Archive for July, 2014

The Ultimatum Game

July 30, 2014

An important point made in Watts’ Everything Is Obvious is that common sense varies from culture to culture. A good example can be found in the ultimatum game. The game begins with two people. One of them is given a sum of money, say $100. That person is instructed to split the money with the second person. The split can vary from nothing to the entire monetary bundle. The second player gets to accept the offer or to reject it. If the second player accepts the offer, they both leave with their agreed upon splits. If the second player refuses the offer, then they both walk away with nothing. Now from a strictly rational perspective the first player could keep $99 and offer the second player $1 and the second player would agree as $1 should be better than nothing. But the second player does, and the first player should, have some notion of fairness. In research done in the industrialized countries researchers have found that most players propose a fifty fifty split and that offers of less than $30 are typically rejected.

When researchers replicated this game in fifteen small-scale preindustrialized countries across the five continents the results were not replicated. The Machiguenga tribe in Peru tended to offer about a quarter of the total amount and virtually none of these offers were refused. However, the Au and Gnau tribes of Papua New Guinea tended to make offers that were even better than fifty fifty and these hyperfair offers tended to get rejected as often as the unfair offers.

Now if the players from the respective communities were asked why they did what they did, they likely responded that it was a matter of common sense.

The Matthew Effect

July 27, 2014

The Matthew Effect was named by sociologist Robert Merton who named if after a sentence from the Book of Matthew in the Bible, viz., “For those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but for those who have nothing, even that will be taken away.” Matthew was specifically referring to wealth (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer). And of course this is true. Being born into wealth carries substantial advantages, but Merton was arguing that the rule applied to success in general. Success leads to prominence and recognition. This, in turn, leads to more opportunities to succeed and more resources with which to achieve success. There is a greater likelihood of your subsequent success being noticed and attributed to you, even though others might have played a key role.

Researchers have attempted to study this effect and to differentiate it from individual potential by trying to select pools of people with similar potential and seeing how they develop. However, no matter how carefully researchers attempt to do so, their futures tend to diverge wildly over time, which is consistent with Merton’s theory. It is known that college students who graduate during a weak economy earn less, on average, than students who graduate during a strong economy. This difference tends to persist throughout the students’ subsequent career. And surely the economy in which they graduate is a random effect.

So the common sense notion that an individual’s success is solely due to the individual’s unique attributes is false. Although the individual’s unique attributes do play a role, there are also chance or random factors.

Common Sense as a Plausible Narrative

July 23, 2014

We human beings have a compelling need to make sense of the world. When provided with a statement or a possible fact, we can frequently come up with an explanation for it. Say, for example, you were told that men with rural backgrounds were usually in better spirits during army life than men from city backgrounds. You could come up with the narrative that rural men were accustomed to harsher living standards and more physical labor than city men, so army life was easier for them. This is a reasonable explanation, one that conforms to commonsense, correct? Now suppose you were told that it was city men who were usually in better spirits during army life. You could probably just as easily come up with the narrative that city men are more used to working in crowded situations, and in corporations with chains of command, strict standards of clothing and social etiquette. Again, this sounds like common sense, correct? (actually the second narrative is more in correspondence with the facts at least during World War 2) What is regarded as common sense usually is a plausible narrative that has been generally accepted. This narrative conceals the true explanation.

Another example coming from Watts Everything is Obvious is an exercise Duncan Watts did with his students. In one country 12% of its citizens had signed up for organ donation after they died. In another country 99.9% of the citizens had signed up for organ donation. Watts asked what could account for this difference. His class was agile and creative in coming up with explanations. There were narratives regarding differences in their legal or educational systems. Or that something had happened in one country that galvanized organ donation. Now the two countries were Germany and Austria, countries that are quite similar to each other. Austria had the 99.9% rate and Germany the 12% rate. The difference between the two questions is that in Austria the option was to opt out of organ donation, with the default being organ donation. In Germany the option was to opt for organ donation, with the default being to not choose organ donation.

This is a common finding that being that the default option is strongly preferred. This has been found with respect to pension programs and other benefits, not only for donations or deductions. Indeed, this is a strategy for nudging people to take the desirable option. The reason is that the default is the easier option. Opting in or out requires thought and effort.

Everything is Obvious* How Common Sense Fails Us

July 20, 2014

The asterisk in the title points to “once you know the answer.” This is the title of an interesting and important book by Duncan J. Watts. Duncan majored in physics as an undergraduate and finished with a Ph.D, in engineering. His dissertation was on the mathematics of small-world networks. However, after finishing his formal education he came to the conclusion that most of the important problems that needed to be addressed were in the social sciences.

I certainly agree with Dr. Watts. In the past I’ve written how it was a mistake to exclude psychology from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) disciplines. Unfortunately when the sciences are mentioned people tend to think of the hard sciences and engineers wearing lab coats. Indeed in 2006 Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson proposed to cut the entire social science budget of the National Science Foundation. So she was, in effect, recommending that the NSF budget be cut where it is most needed.

Everything is Obvious is divided into two parts: Part One is titled “Common Sense,” Part Two is titled “Uncommon Sense.” One of the problems is that too many people think of the social sciences as dealing with problems that can be solved with common sense. Moreover, common sense has favorable connotations. Dr. Watts disabuses us of this notion, showing how common sense is often wrong, and that many problems remain unsolved because of mistaken notions regarding common sense. Dr. Watts elaborates on the difficulties of most important problems and the difficulties involved in making accurate predictions. Finally, he discusses approaches for dealing with these apparently intractable problems.

Everything is Obvious should be a must read not only for the sciences, but for anyone interested in any activity, be it politics, business, marketing, philanthropy, that involves understanding, predicting, changing, or responding to the behavior of people.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Would You Rather Be Popular or Accurate?

July 16, 2014

That is, if you were a political pundit, would your rather be popular or accurate? To answer this question we need to review research done by Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology and political science. In 1987 he started collecting predictions from a broad array of experts in academia and government on a wide variety of topics in domestic politics, economics, and international relations. He asked theses experts to make predictions on a periodic basis about major events. This study spanned more than fifteen years and was published in his 2005 book, Expert Political Judgment. Regardless of their backgrounds, these experts did barely better than random chance, and had done even worse than rudimentary statistical methods at predicting future political events. About 15 percent of the events they predicted to have no chance of occurring, happened, and about 25% of those they said were absolutely sure things failed to occur. At this point you might have decided against a career as a pundit, but remember many pundits manage to make a living, and some pundits make a very good living.

Tetlock was able to classify his pundits into two classes that he called hedgehogs and foxes, The Greek poet Archilochus had written, “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Hedgehogs believe in Big Ideas, in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and underlie most every interaction in society. Hedgehogs tend to be specialized, stalwart, stubborn, order-seeking, confident, and ideological. These are all traits that make hedgehogs weaker forecasters.

On the other hand, foxes are scrappy creatures who believe in many little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches towards a problem. Foxes are multidisciplinary, adaptable, self-critical, tolerant of complexity, cautious and empirical. These are all traits that make foxes better forecasters. “Better” is used in a relative context as the overall performance was quite poor.

So, would you rather be a fox or a hedgehog? Hedgehogs tend to be much more popular on TV talk shows as they are strong spoken and sure in their beliefs. They tend not to equivocate, even though the issues are complex and they are quite likely to be wrong. This is likely a contributing factor to the polarization of society. In his 1970 book, Future Shock, Alvin Toffler predicted future technology would lead to the polarization of society. This is one of the mechanisms by which the polarization occurs.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mindfulness As Continuous Process Improvement

July 12, 2014

Mindfulness is not just a matter of meditating on a regular schedule. Mindfulness is something we should practice whenever we are conscious. When we awake at night, we should monitor our thoughts. Are they negative? Are we having hostile thoughts about others? Are we ruminating on the mistakes we have made? Reviewing mistakes we have made is good if we can learn from them. But once we have learned from them, they should be discarded. We should not keep thinking thoughts about matters we can do nothing about. Of course during our waking hours our minds can become quite busy. Here it is good to remember the acronym from the healthymemory blog “A Simple Tip to Spark Mindfulness. That acronym is STOP

SStop. Simply pause from what you are doing.

T –Take a few slow, deep, breaths with awareness and tune in.

OObserve and curiously notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

P –Proceed with whatever you were doing with awareness and kindness.

Being busy we can find it difficult to find time to meditate. Research is currently underway to see how little meditation might be helpful as well as the benefits of doing frequent short periods of meditation throughout the day. Although I am interested in this research, I think each one of us should decide for ourselves. Remember the healthymemory blog post, “Randomized Control Trials, Mindfulness, and Meditation,”your personal results might be idosyncratic to yourself. So a general failure to find benefits for a general population might not apply to you. You can sense what is working.

Research done in memory and training has found that distributed practice is generally superior to massed practice. That is if you are going to spend four hours practicing something, it is better to have four spaced one hour sessions that to do the practicing in one four hour block. I would no be surprised if a similar result was found for meditation. And there might be different results for different types of medication.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Unfortunate Business of Science

July 9, 2014

The idea for the immediate preceding blog post, “What’s Wrong with the World:  A Paucity of Mindfulness” was motivated by an article in the Washington Post.  I regarded the research to be important enough to go to the source of the article in the journal Science.  Unfortunately, I needed to purchase the article fot $20, which I did.  And I am glad that I did because the newspaper article, as is frequently the case, missed the major importance of the research.

Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  The purpose of the organization is to foster science and the dissemination of information about science.  In my view the $20 charge is inconsistent with the goals of the organization.  I should note that the AAAS is not different from other professional organizations in doing so.  Unfortunately professional organizations dedicated to good objectives tend to morph into businesses dedicated to profit.  Strictly speaking these are not profits because the money goes back into the professional organization.  The organizations would argue that this is good for their intended purposes and would argue that researchers with grants could charge these costs to their contracts, which is more having to do with the “business” of science.  Bloggers, like myself, and others interested in science, be they citizens or students, should have ready access to these publications.  Understand that I have nothing against some nominal fee of several dollars to cover costs, but $20 for an electronic reprint of three pages is ridiculous.

There is another issue. is research was funded by the National Science Foundation, so anyone who paid taxes to the United States helped finance this research.  There is a footnote with a URL indicating where the data from the individual studies can be accessed.  This is due to recent laws requiring that the data from funded research should be made available to other researchers.  This policy is both good and just.  Nevertheless, I think that the public should also be entitled to research reports that are either free or at a nominal cost.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What’s Wrong with the World: A Paucity of Mindfulness?

July 6, 2014

This question came to mind while reading an article by Wilson and his colleagues in the Journal Science (July 2014 p. 75) titled “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind.” He notes that we humans “have the ability to sit and mentally detach  ourselves from our surroundings and travel inward, recalling the past, envisioning the future , and imagining worlds that have never existed.” He reports the results of a survey of American adults found that 95% of the respondents that they did at least one leisure activity in the past 24 hours such as watching television, socializing, or reading for pleasure, but 83% reported that they spent no time whatsoever relaxing or thinking. I find the latter number astounding, and I am even somewhat skeptical of the percentage value, but I can believe that it is a large percentage. Why is this number so large?  True, we are all busy, but to what end?

Wilson conducted a series of studies addressing this question. There were variants of the study, but the basic protocol was as follows: College level participants spent from 6 to15 minutes in an unadorned room after storing their belonging. They were asked to remain in their seats, stay awake, and entertain themselves with their thoughts. After this thinking period trying to entertain themselves with their thoughts they were asked how enjoyable the experience was, and how hard it was to concentrate. They rated their experience on a nine point scale. More than half, 57.5% being at or above the midpoint of the scale indicating that it was difficult to concentrate. They indicated that their mind wandered (89% being at or above the midpoint of the scale) even though there was nothing competing for their attention. Moreover, on average, participants did not enjoy the experience very much (49.3% being at or below the midpoint of the scale.

In another study, participants were asked to conduct the experiment in their home. The home study essentially replicated the college study, with perhaps even somewhat more pronounced effects. To generalize the results beyond college students they recruited additional participants at a farmer’s market and at a church. The results were successfully replicated with these samples. Additionally, no evidence was found that enjoyment of the thinking period was related to age, education, income, or the frequency with which they used smart phones or social media.

Sensory deprivation research, in which sensory inputs are largely precluded from research participants, have found that the participants will start hallucinating, that the human nervous system will generate internal activity to compensate from losses in external stimulation. Still it appears that most people do not like ‘just thinking” and like having something to do. The researchers asked the question how badly do they want something else to do. So participants were given the option of being able to administer electric shocks to themselves. Although the shocks were small, they were large enough to be unpleasant. The following results are restricted to those who reported that they would pay not to be shocked again. 67% of the men gave themselves at least one shock, whereas 25% of the women gave themselves electric shocks.

These results point to the need for mindfulness and meditation. The healthymemory blog has many posts documenting the benefits of meditation. Absent these practices it appears that the mind does not like to be alone with itself.

West begins the article with a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The mind is its own place, and in it self?

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”

So it’s up to us whether we make a Heaven or Hell.

So meditate and be mindful.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Prescience of Leonardo Da Vinci

July 5, 2014

Leonardo Da Vinci anticipated many great scientific discoveries.

40 years before Copernicus he noted, in large letters to underscore its significance, “IL SOLE NO SI MUOVE,” “The sun does not move.” He further noted that “The earth is not in the center of the circle of the sun, nor in the center of the universe. When he lived, it was not only believed that the sun revolved around the earth by that the earth was the center of all things.

60 years before Galileo he thought that “a large magnifying lens” should be employed to study the surface of the moon and other heavenly bodies.

200 years before Newton he anticipated Newton’s theory of gravitation. He wrote, “Every weight tends to fall towards the center in the shortest possible way.” In another note he added, “every heavy substance presses downward and cannot be upheld perpetually, the whole earth must become spherical.

400 years before Darwin he placed man in the same broad category as monkeys and apes writing, “Man does not vary from the animals except it what is accidental” The accidental part is especially prescient as he is anticipating the basis of evolution, random mutations.

I’m curious as to whether any of these scientists were aware of Da Vinci’s writings and whether he had any influence on their work. Please comment if you have any information regarding these questions.

The Seven Da Vincian Principles

July 2, 2014

According to Michael J. Gelb’s How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci these are the seven principles Da Vinci used for guiding his thinking and life.The names of the principles are in Da Vinci’s native Italian.

Curiosita – An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.

Dimostrazione – A Commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.

Sensazione – The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.

Sfumato (literally “Going up in Smoke”)– A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.

Arte/Scienza – The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination.
“Whole-brain” thinking.

Corporilita – The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.

Connessione – A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. Systems thinking.

Gelb goes into detail for each of these principles. He first documents how Da Vinci applied the principles to his own life. Then he provides exercises for developing each of these principles. There are also checklists for each of the principles, and advice to parents as to how to instruct children in them.

Needless to say, all these principles serve to benefit cognition, life, and most certainly a healthy memory. The problem is that there is so much that can be done. So we do what we can. We should most definitely benefit.

Also included in How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci is “The Beginner’s Da Vinci Drawing Course.”