psychology

All posts tagged psychology

Book review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by Frans de Waal.

This book is primarily about discrediting false claims of human uniqueness, and showing how easy it is to screw up evaluations of a species’ cognitive abilities. It is best summarized by the cognitive ripple rule:

Every cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought.

De Waal provides many anecdotes of carefully designed experiments detecting abilities that previously appeared to be absent. E.g. asian elephants failed mirror tests with small, distant mirrors. When experimenters dared to put large mirrors close enough for the elephants to touch, some of them passed the test.

Likewise, initial observations of behaviorist humans suggested they were rigidly fixated on explaining all behavior via operant conditioning. Yet one experimenter managed to trick a behaviorist into demonstrating more creativity, by harnessing the one motive that behaviorists prefer over their habit of advocating operant conditioning: their desire to accuse people of recklessly inferring complex cognition.

De Waal seems moderately biased toward overstating cognitive abilities of most species (with humans being one clear exception to that pattern).

At one point he gave me the impression that he was claiming elephants could predict where a thunderstorm would hit days in advance. I checked the reference, and what the elephants actually did was predict the arrival of the wet season, and respond with changes such as longer steps (but probably not with indications that they knew where thunderstorms would hit). After rereading de Waal’s wording, I decided it was ambiguous. But his claim that elephants “hear thunder and rainfall hundreds of miles away” exaggerates the original paper’s “detected … at distances greater than 100 km … perhaps as much as 300 km”.

But in the context of language, de Waal switches to downplaying reports of impressive abilities. I wonder how much of that is due to his desire to downplay claims that human minds are better, and how much of that is because his research isn’t well suited to studying language.

I agree with the book’s general claims. The book provides evidence that human brains embody only small, somewhat specialized improvements on the cognitive abilities of other species. But I found the book less convincing on that subject than some other books I’ve read recently. I suspect that’s mainly due to de Waal’s focus on anecdotes that emphasize what’s special about each species or individual. Whereas The Human Advantage rigorously quantifies important ways in which human brains are just a bigger primate brain (but primate brains are special!). Or The Secret of our Success (which doesn’t use particularly rigorous methods) provides a better perspective, by describing a model in which ape minds evolve to human minds via ordinary, gradual adaptations to mildly new environments.

In sum, this book is good at explaining the problems associated with research into animal cognition. It is merely ok at providing insights about how smart various species are.

Book review: Made-Up Minds: A Constructivist Approach to Artificial Intelligence, by Gary L. Drescher.

It’s odd to call a book boring when it uses the pun “ontology recapitulates phylogeny”[1]. to describe a surprising feature of its model. About 80% of the book is dull enough that I barely forced myself to read it, yet the occasional good idea persuaded me not to give up.

Drescher gives a detailed model of how Piaget-style learning in infants could enable them to learn complex concepts starting with minimal innate knowledge.
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Book review: The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain, by John Kounios and Mark Beeman.

This book shows that insight and analysis are different modes of thought, and that small interventions can influence how insightful we are. It’s done in a clearly analytical (not insightful) style.

They devote a good deal of effort to demonstrating that the two modes of thought differ in more ways than simply how people report them. It’s unclear why that would surprise anyone now that behaviorism is unpopular. Nor is it clear what use we can make of evidence that different parts of the brain are involved in the two modes.

I’m mildly impressed that researchers are able to objectively measure insight at all. They mostly study word problems that can be solved on something like 30 seconds. They provide some hints that those experiments study the same patterns of thought that are used to solve big tasks that simmer in our subconscious for days. But there’s some risk that the research is overlooking something unique to those harder problems.

The “creativity crisis” could have been an important part of the book. But their brief explanation is to blame the obvious suspects: environments of constant stimulation due to social media, cellphones, games, etc.

One problem with that explanation is that the decline in creativity scores since 1990 is strongest in kindergartners through 3rd graders. I don’t find it very plausible that they’ve experienced a larger increase in those hyper-stimuli than older kids have.

It’s almost as if the authors got their understanding of the alleged crisis from a blog post rather than from the peer reviewed article that they cite.

The peer reviewed article suggests a better explanation: less time for free play.

Outdoor activity activity is valuable, according to the book, at least for short-term changes in whether our mood is creative. The “crisis” could be due to less recess time at school and a decline in free-range parenting. Were the tests taken shortly after a recess up through 1990, and taken after hours of lectures more recently? If so, the decline in measured creativity would reflect mostly short-term mood changes, leaving me uncertain whether I should worry about longer lasting effects.

The book provides some advice for being more insightful. It has caused me to schedule tasks that might require creativity after moderate hikes, or earlier in the day than I previously did.

The book has made me more likely to try applying ideas from the CFAR Againstness class to inducing creative moods.

The book hints at lots of room for computer games to promote a more insightful mood than the typical game does (e.g. via requiring players to expand their attention to fill the screen). But the authors aren’t very helpful at suggesting ways to identify games that are more insight-compatible. The closest I’ve come to practical ideas about games is that I ought to replace them when possible with fiction that promotes far-mode thinking(i.e. fantasy and science fiction).

My intuition says that insight research is still in its infancy, and that we should hope for better books in this category before long.

Book review: The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, by Olivia Fox Cabane.

This book provides clear and well-organized instructions on how to become more charismatic.

It does not make the process sound easy. My experience with some of her suggestions (gratitude journalling and meditation) seems typical of her ideas – they took a good deal of attention, and probably caused gradual improvements in my life, but the effects were subtle enough to leave lots of uncertainty about how effective they were.

Many parts of the book talk as if more charisma is clearly better, but occasionally she talks about downsides such as being convincing even when you’re wrong. The chapter that distinguishes four types of charisma (focus, kindness, visionary, and authority) helped me clarify what I want and don’t want from charisma. Yet I still feel a good deal of conflict about how much charisma I want, due to doubts about whether I can separate the good from the bad. I’ve had some bad experiences in with feeling and sounding confident about investments in specific stocks has caused me to lose money by holding those stocks too long. I don’t think I can increase my visionary or authority charisma without repeating that kind of mistake unless I can somehow avoid talking about investments when I turn on those types of charisma.

I’ve been trying the exercises that are designed to boost self-compassion, but my doubts about the effort required for good charisma and about the desirability of being charismatic have limited the energy I’m willing to put into it.

Book review: The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, by Johnathan Rottenberg.

This book presents a clear explanation of why the basic outlines of depression look like an evolutionary adaptation to problems such as famine or humiliation. But he ignores many features that still puzzle me. Evolution seems unlikely to select for suicide. Why does loss of a child cause depression rather than some higher-energy negative emotion? What influences the breadth of learned helplessness?

He claims depression has been increasing over the last generation or so, but the evidence he presents can easily be explained by increased willingness to admit to and diagnose depression. He has at least one idea why it’s increasing (increased pressure to be happy), but I can come up with ideas that have the opposite effect (e.g. increased ease of finding a group where one can fit in).

Much of the book has little to do with the origins of depression, and is dominated by descriptions of and anecdotes about how depression works.

He spends a fair amount of time talking about the frequently overlooked late stages of depression recovery, where antidepressants aren’t much use and people can easily fall back into depression.

The book includes a bit of self-help advice to use positive psychology, and to not rely on drugs for much more than an initial nudge in the right direction.

At a recent LessWrong meetup, someone described his GTD system with the metaphor automated self, to emphasize that the things he offloads from his mind into the GTD system help him act more robotic. I like the idea of automating some of my actions so that I can further separate planning and execution. The term automated self is a good way to remember that goal, and should be used more widely than it is. Plus I like to distinguish myself from those who attach negative connotations to “robot-like”.

Book review: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.

This book carefully describes the evolutionary origins of human moralizing, explains why tribal attitudes toward morality have both good and bad effects, and how people who want to avoid moral hostility can do so.

Parts of the book are arranged to describe the author’s transition from having standard delusions about morality being the result of the narratives we use to justify them and about why other people had alien-sounding ideologies. His description about how his study of psychology led him to overcome his delusions makes it hard for those who agree with him to feel very superior to those who disagree.

He hints at personal benefits from abandoning partisanship (“It felt good to be released from partisan anger.”), so he doesn’t rely on altruistic motives for people to accept his political advice.

One part of the book that surprised me was the comparison between human morality and human taste buds. Some ideologies are influenced a good deal by all 6 types of human moral intuitions. But the ideology that pervades most of academia only respect 3 types (care, liberty, and fairness). That creates a difficult communication gap between them and cultures that employ others such as sanctity in their moral system, much like people who only experience sweet and salty foods would have trouble imagining a desire for sourness in some foods.

He sometimes gives the impression of being more of a moral relativist than I’d like, but a careful reading of the book shows that there are a fair number of contexts in which he believes some moral tastes produce better results than others.

His advice could be interpreted as encouraging us to to replace our existing notions of “the enemy” with Manichaeans. Would his advice polarize societies into Manichaeans and non-Manichaeans? Maybe, but at least the non-Manichaeans would have a decent understanding of why Manichaeans disagreed with them.

The book also includes arguments that group selection played an important role in human evolution, and that an increase in cooperation (group-mindedness, somewhat like the cooperation among bees) had to evolve before language could become valuable enough to evolve. This is an interesting but speculative alternative to the common belief that language was the key development that differentiated humans from other apes.

Book review: The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, by Thomas Metzinger.

This book describes aspects of consciousness in ways that are often, but not consistently, clear and informative. His ideas are not revolutionary, but will clarify our understanding.

I didn’t find his tunnel metaphor very helpful.

I like his claim that “conscious information is exactly that information that must be made available for every single one of your cognitive capacities at the same time”. That may be an exaggeration, but it describes an important function of consciousness.

He makes surprisingly clear and convincing arguments that there are degrees of consciousness, so that some other species probably have some but not all of what we think of as human consciousness. He gives interesting examples of ways that humans can be partially conscious, e.g. people with Cotard’s Syndrome can deny their own existence.

His discussion of ethical implications of neuroscience points out some important issues to consider, but I’m unimpressed with his conclusion that we shouldn’t create conscious machines. He relies on something resembling the Precautionary Principle that says we should never risk causing suffering in an artificial entity. As far as I can tell, the same reasoning would imply that having children is unethical because they might suffer.

Switch

Book review: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath.

This book uses an understanding of the limits to human rationality to explain how it’s sometimes possible to make valuable behavioral changes, mostly in large institutions, with relatively little effort.

The book presents many anecdotes about people making valuable changes, often demonstrating unusually creative thought. The theories about why the changes worked are not very original, but are presented better than in most other books.

Some of the successes are sufficiently impressive that I wonder whether they cherry-picked too much and made it look too easy. One interesting example that is a partial exception to this pattern is a comparison of two hospitals that tried to implement the same change, with one succeeding and the other failing. Even with a good understanding of the book’s ideas, few people looking at the differences between the hospitals would notice the importance of whether small teams met for afternoon rounds at patients’ bedsides or in a lounge where other doctors overheard the discussions.

They aren’t very thoughtful about whether the goals are wise. This mostly doesn’t matter, although it is strange to read on page 55 about a company that succeeded by focusing on short-term benefits to the exclusion of long-term benefits, and then on page 83 to read about a plan to get businesses to adopt a longer term focus.

Choke

Book review: Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, by Sian Beilock.

This book provides some clues about why pressure causes some people to perform less well than they otherwise would, and gives simple (but not always easy) ways to reduce that effect. There’s a good deal of overlap between this book’s advice and other self-improvement advice. The book modestly enhances how I think about the techniques and how motivated I am to use them.

The main surprise about the causes is that people with large working memories are more likely to choke because they’re more likely to over-analyze a problem, presumably because they’re better at analyzing problems. They’re also less creative. There are also interesting comments about the role of small working memories in ADHD.

The book includes some interesting comments on how SAT tests provide misleading evidence of sexual differences in ability, and how social influences can affect sexual differences in ability (for example, having a more feminine name makes a girl less likely to learn math).

The book’s style is unusually pleasant.