Archive for October, 2010

Consider two situations:

(A) we experience physiological changes including dopamine released from neurons  in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in response to auditory stimuli  (we get pleasure out of hearing something)

(B) we experience physiological changes including dopamine released from neurons  in the VTA in response to visual stimuli   (we get pleasure out of seeing something)

Suppose someone admires or seeks to enhance either stimuli A or B.  Without any other information, would you consider auditory or visual reward seeking behavior as more desirable?  It does not seem obvious to me why we should have a preference.

Now, suppose you heard someone say one of the following statements:

(A) “I’m going to spend $1000 on a class designed to teach me how to enhance my beauty.”

(B) “I’m going to spend $1000 on a class to improve my singing.”

I think the person who made statement (A) would be considered shallow, while the person who made statement (B) would not.

Or, consider the following two statements:

(A) I admire her because she is so beautiful.

(B) I admire her because she has a beautiful singing voice.

Again, I think admiring physical beauty is considered more shallow.  Why? Both involve admiring an (mostly) innate feature. Both involve stimulus-reward.

I think it’s because physical beauty is so closely linked to mating. The mesolimbic dopamine (ML-DA) system promotes seeking behavior.  In the case of  physical beauty stimuli, it often promotes mate seeking behavior.  The non-beautiful majority have incentive to disapprove of  those who mate-seek primarily based on attractiveness.  By lowering the status of those who (overtly) value beauty, they potentially makes themselves more desirable.  Hearing a talented singer triggers a different type of seeking behavior — we primarily want to hear more music of that type.   This is not threatening to the vocally-challenged majority.

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We often hear (or make) statements like:

“I can’t believe Susie is 2 years old.  It seems like just yesterday she was born.”


“I can’t believe he is in 5th grade already.  It doesn’t seem long ago that he was in kindergarten.”


“I can’t believe I graduated 10 years ago. It doesn’t feel that long ago at all.”


“I can’t believe it’s August already. The summer has flown by.”

Similarly, in surveys, people often report events as having occurred more recently than they actually did. This type of memory bias is known as forward telescoping.   For example, if you ask someone “at what age did you have your first migraine headache?” they will likely believe it occurred more recently than it actually did.  The longer ago it was the larger the absolute bias.  If someone visited the doctor 8 months ago, they will likely think it was within the past 6 months.  8 months doesn’t feel like we think 8 months should feel.

I have two questions about this:

1. Why is the subjective (perceived) passage of time slower than the objective passage of time?

I’m specifically wondering whether there is an evolutionary (genetic fitness) advantage.  I can’t think of one.  Instead, I think it has to do with the fact that our environment is so different from the ancestral environment.  We live in a faster-paced world.  We experience more things.  As discussed previously, the subjective passage of time is faster when we are not bored.  It could be that we were better calibrated for slower-paced (forager; farming) environments.

2. Given that we all seem to have this bias, why don’t we all just recalibrate?

I think most of us are aware that we have this bias, since we are so often surprised by how much time has elapsed between events.  I’m wondering why we don’t just take whatever our instinct about elapsed time is and add some time to it.

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Quoting Gregg Easterbrook:

Dana Priest of the Washington Post recently reported that bodyguards have become common even inside the Pentagon, which is itself ringed by guards. “‘You can’t find a four-star general without a security detail,'” she quoted a three-star general as saying. The three-star general explained, ‘If he has one, then I have to have one. It’s become a status symbol.'”

This supports … [my] contention that nearly all bodyguards supplied to federal, state and even local officials at taxpayer expense are not present to provide safety — they are present to make the official seem more important.

…violent crime is in a generation-long cycle of decline. The bodyguards for public officials are strictly to make them seem important, plus allow them to double-park, cut in line, speed in traffic and so on.

This strikes me as a very effective status signal.  If you see someone surrounded by a security detail, you naturally think that they must be important.  I’d love to see a study that examined whether having a security detail really increases safety.

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Netflix survey

I sometimes watch movies using Netflix instant streaming.  It’s not unusual for Netflix to send the following email the next day:

Survey: How Was the Picture and Audio Quality?

You recently watched ____. To help us ensure a great experience for all members, would you take a moment to tell us about the picture and audio quality?

The quality was very good

The quality was acceptable

The quality was unacceptable

Thanks for your help!

-Your friends at Netflix

The implication is that they want to know if the quality is good, because they would like to work to improve it if it isn’t.

However, I wonder if they have a different purpose.  Maybe Netflix already knows that the quality is good (shouldn’t they know that?).  So, the purpose of the survey is to call your attention to the fact that the quality is good.  Humans are more likely to consciously notice a problem than they are the absence of one. People might not think “oh, Netflix has high quality picture and sound” unless Netflix asks “how was the quality of the picture and audio?”  They want you to see how great they are without boasting (just like people).

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