Heartbeats and racism

Recent studies highlight the influences of visceral signals across many domains, from emotional processing and decision-making to self-awareness. For example, scary stimuli are judged to be more fearful when presented during heartbeats, rather than between heartbeats. 
At my lab at Royal Holloway, University of London, we decided to test whether the cardiac cycle made a difference to the expression of racial prejudice. The heart is constantly informing the brain about the body’s overall level of ‘arousal’, the extent to which it is attuned to what is happening around it. On a heartbeat, sensors known as ‘arterial baroreceptors’ pick up pressure changes in the heart wall, and fire off a message to the brain; between heartbeats, they are quiescent. Such visceral information is initially encoded in the brainstem, before reaching the parts implicated in emotional and motivational behaviour. The brain, in turn, responds by trying to help the organism stabilise itself. If it receives signals of a raised heart-rate, the brain will generate predictions about the potential causes, and consider what the organism should do to bring itself down from this heightened state. This ongoing heart-brain dialogue, then, forms the basis of how the brain represents the body to itself, and creates awareness of the external environment. 
In our experiment, we used what’s known as the ‘first-person shooter’s task’, which simulates the snap judgments police officers make. Participants see a white or black man holding a gun or phone, and have to decide whether to shoot depending on the perceived level of threat. In prior studies, participants were significantly more likely to shoot an unarmed black individual than a white one. 
But we timed the stimuli to occur either between or on a heartbeat. Remarkably, the majority of misidentifications occurred when black individuals appeared at the same time as a heartbeat. Here, the number of false positives in which phones were perceived as weapons rose by 10 per cent compared with the average. In a different version of the test, we used what’s known as the ‘weapons identification task’, where participants see a white or black face, followed by an image of a gun or tool, and must classify the object as quickly as possible. When the innocuous items were presented following a black face, and on a heartbeat, errors rose by 20 per cent. 
Yet in both instances, when the judgment happened between heartbeats, we observed no differences in people’s accuracy, irrespective of whether they were responding to white or black faces. It seems that the combination of the firing of signals from the heart to the brain, along with the presentation of a stereotypical threat, increased the chances that even something benign will be perceived as dangerous 
It’s surprising to think of racial bias as not just a state or habit of mind, nor even a widespread cultural norm, but as a process that’s also part of the ebbs and flows of the body’s physiology. 
 The brain-heart dialogue shows how racism hijacks perception | Aeon Ideas

A disease that spreads through the internet?

Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist who has studied the Morgellons phenomenon, states that the "World Wide Web has become the incubator for mass delusion and it (Morgellons) seems to be a socially transmitted disease over the Internet." According to this hypothesis, people with delusions of parasitosis and other psychological disorders become convinced they have "Morgellons" after reading Internet accounts of others with similar symptoms. This is known as mass psychogenic illness, where physical symptoms without an organic cause spread to multiple people within the same community or social group. A 2005 Popular Mechanics article stated that Morgellons symptoms are well-known and characterized in the context of other disorders, and that "widespread reports of the strange fibers date back" only a few years to when the MRF first described them on the Internet. 
The Dallas Observer writes that Morgellons may be memetically spread via the Internet and mass media, and "[i]f this is the case, then Morgellons is one in a long line of weird diseases that have swept through populations, only to disappear without a trace once public concern subsides". The article draws parallels to several media-spread mass delusions.
Morgellons - Wikipedia

Our political beliefs are (mostly?) hereditary

Abstract:   Almost 40 years ago, evidence from large studies of adult twins and their relatives suggested that between 30 and 60 % of the variance in social and political attitudes could be explained by genetic influences. However, these findings have not been widely accepted or incorporated into the dominant paradigms that explain the etiology of political ideology. This has been attributed in part to measurement and sample limitations, as well the relative absence of molecular genetic studies. Here we present results from original analyses of a combined sample of over 12,000 twins pairs, ascertained from nine different studies conducted in five democracies, sampled over the course of four decades. We provide evidence that genetic factors play a role in the formation of political ideology, regardless of how ideology is measured, the era, or the population sampled. The only exception is a question that explicitly uses the phrase “Left–Right”. We then present results from one of the first genome-wide association studies on political ideology using data from three samples: a 1990 Australian sample involving 6,894 individuals from 3,516 families; a 2008 Australian sample of 1,160 related individuals from 635 families and a 2010 Swedish sample involving 3,334 individuals from 2,607 families. No polymorphisms reached genome-wide significance in the meta-analysis. The combined evidence suggests that political ideology constitutes a fundamental aspect of one’s genetically informed psychological disposition, but as Fisher proposed long ago, genetic influences on complex traits will be composed of thousands of markers of very small effects and it will require extremely large samples to have enough power in order to identify specific polymorphisms related to complex social traits.
Genetic Influences on Political Ideologies: Twin Analyses of 19 Measures of Political Ideologies from Five Democracies and Genome-Wide Findings from Three Populations

Apparently, I can guess your name just by looking at your face......or maybe you have squished your face to match your name

In one experiment, published Monday in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, scientists found that when people are shown a stranger's face and a choice of five names, they pick the right name about 35 percent of the time. 
That's actually pretty good, says Cathy Mondloch, a psychologist at Brock University in Canada who was not involved with the work. "Random chance would be 20 percent. I found that quite compelling." Though she says that more work needs to be done before she's convinced another reason, like that some name options are unpopular, isn't responsible for the result. 
The team ran several more experiments with different conditions and continued finding that study participants – and one computer algorithm – could reliably match names to faces. "We ran more than a dozen studies, and each time we had this feeling like, 'Oh boy, maybe this time it won't work.' And each time, it worked. 
And in another experiment, the researchers trained a computer to find similarities in thousands of faces of people with the same name. The algorithm found that people with the same name tend to have similarities around their eyes or at the corners of their mouths. "You can see it's the places with different expressions or most of our expressions," Zwebner says. Using that information, the robot could match a face to the correct name about 60 percent of the time when given two options. 
Zwebner speculates that people might be using their facial muscles to conform appearance to name. Imagine someone with the name "Joy," for instance, Zwebner says. "The moment she's born, her parents and society treat her in a way that befits that name. The say, you really are so joyful, smiling just like your name. She develops a certain look maybe because she is smiling more because of all the positive feedback she gets when she smiles." 
It may also be that people mold their names to fit them, says Melissa Lea, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Millsaps University in Mississippi. "I have several colleagues who say, '[My first name] didn't fit me. So I use my middle name.' That may be because they weren't matching the stereotype," she says. Don't feel like a Richard? Maybe Dick will suit you better. 
However, there could be other explanations reasons why Zwebner found the correlation between faces and names, Mondloch says. 
And there are other things that change our facial appearance aside from our names and people's reactions to our names, Mondloch says. "Parents influence our face because we're genetically related, and they pick our names, too. I think a big component [of our appearance] is going to be from genetic inheritance, diet and stress."
Your Name May Influence Your Facial Expressions : Shots - Health News : NPR

Wealth is correlated with ignoring other people

....in a 2016 study, [Michael Varnum, a neuroscientist at Arizona State University] and colleagues found evidence suggesting that people from lower social classes have a more sensitive mirror neuron system — which is thought to simulate the things you see others experience — when watching a video of hand movements. “Our cognitive systems, the degree to which they’re attuned to other people in the environment, is affected by our own social class,” he says. 
Another study, out last October in Psychological Science, further shows how attention breaks down along class lines. A research team lead by NYU doctoral candidate Pia Dietze measured participants’ attunement to people or things in three different experiments. In the first, they stopped 61 people on New York City streets, and asked them to put on a Google Glass device and walk around one block for about a minute, looking at whatever captured their gaze — with higher-class participants having reliably shorter “social gazes,” or the amount of time dwelling at each individual person. In a second experiment, a total of 158 undergrads were recruited to look at 41 photographs of different cities. Here, working-class participants had a 25 percent longer dwell time, on average, than upper-middle-class peers. In a third experiment, almost 400 participants recruited online had to determine if icons depicting people or objects changed in the course of milliseconds — and consistent with the other results, working-class people were faster in catching changes in faces than upper-middle-class participants. Together, the results show “social class cultures can influence social attention (attention towards human) in a deep and pervasive manner,” Dietze says. Your class shapes the “ecology” that you grow up in, and that anchors your habits of attention. 
There are multiple interpretations for why lower-class people are more attuned to people around them. It may be that growing up poorer means that you have to rely on others more; it may also mean that you live in a less-secure environment, so you need to attend to others to keep yourself safe. Varnum and Dietze presented at this year’s meeting of Society for Personality and Social Psychology, where I met them, and Varnum says that each study speaks to a broader notion of how higher-status people are more focused on their own goals and desires. They also ignore people a little more, maybe because they can afford to. “If you have more power and status, you may not have to care as much about what people are thinking and feeling; and also, if you’re in a resource-scarce environment, where things are a little more unpredictable and maybe a little more dangerous, it would be very adaptive to pay attention to others, how they’re feeling and what they’re going to do,” he says. In many ways, privilege is invisible; it also shapes what’s visible to us.
How Rich People See the World Differently -- Science of Us

The upside of delusional beliefs

The idea that in some specific contexts even wildly false beliefs can promote knowledge is counterintuitive, just like the idea that a morally dubious act can have good moral consequences. But the analogy can help us. In some circumstances, an apparent offense can prevent a worse outcome from occurring. For instance, you stop a terrorist from detonating a bomb by shooting his leg and making him fall. Shooting people is bad. But stopping the terrorist may be the right thing to do in the circumstances, especially if the bomb is likely to harm other people. If less violent means of stopping the terrorist are not available to you at the time, then what you do is justifiable. Similarly, if even wildly false beliefs can play an important function by enabling imperfect human agents to acquire knowledge in imperfect situations, that counts as a powerful redeeming feature. 
This notion may apply to delusions and other implausible beliefs. Without adopting the delusion, you would be overwhelmed by anxiety, puzzled and unable to engage and learn, because you would not have an explanation for your experience. You would see the dog’s actions, have a strong sense that the experience is significant, but have no clue as to what its meaning could be, and feel lost and maybe even threatened by it. Other (far more plausible) explanations for the experience (such as “This event appears significant to me because there is something wrong with my brain”) would be less likely to enhance your sense of meaningfulness and coherence and to make you feel important and engaged. Thus, they would have fewer chances of reducing anxiety and stress. Coming to believe that you suffer from a disabling mental condition would increase your anxiety and stress, and lower your self-esteem. 
Adopting the delusional explanation allows you to continue to process information effectively in a situation where your capacity to learn would be otherwise compromised. It is an emergency response in a disastrous scenario, comparable to shooting the terrorist in his leg just before he detonates a bomb that is likely to harm others. Thus, adopting the delusion may have beneficial effects on your capacity to obtain knowledge, but only with respect to a situation that is already problematic. The positive effects of the delusion may be temporary and limited in scope, and will be outweighed at a later stage due to the considerable disruption caused by the delusion. By letting the delusion shape your life, you find new sources of anxiety and stress, and you are likely to experience social isolation and exclusion as well. But despite these important qualifications, the claim that delusions have benefits for knowledge is important, and has implications for treatment. 
The clinical psychologist Daniel Freeman and his colleagues found that when you endorse a delusional belief with conviction (in the acute stage) you are not open to acknowledging that there may be other hypotheses explaining your experience. As a result of this finding, they argue that it is not always a good idea to challenge a delusion. If you cannot think of alternative explanations, there is nothing you can replace the delusion with, and thus when the delusion is challenged you may be left without any explanation for your experience. If delusions are sometimes beneficial, and enable you to resume learning in the way I suggested, then there may be an additional reason not to challenge them at the acute stage. Delusions may be playing the role of an emergency response, partially deceiving you but at the same time allowing you to continue engaging with the world around you, and potentially acquiring knowledge at a critical time.
Lisa Bortolotti - The upside of delusional beliefs – Scientia Salon

Politics makes us stupid and cruel

Incredibly great article by Jason Brennan. Here are two excerpts:

In Considerations on Representative Government, the great nineteenth century economist, philosopher, and early feminist John Stuart Mill advocated experimenting with more widespread political participation. Mill hoped that participation would make citizens more concerned about the common good, and would entice them to educate themselves. He hoped getting factory workers to think about politics would be like getting fish to discover there is a world outside the ocean. As he said, “Among the foremost benefits of free government is that education of the intelligence and of the sentiments which is carried down to the very lowest ranks of the people when they are called to take a part in acts which directly affect the great interests of their country.”
20th century sociologist and economist Joseph Schumpeter tendered a grimmer hypothesis about how political involvement affects us: “The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in away which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.” (Schumpeter 1996, 262.)
Both Mill and Schumpeter were scientific thinkers, but neither quite had the data needed to test their hypotheses. However, we now possess over sixty years’ worth of detailed, varied, and rigorous empirical research in political science and political psychology. The test results are in. Overall, Schumpeter was largely right and Mill largely wrong. In general, political participation makes us mean and dumb. Emotion has a large role in explaining why. 
The distinctive feature of the Hooligan mind is that Hooligans have strong preferences over beliefs, in the sense that they prefer to believe some things rather than others. To put it very broadly, they are driven to believe what they want to believe (especially what they find comforting or flattering to believe), rather than driven by a rational assessment of the evidence. They engage in “motivated reasoning”: that is, they try to arrive at beliefs that maximize good feelings and minimize bad feelings. 
Here is how political psychologists Milton Lodge and Charles Taber summarize the body of extant work: “The evidence is reliable [and] strong…in showing that people find it very difficult to escape the pull of their prior attitudes and beliefs, which guide the processing of new information in predictable and sometimes insidious ways” (Lodge and Taber 2013, 169) Political psychologists Leonie Huddy, David Sears, and Jack Levy concur: “Political decision-making is often beset with biases that privilege habitual thought and consistency over careful consideration of new information” (Huddy, Sears, and Levy 2013, 11). 
This predisposition to motivated reasoning leads to paradoxical results. We are accustomed to think that reasoning about evidence would make political agents more likely to acquire true beliefs and reject false beliefs. But this assumes we think like Vulcans. For Hooligans, “reasoning” can actually undermine rationality. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2010) puts it, “…reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why [psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber] call [their theory of why reasoning developed] The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it…, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions”. 
In short, the evolutionary purpose of “reasoning” is not so much to turn us into scientists who can discover how the world works. Rather, it is to give us the power to influence, manipulate, and control one another. As a result, when it comes to politics in particular, when we confront contrary points of view from our own or evidence that shows we are wrong, we tend to react by getting angry and becoming more extreme in our views.
Read the whole article here: Politics Makes Us Mean and Dumb | Emotion Researcher
Hat tip to Reddit: Jason Brennan: Politics Makes Us Mean and Dumb : philosophy

Our sense of self is an illusion

Wowee!  A wonderful article on Farnam Street. It's a book report about Michael Gazzaniga's new book. Here are a snippet from the article, with some quotes from the book:


We experience our conscious mind as a single unified thing. But if Gazzaniga and company are right, it most certainly isn't. How could a “specialized and localized” modular brain give rise to the feeling of “oneness” we feel so strongly about? It would seem there are too many things going on separately and locally:
Our conscious awareness is the mere tip of the iceberg of nonconscious processing. Below our level of awareness is the very busy nonconscious brain hard at work. Not hard for us to imagine are the housekeeping jobs the brain constantly struggles to keep homeostatic mechanisms up and running, such as our heart beating, our lungs breathing, and our temperature just right. Less easy to imagine, but being discovered left and right over the past fifty years, are the myriads of nonconscious processes smoothly putt-putting along. Think about it. 
To begin with there are all the automatic visual and other sensory processing we have talked about. In addition, our minds are always being unconsciously biased by positive and negative priming processes, and influenced by category identification processes. In our social world, coalitionary bonding processes, cheater detection processes, and even moral judgment processes (to name only a few) are cranking away below our conscious mechanisms. With increasingly sophisticated testing methods, the number and diversity of identified processes is only going to multiply.
So what's going on? Who's controlling all this stuff? The idea is that the brain works more like traffic than a car. No one is controlling it!

It's due to a principle of complex systems called emergence, and it explains why all of these “specialized and localized” processes can give rise to what seems like a unified mind.
The key to understanding emergence is to understand that there are different levels of organization. My favorite analogy is that of the car, which I have mentioned before. If you look at an isolated car part, such as a cam shaft, you cannot predict that the freeway will be full of traffic at 5:15 PM. Monday through Friday. In fact, you could not even predict the phenomenon of traffic would even occur if you just looked at a brake pad. You cannot analyze traffic at the level of car parts. Did the guy who invented the wheel ever visualize the 405 in Los Angeles on Friday evening? You cannot even analyze traffic at the level of the individual car. When you get a bunch of cars and drivers together, with the variables of location, time, weather, and society, all in the mix, then at that level you can predict traffic. A new set of laws emerge that aren't predicted from the parts alone.
Emergence, Gazzaniga goes on, is how to understand the brain. Sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, neurons, modules, the mind, and a collection of minds (a society) are all different levels of organization, with their own laws that cannot necessarily be predicted from the properties of the level below.


Read the whole thing here: Who's in Charge of Our Minds? The Interpreter

Can you smell personality traits?


Snippets from an online article:
People can guess your personality by simply smelling your t-shirt, research finds.
The study showed that people were as accurate at guessing personality when smelling their clothes as when watching a video of them. 
Not all personality traits were easy to spot, though. The researchers found that people were good at identifying these three personality traits:
  • neuroticism,
  • extraversion,
  • and dominance.
In fact, people were particularly accurate at smelling the dominance (or otherwise) of the opposite sex. 
Smell, though, didn’t provide much insight into whether someone was open to experience, agreeable or conscientious.
...a previous study has shown that you can smell a happy person
“People communicate their happiness to others through their perspiration.
There are chemical compounds in sweat, it turns out, that can be detected by others.
Previous studies have shown that we can smell fear and disgust in sweat — but happiness has been more of a gray area.”
Read the whole article here: Insanely, People Can Actually Smell These Personality Traits - PsyBlog

And read the original scientific papers here: Does Personality Smell? Accuracy of Personality Assessments Based on Body Odour - Sorokowska - 2011 - European Journal of Personality - Wiley Online Library
...and here: A Sniff of Happiness

Truth is dead

Long, long, fascinating article in the Guardian. Excerpts:
In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone – no matter what their politics – can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western liberal democracies. Shortly before the November presidential election, a study in the US discovered that 68% of Trump supporters distrusted the economic data published by the federal government. In the UK, a research project by Cambridge University and YouGov looking at conspiracy theories discovered that 55% of the population believes that the government “is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living here”. 
Rather than diffusing controversy and polarisation, it seems as if statistics are actually stoking them. Antipathy to statistics has become one of the hallmarks of the populist right, with statisticians and economists chief among the various “experts” that were ostensibly rejected by voters in 2016. Not only are statistics viewed by many as untrustworthy, there appears to be something almost insulting or arrogant about them. Reducing social and economic issues to numerical aggregates and averages seems to violate some people’s sense of political decency. 
Nowhere is this more vividly manifest than with immigration. The thinktank British Future has studied how best to win arguments in favour of immigration and multiculturalism. One of its main findings is that people often respond warmly to qualitative evidence, such as the stories of individual migrants and photographs of diverse communities. But statistics – especially regarding alleged benefits of migration to Britain’s economy – elicit quite the opposite reaction. People assume that the numbers are manipulated and dislike the elitism of resorting to quantitative evidence. Presented with official estimates of how many immigrants are in the country illegally, a common response is to scoff. Far from increasing support for immigration, British Future found, pointing to its positive effect on GDP can actually make people more hostile to it. GDP itself has come to seem like a Trojan horse for an elitist liberal agenda. Sensing this, politicians have now largely abandoned discussing immigration in economic terms.
All of this presents a serious challenge for liberal democracy.
Either the state continues to make claims that it believes to be valid and is accused by sceptics of propaganda, or else, politicians and officials are confined to saying what feels plausible and intuitively true, but may ultimately be inaccurate. Either way, politics becomes mired in accusations of lies and cover-ups. 
The declining authority of statistics – and the experts who analyse them – is at the heart of the crisis that has become known as “post-truth” politics. And in this uncertain new world, attitudes towards quantitative expertise have become increasingly divided. From one perspective, grounding politics in statistics is elitist, undemocratic and oblivious to people’s emotional investments in their community and nation. It is just one more way that privileged people in London, Washington DC or Brussels seek to impose their worldview on everybody else. From the opposite perspective, statistics are quite the opposite of elitist. They enable journalists, citizens and politicians to discuss society as a whole, not on the basis of anecdote, sentiment or prejudice, but in ways that can be validated. The alternative to quantitative expertise is less likely to be democracy than an unleashing of tabloid editors and demagogues to provide their own “truth” of what is going on across society. 
Is there a way out of this polarisation?
Read the whole article here: How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next | William Davies | Politics | The Guardian

Whatever you think, you don’t necessarily know your own mind

Nice article by Keith Frankish. Excerpts:
It is well established that people sometimes think they have beliefs that they don’t really have. For example, if offered a choice between several identical items, people tend to choose the one on the right. But when asked why they chose it, they confabulate a reason, saying they thought the item was a nicer colour or better quality. Similarly, if a person performs an action in response to an earlier (and now forgotten) hypnotic suggestion, they will confabulate a reason for performing it. What seems to be happening is that the subjects engage in unconscious self-interpretation. They don’t know the real explanation of their action (a bias towards the right, hypnotic suggestion), so they infer some plausible reason and ascribe it to themselves. They are not aware that they are interpreting, however, and make their reports as if they were directly aware of their reasons. 
Many other studies support this explanation. For example, if people are instructed to nod their heads while listening to a tape (in order, they are told, to test the headphones), they express more agreement with what they hear than if they are asked to shake their heads. And if they are required to choose between two items they previously rated as equally desirable, they subsequently say that they prefer the one they had chosen. Again, it seems, they are unconsciously interpreting their own behaviour, taking their nodding to indicate agreement and their choice to reveal a preference. 
Building on such evidence, Carruthers makes a powerful case for an interpretive view of self-knowledge, set out in his book The Opacity of Mind (2011). The case starts with the claim that humans (and other primates) have a dedicated mental subsystem for understanding other people’s minds, which swiftly and unconsciously generates beliefs about what others think and feel, based on observations of their behaviour. (Evidence for such a ‘mindreading’ system comes from a variety of sources, including the rapidity with which infants develop an understanding of people around them.) Carruthers argues that this same system is responsible for our knowledge of our own minds. Humans did not develop a second, inward-looking mindreading system (an inner sense); rather, they gained self-knowledge by directing the outward-looking system upon themselves. And because the system is outward-looking, it has access only to sensory inputs and must draw its conclusions from them alone. (Since it has direct access to sensory states, our knowledge of what we are experiencing is not interpretative.) 
The reason we know our own thoughts better than those of others is simply that we have more sensory data to draw on.
Read the whole article here:
Whatever you think, you don’t necessarily know your own mind | Aeon Ideas

Why science is so hard to believe

Science is not a body of facts,” says geophysicist Marcia McNutt, who once headed the U.S. Geological Survey and is now editor of Science, the prestigious journal. “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.”

The scientific method leads us to truths that are less than self-evident, often mind-blowing and sometimes hard to swallow. In the early 17th century, when Galileo claimed that the Earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun, he wasn’t just rejecting church doctrine. He was asking people to believe something that defied common sense — because it sure looks like the sun’s going around the Earth, and you can’t feel the Earth spinning. Galileo was put on trial and forced to recant. Two centuries later, Charles Darwin escaped that fate. But his idea that all life on Earth evolved from a primordial ancestor and that we humans are distant cousins of apes, whales and even deep-sea mollusks is still a big ask for a lot of people. 
Even when we intellectually accept these precepts of science, we subconsciously cling to our intuitions — what researchers call our naive beliefs. A study by Andrew Shtulman of Occidental College showed that even students with an advanced science education had a hitch in their mental gait when asked to affirm or deny that humans are descended from sea animals and that the Earth goes around the sun. Both truths are counterintuitive. The students, even those who correctly marked “true,” were slower to answer those questions than questions about whether humans are descended from tree-dwelling creatures (also true but easier to grasp) and whether the moon goes around the Earth (also true but intuitive). 
Shtulman’s research indicates that as we become scientifically literate, we repress our naive beliefs but never eliminate them entirely. They nest in our brains, chirping at us as we try to make sense of the world. 
Most of us do that by relying on personal experience and anecdotes, on stories rather than statistics. We might get a prostate-specific antigen test, even though it’s no longer generally recommended, because it caught a close friend’s cancer — and we pay less attention to statistical evidence, painstakingly compiled through multiple studies, showing that the test rarely saves lives but triggers many unnecessary surgeries. Or we hear about a cluster of cancer cases in a town with a hazardous-waste dump, and we assume that pollution caused the cancers. Of course, just because two things happened together doesn’t mean one caused the other, and just because events are clustered doesn’t mean they’re not random. Yet we have trouble digesting randomness; our brains crave pattern and meaning
Even for scientists, the scientific method is a hard discipline. They, too, are vulnerable to confirmation bias — the tendency to look for and see only evidence that confirms what they already believe. But unlike the rest of us, they submit their ideas to formal peer review before publishing them. Once the results are published, if they’re important enough, other scientists will try to reproduce them — and, being congenitally skeptical and competitive, will be very happy to announce that they don’t hold up. Scientific results are always provisional, susceptible to being overturned by some future experiment or observation. Scientists rarely proclaim an absolute truth or an absolute certainty. Uncertainty is inevitable at the frontiers of knowledge.

That provisional quality of science is another thing a lot of people have trouble with. To some climate-change skeptics, for example, the fact that a few scientists in the 1970s were worried (quite reasonably, it seemed at the time) about the possibility of a coming ice age is enough to discredit what is now the consensus of the world’s scientists.
Read the whole article here: Why science is so hard to believe - The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-science-is-so-hard-to-believe/2015/02/12/2ff8f064-b0a0-11e4-886b-c22184f27c35_story.html

Happiness can be synthesized

....the fact is that a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.

An unexpected benefit of PMS: better detection of snakes!

It is well known that adult humans detect images of snakes as targets more quickly than images of flowers as targets whether the images are in color or gray-scale. When such visual searches were performed by a total of 60 adult premenopausal healthy women in the present study to examine whether their performance would fluctuate across the phases of the menstrual cycle, snake detection was found to become temporarily enhanced during the luteal phase as compared to early or late follicular phases. This is the first demonstration of the existence of within-individual variation of the activity of the fear module, as a predictable change in cognitive strength, which appears likely to be due to the hormonal changes that occur in the menstrual cycle of healthy women.
The paper: Premenstrual enhancement of snake detection in visual search in healthy women

A magnet to the head changes your beliefs about God and immigration

“We think that hearing criticisms of your group’s values, perhaps especially from a person you perceive as an outsider, is processed as an ideological sort of threat,” said Dr Izuma. 
One way to respond to such threats is to ‘double down’ on your group values, increasing your investment in them, and reacting more negatively to the critic,” he continued. 
“When we disrupted the brain region that usually helps detect and respond to threats, we saw a less negative, less ideologically motivated reaction to the critical author and his opinions.” 
Dr Colin Holbrook, from UCLA and the lead author of the paper, added: “These findings are very striking, and consistent with the idea that brain mechanisms that evolved for relatively basic threat-response functions are repurposed to also produce ideological reactions. However, more research is needed to understand exactly how and why religious beliefs and ethnocentric attitudes were reduced in this experiment.” 
The scientists say that whether we’re trying to clamber over a fallen tree that we find in our path, find solace in religion, or resolve issues related to immigration, our brains are using the same basic mental machinery.

Read the whole article here: http://www.psypost.org/2015/10/scientists-reduce-belief-in-god-by-shutting-down-the-brains-medial-frontal-cortex-38516

Belief in evolution boils down to a gut feeling

This research backs up what I've believed for a while, which is: most people who accept evolution do so for the same reasons that people who reject it, reject it. Basically: intuition, which is a terrible guide to what is true and what is not.

You might think that people who believe the truth do so for good reasons, but no. Everybody believes what they believe for bad reasons.

An excerpt from the article:
The researchers first asked the students a series of questions to measure their overall acceptance of evolution, teasing out whether they generally believed the main concept sand scientific findings that define the theory of evolution. Next, they tested the students on their knowledge of evolutionary science with questions about various processes, such as natural selection. For each question, the students wrote down how certain they felt about the correctness of their answers — an indicator of their gut feelings. 
They found that intuition had a significant impact on what the students accepted, no matter how much they knew and regardless of their religious beliefs. Even students with a greater knowledge of evolutionary facts weren't more likely to accept the theory unless they also had a strong gut feeling about the facts, the results showed. 
The study has important implications for the teaching of evolution, the researchers said. Informing students about this conflict between intuition and logic may help them judge ideas on their merits.
Read the whole thing here: http://www.livescience.com/18051-belief-evolution-gut-feeling.html

The cold logic of drunk people

From the Atlantic:

"At a bar in France, researchers made people answer questions about philosophy. The more intoxicated the subject, the more utilitarian he or she was likely to be."

Read the article here.

Are the risks of STIs overblown?

A provocative article by one of my favorite bloggers, Ozymandias: Care Less About STIs | Thing of Things. An excerpt:

Assuming you are not immunosuppressed, currently pregnant, or otherwise going to have abnormally bad outcomes from contracting herpes, herpes is a ridiculous thing to care about getting. You know that whole thing about how most people who have STIs don’t know they have STIs? 87.4 percent of people with herpes have no idea they have herpes. But herpes does not have silent symptoms. It’s not like chlamydia, where it’s asymptomatic and you don’t get tested and next thing you know you have pelvic inflammatory disease and you’re infertile. The consequence of herpes is that you get sores on your genitals and they hurt, and evidently for nearly ninety percent of the people who have it the sores matter so little that they don’t even realize they’ve contracted the virus. 
And then that twelve percent of people who know they have herpes? Includes people who had one or two serious flareups and never had another one. Includes people whose partner had herpes that flared up all the time but who are asymptomatic themselves. Includes, in short, quite a lot of people for whom herpes is no big deal. Having regular herpes flareups sucks (although there is medication that helps), but only a very small fraction of people who get herpes will have regular flareups. 
The primary negative consequence of herpes is having to tell people you have herpes. And the best part is that, statistically, a fair number of the people who stigmatize people with herpes? Have herpes themselves.
[Emphases and link in original]

Read the whole article here: https://thingofthings.wordpress.com/2016/05/09/care-less-about-stis/.

One reason for the world's general fucked-up-ness

There are more ways of disturbing a well-functioning system, than of improving it to the same extent. Thus, arbitrary interferences with well-functioning systems are much more likely to damage them than to improve them. Furthermore, their order or degree of organization tends to decrease in the course of time because most changes in them will damage them. This is a part of what is known as entropy. If we remove any of the countless conditions, which are necessary to maintain the functioning of an integrated system, we shall interrupt its function, but in order to improve its function, we have to discover a condition which fits in so well with all these conditions that the function is enhanced.

This is the main reason why it is in general easier to kill than to save life. There are innumerable conditions which are necessary for an organism to continue to be alive . Thus, we could kill it by finding out which of these conditions is easiest for us to remove, and remove it. As there are many ways of killing an organism, there is likely to be some within our reach. By contrast, to save its life we have no choice but to restore something like the particular condition removed, however difficult that may be.

- Persson and Savulescu, Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement

Freud was right about something after all

By Freud’s account, conscious autonomy is a charade. “We are lived,” as he puts it, and yet we don’t see it as such. Indeed, Freud suggests that to be human is to rebel against that vision — the truth. We tend to see ourselves as self-determining, self-conscious agents in all that we decide and do, and we cling to that image. But why? Why do we resist the truth? Why do we wish — strain, strive, against the grain of reality — to be autonomous individuals, and see ourselves as such?

Perhaps Freud is too cynical regarding conscious autonomy, but he is right to question our presumption to it. He is right to suggest that we typically — wrongly — ignore the extent to which we are determined by unknown forces, and overestimate our self-control. The path to happiness for Freud, or some semblance of it in his stormy account of the psyche, involves accepting our basic condition. But why do we presume individual agency in the first place? Why do we insist on it stubbornly, irrationally, often recklessly?
- Firmin DeBranbander, Deluded Individualism

True or false: the New World was a wilderness when Europeans arrived


...one of the things that happened in Europe and Asia was that people lived, for thousands and thousands of years, right next to these domesticated animals, you know, the cows and the horses and so forth. And every now and then, an animal disease can do what scientists call jump the species barrier and become a human disease.
And so the most recent example would be bird flu, which everybody knows is a disease that, you know, started in some kind of bird and has now become a human disease.
Well, all of the great diseases, you know, from smallpox to measles to influenza, are this kind of disease, and none of them existed in the Americas because they didn't have any domesticated animals.
And so when the Europeans came over, started by Columbus, it was as if all the deaths over the millennia that have been caused by these diseases [in Europe] were compressed into 150 years in the Americas. And the result was to wipe out, you know, somewhere between two-thirds and 90 percent of the people in the Americas.
And this had just, in addition to enormous human effects - I mean, it was the worst demographic catastrophe in history - it had enormous ecological effects, because these people had been tending the landscape, managing the landscape, and suddenly it reverted into wilderness.
One of the ironies of this is that, you know, I think we learn in school that Europeans came over to the Americas and sort of wrecked the wilderness. And what they in fact did was, in the most awful way possible, they created it. And this is part of the ecological convulsion of the Columbian exchange.
GROSS: That's such a different way of looking at things. When did historians start seeing the explorers bringing these epidemics, which destroyed populations and thereby created wilderness?
Mr. MANN: Well, it's the Spanish accounts and the English accounts and the colonial accounts. If you read, you know, William Bradford's account of Plymouth, you know, the first colony in New England, he talks about how just before they arrived, there was a huge epidemic that swept away the people and made room for them.
So if you look in there, it's quite clearly in those accounts; they were aware of it. It sort of got forgotten, and then in the 1960s and 1970s, the knowledge kind of got resurrected again. And there was a couple of historians, there's a guy named Henry Dobyns, there's a guy, Alfred Crosby, that I mentioned, who really brought it to attention.
And when you start adding up everything that we know, it becomes very evident that there was just an enormous catastrophe that took place. And a lot of it took place outside of European eyes because Native people didn't have these kind of diseases. They didn't have the idea of quarantine.
And back before there was antibiotics, what happened if you had a contagious disease, you were kind of fenced off, right. So the people in plagues, you know, like in Boccaccio, would, you know, would hide away from this.
None of that happened in the Americas. So somebody would get smallpox, and the whole village would come around and try to comfort that person. They would all get sick, they'd flee in panic, they'd run to the next village. They'd spread it there. And so these diseases exploded like chains of firecrackers across the landscape.
GROSS: So in North America, when the settlers were fighting wars with the Indians, the Indians that they were fighting with, the Native Americans they were fighting with, were survivors of these plagues?
Mr. MANN: Yes, they were, by and large, people, you know, who were in a state of complete cultural shock because, you know, two-thirds of the people that they knew had died. And there is just no culture that can resist foreign invasion, even by small bands of people like the Europeans were, when you've just had this enormous, shattering experience.
Alfred Crosby pointed out in "The Columbian Exchange," that if Genghis Khan had arrived right after the Black Plague, you and I would not be speaking a European language. He would have just swept in. 

From Terry Gross's interview with Charles Mann, author of 1493.

What Facebook and Google are hiding

This is a fascinating video, all about how we don't really have access to an unbiased view of the Internet anymore. So watch it for that. But here's the part that's relevant to this blog: "In our Netflix queue, there's an epic struggle going on, between our future aspirational selves, and our more impulsive present selves. We all want to be someone who has watched Rashomon, but right now we want to watch Ace Ventura for the fourth time." This is exactly what Daniel Kahneman is on about.


Hat tip to my friend Ray for the link.

My new hero: Charles Kenny

I'm a contrarian, I admit it. But there are two kinds, and I think I'm one of the good ones.

Some people take delight in being contrary, and don't much care about being consistent. They just want to be on the "other" side.

Other folks, like me, also play the part of the loyal opposition, but I like to think that the search for truth comes first. If a particular truth is universally acknowledged, that's boring, but I won't change what I believe just to liven things up.

So it's always nice to discover a kindred spirit, someone who seems sensible, and also seems to like to tweak the noses of the complacent. A while back, I happened to stumble across two unrelated articles that are right up my contrarian alley, within a day of each other. As it turns out, they're both written by the same person, Charles Kenny.

I know what you're thinking: he's one of those guys with two first names. How prejudiced of you!  Try to ignore your philistine leanings and listen up.

The first is a brilliant piece subtitled "Why ditching your fancy, organic, locavore lifestyle is good for the world's poor" and that's exactly what it is. Kenny calmly and rationally explodes one after another myth about farming and food:
  • Genetically modified foods are good for you and a boon to the world's poor
  • It's not necessarily greener to eat locally
  • Organic farming uses scarce resources and raises all food prices
I like this article because it seems to pit two fine liberal values against each other: environmentalism and compassion. He ends the piece with a short direct summary of what you can do, food-wise, for a greener and more sustainable planet, and to help people in poor countries. Read the article here.

The other article is great, because it skewers one of the few things that both liberals and conservatives agree on: that small businesses are wonderful and we should promote them. Read it, it's great: Rethinking the Boosterism About Small Business.

I was so impressed by these short pieces, I wanted to see if Kenny has written a book. He has. It's called Getting Better - Why Global Development is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More. Sounds fascinating, I'll post a review here after I read it. In the meantime, if you click here, and buy it from Amazon, I'll get a tiny piece of the action.

The way we experience time is freaky in lots of interesting ways

Wow, it turns out your sense of time passing underlies lots of other things...like whether you're crazy!

Can your culture make you sick?

Here's the deal: there are some syndromes* that are specific to certain cultures. The people afflicted with these syndromes feel just as "sick" as folks with more widely-recognized ailments.

Huh? How can that be? I can think of a couple of ways it could be true. Either there's a genetic component to some syndromes that largely coincides with a particular culture, or it could be that some syndromes are not organic in origin, but rather fulfill some cultural function in a particular culture.

There must be some examples of the first (genetic) type, but I don't know any. Turns out the second kind has been studied. There's a good book about this, called (surprisingly enough) The Culture-Bound Syndromes, edited by Ronald Simons. Among the syndromes described in the book is Koro. This is a "disease" that occurs in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, where the sufferer (always male) becomes convinced his penis is shrinking, or even disappearing into his body.

Another fascinating syndrome is sleep paralysis. This interests me because I have experienced it multiple times, but not for many years.

So...all that is fascinating, maybe, but why am I including it in this blog about being wrong and being happy? Because it shows that (sometimes) we're wrong what's making us sick, or even something as seemingly obvious as whether we're sick at all. I wonder how many other culture-specific syndromes we're suffering from, but don't recognize yet.

As I'm writing this post, I remembered a conversation I had with an EMT. He told me about "Hispanic panic," in which, during times of familial strife, an older Latina will faint, thus defusing the stressful situation by turning everybody's attention to the sudden "medical" problem. This EMT told me how you can distinguish this syndrome from a "real" organic problem: the patient is usually face up on the ground, with her hands at her sides. If you elevate one of her hands, if it does not drop down heavily, you're dealing with "Hispanic panic." The whole thing reminds me of how Victorian women were (really or supposedly) prone to "fainting." I think this qualifies as a culture-bound sydrome.

One more thing, which sort of tangentially relates. Recently I stumbled across another example: Paris Syndrome. This is where first-time visitors to Paris (particularly Japanese tourists) experience such extreme disappointment in the reality (as opposed to the fantasy) of Paris, that it manifests as physical symptoms.

Here's a link to buy the book
Click here to find the book in a library
Here's a link to Wikpedia's page about culture-bound syndromes
And a link to WP's article about Paris Syndrome

* A "syndrome" is basically a set of symptoms that tend to occur together. Their underlying cause may or may not be known.

What's a Butterworth?

I don't really like Trevor Butterworth, because he's snotty and whiny. But I read him because he's often right and often useful.

A recent Butterworth op-ed is useful because it alerted me to a new book that sounds incredible, and a fascinating idea from that book (he's talking about what causes medical associations to issue wrong-headed health warnings):
Simple arrogance? Perhaps. Political agendas? Possibly. But a more intriguing explanation emerges from “The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life,” the latest book from the hugely entertaining anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Robert L. Trivers. The problem, it seems, is social.

Physics, says Trivers, is the most solid and sophisticated of the sciences as it is the least dependent on social interaction or social content. Or to put it more snarkily, its general lack of relevance to anything guarantees a high level of rigor.

On the other hand, the more relevant the science to everyday life, the more it risks being deformed by that social interaction through deceit and self-deception. It’s a theory that seems especially applicable to public health, where survival of the weakest depends on the social success of the science. It’s a painful irony that the more doctors care, the more careless they tend to be about the science. [my emphasis]
Read the whole op-ed here.
Buy the Trivers book here.

Five ways common sense lies to you

Excellent post on Cracked. Here's small sample:
Any incremental improvement on someone else's part is mocked as some kind of deluded hypocrisy, because anything short of perfect is not worth doing, so you might as well do nothing, like them. "Ha! You're drinking a Diet Coke with your hamburger? Like that's really going to make a difference!"

Politicians use this to attack any idea they don't like. "Sure, your plan is helping millions of families in poverty. But I found examples of people abusing it! So we might as well scrap the whole system!"

Or, you'll hear radical political types on the Internet say, "I'm not voting for any of those guys! They're no better than Bush! They're all corrupt agents of the NWO! I'm staying home until you can show me a perfect, incorruptible, intelligent politician who believes the exact same things I do!"

Remember the thing about the pen that would write in space?

Upside-down, in zero gravity, I mean. And then the story goes that the Russians solved the problem by using a pencil. Remember that?

Well, it's a hoax, apparently.


Which do you prefer: barbecue or pesticides?

I WAS ONCE invited to dinner by a friend who ate nothing but organic food. We picked up vegetables on the way to her house: broccoli, squash,and peppers. Then we bought swordfish. When we arrived at her house, my friend walked straight into the backyard, fired up her Weber grill, sliced the vegetables, and proceeded to cook them. "I just do it this way,"  she said, "so they don't lose their vitamins."

Vitamins are good for you; but cancer isn't. Charred food contains carcinogens; so does charcoal and the grease that often drips from a grill into the fire. The food we ate that night was far more likely to cause harm than any conventional product cooked another way. The genuine risks never occurred to her. Like many people, though, she buys organic food because it makes her feel safer. But there is no such thing as safer. There is only safer than something else. Skiing and driving cars are thousands of times more dangerous than walking or cycling. Yet we never refuse to enter a motor vehicle because it "may" cause death.
- Michael Specter, Denialsim
ISBN 9781594202308, p. 127

Primitive people are just as wrong as you

I was reading a fascinating book called Sick Societies, by Robert Edgerton. I came across this thought-provoking tidbit:
Weston LaBarre has provided compelling evidence that the antiquity of a belief is no assurance of its "tested truth," as he put it, nor does its survival demonstrate that it serves any positive purpose.  To illustrate these points, LaBarre refers to the ancient and widespread idea that the fundamental source of semen, and thus fertility and life, is the brain. After documenting the importance of this belief from its origin during the Paleolithic to modern times, LaBarre shows that it led countless populations throughout the world to become headhunters in order to eat the brains of others because it was thought that doing so would enhance their own life essence and fertility. The great antiquity and virtual ubiquity of this demonstrably false belief and lethal practice led LaBarre to coin the term "group archosis" to refer to "nonsense and misinformation so ancient and pervasive as to be seemingly inextricable from our thinking.” He concluded, "A frightening proportion of all culture is arguably archosis, more especially sacred culture." French anthropologist Dan Sperber has taken a similar position by asserting that while some mental dispositions have been selected for in the process of biological evolution, others are mere "side effects" that have only marginal adaptive value. Provocatively, Sperber concluded that religion is one of these side effects of evolution.

Bacteria are controlling your mind

Hundreds of species of bacteria call the human gut their home. This gut "microbiome" influences our physiology and health in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand. Now, a new study suggests that gut bacteria can even mess with the mind, altering brain chemistry and changing mood and behavior.

Can you tell when people are lying?

While reading Deborah Tannen's interesting book The Argument Culture, I came across this great passage:
Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, studies lying. He set up experiments in which individuals were videotaped talking about their emotions, actions, or beliefs--some truthfully, some not. He has shown these videotapes to thousands of people, asking them to identify the liars and also to say how sure they were about their judgments. His findings are chilling: Most people performed not much better than chance, and those who did the worst had just as much confidence in their judgments as the few who were really able to detect lies.
[My emphasis. No citation give in Tannen, and I'm too busy to look it up, so tracking down Ekman's research is left as an exercise for the reader.]

Contraband can hide in plain sight

Once you find one piece of what you're looking for, you're less likely to see others. It's called "satisfaction of search."
As airport security employees scan luggage for a large variety of banned items, they may miss a deadly box cutter if they find a water bottle first.