A paper on the psychology of religious belief, Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers, came onto my radar recently. I used to talk a lot about the theory of religious cognitive psychology years ago, but the interest kind of faded when it seemed that empirical results were relatively thin in relation to the system building (Ara Norenzayan’s work being an exception to this generality). The theory is rather straightforward: religious belief is a naturally evoked consequence of the general architecture of our minds. For example, gods are simply extensions of persons, and make natural sense in light of our tendency to anthromorphize the world around us (this may have had evolutionary benefit, in that false positives for detection of other agents was far less costly than false negatives; think an ambush by a rival clan).*
This is a datum which you can dine out on, The Bias You Didn’t Expect:
It turns out that legal realism is totally wrong. It’s not what the judge had for breakfast. It’s how recently the judge had breakfast. A a new study (media coverage) on Israeli judges shows that, when making parole decisions, they grant about 65% after meal breaks, and almost all the way down to 0% right before breaks and at the end of the day (i.e. as far from the last break as possible). There’s a relatively linear decline between the two points.
About 20 years ago I lived for a year in a rural area where Amish were a common feature of country roads and farmers’ markets. My parents, being Muslims, would sometimes buy chickens from the local Amish and slaughter them according to halal. We had a relationship with a particular family. They were nice people, though I have to admit that their chickens were a bit tougher than I was used to. In many ways the Amish lived predictably parallel lives from the “English” (we referred to them as “Dutchees”), but they’d always pop up from the background in unexpected ways. Amish don’t seem to have a problem with modern medicine, so we’d run into them at the hospital sometimes. Whenever my father saw an Amish fruit or vegetable stand on a country road he’d pull over, because they’d often let us sample a bit before we purchased (we always purchased watermelons from the Amish for this very reason). It’s been a long time, so I haven’t thought about the Amish in much depth. Living on the West coast you don’t run into their kind very often (I don’t recall ever running into Amish on the West coast in fact). But it turns out that the number of Amish in the United States of America has more than doubled in the past 20 years. Their population went from 123,000 in 1991 to 249,000 in 2010. The fertility of the traditionalist Old Older Amish is 6.2. Here’s the Old Older Amish fertility rates in an international perspective:
Sometimes books advertise themselves very well with their title. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us is one of those books. Alternatively it could have been titled: “Giving thinking a second chance.” Or, with an eye toward pushing copies: “Why everything Malcolm Gladwell tells you is crap.” And finally, a more highbrow possibility: “Reflection: man’s greatest invention.”
The “hook” for The Invisible Gorilla is the experiment which goes colloquially by the same name. The authors of the book, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, actually wrote the paper Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events (though they note that the basic insight goes back to the 1970s). Here’s a YouTube clip illustrating Chabris & Simons’ set up. Despite the eye-catching way the authors grab your attention the core message of The Invisible Gorilla is often very Plain Jane: thinking is hard, it yields real results, and, beware of short-cuts. Many sections of the book read as counterpoints to the counterintuitive defenses of intuition which Malcolm Gladwell presents in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Gladwell as it happens played a key role in popularizing knowledge of “the invisible gorilla” phenomenon). Despite being “sexed” up in the past few decades the defense of intuition, of “gut,” has a long intellectual history. For every Kant there is a Wang Yangming. And yet the borderlands between intuition and deduction, reflex and reflection, can often be gray. I would argue that much of human culture actually emerges from rational extensions of intuition. David Hume famously asserted reason’s slavery to passion, but I think a less grand way of characterizing the nature of different aspects of cognition is that they complement and supplement each other (see How We Decide).
I highly recommend this discussion between Paul Bloom & Robert Wright. The topic under consideration is the psychology of pleasure, as reviewed in Bloom’s new book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. You can also find out about Bloom’s ideas in this exchange in Slate. The essentialism examined in Descarte’s Baby is being taken for another spin, though with a more precise focus. The bottom line is that pleasure is often contingent on more than proximate empirical sensory input; it depends on what you perceive to be the essence of the object of pleasure, even its history (or more crassly, its price). This truth may make the calculation project of the utilitarian heirs of Gottfried Leibniz pragmatically impossible.