Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

Why do politicians lie?

January 23rd, 2009

The issue comes up at every election.

Politicians are liars. They never keep their promises. You can't trust them.

Yes, true. But why? You can complain all day that knives are sharp, but if you don't understand why they are then you're not going to make any progress.

Now let me see if I remember how it is that politicians come to power in a democracy. Oh yes, people choose them. How revealing. Don't you find it ironic to criticize a politician for doing precisely what causes you to vote for him?

Imagine that every Monday you go to the store to buy a loaf of bread. They have ten different products. Nine of the ten have pink spots on them. You buy a bread with pink spots and head home. Once you get home you complain about the pink spots. Who would you say is to blame for the pink spots?

But wait, why do almost all the products have pink spots? Because the people making the bread know that you always choose one with pink spots on it. They don't make it with pink spots because they want to, they do it so that you will buy it.

Why do they lie?

Politicians exhibit a certain behavior. The behavior is making promises they have no intention of keeping. What can we do about this? Well, behavior responds to stimuli. If you want to change someone's behavior you have to give them an incentive.

It's no different here. Suppose a politician ran for office. One who was different from all the others. Suppose he didn't make any promises. Suppose all he said was "I intend to try my best" and "I'm very hopeful that we'll be able to achieve this". Would you vote for someone like that? Probably not.

So your incentive towards honest politicians is.. negative. You're rewarding deceit.

Why do we make them lie?

So why are we so eager to force people into making promises? We think this is an effective social instrument, don't we? If someone has said they're willing to do something, but they haven't committed themselves to it, then all too often we want to "help" them decide, don't we? How often do parents say "do you promise to do it"?

You find yourself right in the middle of a power struggle. You want someone to do something for you, but the person isn't really that eager. What's more, you're losing. Because you can't force him to do it. So one last hope is to make him promise you, make him commit to it. Then you think they'll be too ashamed to reneg.

We use promises in every day life to increase our power over other people. This is the way our culture functions, and we don't seem to have any qualms about it, do we? Face it, whenever you are forcing a promise out of someone, you either successfully stamp your power on them, or you make them lie. That's right, make them. You make them promise something they would not have volunteered. And it might even be something they can't deliver. But since you've forced this promise out of them, well what can they do about it?

So what about these pesky politicians? Well, we think that if a politician makes a promise, then there's just a chance he will actually do something about it. If he doesn't make a promise, he certainly won't. This is what we believe. Consequently, we want them to promise us everything. Have you ever heard a voter say he's disappointed with a politician for promising him something he wanted?

Why do we want them to lie?

But the truth is we want them to lie. We want them to promise not only what they know they can deliver, but so much more than that. Who's going to get more votes, a politician who only makes promises he can reasonably keep or one who makes lots of them? Not the conservative one. No, because he doesn't seem to care about our problems. He will only commit to the problems he knows he can solve, but what about my problems? I need more than he can deliver, more than he can promise. So I choose the guy who tells me he can deliver everything.

See the thing is elections are more about emotions than they are about facts. The people who get really caught up in politics don't do this over the cold facts, they feel there is something special to the whole process. As voters we love someone who can speak to us in a way that makes us feel like he understands our situation. Does that mean he can solve all our problems? No, but we sure like to dream it, don't we?

What was Obama's campaign all about? Hope. And what is hope exactly? It's the [possibly delusional] belief that something will happen that hasn't happened yet and hasn't shown any signs of happening either. And we buy this, because every once in a while we want to hope, we want to be delusional, we want to think that a better day is coming. Our experience tells us otherwise, but dammit we need hope sometimes.

Because what is the alternative? Realism. Things will never get better, and if they do it will probably be a change that won't make a big difference. And it might not even last. We are stuck with the way things are and that's that, hopefully it won't get worse. That's the realistic perspective on life. But what's more seductive, optimism or realism?

There are people out there who are trying to keep track of promises that were made to see what the politician actually did after being elected. Fine, I see nothing harmful in keeping track. But understand why the guy said those things. Because you, the voter, wanted him to.

altruism explained in terms of egoism

June 2nd, 2008

The issue of altruism has long tickled our collective fancy. Our civilization admires acts of altruism, even when we as individuals rarely consider them in our best personal interest. Hence they remain exotic to our behavior. Those two facts are congruent; if it were commonplace it would not be admired.

So the question is: what causes altruism?

A completely "pure" sort of altruism, in the sense that the act you perform to help someone has no conceivable benefit to you, seems plain absurd. We just don't do anything for no reason, everything we do is motivated by something, a root cause of some kind. And if we have no relation to that cause, then it's absurd to undertake this action. As absurd as it would be to do anything that isn't motivated.

I suspect the reason why we idolize this notion is precisely because it makes no sense. It's a fantasy, and people like to indulge in fantasies that give you something for nothing.

The biological perspective

So apparently Darwin had trouble explaining altruism in terms of his theory of evolution, whose slogan is survival of the fittest. If an individual organism is fitter than another, why should the fitter help the less fit, who is also his competitor, when his self interest is better served by letting the competitor perish? It turns out that Darwin is not the last biologist, and others have since added to his work.

William Hamilton suggested that survival of the fittest was the right slogan, but with the wrong meaning. It wasn't exactly individuals that were competing, it was genes. And it wasn't so much about survival of individual as it was about survival of genes, which means the individual could be sacrificed as long as the gene survived (reproduction). Now, Hamilton wasn't a crackpot outlier, Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene apparently explains all about this, and other biologists have bought into this view as well.

So if selection is driven by genes, we're playing a different game. Hamilton explained altruism in terms of kin selection. That is, an individual will share 50% of its genes with its parents and siblings. Subsequently, it will share 25% with its grandparents and cousins, and so on. Therefore, the genetic material found in the individual's kin is going to be a lot more valuable than that in a completely unrelated individual.

Hamilton's rule is an equation that captures this insight. The equation (or inequation, to be precise) describes the balance in an altruistic act.

C < rB,

C : cost to the individual
r : genetic relatedness
B : benefit to the other individual

So if my cost is 0.25 (likelihood of survival when doing this), the relatedness is 0.5 (a sibling or parent) and the benefit is 1.0 (save the individual's life), then 0.25 < 0.5 x 1.0 and I'm likely to do this.

Notice that is r is zero, ie. this person is a stranger, then I will not lift a finger.

Hamilton's rule has never been proven, but it formalizes an intuition that we already have when we perform acts of altruism: there is an equation of some kind. It *is* a calculation we perform when deciding whether or not to help someone. When people are asked for a favor, the first thing they always say is "what is the favor?". We need to know, because we'll factor that into our calculation.

And the reason we calculate is obvious: it costs something. If you could help without giving up anything then you'd have no reason to refuse. But the only person we know who has that opportunity is God (and even he doesn't do it).

It also explains why acts of altruism that incur a high cost to the individual, with a low benefit, are not common.

Altruism is egoism

It's not really important that Hamilton's rule applies at a genetic level while our calculations are cognitive. What's important is that there is an equation that relates our cost against another's benefit, but not without some sort of relatedness factor that accounts for our benefit out of the deal. And this is very obvious, because if C < B is all that describes the relation, then every time we have a chance to help someone, and it costs us less than it benefits the other person, we would do it. Everyone would constantly go around helping other people and altruism would be as unique as oxygen.

The implication here is that there is no "pure" altruism. Everything we do is motivated by some kind of self interest. And the self interest is captured in the relatedness factor one way or another. In Hamilton's rule this describes the kin relationship between individuals, which works quite well in our world too. Family members help each other all the time.

But it can be any other reason. Even if you derive no material benefit from helping, you might still do it because you like this person and it matters to you that they get help (self interest), or because you expect them to reciprocate when the time comes (self interest), because you don't like to see people suffer (compassion, which is a personal need you have to help, again self interest), because you believe in a certain cause (which could be plain self interest, eg. global warming), because you care about society (again, self interest, what kind of society do I want to live in?), or for the rather more vague reason that it makes you feel good (self interest). Obviously, several factors can be present at once, which complicates the calculation.

Wikipedia has this sober debunker:

According to psychological egoism, while people can exhibit altruistic behavior, they cannot have altruistic motivations. Psychological egoists would say that while they might very well spend their lives benefitting others with no material benefit (or a material net loss) to themselves, their most basic motive for doing so is always to further their own interests. For example, it would be alleged that the foundational motive behind a person acting this way is to advance their own psychological well-being ("good feelings").

Not surprisingly, people are more eager to act when the equation is tilted heavily to the right. If you can give someone 10 bucks that will cause a benefit of 100 bucks (because you have 10x the buying power), that seems like a great deal. And while we don't get something for nothing, we like great deals like this. But again, if we had the opportunity to give out 10 bucks to benefit someone 100, and there was no self interest involved, nothing would stop us from going broke doing this.

A more meaningful definition altruism

People like to throw around slogans and one popular one that gets around is this one.

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.
- Samuel Johnson

That's pretty much the canonical explanation of altruism the way we commonly use the term. Or is it? Well, according to Hamilton, in order to have altruism it has to be an act that costs something. And "how he treats someone" does not imply that. I can treat someone well without incurring cost by any measure of cost that I can come up with. How much does it cost to smile at someone as opposed to not doing it?

Of course, we can take this further and assume that Johnson was talking about acts of altruism. First question: how do we define cost? Is someone who is more reluctant to do it incurring more costs (in terms of overcoming their own skepticism) than someone who's naturally inclined to help people? For that matter, cost may be expressed in terms of risk. Conservative people would determine the cost higher ("this will probably cost more than we think") than people who are willing to take risks ("I'm sure it's nothing to worry about").

Does greater cost deserve more credit? What about cost-to-benefit ratio, should I get more credit for doing something if I'm not getting that great deal? What if I actually incur greater cost than the benefit is, am I good or bad? If I accomplish something small at great cost, that's a big waste, because I could have potentially helped someone else to greater benefit. It seems obvious, at least, that benefit-to-self-benefit is a clear case, if I'm doing something to help myself and only incidentally helping someone else, I won't get much credit.

All of these questions certainly come up when we assign credit for acts of altruism. But the pressing question is: is there some definition of altruism that agrees with our intuitive one? In other words, are there some acts that are "sufficiently selfless" to qualify as altruistic, to not be tainted by self interest? If we did that, we would move away from this misconception of selflessness and derive altruism as a personality characteristic of a person who appreciates certain values we like: personal freedom, free choice, compassion etc. And I think that is exactly what Johnson meant, and what we mean.

effortless study of operant conditioning

May 30th, 2008

In psychology, the term operant conditioning is used to describe a simple type of learning. The aim is to create a certain desirable behavior by reinforcing (ie. rewarding) it. In the alternate case, an undesirable behavior may be extinguished by punishing this behavior (ie. withdrawing a reward, or actual punishment of some kind).

Psychologists have long studied this behavior in animals in laboratories. A small rodent (apparently this is the their optimal kind of animal) is put into a confined space. The desired behavior (just for kicks) is for the rodent to press on a lever in that space. This behavior is reinforced by releasing a food pellet everytime the lever is pressed. After repeating this experiment a few times, the animal (presumed hungry or gluttonous) will press the lever, eat the food and exhibit no other behavior at all, it will immediately press down the lever again. The behavior has now been taught.

But what if you don't have any rats or cardboard? Well, there's a simpler way. Suppose you live in a house with 4 other people. There is a bathroom you all share that has a lock on the door, but no explicit visual indicator of when it's occupied. So in principle there is no way of knowing whether it's vacant, thus something (another way of checking vacancy) has to be learned in order to make this judgment. Okay, let's set up the experiment.

Behavior to extinguish: Blindly pushing down the door handle.
Door doesn't open, it's locked from the inside.
Additional stimulus:
Visual cues:
a) the door is either ajar or shut,
b) the lock is open or shut, observed in the crack between the door and the frame,
c) the light on the inside is on or off, observed through the crack between the door and the frame.

The subject approaches the bathroom door, pushes on the handle, only to find that the door doesn't open. For a person occupying the bathroom this is perceived as an attempted intrusion, and the subject is aware of this, having been on the other side before. (In addition, certain norms in society dictate that attempts at breaking into an occupied bathroom are not in good taste.) This causes mild embarrassment in the subject, who offers an awkward apology and leaves. In other words, this behavior is undesirable to the subject, who will attempt to avoid repeating it.

So we have the behavior of pushing down the handle, and a punishment which is the locked door. In order to extinguish this behavior, we have to learn how to determine whether the bathroom is occupied. In basic operant conditioning the door is either always open or always locked, and the response (reinforcement or punishment) will create the behavior that corresponds. In this case, the door is sometimes locked, and we need additional stimulation to achieve the corresponding behavior.

This additional stimulus exists in the form of visual cues. First, we need to establish whether the cues are useful.

The door is ajar or shut

Observation shows that the door is left ajar 60% of the time when the bathroom is vacant. It is always shut when the bathroom is occupied, so this cue will never mislead by correlating an open door with occupancy.
In terms of observability, a subject intending to enter the bathroom will always detect the state of the door being open or shut, because we are sufficiently conditioned to look at the door of the room we plan to enter.

The lock is open or shut

The state of the lock perfectly reflects the state of occupancy at all times. There's no way to lock the door from the outside, and all occupants lock the door.
The state of the lock is observable only when standing right in front of the door. The space between the door and the frame is wide enough to clearly determine whether the lock is open or shut. The likelihood of spotting this cue is 30%.

The light in the bathroom is on or off

Observation shows that the light is on 15% of the time when the bathroom is vacant. It also shows that an occupied bathroom always correlates with the light being on.
This cue is much less likely to be observed, for two reasons. Firstly, it is not as readily visible as that of an open door because of ambient light. Strong ambient light (ie. daylight) will make this cue visible only when the subject is positioned directly in front of the door. Secondly, the incentive for lighting the bathroom differs from that of using a locking mechanism. A lock prevents the occupant from being accosted, which would be a source of embarrassment to the occupant. Therefore, this incentive relates the question of occupancy directly to the question of locking, whereas the incentive for lighting the bathroom is a purely functional one. In other words, the subject is much more likely to look for a lock than to look for light on the inside. The likelihood of detecting this cue is 20%.

The task of learning to determine the occupancy status of the bathroom is therefore defined as the ability to spot and correctly interpret the visual cues. In this case we have several cues to draw the correct conclusion on. The state of the door will always be seen, and has a 60% accuracy rate in terms of revealing occupancy. Then there is the state of the lock, which in itself is enough to make the right determination. Finally, there is the bathroom light, which has an 85% accuracy rate. If this seems like a trivial task to you, you'd be mistaken. Real world observations show that out of the four subjects, two learned the correct behavior, while the other two, even over the course of several months, didn't.

According to the principles of operant conditioning, such a case requires a stronger punishment to extinguish the undesired behavior. In many of the experiments performed on animals, there was an element of electric shock involved. But since I don't have the equipment for it...

So there you have it, a study of operant conditioning purely out of the naturally occurring circumstances in a house. No work at all had to be done to set up the experiment or prepare the subjects. Consequently, no bias could have been introduced by tampering with the circumstances. There's also another added advantage. Skeptics like to make the accusation that laboratory experiments cannot be extrapolated to the real world, because they were performed in an artificial environment. That argument has no stand here.

Another common case of operant conditioning is banging on your tv to make it work. People try it, it sometimes work, so they keep at it.

tribalism in our time

November 19th, 2007

People get into heated debates all the time, over the same old issues - politics, religion, historical facts, old scores etc. It should be clear enough that people who have a personal stake in the matter, like a member of their family having been wronged for example, have more obstacles to overcome in order to stay objective about the issue. That much is perfectly understandable. But so often we debate things where we have no personal interest, things that we consider to be "good for society" or bad for it. Even so, one really has to make an effort to remain objective in these matters.

While the central objective of debate is supposed to be the search for truth, what we often witness is people digging trenches and sitting in them for the sake of it. What should not come as a surprise is that this kind of strategy is detrimental to the debate at hand. If you aren't willing to give up your position in the interest of making progress in the discussion, then the undertaking is futile.

What is interesting is that people are much more reluctant to give anything up when they have the backing of a front, than when they stand alone as a rational individual. A person with a very strong conviction acquired on his own generally has nothing to lose except to admit the flaws of his own reasoning - which is something we are all willing to concede (some more than others). But take that same person when he identifies himself with a group, and he will require overwhelming, indisputable evidence of the most blatant kind to admit his error. Why is that? Because admitting to be wrong is not only an admission of your own imperfection. It is the first (and sometimes significant) step toward disassociating yourself with your group.

This is tribalism.

It is important for us to belong to something. The very presence of groups in society makes it irregular to stand completely unattached. But these associations come at a price. It gives people a license to stop thinking on their own. And it makes it harder for them to think independently whenever they may want to.

There are many important debates which need to be had, but more importantly need to be resolved. Many of these are stuck in a positional war of trenches, where the same tired arguments are exchanged and responses often come in the form of settling scores. Furthermore, because the debates do not concern people, but groups, they must be made accessible to all members of the group. This is where the issue and the arguments are trivialized and simplified down to a collection of slogans and other sound bites. You and I can have an intelligent argument about something, but if we are to make ourselves understood by our respective groups, we have to dumb it down a lot.

Looking at the hot issues today, this is exactly what we have. There is mac vs pc, pro-life vs pro-choice (what well chosen names too), for-the-troops vs against-the-troops, republican vs democrat (however this one didn't work as well, so they found a more fitting pair in conservative vs liberal), catholic vs protestant vs muslim vs whatever and so on. This is a very effective way of sidetracking the issue into a tribal battle. What matters is not what is true, but who is winning and who is losing. Did Clinton lie about Lewinsky? Did Kerry bad mouth the military? Huge talking points. Meanwhile, let's not care at all about anything remotely important.

As a long time sports fan, I have had the occasion to observe tribalism in its purest form. Just like any other grouping, sports fans have very strong ties to their groups. But what makes it so interesting is how abstract their affiliation is. They pledge allegiance to.. nothing in particular. To an abstract entity of a club, essentially. And their debates are just as vicious and intense as of any group, with the distinction that they aren't really fighting *for* anything. Whether a team wins or loses, global warming continues, people will kill in the name of a god, and we still pay the same taxes. Sports have no influence on society at all. And because this is so, it gives a valuable insight into tribalism, and how predisposed we are for it.

There are further characteristics of sports affiliation. Loyalty is the central principle. You must stick with your team whatever the circumstances may be. And you cannot choose several teams either, to buy yourself some insurance against failure, lest you be labeled an outcast. There are no concrete rules for how to treat disputes with other groups, but in practice these discussions are dominated by self serving arguments and self interest. What's interesting is that the debates that are had are not jaded by the same cynicism you might find in politics, because the underlying principles are still that of athletic excellence and justice. However, sports fans are incurable hypocrites. So even though people express themselves (their teams, rather) in the most noble of terms, there is no actual interest in seeing justice served. The only thing that matters is that my team wins. I say this on the back of a long process of gathering data and trying to disprove the hypothesis of hypocrisy, but alas.

Now, political or religious debates are really no more intelligent, fair, or honest than debates between sports fans. And they are no more incisive or focused either, a big part of it is mud throwing. Very little progress (if any) is made, because people are too busy defending the symbolic banner they are fighting under. Finding truth is a distant second objective.