Cause we’re the party people night and day


The Devil looks you in the eyes and offers you a bet. Pick a number and if you successfully guess the total he’ll roll on two dice you get to keep your soul. If any other number comes up, you go to burn in eternal hellfire.

You call “7” and the Devil rolls the dice.

A two and a four, so the total is 6 — that’s bad news.

But let’s not dwell on the incandescent pain of your infinite and inescapable future, let’s think about your choice immediately before the dice were rolled.

Did you make a mistake? Was choosing “7” an error?

In one sense, obviously yes. You should have chosen 6.

But in another important sense you made the right choice. There are more combinations of dice outcomes that add to 7 than to any other number. The chances of winning if you bet 7 are higher than for any other single number.

The distinction is between a particular choice which happens to be wrong, and a choice strategy which is actually as good as you can do in the circumstances. If we replace the Devil’s Wager with the situations the world presents you, and your choice of number with your actions in response, then we have a handle on what psychologists mean when they talk about “cognitive error” or “bias”.

{ Mind Hacks | Continue reading }

You’re stuck in the middle, and the pain is thunder


The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions — mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction. […]

Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be.

{ Quanta | Continue reading }

Once more, on pain of death, all men depart


The Sorrows of Young Werther was published in 1774, when Goethe (1749–1832) was just twenty-five years old. A product of true literary genius, it not only represents one of the greatest works of literature ever written, but it also offers keenly intuitive insight into one of the most terrible and mystifying emotional disorders that plague humankind.

Well before Sigmund Freud, and most probably destined to become an important source of Freud’s understanding of melancholic depression, Goethe was able to peer into the soul of those afflicted with what is now termed Major Depressive Disorder (and some forms of Bipolar Disorder) and see what is taking place within those who are suffering from it. It is impressive how clearly Goethe grasped the twin roles played in mel-ancholia of narcissistic object choice and extreme ambivalence toward a love object.

{ The Psychoanalytic Quarterly | PDF }

Hasbro thinks the world needs three more Transformers movies


The problem we will address can be characterized in either one of two ways. The first is this: why do people pursue art that evokes negative emotions, when they tend to avoid things that evoke such emotions? The emphasis here is on the disagreeable nature of certain mental states. The second characterization emphasizes the disagreeable nature of their causes (which are also, typically, their objects): why do we appreciate tragic events in art when we don’t appreciate tragic events in life? […]

We think both questions involved in the paradox can be answered with reference to the fact that sad art acknowledges sad aspects of life. […] Acknowledging involves recognizing, giving credit, honoring, or doing justice. We think that sad art does just this for its subject matter. In this respect, works of sad art have much in common with monuments to real life tragedies. The difference is that since sad art typically touches on universal themes, it ‘commemorates’ not only specific events, but general aspects of life. […]

The acknowledgement theory says that people derive pleasure from the fact that certain aspects of life are acknowledged in works of art, and answers the question why we pursue tragic art with reference to this pleasure.

{ Philosophical Studies | Continue reading }

Why did the cat go to Minnesota? To get a mini soda!


After 2.5 millennia of philosophical deliberation and psychological experimentation, most scholars have concluded that humor arises from incongruity. We highlight 2 limitations of incongruity theories of humor.

First, incongruity is not consistently defined. The literature describes incongruity in at least 4 ways: surprise, juxtaposition, atypicality, and a violation.

Second, regardless of definition, incongruity alone does not adequately differentiate humorous from nonhumorous experiences.

We suggest revising incongruity theory by proposing that humor arises from a benign violation: something that threatens a person’s well-being, identity, or normative belief structure but that simultaneously seems okay.

Six studies, which use entertainment, consumer products, and social interaction as stimuli, reveal that the benign violation hypothesis better differentiates humorous from nonhumorous experiences than common conceptualizations of incongruity. A benign violation conceptualization of humor improves accuracy by reducing the likelihood that joyous, amazing, and tragic situations are inaccurately predicted to be humorous.

{ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology }

photo { William Klein }

A gradual decline into disorder


Physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked the question “Where are they?” to express his surprise over the absence of any signs for the existence of other intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. […]

Observations have shown that the Milky Way contains no fewer than a billion Earth-size planets orbiting Sun-like (or smaller) stars in the “Goldilocks” region that allows for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface (the so-called habitable zone). Furthermore, the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life has recently received a significant boost in the form of “Breakthrough Listen”—a $100-million decade-long project aimed at searching for non-natural transmissions in the electromagnetic bandwidth from 100 megahertz to 50 gigahertz.

Simple life appeared on Earth almost as soon as the planet cooled sufficiently to support water-based organisms. To be detectable from a distance, however, life has to evolve to the point where it dominates the planetary surface chemistry and has significantly changed the atmosphere, creating chemical “biosignatures” that can in principle be detected remotely. For instance, Earth itself would probably not have been detected as a life-bearing planet during the first two billion years of its existence. […]

[A]n excellent first step in the quest for signatures of simple extrasolar life in the relatively near future would be to: search for oxygen, but try to back it up with other biosignatures. […]

One would ideally like to go beyond biosignatures and seek the clearest sign of an alien technological civilization. This could be the unambiguous detection of an intelligent, non-natural signal, most notably via radio transmission, the aim of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program. Yet there is a distinct possibility that radio communication might be considered archaic to an advanced life form. Its use might have been short-lived in most civilizations, and hence rare over large volumes of the universe. What might then be a generic signature? Energy consumption is a hallmark of an advanced civilization that appears to be virtually impossible to conceal. […]

More pessimistically, biologically-based intelligence may constitute only a very brief phase in the evolution of complexity, followed by what futurists have dubbed the “singularity”—the dominance of artificial, inorganic intelligence. If this is indeed the case, most advanced species are likely not to be found on a planet’s surface (where gravity is helpful for the emergence of biological life, but is otherwise a liability). But they probably must still be near a fuel supply, namely a star, because of energy considerations. Even if such intelligent machines were to transmit a signal, it would probably be unrecognizable and non-decodable to our relatively primitive organic brains.

{ Scientific American | Continue reading }

We have already gone beyond whatever we have words for. In all talk there is a grain of contempt.


…the differences between “U” (Upper-class) and “non-U” (Middle Class) usages […]

The genteel offer ale rather than beer; invite one to step (not come) this way; and assist (never help) one another to potatoes. […]

When Prince William and Kate Middleton split up in 2007 the press blamed it on Kate’s mother’s linguistic gaffes at Buckingham Palace, where she reputedly responded to the Queen’s How do you do? with the decidedly non-U Pleased to meet you (the correct response being How do you do?), and proceeded to ask to use the toilet (instead of the U lavatory).

{ The Conversation | Continue reading }

The master holds the disciple’s head underwater for a long, long time; gradually the bubbles become fewer; at the last moment, the master pulls the disciple out and revives him: when you have craved truth as you crave air, then you will know what truth is.


Under ancient Jewish law, if a suspect on trial was unanimously found guilty by all judges, then the suspect was acquitted. This reasoning sounds counterintuitive, but the legislators of the time had noticed that unanimous agreement often indicates the presence of systemic error in the judicial process, even if the exact nature of the error is yet to be discovered. They intuitively reasoned that when something seems too good to be true, most likely a mistake was made.

[A] team of researchers has further investigated this idea, which they call the “paradox of unanimity.” […] The researchers demonstrated the paradox in the case of a modern-day police line-up, in which witnesses try to identify the suspect out of a line-up of several people. The researchers showed that, as the group of unanimously agreeing witnesses increases, the chance of them being correct decreases until it is no better than a random guess.

{ | Continue reading }

Question: Tell me what you think about me, I buy my own diamonds and I buy my own rings.


A basic feature of psychological processes is their irreversibility. Every experience changes a person in a way that cannot be completely undone… one must assume that persons are continuously and irreversibly changing. […]

The logic of inductive inference entails that what is observed under given conditions at one time will occur again under the same conditions at a later time. But this logic can only be applied when it is possible to replicate the same initial conditions, and this is strictly impossible in the case of irreversible processes.

As a result, no psychological theory can attain the status of a “law”, and no result will be perfectly replicable.

{ Neuroskeptic | Continue reading }

‘Learning to see — accustoming the eye to calmness, to patience, to letting things come up to it; postponing judgment, learning to go around and grasp each individual case from all sides.’ –Nietzsche


The present research examined whether possessing multiple social identities (i.e., groups relevant to one’s sense of self) is associated with creativity. In Study 1, the more identities individuals reported having, the more names they generated for a new commercial product (i.e., greater idea fluency). […] Results suggest that possessing multiple social identities is associated with enhanced creativity via cognitive flexibility.

{ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin | Continue reading }

photo { Gregory Miller }

When you knew that it was over were you suddenly aware that the autumn leaves were turning to the color of her hair?


In Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy, Melvin Konner argues that male domination is an anomaly of human history, not a natural state for the human species. Specifically, Konner suggests that male supremacy is largely an effect of an oppressive social arrangement, namely civilization, which began with the invention of agriculture when humans began to form permanent settlements. Permanent settlements enabled men to be able to accumulate resources and allowed population densities to increase mainly through higher birth rates. Higher population densities placed more intense pressure on the land’s resources. Therefore, it became necessary for men to form coalitions with neighbors to defend against intruders. Power became concentrated in the hands of a few men, leading to a stratified society where male supremacy and female subordination reigned and male violence and war intensified. Today, Konner argues that technology limits the need for the muscle and strength of men, and male domination has outlived its purpose and is maladaptive. Therefore, empowering women is the next step in human evolution. Through empowering women, equality between the sexes will be restored and man-made disasters, such as wars, sex scandals, and financial corruption, will significantly decrease or be eliminated since women (who Konner claims are less emotional than men) will be in positions of leadership and power.

{ Evolutionary Psychology | Continue reading }

The night that hides things from us


Penrose and many others argue from practical considerations, Godel’s theorem, and on philosophical grounds, that consciousness or awareness is non-algorithmic and so cannot be generated by a system that can be described by classical physics, such as a conventional computer, but could perhaps be generated by a system requiring a quantum (Hilbert space) description. Penrose suspects that aspects of quantum physics not yet understood might be needed to explain consciousness. In this paper we shall see that only known quantum physics is needed to explain perception.

{ James A. Donald | Continue reading }

photo { Martin Parr }