Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

October 30, 2012

Which results from cognitive psychology are robust & real?

Filed under: Cognitive Psychology,Psychology — Razib Khan @ 8:11 pm

A paper on the psychology of religious belief, Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers, came onto my radar recently. I used to talk a lot about the theory of religious cognitive psychology years ago, but the interest kind of faded when it seemed that empirical results were relatively thin in relation to the system building (Ara Norenzayan’s work being an exception to this generality). The theory is rather straightforward: religious belief is a naturally evoked consequence of the general architecture of our minds. For example, gods are simply extensions of persons, and make natural sense in light of our tendency to anthromorphize the world around us (this may have had evolutionary benefit, in that false positives for detection of other agents was far less costly than false negatives; think an ambush by a rival clan).*


But enough theory. Are religious people cognitively different from those who are atheists? I suspect so. I speak as someone who never ever really believed in God, despite being inculcated in religious ideas from childhood. By the time I was seven years of age I realized that I was an atheist, and that my prior “beliefs” ...

April 14, 2011

Beware the hungry judge!

Filed under: Cognitive Psychology,Psychology — Razib Khan @ 4:12 pm

This is a datum which you can dine out on, The Bias You Didn’t Expect:

It turns out that legal realism is totally wrong. It’s not what the judge had for breakfast. It’s how recently the judge had breakfast. A a new study (media coverage) on Israeli judges shows that, when making parole decisions, they grant about 65% after meal breaks, and almost all the way down to 0% right before breaks and at the end of the day (i.e. as far from the last break as possible). There’s a relatively linear decline between the two points.

January 14, 2011

The inevitable rise of Amish machines

Filed under: Cognitive Psychology,Culture,Data Analysis,Modeling,Religion — Razib Khan @ 1:58 pm
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September 21, 2010

The illusions of intuition

Filed under: Cognitive Psychology,Psychology,The Invisible Gorilla — Razib Khan @ 11:39 am

414NJ526e2L._SS500_Sometimes books advertise themselves very well with their title. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us is one of those books. Alternatively it could have been titled: “Giving thinking a second chance.” Or, with an eye toward pushing copies: “Why everything Malcolm Gladwell tells you is crap.” And finally, a more highbrow possibility: “Reflection: man’s greatest invention.”

The “hook” for The Invisible Gorilla is the experiment which goes colloquially by the same name. The authors of the book, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, actually wrote the paper Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events (though they note that the basic insight goes back to the 1970s). Here’s a YouTube clip illustrating Chabris & Simons’ set up. Despite the eye-catching way the authors grab your attention the core message of The Invisible Gorilla is often very Plain Jane: thinking is hard, it yields real results, and, beware of short-cuts. Many sections of the book read as counterpoints to the counterintuitive defenses of intuition which Malcolm Gladwell presents in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Gladwell as it happens played a key role in popularizing knowledge of “the invisible gorilla” phenomenon). Despite being “sexed” up in the past few decades the defense of intuition, of “gut,” has a long intellectual history. For every Kant there is a Wang Yangming. And yet the borderlands between intuition and deduction, reflex and reflection, can often be gray. I would argue that much of human culture actually emerges from rational extensions of intuition. David Hume famously asserted reason’s slavery to passion, but I think a less grand way of characterizing the nature of different aspects of cognition is that they complement and supplement each other (see How We Decide).

Chabris and Simons cover more than their famous invisible gorilla experiment. Rather, it just serves as a doorway into a whole world of cognitive distortions, illusions, and fallacies. Many of these emerge from what we think we know about ourselves, and an inattention to the reality of the shortcomings of our own minds. These deceptions are explored across six chapters, but it is the conclusion where I think one can illustrate the deep insight The Invisible Gorilla can give us into leading fuller lives. Telling us how to think, not just how we think. Specifically, Charbis and Simons give an illustration of a circumstance where intuitions are of use, and why they are of use. They recount an experiment where students were given five different strawberry jams of very different quality (as rated by Consumer Reports) and asked to list their likes and dislikes. Then they were asked to rate the quality of jams on a scale of 1 to 9. In a separate treatment the students were given the jams to taste, and then asked to write about why they chose their major in college. Then they rated the jams again, 1 to 9. In the second condition the students gave ratings much closer to the experts than in the first. This seems a case where thinking hard and deeply about the issue only muddled the outcomes, while intuition was validated. What’s going on? First, Chabris and Simons suggest that the students were not adding any new relevant information by listing their likes and dislikes. Second, one’s perception of taste is primarily, though not exclusively, related to a visceral emotional reaction. In matters of personal taste it makes good sense to go with one’s gut, especially if the taste has a strong necessary connection to the real gut!

In contrast, deliberate rational thought will beat intuition when you have more conscious access to the data for any given task. Both the authors of The Invisible Gorilla were chess players at a high level, and their narrative is laced with their own reminiscences about the chess-world. They note that expert chess players can usually beat lesser players even if they give their opponents far more time to think about their moves. One model which can explain this is that the elite chess players have an intuitive grasp of the game and can “recognize” the pattern of play without having to engage in ratiocination. Charbis and Simons show in fact that under conditions of time pressure excellent players increase their error rate by 36 percent. This hints to the likelihood that there are finite cognitive resources being brought into play which are reflective, not rapid fire reflex, in moments of decision making in chess. Of course the distinction between reflex and reflection may seem academic from the outside, but there is a difference when it comes to how one learns, and the preconditions of virtuosity.

At the end of the day The Invisible Gorilla reinforces some very old-fashioned maxims about the importance of hard work, care in system-building, and intellectual humility. The exact virtues which are theoretically baked into the cake of modern institutional science. Chabris and Simons reveal that the emperor of intuition often has no clothes, but they give us hope because reflective cognitive processes have a track record of building upon themselves, and extending into directions which have allowed us to construct the material civilization we see all around us. In contrast in areas where an intuitive aesthetic sense is at a premium I do not have great confidence that moderns have exceeded the ancients.

June 26, 2010

The essence of pleasure

I highly recommend this discussion between Paul Bloom & Robert Wright. The topic under consideration is the psychology of pleasure, as reviewed in Bloom’s new book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. You can also find out about Bloom’s ideas in this exchange in Slate. The essentialism examined in Descarte’s Baby is being taken for another spin, though with a more precise focus. The bottom line is that pleasure is often contingent on more than proximate empirical sensory input; it depends on what you perceive to be the essence of the object of pleasure, even its history (or more crassly, its price). This truth may make the calculation project of the utilitarian heirs of Gottfried Leibniz pragmatically impossible.

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