Posts Tagged ‘behavior, rationality’

I sometimes laugh at parts of books that really aren’t meant to be funny (I think).  I don’t even know if I find them funny, but something about it makes me laugh.

Two examples:

In the short story Beer at the Corner Bar from Hot Water Music by Charles Bukowski, Bukowski is at the bar.  He’d rather be left alone, but someone is trying to have a conversation with him.  Here’s how part of it goes:

“You from Los Angeles?” he asked.


“You think the Dodgers will make it this year?”


“You don’t like the Dodgers?”


“What do you like?”

“Boxing. Bullfighting.”

“Bullfighting’s cruel.”

“Yes, anything is cruel when you lose.”

“But the bull doesn’t stand a chance.”

“None of us do.”

I enjoyed the whole conversation, but I laughed out loud at that last line.

Another example is from the end of Sister Carrie.  The last two pages consist of Dreiser editorializing about Carrie’s life, how she always chases beauty and will never be satisfied.  Here’s how the story ends:

Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart! Onward, onward, it saith, and where beauty leads, there it follows. Whether it be the tinkle of a lone sheep bell o’er some quiet landscape, or the glimmer of beauty in sylvan places, or the show of soul in some passing eye, the heart knows and makes answer, following. It is when the feet weary and hope seems vain that the heartaches and the longings arise. Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.

I laughed when I read that last sentence.  I was on a train, smiling and laughing.  I read it a few times.  The sentence has a sad message, but I smiled and laughed.  Why?

I remember a post by Seth Roberts where he said “Laughter is a big and important part of life. Visible, common, highly desirable — yet mysterious.”

It does seem mysterious.  In the post Seth says “laughter is caused by sudden pleasure.”  I think that’s a sufficient but not necessary condition for laughter.  For example, sometimes people laugh when they feel uncomfortable, aren’t sure what to say, but want to break the silence (for example, during an awkward social interaction).  In that case, perhaps laughter is a way of releasing tension.

I’d say we laugh when:

  • we hear something that we think is funny
  • we see/hear something that we like but didn’t expect
  • as a social bonding mechanism (laugh with our peers to signal that we like them, share their values, etc)
  • we are uncomfortable with something that has been said, and don’t know how else to break the tension

The first two could be thought of as types of sudden unexpected pleasure.

related post here


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People are uncomfortable with change.  They tend to have emotional attachment to the status quo. Hence, there is a bias towards ideas that were introduced first.

Thankfully there is a pretty simple way to guard against this type of cognitive bias: a temporal reversal test (another rationality test).  If X is the status quo and you are uncomfortable with the proposed alternative Y, ask yourself how you would feel if Y was status quo and X was the new idea (i.e., reverse the order).

Here are some examples:

New technology

It is not uncommon for people to fear new technology.  For example, I’ve heard people express concerns about e-books and things like Kindle replacing paper books.  They have an attachment to paper books.  However, what if e-books had come first.  With e-books, you can have access to 100s of books via a lightweight electronic device; you can take notes on the pages; you can highlight passages; you can undo your highlights and notes; the condition of the book doesn’t decline.  Now, suppose e-books were all you ever knew.  And then someone came up with a new idea:  paper books!  Every book takes up physical space, weighs as much as your e-book reader, can get physically damaged, cannot undo any marks you make on it, etc.  Would you really think the paper book is a superior idea?

School year

If students had always went to school year-round (minus some vacation time), but now someone proposed giving students the summer off, would that become the new policy?


I’ve heard people say that they are not really interested in immortality, because all living things must die.  But what if immortality came first.  Would anyone really argue in favor of a finite lifespan?  Remember, we will never run out of fun.

If the multiverse were intelligently designed, I could see, perhaps, trusting nature.  But that’s not the case.  Nature gets a lot of things wrong.  So the “it’s natural” argument isn’t sufficient.


Eliezer Yudkowsky used cryonics as an example (link):

If you found yourself in a world where everyone was signed up for cryonics as a matter of routine – including everyone who works at your office – you wouldn’t be the first lonely dissenter to earn the incredulous stares of your coworkers by unchecking the box that kept you signed up for cryonics, in exchange for an extra $300 per year.

The point being that if cryonics were taken for granted, it would go on being taken for granted; it is only the state of non-cryonics that is unstable, subject to being disrupted by rational argument.


This is similar to the death example, but I’ve heard people say that pain and suffering can be good (makes you stronger, appreciate when you’re not suffering more, etc).  But if you reverse it, and the status quo didn’t include that suffering, would anyone prefer the suffering.  I don’t hear people wanting to get rid of anesthesia or machinery that reduces the need for physical labor (although I suspect people did argue against these when they were first introduced).

How aware are we of this bias?

I notice that religious folks tend to introduce their offspring to god at a young age.  Are they aware, at least subconsciously, that we are biased towards the ideas that are introduced first?  What if people learned about science, cognitive biases and rationality first, and then were introduced to god as an adult?  Would rates of religiosity decrease? (likely, given the heritability of religion)

We also make sure our kids know at a very young age that the United States is the greatest country in the history of greatest countries.

Parents tend to push their own political party on their kids at a young age.

It seems as if we exploit status quo bias when it comes to things that are important to us that are not easily supported with evidence.

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I don’t see why free will and determinism wouldn’t be compatible.  At the moment I make a choice, I’m picking the option that I prefer.  Does it matter if what led me to that preference was entirely determined by prior occurrences?

Let’s think about what it would mean to not have free will.  Suppose I preferred option A, but just before I make the decision some external force affects my neurons and causes me to prefer option B. Well, at the moment I chose B, that was my preference.  That scenario is not inconsistent with free will or determinism (the external force is just part of the prior chain of events).

I think what people mean by free will is that they could have made a different decision.  Sure, they could have, if things had been different.  That is what they mean.  And that is free will…and determinism.

I pretty much agree with Katja Grace:

…you feel like your actions are neither determined nor random. You choose them.

And that is precisely why they are determined. They are determined by you. And you already exist to the finest detail at the time you are making the decision. If you made choices (or some element of them) not controlled by your personality, experience, thoughts and anything else that comes under the heading of ‘the state of your brain as a result of genetics and your prior environments’, they would be random, which still isn’t free will…

The narrator of Dostoyevsky‘s Notes from Underground was disturbed by determinism:

If, for instance, some day they calculate and prove to me that I made a long nose at someone because I could not help making a long nose at him and that I had to do it in that particular way, what FREEDOM is left me..? Then I should be able to calculate my whole life for thirty years beforehand. In short, if this could be arranged there would be nothing left for us to do;

Just because someone with perfect knowledge could accurately predict what you would do, that doesn’t mean you don’t have freedom. If what you did wasn’t predictable (i.e. included some random elements), how would that give you any more freedom (you have no control over the randomness)?

I liked this paragraph on free will from the book Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser:

Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer wholly guided by instinct; scarcely human, in that it is not yet wholly guided by reason.  On the tiger no responsibility rests.  We see him aligned by nature with the forces of life — he is born into their keeping and without thought he is protected.  We see man far removed from the lairs of the jungles, his innate instincts dulled by too near an approach to free-will, his free-will not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts and afford him perfect guidance.  He is becoming too wise to hearken always to instincts and desires; he is still too weak to always prevail against them.  As a beast, the forces of life aligned him with them; as a man, he has not yet wholly learned to align himself with the forces.  In this intermediate stage he wavers — neither drawn in harmony with nature by his instincts nor yet wisely putting himself into harmony by his own free-will.  He is even as a wisp in the wind, moved by every breath of passion acting now by his will and now by his instincts, erring with one, only to retrieve by the other, falling by one, only to rise by the other — a creature of incalculable variability.

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From Bukowski‘s essay Looking Back at the Big One in the book Portions From A Wine-Stained Notebook:

..in many creative minds, there is the natural urge to see the other side.  And a desire to sometimes stand with the other side just for the hell of it.  Because the first side has been there so long, so steady, and seems so worn….In an attempt to get beyond Good and Evil (if such do exist), the balance sometimes wavers and one goes to Evil (saying it might be there) because it seems more interesting — especially when your own countrymen just blithely accept to follow what they are told is Good (and never doubting it).  Generally, there is a tendency in intelligent men not to believe what most of the masses believe, and most of the time this puts them right near target; other times it gets their asses burned, especially in the political arena where the winners dictate which side is right….a Loser has never won a War Crimes Tribunal yet.

When I was young if I noticed everyone was on one side of an issue…  no, that’s not it… when I noticed that people didn’t even realize there was another side to an issue, I would tend go as far to the other side as possible to achieve some kind of balance, like the jumping guy in this figure:

It is a natural thing.  When you see everyone just accepting what they are told without giving it critical thought, it can be very frustrating.  You want to yell and scream “what’s wrong with you people?!?!”  And to try and get their attention, you say the most radical thing possible.  But..as I have gotten older (hopefully more mature), I realized that this is not the right approach.  I have learned to resist the urge to rebel just for the sake of shaking things up.  Now, I try to stand on the platform where truth is, regardless of whether it is close to where the masses are standing or not.  Not only does being provocative for the sake of shaking things up tend to not persuade those on the other side, it can even make them feel more confident in their beliefs as their single opponent does not have the force of truth behind him.

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How strong is your capability to share another being’s emotions or feelings?  My thesis is that people who are viewed as having a lot of empathy have two characteristics in common:  (1) their emotional reaction to situations tends to be similar to that of the majority and (2) when they make errors it tends to be in the direction of overestimating the person’s emotion-level.

Conditional versus Marginal

I’ll start with point 1.  It’s easy to have empathy for people who are like you.   If you would get upset if X happened to you, then you’ll have empathy for someone else who is upset about X happening to them.  But, if X wouldn’t upset you, then it would be hard for you to understand how someone else feels who is upset by X.  You could do it, perhaps, but it’s more challenging.

Denote by Α the subgroup of people who have similar emotional reactions as you do.

Let Y=1 if you sufficiently understand another person’s feelings.

Your empathy score for people in group A is P(Y=1|A).  That is, the probability that you’ll have empathy for a randomly selected person in group A.  I’d argue that, for most people, they have a high conditional empathy score for people that are like them.

Your empathy score for people who are not like you, P(Y=1|~A), is probably much lower.

Now, integrate across groups to get the marginal (population level) empathy score P(Y=1).  That is, P(Y=1)= P(Y=1|A)P(A)+P(Y=1|~A)P(~A).  If P(A) is high, you probably have a high level of empathy, even if your conditional levels are normal (simply because a lot of people are like you).


If empathy is understanding how someone else feels, then you can make errors in two directions.  You might think the person is more upset (or happy or excited) than they really are, or you might think they are less upset than they really are.  I think that if your error distribution is on the side of overestimating how emotional someone is, you’ll be seen as having more empathy than someone who tends to underestimate emotion levels.

Suppose I am not upset at all about event X, but you think I am and therefore offer words of comfort, etc.  You failed at understanding my emotional state.  Yet, people would not say that you lacked empathy.

If, instead, I was upset about event X, but you didn’t realize that and therefore didn’t offer support, you’d be correctly viewed as not having empathy.


Another interesting aspect of this is how, even if we recognize how someone is feeling, our response depends on whether we deem their emotions as appropriate.  For example, a big football fan might have empathy for another fan who is very angry about his/her favorite team losing, but someone who doesn’t like sports might think getting emotional about a football game is stupid.

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I’ve often wondered if a major reason that men tend to make more money than women has more to do with personality traits that are more common in men, and less to do with direct discrimination.   Here is a good example of it:

So I get email from a good former student, applying for a job and asking for a recommendation. “Sure”, I say, “Tell me what you think I should say.” I then get a draft letter back in which the student has described their work and fitness for the job in terms so superlative it would make an Assistant Brand Manager blush.

So I write my letter, looking over the student’s self-assessment and toning it down so that it sounds like it’s coming from a person and not a PR department, and send it off. And then, as I get over my annoyance, I realize that, by overstating their abilities, the student has probably gotten the best letter out of me they could have gotten.

Now, can you guess the gender of the student involved?

Of course you can. My home, the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, is fairly gender-balanced, and I’ve taught about as many women as men over the last decade. In theory, the gender of my former student should be a coin-toss. In practice, I might as well have given him the pseudonym Moustache McMasculine for all the mystery there was. And I’ve grown increasingly worried that most of the women in the department, past or present, simply couldn’t write a letter like that.

Suppose Person A and Person B are identical in terms of ability, work ethic, etc — both equally valuable to their company.  Person A  is self-aggrandizing, narcissistic and aggressive.  Person B is quietly confident and passive.   From what I’ve observed, Person A will tend to make more money.  Employers will pay you as little as they can get away with.  Person A wouldn’t be shy about asking people for letters of recommendation (and writing a first draft for them), applying for awards, and then making the case to their boss (with the evidence they have collected) that they deserve a pay raise.   Person B assumes that their employer will be fair to them and give them a pay raise when they deserve it.

The personality traits of Person A are more common in men than in women, I think.  I suspect that at least some of the differences in pay between men and women are for that reason.  It’s not exactly sex-based discrimination, but it still has that effect.  Basically we are rewarding behavior that we generally do not find desirable.  Alpha-males will tend to win out over other males.  Men will tend to win out over women.  How to remedy this?  Will Wilkinson suggests that we should discourage the type of aggressive behavior displayed by Person A:

There are certain habits of behavior characteristic of some men clearly rooted in a desire to intimidate and assert social dominance. If the ability to intimidate and dominate — to act like an “alpha” — doesn’t have anything to do with performance at a job, then “alpha” behavior should be recognized as the unproductive social aggression that it is and accordingly discouraged through disapproval, mockery, and social and professional sanction. Decent men and women with natural talents for dominance and status competition can channel their aggressive dispositions productively by bringing them to bear on those who flout fair and productive egalitarian social norms.

I have an additional suggestion.  I think it would help if the salaries of all employees were available for anyone in the company to view.  A lot of times people don’t even know they’re making substantially less than their peers.  Again, companies will pay you as little as they can get away with.  If Person B saw that Person A was making 30% more than them, that might motivate them to discuss salary at their annual review.  More importantly, I think employers would be less likely to reward aggressive behavior.  They’d know that if they gave Person A a big raise, then Person A’s peers would take notice.  So, they’d tend to only give big raises to people based on merit.  I’m not too concerned about the privacy issue.  We already know roughly what others make (I’d say to plus/minus 20% in most cases).

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This is a great post (link).  I highly recommend reading the whole thing.  Here’s a clip:

…Early in our lives we search for a story that fits well with our abilities and opportunities.  In our unstable youth we adjust this story as we learn more, but we reduce those changes as we start to make big life choices, and want to appear stable to our new associates.  But we have real doubts about whether we choose our identity well, doubts that increase as we continue to get more info about our skills and opportunities.

We express our doubt about our chosen identity, and our hope for a better one, as a concern that we haven’t discovered who we “really are.”  We expect many of our associates would tolerate one big identity change even when we are older, if we express it as “finally discovering who we really are.”

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