Monthly Archives: July 2010

Do One-Eyed Rule Blind?

A 1904 H.G. Wells short story, “Country of the Blind“, questioned the old proverb “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” In the story, a sighted man stumbles into a long isolated mountain valley where where everyone has been blind for generations, and have adapted their social customs and other senses to being blind.  This new man assumes he will soon be king, but to the locals he seems incompetent:

They thrust him suddenly through a doorway into a room as black as pitch, save at the end there faintly glowed a fire. The crowd closed in behind him and shut out all but the faintest glimmer of day, and before he could arrest himself he had fallen headlong over the feet of a seated man. His arm, outflung, struck the face of someone else as he went down.

His attempts to prove he can see things they cannot go badly.  He underestimates what they can sense via sound:

He would show these people once and for all what sight would do for a man. They would seek him, but not find him.
“You move not, Bogota,” said the voice.
He laughed noiselessly and made two stealthy steps aside from the path.
“Trample not on the grass, Bogota; that is not allowed.”
Nunez had scarcely heard the sound he made himself. He stopped, amazed.

He also miss-specifies a test he offers to pass:

He induced them to let him go a long way up the sloping meadows towards the wall with one complaisant individual, and to him he promised to describe all that happened among the houses. He noted certain goings and comings, but the things that really seemed to signify to these people happened inside of or behind the windowless houses–the only things they took note of to test him by–and of those he could see or tell nothing.

The claim isn’t that a person with a powerful new insight could never prove it to others. Rather, the point is that someone with a new insight could easily fail by arrogance, assuming his insight offers more than it does, and underestimating what can be done, and how things look, without it.

The sighted person in this story could have succeeded by carefully mastering the usual skills and practices of the blind, and then carefully seeking simple clear ways to show how his new ability could give advantage, in the context of their usual practices.  Assuming instead that your new insight excuses you from the need to follow the usual social paths, or to learn the usual insights and skills of your chosen area, is a recipe for failure.

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I’ve written before about how we are mostly unconscious of our many status moves – ways we constantly act to raise and lower our prestige and dominance relative to those around us.  If anything we are in even more denial about status moves involving smiles, and especially laughter.  We tell ourselves we merely laugh in response to things that are “funny” and no, that has no function at all, it is just a harmless evolutionary accident.  Not true at all:

  • “According to a classic study of laughter … in … the shopping mall – they documented 1200 instances of laughter, and found that only 10 to 20 per cent of them were responses to anything remotely resembling a joke. Most laughter was in fact either triggered by a banal comment or used to punctuate everyday speech. … We are 50 per cent more likely to laugh when speaking than when listening, and 30 times gigglier in a social setting than when alone without a social surrogate such as a television. … Our first laughs occur at between 2 and 6 months of age … triggered by surprise in a safe situation (think peek-a-boo). … It encourages babies to explore the world by making them feel happy and safe. When infants begin to engage in rough-and-tumble play, laughter signals that the intentions are not serious. … Through its catching nature … laughter can unify the mood and behaviour of a group. … An “in” joke can exclude outsiders from a clique, for example. Laughter can be used to show who is boss and malicious laughter is an effective weapon of intimidation.” (more)
  • “Right from the start, boys are the laugh-getters, the buffoons and the school clowns who entertain the giggling girls, … in lonely hearts columns, … men tend to advertise their sense of humour and women seek a funny man. Provine believes this shows … female laughter in the presence of men is a signal of submission. … Many studies have shown that dominant individuals, from tribal elders to workplace bosses, are more likely to orchestrate laughter than their subordinates, using it as a means of wielding power either to bond their followers or to divide and rule.”  (more)
  • “Berk showed 14 volunteers 20-minute clips from humorous television programmes … both cholesterol levels and systolic blood pressure fell.” (more)
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Food Subsidy Fails

Many developing countries use food-price subsidies or price controls to improve the nutrition of the poor. However, … consumers may then substitute towards foods with higher non-nutritional attributes (e.g., taste), but lower nutritional content per unit of currency. … We analyze data from a randomized program of large price subsidies for poor households in two provinces of China and find no evidence that the subsidies improved nutrition. (more)

This of course seems to be the median result for all randomized studies which try to improve people: no effect.

In the recent Fast Food episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit!, Brian Wansink of the Cornell Food & Brand Lab was shown separately asking two different groups to estimate the calories in a western chicken salad they had just eaten. Those told correctly that it was from Taco Bell correctly estimated its 970 calories, while those who were told it came from “California Garden Cafe; Gourmet garden-fresh cuisine” guessed about half as many calories.  Since one of main anti-fast-food proposals is for clearly-marked calorie counts on menus, this lab result suggests such proposals would hurt non-fast-food places more.  Anyone know how robust is this lab result, or if the proposals apply equally to all food sales?

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Rah Apathy

At Cato Unbound this month, Larry Arnhart argues evo psych supports classical liberal politics. Herbert Gintis disagrees:

The existence of human universals does not suggest a unique form of social organization. Indeed, there have been many distinct types of human society, and many of these have been widely embraced and broadly defended by their members. … Arnhart’s main argument here is that “evolutionary psychology has confirmed and deepened [the] Darwinian understanding of moral order that arises in civil society through the spontaneous order of human action rather than the coercive order of governmental design.” However, he does not present this evidence and I do not believe that it exists. Indeed, a reasonable generalization is that every known society has a collective mechanism that deals with the establishment of social values and that regulates the treatment of individuals who violate social norms.

Gintis is of course right here. But he goes on:

Humans evolved in contexts in which the establishment and enforcement of morality was regulated collectively. It is an error to consider such collective institutions as tribal meetings as aspects of “civil society.” Rather, they are fundamentally public institutions, and hence are forms of governance. Therefore, for most of human history, collective governance rather than the “spontaneous order of human action” regulated the stabilization and change in social morality. …

The evolutionary history of our species, to my mind, suggests the need for stronger collective regulation of morality in modern than in hunter-gatherer society. This is because modern societies tend to comprise several distinct ethnic and cultural groups with conflicting moral and religious principles. The tolerance preached by classical liberalism is thus a novel moral element injected into the ethical systems of nation states for the purpose of reducing social friction.

We need a formative politics in which political discourse develops the capacities of citizens for self-rule. … Libertarianism makes it impossible to use political discourse to probe fundamental morality. For instance, … contrary to [a] libertarian approach to abortion, another strand of liberalism bids us to enter into a public debate concerning the morality of abortion and come to some understanding through open public discourse. The results of such deliberations may justly be imposed upon dissenters under some conditions. Thus, rather than supporting the institution of gay marriage or that of mothers with young children remaining in the labor force on the grounds “to each his own,” we might want to insist that we debate the implications of these institutions on how they will affect the fabric of our communities and the development of individual character in the future as a result of living with these institutions.

Yes,”to each his own” is not how foragers dealt with topics that induced strong feelings; the band talked, made a choice, and those who couldn’t accept it left for other bands. So yes if today we see our nation as our band, then the feels-natural-to-foragers policy is have the nation talk, make a choice, and then make everyone to love it or leave it.

Large nations of today, however, are far harder to leave than were ancient forager bands. Furthermore, most large nations today draw folks from different farming traditions, with different strong stable social norms. While it might feel right to forager minds (at least those who think of nations as like bands) to make their nation talk and choose on all topics where many feel strongly, actually doing so much more seems to me a recipe for disaster.

Not only would such debates eat up enormous time and energy, but the losers who couldn’t easily leave would accumulate in number and resentment. Furthermore, public opinion would destroy many of our accumulated prosperity-promoting policies. Over the last few centuries there has been substantial variation in regional cultures and political habits. Habits that were more conducive to national prosperity and power have increased via selection and imitation. This has moved the world somewhat toward tolerance and decentralization. Many such improvements could be reversed by deep forager-style national-conversations on what really feels right to a majority of us.

Libertarians are right that it would best if people came to see something much smaller than the nation, such as the family, firm, or club, as the natural analogue of the forager-band. But, alas, war propaganda has long worked to cement the notion of our nation as our tribe, and that will be hard to undo. Let us hope tolerance and decentralization will continue due to selection and imitation, together with citizen apathy and reluctance to kick up big national-debate stinks. It may be a good thing that voters seem too bored and distracted to bother with lots of heart-felt national conversations leading to closure on deeply-felt issues.  Yeah apathy!

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Far Idealism Puzzles

In far mode we attend to more general abstract explicit goals.  These tend to be more idealistic goals:

“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.” … By “values” these psychologists actually mean what I’ll call “ideals” – abstract, as opposed to concrete, goals that we verbally, and usually proudly, embrace.

I’ve mentioned a few other patterns that fit with this, such as that sex is near while love is far, and that on a fast sinking ship it was every man for himself, but on a slow sinking ship social ideals more determined who survived.

But I should also mention some patterns that don’t fit as neatly.  For now, I’ll just put these puzzles out there:

1. We help others more when we envision a particular person in need,  not a big group in need. (more)

2. Schools help induce far mode, creativity is far, yet schools reduce creativity.

3. We are less likely to procrastinate on a task framed as near:

Participants were asked to respond to a questionnaire via e-mail within 3 weeks. … Individuals were less likely to procrastinate performing the task when the questionnaire induced a more concrete construal. Furthermore, this effect did not depend on the attractiveness, importance, or perceived difficulty of the task. (more)

4. We make more indulgent choices for others than we make for ourselves:

Consumers typically manage these personal goals by combining indulgent and virtuous choices. When choosing for others, however, this is not the case. Consumers then focus on a pleasure‐seeking goal, which leads to indulgent choices for others. … Consumers tend to make more indulgent choices for others than for themselves, unless the concept of management is highly accessible or people are making choices for the distant future. (more)

5.  Power is far, lower classes have less power, yet lower classes are more generous:

Across 4 studies, lower class individuals proved to be more generous (Study 1), charitable (Study 2), trusting (Study 3), and helpful (Study 4) compared with their upper class counterparts. Mediator and moderator data showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion. (more)

6. We care less about things that are far.  We care less about hypothetical and low probability events, about outcomes further in the future, and about people who are more socially distant.

Added 8p: It isn’t especially elegant, but a simple resolution of these puzzles is just to say that nearfar isn’t the only factor that influences idealism.

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Political Genes

Early in ’08 I posted on how our genes influence our political beliefs.  New data suggests gene influence is even stronger than it seemed then. Here is the fraction of opinion variance explained by genetics on various 1986 topics, for men and for women (all are 5% significant):


As I said back in ’08:

Unless you have a good reason to think your genes tend to produce more informed beliefs than other genes, you should reject the genetically-caused parts of how your beliefs differ from average beliefs. … Having an intuitive feeling that your belief causes are better is not a “good reason” if most everyone has a similar intuitive feeling.  The fact that you have specific reasons for your specific beliefs is also not good enough – most everyone has specific reasons.

Look: how your opinion differs from average on strongly genetic questions was largely determined by a random gene lottery.  That can be a fact about who you are and what you want, at least if you don’t mind your wants being random, but it just can’t be info about how the universe is or what it wants.  You can think you just like or don’t like school prayer, but you can’t reasonably think that feeling is informative about what policy is best for the country, or morally right.  More about the new study:

Variance components estimates of political and social attitudes suggest a substantial level of genetic influence, but the results have been challenged because they rely on data from twins only. … Moving beyond the twin-only design leads to the conclusion that for most political and social attitudes, genetic influences account for an even greater proportion of individual differences than reported by studies using more limited data and more elementary estimation techniques. …

The data we utilize … known as the “Virginia 30,000” … were … approximately 30,000 adult subjects (aged 18–84 years) were twins (N = 14,781), spouses (N = 4,391), parents (N = 2,360), relatives (N = 195), offspring (N = 4,800), and non twin siblings of twins (N = 3,184). … The inclusion of nontwin relatives is especially helpful in identifying the multiple sources of biological and cultural inheritance. …

The social and political attitude measures were included in a 28-item contemporary attitude battery gathered as part of a larger “Health and Life Styles” inventory conducted in 1986. … Data were collected by mail. … Two years later, the same attitude items were included in a follow-up questionnaire … providing measures of attitude stability for 1,019 men and 2,912 women.

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Be Stingy With Praise

There are two basic schools of thought on moral praise:

Be generous: Praise people generously, telling them that lots of things they do are moral, even marginal acts that seem questionable. This gets people into the habit of thinking they are especially moral, and makes them more receptive to later requests to act moral. Better to have people pretend to be moral than not to care at all about morality.

Be stingy: Praise people sparingly, and only for acts that seem clearly and strongly moral. Since people want to be moral, they will try harder to meet your higher standards, which will induce more moral behavior overall. It will also better ensure than their moral contributions are real, and not just what folks like to think are moral.

Recent studies seem to favor the stingy school:

It seems that we have a good/bad balance sheet in our heads that we’re probably not even aware of. For many people, doing good makes it easier — and often more likely — to do bad. It works in reverse, too: Do bad, then do good. …

Voters given an opportunity to endorse Barack Obama for president were more likely to later favor white people for job openings. … people who bought green products were more likely to cheat and steal than those who bought conventional products. … After getting high-efficiency washers, consumers increased clothes washing by nearly 6 percent. Other studies show that people leave energy-efficient lights on longer. … Choose between buying a vacuum cleaner or designer jeans. Participants who were asked to imagine having committed a virtuous act before shopping were significantly more likely to choose jeans.

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Real Adventure

I’ve been sick, so watched tv more than usual. Watching Journey to the Center of the Earth, I noticed yet again how folks seem to like adventure stories and games to come with guides. People prefer main characters to follow a trail of clues via a map or book written by someone who has passed before, or at least to follow the advice of a wise old person.

Note that in most other ways, such stories go out of their way to describe grand glorious adventures, i.e.,with a great deal at stake, in very strange and different settings, and facing great obstacles. But wouldn’t it be even more glorious and heroic to achieve such ends against such obstacles without a guide? Why go to such extremes to tell an extreme story, just to rein it in by telling only about folks who achieve via guides, instead of folks who achieve without guides?  Why isn’t the story of how someone came to know enough to guide more dramatic than the story of someone guided?

In video games the answer seems obvious: in most adventure settings, players without guides (or overwhelming resources) would have to do a lot of random searching before they could plausibly succeed. It just isn’t believable if they always stumble on the right path on their first try. But random searching adds a lot of noise into the relation between player skill and player success, and players don’t like that. Players prefer games which more clearly demonstrate their skill, over games that tell grander stories.

This same explanation also works for adventure stories more generally. We imagine being the main character in an adventure, and want to fantasize that such a situation would let us more clearly demonstrate our great character to an admiring audience. As in video games, guides help these main characters avoid a lot of random searching.

It is just less fun to fantasize about being the one of thousands who happens to find the northwest passage out of blind luck, than to imagine being a clever faithful grandson who follows lucky-grandad-the-finder’s clues on how to find that hidden passage. You can reveal more about your skill, courage, etc. in a short time as a guide-follower than as a guider.

This has a big lesson for those who like to think of their real life as a grand adventure: relative to fiction, real grand adventures tend to have fewer guides, and more randomness in success. Real adventurers must accept huge throws of the dice; even if you do most everything right, most likely some other lucky punk will get most of the praise.

If you want life paths that quickly and reliably reveal your skills, like leveling up in video games, you want artificial worlds like schools, sporting leagues, and corporate fast tracks. You might call such lives adventures, but really they are pretty much the opposite. If you insist instead on adventuring for real, achieving things of real and large consequence against great real obstacles, well then learn to see the glorious nobility of those who try well yet fail. In the words of Kipling:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
… you’ll be a Man my son!

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Cryonics is Very Far

Kajta is right; cryonics is very far:

Cryonics is about what will happen in a *long time* when you *die*  to give you a *small chance* of waking up in a *socially distant* society in the *far future*, assuming you *widen your concept* of yourself to any *abstract pattern* like the one manifested in your biological brain and also that technology and social institutions *continue their current trends* and you don’t mind losing *peripheral features* such as your body (not to mention cryonics is *cold* and seen to be the preserve of *rich* *weirdos*).

You’re not meant to be selfish in far mode! Freeze a fair princess you are truly in love with or something.  Far mode livens our passion for moral causes and abstract values.  If Robin is right, this is because it’s safe to be ethical about things that won’t affect you yet it still sends signals to those around you about your personality. It’s a truly mean person who won’t even claim someone else a long way away should have been nice fifty years ago.

But I disagree with what Katja says here:

If this theory is correct, does it mean cryonics is unfairly slighted because of a silly quirk of psychology? No. Your desire to be ethical about far away things is not obviously less real or legitimate than your desire to be selfish about near things, assuming you act on it. If psychological distance really is morally relevant to people, it’s consistent to think cryonics too selfish and most other expenditures not. If you don’t want psychological distance to be morally relevant then you have an inconsistency to resolve, but how you should resolve it isn’t immediately obvious.

I say psychological distance is less morally relevant than people take it to be:

  1. We think of actions as near or far depending on how they are described to us, and where/when we are when we think about them.  But the morality of an act should not depend on how that act is framed or who thinks of it when/where, if it is the act (not the thought about the act) that is moral or not.
  2. If doing right is just making good (i.e., consequentialism), then the morality of acts shouldn’t depend much on who exactly does them when/where; what should matter is how the act changes the universe.
  3. The tendency of far thought to be more hypocritical and less influential to our important actions does weigh somewhat against it.

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Many Ways To Signal

The signaling classic, Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, was published the year I was born, 1959. Here Goffman says he wants to explain much more than conscious motivations:

When an individual appears before others his actions will influence the definition of the situation which they come to have. Sometimes the individual will act in a thoroughly calculating manner, expressing himself in a given way solely in order to give the kind of impression to others that is likely to evoke from them a specific response he is concerned to obtain. Sometimes the individual will be calculating in his activity but be relatively unaware that this is the case. Sometimes he will intentionally and consciously express himself in a particular way, but chiefly because the tradition of his group or social status requires this kind of expression and not because of any particular response (other than vague acceptance or approval) that is likely to be evoked from those impressed by the expression. Sometimes the traditions of an individual’s role will lead him to give a well-designed impression of a particular kind and yet he may be neither consciously nor unconsciously disposed to create such an impression. The others, in their turn, may be suitable impressed by the individual’s efforts to convey something, or may misunderstand the situation and come to conclusions that are warranted neither by the individual’s intent nor by the facts. In any case, in so far as the others act as if the individual had conveyed a particular impression, we may take a functional or pragmatic view and say that the individual has “effectively” projected a given definition of the situation and “effectively” fostered the understanding that a given state of affairs obtains. (p.6)

Alas, Goffman was not exactly eloquent here, which probably contributed to his unfair neglect. So let me try to translate:

What we say and do, and how we carry ourselves, influences how others think of us. Since we care greatly about how others see us, we use many channels to help us adapt our behavior, so we can look good. Sometimes we very consciously attend to our circumstances and audience, trying to create very particular impressions. Sometimes we are just as careful and attentive to context, but do so largely unconsciously. Sometimes we have a vague sense that acting certain ways “looks good” without being very conscious of how or why. Sometimes we act consciously, but mainly to make sure we act how someone is “supposed to” act in such situations, without much detailed understanding of the impression it gives. When studying how we adapt our behavior to manage our image, it makes sense to first just consider what behaviors have good images, without getting too distracted by exactly how we figure that out in each situation.

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