Since I am going to be home and avoiding people indefinitely regadless, I am cutting out distractions to focus as completely as possible on getting thesis work done.

There is an intriguing hypothesis about the rational mind: while we think of it as a weigher of evidence that contributes to the decisions we make when faced with a choice, it’s possible that its real role is to construct a story after the fact about why we made the choice we did for instinctive or emotional reasons.

Chris Voss alludes to this in his book about negotiations:

In Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explained a groundbreaking discovery he made. Studying people who had damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated, he found that they all had something peculiar in common: They couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should do in logical terms, but they found it impossible to make even the simplest choice.

In other words, while we may use logic to reason ourselves toward a decision, the actual decision making is governed by emotion.

Voss, Chris. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. Penguin Random House, 2016. p. 122 (emphasis in original)

It has occurred to me that while the fundamental units of the physical universe may be the particles of the standard model or superstrings or something similar, the fundamental units of the psychological universe may be stories. We make decisions — perhaps — by analogy and imagination, using the stories we know as templates for projecting what could happen from one or another course of behaviour. This is compatible with the idea that generals are always fighting the last war, or that decision makers find an analogy as a schema for assessing the options before them in the present case (famously, the notion that states blundered into the first world war arguably motivated the appeasement policy toward Hitler which was later judged to have contributed to the second, while the lesson learned about the dangers of appeasement fed the undue combativeness of the cold war).

The idea that rationalization is after-the-fact storytelling risks feeding in to a nihilistic perspective that our decisions are just uncontrollable emergent phenomenon, coming out of a black box which we cannot control or influence, but that does not follow if we accept that we can influence the conditions that influence our emotions and train ourselves in how we respond emotionally. Voss’ book elaborates on this view with numerous practical details and examples, not taking for granted that people are emotional so they just do as they do, but highlighting how often-subtle mechanisms for influencing how people feel can powerfully influence how things turn out.

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The gradual sorting of partisans into the “correct” parties during the last fifty years has transformed a nation of cross-cutting political identities into a nation of increasingly aligned political identities. As Democrats and Republicans grow socially sorted, they have to contend not only with the natural bias that comes from being a partisan but also with their own growing intolerance, sharpened by the shrinking of their social world. A conservative Democrat will feel closer to Republicans than a liberal Democrat would. A secular Republican will feel closer to Democrats than an evangelical Republican would. The sorting of our parties into socially distinct groups intensifies the partisan bias we’ve always had. This is the American identity crisis. Not that we have partisan identities, we’ve always had those. The crisis emerges when partisan identities fall into alignment with other social identities, stoking our intolerance of each other to levels that are unsupported by our degrees of political disagreement.

Mason, Lilliana. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. University of Chicago Press, 2018. p. 62-3

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U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has raised the idea of a coordinated global minimum corporate tax, with the aim of disrupting ‘race to the bottom’ dynamics in taxation and the shift of assets to tax havens.

Global coordination is likely a necessary prerequisite to effective wealth taxation.

It could also help to improve the tolerability and effectiveness of carbon taxes, as domestic producers would be less able to use inaction elsewhere as a way to resist decarbonization policy proposals.

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Nancy Grace Roman with the Hubble Space Telescope; Mae Jemison and Sally Ride with the Space Shuttle; and Margaret Hamilton with listings of the software she and her MIT team wrote for the Apollo Program

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Even in the most basic definition of a group, [social psychologist Henri] Tajfel and his colleagues found evidence of ingroup bias: a preference for or privileging of the ingroup over the outgroup. In every conceivable iteration of this experiment, people privileged the group to which they had been randomly assigned. Ingroup bias emerged even when Billig and Tajfel in 1973 explicitly told respondents that they had been randomly assigned to two groups, because it was “easier this way.” The ingroup bias still appeared, simply because the experimenters distinguished the two groups. These respondents were not fighting for tangible self-interest, the money they allocated went to other people, not themselves. They simply felt psychologically motivated to privilege members of their own imaginary and ephemeral group—a group of people they had never met and would never meet, and whose existence they had only learned of minutes earlier. People react powerfully when they worry about losing group status, even when the group is “minimal.”

Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. University of Chicago Press, 2018. p. 11

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In part because of housing uncertainty — and mindful of George Monbiot’s excellent advice about true freedom arising from low living expenses “If you can live on five thousand pounds a year, you are six times as secure as someone who needs thirty thousand to get by” — I have been avoiding and minimizing taking on new physical possessions.

Nonetheless, with my interest in space and the Space Shuttle program specifically, I could not resist ordering Lego’s new Space Shuttle Discovery and Hubble Space Telescope set on the day of its release.

The Hubble is arguably the greatest scientific achievement of the Space Shuttle program and certainly one of the most powerful instruments humanity has ever created for understanding the vastness and history of our universe. The dimensions of the Hubble also did a lot to dictate the final size and configuration of the shuttle (less for the telescope itself, and more for the secret Earth-observing versions operated by the National Reconnaissance Office). Those design decisions, in turn, did much to shape the shuttle’s operational characteristics and history, including the design choices that contributed to the Challenger and Columbia losses.

The set will be fun to put together, and I should be able to find somewhere to display it even if I end up living in a tiny space.

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