Wednesday, 24 May 2017

When old is new and new is old


An interesting post from Aeon by Nick Romeo draws parallels between Plato's ideas and modern behavioural psychology and economics.

In his essay ‘On Being Modern-Minded’ (1950), Bertrand Russell describes a particularly seductive illusion about history and intellectual progress. Because every age tends to exaggerate its uniqueness and imagine itself as a culmination of progress, continuities with previous historical periods are easily overlooked: ‘new catchwords hide from us the thoughts and feelings of our ancestors, even when they differed little from our own.’

Behavioural economics is one of the major intellectual developments of the past 50 years. The work of the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in particular is justly celebrated for identifying and analysing many of the core biases in human cognition. Russell’s insight, in fact, bears a strong resemblance to what Kahneman calls the availability bias. Because the catchwords and achievements of contemporary culture are most readily called to mind – most available – they tend to dominate our assessments. The fact that Russell’s articulation of this idea is much less familiar than Kahneman’s is itself a confirmation of Russell’s point.

Changes in language and social emphasis tend to obscure the lessons of history, so much so that even common sense has to be relearned under the endless pressure of events. If it ever is relearned of course. There are reasons to doubt that. Romeo continues -

But the richest precedent for behavioural economics is in the works of ancient Greek philosophers. Almost 2,500 years before the current vogue for behavioural economics, Plato was identifying and seeking to understand the predictable irrationalities of the human mind. He did not verify them with the techniques of modern experimental psychology, but many of his insights are remarkably similar to the descriptions of the cognitive biases found by Kahneman and Tversky. Seminal papers in behavioural economics are highly cited everywhere from business and medical schools to the social sciences and the corporate world. But the earlier explorations of the same phenomenon by Greek philosophy are rarely appreciated. Noticing this continuity is both an interesting point of intellectual history and a potentially useful resource: Plato not only identified various specific weaknesses in human cognition, he also offered powerful proposals for how to overcome these biases and improve our reasoning and behaviour.

The whole essay is well worth reading. For example, the paragraph below impinges on a particularly corrosive modern problem where we seem to be losing sight of the personal element in ethical behaviour, where we pay attention to what our minds are doing or not doing when we go with the flow.

It’s rare that contemporary discussions of cognitive biases flow directly into conversations on ethics, pleasure and pain, and the best way to live one’s life. But ancient philosophy did not compartmentalise what are now cloistered academic fields. Plato understood that susceptibility to distorted reasoning was a matter of ethics as well as psychology. This does not mean anything as simple as ‘bad people are more vulnerable to cognitive biases’. But consider his diagnosis of misanthropy and other sampling errors, which stem from ‘the too great confidence of inexperience’. In the Apology, Socrates claims to be wiser than other men only because he knows that which he does not know. When Kahneman writes that we are ‘blind to our blindness’, he is reviving the Socratic idea that wisdom consists in seeing one’s blindness: knowing what you do not know.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Why Should I Be Nice?

As usual Robert Sapolsky is entertaining, lucid and convincing. It's a pleasure to listen to the guy.

Quite apart from what he has to say here, imagine a connected world where many thousands of students routinely have access to lecturers of this quality over the internet. What would all the other lecturers do?

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Hijacking minds

Last year Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist, wrote an interesting post about mass manipulation by social media. 'Hijacking minds' he calls it, comparing what is done to the tricks of misdirection magicians use. Harris is also a magician.

The techniques he describes are unlikely to be news to anyone, but it is worth reminding ourselves that global social media businesses know how to make their products appealing and even addictive. They also know how to narrow user options in their own interests.

Western Culture is built around ideals of individual choice and freedom. Millions of us fiercely defend our right to make “free” choices, while we ignore how we’re manipulated upstream by limited menus we didn’t choose.

This is exactly what magicians do. They give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose. I can’t emphasize how deep this insight is...

...For example, imagine you’re out with friends on a Tuesday night and want to keep the conversation going. You open Yelp to find nearby recommendations and see a list of bars. The group turns into a huddle of faces staring down at their phones comparing bars. They scrutinize the photos of each, comparing cocktail drinks. Is this menu still relevant to the original desire of the group?

It’s not that bars aren’t a good choice, it’s that Yelp substituted the group’s original question (“where can we go to keep talking?”) with a different question (“what’s a bar with good photos of cocktails?”) all by shaping the menu.

Moreover, the group falls for the illusion that Yelp’s menu represents a complete set of choices for where to go. While looking down at their phones, they don’t see the park across the street with a band playing live music. They miss the pop-up gallery on the other side of the street serving crepes and coffee. Neither of those show up on Yelp’s menu.

Harris goes on to list ten ways which he says are used to hijack the minds of social media users. Number seven is a good example. 

Hijack #7: Instant Interruption vs. “Respectful” Delivery

Companies know that messages that interrupt people immediately are more persuasive at getting people to respond than messages delivered asynchronously (like email or any deferred inbox).

Given the choice, Facebook Messenger (or WhatsApp, WeChat or SnapChat for that matter) would prefer to design their messaging system to interrupt recipients immediately (and show a chat box) instead of helping users respect each other’s attention.

In other words, interruption is good for business.

It’s also in their interest to heighten the feeling of urgency and social reciprocity. For example, Facebook automatically tells the sender when you “saw” their message, instead of letting you avoid disclosing whether you read it(“now that you know I’ve seen the message, I feel even more obligated to respond.”) By contrast, Apple more respectfully lets users toggle “Read Receipts” on or off.

The problem is, while messaging apps maximize interruptions in the name of business, it creates a tragedy of the commons that ruins global attention spans and causes billions of interruptions every day. This is a huge problem we need to fix with shared design standards (potentially, as part of Time Well Spent).

By now we are so familiar with it all that is isn't easy to be concerned about the trend. It has happened and the consequences are easy to see. Perhaps we could learn more about our own psychology and do something about it, but how likely is that? 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Pontius Pilate in Venezuela

Sandro Magister has some harsh words about the Pope's approach to the crisis in Venezuela.

Pontius Pilate Has Reappeared In Venezuela

The number of dead is now around forty, the wounded number a thousand. It is the price of a month of popular demonstrations, even of only women dressed in white, against the presidency of Nicolás Maduro, in a Venezuela on the brink.

A Venezuela in which a new factor has recently taken the field, and this is the growing, systematic aggression against properties and personnel of the Catholic Church...

...Nothing is off-limits. Death threats and blasphemous graffiti on the walls of churches. Masses interrupted by incursions of Chavist “colectivos.” Caracas cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino silenced during the homily and forced to leave the church. The venerated image of the Nazarene in the cathedral of Valencia smeared with human excrement. The chanceries of the dioceses of Guarenas and Maracay plundered. Thefts of consecrated hosts in Maracaibo. The headquarters of the episcopal conference devastated. One priest killed in Guayana and another abducted...

...The fact is that between Pope Francis and the Venezuelan bishops, concerning the crisis that is ravaging the country, there is an abyss. The bishops stand with the population that is protesting against the dictatorship, and are respected and listened to as authoritative guides. While Bergoglio is judged on a par with Pontius Pilate, unforgivably reckless with Maduro and Chavism, in addition to being incomprehensibly reticent on the victims of the repression and on the aggression that is striking the Church itself.

It is a fracture analogous to the one produced in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales has his biggest critics in the bishops, and instead a tireless supporter in the pope. Or that which was seen during the pope’s journey to Cuba, where Francis did not conceal his admiration for the Castro brothers, while not dignifying the dissidents with so much as a word or a glance.

As a crusty old atheist this is not my territory, yet even an atheist cannot fail to be aware that all is not well with the current papal regime. Pope Francis' support for the orthodox climate narrative must have raised quite a few eyebrows both inside and outside his church. How these things are dealt with I've no idea. Do we go back to black smoke? 

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Money for no rope

Apart from reminding us yet again of his vile crimes, the recent death of Ian Brady raises a wider issue.

Capital punishment for murder was suspended in Great Britain in 1965 and abolished in 1969. The likely motive was to remove it from the political stage, but another effect has been to monetise murder. Governments have done this kind of thing forever, they monetise certain social issues and in so doing they build inertia into the status quo. In doing that they build acceptance.

For example. Recently Mrs H and I were discussing how personal interests might subtly affect the activities of publicly funded bodies such drug enforcement agencies. It has been said before but has not been said often enough – where is the enforcement agent’s personal motive to reduce the scale of the drugs problem?

This is not to claim that the problem is resolvable or that enforcement is lax, but if drug abuse were to vanish with the wave of a magic wand then jobs would vanish too. Jobs which pay the mortgage, buy food, clothes, fuel, holidays, car and a hundred other consumer goodies. For enforcement agencies, perpetuating the status quo is rational behaviour. If the drugs situation worsens, government may be forced to try another approach. If the situation improves, budgets may be cut and fewer enforcement agents required.

In this respect whole swathes of publicly funded activity are much the same. Money is spent on a social issue and that spending benefits the agency tasked with keeping the issue below the political radar. As long as it suits the agency to keep it there of course. On occasions it may not.

The environment is another example. Natural waters in the UK are generally in a better condition than they have been for several centuries. Pollution from the industrial revolution is mostly under control and rivers are not the open sewers they often were in the past.

So what? So new environmental problems have to be found if controlling agencies are to keep their budgets. Climate change, air pollution, endocrine disrupters, dioxins, landfill, fly tipping, recycling. Some of these problems are more legitimate than others and looking after our environment is the right thing to do but those budgets are a key driver to what is done and why. They lead to the exaggerations, the overblown rhetoric, the dubious links to cancer and other health horrors. It’s the way government does these things.

Governments know all this because they are run by senior bureaucrats who need to maintain their budgets and their slice of the status quo. They have their personal incomes and index-linked pensions to protect. There is no great imperative to make things radically better - where would the imperative come from?

And so we return to the Ian Brady abomination. Leaving aside arguments for and against capital punishment, many incomes are linked to keeping people such as Brady incarcerated for decades. Lawyers, bureaucrats, prison officers, doctors, psychiatrists, administrators, publishers and the media. Paltry amounts of money in the overall scheme of government spending, but this is how governments do these things. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Steamy art

Nottingham Post reports how an art installation has caused numerous calls to the emergency services.

Firefighters have received 'numerous' reports of a suspected blaze in Nottingham - which turned out to be part of an art exhibition.

Clouds have been seen rising from the roof of the Nottingham Contemporary gallery, in the Lace Market, over recent weeks, with concerned passers-by ringing the emergency services.

But they are from the Thinking Head piece which will be part of an exhibition starting at the venue on May 20 - and are merely formed of steam.

All art teaches us something I suppose. Not necessarily what the artist intended, but it teaches us something.