Author Archives: Stuart Armstrong

As ye judge those who fund thee, ye shall be judged

"If it were not for the intellectual snobs who pay — in solid cash — the tribute which philistinism owes to culture, the arts would perish with their starving practitioners. Let us thank heaven for hypocrisy."
Huxley, Aldous

Robin is always keen to remind us how status-seeking humans are, and the above quote is a gem in that regard. Laced through it are the claims that art is valuable, that patrons are vital to art, and yet that these patrons should be disdained – especially compared with the poor-but-high-status artist.

This can be expanded into a general test for detecting self-serving status-seeking. It isn’t enough to show that people are attracted to high status professions (people’s opinions of status varies, and they may have decided that certain professions are worthwhile to the world, and thus accorded them higher status). It isn’t even enough to note that people’s everyday behavior is status seeking – unless we can estimate the marginal difficulties in making a “worthwhile” profession more worthy, versus the marginal difficulties in increasing status.

However Huxley’s quote gives us a way of controlling these variables. If a profession is deemed worthwhile to the world, then those who enable it, or fund it, are equally worthwhile. If someone would accord their own work a high status but disdains patrons/funding bodies/stockholders, then their own status seeking is plain to see.

The converse is also true; one artist, at least, gets it:

"If a patron buys from an artist who needs money (needs money to buy tools, time, food), the patron then makes himself equal to the artist; he is building art into the world; he creates."
Pound, Ezra

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Be sure to mind when you change your mind

The biggest of blindspots spring up when our minds form opinions about our minds. Here the question is: when we change our opinions, are we aware of that fact? The obvious answer is yes; the true answer is hinted at by Goethals and  Reckman’s 1973 experiment:

High school students were asked their opinions on a variety of social issues, including on how children should be bussed to school and whether it would help with racial integration. […]

A couple of weeks later the students were invited back for a further discussion on the bussing issue. This time, though, they were split into two groups, one that was pro- and one anti- the bussing issue. […]

The two groups had separate discussions about the bussing issue, but amongst their number had been planted an experimental confederate. The confederate was armed with a series of highly persuasive arguments designed to change the participant's minds on the issue. Experimenters wanted to turn the pro- group into an anti- group and the anti- group into a pro-group.

The confederates turned out to be extremely persuasive (and/or the students were easy to sway!) and the two groups were successfully turned around.[…]

But what happened when they were asked about this change of opinion?

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History is written by the dissenters

By way of Rod Dreher’s blog, a thought-provoking extract of Alan Ehrenhalt’s book: "The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America" After describing the indignities heaped upon black Americans, homosexuals and aspiring women in the 1950’s, it continues:

It is a powerful indictment, but it is also a selective one. While it is often said that history is written by the winners, the truth is that the cultural images that come down to us as history are written, in large part, by the dissenters — by those whose strong feelings against life in a particular generation motivate them to become the novelists, playwrights, and social critics of the next, drawing inspiration from the injustices and hypocrisies of the time in which they grew up. We have learned much of what we know about family life in America in the 1950s from women who chafed under its restrictions […] Much of the image of American Catholic life in those years comes from the work of former Catholics who considered the church they grew up in not only authoritarian but destructive of their free choices and creative instincts. […]

I am not arguing with the accuracy of any of those individual memories. But our collective indignation makes little room for the millions of people who took the rules seriously and tried to live up to them […]

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Don’t trust your lying eyes…

This blog has already welcomed many posts on lying, how to detect it, and how poor we are at doing so. A New Scientist story provides yet another twist in the tale.

I interviewed the political broadcaster Robin Day, asking him about his favourite film. In the first segment he told me the truth, describing how he adored Some Like It Hot. In a second he lied, telling me how he loved Gone With the Wind when, in reality, he hated it. We asked viewers to watch the two clips and vote on which they thought was the truth. Almost 30,000 people telephoned, and the votes were evenly split between the two interviews.

So far, as expected. We aren’t good at detecting lies. However:

On the same day, we broadcast the two interviews on national radio and published the transcripts in The Daily Telegraph newspaper. An impressive 73 per cent of the radio listeners identified the falsehood and 64 per cent of the newspaper readers did.

Why should this be? It seems that body language and facial expressions give little guide to people’s sincerity. The most reliable signs of lying seem to be in the words we use.

So don’t look into people’s eyes, seek signs of nervousness, or judge their sincerity by their handshake. Ignore the evidence of your misleading eyes. Turn away, and focus only on what is being said.

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Noise in the Courtroom!

The acquitted often walk out court with a huge smile on their face, convinced that any stain on their character has been erased.

But more guilty people get tried and acquitted than the average of the population. So barring a dramatic Perry-Mason-like revelation, the trial is evidence of guilt – noisy evidence, but evidence none the less. It isn’t legal or scientific evidence, but it is evidence that a Bayesian should use.

But while employers can often access criminal records of convictions, they are generally barred from finding out about acquittals (especially if the accused take steps to have their arrest expunged); and the potential employee is often allowed to lie if asked directly. This noisy measure is deemed officially unavailable.

Should it be available? And in what way is this noisy measure different from those used in education and in medicine?

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Bad Balance Bias

Balance in life is good. You need to work, relax, have fun, try new things, continue old things, have sex, do sport, play games, sleep. The balanced lifestyle is the ideal, and we all know this.

Problems start when we extend this idea of balance beyond our personal lives. We deal with political and charitable choices as if balance was a virtue. It’s bad enough for governments – they are expected to fund highways, trains, buses and subways, to subsidise clean energy, petrol exploration and energy efficiency, pay money for the opera, for theatre, for sport, for museums and for films. At least in the government’s case the sums involved are so huge that they change the marginal value of these various activities, making this balance obsession possibly acceptable.

But personal charity is the worst. People will give money to combat hunger in Africa, to help the victims of the Tsunami, to educate the under-privileged, to combat global warming and malaria. Since most donations are small, there must be one charity whose marginal value is the highest; rationality implies we should give all our cash to that one. Not only is this not the case, but people seem to prefer to spread their donations around. “You can’t just do one thing” is the reaction I get when questioning this. Yes you can, for charitable giving, and you should.

What are the implications, if my analysis is correct and people demonstrate an irrational love of balance? First, that people will react better to statement like “we are transferring part of X’s funding to Y” rather than “We are cutting X’s funding. We are also increasing Y’s funding.” Secondly that it will be easier to reduce the funding for some X, but much harder to get rid of X entirely. Lastly, that charities boasting a range of different types of projects will fare much better than they should.

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Do androids dream of electric rabbit feet?

Superstition seems a quaint old thing, more suitable for old grannies or the illiterate, but it’s alive and well in the information age. Online computer games, such as World of Warcraft and UltimaOnline, are full of examples of this:

[…] facing in certain cardinal directions would affect how your crafting came out. […] Many people, if they were successful over-enchanting an item at a certain spot, will return to that spot every time they need to over-enchant.

Or, to get monsters to reappear, little dances could develop (note the similarity with Skinner’s pigeons):

Some [characters] would sit and stand rapidly while strafing back and forth. Others would crouch and run in circles or figure-eight patterns. Jumping seemed also to be a common theme.

and sometimes it would go as far as "saying some ritual phrase out loud (in real life)."

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The case for dangerous testing

In 1983, NASA was planning to bring back Martian soil samples to Earth. Contaminating the Earth with alien organisms was an issue, but engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratories had devised a "safe" capsule re-entry system to avoid that risk. However, Carl Sagan was opposed to the idea and

explained to JPL engineers that if they were so certain […] then why not put living Anthrax germs inside it, launch it into space, then [crash the capsule back to earth] exactly like the Mars Sample Return capsule would.

The engineers helpfully responded by labeling Sagan an alarmist and extremist. But why were they so unwilling to do the test, if they were so sure of their system? The answer is probably they feared that if the test failed, their careers would be over and they would have caused a catastrophe. But an out of control Martian virus, no matter how unlikely, would have been equally a catastrophe. However, that vague threat didn’t concentrate their minds like the specific example of anthrax.

Imagine for a moment that those engineers had been forced to do Sagan’s test. Fear of specific disaster would have erased their overconfidence, and they would have moved from ‘being sure that things will go right’ to ‘imagining all the ways things could go wrong’ – and preventing them. The more dangerous the test, the more the engineers would have worked to overcome every contingency.

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The bias in “please” and “thank you”

Being polite is an evident bias, but often seen as a minor one – at its worse, equivalent to a white lie. But politeness has a more sinister side, biasing people’s perception of the truthfulness of other (see for instance why some groups failed in this study).

Especially in critical situations, politeness has a detrimental effect. When dealing with doctors reporting their medical opinions, perceived politeness is the issue:

The more severe the condition, the greater the chance that the listener construes the [use of a probability qualifier such as “possible”] as a politeness marker rather than as an uncertainty marker.

In other words, “you may have cancer” is taken as “you certainly have cancer, but I’m being polite” while “you may have a cold” is accepted at face value. The expectation of politeness clouds clarity at a critical juncture, and exaggerates the risks.

Conversely, politeness can also decrease people’s perception of risk. When companies decide – or are forced – to publish a product recall notice, their aim is to give consumers clear information and to warn them of a possible danger. But they also deploy various politeness strategies within the recall notice to protect their corporate image. These strategies don’t bias customers’ perceptions of the dangers if the risk is low. However,

[in high risk situations] the use of politeness strategies […] seems to have a negative effect on the acceptability of the recall message.

Politeness, whether present or absent, looked for or unexpected, is a source of potentially dangerous bias.

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Black swans from the future

“I’m the Doctor,” he said, stepping out of his time machine and ogling the young ladies. “I know your future.”

You react as any full-blooded, rational de-biaser must react when confronted by the impossible: you invite him out for a drink. 

Several bottles later, he confides in you that an extremely unlikely event – a “black swan” – is going to happen within the next few days. “Not only is it going to be a total outlier, like September the 11th,” he slurs, “but also like then, all your probability estimates are going to be up in the air for several weeks after.” 

He stumbles back to his machine and vanishes – to crash soon after as he tries to drive between our two suns – and leaves you with a pair of important questions: as a dedicated de-biaser, how do you add this information to your estimates? And, more importantly, how do you make money out of it? 

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