Thursday, January 21, 2010

What era are our intuitions about elites and business adapted to?   posted by agnostic @ 1/21/2010 01:36:00 AM

Well, just the way I asked it, our gut feelings about the economically powerful are obviously not a product of hunter-gatherer life, given that such societies have minimal hierarchy, and so minimal disparities in power, material wealth, privileges of all kinds, etc. Hunter-gatherers don't even tolerate would-be elite-strivers, so beyond a blanket condemnation of trying to be a big-shot, they don't have the subtler attitudes that agricultural and industrial people do -- these latter groups tolerate and somewhat respect elites but resent and envy them at the same time.

So that leaves two major eras -- agricultural and industrial societies. I'm going to refer to these instead by terms that North, Wallis, & Weingast use in their excellent book Violence and Social Orders. Their framework for categorizing societies is based on how violence is controlled. In the primitive social order -- hunter-gatherer life -- there are no organizations that prevent violence, so homicide rates are the highest of all societies. At the next step up, limited-access social orders -- or "natural states" that sprung up with agriculture -- substantially reduce the level of violence by giving the violence specialists (strongmen, mafia dons, etc.) an incentive to not go to war all the time. Each strongman and his circle of cronies has a tacit agreement with the other strongmen -- who all make up a dominant coalition -- that I'll leave you to exploit the peasants living on your land if you leave me to exploit the peasants on my land.

This way, the strongman doesn't have to work very much to live a comfortable life -- just steal what he wants from the peasants on his land, and protect them should violence break out. Why won't one strongman just raid another to get his land, peasants, food, and women? Because if this type of civil war breaks out, everyone's land gets ravaged, everyone's peasants can't produce much food, and so every strongman will lose their easy source of free goodies (rents).

The members of the dominant coalition also agree to limit access to their circle, to limit people's ability to form organizations, etc. If they let anybody join their group, or form a rival coalition, their slice of the pie would shrink. And this is a Malthusian economy, so the pie isn't going to get much bigger within their lifetimes. So by restricting (though not closing off) access to the dominant coalition, each member maintains a pretty enjoyable size of the rents that they extract from the peasants. Why wouldn't those outside the dominant coalition not try to form their own rival group anyway? Because the strongmen of the area are already part of the dominant coalition -- only the relative wimps could try to stage a rebellion, and the strongmen would immediately and violently crush such an uprising.

It's not that one faction of the coalition will never raid another, just that this will be rare and only when the target faction has lost some of its share in the balance of power -- maybe they had 5 strongmen but now only 1. Obviously the other factions aren't going to let that 1 strongman enjoy the rents that 5 were before, while they enjoy average rents -- they're going to raid him and take enough so that he's left with what seems his fair share. Aside from these rare instances, there will be a pretty stable peace. There may be opportunistic violence among peasants, like one drunk killing another in a tavern, but nothing like getting caught in a civil war. And they certainly won't be subject to the constant threat of being killed and their land burned in a pre-dawn raid by the neighboring tribe, as they would face in a stateless hunter-gatherer society. As a result, homicide rates are much lower in these natural states than in stateless societies.

Above natural states are open-access orders, which characterize societies that have market economies and competitive politics. Here access to the elite is open to anyone who can prove themselves worthy -- it is not artificially restricted in order to preserve large rents for the incumbents. The pie can be made bigger with more people at the top, since you only get to the top in such societies by making and selling things that people want. Elite members compete against each other based on the quality and price of the goods and services they sell -- it's a mercantile elite -- rather than based on who is better at violence than the others. If the elites are flabby, upstarts can readily form their own organizations -- as opposed to not having the freedom to do so -- that, if better, will dethrone the incumbents. Since violence is no longer part of elite competition, homicide rates are the lowest of all types of societies.

OK, now let's take a look at just two innate views that most people have about how the business world works or what economic elites are like, and see how these are adaptations to natural states rather than to the very new open-access orders (which have only existed in Western Europe since about 1850 or so). One is the conviction, common even among many businessmen, that market share matters more than making profits -- that being more popular trumps being more profitable. The other is most people's mistrust of companies that dominate their entire industry, like Microsoft in computers.

First, the view that capturing more of the audience -- whether measured by the portion of all sales dollars that head your way or the portion of all consumers who come to you -- matters more than increasing revenues and decreasing costs -- boosting profits -- remains incredibly common. Thus we always hear about how a start-up must offer their stuff for free or nearly free in order to attract the largest crowd, and once they've got them locked in, make money off of them somehow -- by charging them later on, by selling the audience to advertisers, etc. This thinking was widespread during the dot-com bubble, and there was a neat management-oriented book written about it called The Myth of Market Share.

Of course, that hasn't gone away since then, as everyone says that "providers of online content" can never charge their consumers. The business model must be to give away something cool for free, attract a huge group of followers, and sell this audience to advertisers. (I don't think most people believe that charging a subset for "premium content" is going to make them rich.) For example, here is Felix Salmon's reaction to the NYT's official statement that they're going to start charging for website access starting in 2011:

Successful media companies go after audience first, and then watch revenues follow; failing ones alienate their audience in an attempt to maximize short-term revenues.

Wrong. YouTube is the most popular provider of free media, but they haven't made jackshit four years after their founding. Ditto Wikipedia. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times websites charge, and they're incredibly profitable -- and popular too (the WSJ has the highest newspaper circulation in the US, ousting USA Today). There is no such thing as "go after audiences" -- they must do that in a way that's profitable, not just in a way that makes them popular. If you could "watch revenues follow" by merely going after an audience, everyone would be billionaires.

The NYT here seems to be voluntarily giving up on all its readers outside the US, who can’t be reasonably expected to have the ability or inclination to pay for web access. It had the opportunity to be a global newspaper, leveraging both the NYT and the IHT brands, and has now thrown that away for the sake of short-term revenues.
As such, a project which was meant to bring into the same space as Wikipedia will now become largely irrelevant.

This sums up the pre-industrial mindset perfectly: who cares about getting paid more and spending less, when what truly matters is owning a brand that is popular, influential, and celebrated and sucked up to? In a natural state, that is the non-violent path to success because you can only become a member of the dominant coalition by knowing the right in-members. They will require you to have a certain amount of influence, prestige, power, etc., in order to let you move up in rank. It doesn't matter if you nearly bankrupt yourself in the process of navigating these personalized patron-client networks because once you become popular and influential enough, you stand a good chance of being allowed into the dominant coalition and then coasting on rents for the rest of your life.

Clearly that doesn't work in an open-access, competitive market economy where interactions are impersonal rather than crony-like. If you are popular and influential while paying no attention to costs and revenues, guess what -- there are more profit-focused competitors who can form rival companies and bulldoze over you right away. Again look at how spectacularly the WSJ has kicked the NYT's ass, not just in crude terms of circulation and dollars but also in terms of the quality of their website. They broadcast twice-daily video news summaries and a host of other briefer videos, offer thriving online forums, and on and on.

Again, in the open-access societies, those who achieve elite status do so by competing on the margins of quality and price of their products. You deliver high-quality stuff at a low price while keeping your costs down, and you scoop up a large share of the market and obtain prestige and influence -- not the other way around. In fairness, not many practicing businessmen fall into this pre-industrial mindset because they won't be practicing for very long, just as businessmen who cried for a complete end to free trade would go under. It's mostly cultural commentators who preach the myth of market share, going with what their natural-state-adapted brain reflexively believes.

Next, take the case of how much we fear companies that comes to dominate their industry. People freak out because they think the giant, having wiped out the competitors, will enjoy a carte blanche to exploit them in all sorts of ways -- higher prices, lower output, shoddier quality, etc. We demand the protector of the people to step in and do something about it -- bust them up, tie them down, resurrect their dead competitors, just something!

That attitude is thoroughly irrational in an open-access society. Typically, the way you get that big is that you provided customers with stuff that they wanted at a low price and high quality. If you tried to sell people junk that they didn't want at a high price and terrible quality, guess how much of the market you will end up commanding. That's correct: zero. And even if such a company grew complacent and inertia set in, there's nothing to worry about in an open-access society because anyone is free to form their own rival organization to drive the sluggish incumbent out.

The video game industry provides a clear example. Atari dominated the home system market in the late '70s and early '80s but couldn't adapt to changing tastes -- and were completely destroyed by newcomer Nintendo. But even Nintendo couldn't adapt to the changing tastes of the mid-'90s and early 2000s -- and were summarily dethroned by newcomer Sony. Of course, inertia set in at Sony and they have recently been displaced by -- Nintendo! It doesn't even have to be a newcomer, just someone who knows what people want and how to get it to them at a low price. There was no government intervention necessary to bust up Atari in the mid-'80s or Nintendo in the mid-90s or Sony in the mid-2000s. The open and competitive market process took care of everything.

But think back to life in a natural state. If one faction obtained complete control over the dominant coalition, the ever so important balance of power would be lost. You the peasant would still be just as exploited as before -- same amount of food taken -- but now you're getting nothing in return. At least before, you got protection just in case the strongmen from other factions dared to invade your own master's land. Now that master serves no protective purpose. Before, you could construe the relationship as at least somewhat fair -- he benefited you and you benefited him. Now you're entirely his slave; or equivalently, he is no longer a partial but a 100% parasite.

You can understand why minds that are adapted to natural states would find market domination by a single or even small handful of firms ominous. It is not possible to vote with your dollars and instantly boot out the market-dominator, so some other Really Strong Group must act on your behalf to do so. Why, the government is just such a group! Normal people will demand that vanquished competitors be restored, not out of compassion for those who they feel were unfairly driven out -- the public shed no tears for Netscape during the Microsoft antitrust trial -- but in order to restore a balance of power. That notion -- the healthy effect for us normal people of there being a balance of power -- is only appropriate to natural states, where one faction checks another, not to open-access societies where one firm can typically only drive another out of business by serving us better.

By the way, this shows that the public choice view of antitrust law is wrong. The facts are that antitrust law in practice goes after harmless and beneficial giants, hamstringing their ability to serve consumers. There is little to no evidence that such beatdowns have boosted output that had been falling, lowered prices that had been rising, or improved quality that had been eroding. Typically the lawsuits are brought by the loser businesses who lost fair and square, and obviously the antitrust bureaucrats enjoy full employment by regularly going after businesses.

But we live in a society with competitive politics and free elections. If voters truly did not approve of antitrust practices that beat up on corporate giants, we wouldn't see it -- the offenders would be driven out of office. And why is it that only one group of special interests gets the full support of bureaucrats -- that is, the loser businesses have influence with the government, while the winner business gets no respect. How can a marginal special interest group overpower an industry giant? It must be that all this is allowed to go on because voters approve of and even demand that these things happen -- we don't want Microsoft to grow too big or they will enslave us!

This is a special case of what Bryan Caplan writes about in The Myth of the Rational Voter: where special interests succeed in buying off the government, it is only in areas where the public truly supports the special interests. For example, the public is largely in favor of steel tariffs if the American steel industry is suffering -- hey, we gotta help our brothers out! They are also in favor of subsidies to agribusiness -- if we didn't subsidize them, they couldn't provide us with any food! And those subsidies are popular even in states where farming is minimal. So, such policies are not the result of special interests hijacking the government and ramrodding through policies that citizens don't really want. In reality, it is just the ignorant public getting what it asked for.

It seems useful when we look at the systematic biases that people have regarding economics and politics to bear in mind what political and economic life was like in the natural state stage of our history. Modern economics does not tell us about that environment but instead about the open-access environment. (Actually, there's a decent trace of it in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, which mentions cabals and factions almost as much as Machiavelli -- and he meant real factions, ones that would war against each other, not the domesticated parties we have today.)

We obviously are not adapted to hunter-gatherer existence in these domains -- we would cut down the status-seekers or cast them out right away, rather than tolerate them and even work for them. At the same time, we evidently haven't had enough generations to adapt to markets and governments that are both open and competitive. That is certain to pull our intuitions in certain directions, particularly toward a distrust of market-dominating firms and toward advising businesses to pursue popularity and influence more than profitability, although I'm sure I could list others if I thought about it longer.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Using your brain   posted by Razib @ 1/12/2010 03:17:00 PM

Frequent Cognitive Activity Compensates for Education Differences in Episodic Memory:
Results: The two cognitive measures were regressed on education, cognitive activity frequency, and their interaction, while controlling for the covariates. Education and cognitive activity were significantly correlated with both cognitive abilities. The interaction of education and cognitive activity was significant for episodic memory but not for executive functioning.

Conclusion: Those with lower education had lower cognitive functioning, but this was qualified by level of cognitive activity. For those with lower education, engaging frequently in cognitive activities showed significant compensatory benefits for episodic memory, which has promise for reducing social disparities in cognitive aging."

Here's some survey data on books from a few years ago, One in Four Read No Books Last Year:
One in four adults read no books at all in the past year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday. Of those who did read, women and older people were most avid, and religious works and popular fiction were the top choices.


"I just get sleepy when I read," said Richard Bustos of Dallas, a habit with which millions of Americans can doubtless identify. Bustos, a 34-year-old project manager for a telecommunications company, said he had not read any books in the last year and would rather spend time in his backyard pool.


In 2004, a National Endowment for the Arts report titled "Reading at Risk" found only 57 percent of American adults had read a book in 2002, a four percentage point drop in a decade. The study faulted television, movies and the Internet.

Who are the 27 percent of people the AP-Ipsos poll found hadn't read a single book this year? Nearly a third of men and a quarter of women fit that category. They tend to be older, less educated, lower income, minorities, from rural areas and less religious.


People from the West and Midwest are more likely to have read at least one book in the past year. Southerners who do read, however, tend to read more books, mostly religious books and romance novels, than people from other regions. Whites read more than blacks and Hispanics, and those who said they never attend religious services read nearly twice as many as those who attend frequently.

There was even some political variety evident, with Democrats and liberals typically reading slightly more books than Republicans and conservatives.

The Bible and religious works were read by two-thirds in the survey, more than all other categories. Popular fiction, histories, biographies and mysteries were all cited by about half, while one in five read romance novels. Every other genre - including politics, poetry and classical literature - were named by fewer than five percent of readers.

More women than men read every major category of books except for history and biography. Industry experts said that confirms their observation that men tend to prefer nonfiction.

Here's the GSS when it comes to comparing educational attainment & WORDSUM, limiting the sample to 1998 and after:

I assume readers of this weblog are more familiar with the dull who have educational qualifications, but it is important to note that there are a non-trivial number of brights who for whatever reason didn't go on to obtain higher education (though this is more true of older age cohorts in the United States).


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why do we delay gratification even when there is no downside?   posted by agnostic @ 12/29/2009 09:10:00 PM

Earlier this year, John Tierney reviewed several studies on how delaying gratification makes us feel better in the short term by preventing guilt but makes us feel more miserable in the long term by causing regret over missed opportunities. I added my two cents here, just to note that this sounds like part of the Greg Clark story about recent genetic change in the commercial races that adapted them to the emerging mercantile societies they found themselves in. What I had in mind was the delaying of vice -- investing a dollar today rather than splurging, moderating the amount of drink or sweets you enjoy, and so on.

But now Tierney has another review of related studies which show that we delay gratification even for what should be guilt-free pleasures like redeeming a gift card, using frequent flier miles, and visiting the landmarks in your local area. And don't we all have enjoyable books and DVDs we've been putting off? After indulging in these cases, there is no potential bankruptcy, no hangover, and no tooth decay -- so why do we indiscriminately lump them in with genuine vices and put off indulging in them? Obviously this tendency too is a feature of agrarian or industrial groups -- hunter-gatherers would never leave gift cards lying around in their drawers.

It must be because of how recent the change toward delaying gratification has been. Given enough time, we might evolve a specialized module for delaying gratification in vices and another module for doing so in guilt-free pleasures, which would be better than where we are now. But when our genetic response to a change is abrupt, typically we have broad-brush solutions that take care of the intended target but also leave plenty of collateral damage. Over time our solutions get smarter, but it takes awhile. Just look at how crude the responses to malaria are.

We see this domain-general taste for (or aversion of) risk in other areas. People who lead more risky lifestyles buy much less insurance than people who lead cautious lifestyles. Those who ride motorcycles without helmets would be richer and more likely to pass on their genes if they bought a lot of insurance, while those who play it safe would be richer by not buying all that superfluous insurance. Instead, daredevils are daredevils all the way -- including a contempt for insurance.

This casts doubt on how easy it is to change our behavior so that we no longer postpone our indulgence in guilt-free pleasures. Because we have a domain-general delay of gratification, it will still just feel wrong. You can also argue the logic of buying lots of insurance to the motorcyclist who rides without a helmet, but that won't change his mind because his tastes for risk is across-the-board.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Vox Dei   posted by Razib @ 12/03/2009 10:53:00 PM

David Killoren points me to this Ed Yong post, Creating God in one's own image. It is based on the paper Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs:
People often reason egocentrically about others' beliefs, using their own beliefs as an inductive guide. Correlational, experimental, and neuroimaging evidence suggests that people may be even more egocentric when reasoning about a religious agent's beliefs (e.g., God). In both nationally representative and more local samples, people's own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God's beliefs than with estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 1–4). Manipulating people's beliefs similarly influenced estimates of God's beliefs but did not as consistently influence estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 5 and 6). A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one's own beliefs and God's beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person's beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God's beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person's beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God's beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one's own existing beliefs.

Ed hits the main points well as usual, so let me jump to the discussion:
these data provide insight into the sources of people's own religious beliefs. Although people obviously acquire religious beliefs from a variety of external sources, from parents to broader cultural influences, these data suggest that the self may serve as an important source of religious beliefs as well. Not only are believers likely to acquire the beliefs and theology of others around them, but may also seek out believers and theologies that share their own personal beliefs. If people seek out religious communities that match their own personal views on major social, moral, or political issues, then the information coming from religious sources is likely to further validate and strengthen their own personal convictions and values. Religious belief has generally been treated as a process of socialization whereby people's personal beliefs about God come to reflect what they learn from those around them, but these data suggest that the inverse causal process may be important as well: people's personal beliefs may guide their own religious beliefs and the religious communities they seek to be part of.

Finally, these data have interesting implications for the impact of religious thought on judgment and decision-making. People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.

There is always debate about how religion affects cognition and culture, and how cognition and culture affects religion. I suspect that in religious environments the default stance is that religion affects cognition and culture. Religion is after all assumed to be true, a reflection of some transcendent reality. It stands to reason that its impact upon humans would be significant if you believe that it is an expression of the ultimate reality (if you are a person to whom "ultimate reality" means something, you know what I mean, though I don't really myself). But many atheists hold to the same view. The New Atheists often put at religion's feet all the evil done in its name (though generally minimizing power of religion as a force for altruistic action or social cohesion). This view seems to hold that religion is something clear and distinct. More generally in civilized societies religion is a matter of rational and systematic reflection, detailed practice, and mindful contemplation.

On the other hand, there are those who emphasize how religion reflects social and cognitive presuppositions. For example, most American Christians would assert that their religion naturally leans toward an anti-racist perspective. This would not be something recognizable to R. L. Dabney. Consider the arguments of Susan Wise Bauer, a Reformed Christian historian, on the stance of many Christian Southerners to slavery. But in other writings she cites Dabney, who is still apparently influential among conservative Presbyterians (some have even attempted to defend slavery because it is Biblical, but to my knowledge very few conservative Christians will follow along here, instead relying in interpretations such as Bauer's). Even "conservative" and "orthodox" and "traditional" Christians seem quite clearly influenced by the distribution of norms around them. Similarly, I recall several years ago finding rather interesting the arguments of Indian Christians on why arranged marriage is Biblically preferred to love matches, with citations of specific instances in the Bible (consider the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca). Over the last few decades cognitive anthropologists who study religion have described models and reported results which show how religious phenomena, the bundle of traits which we bracket into religion, emerge from normal human psychological and social dynamics. Some scholars have even shown that the mental model of gods across cultures is actually invariant, though the verbal descriptions are very distinct. If you consider the power of culture to change religion, the shift from pacifist to non-pacifist stance among early Christians, or pro-racist to anti-racist stance among 20th century Christians, becomes more intelligible.

I tend toward the second model in terms of its utility in what can be gleaned about human social processes. If, for example, I read the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament would I be able to predict which group was the more pacific, American Jews or white Evangelicals? I don't think so. Scott Atran reported in In Gods We Trust that religious believers showed little correlation above expectation in the inferences they made about correct behavior in specific situations in relation to their avowed religious beliefs. In other words, when people couldn't talk to each other and reach a religiously correct consensus, they simply gave a random range of answers. Both the Chinese Muslims and "Hidden Christians" of Japan moved in strange directions in relation to their co-religionists due to isolation. It seems plausible that to a great extent Emile Durkheim was right, religion is a reflection of society. But, it is also strongly constrained by human cognitive biases.

The connection between some of these ideas and what Ed Yong asserts is obvious:
Epley's results are sure to spark controversy, but their most important lesson is that relying on a deity to guide one's decisions and judgments is little more than spiritual sockpuppetry.

David Killoren has an alternative model:
I can think of at least one other plausible interpretation of this study.

If you believe in God, you probably think God is morally omniscient. That is: you believe that, if any given action X is wrong, then God knows that X is wrong - and conversely, if God believes that any given action X is wrong, then X really is wrong. (You might think God is morally omniscient because you are a theological voluntarist. But even if you deny voluntarism, as many believers do, you probably still think God is morally omniscient, if you believe in God.)

But if you think God is morally omniscient, then you would be irrational if you believe that, say, abortion is wrong (or permissible, or whatever) without thinking that God shares your belief. Given God's omniscience, a given judgment is correct if and only if God agrees with it. So your endorsement of any given judgment has the immediate implication that God shares your view.

The result is that, if you believe God is morally omniscient, then your moral beliefs also serve as conjectures about God's attitudes. Thus, in order to explain Epley's results, we don't need Yong's "Sockpuppet Hypothesis," as I'll call it. Epley's results are precisely what we should expect if religious believers consider God to be morally omniscient, regardless of whether religious believers treat God like a ventriloquist treats a dummy.

Killoren has an analogy clarifying what he's trying to get at:
An analogy can help here. Suppose I think that Dr. Smith, a famous scientist, knows everything there is to know about biology. Then, if I believe that platypuses are not mammals, I should believe that Dr. Smith believes that platypuses are not mammals. (After all, if I believed that Dr. Smith considers platypuses to be mammals, and believed that Dr. Smith knows everything about biology, then I would be crazy to think platypuses are not mammals.) But this doesn't mean Dr. Smith is my sockpuppet. If Dr. Smith were to tell me that platypuses are mammals, I’d believe him, even if I previously thought otherwise.

I can see where Killoren is coming from. When I was more deeply interested in philosophy of religion, and to a great extent thought religion was mostly about belief systems, I would probably be willing to go along with it. But at this point I think Ed Yong's thesis is more plausible because it is simple and dumb, and most people are simple and dumb. If you need to use an analogy that suggests that some cognitive cycles are being eaten up here, and I believe most moral cognition which has a religious tinge is actually "hard and fast" and more reflexive than this. Of course, in Tim Harford's The Logic of Life he shows that in the aggregate human behavior can quite often operate in a logical fashion as if it is undergirded by a chain of clean propositions derived from axioms. But I wasn't quite convinced by Harford's apologia; I'm still with Dan Ariely.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

No support for birth order effects on personality from the GSS   posted by ben g @ 11/25/2009 08:47:00 PM

In researching for a review of The Nurture Assumption, I read over the debate between Harris and Sulloway over birth order effects on personality. Sulloway's thesis, explained in Born to Rebel, is that last-born children have more rebellious, agreeable, and open-minded/liberal personalities, and that this manifests itself in history with revolutions spearheaded by last-borns. This runs in contrast to Harris's theory that the family environment has no lasting impact on personality, so she spends a good deal of time in her books and articles critiquing it.

The whole debate makes my head dizzy. A seemingly simple empirical question has produced years of arguing over methodology. I'm not going to go over the tedious back and forth here, except to say that you can see what both sides have to say with a Google search.

Large, controlled studies have not been kind to Sulloway's thesis. Freese, Powell, and Steelman (1999) looked for a relationship between birth order (controlled for family size) and a variety of political measures on the nationally representative General Social Survey (GSS). They found no significant associations, contrary to Sulloway's predictions.

I decided to look at the GSS myself, this time to see whether questions that tapped into personality characteristics outside of politics showed any relationship with birth order (SIBORDER), when sibship size (SIBS) was controlled for. I excluded only children. I used the Multiple Regressions feature on the Berkeley SDA tool. I found no significant associations between birth order and any of the four variables I looked at:

  • MEMLIT (proxy for openness/creativity)- "Here is a list of various organizations. Could you tell me whether or not you are a member of each type? m. Literary, art, discussion or study groups"

  • TRUST (proxy for agreeableness) - "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in life?"

  • WORLD4 (proxy for agreeableness) - "People have different images of the world and human nature. We'd like to know the kinds of images you have. Here is a card with sets of contrasting images. On a scale of 1-7 where would you place your image of the world and human nature between the two contrasting images? 1. Human nature is basically good. 7. Human nature is fundamentally perverse and corrupt."

  • OBEYLAW (proxy for rebelliousness) - "In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?"
I wouldn't say that we should write off the idea of birth order influences on personality and intelligence, only that we should be very skeptical of them. To the extent that they do exist, they're probably not very significant.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Faith Instinct in National Review   posted by Razib @ 11/17/2009 09:08:00 PM

John Derbyshire has review of The Faith Instinct up. He hits the major points well. I should elaborate on something. In Darwin's Cathedral David Sloan Wilson outlines two dimensions of religion, the horizontal and the vertical. The vertical is pretty straightforward, supernatural agents and forces. The cognition of religious ideas. The horizontal is the communitarian aspect of religion which sociologists such as Emile Durkheim focused on. That is, religion's functional role in society. The two are somewhat related of course, but I think it's a neat division which is useful.

I think the vertical aspect probably is a byproduct of cognitive biases we have. In other words, pleiotropy, whereby selection for agency detection, social intelligence, and innate theories of how the world works (folk biology and physics), generate intuitions which we bracket in the category "supernatural" as a response (this ranges from animism to astrology to theism). In contrast, I can see quite clearly how the horizontal aspect can foster group-level success, and so might be a target of selection. But, I don't necessarily think that it is really religion as such which is the target of selection; instead, they are collective and communal impulses. They may be channeled in a religious manner, but clearly can manifest in other ways. This is why I think organized religion, which is hooked into the horizontal dimension, seems to be collapsing more than "spirituality" in many nations. Many of the intuitions which generate religious impulse are strongly biologically specified, so will persist even after indoctrination ceases. By contrast I suspect that the collective and ritualistic impulses can manifest in ways we perceive as secular. Of course, this last point might be a matter of semantics, as evident by the term "political religion".

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Monday, November 16, 2009

A simple framework for thinking about cultural generations   posted by agnostic @ 11/16/2009 12:44:00 AM

In this discussion about pop music at Steve Sailer's, the topic of generations came up, and it's one where few of the people who talk about it have a good grasp of how things work. For example, the Wikipedia entry on generation notes that cultural generations only showed up with industrialization and modernization -- true -- but doesn't offer a good explanation for why. Also, they don't distinguish between loudmouth generations and silent generations, which alternate over time. As long as a cohort "shares a culture," they're considered a generation, but that misses most of the dynamics of generation-generation. My view of it is pretty straightforward.

First, we have to notice that some cohorts are full-fledged Generations with ID badges like Baby Boomer or Gen X, and some cohorts are not as cohesive and stay more out of the spotlight. Actually, one of these invisible cohorts did get an ID badge -- the Silent Generation -- so I'll refer to them as loudmouth generations (e.g., Baby Boomers, Gen X, and before long the Millennials) and silent generations (e.g., the small cohort cramped between Boomers and X-ers).

Then we ask why do the loudmouth generations band together so tightly, and why do they show such strong affiliation with the generation that they continue to talk and dress the way they did as teenagers or college students even after they've hit 40 years old? Well, why does any group of young people band together? -- because social circumstances look dire enough that the world seems to be going to hell, so you have to stick together to help each other out. It's as if an enemy army invaded and you had to form a makeshift army of your own.

That is the point of ethnic membership badges like hairstyle, slang, clothing, musical preferences, etc. -- to show that you're sticking with the tribe in desperate times. That's why teenagers' clothing has logos visible from down the hall, why they spend half their free time digging into a certain music niche, and why they're hyper-sensitive about what hairstyle they have. Adolescence is a socially desperate time, not unlike a jungle, in contrast to the more independent situation you enjoy during full adulthood. Being caught in more desperate circumstances, teenagers freak out about being part of -- fitting in with -- a group that can protect them; they spend the other half of their free time communicating with their friends. Independent adults have fewer friends, keep in contact with them much less frequently, and don't wear clothes with logos or the cover art from their favorite new album.

OK, so that happens with every cohort -- why does this process leave a longer-lasting impact on the loudmouth cohorts? It is the same cause, only writ large: there's some kind of social panic, or over-turning of the status quo, that's spreading throughout the entire culture. So they not only face the trials that every teenager does, but they've also got to protect themselves against this much greater source of disorder. They have to form even stronger bonds, and display their respect for their generation much longer, than cohorts who don't face a larger breakdown of security.

Now, where this larger chaos comes from, I'm not saying. I'm just treating it as exogenous for now, as though people who lived along the waterfront would go through periods of low need for banding together (when the ocean behaved itself) and high need to band together (when a flood regularly swept over them). The generation forged in this chaos participates in it, but it got started somewhere else. The key is that this sudden disorder forces them to answer "which side are you on?" During social-cultural peacetime, there is no Us vs. Them, so cohorts who came of age in such a period won't see generations in black-and-white, do-or-die terms. Cohorts who come of age during disorder must make a bold and public commitment to one side or the other. You can tell when such a large-scale chaos breaks out because there is always a push to reverse "stereotypical gender roles," as well as a surge of identity politics.

The intensity with which they display their group membership badges and groupthink is perfectly rational -- when there's a great disorder and you have to stick together, the slightest falter in signaling your membership could make them think that you're a traitor. Indeed, notice how the loudmouth generations can meaningfully use the phrase "traitor to my generation," while silent generations wouldn't know what you were talking about -- you mean you don't still think The Ramones is the best band ever? Well, OK, maybe you're right. But substitute with "I've always thought The Beatles were over-rated," and watch your peers with torches and pitchforks crowd around you.

By the way, why did cultural generations only show up in the mid-to-late 19th C. after industrialization? Quite simply, the ability to form organizations of all kinds was restricted before then. Only after transitioning from what North, Wallis, and Weingast (in Violence and Social Orders -- working paper here) call a limited access order -- or a "natural state" -- to an open access order, do we see people free to form whatever political, economic, religious, and cultural organizations that they want. In a natural state, forming organizations at will threatens the stability of the dominant coalition -- how do they know that your bowling league isn't simply a way for an opposition party to meet and plan? Or even if it didn't start out that way, you could well get to talking about your interests after awhile.

Clearly young people need open access to all sorts of organizations in order to cohere into a loudmouth generation. They need regular hang-outs. Such places couldn't be formed at will within a natural state. Moreover, a large cohort of young people banding together and demanding that society "hear the voice of a new generation" would have been summarily squashed by the dominant coalition of a natural state. It would have been seen as just another "faction" that threatened the delicate balance of power that held among the various groups within the elite. Once businessmen are free to operate places that cater to young people as hang-outs, and once people are free to form any interest group they want, then you get generations.

Finally, on a practical level, how do you lump people into the proper generational boxes? This is the good thing about theory -- it guides you in practice. All we have to do is get the loudmouth generations' borders right; in between them go the various silent or invisible generations. The catalyzing event is a generalized social disorder, so we just look at the big picture and pick a peak year plus maybe 2 years on either side. You can adjust the length of the panic, but there seems to be a 2-year lead-up stage, a peak year, and then a 2-year winding-down stage. Then ask, whose minds would have been struck by this disorder? Well, "young people," and I go with 15 to 24, although again this isn't precise.

Before 15, you're still getting used to social life, so you may feel the impact a little, but it's not intense. And after 24, you're on the path to independence, you're not texting your friends all day long, and you've stopped wearing logo clothing. The personality trait Openness to Experience rises during the teenage years, peaks in the early 20s, and declines after; so there's that basis. Plus the likelihood to commit crime -- another measure of reacting to social desperation -- is highest between 15 and 24.

So, just work your way backwards by taking the oldest age (24) and subtracting it from the first year of the chaos, and then taking the youngest age (15) and subtracting it from the last year of the chaos. "Ground zero" for that generation is the chaos' peak year minus 20 years.

As an example, the disorder of the Sixties lasted from roughly 1967 to 1972. Applying the above algorithm, we predict a loudmouth generation born between 1943 and 1957: Baby Boomers. Then there was the early '90s panic that began in 1989 and lasted through 1993 -- L.A. riots, third wave feminism, etc. We predict a loudmouth generation born between 1965 and 1978: Generation X. There was no large-scale social chaos between those two, so that leaves a silent generation born between 1958 and 1964. Again, they don't wear name-tags, but I call them the disco-punk generation based on what they were listening to when they were coming of age.

Going farther back, what about those who came of age during the topsy-turvy times of the Roaring Twenties? The mania lasted from roughly 1923 to 1927, forming a loudmouth generation born between 1899 and 1912. This closely corresponds to what academics call the Interbellum Generation. The next big disruption was of course WWII, which in America really struck between 1941 and 1945, creating a loudmouth generation born between 1917 and 1930. This would be the young people who were part of The Greatest Generation. That leaves a silent generation born between 1913 and 1916 -- don't know if anyone can corroborate their existence or not. That also leaves The Silent Generation proper, born between 1931 and 1942.

Looking forward, it appears that these large social disruptions recur with a period of about 25 years on average. The last peak was 1991, so I predict another one will strike in 2016, although with 5 years' error on both sides. Let's say it arrives on schedule and has a typical 2-year build-up and 2-year winding-down. That would create a loudmouth generation born between 1990 and 2003 -- that is, the Millennials. They're already out there; they just haven't hatched yet. And that would also leave a silent generation born between 1979 and 1989.

My sense is that Millennials are already starting to cohere, and that 1987 is more like their first year, making the silent generation born between 1979 and 1986 (full disclosure: I belong to it). So this method surely isn't perfect, but it's pretty useful. It highlights the importance of looking at the world with some kind of framework -- otherwise we'd simply be cataloguing one damn generation after another.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

The slob factor   posted by Razib @ 10/26/2009 11:01:00 PM

FuturePundit observes a phenomenon which might open up a possible avenue for nudge:
Clean rooms also increased willingness to volunteer and donate to charity.

That's just the sense of smell. We have other senses. What does room color do to us? Which color makes us most unfair? Red? Yellow? Is it the same color that makes us most cynical or most haughty? And what does the feeling of slime on one's hands do to one's disposition? Probably something similar to nasty smells is my guess.


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Subjective hedonism   posted by Razib @ 9/08/2009 12:46:00 PM

The last part of this discussion between Felix Salmon & James Kwak is about wine (most if it is about finance), in particular, the fact that people subjectively seem to gain more utility out of expensive wines than cheap ones, even though most blind taste tests show little correlation between price and preference. Paul Bloom is apparently writing his next book on the topic of this sort of subjective hedonic experience, whereby your knowledge of context shapes and filters your perception. I used to think it wasthese sorts of subjective hedonic experiences were best not had, but now I'm not sure so. Is this just signalling? I don't think so since this often operates on a personal scale relative to food consumed alone. Can we train ourselves not to manifest these cognitive ticks? Consider an extremely tasty brownie shaped like feces vs. one that wasn't. Could you train yourself not to be affected by the feces shape because you know that qualitatively there isn't any difference? I assume most people could make themselves eat the feces shaped brownie, my question is could their rational and conscious understanding that it tastes the same as the one not shaped like feces reshape their perception of the experience so that they are of equal quality? It seems the price or knowledge of the provenance of a wine is much less "hard-wired" in our brains than aversion to feces, so perhaps we could appreciate cheap consumables so long as they didn't trigger aversive reflexes.

Addendum: I'm sure there's a technical word for what I'm talking about, but which I labelled subjective hedonism, so feel free to tell me in the comments.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Trends in depression and medication   posted by Razib @ 8/24/2009 10:12:00 PM

U.S. Antidepressant Use Doubled in A Decade. I'm not against the usage of medicine, but I'm skeptical that this increase is really attributable to chronically depressed people with serious neurochemical imbalances getting treated. Rather, a substantial number of people whose lives "suck" at a given moment convince doctors to prescribe these medications. I'm willing to be corrected by data on the usage patterns, but that's just my limited personal experience with a range of people who get on these drugs in response to general suckiness, and the smaller number of people with modestly bizarre personality shifts makes me wonder as to more "modest" side effects which are not gossip-worthy.


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The neuroscience of psychopathy   posted by Razib @ 8/04/2009 09:15:00 PM

Altered connections on the road to psychopathy:
... Earlier studies suggested that dysfunction of the amygdala and/or orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) may underpin psychopathy. Nobody, however, has ever studied the white matter connections (such as the uncinate fasciculus (UF)) linking these structures in psychopaths. Therefore, we used in vivo diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging (DT-MRI) tractography to analyse the microstructural integrity of the UF in psychopaths (defined by a Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCL-R) score of 25) with convictions that included attempted murder, manslaughter, multiple rape with strangulation and false imprisonment. We report significantly reduced fractional anisotropy (FA) (P<0.003), an indirect measure of microstructural integrity, in the UF of psychopaths compared with age- and IQ-matched controls. We also found, within psychopaths, a correlation between measures of antisocial behaviour and anatomical differences in the UF. To confirm that these findings were specific to the limbic amygdala–OFC network, we also studied two 'non-limbic' control tracts connecting the posterior visual and auditory areas to the amygdala and the OFC, and found no significant between-group differences. Lastly, to determine that our findings in UF could not be totally explained by non-specific confounds, we carried out a post hoc comparison with a psychiatric control group with a past history of drug abuse and institutionalization. Our findings remained significant. Taken together, these results suggest that abnormalities in a specific amygdala–OFC limbic network underpin the neurobiological basis of psychopathy.

I'm a little skeptical about psychiatry's ability to diagnose distinctive phenotypes in general, but from what I have read genuinely amoral psychopaths are a real phenomenon, and not a politicized constructed pathology. Readers with more neuroscience chops are invited to weight in if this another sexy neuro paper with little substance. Also see ScienceDaily.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Social stuff happens in the brain   posted by Razib @ 7/15/2009 11:21:00 PM

Randall points me to a paper, Brain Regions for Perceiving and Reasoning About Other People in School-Aged Children:
Neuroimaging studies with adults have identified cortical regions recruited when people think about other people's thoughts (theory of mind): temporo-parietal junction, posterior cingulate, and medial prefrontal cortex. These same regions were recruited in 13 children aged 6–11 years when they listened to sections of a story describing a character's thoughts compared to sections of the same story that described the physical context. A distinct region in the posterior superior temporal sulcus was implicated in the perception of biological motion. Change in response selectivity with age was observed in just one region. The right temporo–parietal junction was recruited equally for mental and physical facts about people in younger children, but only for mental facts in older children.

The sample included 7 girls and 6 boys. No mention of sex differences. Though perhaps the methods were too coarse. In any case, aspiring neuroimagers of social intelligence just need to go to a Perl Mongers meeting to recruit cognitive outliers!


Friday, July 10, 2009

The size illusion   posted by Razib @ 7/10/2009 12:57:00 PM

As nation gains, 'overweight' is relative:
The little number on the tag on a pair of pants that indicates size can mean a lot to a person, and retailers know it.

That's why, in recent years, as the American population has become generally more overweight, brands from the luxury names to the mass retail chains have scaled down the size labels on their clothing.

"You may actually be a size 14 and, according to whatever particular store you're in, you come out a size 10," said Natalie Nixon, associate professor of fashion industry management at Philadelphia University. "It's definitely to make the consumer feel good."

When I was in high school one particularly dumb classmate was very excited to learn that one's weight is marginally lower at higher elevations. She gave me a blank look when I pointed out that mass remains the same. I tactfully left out the fact that there wouldn't be a change in volume or surface area either....

H/T Michelle Cottle, who lets slip that she has remained the same size and shape since high school.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

g in a monkey?   posted by Razib @ 6/17/2009 01:28:00 AM

Readers might be interested in a new paper in PLoS ONE, General Intelligence in Another Primate: Individual Differences across Cognitive Task Performance in a New World Monkey (Saguinus oedipus):
Individual differences in cognitive abilities within at least one other primate species can be characterized by a general intelligence factor, supporting the hypothesis that important aspects of human cognitive function most likely evolved from ancient neural substrates.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Reverting to cultural type   posted by Razib @ 4/18/2009 11:39:00 PM

Who I Am Depends on How I Feel: The Role of Affect in the Expression of Culture:
We present a novel role of affect in the expression of culture. Four experiments tested whether individuals' affective states moderate the expression of culturally normative cognitions and behaviors. We consistently found that value expressions, self-construals, and behaviors were less consistent with cultural norms when individuals were experiencing positive rather than negative affect. Positive affect allowed individuals to explore novel thoughts and behaviors that departed from cultural constraints, whereas negative affect bound people to cultural norms. As a result, when Westerners experienced positive rather than negative affect, they valued self-expression less, showed a greater preference for objects that reflected conformity, viewed the self in more interdependent terms, and sat closer to other people. East Asians showed the reverse pattern for each of these measures, valuing and expressing individuality and independence more when experiencing positive than when experiencing negative affect. The results suggest that affect serves an important functional purpose of attuning individuals more or less closely to their cultural heritage.

More in ScienceDaily:

... And elevated mood even shaped behavior, allowing volunteers to act "out of character." These findings suggest that people in an upbeat mood are more exploratory and daring in attitude — and therefore more apt to break from cultural stereotype. That is, Asians act more independently than usual, and Europeans are more cooperative. Feeling bad did the opposite: It reinforced traditional cultural stereotypes and constrained both Western and Eastern thinking about the world.

I think these data are interesting in light of the sort of argument presented in works such as The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. The standard model here is that cultural openness correlates with economic growth, while stagnation results in retrenchment.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Evolving to become more miserable?   posted by agnostic @ 3/31/2009 01:59:00 AM

In A Farewell to Alms, Gregory Clark provides data on interest rates to show that Europeans gradually developed lower time preferences. In other words, they were more likely to delay gratification and plan for the future -- paying back loans, for example. He also interprets data on wills as showing that most people of English descent today are the genetic legacy of the middle class, the poor and the aristocracy mostly having failed to reproduce themselves. That leaves us with a society where the average person maximizes their long-term material welfare much better than their counterparts would have in the Middle Ages or before. There appears to be somewhat of a drawback, though: doing so makes you more miserable over the long term.

John Tierney recently reviewed
a series of studies on how the intensity of guilt and regret change over time. Read the most recent article for free here, which contains five related studies. The journal article and Tierney's write-up are brief and straightforward, so I own't belabor the details here. Basically, in the short term, indulgence-driven guilt stings more than prudence-driven regret, and this motivates us toward virtuous behavior, such as delaying material gratification. In the long term, though, guilt has faded away and regret over missing out on life's pleasures weighs more heavily on our mind.

Oddly, then, maximizing long-term material well-being minimizes long-term hedonic well-being. If the big shift to low time preferences was as recent as Clark suggests -- during the Modern and especially Industrial period -- then perhaps our brain's pleasure or reward system hasn't had enough time to rewire itself to make us feel warm and fuzzy about having saved, abstained, and done the prudent thing in the past. Rather, since all other human groups before the big change, and certainly other primate groups, had very high time preferences, the reward system is probably designed to make us feel happy as we pour over a mental photo album that's stuffed with memories of irresponsible fun and indulgence.

Hey, no one ever said that changing the world and getting shit done was going to be emotionally uplifting.

I'd like to see follow-up studies focus on individual differences in how strongly they are motivated by guilt vs. regret. Most personality questionnaires measure something called excitement seeking or novelty seeking, as well as impulsiveness. We might predict that impulsive and excitement-seeking people are more motivated by avoiding regret than avoiding guilt, which leads them toward indulging more in the present. You could re-do all of the five studies in the article above, but using personality traits as predictor variables. If different parts of the brain light up when we feel guilt vs. regret, you could see if impulsive and excitement-seeking people showed greater responses to regret-based scenarios than guilt-based scenarios. (E.g., they read a story about someone else feeling these emotions, they reflect on an episode from their own lives, they see pictures of the faces of others expressing these emotions, and so on.)

On an applied level, if you suffer from "hyperopia" -- planning to much for your material future -- you can push yourself to indulge merely by reflecting on how you may in 20 years regret missing out on having fun now. If you remind yourself that "You'll regret it if you don't," then you won't find yourself sighing later on about that more exciting trip you should have taken your son on, that year of working in a more fulfilling city for less pay, or that student who made a pass at you that you should have slept with.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tracking economists' consensus on money illusion, as a proxy for Keynesianism   posted by agnostic @ 3/19/2009 02:07:00 PM

I'm probably not the only person playing catch-up on economics in order to get a better sense of what the hell is going on. Just two economists clearly called the housing bubble and predicted the financial crisis, and only one of them has several books out on the topic -- Robert Shiller, the other being Nouriel Roubini. With Nobel Prize winner George Akerlof, Shiller recently co-authored Animal Spirits, a popular audience book making the case that human psychology and behavioral biases need to be taken into account when explaining any aspect of the economy, especially when things get all fucked up. That argument would seem superflous, but economics is the butt of "assume a can-opener" jokes for a reason.

To be fair to the field, though, they point out that before roughly the 1970s, mainstream economists all believed that the foibles of human beings, as they really exist, should be incorporated into theory, rather than dismissing them as behaviors that only an irrational dupe would show. Remember that Adam Smith was a professor of moral philosophy and wrote extensively about human psychology. From what I can tell, the recent shift does not have to do with the introduction of math nerds into the field, since the man who laid most of the formal foundation -- Paul Samuelson -- was squarely in the "psychology counts" camp. It looks more like a subset of math nerds is responsible -- call them contemptuous autists, as in "What kind of idiot would engineer the brain that way?!" (Again, these are very rough impressions, and I'm winging it in categorizing people.)

Of the many ideas relevant to understanding financial crises, a key one from the old school period is money illusion, or the idea that people think in terms of nominal rather than real prices. For example, if the nominal prices of things you buy go down by 20%, you won't be any better or worse off in real terms if your nominal wages also go down by 20%. However, most people don't think this way, and would see a 20% pay-cut in this context as a slap in the face, a breach of unspoken rules of fairness. This is an illusion because a dollar (or euro, or whatever) isn't a fixed unit of stuff -- what it measures changes with inflation or deflation.

It's the same reason that women's clothing designers use fuzzy units of measurement -- "sizes" -- rather than units that we agree to fix forever, such as inches or centimeters. By artificially deflating the spectrum of sizes, a woman who used to wear a size 10 now wears a size 6, and she feels much better about herself, even if she has stayed the same objective size or perhaps even gotten fatter. How could they be so stupid to fall for this, when everyone knows it's a trick? Who knows, but they do. Similarly, everyone knows that inflation of prices exists, and yet the average person still falls victim to money illusion, and economic theory will just have to work that in, just as evolutionary theory must work in the presence of vestigial organs, sub-optimally designed parts, and other things that make engineers' toes curl.

Animal Spirits provides an overview of the empirical research on this topic, and it looks like there's convincing evidence that people really do think this way. To take just one line of evidence, wages appear to be very resistant to moving downward, even when all sorts of other prices are declining, and interviews and surveys of employers reveal that they are afraid that wage cuts will demoralize or otherwise antagonize their employees. This is obviously a huge obstacle during an economic crisis, since firms will find it tough to hemorrhage less wealth by lowering wages -- even only by lowering them enough to match the now lower cost-of-living.

The way Akerlof and Shiller present the history of the idea, it was mainstream before Milton Friedman and like-minded economists tore it down starting around 1967 and culminating by the end of the 1970s, although they hint that the idea may be seeing a rebirth. As an outsider, my first question is -- "is that true?" I searched JSTOR for "money illusion" and plotted over time the fraction of all articles in JSTOR that contain this term:

Although the term was coined earlier, the first appearance in JSTOR is a 1913 article by Irving Fisher, and the surge around 1928 - 1929 is due to commentary on his book titled Money Illusion. Academics were still talking about it somewhat through 1934, probably because the worst phase of the Great Depression spurred them to try to figure out what went wrong. The idea becomes more discussed during World War II, and especially afterwards when Keynesian thought swept throughout the academic and policy worlds within the developed countries. In the mid-'50s, the term decelerates and then declines in usage, although the policies of its believers are still in full swing. I interpret this as showing that from the end of WWII to the mid-'50s, their ideas were debated more and more, and after this point they considered the matter settled.

Starting in the mid-late-1960s, though, the term begins to surge in usage to even greater heights than before, peaking in 1975, and plummeting afterward. This of course parallels the questioning of many of the ideas taken for granted during the Golden Age of American Capitalism, and the transition to Friedman-inspired thinking in academia and Thatcher-inspired thinking in public policy. Party affiliation clearly does not matter, since the mid-'40s to mid-'60s phase showed bipartisan support for Keynesian thinking, and after the mid-'70s there was also a bipartisan consensus on theory and policy applications. I interpret this second rise and fall as a re-ignited debate that was then considered a resolved matter -- only this time with the opposite conclusion as before, i.e. that "everyone knows" now that money illusion is irrational and therefore doesn't exist.

The data end in 2003, since there's typically a five-year lag between the publication date of an article and its appearance in JSTOR. So, unfortunately I can't use this method to confirm or disconfirm Akerlof and Shiller's hints that the idea might be on its way to becoming mainstream in the near future. Whatever the empirical status of money illusion turns out to be -- and it does look like it's real -- the bigger question is whether or not economists will return to a serious, empirical consideration of psychology -- both the universal features (however seemingly irrational), as well as the individual differences that allow Milton Friedman to easily work through a 10-step-long chain of backwards induction, but not a typical working class person, who isn't smart enough to get into college (and these days, that's saying a lot). If all the positive press, not to mention book deals, that Shiller is getting are any sign, the forecast looks optimistic.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Facial Expressions Of Emotion Are Innate, Not Learned   posted by Razib @ 12/29/2008 11:12:00 AM

Spontaneous Facial Expressions of Emotion of Congenitally and Noncongenitally Blind Individuals:
The study of the spontaneous expressions of blind individuals offers a unique opportunity to understand basic processes concerning the emergence and source of facial expressions of emotion. In this study, the authors compared the expressions of congenitally and noncongenitally blind athletes in the 2004 Paralympic Games with each other and with those produced by sighted athletes in the 2004 Olympic Games. The authors also examined how expressions change from 1 context to another. There were no differences between congenitally blind, noncongenitally blind, and sighted athletes, either on the level of individual facial actions or in facial emotion configurations. Blind athletes did produce more overall facial activity, but these were isolated to head and eye movements. The blind athletes' expressions differentiated whether they had won or lost a medal match at 3 different points in time, and there were no cultural differences in expression. These findings provide compelling evidence that the production of spontaneous facial expressions of emotion is not dependent on observational learning but simultaneously demonstrates a learned component to the social management of expressions, even among blind individuals.

Also see ScienceDaily.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Getting people to wash their hands?   posted by Razib @ 12/18/2008 09:26:00 PM

'Gross' Messaging Used To Increases Handwashing, Fight Norovirus:
In fall quarter 2007, researchers posted messages in the bathrooms of two DU undergraduate residence halls. The messages said things like, "Poo on you, wash your hands" or "You just peed, wash your hands," and contained vivid graphics and photos. The messages resulted in increased handwashing among females by 26 percent and among males by 8 percent.

Most human cognition is implicit, and we're really not as amenable to rational appeals we like to think we are. Remember this research?:
We examined the effect of an image of a pair of eyes on contributions to an honesty box used to collect money for drinks in a university coffee room. People paid nearly three times as much for their drinks when eyes were displayed rather than a control image. This finding provides the first evidence from a naturalistic setting of the importance of cues of being watched, and hence reputational concerns, on human cooperative behaviour.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Why some material is unmentionable   posted by Razib @ 10/10/2008 07:18:00 PM

Slate has some very interesting excerpts from The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters posted today. The reality that a great deal of the illness in today's world is caused by fecal contamination is well known. The proximate cause of many minor illnesses is mild food poisoning, but food poisoning itself is ultimately generally caused by poor hygiene.  It seems straightforward to imagine that poor sanitation can be a significant drain on economic productivity. But on this weblog we've also addressed the possibility of pathogens playing a role in changing personalities and temperaments. In Farewell to Alms Greg Clark made the case that the greater mortality due to poor hygiene shifted the death schedule and so relieved Malthusian pressure. In contrast, East Asia was notable for having a rather efficient system of human waste disposal and reuse, and the concomitant lower death rate resulted in more Malthusian pressures and lower per capita wealth. One of the positive developments in the historical disciplines has been the a shift away from narrative annals describing political and social happenings on the elite level, to a more thorough quantitative analysis of the state of mass culture and material condition. Both perspectives are important; in War and Peace and War Peter Turchin reports military historical research which suggests that the presence of Napoleon at a battle was the equivalent of the French having 30% more troops! This suggests that to some extent Great Men do matter, but one must remember that the emergence of parvenu such as Napoleon was conditioned upon the Malthusian economic and social stresses of late 18th century France.

But the Slate piece also puts the spotlight on the particular nature of human psychology and its relation to feces:

Reuse works better when it involves camouflage. This technique is used, appropriately for a militarized country, in Israel. During a presentation at a London wastewater conference, a beautiful woman from Israel's Mekorot wastewater treatment utility, who stood out in a room full of gray suits, explained that they fed the effluent into an aquifer, withdrew it, then used it as potable water. "It is psychologically very important," she told the rapt audience, "for people to know that the water is coming from the aquifer." This is a clever way of getting around fecal aversion. Not having wastewater-and not wasting water-would be better still.

I'm sure this is not surprising to most readers, especially if you have read something like Paul Bloom's Descartes' Baby. One can posit pretty straightforward adaptive reasons for why humans tend to have an aversion to feces and rot; but whatever the ultimate root of these instincts they're pretty universal. Of course, like eating spicy peppers humans seem able to get around these hardwired instincts, or leverage them in some way so as to invert their effect. For example, the application of feces upon wounds had a long history in pre-modern medicine, all the way back to the Egyptians. The detailed inferences can sometimes be surprising, but the point is that though most humans reflectively accept the atomic and molecular understanding of the world, reflexively they are Aristotelians. Intuitions can be overcome or unlearned to a great extent, but if one wishes to reform the human outlook one needs to take into account its a priori biases. The human mind is not amorphous clay which one can mold into any shape in an infinite manner of ways, rather, it is a collection of blocks and units which likely have innumerable combinatorial possibilities, but certainly a finite number subject to various constraints and conditions.

The cultural variation in attitudes which is overlain on human universals illustrates the reality that despite innate tendencies human minds are elastic. Consider:
Sanitation professionals sometimes divide the world into fecal-phobic and fecal-philiac cultures. India is the former (though only when the dung is not from cows); China is definitely and blithely the latter. Nor is the place of excrement confined to the fields. It has featured prominently in Chinese public life and literature for at least a thousand years.

The recycling of "night soil" mentioned in the Slate piece was also highly developed in Tokugawa Japan. Not only did the practice increase crop yields so that a large population was feasible with pre-modern agricultural techniques, but it had a byproduct effect of fostering public hygiene and reducing the disease burden (noted above). As far as the Chinese go, the attitude toward utilization of human waste, as well as other cultural traits such as minimal food taboos, illustrate the deep strain of pragmatic rationalism which many early or proto-Enlightenment philosophers so admired. As for the South Asia tendency to extend and elaborate on human intuitions and tendencies as opposed to channeling toward material ends, if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all....

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Personality variation by region (USA)   posted by Razib @ 9/14/2008 06:32:00 AM

Update: Another post where I've transcribed the highest correlations for each trait.

Jason pointed me to this Guardian piece, US personalities vary by region, say researchers. It's pretty thin on the details, but luckily the original paper can be found online in full, A Theory of the Emergence, Persistence, and Expression of Geographic Variation in Psychological Characteristics. I haven't read the whole thing, nor do I know much about personality, so I have put the maps which illustrate regional variation in traits below the fold. But I do want to note the correlations between Openness and the following metrics on the state level:

% Arts and entertainment = 0.23
% Computer and mathematical = 0.24
Patent production per capita = 0.28

* Controlling for income, race, sex, college degree, and proportion of state population living in city with one million or more residents. p < 0.05.





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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Virtue, sin and normalcy   posted by Razib @ 8/27/2008 11:02:00 PM

Update: Overcoming Bias responds.

Reading excerpts of the memoirs of the Mughal warlord Babur, founder of the dynasty in India, I note that his father was an alcoholic. This is not exceptional in the lineage, the Emperor Jahangir's reign was marred by problems due to his alcoholism. Nevertheless, these individuals were faithful Muslims by all their other actions. In fact, I have noted before that the early Arab Caliphs, who were responsible for the spread and dominance of Islam across what we now term the Islamic world, were by an large appreciators of wine. I was struck by Babur's mention of his father's weakness for alcoholism because I recently read about Glorious Revolution. As you know James II lost his throne because of his sincere Roman Catholicism. He rejected apostasy as the price of regaining his position. If his private correspondences did not attest to his sincerity, his public actions surely did. Nevertheless, despite James' relative religious seriousness and moral qualms for a ruler of his day (in contrast to his brother, Charles II), he retained his mistress as was customary for British kings.

I point out these moral failings because I have always been struck by starkness of human hypocrisy and its incongruity in the face of avowed beliefs. How can a sincere Muslim drink alcohol? Have can a sincere Christian engage in sexual vice? One might infer from their actions that men such as James II were cynics, but as I note above James was willing to greatly reduce his chances of retaking his throne for the sake of his sincere religious commitment. I have been oversimplifying in reducing James' moral quandary to these two issues, contrasting the manifest evidence of his religious commitment in the face of inducements to convert to Protestantism with his sexual practices which contradicted Christian teaching. There are certainly other complicating factors, but I think the point stands that sin is common, and human weakness in the face of contradiction the norm. Mens' hearts are easily divided, and simultaneously sincere in their inclinations.

All this leads to the point that I believe far too many of those of us who wish to comprehend human nature scientifically lack a basic grasp of it intuitively. I have never truly believed in an awesome God of history, so my hypothetical behavior in reaction to this transcendent truth is conjecture. I know how I believe I will behave, but I have no true intuitive grasp. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that many atheists simply lack a deep understanding of what drives people to be religious, and that our psychological model of those who believe in gods is extremely suspect. The "irrationality" and "contradiction" of human behavior may be rendered far more systematically coherent simply by adding more parameters into the model. Too many "rationalists" insist on the primacy of their own spare and minimalist axioms, while normal humans may lack both the eloquence and intuition to communicate to their "rationalist" interlocutors that they are missing key structural variables. When I engage with these sorts of issues with readers of Overcoming Bias or Singularitarians my suspicions beocme even stronger because I see in some individuals an even greater lack of fluency in normal cognition than my own. What I am lacking in becomes all the more obvious when I see with my own eyes those who are even more damned in the eyes of God.

From all this one should not conclude that I see the reality of the mystical truths of gods before unveiled before my eyes. I do not. Rather, my point is that understanding human nature is not a matter of fitting humanity to our expectations and wishes, but modeling it as it is, whether one thinks that that nature is irrational or not within one's normative framework. Readers of this weblog are well aware and conscious of this issue; that is why I believe it is important to broach topics such as IQ because this variable matters, and most of us would wish that retardation was simply not a phenotype which was extant, but we know that that will not be so. Similarly, those of who are psychologically atypical enough to be rather obsessed with modeling human nature into a framework which is analytically tractable need to be more conscious of the alien complexities of the normal human mind, in all its baroque paradox.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Finally: A book on standardized testing your hippie girlfriend will enjoy   posted by Herrick @ 8/15/2008 10:50:00 PM

Daniel Koretz of Harvard's Graduate School of Education took the lecture notes from his course, "Methods of Educational Measurement," and turned it into a book: Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us. It's readable, filled with funny anecdotes, and contains absolutely nothing that will be new to regular GNXP readers.

But because Koretz takes the math and most of the controversy out of the debate over standardized tests, he has time to actually drill home a couple of important points repeatedly: Modern standardized tests have little bias, are pretty reliable, and while they don't tell you everything about a person or a school or a city, they are good for making rough predictions.

Hence, the title of this blog post: Feel free to recommend Measuring Up as a "baby steps" book for your favorite sociologist or folk guitarist.

Koretz waves his political correctness card early on, letting us know that "IQ [is] just one type of score on one type of standardized test..." and he lets us know about the "pernicious and unfounded view that differences in test scores between racial and ethnic groups are biologically determined." But you already knew he was going to say that, right? And in an unintended parody of blank-slatism, he has a chapter entitled "What influences test scores" that never once mentions genetic factors, even to dismiss them.

Koretz does a great job dodging such troubling questions while focusing on what he really wants to talk about, with solid, candid chapters entitled "Validity," "Inflated Test Scores," "Error and Reliability," chapters that actually do a good job of conveying big ideas about non-experimental social science in jargon-free prose. Kudos to him for doing so.

Treat it as a book on the narrow field of psychometrics and its link to policy, not as a book on the broader field of standardized tests per se and its link to policy: You'll spend a lot less time grinding your teeth.


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Have multiple intelligence theories really been disproven?   posted by birch barlow @ 7/09/2008 04:46:00 PM

[this is a slightly edited version of what was originally a haloscan comment]

I have come to believe that it is crucial to realize that there are other factors in intelligence besides g and its subfactors (e.g. math/performance, visuospatial, verbal, short-term memory). This is important not only factually and scientifically, but politically as well; a less g/traditional IQ-based theory of intelligence and human biodiversity is probably both more accurate and more politically palatable than a heavily g-centered one. The main drawback is that such a theory is also unfortunately quite complicated and difficult to test.

Many apparently non-g factors are almost certainly correlated with g, but they are not the same thing. In terms of higher-visibility phenomena, this would mean factors like creativity, motivation/drive, consistency, effective planning. In terms of lower-visibility phenomena, this would mean factors such as (neocortical) left brain/right brain ability, efficiency, and interconnectedness, as well as the interaction of such entities with the paleomammalian/limbic/midbrain and reptilian/lower brain/brain stem.

The main problem, in my opinion, is that these factors other than g are much harder to measure, and virtually impossible to measure on a 3-hour test, much less a brain scan (given current technology). Of course there are self-report tests for personality, creativity, motivation, and the like, but self-report tests are not, in general, terribly reliable. Also, insightful multivariate data analysis and effective experimental design for such analysis is hard to come by because these tasks are extremely difficult for even an intelligent person (in both the g and non-g sense) to carry out. Thus the failure of "multiple intelligence" theories in spite of the fact that it is clear that there are multiple intelligences.

If you are still unconvinced, how else would one explain a 25-year old with a 150 IQ, but also with Asperger's Syndrome/autism spectrum disorder, living on the streets while a 90-IQ illegal immigrant is living reasonably comfortably, and an intellectually uncurious and largely vacuous (outside of the classroom/lab/workplace) individual with only a 115 IQ is living large?(if you want a picture of the latter individual, think of Julia from (Orwell's) 1984 transplanted to the real America ca. 2008, or the devoted Asian [1] college student who seems to always be studying (high motivation/drive/tolerance for long, boring tasks) but has no intellectual interests and spends most of her/his [2] free time with sleazy entertainment, sleeping around, smoking pot, drinking, and popping pills [3]). Of course social factors such as biases against more autistic personalities may be partially at work, but most stereotypes and social biases have *some* basis in reality, even if they all too often facilitate cruelty and inefficiency. It is also important to remember that biological phenomena can lead to social phenomena (e.g. autistics, due to their biology, are repelled by (and repel) others, leading to a negative social reputation for autistics) just as environmental/social phenomena can lead to biological phenomena (e.g. autistics, due to their negative social reputation, increasingly have their biology wired for being hermits).

[1] and [2] Being intelligent but uncurious seems to be substantially more common amongst Asians (and perhaps amongst high-IQ blacks and Hispanics/Amerinds as well) than whites, and more common amongst females than males. This is only my personal observation, and it may be an entirely sociocultural phenomenon even if it is real.

[3] Nothing against sleeping around, smoking pot, drinking, or popping pills, but these don't tend to be the most intellectual activities in the world, in spite of common protestations to the contrary by horny drug users (such as, admittedly, myself) to the contrary. Also, I realize that immigrant (and particularly Asian) cultures are strongly biased against such hedonistic behaviors, but this bias tends to quickly fade amongst the children of immigrants, and even more so their grandchildren, as they become more modernized, Westernized, and Americanized.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

What are men good for?   posted by agnostic @ 5/19/2008 12:33:00 AM

I came across an interesting 2007 talk that social psychologist Roy Baumeister gave to the American Psychological Association, "Is There Anything Good About Men?" He informally reviews the literature on sex differences in ability and motivation. Some of it will be old news for readers, such as the discussion of Larry Summers, but there's quite a lot that will not. Some interesting tidbits:

- Most people in the West now believe that women possess more desirable qualities than men do. (Agreed -- I only interact with males as colleagues, keeping all of my friends female.)

- Women are more likely than men to commit violence against an intimate partner.

- About 80% of those who work 50-hour weeks are men.

- 93% of those killed on the job in the US are men.

- Men appear more oriented toward large-scale social groups where relationships are shallow but many, women toward small-scale groups where they are deep but few. Baumeister suggests that this is a key source of male-female inequality after the transition to agriculture: men were more suited to the large-scale networks that came to run social, political, and economic life.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What people say, and what they do   posted by Razib @ 2/13/2008 10:08:00 PM

What Men And Women Say And Do In Choosing Romantic Partners Are Two Different Matters:
When it comes to romantic attraction men primarily are motivated by good looks and women by earning power. At least that's what men and women have been saying for a long time. Based on research that dates back several decades, the widely accepted notion permeates popular culture today.

But those sex differences didn't hold up in a new in-depth study of romantic attraction undertaken by two Northwestern University psychologists. In short, the data suggest that whether you're a man or a woman, being attractive is just as good for your romantic prospects and, to a lesser extent, so is being a good earner.

You can read the full preprint yourself. The standard caveats about taking one social psychological study of 20 year old college students tracked for 30 days and generalizing apply here; the point isn't that this punctures all of the trends which we observe (I doubt it does), rather, it refines our understanding of the pattern of variation and the central tendencies as a function of particular parameters. Additionally, instead of just trusting what people say, and their own self-conceptions, you need to actually study how people behave. With something like sexual preferences inferring that one's avowed preferences don't match one's revealed preferences isn't that difficult; psychologists have to use more tricky techniques when it comes to something like fleshing out how people really conceptualize the God they say they believe in. But the general lesson holds.

Update: See this comment. Hey, it's social psychology....


Monday, January 21, 2008

So why isn't the Austrian School of economics retarded again???   posted by Razib @ 1/21/2008 01:22:00 AM

Since we've been talking about anthropology, I am posting this mostly to satisfy my curiosity and get something off my chest. There was a time in the past when I was a hard-core libertarian. I was at a book store recently and flipped through Radicals for Capitalism, Brian Doherty's intellectual history of the libertarian movement. I already knew most of the key players from my past readings. Now, I'm not one of the few dozen people in the world who has actually read Ludwig von Mises' Human Action (I'd be willing to bet some gold that half of these individuals who've gotten through von Mises' magnum opus are virgins!), so my libertarian nerdishness only went so far. All that being said, there was a time I would have said I favored the Austrian School of economics. This was during a period when I was busy boning up on the Krebs cycle, I wouldn't have had any clue what an indifference curve was. I was a libertarian, and the Austrian School was congenial to libertarianism, ergo, I supported the Austrian School (I knew I opposed Keynesians as well as the neoclassical models).

But I'd always had issues because I knew that the Austrian school rejected econometrics and positivism; and being steeped in experimental science I'd always viewed positivism as a Good Thing. Eventually I read Bryan Caplan's Why I am Not an Austrian Economist, the definitive smackdown of the school of thought derived from von Mises (an aside: the aspersions cast in this post are aimed primarily at the Misesian tradition, not the Hayekian; the reason for the distinction is made clear in Caplan's piece). I'd already lost my interest in libertarianism by the time I'd stumbled upon this polemic, but it confirmed my growing suspicions that Austrian economics had turned into a cult of personality. Caplan, being an economist, has some pointed technical criticisms. But over the past few years, and especially over the past months, I've been doing some reading on Google Books and elsewhere on the intellectual history of the Austrian School, and especially praxeology. What the hell is praxeology? Well, from
Praxeology is the study of those aspects of human action that can be grasped a priori; in other words, it is concerned with the conceptual analysis and logical implications of preference, choice, means-end schemes, and so forth.

The "grasped a priori" part has really bothered me. I mean, I read psychology and history, I can't derive it a priori. Recently I was going over some issues in modern Middle Eastern history, and learned that King Hussein of Jordan had apparently asked Israel for permission to send a brigade to Syria to invade the Jewish state during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Honestly, I really don't know if I could ever grasp Arab psychology a priori. The more and more I read about psychology the more I think that anyone who believes that they could develop an axiomatic system of human action from insights they grasped a priori is totally retarded (mad props to Aristotle though, he worked before the cognitive revolution). More specifically I have to wonder if they are socially retarded. I have suggested that an attraction to libertarianism is in part a function of your personality. Normal people rarely become libertarians, rather, it's a ideology driven by young non-alpha males with Roark/Galt fantasies. There are many more Justin Raimondo & Eric Garris types than Mark Cubans in hard-core libertarianism. Any survey of the biographies of von Mises or Murray Rothbard emphasizes their stubborn heterodox tendencies; but at this point I just wonder if they were social retards to whom their a priori logic was plausible because they really weren't as complicated as most humans, who engage in habitual and casual hypocrisy and contradiction. I recall reading Rothbard once explaining how one might buy and sell children in "flourishing child markets" in an anarcho-capitalist order. Even then I remember thinking, "Dude is weird...."

Now, why am I posting this? Many readers of this weblog are sympathetic to the Austrian School of economics (e.g., Mencius Moldbug). On occasion readers have even emailed me pointing to chapters in Human Action. Seeing as that around 1/3 of the readers of this weblog are libertarian that's never surprised me, and I haven't cared enough about economics to ever elaborate my distaste for the Austrian School. There are three reasons I'm going on the record now though.

1) I've developed an interest in economics as an academic discipline. In other words, I do know what an indifference curve is, or comparative statics, or business cycles. My adherence to Austrian economics seems analogous to a young man's infatuation with the prose stylings of Piers Anthony; I didn't know any better.

2) My readings in psychology and history makes it very difficult for me to understand how anyone could adhere to a Misesian form of Austrianism with its commitment to praxeology. In short, I really think praxeology is a rotten foundation for any system of thought. Certainly when someone espouses Austrian economics it makes me question if they're a bit nuts.

3) That being said, I'm curious to see how GNXP readers would respond to my objections and sentiments. Your responses should go in the comments (no emails please). I'm curious for two primary reasons: I want to know a bit more about the psychologies attracted to the Misesian school, and, there's an chance I'll revoke my critique and explore Austrian economics in more depth (more practically, I won't dismiss readers who espouse Austrianism as bizarros if I think I've been too harsh on Mises' work).


Saturday, January 12, 2008

A map of human stupidity; why social science is useful   posted by Razib @ 1/12/2008 02:56:00 PM

Just a follow up on the post where many of the comments examined the utility of social science. I happened to walk by my copy of Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases today. Anyone who thinks that social science doesn't uncover "surprising" findings should check out this research program; it isn't a coincidence that Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. If the median human IQ was 4 standard deviations above what it is now there might be less concern about understanding the shape of human stupidity and how it manifests itself, but as it is we don't live in that world. From Adaptive Thinking: Rationality in the Real World:
...95 out of 100 physicians estimated the probability of breast cancer after a positive mammogram to be about 75%. The inference from an a disease, or more generally, from data D to a hypothesis H, is often referred to as a "Bayesian inference," because it can be modeled by Baye's rule...The important point is that Equation 1 [Bayes rule -Razib] results in a probability of 7.8%, not 75% as estimated by the majority of physicians....

To think in a Bayesian manner might not be natural, but neither is it cognitively taxing with some training (the equation isn't rocket science, though repeated utilization is probably essential to its practical value). Time is finite and human cognitive capacity and aptitude places constraints upon what is in the realm of the possible. By examining common cognitive errors and biases we can alert ourselves to the fallacies which we are all prone to. For a typical patient a new diagnostic device is a salient example of the utility of engineering; but if medical doctors routinely make statistically naive inferences because of the nature of human psychology then the utility of more precise and powerful devices is sharply reduced. Changes in the emphasis of topics in the curriculum of medical schools guided by psychological science is rather distant from the minds and experiences of the average person, but it may have a significant affect on our experienced utility.


Monday, December 24, 2007

Autism & yawning   posted by Razib @ 12/24/2007 10:12:00 PM

Absence of contagious yawning in children with autism spectrum disorder:
This study is the first to report the disturbance of contagious yawning in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Twenty-four children with ASD as well as 25 age-matched typically developing (TD) children observed video clips of either yawning or control mouth movements. Yawning video clips elicited more yawns in TD children than in children with ASD, but the frequency of yawns did not differ between groups when they observed control video clips. Moreover, TD children yawned more during or after the yawn video clips than the control video clips, but the type of video clips did not affect the amount of yawning in children with ASD. Current results suggest that contagious yawning is impaired in ASD, which may relate to their impairment in empathy. It supports the claim that contagious yawning is based on the capacity for empathy.

Someone should do behavioral economics studies on groups of autistic individuals. Would surely validate the mid-20th century microeconomic consensus.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

10 Questions for James Flynn   posted by Herrick @ 12/05/2007 09:06:00 AM

James R. Flynn is a philosopher and psychologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, as well as Distinguished Associate of the Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University. His best-known paper, "Massive IQ Gains in 14 Nations," (Psych. Bulletin, 1987), documented what Herrnstein and Murray later called the "Flynn Effect": A long term increase in average IQ's across the developed world. This widely-reaffirmed result contradicted the folk wisdom that a coarsened culture and dysgenic fertility were making the rich nations less intelligent. In his new book, "What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect," (Cambridge University Press), he argues that changing social and economic forces can explain both the Flynn Effect and group differences in IQ. To fully understand the Flynn Effect, he contends, we need to understand the "cognitive history" of the 20th century. Perhaps most importantly, he proposes a variety of practical empirical tests so that one can see whether his explanations are correct.

The author of four books and dozens of articles in the fields of moral philosophy and psychology, Professor Flynn has repeatedly spurred psychologists to rethink exactly what it is that intelligence tests measure.

1. In your new book, What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect, you emphasize that IQ research is so focused on g, the general factor of intelligence, that they've been unable to see other important features in the IQ data. In particular, the "g-men," as you call them, seem to think that if the Flynn Effect is an overall increase in all IQ subtests, or an overall increase in a random subset of IQ subtests, then they can just ignore the Flynn Effect completely. So, what are the g-men missing out on?

Over time, changing social priorities alter the cognitive demands made on our minds. For example, society may want more and more people to put on scientific spectacles so they can understand the world rationally through education. IQ tests like Similarities and Raven's pick this up as enhanced performance. Yet, thanks to a more visual culture, society may not require us to enlarge our vocabularies - meaning no higher scores on the WISC vocabulary subtest. These trends are of great significance. If you dismiss these trends because they do not tally with the various tests' g-loadings, you miss all of that. G rather than social significance has become your criterion of what is important.

2. Over the decades, you've carried on an extensive correspondence with Arthur Jensen, the controversial and enormously influential intelligence researcher at UC Berkeley. You summarized some of your early thoughts about Jensen's work in your 1980 book Race, IQ, and Jensen, a book that, in my opinion, sets the standard for how do discuss this controversial topic. What have you learned about Jensen over the years, and what have your interactions with him taught you about the nature of scientific research?

I never suspected Arthur Jensen of racial bias. Over the years, I have found him scrupulous in terms of professional ethics. He has never denied me access to his unpublished data. His work stands as an example of what John Stuart Mill meant when he said that being challenged in a way that is "upsetting" is to be welcomed not discouraged. Before Jensen, the notion that all races were genetically equal for cognitive ability had become a dead "Sunday truth" for which we could give no good reasons. Today we are infinitely more informed about group differences. Equally important, the debates Jensen began are revolutionizing the theory of intelligence and our understanding of how genes and environment interact.

3. In an earlier book, Asian Americans: Achievement Beyond IQ, you contended that Asians appeared to do just as well as Whites on IQ tests-no worse or no better, with the possible exception of some narrow visuospatial abilities. You showed, in fact, that a lot of the apparent high Asian IQ scores were driven by the Flynn Effect. Since then, a number of studies catalogued by Lynn and Vanhanen seem to reinforce the conventional wisdom that Asians are usually doing better than Whites on IQ tests. Are you still convinced that there's no substantial difference in average IQ between whites and Asians, and if so, what's wrong with the recent data?

The Chinese Americans I studied were the generation born in 1945-1949. They were no higher than whites even for non-verbal IQ yet out-performed whites by a huge margin in terms of eventual occupational status. That meant that they could give their own children the kind of privileged environment they had never had. The result was a pattern of IQ that put the subsequent generation of Chinese Americans at an IQ of 109 at say age six gradually falling to 103 by the late teens, as parental influence faded away in favor of peers. The extra 3 points the present generation has as adults is due to the fact that they are in cognitively more demanding universities and professions and because they have internalized a positive attitude to cognitively challenging activities and companions.

4. At least at first glance, reading comprehension appears to involve a high degree of abstraction. If, as you argue in your new book, the Flynn Effect is largely driven by an exogenous rise in abstract thinking, then why hasn't the reading comprehension score increased by very much?

The Comprehension subtest of the WISC does show significant gains, though not nearly as great as Similarities and Raven's. But it is not a test of reading comprehension but a test of perceiving the "logic" of social arrangements - for example, why streets are numbered in order. The reading tests of the Nation's Report Card show no gain at age 17 because you are expected to read adult novels. Since young people today have no larger vocabularies and funds of general information than their ancestors did, they cannot read these works with any greater understanding.

5. In What is Intelligence?, you discuss the importance of "Short Hand Abstractions" or "SHAs" as part of an educated person's mental toolkit. What are they and how do they relate to your intelligence research?

IQ tests have missed a striking cognitive development of the 20th century, namely, that the various sciences and philosophy have enriched our minds by gradually giving educated people short-hand abstractions (SHAs) that allow us to critically analyze our world. For example, the word "market" no longer stands for a place but for the law of supply and demand and you can use it to see why rent controls are self defeating. The concept of "tautology" can make us more sophisticated about history. If someone says "Christianity has been a force for good", and explains away all the slaughter Christians have perpetrated by saying that they "were not real Christians", we can immediately see the flaw. If only good people qualify as Christians, the goodness of Christians has been established by definition! Sadly universities never give their graduates a full tool kit of these wonderful analytic concepts.

6. Recently, some IQ researchers have argued that if the Flynn Effect is g-loaded, then we should see a fall in the factor loadings across subtests over time. Their story is that cross-sectionally, we know that people with high IQ scores have more specificity–that is, they have greater strengths and weaknesses relative to the average person. Do you place much weight on that hypothesis, and do you think it might explain why IQ gains over time are distributed the way they are?

The IQ gains are not g-loaded so the prediction is beside the point. The importance of cognitive trends over time is a matter of their social utility. Whether they happen to be greatest on skills that have the highest g-loading is a distraction.

7. The Dickens-Flynn model (Psych. Review, 2001) attempts to explain the apparent high heritability of IQ by arguing that people with good genes end up endogenously in good environments, which in turn raises their IQs even more. In your new book, you propose a number of ways to test this hypothesis. Do you think that the Dickens-Flynn model is all that's needed to explain differences in average IQ across ethnic groups, or do you think that other explanations might be needed?

The Dickens-Flynn model does nothing to evidence that IQ gaps between groups are environmental rather than genetic in origin. That evidence must come from specific environmental hypotheses about what handicaps (say) black Americans suffer as they age. What the model shows is that twin studies (which emphasize the effects of genetic differences between individuals) do nothing to prejudice an environmental explanation of group differences.

8. Out of the many research designs you propose in What is Intelligence, which one would you most like to see performed and why?

The one that calls for investigation of urban and rural Brazil. I think the former approximates where Americans are today, and the latter approximates where Americans were in 1900. We could get direct evidence for or against the cognitive history of Americans in the 20th century that my book relates.

9. You've long said that you disagree with Richard Lynn's view that the Flynn Effect is largely driven by better nutrition. One of Lynn's pieces of evidence is that IQ gains show up at very early ages, which would be surprising if the Flynn Effect were entirely sociological. Why do you think IQ gains show up at such an early age, and about what fraction of IQ gains do you think might be due to nutrition?

Changing ratios of adults to children in the home (smaller families) and changed modes of dealing with infants affect cognitive development from birth. The nutrition hypothesis explains little in America since 1950 - the evidence is in the book.

10. You've shaken up the field of intelligence research every time you've published a book on the topic. What are you working on for your next project?

My next book is in press. It will be called: The hollow center: race, class, and ideas in America. It will attempt to shake Americans into awareness that they are blind to the state of black America, that their foreign and domestic policies have perverse priorities, that they are class blind, and have lost their way it terms of Jefferson's humane ideals. It is, however, a hopeful book in the sense that there is much in America's history that can show us how to find our way.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

IQ @ CATO Unbound   posted by Razib @ 11/05/2007 10:41:00 PM

The current issue of CATO Unbound is about IQ. James Flynn has already put something up, Linda Gottfredson, Stephen Ceci and Eric Turkheimer on deck.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Women & math   posted by Razib @ 10/16/2007 02:19:00 PM

Chris has a post, Women in Math, Science, and Engineering: Is It About the Numbers (And Not the Ones You Might Think)?, which addresses issues relating to women in science. Like the debate about IQ I'm not too interested in this...basically one's priors strongly effect their perception of the weight of the evidence and I don't see much value add in getting into arguments. That being said, a few quick points which I discussed with Chris:

1) During the Larry Summers affair I noted that though the proportion of women in mathematical fields differs cross-culturally, the rank order of fields is basically the same in terms of male & female ratio. In other words, the relative underrepresentation of women in mathematical fields seems culturally universal (e.g., in Mongolia where males are discouraged from pursuing higher education only in the mathematical sciences is there a sex ratio parity).

2) In female dominated fields males tend to increase in frequency as one ascends the ladder of achievement and prestige. Some of this might be due to age (e.g., established professors are from a time when women were extremely underrepresented in academia); but Chris points out that even across the undergrad to grad student chasm within his own field, cognitive psychology, it still plays out.

3) Speaking of which, the principle seems to operate on a very fine grained level. Within psychology it is cognitive psychology and psychometrics where women are least dominant. These are also fields where knowing some linear algebra is handy. Within the social sciences women are relatively thin on the ground in economics, which is the most formalized and mathematical discipline.

4) From a biological perspective it seems to me that some of this is likely going to be due to gene/gene expression/environment correlation. That is, small initial differences in biologically rooted propensities can lead to a "virtuous feedback" cycle.

5) Peer groups matter. To be succinct about it, I think female peer groups are nerd-killers.

6) The last two points are important. I think most reasonable people will agree these sorts of outcomes which manifest in young adulthood have many upstream variables (even if some are of relatively larger effect). This is why prior values matter so much in how plausible you find alternative explanations. That being said, I do think that the complexity of the issue here poses a problem for social engineers: a one-size-fits-all solution often presupposes one clean predictor of the difference (e.g., in this case a form of stereotype threat), which I don't think is really tenable. These solutions are unlikely to shock the social dynamic to a new equilibrium, so to maintain outcome you'll have to continue applying the "solution." The other alternative is to engage in radical social engineering and flip a host of parameters. I am skeptical that most people have the stomach for that, so what you're going to continue to see are "solutions" which will never address the underlying causes but apply a band-aid upon the "problem."

7) In the most general and big picture sense James F. Crow's observation that when you extract a set of individuals highly deviated from means across a wide range of traits the likelihood that intergroup differences will emerge are going to be very high. In other words, to be a world class sprinter or mathematician requires a joint set of traits where the mean for the candidate population is highly deviated from the central tendency. Even if the distribution of said traits differs only minimally across groups it is extremely likely that different groups will yield very different numbers of individuals who match the appropriate criteria.

Finally, if you are going to comment on Chris' blog, be civil. He's had my back before, so I am not intending to send hecklers his way.


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Facial attractiveness and correlation vs. experiment   posted by agnostic @ 9/09/2007 08:14:00 PM

The topic of facial attractiveness came up at Cognitive Daily, and it presents a good opportunity to contrast the two main approaches in psychology -- correlational and experimental. I'll start with an informal chat, and then proceed to look at a published study. Since the literature is vast, this will just touch on a few key points. And a warning to our mostly male readership: I'm only going to focus on what makes male faces attractive, both for "equal time" and because it's more mysterious.

Do girly eyes, lips, and skin make a guy less attractive? Hardly -- just look at any of those "teen hearthrob" magazines. In one response to a PNAS study, a photo of various dream guys features Billie Joe Armstrong next to the qualities "music" and "looks." What makes him look better than Bear Grylls and Kurt Vonnegut? Well, he has large girly lips and eyes, and tighter skin. This is typical of "pretty boys": other examples are Johnny Depp, Ryan Phillipe, and so on. However, the skeletal morphology (jaw, cheekbones, chin, brow) is masculine. It's only the non-boney parts that are girly.

So, for guys, we've already found two principal components of facial attractiveness: a manly skull and girly soft parts that fill it out. But this brings up a very important point in asking such questions. That is, cognitive scientists often hew to the experimental approach -- let's keep two faces exactly the same, but change one feature, and see which is more attractive. This game of Mr. Potato Head purportedly avoids the entangled mess of confounding factors that would turn up in a correlational study, such as one using principal components.

But there are good reasons to believe that there are non-trivial statistical interactions between facial features, so that isolating one and varying it misses the point: whether girly eyes are attractive depends on what the rest of the face looks like. It's just hard to judge the attractiveness of facial features out of context since facial perception is a pretty gestalt process.

It's clear that part of the variation in facial appearance is due to genetic differences between individuals. Whatever these variational genes may be, their effects are pretty fundamental. There are probably significant epistatic (or gene-gene interaction) effects in skull morphology just because so many different parts have to coordinate their work to make the face look right. (Here is a study showing epistatic effects on the symmetry of mice teeth.) Throughout development, a single gene could have pleiotropic effects on various parts of the face, and ditto for a single circulating hormone.

The point is, if we keep all of those the same and vary just one piece, we've lost the correlation structure. We could get wacko results for that reason alone. Imagine if a very ugly guy had his photo manipulated so that he had large girly eyes -- they would look very out of place, unsettling, perhaps jarring. We'd cringe from the bizarro effect alone. (For female faces, consider that very tight skin is attractive -- unless you take an old woman's head and give her a tight facelift, resulting in that extraterrestrial transvestite look.) In reality, though, girly eyes probably go along with other features that make them neutral or attractive.

With that in mind, let's turn to a study on girly facial features in guys. Here is a free PDF, so if you comment, at least look at the pictures and read the graphs. What the experiments show is that, keeping everything else the same, increasing the luminance contrast between the (darker) eyes and lips vs. the (lighter) rest of the face made a female face increasingly more attractive, but a male face increasingly less attractive. The interpretation is that female-typical traits are attractive in females but ugly in males.

If you look at the male pictures, though, it's clear why the feminized photo scored so low: he looks like a damned weirdo. Later in the paper, there are pictures of his entire head -- you can see that he has a very unattractive, schlubby male face. We react by cringing at his picture with high-contrast eyes and lips because it's so incongruous. Again, in real life, guys with more female-typical eyes and lips look like pretty boys, so it's not unsettling but rather attractive. I've already mentioned some mechanisitic reasons why that may be, but there could also be correlational selection on the skeletal and soft traits, or cross-assortative mating between males with manly skulls and females with doe eyes, pouty lips, and taut skin.

As a reality check on the unsexiness of high-contrast eyes and lips for male faces, in the picture of Billie Joe Armstrong that The Intersection chose to showcase his good looks, he is wearing heavy mascara -- just as Johnny Depp did for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I'll bet that's also part of the hunk appeal when attractive football or baseball players are photographed with that black stuff under their eyes (functionally unnecessary for having your picture taken).

Also, have a look at another study which created "average faces" from many real faces (these studies always show that the composite is most attractive). Their characteristics of beautiful faces shows a protypical sexy and ugly male face. First, note how similar the sexy non-skeletal features are for both sexes. It's hard to tell which face show a higher luminance contrast between the eyes and lips vs. rest of the face, since the sexy guy has darker skin. To me at least, the sexy guy has more pop-out-of-the-background eyes and lips, while the ugly guy has more uniformly drab features. But maybe a more sophisticated instrument than my eye will say that the sexy guy has lower-contrast features than the ugly guy. If so, the conclusion would be more believable since it did not come from a Mr. Potato Head experiment.

So, on a constructive note, the way these studies of facial attractiveness should be done is to do something like PCA on a huge dataset of certified dreamy and drab guys. Just "by inspection," it's clear that "manly skull" and "girly soft features (eyes, lips, skin)" are two. Symmetry is another one, although as I mentioned at Cognitive Daily, symmetry is not heritable, so don't think that says anything about "good genes" sexual selection using "fitness indicators."

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Flip that switch!   posted by Razib @ 8/05/2007 11:32:00 AM

A functional circuit underlying male sexual behaviour in the female mouse brain:
We report here that Trpc2-/- female mice show a reduction in female-specific behaviour, including maternal aggression and lactating behaviour. Strikingly, mutant females display unique characteristics of male sexual and courtship behaviours such as mounting, pelvic thrust, solicitation, anogenital olfactory investigation, and emission of complex ultrasonic vocalizations towards male and female conspecific mice...These findings suggest that VNO-mediated pheromone inputs act in wild-type females to repress male behaviour and activate female behaviours. Moreover, they imply that functional neuronal circuits underlying male-specific behaviours exist in the normal female mouse brain.

Yes, yes, I know people aren't mice. But check out this piece on female autistics in The New York Times Magazine. Here's an interesting part:
No doubt part of the problem for autistic girls is the rising level of social interaction that comes in middle school. Girls' networks become intricate and demanding, and friendships often hinge on attention to feelings and lots of rapid and nuanced communication - in person, by cellphone or Instant Messenger. No matter how much they want to connect, autistic girls are not good at empathy and conversation, and they find themselves locked out, seemingly even more than boys do. At the University of Texas Medical School, Katherine Loveland, a psychiatry professor, recently compared 700 autistic boys and 300 autistic girls and found that while the boys' "abnormal communications" decreased as I.Q. scores rose, the girls' did not. "Girls will have more trouble with social networks if they're having greater difficulty with communication and language," she says.

I have offered the conjecture before that a lot of the social phenomena we see around us has to be filtered through the reality that men and women socialize very differently. Roughly, I believe that male socialization norms are more coarse, inflexible and girded by clear heuristics. In contrast, I think female social networks are more natural and leverage innate abilities of women to read faces, manner and engage in extreme intentionality. I believe this is one reason that patriarchy emerges in mass societies: though more coarse and less informative, I believe that simpler male interaction dynamics scale much more easily than the way women operate in groups. It naturally makes sense that high IQ autistic males could "fake it" or "get by" much more easily than high IQ autistic females, the male social system is much more clumsy and probably requires less innate cognitive skill.

Addendum: An example by analogy. A typical human has lighting fast numeracy perception. For example, compare someone who "recognizes" a set of objects from the 1 to 4 in quantity vs. someone counting 1, 2, 3, 4. Obviously the latter method is relatively slow and depends on a lot more cognitive scaffolding (various aspects of human intelligence). Gestalt recognition on the other hand is fast and almost unconscious. But now imagine the number of objects increasing. Soon you really don't have a good sense of numbers via innate numeracy, you can recognize proportions, but you can't recognize 73 objects. On the other hand, though counting is slow, and continues to take more time as the number of objects increases, but it scales so that you can feasible continue to count an increasing number so long as you're willing to put more time in it.


Monday, July 30, 2007

Religion promotes cooperation?   posted by Razib @ 7/30/2007 12:19:00 PM

Religious concepts promote cooperation:

Participants primed with religious concepts gave their partner an average of $4.22, compared with only $1.84 in the control group. But those who declared themselves religious before the study were no more generous than non-believers.

"The effect of the religious prime was both large and surprising, especially considering that during exit interviews the participants were unaware of having been religiously primed," says Shariff.

A second study introduced a third group, primed with words associated with civic responsibility such as "jury", contract", and "police." This group behaved almost identically to that primed with religious concepts.

You can read the full working paper for free. There were two groups. One consisted of 50 UBC students, and the second a somewhat larger and more diverse group from the Vancouver, BC, area. The basic finding was that "priming" subjects with religious terms seemed to elevate generosity during an un-iterated Ultimatum Game, where the 'rational actor' should just keep all the money. In the first sample there wasn't even a statistically significant difference between religious & irreligious students in how they reacted to the priming. The second study was more equivocal, and the authors in the discussion suggest that part of the reason that the irreligious tended to be less responsive toward religious priming was that the greater stringency of the test for 'atheism' filtered the individuals to a greater degree who were defined as non-religious, and a small number of subjects might simply even lack the implicit resonances of supernatural agents. Finally, the second study also showed that subjects could be primed toward generosity by exposing them to civic terminology.

First, the authors note the problems with their small and narrow sample sizes. Though statistically significant and powerful, the effects were derived from people from the Vancouver area, or, college students at UBC. I didn't see controlling for the fact that there is likely some correlation between ethnicity and religion in British Columbia. Specifically, a disproportionate number of secular British Columbians are likely to be Chinese origin. Second, cognition expresses and develops within a cultural context. In a society with less civic engagement and activity than Canada I would not be surprised if the effect of secular priming was trivial. Similarly, in a society that is extremely secular (Japan?) one might see far greater response to civic priming than the supernatural equivalent. Third, the authors suggest that the response of theistic and non-theistic individuals in the first group to supernatural concepts suggests an implicit association between religious concepts and altruistic behavior. I have suggested myself that the anthropomorphic bias which is a pillar of religiosity exists in many, or all, atheists. Rejection of a deity might be sincere on the explicit level, but the implicit mind might still be strongly shaped by early cultural conditioning. The secular individuals in the UBC sample were no doubt aware of the valences and power of religious beliefs and ideas, and it seems plausible that lifetime implicit associations would have been built up.

Overall, this study is good because as the researchers point out there is a lot of armchair bullshitting on this topic. I get plenty of it in the comments of my weblogs. This study shows supernatural agents can act as mediators of human action as posited by many. It also shows that secular institutions and values can trigger the same change in behavior. What does this tell us on the fundamental level? I'm not sure, after all, the typical modern human has been exposed to several thousand years of philosophical religion which has embedded within it an explicit moral/ethical dimension. Similarly, bureaucratic government and the ideologies of mass societies are "in the air," so to speak. In some "primitive" societies gods are seem as much more amoral creatures than in "advanced" cultures; they are mischievous agents who humans must placate and deceive. Additionally, they have no well developed theories of statecraft or a conception of law enforced by political fiat. It would be interesting to do this sort of study in a primitive society, though obviously the lack of literacy would cause problems with the priming the researchers used in this case.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Individualism & collectivism   posted by Razib @ 7/25/2007 11:30:00 AM

Self-centered cultures narrow your viewpoint:
Chinese students would immediately understand which wooden block to move - the one visible to both them and the director. Their US counterparts, however, did not always catch on.

"They would ask 'Which block?' or 'You mean the one on the right?", explains Keysar. "For me it was really stunning because all of the information is there. You don't need to ask," he adds.

While 65% of the American participants asked this type of question, only one of the 20 Chinese subjects did so, equating to just 5%.

This comes close to the classic "they did a study on that?" criticism of psychology. Of course we know that East Asians cultures emphasize a contextual perception of self and collectivist values vis-a-vis Western ones. But, it is nice to get a quantitative sense of the extent of this difference. You can read the full paper on the author's website. Here is an important point:
In fact, language can trigger a culture - bound representation of self...bicultural Chinese-born individuals tended to describe themselves in terms of their own attributes when writing in English, but to describe themselves in relation to other people when writing in Chinese.

This shouldn't surprise you if you read Geography of Thought. It seems people can be easily "trained" to change their vantage points (casting some light on the grand claims made by the author in the aforementioned book). The facultative nature of these extreme differences seems pretty obvious; especially given that extreme individualism manifest in English speaking peoples in particular, while continental Europeans tend to lay between the East Asian collectivism and Anglo-Saxon collectivism despite their far closer genetic affinity to the latter. Nevertheless, though the extremity of the differences in operation of Theory of Mind here is likely cultural, I can not be suspect that there might small, but significant, initial differences between populations. After all, Jerome Kagan has shown that personality differences exist between Asian and European infants at very young ages, as well as between blue-eyed and brown-eyed children (in both cases the former tend to be more withdrawn and inhibited than the latter). The question that comes to my mind is whether the cultural differences selected for different personality profiles, or whether there were initially difference personality profiles which resulted in different cultural outcomes. My own suspicion in the East Asian case is the former.


Saturday, July 07, 2007

Williams syndrome in The New York Times Magazine   posted by Razib @ 7/07/2007 06:50:00 PM

David Dobbs has an interesting article in The New York Times Magazine about Williams syndrome; a disorder characterized by verbosity and hypersociality in concert with abstraction capacities so attenuated that most suffers are mentally retarded. The piece juggles many phenomena, from general to domain specific intelligences and the interaction between environment and genetic biases which shape the mind's developmental arc.

Inverted: Hidden Smarts: Abstract thought trumps IQ scores in autism:
There's more to the intelligence of autistic people than meets the IQ. Unlike most individuals, children and adults diagnosed as autistic often score much higher on a challenging, nonverbal test of abstract reasoning than they do on a standard IQ test, say psychologist Laurent Mottron of Hopital Riviere-des-Prairies in Montreal and his colleagues.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Starbucks effect?   posted by Razib @ 6/16/2007 11:54:00 AM

As Some Grow Weary of Web, Online Sales Lag:
...Nancy F. Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies retailing and consumer habits, said that the leveling off of e-commerce reflected the practical and psychological limitations of shopping online. She said that as physical stores have made the in-person buying experience more pleasurable, online stores have continued to give shoppers a blase experience. In addition, online shopping, because it involves a computer, feels like work.

Where do these psychological limitations come from? I think some if it is pretty obviously specified on the innate level. We're a social species. The great evolutionary biologist William D. Hamilton famously did his pioneering work on kin selection in London train stations because of his loneliness. It is one thing to worry about the de-humanizing effect of modern technology, but it is important to remember at the end of the day we do remain human.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Universal Grammar - follow up   posted by Razib @ 6/13/2007 12:30:00 PM

Edge has a transcript of a talk by Dan Everett, the heterodox linguist who was the subject of a profile in The New Yorker. Video coming soon.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Parents matter...and they don't   posted by Razib @ 6/12/2007 10:02:00 PM

First, Daddies' girls choose men just like their fathers:
Women who enjoy good childhood relationships with their fathers are more likely to select partners who resemble their dads research suggests. In contrast, the team of psychologists from Durham University and two Polish institutions revealed that women who have negative or less positive relationships were not attracted to men who looked like their male parents.

Due to be published in the July issue of Evolution and Human Behaviour, the study investigated evidence of parental sexual imprinting, the sexual preference for individuals possessing parental characteristics, in women. The team used facial measurements to give a clear view of how fathers' facial features relate directly to the features of faces their daughters find attractive.

This comes very close in my book to "they had to do a study on that???" That being said, it is somewhat interesting in light of the finding that daughters prefer men who smell like dad (MHC).

In other news, Male Depression Is Linked to Poor Sibling Relations, not the parent-child relationship.


Monday, June 11, 2007

The Tao of sperm competition   posted by Razib @ 6/11/2007 08:32:00 PM

I found this amusing paper, Adaptation to Sperm Competition in Humans, via google scholar. The topic itself isn't necessarily amusing, but the description of how a human penis is engineered to scoop out the sperm from another male can't help but induce some smirks. In any case, most of the time we've discussed sperm competition it has been in an explicitly physiological & anatomical context. How viscous is the sperm? How quickly does it dry up and serve as a "plug"? How large are the testicles of various primate species? This paper examines possible "psychological adaptations," and tries to offer an explanatory model for proximate phenomena. For example, why do males tend to ejaculate larger volumes after viewing pornography which involves group sex between two males and one female than between three females? Of course, being evolutionary psychology in the classic mode there really isn't examination or entertainment of human differences, which might open up the possibility of a multiplicity of conditional strategies varying in terms of utilization across individuals.

Related: Our sperm competition posts.


Thursday, May 31, 2007

Are conservatives not crazy?   posted by Razib @ 5/31/2007 12:33:00 AM

Chris of Mixing Memory has a post up titled Are Conservatives Less Creative?. I joked with him that basically creativity is strongly coupled with being mentally on edge, after all, who would really follow their muse on the high risk stakes of a creative career which will likely be characterized by penury? But in any case, check it out. I've seen other stuff which show small correlations like this, but, as I mentioned to him what really matters are the tails. Sure, a statistically significant greater number of Leftish folk might cough up the cash for the rec center finger-painting class, but the more important possibility is that the threshold above which one sees artistic virtuosity might be overwhelmingly dominated by those of Left sensibility. This matters of course over the course of history as art is an essential propagandistic tool. Similarly, the recurrent finding that amongst the high IQ those more verbally adept tend to be on the Left and those with stronger mathematical aptitudes tend to be on the Right is also significant in terms of modeling the trajectory of societal evolution and dynamics.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Steven Pinker's new book   posted by Razib @ 5/30/2007 01:56:00 AM

Just noticed that Amazon is taking pre-orders for The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, Steve Pinker's latest. His website states that Pinker will start his book tour on the publication date listed on Amazon, a little over 3 months from now, so that seems sufficient confirmation. Here is Steven Pinker on The Stuff of Thought from his 10 Questions last year:
(10) Most GNXP readers probably know you for The Blank Slate and your work as a public intellectual. However, your next book (entitled The Stuff of Thought) returns to the themes of language and cognitive science. Now, as you may or may not know, GNXP readers are interested in genetics and evolution; politics, religion, and world affairs; and the past, present, and future of the human species. What can you tell us about your upcoming book that might whet the appetites of GNXP readers?

The subtitle of the book is "Language as a Window Into Human Nature," and The Stuff of Thought deals with many aspects of human cognitive and social evolution--how a mind that evolved to think about rocks and plants and enemies can invent physics and math and democracy; why people impose taboos on topics like sex and excretion and the divine; why they threaten and bribe and seduce in such byzantine ways. I also discuss many real-world applications of semantics--words that have impeached one president and that many feel should impeach another; language that continues to embroil the Middle East; whether Democrats can win back the White House by winning the metaphor wars; whether language traps us in a self-referential circle (as the postmodernists believe) or offers us contact with truth and reality.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Against Universal Grammar   posted by Razib @ 4/22/2007 04:46:00 PM

To all those with some familiarity with psycholinguistics, what do you think about The New Yorker by John Colapinto, The puzzling language of an Amazon tribe? What are the best commentaries on this thesis? My interest has been piqued, but I'd like to know more (here's an article on the tribe in question, and check out the wiki entries).

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Friday, April 20, 2007

God, the theory and the practice....   posted by Razib @ 4/20/2007 11:52:00 PM

In the comments the unicorn-riding TGGP says:
When I was religious I didn't have a problem with evolution, because my idea of God was omniscient enough to arrange a deterministic universe in such a manner so as to produce the results He wanted without having to get up off His Holy Couch very often to get stuff done. I suppose it doesn't make much sense for an omnipotent God to be so lazy, but that's just what I figured I would do in His position.

Though theists in the Abrahamic tradition do generally avow a belief in god who is omniscient & omnipotent (among other characteristics), outside of the constraints of time & space, psychological & anthropological research tends to converge upon the consensus that the human working cognitive conceptualization of "god" doesn't include these traits. Unscripted narrations where god is integrated into human affairs always imply a model of the deity bounded by time & space & partaking of the same banal universe as believers, though exhibiting powers and perceptions of far greater magnitude than that of mortals.1 This makes sense when one considers that the human mind itself has constraints in terms of how it can model the universe, and a god which transcends the universe is simply beyond gestalt comprehension. An analogy might be that one can believe in higher spatial dimensions than the three we perceive as a matter of logic, but a intuitive conceptualization of higher dimensionality spaces is beyond the grasp of the human mind.2

In any case, the cognitive reality that humans have in their mind the concept of a limited god, despite their sincere professions of belief in a transcendent one, seems to make theistic evolution somewhat more understandable as a natural response to the facts of the universe.3 If the implicit internal models of gods have within them constraints imposed by natural processes then a deity who utilizes such processes easily drops out of the chain of inferences. This does not speak to the theological plausibility of such a god (i.e., working from first principles in regards to the nature of god as a being with traits x, y, z, etc.), but human beliefs and thoughts are not internally consistent.

1 - Participants in the studies of which I'm referring to are prompted to generate novel stories where the gods in which they believe in operate upon the universe over which they have dominion. Working backward from the characteristics of these stories, that is, working up the chain of implied inferences invariably leads researchers to conclude that the conceptualization of the god within these narrations contradicts an omniscient & omnipotent being outside of the universe. This model is consistent to the cross-cultural universality of particular times, places and objects being propitious and sacred to the gods, even though said gods are often notionally unbounded from time & space.

2 -To be clear, the anthropomorphic gods of yore remain ascendant within the human cognitive substrate, no matter the historical fact of their intellectual defeat at the hands of philosophical theism. Humans now believe in the god of the philosophers, but they imagine the god of the ancestors. I contend that many of the "paradoxical" behaviors of theists in response to tragedies or successes and the character of their relationship with the gods whom they avow to believe in can be explained by this "double truth," the disjunction between the philosophical & the cognitive deity.

3 - This does not speak to the validity of theological arguments for theistic evolution, rather, it only suggests that the reason the concept might "make sense" to a large number of theists is because follows from their implicit god-concept.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

IQ, height & Crooked Timber   posted by Razib @ 4/14/2007 08:08:00 PM

John Quiggin @ Crooked Timber has a post where he moots ideas re: IQ & height. If you're inclined to give dkane a helping hand, swing on over! Just remember, the gang @ CT are much, much, smarter than you, so tread lightly....

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

High Sensitivity Test   posted by Razib @ 4/11/2007 10:38:00 PM

Take the test here to see if you are highly sensitive. You probably know if you are, but let's see how many GNXP readers score 14 or more. Probably more than 15-20%. I scored a 2 FYI.

(post your score in the comments)


"High Sensitivity" folk   posted by Razib @ 4/11/2007 02:52:00 PM

A few days ago I blogged about David S. Wilson's new book, Evolution for Everyone, without having read it (there was an extract in The New York Times). Well, I just read it. As I noted Wilson is a thinker with whom I have strong disagreements, but his interdisciplinary vision results in some good food for thought. Look closely at his bibliographies! I will post a review at my other weblog when I have some distance, but I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts/notes which might be of interest to readers. For example:
Highly sensitive people (or animals) are likely to be slow in a novel situation for the simple reason that they are processing new information. They are "stopping to check it out" rather than "forging ahead." Given too much sensory input, highly sensitive people tend to become overwhelmed and withdraw from the situation. This is a form of shyness, but highly sensitive people are not intrinsically shy. After all, the purpose of processing all of that information is to arrive at new solutions to life's problems. A highly sensitive person who succeeds at doing this can become as outgoing and gregarious as someone who is merely "forging ahead." Some individual differences (such as sociability) are not innate but are manifestations of other individual differences (such as information processing) that are....


In plain language that anyone can understand, she explains that the trait is normal, is present in about 15 to 20 percent of the population, and exists in about the same proportion in other species. It is a great gift that can also be a liability in some situations. It is especially misunderstood in our own culture, which values toughness and regards extreme sensitivity as abnormal (it's easier to be a highly sensitive person in Asia)....

First, it is probably obvious to regular readers that I am not a highly sensitive person. Second, I have been guilty of characterizing the highly sensitive as abnormal or pathological. Third, if 15-20% is a good estimate of their population level proportion (at least in the USA) I tend to associate in my own life disproportionately with highly sensitive individuals. I will hazard to guess that this psychological morph is an evolutionarily stable strategy amongst humans in part because of the synergistic possibilities of small groups consisting of personalities of various shades which bring their own special talents and propensities to the table.