Archive for July, 2009

This paper by Knobe and Doris is pretty interesting.

Side-effect asymmetry (Knobe effect): 

Knobe (2003a) ran a simple experiment that addresses this issue. Each subject was randomly assigned to one of two conditions. Subjects in the ‘harm condition’ received the following vignette:

The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, ‘We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.’ The chairman of the board answered, ‘I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.’ They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed.

Subjects in the ‘help condition’ received a vignette that was almost exactly the same, except that the word ‘harm’ was replaced with ‘help.’ The vignette thus became:

The vice-president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, ‘We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also help the environment.’ The chairman of the board answered, ‘I don’t care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.’ They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was helped.

As expected, people’s moral judgments showed a marked asymmetry. Most subjects in the harm condition said that the chairman deserved blame, but very few subjects in the help condition said that the chairman deserved praise.

This illustrates a bias that many of us possess, but wouldn’t easily recognize. 

According to Knobe and Doris:

There appears to be a general principle according to which people are given blame for bad side-effects but are not given praise for good side-effects.

 Emotion asymmetry

Pizarro, Uhlmann and Salovey (2003) set out to determine whether the impact of emotion might depend on the moral status of the behavior itself. They began by constructing a series of vignettes about agents who perform behaviors as a result of overwhelming emotion. Some of the vignettes featured morally good behaviors; others featured morally bad behaviors. Here is an example of a vignette with a morally good behavior:

Because of his overwhelming and uncontrollable sympathy, Jack impulsively gave the homeless man his only jacket even though it was freezing outside.

And here is one with a morally bad behavior:

Because of his overwhelming and uncontrollable anger, Jack impulsively smashed the window of the car parked in front of him because it was parked too close to his.

For each of these vignettes, the researchers then constructed a contrast case in which the agent acted calmly and deliberately. So, for example, the contrast case for our morally bad behavior was:

Jack calmly and deliberately smashed the window of the car parked in front of him because it was parked too close to his.

When the researchers gave these vignettes to subjects, they found a striking asymmetry. Subjects gave the agent considerably less blame for morally bad behaviors when those behaviors were the result of overwhelming emotion than when they were the result of calm deliberation. But for morally good behaviors, there was no corresponding effect.

They also discuss intention/action asymmetry and severity asymmetry.

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I like this New Yorker article on why New York is the greenist city.  Here’s a clip:

By helping us to live at greater distances from one another, driving has undermined the very benefits that it was meant to bestow. Ignacio San Martín, an architecture professor and the head of the graduate urban-design program at the University of Arizona, told me, “If you go out to the streets of Phoenix and are able to see anybody walking—which you likely won’t—they are going to tell you that they love living in Phoenix because they have a beautiful house and three cars. In reality, though, once the conversation goes a little bit further, they are going to say that they spend most of their time at home watching TV, because there is absolutely nothing to do.” One of the main attractions of moving to the suburbs is acquiring ground of your own, yet you can travel for miles through suburbia and see no one doing anything in a yard other than working on the yard itself (often with the help of a riding lawnmower, one of the few four-wheeled passenger vehicles that get worse gas mileage than a Hummer). The modern suburban yard is perfectly, perversely self-justifying: its purpose is to be taken care of.


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If someone behaves differently than we do, we often assume the person has some negative traits that explain the behavior.

For example, suppose you are not very possessive of your significant other.  You do not get jealous very easily.  You think of yourself as trusting and you feel secure with the relationship.  Now suppose you observe someone who behaves in a more possessive and jealous way in their relationship than you do.  You might assume that they are just insecure (a negative trait that explains the behavior difference).  You think “I’m in a similar relationship and I don’t act like that.” 

However, it could be that they just form deeper levels of attachment than you do. If you don’t form deep attachments, you have less to lose. If you are deeply attached to someone, you will pay a big price if they leave you.  The lower the attachment level, the easier it is to not be jealous or possessive.

The possible error you made was assuming the attachment levels are the same, but the behaviors are different.  The reality might be that if you could form deeper attachments with people, you would be more possessive.  

Both explanations are possible.  My point is that people tend to only think of the one option – the one that assumes the behavior differences are due to the other person’s negative traits.

This example also works the other way.  Suppose some of your actions show that you are possessive and experience jealousy in your marriage.  If you see someone who does not seem concerned at all with what their spouse is doing, you might assume that they just don’t love their spouse as much as you love yours.   

However, they might love their spouse as deeply as you love yours.  Perhaps, though, their spouse just does a better job of making them feel secure.  Or, perhaps they have learned to not let any possessive feelings affect their actions. 

Consider one more example.  Suppose you exercise a lot and are physically fit.  If you see someone who is out of shape, you might assume that you just work harder than they do (and are more disciplined).  It could be, though, that your body, under identical conditions to the other person, would produce more mitochondria.  (or some other biological explanation that has nothing to do with your work ethic).  It could be that, if exercise was as difficult for you as it was for them, you wouldn’t do it as much.

Even in cases where someone else’s behavior seems better than yours, you still might attribute it to a negative personality trait.  Suppose someone is much more generous with their time than you are in terms of helping others. Rather than assuming that they just are a kinder, less selfish person, you might instead assume they are insincere.  That they don’t really want to help other people, but, due to their insecurity, need for people to think of them as generous.

My point is that if you find yourself explaining the behavior of others in this way, you might want to consider alternatives that aren’t as flattering to you.

P.S. This is related, but not identical, to the fundamental attribution error, where “people predominantly presume that the actions of others are indicative of the ‘kind’ of person they are, rather than the kind of situations that compels their behavior.”

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After reading a lot of Charles Bukowski‘s writing, I’ve lost interest in reading some other authors.  They just don’t seem good enough anymore.  This reminds me of something that Seth Roberts wrote about:

Before last night I had heard of Amy Winehouse and I had heard Rehab, but hadn’t put the two together. Her Grammy performance blew me away. I watched a bunch of YouTubes of her. Back at the Grammys, I listened to an orchestra play Rhapsody in Blue. I used to like it; now it sounded awful. I listened to a few more group performances; they too sounded bad. Just as The Joy of Sake had made me no longer enjoy cheap sake, listening to a lot of Amy Winehouse had made me no longer enjoy “average” music — music where several individual performances are combined.

Some of Bukowski’s poems are here.  I like these (link and link), for example.

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“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”


“Treat other people the way you would like to be treated”

I think this is very bad advice.  Instead, I’d advise: “Treat people the way they would like to be treated.”

Who’s to say that the way you would like to be treated is how other people would like to be treated? Seems like a very self-centric POV.   If I treated people the way I liked to be treated I’d have far fewer friends.

If you take my advice, then you’ll have to try and figure out what other people want.  That’s a very useful exercise and requires a lot more thought than just assuming everyone is like you.

Related post here.

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I’m going to use the word ‘desire’ to mean something that you wish for that did not result from some thought process (unconscious desire).  I’ll use the word ‘want’ to refer to something that you wish for after having thought about it.

For example, if an attractive person walks by, you might immediately feel lust for them (a desire), but not actually want to have sex with them (perhaps you are in a monogamous relationship).  I don’t think these are standard uses of the terms, but it’s how I’m going to use them.

It is much more difficult to control what we desire than it is to control our behavior.  If what we want in terms of behavior gives us what we desire, then life is easy.  If, instead, what we desire is in opposition to what we want, then life is more difficult.

Here are two examples.

The alcoholic desires alcohol.  However, they might want to be sober.  They might know that alcohol is bad for them.  When they think about it, they can come to the rational conclusion that alcohol will do them more harm than good.  What they want is to not desire alcohol.  If they choose to not drink, they are going against a strong desire.  That can make for some unpleasant times.

Some people have a strong sexual attraction to children (pedophilia).  They desire to have sexual relations with kids.  They might, however, not want to have sex with kids. Rationally, they might know it’s unethical.  They want to not desire sexual encounters with kids.  To go against these strong desires, however, is probably very difficult.

In both of the above examples, I’m assuming the desire is very strong and the harm is substantial.  In less extreme examples, say, desiring a doughnut but not wanting it for health reasons, the implications are less severe.

I wonder about the extent to which happiness level is correlated with having healthy (ethical) desires.

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Here are a few things that I enjoyed reading, but haven’t found the time to write about.

Faith is a post-agricultural concept.  Before you have chiefdoms where the priests are a branch of government, the gods aren’t good, they don’t enforce the chiefdom’s rules, and there’s no penalty for questioning them.

And so the Untheist culture, when it invents science, simply concludes in a very ordinary way that rain turns out to be caused by condensation in clouds rather than rain spirits; and at once they say “Oops” and chuck the old superstitions out the window; because they only got as far as superstitions, and not as far as anti-epistemology.

Of course the Untheists are not inventing new rules to refute God, just applying their standard epistemological guidelines that their civilization developed in the course of rejecting, say, vitalism.  But then that’s just what we rationalist folk claim antitheism is supposed to be, in our own world: a strictly standard analysis of religion which turns out to issue a strong rejection – both epistemically and morally, and not after too much time.  Every antitheist argument is supposed to be a special case of general rules of epistemology and morality which ought to have applications beyond religion – visible in the encounters of science with vitalism, say.

Conscientiousness, i.e., not being lazy, matters about as much as intelligence, i.e., not being stupid.   And it is similarly heritable, i.e., genetic, it is more correlated with gender, and probably similarly correlated with race, class, and ethnicity.  Yet stupidity seems a far more sensitive topic.

The Anne Frank House at Prinsengracht, which has become a tourist attraction and a symbol of Dutch resistance, should also serve as a reminder of Dutch complicity. It’s just that we prefer to remember the past as human triumph rather than human failure.

And so, after the war, the Dutch wrapped themselves in the cloak of Anne Frank and pretended that they, too, were innocent. As such, Van Meegeren becomes not just the story of the self-deception and duplicity of one man, but of an entire nation.

There may be yet one more principle at work – something very simple. The bigger the lie, the more willing we are to believe it.

  • Machine Minds (Michael Vassar’s contribution to Forbes’ AI series)

Dogs care greatly about our welfare. Cats and coyotes care much less. This isn’t because dogs are smarter, dumber or more kindly treated than cats or coyotes. Many types of minds are possible–some care about humans but most are indifferent. What we care about is determined by our structure, which was created by evolution. What artificial minds care about will be determined by their structure, which we will design.

Unfortunately for us, the consequences of an artificial mind’s interests may not be obvious to us before we create it. Evolution caused us to like sex because in nature sex typically leads to offspring. It didn’t anticipate birth control, and so this adaptation fails to achieve its purpose 100% of the time in a modern environment. Likewise, an artificial mind designed to care whether humans smile might force humans to smile through means other than joy and laughter once it gained the means to. Choice of preferences is tricky business.


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