Tag Archives: NearFar

Fear of Near Death Thoughts

Sadly Hal Finney, who wrote many great posts here at OB, has ALS:

ALS … is only mostly fatal. When breathing begins to fail, ALS patients must make a choice. They have the option to either go onto invasive mechanical respiration, which involves a tracheotomy and breathing machine, or they can die in comfort. I was very surprised to learn that over 90% of ALS patients choose to die. And even among those who choose life, for the great majority this is an emergency decision made in the hospital during a medical respiratory crisis. …

Probably fewer than 1% of ALS patients arrange to go onto ventilation when they are still in relatively good health, even though this provides the best odds for a successful transition.  With mechanical respiration, survival with ALS can be indefinitely extended. And the great majority of people living on respirators say that their quality of life is good. …

There are a number of practical and financial obstacles to successfully surviving on a ventilator, foremost among them the great load on caregivers. No doubt this contributes to the high rates of choosing death. But it seems that much of the objection is philosophical. People are not happy about being kept alive by machines. … I hope that when the time comes, I will choose life. …. Stephen Hawking, the world’s longest surviving ALS patient at over 40 years since diagnosis, is said to be able to type at ten words per minute by twitching a cheek muscle.

Medicine and health are strange and distorted in large part because of the misnamed “fear of death.”  If we really feared death, we would think hard and critically about how to avoid death, and we would succeed a lot more.  Instead, however, we fear thinking about our own death, especially in near mode.  Near mode favors practical analytical reasoning, while far mode favors symbolic creative reasoning.  When we are forced to think about our death we run screaming into far mode, placing us at a further psychological distance, but hindering our ability to think practically.

My best idea for reforming medicine is for us to each put our medical decisions in the hands of someone with expert knowledge and a clear financial incentive to make good health vs. cost tradeoffs.  Unfortunately, this suggestion to put med choices in an expert hard-headed near-mode mind doesn’t hit the right symbolic chords in our far-mode avoiding-death-thoughts minds.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Near Far In Science Fiction

In their recent Science article reviewing near-far findings (which I discussed here), Liberman and Trope illustrated their concepts with Elder’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus:

[An] intriguing mixture of high-level, abstract features, and low-level, concrete features. … In this painting, the ploughman witnesses the fall of Icarus. However, as he is immersed in the details of his immediate chore, he is oblivious to the significance of the event.

AudenPainting

Like many others I enjoyed the new Star Trek movie, even if I don’t especially respect myself for that, and recently just rewatched Star Wars episodes II,III.  And the most compelling visuals and scenes in those movies were similar, in that they combined familiar and emotionally-true foregrounds with dramatic symbolically-meaningful backgrounds which often made little sense if you thought much about them.  For example, in Star Trek isolated crowded shipyards are shown scattered in simple farmland, wildly violating economies of agglomeration:

Continue reading "Near Far In Science Fiction" »

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Far Thoughts Fit Ideals

Back in January, a Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article found:

Values are more likely to be expressed through value-congruent judgments and behaviors when individuals think abstractly about their actions, and not when they think concretely.

This wording sounds strange to an economist; to us someone's "values" are just whatever preferences explain his behavior.  The behavior of folks thinking in near (concrete) mode is just as explainable as for those thinking in far (abstract) mode – it is just explainable via different preferences.

However, by "values" these psychologists actually mean what I'll call "ideals" – abstract, as opposed to concrete, goals that we verbally, and usually proudly, embrace.  They include:

individualistic goals (e.g., “For unique individuals like you”). … collectivistic goals (e.g., “For spending quality time with friends and family”) …  universalism (i.e., understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and of nature) and self-direction values (i.e., independent thought and action choosing, creating, and exploring)

Continue reading "Far Thoughts Fit Ideals" »

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Near-Far Like Drunk Darts?

From a recent book review:

Jonah Lehrer's mission in The Decisive Moment is to help us determine when to override our instincts and when to let them run. … One of Lehrer's interesting recommendations [is]: trust your emotions in situations where you have had a lot of experience, since this is when [your brain is] … best equipped to warn you of any deviations from their established patterns. In novel situations, on the other hand, such as when playing a new game or considering a risk to your health, it is a good idea to take a step back and do the maths, even though your emotional brain will tell you it knows better.

Macroeconomists have seen lots of precedents for this economic crisis; this isn't too far out of line from what they've seen before elsewhere. I've heard some macro folk complain that bigshot macroeconomist advice for us-now differs substantially from what they've written about there-then, i.e., about how others should have dealt with similar problems at other times.  Apparently they give different advice when a crisis is seen as "near" versus "far."  Which advice is better?

The quote above suggests this is like asking if you should drink before competing in a darts championship. If you've always practiced darts while drunk, you may be better at darts when drunk than sober; in which case you should compete drunk. Similarly, if macroeconomists have developed most of their expertise while considering events in far mode, they might give better advice when in far than near mode.  In which case we are getting bad advice.

Perhaps macroeconomists would give even better advice if they had trained in a near mode, just as you might compete better at darts if you'd trained sober.  (At least they might if my far-image near-decision speculation is correct.)  But once the training mode has been chosen, and it is time to act, that option may be no longer available.

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: ,

A Tale Of Two Tradeoffs

The design of social minds involves two key tradeoffs, which interact in an important way.

The first tradeoff is that social minds must both make good decisions, and present good images to others.  Our thoughts influence both our actions and what others think of us.  It would be expensive to maintain two separate minds for these two purposes, and even then we would have to maintain enough consistency to convince outsiders a good-image mind was in control. It is cheaper and simpler to just have one integrated mind whose thoughts are a compromise between these two ends.

When possible, mind designers should want to adjust this decision-image tradeoff by context, depending on the relative importance of decisions versus images in each context.  But it might be hard to find cheap effective heuristics saying when images or decisions matter more.

The second key tradeoff is that minds must often think about the same sorts of things using different amounts of detail.  Detailed representations tend to give more insight, but require more mental resources.  In contrast, sparse representations require fewer resources, and make it easier to abstractly compare things to each other.  For example, when reasoning about a room a photo takes more work to study but allows more attention to detail; a word description contains less info but can be processed more quickly, and allows more comparisons to similar rooms.

Continue reading "A Tale Of Two Tradeoffs" »

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Disagreement Is Near-Far Bias

Back in November I read this Science review by Nira Liberman and Yaacov Trope on their awkwardly-named "Construal level theory", and wrote a post I estimated "to be the most dense with useful info on identifying our biases I've ever written":

[NEAR] All of these bring each other more to mind: here, now, me, us; trend-deviating likely real local events; concrete, context-dependent, unstructured, detailed, goal-irrelevant incidental features; feasible safe acts; secondary local concerns; socially close folks with unstable traits. 

[FAR] Conversely, all these bring each other more to mind: there, then, them; trend-following unlikely hypothetical global events; abstract, schematic, context-freer, core, coarse, goal-related features; desirable risk-taking acts, central global symbolic concerns, confident predictions, polarized evaluations, socially distant people with stable traits. 

Since then I've become even more impressed with it, as it explains most biases I know and care about, including muddled thinking about economics and the future.  For example, Ross's famous "fundamental attribution error" is a trivial application. 

The key idea is that when we consider the same thing from near versus far, different features become salient, leading our minds to different conclusions.  This is now my best account of disagreement.  We disagree because we explain our own conclusions via detailed context (e.g., arguments, analysis, and evidence), and others' conclusions via coarse stable traits (e.g., demographics, interests, biases).  While we know abstractly that we also have stable relevant traits, and they have detailed context, we simply assume we have taken that into account, when we have in fact done no such thing. 

For example, imagine I am well-educated and you are not, and I argue for the value of education and you argue against it.  I find it easy to dismiss your view as denigrating something you do not have, but I do not think it plausible I am mainly just celebrating something I do have.  I can see all these detailed reasons for my belief, and I cannot easily see and appreciate your detailed reasons. 

And this is the key error: our minds often assure us that they have taken certain factors into account when they have done no such thing.  I tell myself that of course I realize that I might be biased by my interests; I'm not that stupid.  So I must have already taken that possible bias into account, and so my conclusion must be valid even after correcting for that bias.  But in fact I haven't corrected for it much at all; I've just assumed that I did so.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,

Test Near, Apply Far

Companies often ask me if prediction markets can forecast distant future topics.  I tell them yes, but that is not the place to test any doubts about prediction markets. To vet or validate prediction markets, you want topics where there will be many similar forecasts over a short time, with other mechanisms making forecasts that can be compared. 

If you came up with an account of the cognitive processes that allowed Newton or Einstein to make their great leaps of insight, you would want to look for where that or related accounts applied to more common insight situations.  An account that only applied to a few extreme "geniuses" would be much harder to explore, since we know so little about those few extreme cases.

If you wanted to explain the vast voids we seem to see in the distant universe, and you came up with a theory of a new kind of matter that could fill that void, you would want to ask where nearby one might find or be able to create that new kind of matter.  Only after confronting this matter theory with local data would you have much confidence in applying it to distant voids.

It is easy, way too easy, to generate new mechanisms, accounts, theories, and abstractions.  To see if such things are useful, we need to vet them, and that is easiest "nearby", where we know a lot.  When we want to deal with or understand things "far", where we know little, we have little choice other than to rely on mechanisms, theories, and concepts that have worked well near.  Far is just the wrong place to try new things.

There are a bazillion possible abstractions we could apply to the world.  For each abstraction, the question is not whether one can divide up the world that way, but whether it "carves nature at its joints", giving useful insight not easily gained via other abstractions.  We should be wary of inventing new abstractions just to make sense of things far; we should insist they first show their value nearby. 

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,

Abstract/Distant Future Bias

The latest Science has a psych article saying we think of distant stuff more abstractly, and vice versa.  "The brain is hierarchically organized with higher points in the cortical hierarchy representing increasingly more abstract aspects of stimuli"; activating a region makes nearby activations more likely.  This has stunning implications for our biases about the future. 

All of these bring each other more to mind: here, now, me, us; trend-deviating likely real local events; concrete, context-dependent, unstructured, detailed, goal-irrelevant incidental features; feasible safe acts; secondary local concerns; socially close folks with unstable traits. 

Conversely, all these bring each other more to mind: there, then, them; trend-following unlikely hypothetical global events; abstract, schematic, context-freer, core, coarse, goal-related features; desirable risk-taking acts, central global symbolic concerns, confident predictions, polarized evaluations, socially distant people with stable traits. 

Since these things mostly just cannot go together in reality, this must bias our thinking both about now and about distant futures.  When "in the moment," we focus on ourselves and in-our-face details, feel "one with" what we see and close to quirky folks nearby, see much as uncertain, and safely act to achieve momentary desires given what seems the most likely current situation.  Kinda like smoking weed.

Regarding distant futures, however, we’ll be too confident, focus too much on unlikely global events, rely too much on trends, theories, and loose abstractions, while neglecting details and variation.  We’ll assume the main events take place far away (e.g., space), and uniformly across large regions.  We’ll focus on untrustworthy consistently-behaving globally-organized social-others.  And we’ll neglect feasibility, taking chances to achieve core grand symbolic values, rather than ordinary muddled values.  Sound familiar?

Continue reading "Abstract/Distant Future Bias" »

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: ,