kottke.org posts about psychology

The Milgram experiment in real lifeOct 23 2014

You don't know what you would do unless you're in that situation.

That's Philip Zimbardo's1 introduction to this fascinating and deeply disturbing video, depicting a real-world instance of Stanley Milgram's experiment on obedience to authority figures2. In the video, you see a McDonald's manager take a phone call from a man pretending to be a police officer. The caller orders the manager to strip search an employee. And then much much worse.

The video is NSFW and if you're sensitive to descriptions and depictions of sexual abuse, you may want to skip it. And lest you think this was an isolated incident featuring exceptionally weak-minded people, the same caller was alleged to have made several other calls resulting in similar behavior. (via mr)

  1. Zimbardo conducted the notorious Stanford prison experiment in 1971.

  2. Milgram's experiment focused on a person in authority ordering someone to deliver (fake) electric shocks to a third person. Some participants continued to deliver the shocks as ordered even when the person being shocked yelled in pain and complained of a heart condition.

The neverending terrible twosDec 17 2013

According to developmental psychologist Richard Tremblay, violent criminals are basically toddlers who never grew up and never outgrow their tendency to use physical aggression to get what they want.

The study tracked behavior in 1,037 mostly disadvantaged Quebec schoolboys from kindergarten through age 18. The boys fell into four distinct trajectories of physical aggression.

The most peaceable 20 percent, a "no problem" group, showed little physical aggression at any age; two larger groups showed moderate and high rates of aggression as preschoolers. In these three groups violence fell through childhood and adolescence, and dropped to almost nothing when the boys reached their 20s.

A fourth group, about 5 percent, peaked higher during toddlerhood and declined far more slowly. Their curve was more plateau than hill.

As they moved into late adolescence and young adulthood, their aggression grew ever more dangerous, and it tailed off late. At age 17 they were four times as physically aggressive as the moderate group and committed 14 times as many criminal infractions. It's these chronically violent individuals, Dr. Tremblay says, who are responsible for most violent crime.

She blinded me with neuroscienceOct 14 2011

In a 2008 paper called The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations, a group from Yale University demonstrated that including neuroscientific information in explanations of psychological phenomena makes the explanations more appealing, even if the neuroscientific info is irrelevant.

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people's abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation.

I don't know if I buy this. Perhaps if the authors had explained their results relative to how the human brain functions...

The Stanford prison experiment, 40 years laterJul 11 2011

For the Stanford alumni magazine, Romesh Ratnesar interviewed some of the participants of the Stanford prison experiment for the 40th anniversary of the event. Here's Philip Zimbardo, the leader of the study:

After the end of the first day, I said, "There's nothing here. Nothing's happening." The guards had this antiauthority mentality. They felt awkward in their uniforms. They didn't get into the guard mentality until the prisoners started to revolt. Throughout the experiment, there was this conspiracy of denial-everyone involved was in effect denying that this was an experiment and agreeing that this is a prison run by psychologists.

There was zero time for reflection. We had to feed the prisoners three meals a day, deal with the prisoner breakdowns, deal with their parents, run a parole board. By the third day I was sleeping in my office. I had become the superintendent of the Stanford county jail. That was who I was: I'm not the researcher at all. Even my posture changes-when I walk through the prison yard, I'm walking with my hands behind my back, which I never in my life do, the way generals walk when they're inspecting troops.

(via @tylercowen)

More mistakes of the 20th centuryMay 04 2011

When I wrote about the Paris Review's interview with Werner Herzog, I took special note of this observation from the great director:

The Polar explorations were a huge mistake of the human race, an indication that the twentieth century was a mistake in its entirety. They are one of the indicators.

Apparently, "the twentieth century was a mistake" is something of a hobbyhorse for Herzog. Chris Krewson tipped me to a GQ interview where WH rattles off some of the other indicators:

I think psychology and self-reflection is one of the major catastrophes of the twentieth century. A major, major mistake. And it's only one of the mistakes of the twentieth century, which makes me think that the twentieth century in its entirety was a mistake.

Herzog backs this up with some intriguing counter-history:

The Spanish Inquisition had one goal, to eradicate all traces of Muslim faith on the soil of Spain, and hence you had to confess and proclaim the innermost deepest nature of your faith to the commission. And almost as a parallel event, explaining and scrutinizing the human soul, into all its niches and crooks and abysses and dark corners, is not doing good to humans.

We have to have our dark corners and the unexplained. We will become uninhabitable in a way an apartment will become uninhabitable if you illuminate every single dark corner and under the table and wherever--you cannot live in a house like this anymore. And you cannot live with a person anymore--let's say in a marriage or a deep friendship--if everything is illuminated, explained, and put out on the table. There is something profoundly wrong. It's a mistake. It's a fundamentally wrong approach toward human beings.

But lest you think that Herzog's rejection of the ethics of the Inquisition comes from an embrace of spiritual tolerance:

I think there should be holy war against yoga classes. It detours us from real thinking.

I said to my friend Gavin Craig the other day that with folks like Herzog, you almost have to approach them as if they're characters in a play. Instead of asking yourself whether you like them personally or agree with the things they say, take a step back and try to admire how they're drawn.

More about the 10,000 hours thingApr 21 2011

The article about Dan McLaughlin's quest to go from zero-to-PGA Tour through 10,000 hours of deliberate practice got linked around a bunch yesterday. Several people who pointed to it made a typical mistake. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the 10,000 hours theory in his book, he did not come up with it. It is not "Gladwell's theory" and McLaughlin is not "testing Gladwell". The 10,000 hours theory was developed and popularized by Dr. Anders Ericsson (here for instance) -- who you may have heard of from this Freakonomics piece in the NY Times Magazine -- before it became a pop culture tidbit by Gladwell's inclusion of Ericsson's work in Outliers.

Seeing into the futureNov 12 2010

Psychology professor Daryl Bem ran some common psychology experiments backwards and detected statistically significant results that could indicate that people somehow can, uh, see into the future.

In one experiment, students were shown a list of words and then asked to recall words from it, after which they were told to type words that were randomly selected from the same list. Spookily, the students were better at recalling words that they would later type.

In another study, Bem adapted research on "priming" -- the effect of a subliminally presented word on a person's response to an image. For instance, if someone is momentarily flashed the word "ugly", it will take them longer to decide that a picture of a kitten is pleasant than if "beautiful" had been flashed. Running the experiment back-to-front, Bem found that the priming effect seemed to work backwards in time as well as forwards.

(via mr)

Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and DemocraticOct 01 2010

...aka WEIRD. The majority of the subjects in behavioral science testing are WEIRD people, who make up only a small percentage of the global population. You can see where this would be a problem.

In the "ultimatum game", for example, people are given $100 and told to offer some of it to someone else; if the other person accepts, each keeps their portion, but if they reject the offer, nobody gets anything. On average, Americans offer just under half, which seems to say much about human notions of fairness, or the fear of making an insultingly low offer. But many cultures behave differently; the Machiguenga of Peru prefer to keep more cash or, if on the other side of the deal, to accept whatever is offered. Another example: speakers of the Mayan language of Tzeltal are among several more likely to describe things as east or west of each other, not on the left or right. Academics would bristle, the researchers note, if journals were renamed with titles such as Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of American Undergraduate Psychology Students. But perhaps they should be.

(via russell davies)

Sending their love and cigarettes down the wellSep 21 2010

The continued reports from Chile about those miners trapped in the mine are kind of fascinating. Here's an article about the battle between the miners and the doctors, psychologists, and government officials attempting to manage them from afar.

In an effort to dominate the miners, the team of psychologists led by Mr Iturra has instituted a series of prizes and punishments. When the miners behave well, they are given TV and mood music. Other treats -- like images of the outside world are being held in reserve, as either a carrot or a stick should the miners become unduly feisty.

In a show of strength, the miners have at times refused to listen to the psychologists, insisting that they are well. "When that happens, we have to say, 'OK, you don't want to speak with psychologists? Perfect. That day you get no TV, there is no music -- because we administer these things,'" said Dr Diaz. "And if they want magazines? Well, then they have to speak to us. This is a daily arm wrestle."

(via mr)

How to improve creativityJul 16 2010

A two part (one, two) series on using psychological techniques to improve your creativity.

Interviews with 22 Nobel Laureates in physiology, chemistry, medicine and physics as well as Pulitzer Prize winning writers and other artists has found a surprising similarity in their creative processes (Rothenberg, 1996).

Called 'Janusian thinking' after the many-faced Roman god Janus, it involves conceiving of multiple simultaneous opposites. Integrative ideas emerge from juxtapositions, which are usually not obvious in the final product, theory or artwork.

Physicist Niels Bohr may have used Janusian thinking to conceive the principle of complementarity in quantum theory (that light can be analysed as either a wave or a particle, but never simultaneously as both).

(via lone gunman)

Masturbation: a singularly human pursuitJun 28 2010

Among primates, only humans masturbate. Why is that? Perhaps it's our big....brains.

Go on, put this article aside, take a five minute break and put my challenge to the test (don't forget to close your office door if you're reading this at work): Just try to masturbate successfully -- that is, to orgasmic completion -- without casting some erotic representational target in your mind's eye. Instead, clear your mind entirely, or think of, I don't know, an enormous blank canvass hanging in an art gallery. And of course no porn or helpful naked co-workers are permitted for this task either.

How'd it go? Do you see the impossibility of it? This is one of the reasons, incidentally, why I find it so hard to believe that self-proclaimed asexuals who admit to masturbating to orgasm are really and truly asexual. They must be picturing something , and whatever that something is gives away their sexuality.

(via clusterflock)

Update: Apparently the author has never been on YouTube. (thx, all)

The unknown unknownsJun 21 2010

Errol Morris is back with a new piece on his NY Times blog about how the holes in people's knowledge affect their actions.

If I were given carte blanche to write about any topic I could, it would be about how much our ignorance, in general, shapes our lives in ways we do not know about. Put simply, people tend to do what they know and fail to do that which they have no conception of. In that way, ignorance profoundly channels the course we take in life. And unknown unknowns constitute a grand swath of everybody's field of ignorance.

This is part one of a five-part series in which we hear from David Dunning about the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.

What's your time perspective?Jun 04 2010

A fascinating 10-minute animated talk by Philip Zimbardo about the different "time zones" or "time perspectives" that people can have and how the different zones affect people's world views.

The six different time zones are:

- Past positive: focus is on the "good old days", past successes, nostalgia, etc.
- Past negative: focus on regret, failure, all the things that went wrong
- Present hedonistic: living in the moment for pleasure and avoiding pain, seek novelty and sensation
- Present fatalism: life is governed by outside forces, "it doesn't pay to plan"
- Future: focus is on learning to work rather than play
- Transcendental Future: life begins after the death of the mortal body

Find out which time zone you're in by taking this survey.

Fun fact: Zimbardo conducted the famous Stanford prison experiment in 1971. (thx, sean)

Three Sons of God walk into the loony bin...Jun 02 2010

In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach took three patients who believed they were Jesus Christ and made them live with each other for two years.

The early meetings were stormy. "You oughta worship me, I'll tell you that!" one of the Christs yelled. "I will not worship you! You're a creature! You better live your own life and wake up to the facts!" another snapped back. "No two men are Jesus Christs. ... I am the Good Lord!" the third interjected, barely concealing his anger.

Ten things that influence conformityFeb 25 2010

They include mood, group size, authority, and social approval.

People use conformity to ingratiate themselves with others. Conforming also makes people feel better about themselves by bolstering self-confidence. Some people have a greater need for liking from others so are more likely to conform.

Have you noticed that nonconformers are less likely to care what other people think of them? Nonconformity and self-confidence go hand-in-hand.

How con artists exploit human behaviorDec 08 2009

An extensive analysis of the seven principles of human behavior that con artists exploit (with many examples of cons). Or check out the Cliffs Notes version.

The Time principle: When you are under time pressure to make an important choice, you use a different decision strategy. Hustlers steer you towards a strategy involving less reasoning.

Getting a rise out of getting a riseOct 07 2009

Scientists discovered that it's likely that some individuals with high testosterone actually perceive other people's anger as a reward. Researchers tested the subjects' testosterone levels and assigned them "learning tasks" where images of faces were subliminally flashed in response to their performance. Participants who had higher testosterone levels responded better to angry faces than to neutral ones, even though the faces were on screen too briefly to identify. Michelle Wirth, who led the study, explained how this can possibly be correlated to other testing methods:

"Better learning of a task associated with anger faces indicates that the anger faces were rewarding, as in a rat that learns to press a lever in order to receive a tasty treat. In that sense, anger faces seemed to be rewarding for high-testosterone people, but aversive for low-testosterone people."

So the next time it seems like that person is trying to piss you off, reward them with a knuckle sandwich.

Food phobiaOct 02 2009

Dave Nunley is a food phobic in the UK who has primarily subsisted on grated cheddar cheese since birth. Although he's eating up to three times the amount of fat recommended for the average diet, he seems to be in fairly good health, save for a vitamin B deficiency.

This isn't as uncommon as you might think. Unlike fad diets that eschew one corner of the food pyramid for another, food phobia is an actual fear-based aversion to a particular kind of vittle, either due to taste, association, or texture. The disorder, which psychologists believe has links to obsessive compulsive disorder, can lead to nutritional deficits, a compromised immune system, and a lot of awkwardness at dinner parties. Orthorexia, a similar condition, is an obsession with healthful eating that can at times become so severe that it leads to anorexia, but food phobics find their meals dominated by their fear. Ironically, legendary egg-shaped director Alfred Hitchcock was an admitted ovophobe, and was "revolted" by eggs.

Update: It seems the Brits have cornered the market on uncovering food phobias. The show Freaky Eaters on BBC Three documents individuals with such severely restricted eating that they avoid certain food groups altogether. The show aims to help each person overcome their aversions and adopt a healthy diet.

(thx jodi)

Update: Another British export is the website Adult Picky Eaters, which aims to provide a forum and self-help information for those struggling with food issues. The author also documents her struggle with picky eating, and the comments on the site are pretty revealing.

(thx rob)

Lack of parental pressure turns nos into yesesSep 18 2009

When the usual methods of getting your child to do something fail, perhaps try the exact opposite approach instead.

They direct the parents to temporarily back off almost entirely: to stop asking their child to do the desired behavior and say it's OK not to do it at all, stop offering praise or other rewards for doing it, and mask their attitude of engaged enthusiasm or frustrated rage with an appearance of bland disinterest in whether the child does it or not. What happens next, frequently, is that within a day or two the child starts doing the behavior with no prompting from parents or anyone else.

The explanation of why this technique works is pretty interesting. We've tried it a bit recently with Ollie and his extreme disinterest in brushing his teeth and we're seeing some promising results, although I imagine this works better with slightly older kids.

Cheating on the Rorschach testJul 29 2009

Rorschach inkblot

After someone posted all ten of the Rorschach inkblots to Wikipedia along with the most common responses to them, some psychologists cried foul, saying that the responses could be used by people to "cheat" on the tests.

"The more test materials are promulgated widely, the more possibility there is to game it," said Bruce L. Smith, a psychologist and president of the International Society of the Rorschach and Projective Methods, who has posted under the user name SPAdoc. He quickly added that he did not mean that a coached subject could fool the person giving the test into making the wrong diagnosis, but rather "render the results meaningless."

To psychologists, to render the Rorschach test meaningless would be a particularly painful development because there has been so much research conducted - tens of thousands of papers, by Dr. Smith's estimate - to try to link a patient's responses to certain psychological conditions. Yes, new inkblots could be used, these advocates concede, but those blots would not have had the research - "the normative data," in the language of researchers - that allows the answers to be put into a larger context.

I was not aware that the inkblot tests were even in use anymore...seems like an antiquated technique.

Increasing creativity and psychological distanceJul 28 2009

Social psychologists have discovered in recent years that one way to increase creativity is by inducing a state of psychological distance.

This research has important practical implications. It suggests that there are several simple steps we can all take to increase creativity, such as traveling to faraway places (or even just thinking about such places), thinking about the distant future, communicating with people who are dissimilar to us, and considering unlikely alternatives to reality. Perhaps the modern environment, with its increased access to people, sights, music, and food from faraway places, helps us become more creative not only by exposing us to a variety of styles and ideas, but also by allowing us to think more abstractly.

The science of persuasionJun 10 2009

This list of 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive is pretty awesome. Two of my favorites:

2. Introduce herd effect in highly personalized form. The hotel sign in the bathroom informed the guests that many prior guests chose to be environmentally friendly by recycling their towels. However, when the message mentioned that majority of the guests who stayed in this specific room chose to be more environmentally conscious and reused their towels, towel recycling jumped 33%, even though the message was largely the same.

40. Incentive programs need a good start. A car-wash place gave one group of customers a free car wash after 8 washes, and everybody got their first stamp after their visit. Group B got a free car wash after 10 car washes, with 3 stamps on the card. Both groups needed to make 7 more trips to get a free wash. 19% of the Group A returned, while 34% of the Group B did.

These are all taken from a book of the same name. (via lone gunman)

I've lost control againMay 21 2009

Jonah Lehrer, who is seemingly in a race with Michael Lewis these days to see who can write the most books and articles in a 12-month period, writes about self-control in the New Yorker...what it is, how it works, and how it affects things like achievement, happiness, etc. The article focuses on the efforts of Dr. Walter Mischel and the marshmallow test that he developed to measure self-control in young kids. With the marshmallow test, kids are given a mashmallow and they are told that they can eat it right away or, if they hold out, they can eat two marshmallows.

Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

I must have really underachieved on the SAT because as a four-year-old, I would have likely waited forever...I don't like marshmallows.

Update: Radiolab recently tackled the marshmallow test on their podcast. There is also marshmallow test footage on YouTube. (thx, michael)

Update: Lehrer answers readers' questions over on the New Yorker web site.

Squeezing the lemonMay 15 2009

What Makes Us Happy? asks Joshua Wolf Shenk in the June 2009 issue of The Atlantic. The article is a dual biography of two intertwined entities, a long-running study of 268 Harvard men and the study's long-time principal investigator, George Vaillant. The study was started as a way to determine how people lived successful lives. Valliant's main interpretation from decades of study is that how people respond or adapt to trouble correlates with their healthy aging.

At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or "psychotic," adaptations -- like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania -- which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the "immature" adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren't as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. "Neurotic" defenses are common in "normal" people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one's feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve "seemingly inexplicable naivete, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ." The healthiest, or "mature," adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

Shenk then goes on to evaluate Vaillant on his own terms, with some interesting results.

Setting goals can backfireApr 22 2009

Sometimes I link to stuff only because it justifies my organizational laziness. See: Ready, aim...fail.

A few management scholars are now looking deeper into the effects of goals, and finding that goals have a dangerous side. Individuals, governments, and companies like GM show ample ability to hurt themselves by setting and blindly following goals, even those that seem to make sense at the time.

I'll continue stumbling towards the light at the end of the tunnel, thank you very much.

Mo' money, mo' socioeconomic issuesApr 10 2009

New Scientist has collected a bunch of studies related to the pychological impact of money on people.

Almost all of us, for example, are "loss averse" -- it hurts more to lose £50 than it feels good to win £50. We also value money in relative rather than absolute terms -- we consider £10 irrelevant when buying a house but not when paying for a meal. Similarly, finding £100 will give many people more pleasure than having a heating bill cut from £950 to £835, even though this gains them more in real terms.

Getting people to voteOct 27 2008

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman suggests that just asking people whether they are going to vote is a good way to get them to actually vote.

Those effects would be small at the margin, but there are those effects that are small at the margin that can change election results. You call and ask people ahead of time, "Will you vote?" That's all. "Do you intend to vote?" That increases voting participation substantially, and you can measure it. It's a completely trivial manipulation, but saying 'Yes' to a stranger, "I will vote"...

(via marginal revolution)

Update: Or perhaps not. This paper by Dustin Cho finds that there's no "statistically significant" correlation between intending to or being asked if you're going to vote and actually voting. (thx, max)

Survival of the fittest Playboy PlaymateOct 17 2008

In lean times, men look for women who can work and in times of plenty, they want women who can reproduce.

The Environmental Security Hypothesis says that in tough times men will prefer women who are good at production, generally older, taller, heavier, less curvaceous women with less body fat. In good times, they will prefer women who are good at reproduction, generally younger, shorter, lighter, more curvaceous women.

A pair of social psychologists looked for signs of this in the pages of Playboy magazine.

Consistent with Environmental Security Hypothesis predictions, when social and economic conditions were difficult, older, heavier, taller Playboy Playmates of the Year with larger waists, smaller eyes, larger waist-to-hip ratios, smaller bust-to-waist ratios, and smaller body mass index values were selected. These results suggest that environmental security may influence perceptions and preferences for women with certain body and facial features.

Traits of the creative personalitySep 16 2008

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's ten paradoxical traits of the creative personality.

Furthermore, people who bring about an acceptable novelty in a domain seem able to use well two opposite ways of thinking: the convergent and the divergent. Convergent thinking is measured by IQ tests, and it involves solving well-defined, rational problems that have one correct answer. Divergent thinking leads to no agreed-upon solution. It involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas. These are the dimensions of thinking that most creativity tests measure and that most workshops try to enhance.

Some of this seems like foolishness but the rest is a really interesting look at how to channel your creativity into success. (via 43f)

How to be a con manSep 04 2008

I could read about con men and tricksters all day.

"I could sell shit at an anti-scat party," he says, "you have to figure out someone's wants and needs and convince them what you have will fill their emotional void." A con man is essentially a salesman -- a remarkably good one -- who excels at making people feel special and understood. A con man validates the victim's desire to believe he has an edge on other people.

It requires avid study of psychology and body language. It's an amazing paradox--a con man has incredible emotional insight, but without the burden of compassion. He must take an intense interest in other people, complete strangers, and work to understand them, yet remain detached and uninvested. That the plan is to cheat these people and ultimately confirm many of their fears cannot be of concern.

The particular fellow profiled in that piece has also written a book called How to Cheat at Everything.

Top ten psychology videosAug 08 2008

The top ten psychology videos includes footage of the Stanford Prison Experiment and Jill Boyte Taylor's TED talk about having a stroke. Surely this 45-min video about The Milgram Experiment should have been on the list.

We've heard from the sex workers aboutMar 16 2008

We've heard from the sex workers about the Spitzer affair. Now the psychologists. This article compiles many ideas about why Spitzer did what he did:

Psychologist Christopher Ryan, author of "Sex in Prehistory," says the desire for sex with more than one person has always been there -- for leaders and followers alike. "The desire is not a function of status or power -- it's a question of availability."

What's relatively new to the human race, he said, is the ability to exercise power and the connection between power and sex.

That's because, for most of human existence, there was only so far a man could coerce others when food was essentially free and hard to hoard. And until relatively recently, sex with multiple partners was the norm. "It would have been very unusual 100,000 years ago for a person to have one sexual partner for 30 years," said Ryan in an interview from Barcelona.

And here's the evolutionary psychological point of view:

She points out that, while powerful men throughout western history have married monogamously (they had only one legal wife at a time), they have always mated polygynously (they had lovers, concubines, and female slaves). Many had harems, consisting of hundreds and even thousands of virgins. With their wives, they produced legitimate heirs; with the others, they produced bastards (Betzig's term). Genes and inclusive fitness make no distinction between the two categories of children. While the legitimate heirs, unlike the bastards, inherited their fathers' power and status and often went on to have their own harems, powerful men sometimes invested in their bastards as well.

As a result, powerful men of high status throughout human history attained very high reproductive success, leaving a large number of offspring (legitimate or otherwise), while countless poor men in the countryside died mateless and childless.

(thx, anne)

Update: And one more from Natalie Angier:

Yet as biologists have discovered through the application of DNA paternity tests to the offspring of these bonded pairs, social monogamy is very rarely accompanied by sexual, or genetic, monogamy. Assay the kids in a given brood, whether of birds, voles, lesser apes, foxes or any other pair-bonding species, and anywhere from 10 to 70 percent will prove to have been sired by somebody other than the resident male.

Keeping too many doors open narrows ourMar 03 2008

Keeping too many doors open narrows our options.

"Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss," Dr. Ariely says. In the experiment, the price was easy to measure in lost cash. In life, the costs are less obvious -- wasted time, missed opportunities. If you are afraid to drop any project at the office, you pay for it at home.

The Year in Ideas, 2007Dec 10 2007

The NY Times Magazine is out with its annual Year in Ideas issue. 2007 was the year of green -- green energy, green manufacturing, and even a green Nobel Prize for Al Gore -- and environmentalism featured heavily on the Times' list. But I found some of the other items on the list more interesting.

Ambiguity Promotes Liking. Sometimes the more you learn about a person or a situation, the more likely you are to be disappointed:

Why? For starters, initial information is open to interpretation. "And people are so motivated to find somebody they like that they read things into the profiles," Norton says. If a man writes that he likes the outdoors, his would-be mate imagines her perfect skiing companion, but when she learns more, she discovers "the outdoors" refers to nude beaches. And "once you see one dissimilarity, everything you learn afterward gets colored by that," Norton says.

I'm an optimistic pessimist by nature; I believe everything in my life will eventually average out for the better but I assume the worst of individual situations for the reasons proposed in the article above. That way, when I assume something isn't going to work out, I'm rarely disappointed.

The Best Way to Deflect an Asteroid involves a technique called "mirror bees".

The best method, called "mirror bees," entails sending a group of small satellites equipped with mirrors 30 to 100 feet wide into space to "swarm" around an asteroid and trail it, Vasile explains. The mirrors would be tilted to reflect sunlight onto the asteroid, vaporizing one spot and releasing a stream of gases that would slowly move it off course. Vasile says this method is especially appealing because it could be scaled easily: 25 to 5,000 satellites could be used, depending on the size of the rock.

What an elegant and easily implemented solution. But Armageddon and Deep Impact would have been a whole lot less entertaining using Dr. Vasile's approach.

The Cat-Lady Conundrum. More than 60 million Americans are infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that most people get from their cats. And it's not exactly harmless:

Jaroslav Flegr, an evolutionary biologist at Charles University in the Czech Republic, is looking into it. He has spent years studying Toxo's impact on human behavior. (He found, for example, that people infected with Toxo have slower reflexes and are 2.5 times as likely to get into car accidents.)

This may explain why I can't seem to get past "Easy" on Guitar Hero.

The Honeycomb Vase is actually made by bees. One unintended consequence of having a vase made out of beeswax is that flowers last longer in it:

Libertiny is convinced that flowers last longer in them, because beeswax contains propolis, an antibacterial agent that protects against biological decay. "We found out by accident," he explains. "We had a bouquet, which was too big for the beeswax vase, so we put half of the flowers in a glass vase. We noticed the difference after a week or so.

Prison Poker. This is a flat out brilliantly simple idea:

[Officer Tommy Ray] made his own deck of cards, each bearing information about a different local criminal case that had gone cold. He distributed the decks in the Polk County jail. His hunch was that prisoners would gossip about the cases during card games, and somehow clues or breaks would emerge and make their way to the authorities. The plan worked. Two months in, as a result of a tip from a card-playing informant, two men were charged with a 2004 murder in a case that had gone cold.

The Gomboc is the world's first Self-Righting Object.

It leans off to one side, rocks to and fro as if gathering strength and then, presto, tips itself back into a "standing" position as if by magic. It doesn't have a hidden counterweight inside that helps it perform this trick, like an inflatable punching-bag doll that uses ballast to bob upright after you whack it. No, the Gomboc is something new: the world's first self-righting object.

More information is available on the Gomboc web site. You can order a Gomboc for €80 + S&H.

Update: The Gomboc is available for sale but it doesn't come cheap. The €80 version is basically a paperweight with a Gomboc shape carved out of it. It's €1000+ for a real Gomboc, which is ridiculous. (thx, nick)

The Case Against AdolescenceSep 26 2007

The Case Against Adolescence

Psychology Today talks with psychologist Robert Epstein about his book, The Case Against Adolescence:

In every mammalian species, immediately upon reaching puberty, animals function as adults, often having offspring. We call our offspring "children" well past puberty. The trend started a hundred years ago and now extends childhood well into the 20s. The age at which Americans reach adulthood is increasing -- 30 is the new 20 -- and most Americans now believe a person isn't an adult until age 26.

The whole culture collaborates in artificially extending childhood, primarily through the school system and restrictions on labor. The two systems evolved together in the late 19th-century; the advocates of compulsory-education laws also pushed for child-labor laws, restricting the ways young people could work, in part to protect them from the abuses of the new factories. The juvenile justice system came into being at the same time. All of these systems isolate teens from adults, often in problematic ways.

Epstein says the infantilization of adolescents creates a lot of conflict and isolation on both sides of the divide. Over at Marginal Revolution, economist Tyler Cowen adds:

The problem, of course, is that a contemporary wise and moderate 33 year old is looking to climb the career ladder, find a mate, or raise his babies. He doesn't have a great desire to educate unruly fifteen year olds and indeed he can insulate himself from them almost completely. He doesn't need a teenager to carry his net on the elephant hunt. Efficient capitalist production and rising wage rates lead to an increased sorting by age and the moral education of teens takes a hit.

You can read the first chapter of the book at The Radical Academy.

Update: Bryan writes to recommend Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood, saying that "Postman argues that the idea of childhood is a cultural phenomena that comes and goes through the ages". (thx, bryan)

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: "the phenomenon whereby peopleJun 25 2007

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: "the phenomenon whereby people who have little knowledge systematically think that they know more than others who have much more knowledge". "Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Meanwhile, people with true knowledge tended to underestimate their competence." (via cyn-c)

Last 100 posts, part 8May 30 2007

Here are some updates on some of the topics, links, ideas, posts, people, etc. that have appeared on kottke.org recently (previous installment is here):

The Celluloid Skyline exhibition at Grand Central is well worth checking out...I was up there this past weekend. Pentagram collaborated with Saunders on the exhibit and wrote up a brief piece on how it came together.

My short post on Nina Planck's reaction to the recent "death by veganism", as she calls it, of a baby boy is a good reminder that I don't always agree with the things I link to. My only criteria for posting a link is that it's interesting, whether I think it's right or wrong or am still trying to form an opinion about it. Anyway, I got lots of mail about this one, much of it that said that the parents' veganism was beside the point -- which the prosecutors and jury in the subsequent criminal case agreed with (thx, matt) -- and that a headline like "Death By Stupidity" was probably more appropriate. After all, you don't see "Death by Omnivorism" headlines every time a baby with a more traditional diet dies of starvation.

Debra from Culiblog pointed out that contrary to Planck's assertion that "there are no vegan societies", the Jainists practice vegetarianism and veganism. On the other side of the aisle, meat fan Michael Ruhlman chastised Planck for going too easy on vegans, saying that "Veganism is a colossal arrogance, a refusal to admit to our own nature, a denial of our humanity. Sometimes it kills people. And it's not very much fun, besides." You can imagine the discussion that generated...although it was nothing like the 300+ comment thread on MetaFilter.

My opinion of Cars improved with a second viewing.

Discover's chat bot conversation reminded a reader of this old interview with the Ask Jeeves search engine (thx david). Back in 2002, I interviewed ELLEGirl magazine's AIMbot:

jkottke: Do you do anything to celebrate or recognize the changing of seasons?
ELLEgirlBuddy: do you do anything to celebrate or recognize the changing of seasons? that's a tough choice.
jkottke: yes, to celebrate or merely recognize. that is a toughie.
ELLEgirlBuddy: yes to celebrate or merely recognize that is a toughie? i dunno.
jkottke: you seem like an actual 13 year old girl.
ELLEgirlBuddy: i haven't really made a decision 'bout that.
jkottke: growing up is tough, isn't it?
ELLEgirlBuddy: i dunno.

And whoever posted the chat bot story to Digg (5696 Diggs and counting!) used the exact wording from my original post. You're welcome!

Prime, David Burke's quarter-million-dollar Black Angus bull, has his own web site. (thx, brian)

Regarding Alex Reisner's excellent baseball statistics web site and, in particular, the pennant race graphs, here's another interesting visualization of the pennant races...you can see the teams race to the end of the year like horses. (thx, scott)

Re: my post on better living through self-deception, I've heard that pregnant women tend to forget the pain of childbirth, perhaps because "endorphins reduce the amount of information trauma victims can store". Also related tangetially is this article on research into lying and laughing, which includes this simple test to see if you're a good liar:

Are you a good liar? Most people think that they are, but in reality there are big differences in how well we can pull the wool over the eyes of others. There is a very simple test that can help determine your ability to lie. Using the first finger of your dominant hand, draw a capital letter Q on your forehead.

Some people draw the letter Q in such a way that they themselves can read it. That is, they place the tail of the Q on the right-hand side of their forehead. Other people draw the letter in a way that can be read by someone facing them, with the tail of the Q on the left side of their forehead. This quick test provides a rough measure of a concept known as "self-monitoring". High self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be seen by someone facing them. Low self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be read by themselves.

High self-monitors tend to be concerned with how other people see them. They are happy being the centre of attention, can easily adapt their behaviour to suit the situation in which they find themselves, and are skilled at manipulating the way in which others see them. As a result, they tend to be good at lying. In contrast, low self-monitors come across as being the "same person" in different situations. Their behaviour is guided more by their inner feelings and values, and they are less aware of their impact on those around them. They also tend to lie less in life, and so not be so skilled at deceit.

The skyscraper with one floor isn't exactly a new idea. Rem Koolhaas won a competition to build two libraries in France with one spiraling floor in 1992 (thx, mike). Of course, there's the Guggenheim in NYC and many parking garages.

After posting a brief piece on Baltimore last week, I discovered that several of my readers are current or former residents of Charm City...or at least have an interest in it. Armin sent along the Renaming Baltimore project...possible names are Domino, Maryland and Lessismore. A Baltimore Sun article on the Baltimore Youth Lacrosse League published shortly after my post also referenced the idea of "Two Baltimores. Two cities in one." The Wire's many juxtapositions of the "old" and "new" Baltimore are evident to viewers of the series. Meanwhile, Mobtown Shank took a look at the crime statistics for Baltimore and noted that crime has actually decreased more than 40% from 1999 to 2005. (thx, fred)

Cognitive Daily took an informal poll and found that fewer than half the respondants worked a standard 8-5 Mon-Fri schedule. Maybe that's why the streets and coffeeshops aren't empty during the workday.

List of cognitive biases. "Mere exposure effectMay 29 2007

List of cognitive biases. "Mere exposure effect - the tendency for people to express undue liking for things merely because they are familiar with them." See how many of these you exhibit while reading things on the web!

Better living through self deceptionMay 24 2007

Interesting article about how people tell their stories and think of their past experiences and how that influences their mood and general outlook on life.

At some level, talk therapy has always been an exercise in replaying and reinterpreting each person's unique life story. Yet Mr. Adler found that in fact those former patients who scored highest on measures of well-being -- who had recovered, by standard measures -- told very similar tales about their experiences.

They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.

"The story is one of victorious battle: 'I ended therapy because I could overcome this on my own,'" Mr. Adler said. Those in the study who scored lower on measures of psychological well-being were more likely to see their moods and behavior problems as a part of their own character, rather than as a villain to be defeated. To them, therapy was part of a continuing adaptation, not a decisive battle.

The article goes on to describe the benefits of thinking about past events in the third person rather than in the first person:

In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory, whether an argument or failed exam, when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students' essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.

"What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you're feeling upset," instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study's lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.

But things like eating disorders and mental illness aren't external forces and thinking about a bad memory as if it happened to a third party is not the truth. The standard model of the happy, smart, successful human being is someone who knows more, works hard, and has found, or at least is heading toward, their own personal meaning of life. But often that's not the case. Self-deceit (or otherwise willfully forgetting seemingly pertinent information) seems to be important to human growth.

Consider the recent findings by a group at Harvard about the effects of mindset on physical fitness:

The researchers studied 84 female housekeepers from seven hotels. Women in 4 hotels were told that their regular work was enough exercise to meet the requirements for a healthy, active lifestyle, whereas the women in the other three hotels were told nothing. To determine if the placebo effect plays a role in the benefits of exercise, the researchers investigated whether subjects' mind-set (in this case, their perceived levels of exercise) could inhibit or enhance the health benefits of exercise independent of any actual exercise.

Four weeks later, the researchers returned to assess any changes in the women's health. They found that the women in the informed group had lost an average of 2 pounds, lowered their blood pressure by almost 10 percent, and were significantly healthier as measured by body-fat percentage, body mass index, and waist-to-hip ratio. These changes were significantly higher than those reported in the control group and were especially remarkable given the time period of only four weeks.

Just by thinking they were exercising, these women gained extra benefit from their usual routines. The idea of thinking about oneself reminded me of Allen Iverson's training routine, which utilizes a technique called psychocybernetics:

"Let me tell you about Allen's workouts," says Terry Royster, his bodyguard from 1997 until early 2002. "All the time I have been with him, I never seen him lift a weight or stand there and shoot jumper after jumper. Instead, we'll be on our way to the game and he'll be quiet as hell. Finally, he'll say, 'You know now I usually cross my man over and take it into the lane and pull up? Well, tonight I'm gonna cross him over and then take a step back and fade away. I'm gonna kill 'em with it all night long.' And damned if he didn't do just that. See, that's his workout, when he's just sitting there, thinking. That's him working on his game."

What Iverson is doing is tricking his conscious self into thinking that he's done something that he hasn't, that he's practiced a move or shot 100 perfect free throws in a row. I think, therefore I slam. (I wonder if Iverson pictures himself in the first or third person in his visualizations.)

Carol Dweck's research looks at the difference between thinking of talent or ability as innate as opposed to something that can be developed:

At the time, the suggested cure for learned helplessness was a long string of successes. Dweck posited that the difference between the helpless response and its opposite -- the determination to master new things and surmount challenges -- lay in people's beliefs about why they had failed. People who attributed their failures to lack of ability, Dweck thought, would become discouraged even in areas where they were capable. Those who thought they simply hadn't tried hard enough, on the other hand, would be fueled by setbacks.

For some people, the facade they've created for themselves can come crashing down suddenly, as with stage fright:

He describes the sense of acute self-consciousness and loss of confidence that followed as "stage dread," a sort of "paradigm shift." He says, "It's not 'Look at me - I'm flying.' It's 'Look at me - I might fall.' It would be like playing a game of chess where you're constantly regretting the moves you've already played rather than looking at the ones you're going to play." Fry could not mobilize his defenses; unable to shore himself up, he took himself away.

In a slightly different but still related vein, Gerd Gigerenzer's research indicates that ignoring information is how smart decisions are made:

In order to make good decisions in an uncertain world, one sometimes has to ignore information. The art is knowing what one doesn't have to know.

Research done by Edward Vogel at the University of Oregon shows the capacity of a person's visual working memory "depends on your ability to filter out irrelevant information":

"Until now, it's been assumed that people with high capacity visual working memory had greater storage but actually, it's about the bouncer - a neural mechanism that controls what information gets into awareness," Vogel said.

And data from another study indicates that perhaps one of the things that the brain does best is forgetting ("motivated (voluntary) forgetting", in the words of one researcher):

The findings suggest that despite the brain's astonishing ability to archive a lifetime of memories, one of its prime functions is, paradoxically, to forget. Our sensory organs continually deluge us with information, some of it unpleasant. We wouldn't get through the day -- or through life -- if we didn't repress much of it.

Perhaps the way to true personal acheivement and happiness is through lying to yourself instead of being honest, loafing instead of practicing, and purposely forgetting information. There are plenty of self-help books on the market...where are the self-hurt books?

Researchers looking into the science of happinessMar 26 2007

Researchers looking into the science of happiness have found evidence that through kindness, gratitude, and optimism exercises, a person can increase their happiness level, much like physical exercise can increase physical fitness.

New research on laughter is showing that "Mar 13 2007

New research on laughter is showing that "It's an instinctual survival tool for social animals, not an intellectual response to wit. Itss not about getting the joke. It's about getting along. It's a way to make friends and also make clear who belongs where in the status hierarchy."

Why do we feel suspense, surprise, orMar 09 2007

Why do we feel suspense, surprise, or delight when watching a movie we've seen before? "But later you watch Notorious a second time. Strangely, you feel suspense, moment by moment, all over again. You know perfectly well how things will turn out, so how can there be uncertainty? How can you feel suspense on the second, or twenty-second viewing?"

Analysis of some studies that link politicalJan 10 2007

Analysis of some studies that link political tendancies and factors like education level, how afraid we feel, and personality traits. "[A study] found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature." And an interesting conclusion about the effects of rational thought on all this.

Does free will exist? "The conscious brainJan 05 2007

Does free will exist? "The conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion, the monkey making up a story about what the tiger had already done."

People with low self-esteem don't like surpriseDec 20 2006

People with low self-esteem don't like surprise endings in mystery novels while the self-confident did. (via mr)

The Rotenberg Center is a school forOct 12 2006

The Rotenberg Center is a school for special education students that is essentially a giant Skinner box. Students are hooked to electrical devices and shocked when they misbehave. At once fascinating and disturbing. (via mr)

Why does Ze Frank's face fill theSep 28 2006

Why does Ze Frank's face fill the entire screen on The Show? According to experiments described in The Media Equation, when participants were shown a series of photographs of people shot from different distances from the camera, "the faces that had the most impact on the viewers were the ones with screen-filling faces and that seemed 'closer' to the viewer, those with the least interpersonal distance".

Unobserved people paid almost three times asJun 28 2006

Unobserved people paid almost three times as much to the "honesty box" when watched by a photocopied face than in the absence of the face. See also What the Bagel Man Saw by Freakonomists Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt. I wonder if the smiley face on milk cartons deters people from drinking straight from the carton?

Update: Spiegel Online has a story with a graph depicting the results of different sets of eyes...sexy eyes did the worst while serious eyes looking straight ahead performed the best. (thx, roland)

Why online text-only communication is so problematic:Feb 14 2006

Why online text-only communication is so problematic: interpretation of tone in email is successful only about half the time but we think we're 90% successful. No word on how emoticons affect interpretation success. ;) ;)

Political party members' brains get a rushJan 26 2006

Political party members' brains get a rush from "ignoring information that's contrary to their point of view". "None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged. Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones."

The researchers found that while straight menDec 14 2005

The researchers found that while straight men are only aroused by females of the human variety, straight women are equally aroused by all human sexual activity, including lesbian, heterosexual and homosexual male sex, and at least somewhat aroused by nonhuman sex.

Good review of Philip Tetlock's new bookDec 12 2005

Good review of Philip Tetlock's new book about expert predicitons, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? "Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world, in other words, are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys, who would have distributed their picks evenly over the three choices." Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowen calls Tetlock's book "one of the (few) must-read social science books of 2005".

German researchers are studying the mysterious phenomenonDec 01 2005

German researchers are studying the mysterious phenomenon of people waking up shortly before their alarm goes off. I've been getting better and better at doing this. A friend of mine (can't recall who exactly) doesn't use an alarm clock but gets up on time by setting his/her internal alarm clock. Also, this sounds like something Feynman would have been into.

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How DifficultiesJul 08 2005

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.

Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple IntelligencesMay 03 2005

Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. You can be smarter than your friends in nine different ways.

this is kottke.org

   Front page
   About + contact
   Site archives

You can follow kottke.org on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Feedly, or RSS.

Ad from The Deck

We Work Remotely

 

Enginehosting

Hosting provided EngineHosting