Category Archives: Psychology

What Belief Conformity?

I wrote:

We feel a deep pleasure from realizing that we believe something in common with our friends, and different from most people. … This feeling is EVIL.

Patri Friedman responded:

I see this bias as counteracting the bias of groupthink. The opposite bias is for people to enjoy believing what everyone else believes. This leads to homogeneity of viewpoints, less generation and testing of new hypothesis, and stasis. The people who enjoy believing they have a secret truth are those who nurture non-mainstream but plausible hypotheses, and accumulate new evidence to possibly challenge the mainstream. I think this is very valuable.

Yes, we want to explore a diversity of hypotheses, but this doesn’t require a diversity of beliefs; we can believe similar things while exploring different things.  Yes, groupthink seems to exist, but not as a general bias to conform to average beliefs; groupthink is a bias to conform to in-group beliefs against out-groups.  Thus by their nature groupthink biases of in-groups come already countered by out-groups. 

When a particular group (such as academia) rewards in-group conformity, you may at times be right to resist that.  But by doing so you would not be resisting some general pressure to conform with a global average; you would instead be favoring one group less than others.  I see no general conformity pressure in need of resisting; I instead see instead particular groupthinks, some of which may be preferred to others. 

For example, in herding experiments, subjects must choose between a few acts (e.g., which movie to watch), where some acts pay better than others.  One at a time subjects choose an act, after seeing both a private clue about act quality, and seeing others’ previous choices.  I’ve just reviewed 16 papers on this (including this this this this this this this this this this this and this).

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Depressed Not More Accurate

People seem to love the idea that depressed folk are more realistic.  Not so, says an ’06 paper I’ll mention again later this week:

A debate in the depressive realism literature ended in the conclusion that neither depressed nor nondepressed subjects displayed differential accuracy in terms of being able to vary their judgments to achieve accuracy across changing situations (Dykman et al., 1989, p. 442). Instead, who appeared more accurate was an accident of the match between a dispositional bias (chronic perceptions of low or high control) and the degree of control actually available in a given task.

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Points of Departure

Followup toAnthropomorphic Optimism

If you’ve watched Hollywood sci-fi involving supposed robots, androids, or AIs, then you’ve seen AIs that are depicted as "emotionless".  In the olden days this was done by having the AI speak in a monotone pitch – while perfectly stressing the syllables, of course.  (I could similarly go on about how AIs that disastrously misinterpret their mission instructions, never seem to need help parsing spoken English.)  You can also show that an AI is "emotionless" by having it notice an emotion with a blatant somatic effect, like tears or laughter, and ask what it means (though of course the AI never asks about sweat or coughing).

If you watch enough Hollywood sci-fi, you’ll run into all of the following situations occurring with supposedly "emotionless" AIs:

  1. An AI that malfunctions or otherwise turns evil, instantly acquires all of the negative human emotions – it hates, it wants revenge, and feels the need to make self-justifying speeches.
  2. Conversely, an AI that turns to the Light Side, gradually acquires a full complement of human emotions.
  3. An "emotionless" AI suddenly exhibits human emotion when under exceptional stress; e.g. an AI that displays no reaction to thousands of deaths, suddenly showing remorse upon killing its creator.
  4. An AI begins to exhibit signs of human emotion, and refuses to admit it.

Now, why might a Hollywood scriptwriter make those particular mistakes?

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Mirrored Lives

People exhibit less prejudice when they’re in the presence of a mirror, Dutch researchers have shown. … Mirrors make us more aware of our public appearance, and therefore remind us of the need to fall in line with social norms.

More here.  I suspect social networking also makes our lives more "mirrored" – we are more aware of how we appear to others and that others are watching us.  Welcome to the transparent society.  HT to Tyler.

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Risk is Physical

Economic "risk" means something different than ordinary risk.  When a big strong creature swaggers around, ready to take on all comers, while a small meek creature cowers in a corner, avoiding attention or conflict, we might call the swaggering one risk-loving, and the cowering one risk-averse.  Economists are careful to note, however, that they mean "risk" to connote a tolerance for variance – and it could be that by swaggering the big one reduces his outcome variance.  It seems, however, that these different risk concepts are more related than we realized

In general, women are found to be more risk averse, and risk aversion is seen to decline with age and wealth. …  In addition, choices for others were related to the choices individuals made for themselves. … Both evolutionary and economic theories suggest that physically stronger decision makers should make riskier decisions, suggesting physical prowess as an underlying cause of gender differences. …

This study uses four different measures of physical prowess. First, we directly measure hand strength using a dynamometer. Second, we collect information related to organism quality, based on biologically based observations: height, weight, perceived strength, and attractiveness. Third, we collect survey-based measures of self-perceptions of athleticism and strength, and self-reported behavior such as participation in sports. Finally, we collect personality-based measures of strength. We find that perceptions about a person’s strength and organism quality are strongly related to predicted [risk] choices, and objective measures and self-perceptions of prowess are related to actual gamble choices. Advisors exhibit significant prediction biases when attempting to forecast individual gamble choices, and the biases take the form of exaggerations of the effect of observable characteristics.

So if we could get people to exercise more, would they become more risk-loving, want less insurance, make more aggressive investments, and induce faster economic growth?  Would this be a good thing?

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Qualitative Strategies of Friendliness

Followup toMagical Categories

What on Earth could someone possibly be thinking, when they propose creating a superintelligence whose behaviors are reinforced by human smiles? Tiny molecular photographs of human smiles – or if you rule that out, then faces ripped off and permanently wired into smiles – or if you rule that out, then brains stimulated into permanent maximum happiness, in whichever way results in the widest smiles…

Well, you never do know what other people are thinking, but in this case I’m willing to make a guess.  It has to do with a field of cognitive psychology called Qualitative Reasoning.


Qualitative reasoning is what you use to decide that increasing the temperature of your burner increases the rate at which your water boils, which decreases the derivative of the amount of water present. One would also add the sign of d(water) – negative, meaning that the amount of water is decreasing – and perhaps the fact that there is only a bounded amount of water.  Or we could say that turning up the burner increases the rate at which the water temperature increases, until the water temperature goes over a fixed threshold, at which point the water starts boiling, and hence decreasing in quantity… etc.

That’s qualitative reasoning, a small subfield of cognitive science and Artificial Intelligence – reasoning that doesn’t describe or predict exact quantities, but rather the signs of quantities, their derivatives, the existence of thresholds.

As usual, human common sense means we can see things by qualitative reasoning that current programs can’t – but the more interesting realization is how vital human qualitative reasoning is to our vaunted human common sense.  It’s one of the basic ways in which we comprehend the world.

Without timers you can’t figure out how long water takes to boil, your mind isn’t that precise.  But you can figure out that you should turn the burner up, rather than down, and then watch to make sure the water doesn’t all boil away.  Which is what you mainly need, in the real world.  Or at least we humans seem to get by on qualitative reasoning; we may not realize what we’re missing…

So I suspect that what went through the one’s mind, proposing the AI whose behaviors would be reinforced by human smiles, was something like this:

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Harder Choices Matter Less

…or they should, logically speaking.

Suppose you’re torn in an agonizing conflict between two choices.

Well… if you can’t decide between them, they must be around equally appealing, right?  Equally balanced pros and cons?  So the choice must matter very little – you may as well flip a coin.  The alternative is that the pros and cons aren’t equally balanced, in which case the decision should be simple.

This is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, obviously – more appropriate for choosing from a restaurant menu than choosing a major in college.

But consider the case of choosing from a restaurant menu.  The obvious choices, like Pepsi over Coke, will take very little time.  Conversely, the choices that take the most time probably make the least difference.  If you can’t decide between the hamburger and the hot dog, you’re either close to indifferent between them, or in your current state of ignorance you’re close to indifferent between their expected utilities.

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Detached Lever Fallacy

Followup toHumans in Funny Suits

This fallacy gets its name from an ancient sci-fi TV show, which I never saw myself, but was reported to me by a reputable source (some guy at an SF convention).  Anyone knows the exact reference, do leave a comment.

So the good guys are battling the evil aliens.  Occasionally, the good guys have to fly through an asteroid belt.  As we all know, asteroid belts are as crowded as a New York parking lot, so their ship has to carefully dodge the asteroids.  The evil aliens, though, can fly right through the asteroid belt because they have amazing technology that dematerializes their ships, and lets them pass through the asteroids.

Eventually, the good guys capture an evil alien ship, and go exploring inside it.  The captain of the good guys finds the alien bridge, and on the bridge is a lever.  "Ah," says the captain, "this must be the lever that makes the ship dematerialize!"  So he pries up the control lever and carries it back to his ship, after which his ship can also dematerialize.

Similarly, to this day, it is still quite popular to try to program an AI with "semantic networks" that look something like this:

(apple is-a fruit)
(fruit is-a food)
(fruit is-a plant)

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Humans in Funny Suits

Biggornandkirk_2Followup toThe Psychological Unity of Humankind

Many times the human species has travelled into space, only to find the stars inhabited by aliens who look remarkably like humans in funny suits – or even humans with a touch of makeup and latex – or just beige Caucasians in fee simple.

It’s remarkable how the human form is the natural baseline of the universe, from which all other alien species are derived via a few modifications.

What could possibly explain this fascinating phenomenon?  Convergent evolution, of course!  Even though these alien lifeforms evolved on a thousand alien planets, completely independently from Earthly life, they all turned out the same.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that a kangaroo (a mammal) resembles us rather less than does a chimp (a primate), nor by the fact that a frog (amphibians, like us, are tetrapods) resembles us less than the kangaroo.  Don’t be fooled by the bewildering variety of the insects, who split off from us even longer ago than the frogs; don’t be fooled that insects have six legs, and their skeletons on the outside, and a different system of optics, and rather different sexual practices.

You might think that a truly alien species would be more different from us than we are from insects – that the aliens wouldn’t run on DNA, and might not be made of folded-up hydrocarbon chains internally bound by van der Waals forces (aka proteins).

As I said, don’t be fooled.  For an alien species to evolve intelligence, it must have two legs with one knee each attached to an upright torso, and must walk in a way similar to us.  You see, any intelligence needs hands, so you’ve got to repurpose a pair of legs for that – and if you don’t start with a four-legged being, it can’t develop a running gait and walk upright, freeing the hands.

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Average Your Guesses

What percentage of the world’s airports are in the USA? (Answer below the fold.)

Take a guess. Now, take another guess, different from the first one, and average them. According to research reported on in The Economist, averaging the 2nd guess improves accuracy by 6.5%. Better still, wait 3 weeks before taking a second guess. Averaging now improves accuracy by 16%. (Story found via Slashdot.)

Here is the full report from Pschological Science.  Some excerpts:

It is important that neither group knew they would be required to furnish a second guess, as this precluded subjects from misinterpreting their task as being to specify the two endpoints of a range.

That could make it a little tricky to do this on your own; you have to try to make your first guess as good as you can, and then start fresh for the second guess.

This benefit of averaging cannot be attributed to subjects’ finding more information between guesses, because second guesses were less accurate than first guesses

Hmmm, how can second guesses be less accurate than first guesses, yet averaging them is more accurate than either? I suppose it means that the two guesses tend (on average) to bracket the correct answer, with the second guess farther away than the first one. That means that your first instinct to improve your guess is more likely than not to be in the correct direction, but go too far. Knowing this might allow you to improve your guesses even more.

Oh, and as for the airports? According to the CIA World Factbook, there are 14,947 airports in the U.S., and 49,024 in the whole world, so 30% of the world’s airports are in the U.S. For the record, I guessed 25%, and then 15%, so averaging didn’t help me. But in general this might be a useful trick to easily improve guesses.

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