Posts Tagged ‘Tversky’

Myths of the Triune Brain and the Rational Human Mind

May 10, 2017

This post is motivated in part by Lisa Feldman Barrett’s revolutionary book “HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE.”  Unfortunately, Carl Sagan popularized the notion of a triune brain in his book “The Dragons of Eden.”  The model begins with ancient subcortical circuits for basic human survival, which we allegedly inherited from reptiles.  Sitting atop those circuits is an alleged emotion system, known as the “limbic system”  that we supposedly inherited from the early mammals.  Wrapped around this so-called limbic system is our allegedly  rational and unique human cortex.  Any expert in brain evolution knows that humans don’t have an animal brain gift-wrapped in cognition.  Neuroscientist Barbara L. Finlay, editor of the journal “Behavior and Brain Sciences” says  that “mapping emotion onto just the middle part of the brain, and reason and logic onto the cortex is just plain silly.  All brain divisions are present in all vertebrates.”  Brains evolve as effective companies do, by reorganizing as they expand to keep themselves efficient and nimble.

Dr. Barrett’s bottom line is this:  “the human brain is anatomically structured so that no decision or action can be free of interoception and affect, no matter what fiction people tell themselves about how rational they are.   Your bodily feeling right now will project forward to influence what you will feel and do in the future.  It is an elegantly orchestrated, self-fulfilling prophecy, embodied with the architecture of the brain.”

One of the most cherished narratives in Western thought, is that the human mind is a battlefield where cognition and emotion struggle for the control of behavior.  Modern neuroscience does not back up this narrative, nor does human behavior.  Much research has clearly debunked this narrative.  There are many posts on this blog on behavioral economics (to find them enter “behavioral economics” into the healthy memory blog search.)  Behavioral economics was born by the research of Kahneman and Tversky.  Unfortunately, mainstream economics is dominated by the assumption of the rational mind.  This assumption makes the underlying mathematics tractable.  They are tractable but wrong.  Mainstream economics did not expect the financial crash of 2008, nor the market crash of 1929 for that matter.

Dr. Barrett writes, “You cannot overcome emotion through rational thinking, because the state of your body budget is the basis for every thought and perception you have, so interoception and affect are built into every moment.  Even when you experience yourself as rational, your body budget and its links to affect are there, lurking beneath the surface.”


October 12, 2016

Epilogue is, appropriately enough, the final chapter of “Progress:  Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future”  by Johan Norbert.  Readers should be aware that we do not have direct contact with reality, but that we build mental models on the basis of our interactions with the external world.  This book, and it is hoped that the posts based on this book, provided ample data that contemporary people believe that things are bad and are getting worse.  The reason why people think this is based on the availability heuristic formulated by Kahneman and Tversky.  People base their estimates on information that is available.  The media focuses on what goes wrong and what is being done wrong.  This is the cause of the pessimistic assessments.  This is not a matter of a conspiracy by the media.  This is the type of news that sells.  A headline that there were no significant data comprises would be boring, unless the headline came after  serious data comprises.

The final chapter begins with the following Inscription on a stone from Chaldea in 2800 bce :
We have fallen upon evil times
and the world has waxed very old and wicked.
Politics are very corrupt.
Children are no longer respectful to their parents.

So it appears that pessimism and alarm might be the defaults for our species.  The subtitle is “SO WHY ARE YOU STILL NOT CONVINCED?
Frankly if you are not already convinced on the basis of these blog posts, HM would say that it would be pointless to read the book.  But this would be because HM has concluded you are intellectually compromised.  But the truth might be that HM failed to communicate effectively and perhaps you should read the book.  Even if you are already convinced, HM touched only barely on the books content, so it would be worthwhile for you to read it.

HM must confess to have been already convinced of the book’s thesis before reading.  He has long thought that he would rather be a person of modest means living in the present than a rich, influential individual living in the past.  This book has strongly justified this sentiment.  Moreover, HM would likely bet on a better life in the future.

Of course, this better life is not given.  Matters could go wrong.  We must to continue to grow our minds, think critically, and work for a better future.  The risk here is that there are indications that too many people do not use their minds much, and do not think critically.  Unfortunately there is a tendency for too many not to think critically and to fall under the influence of demagogues.  Demagogues succeed by inducing fear via big lies about the present and what they will do in the future.  It is remarkable, but people are convinced by promises absent any plans as to how this will be done.  Moreover, they exhibit an ignorance of government and a rejection of science.  Unfortunately, if the President of the United States thinks that global warming is a hoax, this places not just
the United States in jeopardy, but the entire world.  And, unfortunately, at present this appears to be a risk.

If you have yet to do so, go to   It is a very interesting website.  You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.  This is the last call for this important and informative website.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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.

Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future

October 6, 2016

HM is not close on the ideological spectrum to Johan Norbert the author of “Progress:  Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future.”  But the data and the reasoning presented in this volume are sound.  HM hopes that readers of the healthy memory blog are not naive realists.  That is they are aware that we do not have direct contact with reality, but rather build mental models on the basis  of our interactions with the external world.  We need to be aware that these models are imperfect and are need of constant updating.  The data in Progress indicate that some of these models are way off the mark  and are in need to massive updating.

The Gapminder Foundation has done several “ignorance” surveys using multiple-choice questions.  In Britain only ten percent thought that world poverty had decreased in the last thirty years.  More than half thought that a it had increased.  In the United States only five percent answered correctly that world poverty had been almost halved in the last twenty years.  Sixty-six percent thought that that it had almost doubled.

Lasse Berg and Stig Karlson are two researchers who traveled to India in the 1970s and had predicted doom in Asia. Their predictions turned out to be wrong, but the Indian people they visited did not think so themselves.  When they visited in the 1970s the villagers complained about oppression, illiteracy and how difficult it was for the family to get enough to eat.  The children, one of whom was named Satto, worked hard in the fields every day.  When Berg and Carlson revisited the village in the 1990s, the woman Sato complained that life was now more difficult and she now had to work hard for her kids.  She said that her childhood had been much easier and that she had just played all day.  So her memory was playing tricks.  Satto is not unique, our memories play tricks on all of us.  When Berg returned again in 2010, Satto was happier with life and the living standard the family had attained, but claimed that she didn’t remember her complaints during the 1990s.  Her memory now at that life was good in the 1990s as well.

The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky formulated the “availability heuristic,” which said that we judge the frequency of an event in terms of how available they in memory rather than on their objective frequency.  Moreover, we rarely know the objective frequency of any event.  So what is available in memory is rarely commensurate with reality.  Moreover what is usually available in memory is based on the news, and what is most newsworthy are crime, accidents, natural disasters, so that is the information we have to make generalizations about reality or predictions about the future.

The psychologist Steven Pinker has identified this as one of the three psychological biases that a make us think that the world is worse that it really is.  This one is the well-documented fact that “bad is stronger than good” — we are more likely to remember losing money, being abandoned by friends or receiving criticism  than we are to remember winning money, gaining friends or receiving praise.  Negative information receives more processing and contributes more strongly to the final impression than does positive information.

A second basis is the psychology of moralization.  Complaining about problems is a way of sending a signal to others that you care about them, so critics see us as more morally engaged.  Thomas Hobbes also noticed that criticizing the present has a way of competing without rivals and contemporaries, whereas we can easily praise past generations, because they are not our competitors.

A third bias is nostalgia about a golden age when life was supposedly simpler and better.  Arthur Herman observed:  “Virtually every culture past or present has believed that men and women are not up to the standards of their parents and forebears.”  The poet Hesiod, in the seventh century ice, thought that there once had been a Golden Age when humans live in harmony with the gods, and did not have to work since nature provided them with food.  Hesiod lived in the Iron Age, where conflict and mortality reined, and where humans had to toil to survive.  Next came the Silver Age with strife and worry, followed by a Bronze Age with even more strife and worry.  Most cultures, religions, and ideologies have had similar mythologies relating a prehistorical lost paradise to which the decadent present is compared.

So the mechanisms for pessimism are fairly well understood.  The next posts will be devoted to realigning our erroneous mental models so that they correspond more closely to reality.

The progress that is the topic of this book started with the intellectual Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  At this time there were people who began to examine the world with the tools of empiricism, rather than being content with authorities, traditions, superstition, and religions.  The political corollary, classical liberalism, began to liberate people from the shackles of heredity, authoritarianism, and serfdom.  The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth followed, when industrial power multiplied, and poverty and hunger began to be conquered.  These successive revolutions were enough to free of large part of humanity from the harsh living condition it had always lived under.  With the late twentieth-century globalization, as these technologies and freedoms began to spread around the world, this was repeated on a larger scale and at a faster pace that ever before.

It is essential that we be aware of a real risk of a nativist backlash, one that might be occurring already.  When people do not see the progress the has been made, they begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain.  Unfortunately, some might be willing to try their luck with any demagogue who tells us that he has quick, simple solutions to make our nation great again.

Subsequent posts will be covering what Norbert calls Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, which are specific areas in which substantial progress has been made.  In the meantime, go to   It is a very interesting website.  You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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.

Trump and Behavioral Economics

June 2, 2016

On the June 6 & 13, 2016 “New Yorker” Financial Page there is an article by James Surowiecki.  He is the regular “New Yorker” correspondent for economics, business, and finance.  He has also written a book that Healthymemory would highly recommend, “The Wisdom of Crowds.”  His article is titled “Losers” and it is about how behavioral economics explains the attitude of Trump supporters.  The field of behavioral economics was founded by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. There have been many, many healthy memory blog posts on this topic and about these authors.   Prospect Theory is key to behavioral economics and resulted in a Nobel Prize being awarded to Kahneman.  Unfortunately Tversky had already passed away when the award was made.

Surowiecki notes that Trump plays to one of the most powerful emotions in economic life, which is what behavioral economics call loss aversion.  The basic idea is that people feel the pain of loses much more than they feel the pleasure of gains.  Empirical studies estimate that, in general, losing is twice as painful as winning is enjoyable. Consequently, people will go to great lengths to avoid losses, and to recover what they’ve lost.

Suroweicki notes that Trump’s emphasis on losing is unusual  even in bleak times.  But he believes that it has worked for him, because it resonates with what many Republican voters already feel.  A study by the Pew Research Center last fall found that 79% of those who lean Republican believe that their side is losing politically.  A RAND survey in January found that voters who believed that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5% more likely to prefer Trump.  Trump supporters feel that they, and the country, are losing economically, too.  In the RAND survey, Trump did better  with the people who were the most dissatisfied with their economic situation, and exit polls from the Republican primaries show that almost 70% of those who voted for Trump were “very worried” about the state of the economy as compared to only forty-five % of all voters in Democratic primaries.

Surowiki notes some surprising things about all this.  The first is that, in objective terms, plenty of Trump supporters haven’t lost that much.  We’re familiar with Trump’s appeal among white working class voters, many of whom truly have seen wages stagnate and jobs dry up.  But Nate Silver has recently pointed out that the median Trump voter is actually better educated and richer than the average American.  But an important point of Kahneman and Tversky’s work is that people don’t look at their status objectively, they measure it relative to a reference point, and for many Republicans that reference point is a past time when they had more status and more economic security.  Kahneman argues that even people who simply aren’t doing as well as they expected to be doing feel a loss.  And people don’t adapt their expectations to new circumstances.  A study of loss aversion by Jack Levy concluded that, after losses, an individual will “continue” to use the status quo ex ante as her reference point.”  Suroweicki notes that Trump’s promise is precisely that he’s going to return America to the status quo ex ante.  He tells his supporters that he will will help recoup their losses and safeguard what they have.

Suroweicki goes on to say that the other surprising thing is that you might expect loss-averse voters to be leery of taking a risk on an unpredictable outsider like Trump, since loss aversion often makes people cautious:  offered the choice between five hundred dollars and a 50 % chance at a thousand dollars or nothing, most people take the sure thing.  However, loss aversion promotes caution only when people are considering gains; once people have sustained losses, impulses change dramatically.  Offered the choice between losing five hundred dollars and a 50% chance of losing a thousand dollars or nothing, most people prefer to gamble—opposite of what they did when presented with the chance to win a thousand dollars.  People are willing to run huge risks to avert or recover loses.  In the real world , this is why people hold falling stocks, hoping for a rebound rather than cutting their losses, and it’s why they double down after losing a bet.  For Trump’s voters, the Obama years have felt like a disaster.  Taking a flyer on Trump actually starts to feel sensible.

Suroweicki continues, noting that historical parallels are always tendentious, that loss aversion has been instrumental in the success of authoritarian movements around the world.   The political scientist Kurt Weyland has argued that it played a crucial role in the rise of such regimes in Latin American, where the fear of Communism drove putatively democratic societies toward the radical solution of strongman rule.  Suroweicki notes that Trump may not quite be an American Peron, but, to his his supporters, his unpredictability is a selling point rather than a flaw.

It is important to remember that the basis thesis of behavioral economics, a thesis that has ben consistently supported, is that humans do not behave or think rationally.  Rather they are driven by emotions.

Healthy memory feels compelled to note other facets of human cognition that contribute to flawed political decisions.  One is the success of the big lie and the continued persistence of these lies.  It is extremely difficult to correct these lies.

Another problem is  the fallibility of memory and how selective memory makes it difficult to correct erroneous beliefs.  Consider the Iraq war that the younger Bush took us into.  The weapons of mass destruction, on which the invasion was predicated, were never found.  France and Germany were urging Bush to delay an invasion until the inspection were completed and the existence of these weapons could have been ascertained.

It was also the case that the King of Jordan and Henry Kissinger warned Bush that an invasion would result in a broken country that would serve as a base for radical Islamist groups..  This is exactly what has happened.  So the costs of this war not just monetary, which added to the national debt, but more importantly human, produced a situation that is worse, not better, than what prevailed, before the beginning of the war.

People also seem to have forgotten the financial crisis left by the Bush administration that resulted in the very real possibility of a depression.  In spite of recalcitrant Republicans, Obama managed to prevent the depression and aid in an important economic recovery.  By most objective standards, the U.S. economy is in good shape, and the American economy is one of the best performing economies.

Healtymemory still wonders about Trump.  It is difficult for him to imagine Trump curling up with a copy of Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.”  It is also difficult imagining Trump taking consul with an expert informing him how to exploit human information processing shortcomings for political gain.  Using the word “instinct” is inappropriate here, but Trump has a flair for exploiting human information processing shortcomings so that System 2 processing is avoided and System 1 prevails resulting in emotions rather than reasoning governing their voting.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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 Self

May 18, 2016

The final cryptomind discussed in “The Mind Club” is “The Self.”  It does make the important point that we do not entirely know ourselves.  Our conscious mind represents an infinitesimal part of our selves.  Only a limited amount of our mind is even accessible.  Very often we do not understand what we do or why we did it (See the healthy memory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves”).  “Strangers to Ourselves:  Discovering  the Adaptive Unconscious” explains how we can use self-narratives and introspection to understand ourselves.  Note that Wilson is one of they key researchers documenting the errors of introspection.  Nevertheless he explains to us how we can learn to use our introspections to help ourselves.  I did not find any indication of his work in this chapter on “The Self.”

This entire chapter makes no reference to Kahneman, Tversky, or Stanovich.  These authors are discussed in healthy memory blog posts.  They, along with Wilson provide a meaningful conceptual structure for understanding the self.  This chapter rambles on and on to no good effect.

The worst part of this chapter is that it condemns free will.  Moreover, it uses Libet’s experiment (go to the Wikipedia to learn about this experiment) to condemn free will.  To quote, “Libet revealed that Free Will is an illusion.”  However, Libet himself did not conclude that Free Will is an illusion.  In fairness to the authors, many do cite Libet to support this conclusion. But this is a matter of sloppy scholarship.  The authors cherry pick the literature.

See the healhymemory blog post “Free Will.  This post reviews a book that provides an authoritative review of the issue.  Healthymemoy finds the philosophical arguments for Free Will compelling.  If one is not persuaded by the philosophical arguments consider the empirical data.  What is happening during meditation?  What is producing changes in the physical brain during meditation?  Placebo effects are based on the mind’s belief  can be seen in specific activities of the brain”

If philosophical arguments and empirical data are not sufficient, then do a cost/benefit analysis.
Who do you think will be healthier and more successful,
A believer in free will who believes the mind affects the brain and the body or
someone who believes that everything is determined and that they are only along for the ride.
The mind is going to be a central concept in all human endeavors.

Please consider reading or rereading the healthy memory Post “The Relevance of Consciousness and the Brain to a Healthy Memory.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. 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.