Brains, Stories, and Yelling

Cognitive Styles

I’m always skeptical of any explanation that involves “culture,” but here is Jennifer Richler in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind:

Previous research has shown that people from cultures that are Western,educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (“WEIRD,” in psychological parlance) tend to think analytically, using logical rules, whereas those that are non-WEIRD process information more intuitively. They even perform differently on problem-solving tasks: Americans, who are more analytical, remember individual components of a complex visual scene better than East Asians, who are more holistic.

They compared the minds of liberals and conservatives by giving them three words, e.g. “panda”, “monkey”, and “banana”, and asking which two were most related:

Liberals acted more like Westerners, pairing items that belonged to the same abstract category (for instance, two animals), whereas conservatives tended to pair items that were functionally related (monkey and banana), as non-Westerners do. One other classic test of holistic thinking also suggested that liberals tended to use a more typically WEIRD cognitive style.

The finding that conservatives think more like those from collectivistic cultures might sound counterintuitive. Aren’t liberals, who favor safety-net programs for the needy, the collectivist ones? Thomas Talhelm, now a professor of behavior science at the University of Chicago and lead author of the study, explains that true collectivism “doesn’t mean general sharing with other people. It’s about social ties and responsibilities to those within your group.” Antipoverty programs usually serve to help individuals get a leg up rather than strengthening groups—thus aligning with WEIRD cultures’ focus on individuality.

This confuses me a little because when I think about recent “liberal” examples in individualism vs collectivism, the thing that jumps out is the “check your privilege” movement, which is ultra anti-individualist. You belong to X racial group or Y social class? Privileged! Your “identity” is based on pre-defined groups (often which you did not make a choice to join) and not on your individual experience.

The counterintuitive story, that liberals are the individualistic ones, makes more sense after some thought. If you go through liberal vs conservative stances on social issues, it does seem like liberals in general favor the individual. The most glaring example is abortion, with the liberal position literally called “pro-choice.”

Here is a passage about where libertarians fit in this framework, from this article:

Historically, libertarians and modern liberals share an ideological ancestry, both tracing our roots to the classical liberal tradition of Locke, Hume, Smith, Mill, and others. In the 19th century, the classical liberals triumphed by advocating the primacy of the individual against the status quo of monarchy, mercantilism, aristocracy, theology, slavery, and the like. While the progressive movement stole our liberal terminology in the early 20th century, modern liberals and libertarians today still share that same valuation of the individual in society. This is most easily seen today in the issue of marriage equality, where social conservatives try to use the power of the state to control marriage because it is an important social institution, while liberals and libertarians focus on the importance of marriage in the lives of all individuals. It is the same core conflict between a holistic worldview that emphasizes tradition against a more analytic worldview that prioritizes the individual.

Oh, and I’m totally on team panda+monkey rather than monkey+banana. I would guess most people I know (liberals and math people) would pick the two animals as well.

Bonus: Here is a chart from the Scientific American Mind article on political party and Twitter language. It does further the story that “liberals are the real individualists”:

twitter_democrat_republican_language

Stories

Saw this on Tyler Cowen’s blog, so here is the story within a story. Just to be clear, I am quoting Tyler Cowen quoting Marti Leimbach:

“A question of privilege”

An excellent short essay by Marti Leimbach.  Here is the opening:

My university-aged daughter is always telling me about the “privilege” that people like me have and how it makes it impossible for me to understand and empathise with those whose lives are without such privilege. I do see her point. I’ve never been black or gay or trans or gender queer or mentally ill. I don’t know what it would be like to grow up in a derelict building in a dangerous neighbourhood, to have drug addicts for parents, to fear for my safety while walking to school, to be openly despised for being female, denied education or refused employment based on my skin colour or gender. And while I have been poor enough not to be able to afford a car or health insurance, I have never been so poor I had to steal food. Clearly, I’ve not suffered the worst of what society can throw at a person.

Nonetheless, this whole notion of “privilege” vexes me. We talk about it as though we can all recognise what it is. I am not always so sure. I can tell one narrative of my life and it seems to describe someone who grew up without privilege, and I can tell another narrative and it seems almost as though my life was one of ease and privilege from the time I was born.

The story continues…it is hard to excerpt with its various twists and turns, definitely recommended…

As advertised, Leimbach paints two widely differing narratives of the same set of events. It is definitely worth a read. (It also reminds me of the underrated movie Vantage Point, which shows the same plot unfold several times from the perspective of different characters.)

The power of narrative is strong. You can take the same set of facts and wind up with opposite interpretations, as was the case in Leimbach’s story. For very different example, here is a graph of US stock market investment, via Gallup:

gallup-stock-market

So should you buy into the market?

  • Story 1: “It is obviously a time to buy stocks. When the number of investors in the stock market recovers and comes back to normal levels near 60%, tens of millions of Americans will have bought stocks, making the market much higher than it is now.”
  • Story 2: “It is obviously a time to sell all your stocks. Fewer Americans are investing in the market than ever before, and this trend will only continue. Combined with the market near all-time highs, a crash is imminent.”
  • (Meta-story: “The markets are efficient and have priced in both stories 1 and 2, so it is not obviously a time to buy or to sell.”)

Do violent video games increase crime? [from this post]

  • Story 1: “People who play violent video games are likely to imitate the characters they play, thus becoming more aggressive in real life.”
  • Story 2: “People who would otherwise commit violent crimes satisfy their urges in video games and not in real life, thus decreasing the crime rate.”

So unless you have numbers to back you up or comprehensive explanations for complex issues, stay away from explaining things via simple stories.

These kinds of narratives make me skeptical of many political movements as well, whether from the right (e.g. the “war on Christianity” narrative) or from the left (e.g. the “privilege” narrative mentioned in Leimbach’s article).

Here is Cowen again, really hammering the point in a TED talk on narratives.

Basically, make sure you understand as much of the situation as you can, not just some simplified narrative.

How to Social Activism

Earlier this week, The Huffington Post on President Obama on Black Lives Matter:

President Barack Obama on Saturday praised the work the Black Lives Matter movement has done to highlight racial inequality, but also strongly cautioned activists that they needed to be realistic about their proposals and be willing to compromise.

Speaking at a town hall in London, the president mentioned Black Lives Matter specifically as he laid out his vision of how activists can achieve social change.

As a general rule, I think that what, for example, Black Lives Matter is doing now to bring attention to the problem of a criminal justice system that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race, or reacting to shootings of individuals by police officers, has been really effective in bringing attention to problems,” Obama said.

But the president went on to say that activists needed to be realistic about what could be achieved immediately and sometimes needed to compromise to achieve long-term goals.

One of the things I caution young people about, though, that I don’t think is effective is once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them,” Obama said.

Thanks Obama! And no, that was not sarcastic. As a rationalist and individualist, I generally disapprove of schemes in which your identity is based on something that you had no control over, such as race.

I’m on team Clinton and I think many of Sanders’s plans are insane. However, I fully support Sanders’s right to speak at his own rallies, especially with so many supporters there to see and listen to Sanders, not some random people who hijacked the podium, which happened in Aug. 2015.

Things like this just alienate would-be allies. I was generally favorable towards Black Lives Matter before this and certainly had a lower view of the group after the event. And it’s not like Sanders did anything horrible to them before or during the event. I am glad President Obama was not afraid to address this.

Bots, Markets, and Assortative Mating

tayprofile

Tay, AlphaGo, and News Feed Algorithms

AI reached two milestones last month: beating the top human player in the world at Go, and creating a “teen girl AI” that “became a Hitler-loving sex robot.” As an enthusiast in chess, I was under the impression that Go was way more complicated and that it would take decades from now for a computer to outplay a human. Oops. The future is here. It seems pretty awesome, but other than that, I feel unqualified to speak further about the Go match.

I do feel more than qualified, however, to talk about Tay. I mean, I’m not an expert on Hitler-loving sex robots, but I have spent a lot of time arguing with people on the internet, and wow do things derail quickly. So my obviously hindsight reaction is Come on, how did you not expect this? Like, have you ever seen the comments section of a YouTube video? If you train on that, was any other result even possible? My solution is, find anyone who has made any angry comment on any YouTube video, and hire them to break your AI during testing. Also, when I imagine what people in the 1990s worried about in terms of AI development, I’m sure this was not one of them. Thanks, internet.

One more thing about AI: Facebook and Twitter news feeds. I’m generally in favor of any change that makes me have to do less work, such as scrolling past posts which, according to some algorithm, I probably don’t care about. However, the paranoia is that if I “like” an article titled, “Microsoft deletes ‘teen girl’ AI after it became a Hitler-loving sex robot within 24 hours,” I would be horrified if Facebook thought I were interested in Microsoft, teen girl AIs, and Hitler-loving sex robots from that action and then show me posts about them. Apparently, this worry is already prevalent:

In Karahalios’ study, many people voiced a common Facebook complaint: too many baby photos in their feeds. They said they would Like a friend’s baby picture out of a feeling of obligation, but then immediately hide the post to try to tell Facebook they didn’t actually want a feed full of toddlers.

So the solution is to like the story but then immediately hide it? I’ll remember that for the day when Microsoft releases a schoolgirl chatbot in the culture that is Japan.

Oh wait, that already happened.

Stocks and College Tuition

When a stock price is too low, you buy, and when it is too high, you sell. That is the most basic thing about a market. Of course, there are a million reasons why this is not so easy to do and why there is an entire sector of the economy trying to do this. And of course, as a disclaimer, nothing on this blog is ever financial advice, even “buy low, sell high.”

Now the “buy low, sell high” strategy may be even more difficult to do in things outside of stocks. One side is pretty easy to do: if groceries or cars or houses are being offered too low, buy them.

But the other side is tricky. If your grocery store is selling oranges at $50 per orange, and people are actually buying them, you probably want to sell oranges at $45 to compete with them. But you need oranges! One way to obtain oranges is to buy them for a cheaper price elsewhere, and resell them at a higher price. So you could go to a nearby city, buy 100 oranges for $1 a piece, pay $100 in transportation fees and resell them for $45 a piece, for a net profit of $4,300. But if oranges are also selling $50 in the other town, you can’t do this, so you would need to grow your own oranges, and that takes some effort, but may be worth doing depending on how much demand there is for these oranges.

The same is true for cars and houses. If the prices for them are just too high overall, the right thing to do may be to found a company that produces oranges or cars or houses and sell them at exorbitant prices. By creating competition, you are also ever so slightly lowering prices to be closer to the fair price.

During the housing bubble, if you thought prices for houses were too low, you would buy houses hoping to flip them out at an even higher fair price. But if you thought house prices were too high, that bet was more difficult to make. You could buy a financial instrument called a credit default swap on subprime mortgage bonds, or you enter the competition by building houses for a relatively low cost and selling them at very high prices. Both options were difficult and risky.

Enter college tuition [Bloomberg]:

college_tuition

No longer is it the rent that is too damn high, but the college tuition. It has become a political issue now, with politicians in both parties decrying the cost of higher education. Among the 2016 presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders has made a particularly big deal about this, going so far as to propose universal free college tuition. Even Donald Trump agrees in spirit: “That’s probably one of the only things the government shouldn’t make money off – I think it’s terrible that one of the only profit centers we have is student loans.”

How are markets supposed to work again? Do you buy when prices are too high? No, you sell! That’s how you both make money and help drive down prices to some reasonable level. The simple theoretic solution is to found new universities. Unfortunately, the for-profit college idea has empirically been a failure so far.

I’m still hopeful for a better solution. Nonetheless, I’m glad I have already gone through college. My alma mater currently costs $67,613 a year.

Not-Often-Talked-About Sources of Income Inequality

My news feeds on Facebook and Twitter seem more political than before,  which is unsurprising given the proximity to the presidential election. At least on the Democratic side, there is much talk of economic inequality.

I roughly agree with this Paul Graham essay written a few months ago. It starts off the contradiction that startups seem to both help the world and increase inequality:

I’m interested in this topic because I was one of the founders of a company called Y Combinator that helps people start startups. Almost by definition, if a startup succeeds its founders become rich. Which means by helping startup founders I’ve been helping to increase economic inequality. If economic inequality should be decreased, I shouldn’t be helping founders. No one should be.

It then talks about how there are some good sources of inequality (startups, variation in productivity) and some bad ones (tax loopholes, high incarceration rates), and we should be focusing on the latter group, not on inequality categorically.

Besides startups and productive gaps, what are other good sources of inequality? The one that came to mind was assortative mating. Basically, if two rich people married each other and two poor people married each other, you have household inequality, but if they cross-married, you have household equality. The former is becoming more prevalent. Not only does this increase immediate inequality, but it also decreases economic mobility by denying poor people from marrying up.

Tyler Cowen thinks this is nontrivial [NYT]:

These matches are great for those individuals who can build prosperous and happy family alliances, but they also propagate inequality across the generations. Of all the causes behind growing income inequality, in the longer run this development may prove one of the most significant and also one of the hardest to counter.

And more sentences here:

As it becomes harder for many people to “marry up” as a path for income mobility for themselves or their children, families that are not well connected may feel disengaged, and the significant, family-based advantages for some children may discourage others from even trying. The numbers show that assortative mating really matters.

One study indicated that combined family decisions on assortative mating, divorce and female labor supply accounted for about one-third of the increase in income inequality from 1960 to 2005.

Will the fight against economic inequality be so fervent that, in the future, startups and assortative marriages will be shunned? It would be a strange world to imagine.

Misc

I’m a space geek, but someone definitely spent too much effort making this Pluto and Charon video [Business Insider]. Also, when it states that Pluto and Charon are tidally locked, it is one of the times when the animation does not show them tidally locked.