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Moving Day

Why We Reason is officially over. You can now find me in one of three places:

1) My new website that brings together all of my writing

2) Moments of Genius. My blog on

3) The Cognitive Philosopher. My column at


Odysseus And The Science Of Willpower

If you paid attention in high school you might remember the story of Odysseus and the Sirens. After the Trojan War ended, Odysseus went on a protracted sea voyage back to Ithaca. At one point he realized that his ship would pass by the island of Sirenum scopuli, where the enchanting Sirens sang melodies to seduce the “weak” human mind. In his genius, Odysseus had all his men fill their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast. It worked. They sailed on by and the rest is history.

Ever since Adam and Eve ate the apple, humans have had trouble with self-control. But if there is one lesson to learn from the psychological research it is that Odysseus had the best strategy: it’s the people who avoid tempting situations altogether – the ones who take a different street so they don’t have to walk past the ice cream shop – who exhibit the highest level of self-control.

This was originally demonstrated by the psychologist Walter Miscel who is famous for creating what is known as the Marshmallow Experiment. Conducted back in the 1960s, Miscel invited four-year-old children into a tiny room, containing a table and a chair, and offered them a deal: They could have one marshmallow now or they could wait a few minutes and have two. Most kids took up Miscel’s deal only to give into their impulses 30 seconds later. But some did not, and Miscel’s important discovery is that the kids who waited didn’t have more willpower, they “simply found a way to keep themselves from thinking about the treat, directing their gaze away from the yummy marshmallow.” They didn’t tie themselves to the proverbial mast exactly, but they did find a way to distract themselves from the situation.

A similar experiment recently published by Wilhelm Hofmann, Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs demonstrates complementary results. The researchers equipped a couple hundred participants with Blackberries for one week. Seven times a day the participants were beeped and asked to report if they were experiencing a desire now or in the preceding 30 minutes. They also took note of how strong the desire was, if it was an internal conflict, if they attempted to resist it and how successful they were. Here’s the BPS Research Digest explaining the results:

The participants were experiencing a desire on about half the times they were beeped. Most often (28 per cent) this was hunger. Other common urges were related to: sleep (10 per cent), thirst (9 per cent), media use (8 per cent), social contact (7 per cent), sex (5 per cent), and coffee (3 per cent). About half of these desires were described as causing internal conflict, and an attempt was made to actively resist about 40 per cent of them. Desires that caused conflict were more likely to prompt an attempt at active self-constraint. Such resistance was often effective. In the absence of resistance, 70 per cent of desires were consummated; with resistance this fell to 17 per cent…

People who scored highly on a measure of trait self-control had just as many desires, but they were less likely to report experiencing internal conflict; their desires were generally weaker; and they attempted to resist them less often. These findings are revealing. It’s not that people with high self-control have saintly willpower, it seems. Rather, they seem to avoid putting themselves in situations in which they are exposed to problematic temptations. “The result is not a desire-free life,” the researchers said. “Au contraire, the result appears to be that they mainly have desires that they can satisfy.”

Like Miscel, the researchers found that everyone possess inner demons but it is the people who are smart enough to avoid situations that trigger their inner demons who command higher levels of self-control.

The exciting part of the science of self-control and willpower is that it is now being understood at the neurological level. In 2004 neuroimager Jonathan Cohen and the psychologist Samuel McClure teamed up with the economists David Laibson and George Loewenstein to study how the brain reacts to short-term and long-term rewards. They had participants lay in a scanner and pick between a small reward – five dollars – which they would receive in the near future and a big reward – forty dollars – which they would receive several weeks later. How did the brain handle the two options? Did the brain handle them differently?

They found that choices that tempted the possibility of immediate gratification lit up the striatum and medial orbital cortex, which are more associated with the automatic and emotional brain. All choices lit up the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the frontal lobes associated with more rational and deliberate thinking. This finding isn’t too surprising. Ever since Phineas Cage’s freak accident, which sent a spike through his orbital and ventromedial cortex largely destroying his frontal lobes, scientists have known that self-control is closely tied to frontmost parts of the frontal lobe.

It was likely these parts of the brain that were most active when Odysseus gave his orders. It is makes sense, then, that he was known by epithet Odysseus the Cunning; he must of had large and fine-tuned frontal lobes! Although it is probably impossible to resist every delicious temptation out there, we can, like Odysseus, find ways to counter our weakness of will by avoiding certain situations altogether.

What Made Christopher Hitchens Great

Christopher Hitchens was a man who called Mother Teresa a, “lying, thieving Albanian dwarf,” when most of the world worshipped her as a saint. He said it was a, “shame that there is no hell for [Jerry] Falwell to go to” days after Falwell’s death. He labeled Henry Kissinger a “murder conspirator and war criminal,” Sarah Palin a “national disgrace,” and back in the 1980s said that, “Reagan is doing to the country what he can no longer do to his wife.” He might be most remembered for believing that organized religion is “the main source of hatred in the world.” Calling him provocative would be an understatement.

Yet, Hitchens was not provocative just for the heck of it, his deliberations maintained a steadfast allegiance to rational thought. He was not an ideological talking head either, he was motivated by the truth and strictly defended the values of the Enlightenment. This is why it is incorrect to label Hitchens as the atheist’s version of religious fundamentalists. Unlike the fundamentalists, the claims Hitchens made were researched, grounded in facts and science and remarkably informed by a deep understanding of history and literature. His intellectual palette far exceeded those of religious demagogues.

One reason the United States Congress and presidency have such low approval ratings is because the individuals who comprise them are either unwilling or unable to participate in discussions that are honest in their content, clear and logical in their presentation and true in regard to the facts. In other words, they are unequivocally non-Hitchen. A large part of the atheist movement, which Hitchens was the face of, is the advocacy of reason at the individual and institutional level. Along with rightfully dispelling irrational thinking motivated by ungrounded religious beliefs, God Is Not Great is a book that will continue to further this process. Hopefully lawmakers and laypeople will read it as a call for society to be more reasoned and anchored by what is true.

I hope that we will remember Hitchens as we remember great artists. Like Stravinsky, who induced a riot with his paradigm shifting Rite of Spring, Dylan, who was called “Judas” for going electric, Picasso, who portrayed women the way he did, or Warhol, who treated art like Ford built the Model-T, Hitchen’s opinions and rhetoric replaced the expected with the unexpected while maintaining a coherent structure and clear vision; he didn’t change the medium of journalism just like Stravinsky, Dylan, Picasso or Warhol didn’t change music or visual art per se, but he did offer ways of understanding the world that nobody else had done previously. Like the groundbreaking artists of the past, his initial rejections and ongoing diatribe with mainstream thought eventually gave rise to new definitions of what is good or normal and what ought to be valued.

This is what made Hitchens great: like the Parisians who were so taken back by the dissonance of Stravinsky’s ballet, Hitchens’ critics so desperately wanted his inharmonious rhetoric and writings to resolve but knew, at the same time, that the tension he created and the chords he struck were why he will be remembered as one of the best.

How Science Can Inform Human Values & Morality

One of the most enduring themes in western thought is the separation of science and human values. It is often said that science is amoral, that it has nothing to say about what we ought to do, only what is. It’s understandable why people believe this; it is easy to think that human values cannot be measured in the same way that, say, gravity is measured. I think this is false. We now know from science that there are right and wrong answers about what we ought to value, what increases human well-being and flourishing, and what is or isn’t moral.

To begin, it’s important to understand human morality not as having single objective answers. It is best to conceive of it as having peaks and valleys – a moral landscape, as Sam Harris frames it – where there are multiple ways for human beings to thrive. Consider Harris’ analogy:

I would never be tempted to argue that there must be one right food to eat. There is clearly a wide range of materials that constitute what to eat. But there is nevertheless a clear distinction between food and poison. The fact that there are many right answers to the question of what food to eat does not tempt us to say that there are no truths to be know about human nutrition.

That is to say, understanding morality as having multiple truths, and as having multiple avenues to these truths, does not undermine the idea that there are no moral principles to be known. This is why it misses the point to ask questions like, “Is lying wrong?” or “Is stealing wrong?” Implicit in these queries is the false assumption that exceptions destroy the idea of moral truth. Lying and stealing can be right and wrong depending on the situation. Consider Harris’ other analogy:

If you’re going to play good chess, a principle like don’t lose your queen is good to follow. But clearly there are exceptions. There are moments where losing your queen is a brilliant thing to do. There are moments where it is the only good thing you can do. Yet, chess is a game of perfect objectivity. The fact that there are exceptions does not change that at all.

So how can science lead us to the peaks of this moral landscape? As these analogies illustrate, it can in many ways. For example, if you grew up before the 1960s, or if you’re a Mad Men fan, you’ll know that people didn’t know how unhealthy cigarettes were. What’s worse is that smoking was actually advertised as something that was healthy. Then scientists stepped in, looked at the data, and realized the truth – smoking kills. Not soon after, the government took action and began issuing warnings in various places to inform people of the ills of smoking. Fast forward a few decades and smoking is a taboo. Even in Europe, where smoking rates are higher than those here in the United States, more and more countries are banning smoking from bars and issuing mandatory warning labels on cigarette packs. Cigarette smoking is a case where science told us what to value (not smoking) and what we ought to do (not smoke), and this improved our moral landscape.

The problem is religion sometimes gets in the way. Consider the case of Robyn Twitchell, a two-and-a-half-year-old boy who in April of 1986, started vomiting and crying. Over the next few days, his inability to consume and hold down food became dangerously apparent. So, his parents took him to their local prayer group where they prayed for him and sang hymns to him. He cried and winced in pain for days, but his parents refused proper medical assistance because they were Christian Scientists. He died a few days later. An autopsy showed that Robyn died of an obstructed bowel – an easy surgical fix. The parents were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but the conviction was overturned.

Are there categorical differences between cigarette smoking and Robyn’s story? All admit that both cases are unhealthy. Yet, many believe that it is difficult to say that what Robyn’s parents did was wrong – at least more difficult than telling someone that smoking is wrong –  because it is impossible to determine if religious values are wrong, even if they have horrible outcomes. But who are we to pretend that what Robyn’s parent did wasn’t wrong? Science clearly shows that human beings are better off and human communities flourish more with better health care.

Unfortunately, religious values are untouchable. For example, in 2004, as Richard Dawkins explains, after appealing on the grounds of freedom of religion,”a twelve year-old boy in Ohio won the right in court to wear a T-shirt to school bearing the words: Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!” Likewise, consider that in February of 2006 the United States Supreme court exempted a New Mexico Church from using hallucinogenic drugs because members of the church said that they could only understand God by drinking hoasca tea, which contains hallucinogenics. Clearly, religion is the, “trump card,” as Richard Dawkins says.

When I claim that science can determine values and generate moral truths I am suggesting that it is possible to know what is best for a human being and a community. It is true that smoking is harmful, it is true that not seeking proper medical attention for an ailing child is harmful, it is true that wearing a T-shirt with hateful comments is harmful, and it is true that taking hallucinogenic drugs is harmful. We know, through science, that all of these things make us worse off. This is not to say that science has the answers, but it is to say that it has the best tools to maximize our lives and our society. There are truths to be known about values, and using science to find these truths will make us all better off.

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Novelty in Music and Markets: The Evolutionary Forces Behind our Appreciation of the Unfamiliar

All great musicians share one thing in common: the ability to combine the familiar with the unfamiliar to create something novel and intriguing but, at the same time, not alienating and absurd. It’s Dylan going electricit’s the Beastie Boys combining punk and hip-hop; and it’s Zappa incorporating jazz and rock. Going too far in either direction is risky. As any one hit wonder will tell you, too much familiarity is a career killer. And the work of musicians like John Cage illustrates that music which is completely unconventional is usually rejected. Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, explains this perfectly: “As music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one… [but it also] takes delight when a skillful musician violates [an] expectation in an interesting way – a sort of musical joke that we’re all in on. Music breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does, and our cerebellum finds pleasure in adjusting itself to stay synchronized”.

I think the same can be said for brands, which, like a musician or musical group, cannot exist by just being the same thing over and over again. They must innovate and change to maintain their novelty. But they cannot be too groundbreaking also – just ask the folks who invented New Coke or the engineers who created the Poniac Aztek about what happens when you do that. Our desire to want the novel and the familiar helps explain why half the products we see have those “new look, same great taste” gimmicks.

So what are the Beatles, Dylans or Zappas of marketing campaigns? What were the advertisements that changed paradigms and challenged the way we viewed things? What were the brands that successfully introduced a new look and a new taste?

One example that comes to mind is Debeers’ “a diamond is forever” campaign. This was groundbreaking because it not only sold diamonds, it convinced an entire society that an engagement required a really expensive diamond. They took a completely unfamiliar concept and made it into a cultural norm. Bottled water is another. Recall (if you can) that until the 1970s, gas stations and grocery stores did not have shelves full of bottled water. Somehow, though, marketers persuaded consumers to start buying something that they could get free. Again, they took an unconventional idea and made it conventional (Dasani and Aquafina, by the way, come from the same source as your tap water).

The acute reader will realize that what I am describing here – our tendency to look for new things on the horizon while remaining at bay – does not just help us understand good music or marketing, but many other things in life. From girlfriends and boyfriends, to books and movies, to architecture and visual art, to iphones and ipads, we are “informavores”. We love new things as long as they aren’t too new. The question is: where does this trait come from? One place to start looking is evolutionary psychology literature.

Here’s one argument: natural selection favored intelligence, which was a capacity used to understand novelty. The line of reasoning goes something like this:

What is now known as general intelligence may have originally evolved as a domain-specific adaptation to deal with evolutionarily novel, nonrecurrent problems… there were likely occasional problems that were evolutionarily novel and nonrecurrent, which required our ancestors to think and reason in order to solve.  Such evolutionarily novel problems may have included, for example:

1.  Lightning has struck a tree near the camp and set it on fire.  The fire is now spreading to the dry underbrush.  What should I do?  How could I stop the spread of the fire?  How could I and my family escape it?  (Since lightning never strikes the same place twice, this is guaranteed to be a nonrecurrent problem.)…

…Because such problems were not recurrent features of the ancestral environment, there are no innate solutions provided by existing psychological adaptations…. from this perspective, general intelligence may not have been very important – no more important than any other domain-specific psychological adaptation – in its evolutionary origin but it became universally important in modern life, only because our current environment is almost entirely evolutionarily novel.

From this we can reasonably speculate that our propensity to look for and appreciate novelty comes from our intelligent novel-seeking and novel-solving ancestors who natural selection favored. But this line of reasoning has serious holes. For one, if it’s true, then intelligent people should listen to the best, most innovative music. They don’t. By the same logic, they should gravitate towards the most novel products. But this, of course, is backwards; intelligence people shouldn’t be persuaded by shallow gimmicks.

At this point I don’t have an answer. Evolutionary psychology is still quiet young, so its speculations are probably lacking as well. But I will say that those who point to cultural norms or societal trends as reasons for why we buy what we buy or why we latch onto the brands we latch onto are only telling half of the story. The other, far more important half is the one our ancestors and evolutionary psychologists tell us. It regards our older and much more ingrained and primitive motivations. In trying to answer the question of why we seek novelty in music, brands or anything else, the first places we should look are the biological systems which were responsible for moving us out of the trees and onto the savannah.

Are There Too Many Beautiful Women and Powerful Men In The World?

If you have a few minutes and three buckets try this experiment. Fill one bucket with ice-cold water, another bucket with room temperature water and the third bucket with hot water. Then, place one hand in the cold bucket and your other hand in the hot bucket. Give it a few minutes and then put both hands in the room temperature bucket. This is a harmless and fun way to confuse your brain. On one hand (pun intended) you’ll perceive the water as being cold and on the other hand (again, pun intended) you’ll perceive the water as being warm. The reason is obvious – we perceive the room temperature water relatively.

Turns out that the same is true when it comes to how we assess physical attractiveness. And that’s what I want to talk about here.

In a series of studies done back in the 1980s, Douglas Kenrick and Sara Gutierres asked participants to judge average-looking women after being exposed to pictures of other women. Here was the catch: for half of the participants the other women were unusually beautiful and for the other half the other women were average looking. They found that the participants who were exposed to unusually beautiful women judged the average-looking women “significantly uglier.” In other words, the knock-out stole the show.

They followed-up this experiment by testing the same principle for people we know or love. To do this, they created two groups: one that judged the artistic merit of abstract paintings and one that was exposed to Playboy and Penthouse centerfolds. Then, they asked the participants to rate their feelings about their current relationship partners. (There was a cover story. As Kenrick explains in his latest book, he and his colleagues told participants that they were running the experiment because, “psychologists were divided on whether being in a relationship opened people up to new aesthetic experiences or made them less open to novelty.”) After the participants viewed either the paintings or centerfolds, they were asked to report the extent to which they were in committed relationships. They found that, “their reported level of commitment depended on whether they had seen centerfolds…. men who had viewed the centerfolds rated themselves as less in love with their partners; women’s judgments of their partners were not so easily swayed.”

The moral of the story? Like the water bucket example, we (especially men) are easily influenced by the extremes and judge things relatively. These studies illustrate that highly attractive people make average looking people look just a bit below average.

Here’s another study that demonstrates this point from a different angle. Conducted in 2003, Arizona State University social psychologists Jon Maner, Vaughn Becker and Doug Kenrick showed crowds of either men or women – some of good-looking people and others of average looking people – to their subjects, who were separated into two groups: one that only saw the crowd for four seconds and the other that saw the crowd for a longer period, or one face at a time. They found that the crowd being strained out had a notable effect on how men and women perceived the good-looking people. In Kenrick’s words:

Men overestimated the number of beautiful women. Female subjects also overestimated the frequency of gorgeous women in the rapidly presented crowds, but they did not overestimate the frequency of handsome men. The whole body of findings points to a simple conclusion about beautiful women: They capture everyone’s attention and monopolize downstream cognitive processes. The conclusion about handsome men is different: They grab women’s eyes but do not hold their minds; good looking guys quickly get washed out of the stream of mental processing. This discrepancy is consistent with men’s and women’s different mating strategies; women are more selective and less interested in casual affairs with strangers.

This makes sense, and supports the “centerfold” studies. What do they teach us? Simple: if you are a guy, don’t expose yourself to too much beauty (aka don’t watch too much porn), it may undermine the feelings you have towards your partner (likewise if you are single, it may cause you to be especially picky, which has its obvious consequences). If you are a girl, don’t expose yourself to too many of the entrepreneur types, they may likewise harm your relationship.

What interests me most, though, is Kenrick’s last point – that men and women have different mating strategies. What is the evolutionary explanation behind this?

The short answer is that when we are looking to spread our genes we want to ensure that they make it to the next generation. The best way to do this is to give your genes (to put it bluntly) to someone who is attractive and powerful. But what’s interesting is that this evolutionary drive was created for our ancestors who lived in the hunter-gatherer society where there was no Hollywood, porn, or TV. In other words, there wasn’t an abundance of beautiful people who were being constantly displayed. Now there are, and our sexual drives are overwhelmed (and some of us are having an especially difficult time). I made this same point a few posts ago regarding food when I said that, “in the hunter-gatherer society where food was scarce, it would have been smart to load up on as many fatty and salty foods as possible. Now, it would be stupid, or at least bad for your health, to visit your local McDonalds every day, which relentlessly takes advantage of our primitive appetites.”

I hope you see the connection. It is the classic paradox of choice point. Consuming too much fatty food is similar to being exposed to too many beautiful and powerful people. Each case can be very detrimental to your dietary and romantic health. What should we do? I like Kenrick’s conclusion:

People who understand the dangers of overabundant fats and sugars can control their diets. People who understand the dangers of an overabundant diet of mass-media images can stop gorging on Playboy, People, Sex and the City, or Dancing with the Stars.

Perhaps easier said than done for some…

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Cognitive Biases Abound in Sports: Guest Post @ Sciam

Coaches, managers, commentators and fans are cognitive disasters. When it comes to sports, we are idiot decision-makers. Read more in my latest post over at the Scientific American blog.

The gist:

When it comes to sports, data > intuition. Yet, coaches, managers, fans and commentators alike continue to go with their guts, especially when it comes to a team or player that is close to their hearts. If they want to decide optimally or speak about their beloved team or player with slightly more intelligence they should turn off their cognitive biases and look at the data. Trying to persuade someone to change a strategy, root for another team or consider why the sports team from your area is superior to the sports team from their area is not unlike trying to persuade a Republican that Obama is a good President or an atheist that God exists. It’s just not going to happen.

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