, but mainly a side effect.

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Buying Affiliation

We care about the origins of art. Comparing two physically identical artworks, we pay more for an original than a duplicate, and not because we think originals have better quality, rarity, resources, or effort. Instead it seems we pay for a more direct physical connection to the artist:

Duplicate artworks are judged to be less valuable than duplicate artifacts. We observed this effect even when both the original artwork and the original artifact were one of a kind and were equivalent in value. Experiment 2 helped to further rule out the potentially confounding inferences based on the relative quality of a duplicate artwork versus a duplicate artifact, as well as on the belief that duplicate artifacts are simply more common than duplicate artworks. Finally, the results of Experiment 3 address the alternative explanation that original artworks are valued because they are perceived as requiring more effort and resources to produce. …

The [importance of] degree of physical contact with the original artist (contagion). … was supported in Experiment 1 and more directly in Experiment 5, where artworks made with a hands-on process were judged to be more valuable than those made with a hands-off process. In addition, contagion had a larger impact for artworks than for artifacts. Support for uniqueness of performance as an important dimension came primarily from Experiment 4, where the act of intentionally duplicating a painting (as opposed to accidentally making a similar looking painting) had a twofold impact on judgments of value in driving down the value of a duplicate, while driving up the value of the original. …

[The idea] that people value original artworks solely because they observe that other people value originals more than duplicates—cannot be entirely correct. … Previous research has documented how … mere proximity between two items in a shopping cart or on a table may be sufficient to trigger inferences about contamination, which can raise or lower value. … Similarly, everyday artifacts can gain value through contact with certain special individuals, such as celebrities. Finally, assessments of a performance as effortful or unique may apply to wide array of objects and events, such as evaluations of sports or scholastic achievement. (more)

This lends some support to the suggestion that customers of academia, such as students, funders, and readers, pay in part for a more direct affiliation with certified-as-impressive academics.

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Hail Temple, Buck

Two recent movies, Temple Grandin and Buck, depict the most inspirational real heroes I can recall. Temple Grandin and Buck Brannaman both pioneered ways to improve animal lives, by getting deep enough in animal heads to see how to avoid terrorizing them. Temple deals with cattle, Buck with horses. Terrorizing animals less also helps humans who deal with them.

Some lessons:

1) Neither is a purist. Both accept that animals often suffer, and are slaves of humans. Both work within the current system to make animals lives better, even if the result falls short of their ideals. Compromising with bad is often essential to doing good.

2) Though are similarly insightful, Grandin has a far bigger impact, as her innovations are embodied in physical capital, e.g., the layout of large plants, chosen by large firms. She has revolutionized an industry. In contrast, Brannaman’s innovations are embodied in human capital chosen by small organizations. While Brannaman is personally impressive, it is far from clear how much practice people like him have really changed. Capital intensity does indeed promote innovation.

3) Many doubt that we should feel bad about animal suffering, because they doubt animal minds react like human minds to force, pain, etc. The impressive abilities of Grandin and Brannaman to predict animal behavior by imagining themselves in animal situations supports their claim that cattle and horse fear and suffering is recognizably similar to human fear and suffering. I tentatively accept that such animals are afraid and suffer in similar ways to humans, with similar types of emotions and feelings, even if they cannot think or talk as abstractly about their suffering.

4) The fact that animals are slaves does not imply that animal lives have no value, or that nothing can effect that value. Slavery need not be worse than death, and usually isn’t. A future where the vast majority of our descendants are slaves could still be a glorious future, even if not as glorious as a future where they are not slaves.

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