All posts tagged psychology

At a recent LessWrong meetup, someone described his GTD system with the metaphor automated self, to emphasize that the things he offloads from his mind into the GTD system help him act more robotic. I like the idea of automating some of my actions so that I can further separate planning and execution. The term automated self is a good way to remember that goal, and should be used more widely than it is. Plus I like to distinguish myself from those who attach negative connotations to “robot-like”.

Book review: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.

This book carefully describes the evolutionary origins of human moralizing, explains why tribal attitudes toward morality have both good and bad effects, and how people who want to avoid moral hostility can do so.

Parts of the book are arranged to describe the author’s transition from having standard delusions about morality being the result of the narratives we use to justify them and about why other people had alien-sounding ideologies. His description about how his study of psychology led him to overcome his delusions makes it hard for those who agree with him to feel very superior to those who disagree.

He hints at personal benefits from abandoning partisanship (“It felt good to be released from partisan anger.”), so he doesn’t rely on altruistic motives for people to accept his political advice.

One part of the book that surprised me was the comparison between human morality and human taste buds. Some ideologies are influenced a good deal by all 6 types of human moral intuitions. But the ideology that pervades most of academia only respect 3 types (care, liberty, and fairness). That creates a difficult communication gap between them and cultures that employ others such as sanctity in their moral system, much like people who only experience sweet and salty foods would have trouble imagining a desire for sourness in some foods.

He sometimes gives the impression of being more of a moral relativist than I’d like, but a careful reading of the book shows that there are a fair number of contexts in which he believes some moral tastes produce better results than others.

His advice could be interpreted as encouraging us to to replace our existing notions of “the enemy” with Manichaeans. Would his advice polarize societies into Manichaeans and non-Manichaeans? Maybe, but at least the non-Manichaeans would have a decent understanding of why Manichaeans disagreed with them.

The book also includes arguments that group selection played an important role in human evolution, and that an increase in cooperation (group-mindedness, somewhat like the cooperation among bees) had to evolve before language could become valuable enough to evolve. This is an interesting but speculative alternative to the common belief that language was the key development that differentiated humans from other apes.

Book review: The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, by Thomas Metzinger.

This book describes aspects of consciousness in ways that are often, but not consistently, clear and informative. His ideas are not revolutionary, but will clarify our understanding.

I didn’t find his tunnel metaphor very helpful.

I like his claim that “conscious information is exactly that information that must be made available for every single one of your cognitive capacities at the same time”. That may be an exaggeration, but it describes an important function of consciousness.

He makes surprisingly clear and convincing arguments that there are degrees of consciousness, so that some other species probably have some but not all of what we think of as human consciousness. He gives interesting examples of ways that humans can be partially conscious, e.g. people with Cotard’s Syndrome can deny their own existence.

His discussion of ethical implications of neuroscience points out some important issues to consider, but I’m unimpressed with his conclusion that we shouldn’t create conscious machines. He relies on something resembling the Precautionary Principle that says we should never risk causing suffering in an artificial entity. As far as I can tell, the same reasoning would imply that having children is unethical because they might suffer.


Book review: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath.

This book uses an understanding of the limits to human rationality to explain how it’s sometimes possible to make valuable behavioral changes, mostly in large institutions, with relatively little effort.

The book presents many anecdotes about people making valuable changes, often demonstrating unusually creative thought. The theories about why the changes worked are not very original, but are presented better than in most other books.

Some of the successes are sufficiently impressive that I wonder whether they cherry-picked too much and made it look too easy. One interesting example that is a partial exception to this pattern is a comparison of two hospitals that tried to implement the same change, with one succeeding and the other failing. Even with a good understanding of the book’s ideas, few people looking at the differences between the hospitals would notice the importance of whether small teams met for afternoon rounds at patients’ bedsides or in a lounge where other doctors overheard the discussions.

They aren’t very thoughtful about whether the goals are wise. This mostly doesn’t matter, although it is strange to read on page 55 about a company that succeeded by focusing on short-term benefits to the exclusion of long-term benefits, and then on page 83 to read about a plan to get businesses to adopt a longer term focus.


Book review: Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, by Sian Beilock.

This book provides some clues about why pressure causes some people to perform less well than they otherwise would, and gives simple (but not always easy) ways to reduce that effect. There’s a good deal of overlap between this book’s advice and other self-improvement advice. The book modestly enhances how I think about the techniques and how motivated I am to use them.

The main surprise about the causes is that people with large working memories are more likely to choke because they’re more likely to over-analyze a problem, presumably because they’re better at analyzing problems. They’re also less creative. There are also interesting comments about the role of small working memories in ADHD.

The book includes some interesting comments on how SAT tests provide misleading evidence of sexual differences in ability, and how social influences can affect sexual differences in ability (for example, having a more feminine name makes a girl less likely to learn math).

The book’s style is unusually pleasant.

Book review: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel H. Pink.

This book explores some of the complexities of what motivates humans. It attacks a stereotype that says only financial rewards matter, and exaggerates the extent to which people adopt that fallacy. His style is similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s, but with more substance than Gladwell.

The book’s advice is likely to cause some improvement in how businesses are run and in how people choose careers. But I wonder how many bosses will ignore it because their desire to exert control over people outweighs their desire to create successful companies.

I’m not satisfied with the way he and others classify motivations as intrinsic and extrinsic. While feelings of flow may be almost entirely internally generated, other motivations that he classifies as intrinsic seem to involve an important component of feeling that others are rewarding you with higher status/reputation.

Shirking may have been a been an important problem a century ago for which financial rewards were appropriate solutions, but the nature of work has changed so that it’s much less common for workers to want to put less effort into a job. The author implies that this means standard financial rewards have become fairly unimportant factors in determining productivity. I think he underestimates the importance they play in determining how goals are prioritized.

He believes the changes in work that reduced the importance of financial incentives was the replacement of rule-following routine work with work that requires creativity. I suggest that another factor was that in 1900, work often required muscle-power that consumed almost as much energy as a worker could afford to feed himself.

He states his claims vaguely enough that they could be interpreted as implying that broad categories of financial incentives (including stock options and equity) work poorly. I checked one of the references that sounded like it might address that (“When performance-related pay backfires”), and found it only dealt with payments for completing specific tasks.

His complaints about excessive focus on quarterly earnings probably have some value, but it’s important to remember that it’s easy to err in the other direction as well (the dot-com bubble seemed to coincide with an unusual amount of effort at focusing on earnings 5 to 10 years away).

I’m disappointed that he advises not to encourage workers to compete against each other without offering evidence about its effects.

One interesting story is the bonus system at Kimley-Horn and Associates, where any employee can award another employee $50 for doing something exceptional. I’d be interested in more tests of this – is there something special about Kimley-Horn that prevents abuse, or would it work in most companies?

Book Review: Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart by Gerd Gigerenzer and Peter M. Todd.

This book presents serious arguments in favor of using simple rules to make most decisions. They present many examples where getting a quick answer by evaluating a minimal amount of data produces almost as accurate a result as highly sophisticated models. They point out that ignoring information can minimize some biases:

people seldom consider more than one or two factors at any one time, although they feel that they can take a host of factors into account

(Tetlock makes similar suggestions).

They appear to overstate the extent to which their evidence generalizes. They test their stock market heuristic on a mere six months worth of data. If they knew much about stock markets, they’d realize that there are a lot more bad heuristics which work for a few years at a time than there are good heuristics. I’ll bet that theirs will do worse than random in most decades.

The book’s conclusions can be understood by skimming small parts of the book. Most of the book is devoted to detailed discussions of the evidence. I suggest following the book’s advice when reading it – don’t try to evaluate all the evidence, just pick out a few pieces.

Book review: Greatness: Who Makes History and Why by Dean Keith Simonton.

This broad and mediocre survey of psychology of people who stand out in history probably contains a fair number of good ideas, but it’s hard to separate them from the many ideas that are questionable guesses. He’s inconsistent about distinguishing his guesses from claims backed by good evidence.

One of the clearest examples is his assertion that childhood adversity builds character. He presents evidence that eminent figures were unusually likely to have had a parent die early, and describes this as the “most impressive proof” of his claim. He ignores the possibility those people come from families with a pattern of taking sufficiently unusual risks to explain that evidence.

In other places, he makes mistakes which seemed reasonable when the book was published, such as “Mendelian laws of inheritance are blind to whether an individual is first-born or later-born” (parental age has a measurable effect on mutation rates).

He avoids some of the worst mistakes that a psychology of history could make, such as trying to psychoanalyze individuals without having enough information about them.

He mentions some approaches to analyzing presidential addresses and corporate letters to stockholders, which have some potential to be used in predicting whether leaders have the appropriate personality for their jobs. I wonder what would happen if many voters/stockholders demanded that leaders pass tests of this nature (I’m assuming the tests can be scored objectively, but that may be shaky assumption). I’m confident that we’d get leaders with rhetoric that passes those tests. Would that simply mean the leaders change their rhetoric, or would it be hard enough to maintain a mismatch between rhetoric and thought patterns that we’d get leaders with better thought patterns?

There has been a fair amount of research suggesting that beyond some low threshold, additional money does little to increase a person’s happiness.
Here’s a research report (see also here) indicating that the effect of money has sometimes been underestimated because researchers use income as a measure of money, when wealth has a higher correlation with happiness.
There’s probably more than one reason for this. Wealth produces a sense of security that isn’t achieved by having a high income but spending that income quickly. Also, it’s possible that people with high savings rates tend to be those who are easily satisfied with their status, whereas those who don’t save when they have high incomes are those who have a strong need to show off their incomes in order to compete for status (and since competition for status is in some ways a zero sum game, many of them will fail).

Book review: No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality by Judith Rich Harris
This book provides a clear theory of what causes the personality differences between people that can’t be explained by genetic differences. She focuses a fair amount on identical twins, because the evidence that their environmentally caused personality differences are the same as ordinary siblings, and the same whether they’re reared together or apart, rules out many tempting theories.
Amazon reviewer Sioran points out an inconsistency – she claims early on that random chance can’t explain all of the variation, but her explanation ends up amounts to saying the causes are ultimately random. I find her early arguments against randomness unconvincing. And her explanation’s reliance on randomness doesn’t imply that her explanation is useless – she rules out most kinds of randomness as a cause, narrowing down the class of random causes to those which affect the person’s view of her status in society (e.g. differences in who outside family the person interacts with, and physical differences such as being tall due to better nutrition).
The most surprising prediction she makes is that mindblind (i.e. most) animals won’t have persistent personality differences that can’t be explained by genetic differences. I’m unsure whether to believe this – it seems that animals should only need to remember differences in how others treat them (rather than have a theory of mind) in order to produce the results we see. She would probably predict that autistic people have no persistent environmentally caused personality differences, but she isn’t clear about that (it may depend on the degree of autism).
One interesting result that she mentions is that autistic children are unable to use the fusiform face area (which in most people is specialized to do good face recognition), and instead seem to recognize faces the same way they recognize ordinary objects. I’m wondering how much this explains about why autism impairs many parts of the mind that deal with relationships.
I’m annoyed by how many pages she spends recounting the reaction to her prior book (The Nurture Assumption, a better book than this). If you’ve read that, most of the first half of this book will be a waste of time.
One interesting piece of evidence she mentions is this paper from the Journal of Political Economy which says that one’s height as a teenager is a better predictor of wages as an adult than adult height.
One small quibble: she says being a firstborn is unimportant (often not even known) outside the home in “contemporary societies — at least those not ruled by monarchies”. Korean society appears to be a clear exception to that claim.