Category Archives: Psychology

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.

One Second Left

I really enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow (an 8 on my movie list), but one plot detail really bugged me. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m not going to spoil anything directly.

countdown-timer

(Image link—pretty funny.)

It’s part of a larger category that happens in most action movies actually. This particular example doesn’t happen in Edge of Tomorrow: every time there is a countdown timer where something really, really bad will happen (typically an explosion), the protagonist will save the day with one second left til destruction, whether the timer was originally set to five minutes or five hours. In every action movie there are several of these “just in time” moments. And yes, I understand, this is what makes the movies suspenseful.

That really annoys me.

Did the aliens annoy me? Nope. Time travel loops? Nope. But impeccable luck and timing? Yes.

Is there any deeper meaning behind this? People have said that I over-criticize movie meanings, but I think this does have some harmful effects. The “protagonist always gets the girl” cliché is the worst in terms of social damage for obvious reasons, but “one second left” has its own issues. It distorts our views of luck and chance, thereby affecting our risk judgment, and it turns the extremely improbable into the probable.

A bigger issue still is that the “protagonist wins” cliché, which is in 99% of movies, may warp our sense of justice. There is a known cognitive bias called the just-world bias, where we falsely expect justice to be served (we unconsciously believe in karma), and movies can really take advantage of this. How do you explain why the good side was able to defuse the bomb at the last second? Easy, the good side deserved it. (How might this translate into real life? We feel that we deserve something great, so instead of trying for it, we wait for the universe to give it to us.)

Of course, I still enjoy action movies and TV that use “one second left.” But it just gets difficult to keep up suspension of disbelief when the most absurd chance events happen over and over again.

On the Video Games and Violence Discussion

With three recent deadly shootings (one in Isla Vista and the second in Seattle; a third in Las Vegas as I was writing this post), I’ve once again heard many ignorant statements thrown around regarding video games and violence. Much of the ignorance comes from making blanket statements completely lacking in nuance, from both sides.

huffpost-videogames-vs-guns

Here is what’s wrong with the current discussion:

1. The anti-video game side ignores the actual crime statistics.

Whether you look at the past decade or past two decades (when video games arose and flourished), you see that general crime, violent crime, and juvenile crime are all down significantly.

video-games-crimes

Violent juvenile crime in the United States has been declining as violent video game popularity has increased. The arrest rate for juvenile murders has fallen 71.9% between 1995 and 2008. The arrest rate for all juvenile violent crimes has declined 49.3%. [1]

Of course, this does not mean that (violent) video games are causing the reduction in violence. Here is a graph that goes forward by several more years [2]:

video-game-sales

The point is that even if a study comes out demonstrating a link between video games and aggression, it is another step to go from aggression to actual violent crime, which is hard to measure because we can’t just run experiments on violent crime. To show that video games have a strengthening effect on the crime rate, you must show that in the absence of video games, the crime rate would be decreasing faster than it already is (or something equivalent to that).

2. Both sides have a wrong assumption about overall crime.

Because our media gives plentiful attention to violent crimes—the more deaths, the better—we get a sense that the nation is becoming more violent, and we desperately look for any changes that could have caused this increase in violence.

In fact, the violence rate was fairly constant until 1994, when it began dropping steadily [3]:

gallup-violent-crime-rate-graph

The public does not see it this way. According to the same Gallup poll [3]:

Despite a sharp decline in the United States’ violent crime rate since the mid-1990s, the majority of Americans continue to believe the nation’s crime problem is getting worse, as they have for most of the past decade. Currently, 68% say there is more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago, 17% say less, and 8% volunteer that crime is unchanged.

Not as relevantly, but shockingly, even our long-term historical assessment is wrong. A poll was done in the UK on perceptions of violence [4]:

When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire, people guessed that 20th-century England was about 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent.

This flawed assumption significantly changes the way we approach the video games and violence discussion. Instead of asking, “What is responsible for the recent rise in crime rates?” and noting that video games exist now whereas they didn’t exist before and then drawing the facile conclusion, we should ask, “Do video games hold back an even greater decline in violence?”

3. The pro-video game side ignores the link between video games and aggression.

Just like ignoring crime statistics, one can also ignore psychological effects of violent video games.

In a meta-analysis of the psychological literature, Craig A. Anderson and Brad J. Bushman, violent video games were generally found to be associated with aggression [5].

One concern of violent video games is that violence is often rewarded. A study [6,7] shows a difference in player aggression between a game where violence is rewarded and one where violence is punished.

videogames-aggression

It would be nice if psychological results were not ignored by the pro-video game side. On the other hand, psychological results are often tenuous and likely to be wrong. So it would also be nice if the anti-video game side took these results with a bit more caution. After all, some studies are skeptical of the video game-aggression link [8,9].

Finally, even if we assume that violent video games definitely lead to increased aggression, this is one step removed from deducing that video games actually lead to violent crimes such as shootings.

4. Mechanisms are argued instead of statistics.

I wrote about this topic before in my blog post “Mechanisms vs Statistics,” which incidentally used video games and violence as the example.

The gist is, if you don’t use statistics or real evidence, then you can argue anything you want. If you are anti-video games, you could argue that gamers imitate the characters they play, hence they become more prone to going on shooting rampages. If you are pro-video games, you could argue that someone who otherwise would have committed a violent crime satisfied their aggression in video games instead of in real life, thus decreasing crime. Without data, it’s hard to say which of these stories is more correct, or correct at all. (And you could come up with dozens of such plausible-sounding stories for either side.)

Even with statistics, we have to make sure to interpret the data carefully. Being relaxed with statistics will lead us to believe the wrong things.

[1] http://videogames.procon.org/

[2] http://marketshadows.com/2013/04/23/dear-america-heres-why-everyone-thinks-you-have-a-problem-with-guns/

[3] http://www.gallup.com/poll/150464/americans-believe-crime-worsening.aspx

[4] http://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature

[5] Anderson, C.A. & Bushman, B.J. (2001). Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and Prosocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Scientific Literature Psychological Science September 2001 12: 353-359.http://www.soc.iastate.edu/sapp/VideoGames1.pdf

[6] Carnagey, N.L., & Anderson, C.A. (2005). The effects of reward and punishment in violent video games on aggressive affect, cognition, and behavior. Psychological Science, 16(11), 882-889. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/16/11/882.abstract

[7] http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2005/11/23/punishing-video-game-violence/

[8] Williams, D. & Skoric, M. (2005). Internet fantasy violence: A test of aggression in an online game. Communication Monographs, 72, 217-233. http://dmitriwilliams.com/CMWilliamsSkoric.pdf

[9] http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2005/08/31/more-on-video-game-violence/

Confirmation Bias and the Illuminati

Check out this hilarious Buzzfeed article, “28 Shocking Pictures That Prove That The Illuminati Is All Around Us.”

buzzfeed-illuminati-beyonce

While it may seem comical at best, it is the only time I have seen such a sustained visual depiction of confirmation bias, satirical or not. The popularity of the article demonstrates that everyone can and does understand what confirmation bias is. Unfortunately, people tend to think they are less biased than everyone else (which is itself a bias), so that they simultaneously enjoy this Buzzfeed article and make fun of conspiracy theorists and superstitious worshipers, yet often believe in equally ridiculous things.

Namely, if you change the title to “28 Shocking Pictures That Prove That God Does Good Things All Around Us,” I have a feeling it would be much less satirical, and if it was, people would call to burn the writer at the stake. Of course, the punchline of the Illuminati images is that the criterion for being the Illuminati, i.e., being a triangle, is so vague that it can literally appear anywhere. Sound familiar?

(To be fair, at least there is definitive evidence that the Illuminati existed.)

Statistics in the Social Sciences

I’ve always wondered whether the rigorous application of statistics is underutilized in the social sciences. This is less so a problem in economics, where the subject is, by nature, highly quantitative. But in fields like psychology, sociology, and political science, where a background in mathematics is not common (unlike for biology, chemistry, and physics), researchers can intentionally or, very often, unintentionally (this is a really good Economist article) produce wrong results by abuse or misunderstanding of statistical inference.

economist-research-statistics

As an onlooker whose training is in mathematics, I cannot help but to feel frustrated by the lack of numeracy in our “scientists.” The Economist article does a good job at showing how failure to understand statistical concepts leads to false results being published, even past peer review.

What triggered me to write this post was an assigned reading for a comparative politics class. In it, Adam Przeworski discusses the inherent selection bias in matching countries for experimentation. Noting that democracies have higher economic growth rates than authoritarian regimes, Przeworksi brings in the relevant data that democracies have a significant chance to die off when faced with economic failure whereas authoritarian regimes are not as affected. Hence, observing that democracies have higher growth rates does not signify that democracy leads to economic growth, but rather that economically failing democracies are not observed because they tend to disappear.

“What we are observing here is what the statistical literature calls ‘selection bias.’ Indeed, I am persuaded that all the comparative work we have been doing may suffer potentially from selection bias.”  (p. 19, stable JSTOR link)

In context of a comparative politics theory symposium, this makes a lot of sense to state. But the phrasing is really interesting to a math person: selection bias is a given, and is one of the tools we use to analyze anything. My instinctual reaction to the reading was “Duh, obviously there is selection bias.” While I am sure the field of comparative politics is more aware of selection bias than Przeworski makes it appear to be, the fact that Przeworski framed it as such (“what the statistical literature calls ‘selection bias'”), as if to imply that the formal tools of statistical inference are generally beyond the scope of comparative politics theory, is a bit unnerving.

Przeworski, Adam in The Role of Theory in Comparative Politics: A Symposium, World Politics, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Oct., 1995), pp. 1-49.

Big Picture vs Detail Oriented Thinking

Chess_board

Big picture vs detail oriented thinking is usually portrayed as a dichotomy. It is one or the other, and even when the need for both is acknowledged, the two are still considered separate forces. Here is a section of an article that is one of the first google search results:

Typical of the Big Picture Thinker

  • You can quickly see patterns in complex problems.
  • You like to come up with new ideas and new projects.
  • You have a low tolerance for busywork, tedious errands, and filling out forms.
  • You are great at outlining what needs to be done, but filling in the details can feel exhausting.
  • You may have been described as right-brained.
  • When you have taken the Myers-Briggs assessment, you were an N.

Typical of the Details Thinker

  • You think about things in great detail and sometimes miss the big picture.
  • While you are certainly smart, others may joke that you lack common sense.
  • You would prefer to edit or tweak a plan than to come up with it from scratch.
  • Highlighting study notes doesn’t work for you, because you end up highlighting everything.
  • You may have a tendency to over-think things.
  • You have excellent attention to detail.
  • You may have been described as left-brained.
  • When you have taken the Myers-Briggs assessment, you were an S.

While this may be a good indicator of which type of thinking is more dominant, it doesn’t look at the two in combination. For me, big picture and detail thinking are very intertwined.

I’ve always considered myself a big picture thinker, and I even have the N on the Myers-Briggs test. In addition, I consider some of the worst arguments to be the ones where something is taken out of context. Generally I don’t try to bog myself down with details, but often the two types of thinking aren’t mutually exclusive; sometimes the application of big picture thinking requires an enormous attention to detail. Whether a large-scale plan succeeds often depends on the tiny details.

In chess, the big picture vs the details is analogous to strategy vs tactics. Strategy provides you with overall guidance: should I attack the kingside or the queenside, should I seek to trade a bishop for a knight? Tactics govern how such plans actually take place: if I attack the kingside this way, then my opponent will play this counter, then I will play this move, etc. I try to keep a balance of strategy and tactics, as having one without the other can lead to disaster.

I guess an analogy would be that to get somewhere, you need a map and a car. Having a map without the transportation is useless, and having a car but no idea how to get to your destination is futile. Though if you had to pick only one, I guess having the car is a better idea.

Big Picture Thinking Requires Details, and Vice Versa

The big picture vs detail oriented thinking comes up a lot in political/economic/social debates. Often it’s the knowledge of many related facts that leads to a more accurate big picture understanding. To take a not super-controversial topic, consider the funding and effectiveness of NASA. We know that it has declined significantly since landing on the moon. And we know that landing a human on Mars should be done soon, and we could argue that if only NASA had more funding, we could be much further in space exploration.

Of course, the previous is a pretty naive representation of the NASA situation. During the 1960s, we were at the height of the space race in the Cold War, and NASA was considered not only as an institution for scientific research, but also an institution for national security. Landing on the moon was inspirational not just as a feat of humanity, but also as a feat of us beating them. In addition, as many inventions come from military purpose, there are obvious military implications of having satellites in orbit around the earth, but there are much fewer in having any on Mars. And the economic investment would take much longer to return. You could keep piling on more relevant details to get a better picture.

The point is, to get a good high-level understanding of something requires extensive knowledge of the details surrounding it.

On the other hand, making sense of small details often relies on seeing the big picture. Every bit and fragment of the news makes more sense the more you understand current trends. Events that seem unrelated may very well be correlated, but the correlation may only be visible from bird’s eye view.

For example, LGBT rights and the abortion/women’s rights may seem unrelated, but there is a common denominator: religion. Resistance against LGBT rights and abortion are both connected to religious beliefs in the same way, and even the arguments for resisting either movement come almost solely from religious arguments. This is why on this blog I discuss religion a lot but rarely LGBT rights or abortion—dealing with the root cause is more imperative than dealing with the symptoms.

In all, both big picture and detail oriented thinking are important, and one needs both of them to have a deeper understanding. Without the big picture or the details, one has a limited grasp of the situation.

Spontaneous Decision Making

Decision

This post is about my own decision-making habits. In particular, I don’t plan ahead details ahead of time, as I abhor fixed schedules or fixed paths. Perhaps an interesting case is from a 2011 post:

For example, last semester, to get to one of my classes from my dorm I had two main paths, one going over the Thurston Bridge and the other over a smaller bridge that went by a waterfall. For the first couple weeks I took the Thurston Bridge path exclusively, as I thought it was shorter than the waterfall path. But then one day I went the other path and timed it, with about the same time, maybe a minute slower (out of a total of 15 minutes). So I started taking the waterfall path exclusively. But eventually that got boring too, so I started alternating every time. You might think that’s how it ended.

But a consistent change like that is still… consistent. Still the same. It was still repetitive, and still very predictable. Perhaps the mathematical side of me started running pattern-search algorithms or something. Eventually, I ended up on a random schedule, not repeating the same pattern in any given span of 3 or 4 days.

This example involved physical paths, but it is true for figurative paths as well. I can’t stand any repetitive task for a long time, including for things that I might like.

Another set of examples comes from video games. I tend to play extremely flexible classes/builds that have multiple purposes, and I try to have multiple characters or styles to be able to adapt quickly and to know what other people are thinking:

  • World of Warcraft: 8 (out of 11) classes at level 85+; raided as tank, dps, and heal.
  • Diablo 3: all 5 classes at level 60.
  • Path of Exile: all 6 classes at level 60+.
  • DotA: every hero played (up to a certain version).
  • Starcraft 2: all 3 races to level 30.

In WoW, the game I have definitely spent the most time on, my two main characters when I raided were a Priest (disc/shadow) and Paladin (prot/holy), having all 3 roles covered. Even within one specialization, I switched out strategies all the time: one day I would stack haste, the next day I would stack crit, and so on. Even so, I was usually very indecisive about what to do until the last moment.

My blogging follows a similar pattern. I find it hard to focus on one topic to write about in consecutive posts, and I generally cover whatever topic comes to mind. Yes, I set a schedule of one post per week. However, I usually don’t come up with a topic until the last day. The topic for this post did not arise until yesterday, from the suggestion of a friend (whom we were visiting also as a result of a spontaneous decision).

Being too spontaneous, however, also didn’t work well. In 2011 I decided to blog spontaneously (see the first link). Largely due to indecision, I ended up writing only 33 posts the entire year, 20 of which were written in the first two months. By contrast, in the December of 2010, I wrote 38 posts. The current system of sticking with a posting schedule but not a topic schedule is working much better, as every once in a while it forces me to make a decision and choose some topic to write about. This removes indecision from the equation.

(Edit: Due to an inordinate amount of spam on this page, the the comments are disabled.)