Category Archives: Psychology

2-Place and 1-Place Words


Followup toThe Mind Projection Fallacy, Variable Question Fallacy

I have previously spoken of the ancient, pulp-era magazine covers that showed a bug-eyed monster carrying off a girl in a torn dress; and about how people think as if sexiness is an inherent property of a sexy entity, without dependence on the admirer.

“Of course the bug-eyed monster will prefer human females to its own kind,” says the artist (who we’ll call Fred); “it can see that human females have soft, pleasant skin instead of slimy scales.  It may be an alien, but it’s not stupid – why are you expecting it to make such a basic mistake about sexiness?”

What is Fred’s error?  It is treating a function of 2 arguments (“2-place function”):

Sexiness: Admirer, Entity -> [0, ∞)

As though it were a function of 1 argument (“1-place function”):

Sexiness: Entity -> [0, ∞)

If Sexiness is treated as a function that accepts only one Entity as its argument, then of course Sexiness will appear to depend only on the Entity, with nothing else being relevant.

When you think about a two-place function as though it were a one-place function, you end up with a Variable Question Fallacy / Mind Projection Fallacy.  Like trying to determine whether a building is intrinsically on the left or on the right side of the road, independent of anyone’s travel direction.

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No Universally Compelling Arguments

Followup toThe Design Space of Minds-in-General, Ghosts in the Machine, A Priori

What is so terrifying about the idea that not every possible mind might agree with us, even in principle?

For some folks, nothing – it doesn’t bother them in the slightest. And for some of those folks, the reason it doesn’t bother them is that they don’t have strong intuitions about standards and truths that go beyond personal whims.  If they say the sky is blue, or that murder is wrong, that’s just their personal opinion; and that someone else might have a different opinion doesn’t surprise them.

For other folks, a disagreement that persists even in principle is something they can’t accept.  And for some of those folks, the reason it bothers them, is that it seems to them that if you allow that some people cannot be persuaded even in principle that the sky is blue, then you’re conceding that "the sky is blue" is merely an arbitrary personal opinion.

Yesterday, I proposed that you should resist the temptation to generalize over all of mind design space.  If we restrict ourselves to minds specifiable in a trillion bits or less, then each universal generalization "All minds m: X(m)" has two to the trillionth chances to be false, while each existential generalization "Exists mind m: X(m)" has two to the trillionth chances to be true.

This would seem to argue that for every argument A, howsoever convincing it may seem to us, there exists at least one possible mind that doesn’t buy it.

And the surprise and/or horror of this prospect (for some) has a great deal to do, I think, with the intuition of the ghost-in-the-machine – a ghost with some irreducible core that any truly valid argument will convince.

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The Design Space of Minds-In-General

Followup toThe Psychological Unity of Humankind

People ask me, “What will Artificial Intelligences be like?  What will they do?  Tell us your amazing story about the future.”

And lo, I say unto them, “You have asked me a trick question.”

ATP synthase is a molecular machine – one of three known occasions when evolution has invented the freely rotating wheel – which is essentially the same in animal mitochondria, plant chloroplasts, and bacteria.  ATP synthase has not changed significantly since the rise of eukaryotic life two billion years ago.  It’s is something we all have in common -  thanks to the way that evolution strongly conserves certain genes; once many other genes depend on a gene, a mutation will tend to break all the dependencies.

Any two AI designs might be less similar to each other than you are to a petunia.

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The Psychological Unity of Humankind

Followup toEvolutions Are Stupid (But Work Anyway), Evolutionary Psychology

Biological organisms in general, and human brains particularly, contain complex adaptations; adaptations which involve many genes working in concert. Complex adaptations must evolve incrementally, gene by gene.  If gene B depends on gene A to produce its effect, then gene A has to become nearly universal in the gene pool before there’s a substantial selection pressure in favor of gene B.

A fur coat isn’t an evolutionary advantage unless the environment reliably throws cold weather at you.  And other genes are also part of the environment; they are the genetic environment.  If gene B depends on gene A, then gene B isn’t a significant advantage unless gene A is reliably part of the genetic environment.

Let’s say that you have a complex adaptation with six interdependent parts, and that each of the six genes is independently at ten percent frequency in the population.  The chance of assembling a whole working adaptation is literally a million to one; and the average fitness of the genes is tiny, and they will not increase in frequency.

In a sexually reproducing species, complex adaptations are necessarily universal.

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Surface Analogies and Deep Causes

Followup toArtificial Addition, The Outside View’s Domain

Where did I acquire, in my childhood, the deep conviction that reasoning from surface similarity couldn’t be trusted?

I don’t know; I really don’t.  Maybe it was from S. I. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action, or even Van Vogt’s similarly inspired Null-A novels.  From there, perhaps, I began to mistrust reasoning that revolves around using the same word to label different things, and concluding they must be similar?  Could that be the beginning of my great distrust of surface similarities?  Maybe.  Or maybe I tried to reverse stupidity of the sort found in Plato; that is where the young Eliezer got many of his principles.

And where did I get the other half of the principle, the drive to dig beneath the surface and find deep causal models?  The notion of asking, not "What other thing does it resemble?", but rather "How does it work inside?"  I don’t know; I don’t remember reading that anywhere.

But this principle was surely one of the deepest foundations of the 15-year-old Eliezer, long before the modern me.  "Simulation over similarity" I called the principle, in just those words.  Years before I first heard the phrase "heuristics and biases", let alone the notion of inside views and outside views.

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Heading Toward Morality

Followup toGhosts in the Machine, Fake Fake Utility Functions, Fake Utility Functions

As people were complaining before about not seeing where the quantum physics sequence was going, I shall go ahead and tell you where I’m heading now.

Having dissolved the confusion surrounding the word "could", the trajectory is now heading toward should.

In fact, I’ve been heading there for a while.  Remember the whole sequence on fake utility functions?  Back in… well… November 2007?

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Never Is A Long Time

Johan Bolhuis in a recent Science book review:

Richardson … follows arguments by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin that natural selection, although of crucial importance, is not the only factor in evolution. The main problem with evolutionary psychology is that it usually does not consider alternative explanations but takes the assumption of adaptation through natural selection as given. … Richardson concludes that we simply lack the historical evidence for a reconstruction of the evolution of human cognition. … Richardson rightly suggests that paleontologists are unlikely to unearth the evidence that can inform us about the social structure of our ancestral communities.

I think one can go a step further. Even if we would be able to muster the evidence needed for an evolutionary psychological analysis of human cognition, it would not tell us anything about our cognitive mechanisms. The study of evolution is concerned with a historical reconstruction of traits. It does not, and cannot, address the mechanisms that are involved in the human brain. Those fall within the domains of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. In that sense, evolutionary psychology will never succeed, because it attempts to explain mechanisms by appealing to the history of these mechanisms.

What is the implicit time scale for these claims?  We are "unlikely to unearth the evidence" in – a decade?  A century?  Never?  And what should we believe until then?  Bolhuis may seem to advocate the "rigorous" position of for now acting as if we knew nothing about the origins of our mental tendencies.  But in practice I think this reduces to the far-less-rigorous position of retaining our ordinary intuitive presumptions about this topic until we face overwhelming contrary evidence.

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Guilt By Association

I’ve long wondered: why do students pay such a premium to go to a school with impressive professors, even when those professors largely ignore them?  Yesterdays’ Post gives a clue:

Social psychologist Michelle Hebl … had volunteers evaluate a mock job applicant. Some volunteers saw the applicant sitting in a waiting room next to an overweight person, while others saw the applicant in the waiting room sitting next to a person of average weight. … Hebl found that volunteers rated job applicants more negatively when they had been seen seated next to an overweight person than when they were seen seated next to an average weight person. The volunteers had no idea that they were showing not only a prejudice against fat people but also a bias against people who were merely in proximity to overweight people. … Men and women seen in the company of beautiful partners are perceived as being more attractive than when they are seen in plainer company. … Heterosexual men seen in the company of gay men had some of the stigma attached to homosexuality rub off on them.

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Optimism Bias Desired

From April Psychological Science:

We asked [383] participants to imagine one of four different settings … [of] decisions about a financial investment, an academic-award application, a surgical procedure, and a dinner party. For each setting, we created eight vignettes [varying] … commitment … agency … and control.  One third … were asked to provide prescriptions … whether it would be best to be overly pessimistic, accurate, or overly optimistic, … another third … to indicate what kind of prediction the protagonist in each vignette would make, and the final third to indicate what kind of prediction they themselves would make. …. Options ranged from -4 (extremely pessimistic) through 0 (accurate) to +4 (extremely optimistic). ….

Overall, the modal prescription was moderately optimistic (+2 on our scale), which was endorsed nearly twice as often as accurate (32.3% vs. 17.7%). .. Participants [said] … that [other] people tend to be optimistically biased … [and] also reported being optimistically biased [themselves]. The degrees of bias participants attributed to other people and to themselves did not differ. … Finally, and most strikingly, … [they said] people should be even more optimistic than they are. …

Participants prescribed (and described) more optimism (a) after commitment to a course of action rather than before (b) when the decision to commit was the protagonist’s to make rather than not, and (c) when the protagonist’s control over the outcome was high rather than low. … The results were also largely robust across the settings we sampled … [and] across key measured variables. Interestingly, even participants who were self-identified as pessimists … prescribed optimism … Although Asian participants prescribed less optimism than any other ethnic group, they still prescribed optimism.

Optimism bias is clearly not an unnoticed accident – people want to be so biased. 

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Kids, Parents Disagree on Spouses

Monday’s Post:

Do young people and their parents really disagree about the qualities of a suitable mate? … A study involving Dutch, American and Kurdish students … found that the cliche is, in fact, true. Young Americans told the researchers that qualities they would find unappealing in a potential mate included low intelligence and physical unattractiveness. But they said their parents would object to a mate who was of a different ethnicity, was poor or lacked a good family background.

The responses of Dutch and Kurdish students were similar in that young people invariably considered the potential mate’s attractiveness the most important quality, whereas parents uniformly paid more attention to the suitors’ social background or group affiliation — race, religious background and social class.

[The authors] said the consistency of the conflict across cultures suggests the hand of evolution: Parents and offspring … genetic self-interests, while overlapping, are not identical. The reason young people care so much about intellectual and physical attractiveness, the scientists suggested, is that these characteristics are markers of genetic fitness. By contrast, they said, parents care about group affiliations because parents are primarily interested in whether an incoming member of the family is likely to make a good parent — and a good all-around team player.

There should indeed be some conflict between kids and parents on suitable spouses, but the size of the conflict seems surprisingly large – do parent and kid genetic interests really diverge that much?   Here’s a graphic showing huge differences:

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