Cold War weapons and perceptions of risk

It seems a natural human intuition to think the world is going down the tubes. We look back across our lives and identify what seems more worrisome now than when we were born. We then worry about what sort of world future generations will inhabit. Written accounts demonstrate that such concerns go back at least to the classical world.

There is certainly some validity to that perspective, especially when it comes to cumulative threats like climate change. That said, there do seem to be many cases in which anxieties proved unjustified – such as when wave after wave of immigrants ended up successfully integrated into North American and Western European cultures, despite fears that they would create all manner of entrenched problems.

I started thinking about all this earlier today, reading Ken Alibek’s account of the Soviet biological weapons program. Until I was nine years old, the Russians were still doing open air testing of biological weapons on Vozrozhdeniya Island. That reminded me of two probable cognitive failures. Firstly, we are less aware of the dangers that existed in previous times, which reduces the validity of our apprehensions about a future that is worse. Secondly, there can be real improvements in the state of the world. While there are certainly still risks associated with Cold War era weapons, at least the spectre of their intentional use is less haunting now than it was in previous decades.

The nature of addiction

Over on XUP’s blog, there is an interesting discussion on addiction. It is certainly a difficult topic on which to get good information: the academic literature is complicated and conflicting.

Perhaps it is a topic about which our understanding will improve considerably as we delve deeper into cognitive and behavioural psychology, as well as into the relationships between complex dynamic systems like genetics and cognition.

On this site, I have repeatedly argued that the best public policy approach to addictive drugs is legalization, regulation, and the treatment of addiction as a medical problem. Bad as it is to be addicted to legal drugs, at least those thus afflicted don’t need to worry about being poisoned or surprised by a major change in the concentration of active ingredients, since those drugs are manufactured by reputable companies and regulated. Those people also don’t need to worry about the pitfalls of production and supply chains that are dominated by organized criminal groups. Paradoxically, addicts may have the most to gain from drug legalization.

In addition, society at large doesn’t need to worry about the violent and harmful side-effects that arise from that criminal economy. The links between drug criminalization, organized crime, and political corruption are both self-evident and demonstrated by numerous historical examples, from alcohol prohibition in the United States to the largely pointless attempts to stamp out poppy growing in Afghanistan now.

Perhaps an important corollary to the legalize, regulate, and treat approach is to hold producers responsible to some extent for the inevitable addictions to their products that will exist in society. They could, for instance, be required to pay part of the cost for treatment, counseling, and rehabilitation programs.

Long-term changes in happiness

The final lecture of the psychology course I have been following focuses on the question of what makes people happy.

In addition to a lot of things that are already common knowledge – such as how winning the lottery is not all it’s cracked up to be – it includes a couple of examples of things that have a persistent effect on your happiness. This contrasts with things like the acquisition of a new gadget, which prompts a brief spike that soon falls back to normalcy.

One thing that makes people persistently happier is plastic surgery. Apparently, this is because time doesn’t desensitize us to how other people respond to our appearance. Neither does it affect how our own perception about our experience affects our mental lives. For those who don’t want to go to the extreme length of surgery, it seems plausible that improving your wardrobe could have a similar effect. Replace some shabby garment with one that you are proud to wear, and it may well make you happier for as long as you own it. I can speak to this from personal experience. Replacing my squeaky, ugly, plastic Rockport shoes with some nice leather Allen Edmonds shoes has made me feel consistently more qualified and capable at work.

Another thing that affects happiness persistently, though in a negative way, is noise. I know plenty about this personally, since I live right beside a busy street, on the ground floor, with my bedroom window right beside a speed bump that people often damage their cars on. This has bothered me every single day since I moved in, particularly when cars wake me up in the morning. I recall being annoyed by similar circumstances in the past, such as the noisy birds outside the Totem Park residence at UBC, or the booming clock beside my house in North Oxford.

The practical message of all of this seems to be: don’t spend your money on electronic gadgets, photo gear, or other expensive trinkets. Definitely don’t spend it on lottery tickets, which are likely to leave you less happy in the very unlikely situation where you win. Spend it on quiet housing and improving your appearance. Another good investment might be Professor Paul Bloom’s forthcoming book: How Pleasure Works. The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.

James Bond is a psychopath

Another interesting observation from the Paul Bloom psychology course I have been following concerns this fictional character, as well as real-life individuals who share some of his features:

They’re typically male. They are defined as selfish, callous, impulsive, they’re sexually promiscuous. They seem to lack love, loyalty, normal feelings of affiliation and compassion, and they get into all sorts of trouble because they’re easily bored and they seek out stimulation. Now, when you hear this, you’ve got to realize that this sort of person is not necessarily an unattractive person to imagine or think about or even under some circumstances to encounter. You have to avoid the temptation when you think about psychopath to think about a guy like this, to think about Hannibal Lecter. The most famous psychopath, of course, is James Bond who is a perfect psychopath in every regard as played… by Sean Connery.

Bloom elaborates in talking about real-life individuals, and whether psychopathy is an illness:

[P]sychologists study psychopaths but the psychopaths that they study are by definition unsuccessful psychopaths. And what some people have argued is the real psychopaths, the successful ones, are the ones that run the world, that excel in every field because they are successful enough that they don’t look like psychopaths. They have no conscience, no compassion, love, loyalty. They are cold-blooded and ambitious but they don’t go around making this so obvious that we throw them in prison. And so, it’s an interesting and subtle and complicated case.

It does seem inherently plausible that the kind of people who can attain positions of great power have these tendencies, and also have the ability to conceal them from others. This is where the wisdom behind Douglas Adams’ insightful perspective on politicians: “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

What lessons can we draw from this? Perhaps it tells us something about the nature of authority and power dynamics in human societies. Perhaps it should inform us to some extent about what to expect from elected officials, as well as those who attain power by other means (such as leaders of coups). It may be even more applicable to the world of business or the military than to democratic politics. In those cases, the number of people who you need to impress with your competence is smaller, and the people who you are impressing are likely to be more tolerant of ruthlessness and a lack of empathy.

Psychology and romantic attraction

The psychology course I have been following features a Valentine’s Day lecture about love. Mostly, it is about what seems to make people attracted to one another, as demonstrated by psychological experiments.

Professor Peter Salovey, the guest lecturer, argues that we have empirical evidence for seven major causes of attraction. Three of them are fairly obvious, but very demonstrably important. The next four are more subtle, but are also supported by experimental investigation.

The big three:

  1. Proximity – we are more likely to get romantically involved with those who we live near
  2. Familiarity – the more we see a person, the more likely we are to get involved with them
  3. Similarity – apparently, opposites do not attract

The practical utility of this is obvious, for those looking for a romantic partner. Move to an area with people who you find attractive, and participate in social events with like-minded people, so as to improve your odds of being similar to and familiar with attractive people.

The more subtle four:

  1. Competence – the people who we like the very best are those that strike us as highly competent, but who make some sort of humanizing blunder
  2. Physical attractiveness – many people underestimate how important a factor this is for themselves
  3. An increasingly positive view – if someone seems to be warming towards us, it is highly interesting
  4. Mis-attribution of good feelings – we feel good or excited for a reason unrelated to a person, but wrongly attribute the feeling to them

These all also suggest dating strategies. The last two seem particularly easy to manipulate. It is also worth noting that we are most attracted to people who seem to be very exclusive in their choice of partners, but who we do not expect to be picky or difficult in our case. That may not be enough to constitute a Revolutionary New Dating Paradigm, but it might be helpful for some people.

Psychology of language learning

Continuing with the introductory psychology course I mentioned earlier, I have gotten to the section on language. A few of the things mentioned in it seem to have quite a bit of practical importance:

  • Elaborate language learning tools like flashcards are pointless, for teaching children language.
  • Pre-pubescent children are fundamentally more capable of learning languages than people beyond puberty, who will likely never be able to speak new languages without an accent.
  • Children learning two languages at once learn both just as fast as children learning only one or the other.
  • Being intelligent and social is not sufficient for a being to be capable of learning language. For instance, mutations in certain human genes can prevent people from ever being able to speak or understand language.
  • There is a strong genetic component in the ability people have to learn languages; those with parents skilled in the task are likely to be skilled as well.

The take-home message seems to be that if you want to give a child linguistic advantages, expose them to two or more useful languages as young as possible.

Psychological dualism

There is a distinction drawn in theories about the human mind between ‘monist’ and ‘dualist’ understandings of how it works. Dualists, like Descartes, see the mind as essentially separate from the body. Monists believe that “the mind is what the brain does,” and that there is no distinction between the two.

The position of the two views in society is an odd one, as an excellent Paul Bloom lecture discusses. We can readily understand situations that presume dualism: the continued life of the soul after death, the idea that the mind of one person could be transferred into another person or animal, etc.

Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, Homer described the fate of the companions of Odysseus who were transformed by a witch into pigs. Actually, that’s not quite right. She didn’t turn them into pigs. She did something worse. She stuck them in the bodies of pigs. They had the head and voice and bristles and body of swine but their minds remained unchanged as before, so they were penned there weeping. And we are invited to imagine the fate of again finding ourselves in the bodies of other creatures and, if you can imagine this, this is because you are imagining what you are as separate from the body that you reside in.

Clearly, we are able to imagine minds that would remain essentially unchanged, even when altered into a radically different physical form.

At the same time at dualism seems to make intuitive sense to people, all the physical evidence we have is on the side of a monist view, in which ‘mind’ arises from the physical properties of body:

Somebody who hold a–held a dualist view that said that what we do and what we decide and what we think and what we want are all have nothing to do with the physical world, would be embarrassed by the fact that the brain seems to correspond in intricate and elaborate ways to our mental life.

Somebody with a severe and profound loss of mental faculties–the deficit will be shown correspondingly in her brain. Studies using imaging techniques like CAT scans, PET, and fMRI, illustrate that different parts of the brain are active during different parts of mental life. For instance, the difference between seeing words, hearing words, reading words and generating words can correspond to different aspects of what part of your brain is active. To some extent, if we put you in an fMRI scanner and observed what you’re doing in real time, by looking at the activity patterns in your brain we can tell whether you are thinking about music or thinking about sex. To some extent we can tell whether you’re solving a moral dilemma versus something else. And this is no surprise if what we are is the workings of our physical brains, but it is extremely difficult to explain if one is a dualist.

The lecture includes many other examples showing why monism and the world as we observe it seem to mesh.

To me, the importance of this seems to go beyond settling scientific and/or metaphysical questions. It certainly seems plausible that beings that intuitively perceive themselves as essentially independent from physical reality will develop high-level theories about the world that take that into account, in areas as diverse as their religious, political, and moral views. By the same token, if one view really is far more defensible than the other, on the basis of observations and experiments we perform, that quite possibly has moral and political implications. It is all quite interesting, in any case, and I recommend that people consider watching the lecture series. The videos, transcripts, and slides are all available for free online.

Blog on the psychology of denial

Climate Change Denial is a group blog that really impresses me. It is focused on the question of where climate change denial comes from, and why it has been so successful at diminishing public support for effective climate change policies.

One especially good post is about how climate change campaigners may be in denial themselves, about the scope and seriousness of the problem and the difficulty of addressing it in the time we have left.

It is a site I will continue to read with interest.


From Oprah to New Age philosophy, ‘positive thinking’ has become a hugely influential movement in business circles, the religious sphere, in pop medicine, and elsewhere. In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich makes the case that the movement is poorly thought out and damaging. Her arguments are convincing, especially when it comes to situations where positive thinking is used to blame the victim when they suffer as the result of developments beyond their control: be it the movement towards corporate downsizing (which corresponded with the rise of motivational speakers in the workplace) or the unjustified assertion that cancer patients are responsible for their own worsening or recovery, on the basis of the mental attitudes they maintain.

Ehrenreich highlights how relentless optimism leads to dangerous groupthink, in which risks are downplayed and those who raise legitimate worries are sidelined. She provides ample evidence that these factors played a role in the inflation of the global house price bubble, and have continued to have important economic and political effects. These include the weird state of deluded isolation in which society’s richest people now reside. She also spends considerable time discussing the warped theology in which god is seen as a sort of mail-order service, happy to send you whatever good things (houses, cars, promotions) you are able to ‘manifest’ for yourself, simply by fervently desiring them.

Positive thinking involves a weird reversal, when it comes to dealing with risks. They cease to be external (concern that your company might fire you to improve their short-term profitability) and become entirely internal (fears about what your state of mind might do to you). It is also tied fundamentally to the notion that happiness is not most important in itself, but rather insofar as it influences events: “Nothing underscores the lingering Calvinism of positive psychology more than this need to put happiness to work – as a means to health and achievement, or what the positive thinkers call ‘success.'” The former tendency puts people in danger of worrying about the wrong things, while the latter strategy puts them at risk of seeking to achieve particular outcomes in nonsensical ways. That is especially dangerous when it comes to making big purchases on credit, firm in your belief that the universe will provide you with the means of dealing with it later.

Ehrenreich’s points are well-taken, though the book can be a bit tedious to read at times. There are also some partial contradictions. It is repeatedly asserted that there is no medical evidence that thinking positively improves health outcomes, yet it is taken as plausible that George Beecher was able to speed his demise through negative thinking. In the course of her analysis on the medical evidence, Ehrenreich claims to be “not in a position to evaluate” evidence that those with a positive outlook may have some protection against heart disease, but is seemingly happy to evaluate research on other illnesses that confirms her hypothesis.

All told, Ehrenreich makes important points about the poisonous institutional culture that accompanies an excessive focus on positivism – and the view that individuals are almost entirely responsible for what happens to them. Her concluding call for ‘realistic’ thinking is certainly appropriate enough, though perhaps she does not go far enough in suggesting how the empire of positive thinking she has mapped the outlines of might be deconstructed. As the world continues to grapple with real problems, magical thinking cannot be a substitute for dispassionate analysis, risk management, and contingency planning. How we get from our world to one more like that, however, remains mysterious.

Torture, psychology, and the law

Morty wants a treat

For the darkest day of the year, a couple of torture-related items seem appropriate. Firstly, there is this New York Times piece, which argues that senior officials from the Bush administration should be charged with war crimes, for authorizing and enabling torture. The editorial argues that there is no chance that prosecutions will be sought under an Obama administration, but that he ought to clarify the obligation of the United States and its agents to uphold the Geneva Conventions, as well as reverse executive orders that “eroded civil liberties and the rule of law.”

The prospect of high-level American decision-makers being put on trial for authorizing torture is so unlikely that it is a bit difficult to even form an opinion about it. At the same time, it is likely that nobody thirty years ago would have anticipated the trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), or International Criminal Court (ICC). There is no clear reason for which high political office should be any impediment to being tried for war crimes, but it is very unclear how any such prosecutions would fare in the United States. It would certainly be seen as a ‘political’ act, and any connections with international law would likely be the targets for special criticism and scorn from some quarters.

The other story worth mentioning is an experiment conducted by Dr Jerry Burger, of Santa Clara University. It was a less intense re-creation of Milgram’s famous experiment on obedience to authority. Like Milgram, Burger found that a startling proportion of the population is willing to torture a fellow human being as part of a scientific experiment. This is when the only pressure placed upon the subject of the experiment is the authority of the actor pretending to conduct it. That naturally makes one nervous about what people would be willing to do when they felt an urgent and important issue justified it, as well as when far stronger sanctions could be brought against them if they did not proceed.