Tag Archives: Psychology

What Is “Quality”?

It seems to me that what people usually mean by a product’s “quality” is the overall value someone might gain from it, ignoring its price. Sometimes people talk about a product’s “value”, or it being a good “deal,” referring to its over all value including its price. And sometimes people will talk about quality given certain constraints. For example, folks might talk about a “great one bedroom apartment” suggesting that two bedroom place might be better, but that such comparisons are set aside for now. But the most common way to evaluate products is to just talk about value ignoring price. Yet why ignore price?

A status theory is that we most want to know about how impressed other folks might be if we had a product, and so want “quality” to focus on visible features. When price is invisible, we don’t want it included. This theory predicts that other invisible features will also not be included in quality.

Another theory is that we want “quality” to focus on features that we mostly agree are good. The more we disagree on the value of a feature, the less we want it included in “quality.” So if people vary enough in their value for money relative to other features, we won’t want price included.  This theory predicts that other features where preferences also vary greatly will not be included in quality.

A third theory is that we just mentally categorize what we pay for a product as not “part of” the product.” This theory suggests we’d also not include how quickly we could get the product shipped to us, or how easily it could be serviced, in its quality.

Any other theories to consider?

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Two-Faced Brains

Although human language allowed egalitarian rules whose uniform enforcement would have greatly reduced the advantages to big-brain conniving, humans had the biggest brains of all to unequally evade such rules. (more)

As with most lying or self-deception, homo hypocritus faces a serious implementation problem: how to keep the lies it tells separate from the “real” beliefs on which it acts. Since brains tend to be liberal with interconnections, there is a real risk of cross-talk between contradictory sets of opinions; lies may infect beliefs, and beliefs may infect lies.

I’ve previously discussed one solution: have the different sets of opinions apply to different topics. For example, hold socially-acceptable opinions on far topics, where the personal consequences of actions tend to be smaller, and keep more realistic opinions on near topics, where such consequences tend to be larger. Yes there’s a risk others may notice that you change opinions without good reason as items move from near to far or far to near, but that may be a relatively small price to pay.

A different solution is to have two distinct processing centers, each highly-connected internally, but with only modest between-center connections. One center would manage a coherent set of lies, while the other managed a coherent set of true beliefs. And in fact real brains have exactly this architecture! Left and right brains are highly connected internally, but only modestly connected to each other. Does the left brain manage a coherent set of overt opinions, while the right brain manages a coherent set of covert opinions? Consider:

  1. In all vertebrates left brains tend to control routine behavior (e.g. feeding) while right brains tend to respond to unusual events (e.g. fight/flight).
  2. Left brains tend to initiate actions, via positive feelings, while right brains tend to inhibit actions, via negative feelings.
  3. Compared to other primates, left vs. right human brains differ a lot more in function.
  4. The left human brain manages language’s literal quotably-overt syntax, vocabulary, and semantics, while the right brain handles language’s less-socially-verifiable tone, accent, metaphor, allegory, and ambiguity.
  5. Split brain patients show that left brains are adept at making up respectable explanations for arbitrary right brain behavior.
  6. Right brains tend to be used more in crafting lies, and they can read subtle emotion clues better.
  7. Left brain damage tends to distort behavior in more obvious and understandable ways.
  8. Left brains emphasize decision-making, fact retrieval, numbers, and careful sequenced acts like throwing, while right brains emphasize art, music, spatial manipulation, and recognizing of shapes, patterns, and faces.

It seems that in most animals, left brains tend to manage and initiate actions within the current mode, while right brains watch in the background for patterns and reasons to veto current actions and switch modes. In humans, it seems the current-action-sequencer brain half was recruited to focus more on managing overt rule-following language, decisions, and actions, ready to explain away any apparent rule-violations. The less-introspectively-accessible pattern-recognizing background-watcher brain half, in contrast, was apparently recruited to focus on harder-to-testify-on-and-so-more-easily-covert meaning, opinion, and communication, including art and music.

I’m not saying that overt vs. covert human beliefs map exactly to human left vs. right brains, any more than socially-useful vs. action-practical beliefs map exactly onto far vs. near beliefs. I’m just suggesting that human brain design took pre-existing animal brain structures, such as near vs. far modes and left vs. right brain splits, and recruited them to the task of managing the uniquely human task of hypocrisy: simultaneously espousing and evading rules. In particular, the left-right brain split become an important tool for minimizing undesirable leakage between the overt rule-following images we present to others, and the cover rule-evading actions and communication which better achieve our real ends.

More quotes:

The left hemisphere is specialized not only for the actual production of speech sounds but also for the imposition of syntactic structure on speech and for much of what is called semantics – comprehension of meaning.  The right hemisphere , on the other hand, doesn’t govern spoken words but seems to be concerned with more subtle aspects of language such as nuances of metaphor, allegory and ambiguity. (Ramachandran, quoted in TMHH p56)

No other [vertebrate] species consistently prefers the same hand for certain skilled actions. … The human brain is distinguished from the brains of the great apes by an extraordinary extent of lateralization of function. (more)

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Act Young To Live Long

People often think I look younger than I am; I usually quip that is because I cultivate an aura of irresponsibility. Turns out, I may actually live longer because I look and act younger. Apparently, thinking of yourself as younger actually makes you live longer:

First, women who think they look younger after having their hair colored/cut show a decrease in blood pressure and appear younger in photographs (in which their hair is cropped out) to independent raters. Second, clothing is an age-related cue. Uniforms eliminate these age-related cues: Those who wear work uniforms have lower morbidity than do those who earn the same amount of money and do not wear work uniforms. Third, baldness cues old age. Men who bald prematurely see an older self and therefore age faster: Prematurely bald men have an excess risk of getting prostate cancer and coronary heart disease than do men who do not prematurely bald. Fourth, women who bear children later in life are surrounded by younger age-related cues: Older mothers have a longer life expectancy than do women who bear children earlier in life. Last, large spousal age differences result in age-incongruent cues: Younger spouses live shorter lives and older spouses live longer lives than do controls. (more)

The paper speculates that this might contribute to rising lifespans – are we overall healthier today because overall we look and act younger than our ancestors? More quotes: Continue reading "Act Young To Live Long" »

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I Hurt Her So You Pay

You might hope that folks who tend more to feel guilty when they hurt others would then try to compensate those victims, at their personal expense, and thus would have an incentive to avoid hurting folks. Not so!  Yes guilty folks compensate victims, but not at their personal expense.

A psych study asked people to think of someone they felt guilty toward, or made them imagine feeling guilty toward someone (e.g., slacking off on a joint project, or being careless with something borrowed). Researchers then had these guilty folks divide up money between themselves, the victim, and a third party (e.g., a deserving charity or random person). Compared to controlled conditions, such people give more money to the victim, but at the expense of the third party, not themselves. When they consider such donation behavior in other people, it is not morally exemplary.


In a typical dictator game, one person decides how to divide a sum of money (or other resources) among oneself and another person without the other having any influence on the division of the resources. In our experiments, participants decided how to divide resources among themselves, the victim, and another person (the nonvictim), without the victim or the nonvictim having any influence on the division. … In all experiments we [found] that, compared with a control condition, participants in guilt conditions … offer more resources to the victim and fewer resources to other social partners without changing the amount of resources for themselves. In addition, Experiments 1– 4 systematically rule out alternative explanations of the effect and reveal conditions under which the effect is observed.

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The Unskilled Are Aware

Back in ’08 I wrote:

The blogsphere adores Kruger and Dunning’s ‘99 paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It“. … This paper describes everyone’s favorite theory of those they disagree with, that they are hopelessly confused idiots unable to see they are idiots; no point in listening to or reasoning with such fools.  However, many psychologists have noted Kruger and Dunning’s main data is better explained by positing simply that we all have noisy estimates of our ability and of task difficulty.

Here is yet another needed correction:

Relative to high-performing students, the poorer students showed a greater overconfidence effect (i.e., their predictions were greater than their performance), but they also reported lower confidence in these predictions. Together, these results suggest that poor students are indeed unskilled but that they may have some awareness of their lack of metacognitive knowledge. (more)

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How Good Are Laughs?

We often underestimate our different were our ancestors from us; we like to assume that even if they wore different costumes on the outside, they felt like us inside. Not true! Consider, for example, how our culture celebrates laughter. One of our worst sins is to lack a sense of humor, to be a fuddy-duddy unable to “take a joke.” But four centuries ago, it seems, attitudes were quite the opposite:

Prior to the eighteenth century, laughter was viewed by most authors almost entirely in negative terms. … All laughter was thought to arise from making fun of someone. Most references to laughter in the Bible, for example, are linked with scorn, derision, mockery, or contempt. … Aristotle … believed that [laughter] was always a response to ugliness or deformity in another person. … Thomas Hobbes saw laughter as being based on a feeling of superiority, or “sudden glory”, resulting from some perception of inferiority in another person. Continue reading "How Good Are Laughs?" »

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How To Doubt

Doubting conventional wisdom seems pretty central to my style and central issues. So I took some time to ponder the general issue of doubt. Here’s what I came up with.

The relation between confident and doubtful states of belief is like that between the three corners of a triangle and the points within the area of the triangle. Even though there are far more area points than corner points, area points are more similar to each other, in a distance sense. In the same way, there are far more states of doubt than confidence, yet states of doubt are more similar to each other, in that they lead to similar decisions.

What can you do about serious skepticism, i.e., the possibility that you might be quite mistaken on a great many of your beliefs? For this, you might want to consider which of your beliefs are the most reliable, in order to try to lean more on those beliefs when fixing the rest of your beliefs. But note that this suggests there is no general answer to what to do about doubt – the answer must depend on what you think are actually your most reliable beliefs.

When seeking your most reliable beliefs, to help fix other beliefs, you might be tempted to just consider simple beliefs like “George is my friend” or “carrots are orange.” But you may do better to rely on your less often stated beliefs that it is quite unlikely for a great many of your “independently” generated beliefs to all be mistaken.

That is, our most potent beliefs for dealing with doubt are often our beliefs about the correlations between errors in other beliefs. This is because having low error correlations can imply that related averages and aggregates are very reliable. For example, if there is little correlation in the errors your eyes make under different conditions in judging brightness, then you need only see the same light source under many conditions to get a reliable estimate of its brightness.

Since beliefs about low error correlations can support such strong beliefs on aggregates, in practice doubt about one’s beliefs often focuses on doubts about the correlations in one’s belief errors. If we guess that a certain set of errors have low correlation, but worry that they might really have a high correlation, it is doubts about such hidden correlations that threaten to infect many other beliefs.

So then what do we actually worry about, when we worry that our belief errors might be correlated? It seems to me that we mainly worry about two sources of correlated error:

  • Hidden psychological tendencies: We worry that our mind are built in such a way as to give related errors on what appear to be unrelated topics. Our minds might, for example, be biased toward high estimates of our ability, for many kinds of unrelated abilities.
  • Hidden social coordination: We worry that our social groups coordinate so as to give related errors from what appear to be unrelated social sources. Sources that share a common ideology might, for example, make similar errors on diverse topics.

Most academic consideration of radical skepticism happens in philosophy. But the above analysis suggests that if you were serious about actually doubting, instead of just discussing doubt, you’d want to study psychology and social sciences, especially hidden psychological biases and social coordination. Getting a grip on these subjects might position you well to actually consider the possibility that you might in fact be quite mistaken about a great deal.

Of course once you do understand psych and socsci, there is no guarantee that such understanding enables you to, on your own, powerfully address your doubts.  If fact, you may end up agreeing with me that our best approach is for would-be doubters to coordinate to support new institutions that better reward correction of error, especially correlated error.  I refer of course to prediction markets.

In sum: States of doubt are diverse, yet lead to similar decisions, relative to states of confidence. To productively doubt, you’ll want to identify beliefs in which you have greater confidence. When your belief errors have low correlation, you can have quite high confidence in certain aggregate beliefs. So doubts about belief error correlations are central to real skepticism. Since most doubts about correlations seem to arise from concerns about hidden mental tendencies and social coordination, a serious doubter will give those topics the most attention. And an ambitious doubter might join me in supporting something like prediction markets.

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Good With Bad Traits

Here’s something odd to ponder: we generally think we are better than average, but tend to think we have particular personality traits that are less socially desirable. Two from the latest JPSP:

The tendency for people to evaluate themselves more favorably than an average-peer—the better-than-average effect (BTAE)—is among the most well-documented effects in the social-psychological literature. The BTAE has been demonstrated in many populations with various methodologies. … For dimensions on which the self is positively evaluated, enhancement motives restrict the extent to which average-peer assimilation occurs. But for dimensions on which the self is negatively evaluated, enhancement motives amplify average-peer assimilation. (more)

Consensus studies from 4 cultures—in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Germany—as well as secondary analyses … from 29 cultures suggest that there is a cross-culturally replicable pattern of difference between internal and external perspectives for the Big Five personality traits. People see themselves as more neurotic and open to experience compared to how they are seen by other people. External observers generally hold a higher opinion of an individual’s conscientiousness than he or she does about him- or herself. As a rule, people think that they have more positive emotions and excitement seeking but much less assertiveness than it seems from the vantage point of an external observer. … A relatively strong negative correlation (r = −.53) between the average self-minus-observer profile and social desirability ratings suggests that people in most studied cultures view themselves less favorably than they are perceived by others (more)

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Track Records

More evidence that a huge way to improve your accuracy is track records: simply write down your forecasts and check their accuracy later:

In the context of a Super Bowl loss (Study 1), a presidential election (Studies 2 and 3), an important purchase (Study 4), and the consumption of candies (Study 5), individuals mispredicted their affective reactions to these experiences and subsequently misremembered their predictions as more accurate than they actually had been. … This recall error results from people’s tendency to anchor on their current affective state when trying to recall their affective forecasts. Further, those who showed larger recall errors were less likely to learn to adjust their subsequent forecasts and reminding people of their actual forecasts enhanced learning. These results suggest that a failure to accurately recall one’s past predictions contributes to the perpetuation of forecasting errors. (more)

What we need are techs to make it very easy for record our forecasts as we go about our lives, and to review them later for accuracy.

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Why Is USA Different?

An excellent article back in June reviewed the many ways psychologists mostly get data from a very unrepresentative sample of humanity, what they call the WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. In the process, they review ways the US is exceptional:

Americans are, on average, the most individualistic people in the world. … American parents, for example, were the only ones in a survey of 100 societies who created a separate room for their baby to sleep. …

[In 1996], compared with other Western industrialized societies, Americans were found to be the most patriotic, litigious, philanthropic, and populist (they have the most positions for elections and the most frequent elections, although they have among the lowest voter turnout rates). They were also among the most optimistic, and the least class-conscious. They were the most churchgoing in Protestantism, and the most fundamentalist in Christendom, and were more likely than others from Western industrialized countries to see the world in absolute moral terms.

In contrast to other large Western industrialized societies, the United States had the highest crime rate, the longest working hours, the highest divorce rate, the highest rate of volunteerism, the highest percentage of citizens with a post-secondary education, the highest productivity rate, the highest GDP, the highest poverty rate, and the highest income-inequality rate; and Americans were the least supportive of various governmental interventions. …

In a survey of people from six Western countries, only Americans preferred a choice from 50 different ice
cream flavors compared with 10 flavors. Likewise, Americans (and Britons) prefer to have more choices on menus in upscale restaurants than do people from other European countries. … Americans respond more defensively to death thoughts than do those from other countries. …

Perhaps it is this extreme tendency for Americans to punish free-riders, while not punishing cooperators, that contributes to Americans having the world’s highest worker productivity. American society is also anomalous, even relative to other Western societies, in its low relational focus in work settings, which is reflected in practices such as the encouragement of an impersonal work style, direct (rather than indirect) communication, the clear separation of the work domain from the non-work, and discouragement of friendships at work.

In their main article the authors don’t speculate on why WEIRD folks act so differently, but when pressed by comments they suggest:

[Consider] the relative strangeness, in a broad global and historical context, of modern middle-and upper-class American beliefs, values, cultural models, and practices vis-a`-vis childrearing. … These practices impact cognitive, linguistic, and motor development, including long-term cognitive outcomes. …  We speculate that in the context of mobile, meritocratic societies, … cultural evolutionary processes rooted in our evolved tendencies to imitate successful and prestigious individuals will favor the spread of child-rearing traits that speed up and enhance the development of those particular cognitive and social skills that eventually translate into social and economic success in these populations. This kind of cultural evolutionary process may be part of what is driving the dramatic increases in IQ observed in many industrialized nations over the last century, along with increases in biases toward analytical reasoning and individualism. It would also explain the obsession with active instruction of all kinds shown by middle- and upper-class Americans.

It sure seems that these Canadian authors are suggesting that the US (which on a world scale is almost like Canada) is different mainly because the US is better: stronger US competition has more quickly selected for kid-raising norms that make more successful kids, and work norms that are more productive. Seems a remarkably self-centered interpretation for an article claiming that US psychologists are too self-centered.  Doesn’t make it wrong of course, but it is noteworthy that they didn’t even notice its self-centeredness.

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