I first encountered Dan Ariely on the radio show Marketplace, where he offers up little nuggets of research data from the new field of behavioral economics. Because of the individual scale of the research many of Ariely’s findings have some personal finance implications. Consider the pain of paying. This is the finding that when people pay with credit as opposed to cash for dinner, they are willing to spend more. Why? Because credit cards decouple the psychic “pain” of payment from the specific act. The act of deferring reduces our pain at the damage done, and allows consumption with less guilt and discomfort. The big-picture implication of this is obvious when it comes to the credit economy, but for myself I have taken to always paying for frequent small purchases with debit or cash. I do put less frequent large purchases on credit cards on occasion, for example when I buy a plane ticket for a trip months into the future. My reasoning is that I can concentrate in a reflective and rational manner on a few large purchases to a far greater extent than I can on the habitual small weekly food purchases. Monthly automatic cell phone payments for example are naturally a different beast than going to the grocery store; not only are the payments infrequent and regular, but the interval of their expense is predictable (totally predictable if you have some sort of unlimited plan).
Steven Pinker has a new essay in The New York Times Magazine, The Moral Instinct. Chris of Mixing Memory is critical of Pinker when he goes outside of his specialization in the psychology of language…but I did enjoy the ending:
Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”
Knowledge is power.
Many of you have heard of the Ultimatum Game:
The ultimatum game is an experimental economics game in which two parties interact anonymously and only once, so reciprocation is not an issue. The first player proposes how to divide a sum of money with the second party. If the second player rejects this division, neither gets anything. If the second accepts, the first gets his demand and the second gets the rest.
In theory a “rational” player should accept whatever is offered when there isn’t a repeated iteration. Reality is different. From The Economist:
…Those results recorded, Dr Burnham took saliva samples from all the students and compared the testosterone levels assessed from those samples with decisions made in the one-round game.
As he describes in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the responders who rejected a low final offer had an average testosterone level more than 50% higher than the average of those who accepted. Five of the seven men with the highest testosterone levels in the study rejected a $5 ultimate offer but only one of the 19 others made the same decision.
What does this tell us? That physiological variables which are under biological (and ultimately genetic) control can affect the typical behavior a given individual exhibits, and, that that behavior can vary despite the same inputs across the population. There isn’t any one H. economicus, there are many different ways humans interact and their propensity for a particular strategy might be conditional upon biological parameters.
Bryan Caplan reviews a survey which suggests that women are more religious cross-culturally than men. If you’ve been involved in the Freethought movement this won’t surprise you. Here’s an important point:
Once people admit that this gender gap exists, the most popular explanation is that women are “socialized” to be more religious. Stark and Miller put this theory to the test. If the socialization hypothesis is true, they reason, then the gender gap should be larger in more traditional societies where socialization pressure is more intense. Make sense to me.
Survey says: Dead wrong. In fact, the gender gap is smallest in the most traditional societies, and largest in the least traditional societies! In societies that approve of single motherhood, with a high abortion rate, low fertility, and high female labor force participation, the religiosity gap between women and men is especially large.
How to interpet this? Since I focus on genetics I think it is easy to conceptualize this as a norm of reaction, different environments result in different outcomes starting with the same biological material. In a traditional society it seems plausible that social constraints are strong. One can analogize this to the differential reaction of individuals to variation in resources (some individuals may respond more negatively toward deprivation, others more positively toward resource abundance). Genotypes which might react the same in environment x may respond very differently in environment y. My previous post on innate atheism is also applicable insofar as one ca view religiosity as threshold trait, and particular environments may simply result in saturation of religiousness (e.g., Saudi Arabia).
So what are the roots of male vs. female difference? I know the general paradigm used by researchers who presented the original results, they’re economically oriented rational choice types. I think a problem with this paradigm is that they too often view these issues rationally, as if minds are not bounded and biased by arational incoherences and illusions. These researchers operate from intuitions derived a priori instead of availing themselves of the psychological literature which draws upon empirical research which outlines how people really think. Caplan says something which I find interesting:
Men and women have different cognitive orientations – a difference that is in large part genetic. As the Myers-Briggs personality test powerfully confirms, men are more Thinking, and women are more Feeling. (Or if you prefer the Five Factor Model, men are less Agreeable).
On a deep level, then, men are more inclined to want some hard proof that religious claims are true, while women are more willing to take religious teachings on faith because they sound nice. Burn me at the stake if you must, but it’s true.
I think there is a serious problem here: Caplan seems to assume that religious beliefs emerge out of some social matrix and that women “take on faith” their truths. The cross-cultural similarities of cognitive representations of the divine point to another possibility: that religiosity emerges from natural human psychology, and in particular gods are simply agents which humans intuitively sense “must be there” because of their agency detection biases. So to male fvs. emale differences, why? I believe women have, on average, greater social intelligence and are likely to see more agency in the universe around us because of this. Men are not as religious less because of their innate skepticism, but because a greater proportion lack a powerful intuition of divine agency in the universe around us. There are other factors, but I suspect his is a large component. One might test this by studying males and females who are matched on the autism spectrum, I predict that most of the intersex difference in religiosity will disappear.
Steven Pinker has a piece where he slams George Lakoff in The New Republic. Unfortunately like much of the best stuff in TNR this is behind a pay wall, though The American Scene has posted a snip. Chris has a lot of Lakoff criticism over at his old blog, and as a political liberal himself I hope that insulates him from the charge that he is biased in some way. I actually read Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think back in the late 1990s, and remember thinking a lot “where does this dude get off telling me what I think!” I was a more strident libertarian back then and I wasn’t too happy about all the generalizations Lakoff made. Today I tend to have more respect for non-intuitive findings from cognitive science than I did back then, but, if Chris is right Lakoff doesn’t really practice mainstream cognitive science anyhow, and his tendency toward introspection isn’t really the sort of process which is insulated from criticism derived from common sense and personal intuition.
Over at my other weblog “Darth Quixote” interviews cognitive science superstar Steven Pinker.
While I’ve got your attention, here are some other 10 questions….
John Derbyshire, conservative writer.
Armand Leroi, evolutionary & developmental biologist.
Warren Treadgold, Byzantine historian.
Dan Sperber, cognitive anthropologist.
Ken Miller, cell biologist.
Judith Rich Harris, social & developmental psychologist.
Justin L. Barrett, cognitive psychologist.
Adam K. Webb., political scientist.
James F. Crow, population geneticist.
This is an area where you have to be careful to distinguish between the reasons people sincerely believe they believe in x, and the real causes at work here. Psychologists have long known that people can be primed toward particular preferences through manipulating environmental inputs, but when asked why they made the choices they made most humans can sincerely offer you a complex and plausible sounding rationale. I believe that religious belief at any moment in time is shaped by a large number of factors. But, many people will claim that one particular “reason” is the root of their belief, whether it be reading the Bible, the Cosmological Argument or a personal “experience” with the divine. I do not doubt the sincerity of these assertions, the problem with examining these beliefs about religion though is importance that individuals will ascribe to their assertions. This was, I believe, the issue that John Derbyshire was getting at in his review of Ramesh Ponnuru’s new book when he stated “It would be an astounding thing, just from a statistical point of view, if, after conducting a rigorous open-ended inquiry from philosophical first principles, our author came to conclusions precisely congruent with the dogmas of the church in which he himself is a communicant.”
I received an interesting email from the lead researcher on the work reported in the earlier post on prosopagnosia:
Dear Razib, I appreciate your comments (and scepticsm) about our reported work and the thoughts about continuums (aspergers/autism). One possibly clarifying point — Face recognition is just one aspect of face specific processing. Humans are are also adept at judging emotion, mood, intention, age, attractiveness in faces. Its our experience that the majority of prosopagnosic individuals (with some notable exceptions) are pretty much normal in performing these arguably more important perceptual chores. Their problem is in recognizing faces, particularly faces out of context. This can occur frequently in modern urban society with its crowds, great mobility plus the surfeit of facial images. It probably occurred less often in traditional societies, thus reducing selection pressure. Best, Ken
In other words, the frequency of this problem should vary with demographic history of the population that the individual is drawn from.
I had a strange experience the other day. I was walking down a hallway, and all of a sudden the name of a local software company came to mind. I didn’t understand why I was thinking about this, and I was mulling over this strange issue when 20 seconds after I’d started thinking about the company in question, a woman to my right nodded in my direction (she was a few people over). And bingo, all of a sudden I realized why I’d been thinking about that company, the woman was the roommate of another individual who I knew worked at that company. The peculiar thing is that it is clear that one part of my mind (“human recognition”) realized who the individual out of the corner of my field of vision was, and somehow that triggered cogitation about a software company that I associated with this individual. But, my conscious mind was totally unaware of this until after the fact.
Anyway, it was pretty strange at the time, though perhaps I could conclude I have psychic powers and my prescience about the relationship of this individual who was going to get my attention was simply a way of my mind of priming me. I don’t know
Reader Mengu Gulmen emailed me about our exchange in regards to how we view the development of the mind:
Mengu: Every decision we make, everything we do and say, is based on the
previous experiences we’ve had [all we did, all we have learned from
our schools and our families and friends and internet and ….
Myself: This sounds close to tabula rasa. See the cognitive revolution for why
Mengu then sent me this link, and stated:
Our neurodevelopment is closely related with our experiences (what our ‘sensors’ provide us) throughout our lives. So our thoughts are shaped according to those links established in the past between our neurons.
I really don’t know what to make of this paper I just stumbled upon, The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History Are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes:
…Our first result is that these three classes of human visual sign possess a similar signature in their configuration distribution, suggesting that there are underlying principles governing the shapes of human visual signs. Second, we provide evidence that the shapes of visual signs are selected to be easily seen at the expense of the motor system. Finally, we provide evidence to support an ecological hypothesis that visual signs have been culturally selected to match the kinds of conglomeration of contours found in natural scenes because that is what we have evolved to be good at visually processing.
I see that UC Davis is touting that its ecology & evolutionary biology program was ranked #1 by US News and World Report. Check out the “Best Graduate Schools” online sampler at US News and World Report. I had a friend who narrowly chose Harvard over Davis for evolutionary ecology, so it doesn’t surprise me that much. In ecology & evolutionary biology Berkeley & Harvard were #2 & #3 respectively.
Dan Dennett will be on Radio Open Source today to talk about his book Breaking the Spell. I’ve been getting into it on the comment boards.
Update: Re: Dennett’s book, I read it. It is a good review of the literature, though I highly recommend you go straight into the primary sources (though for Rod Stark, stick to A Theory of Religion, it is dry compared to his other stuff, but far less polemical and grating).
Related: The nature of religion and Breaking the Spell, Who Dan Denett think he be foolin’?.