What is Teaching?

Russ Roberts says:

Great teaching is more than passing on information. For that you can read a book or watch a video. A great teacher provokes and takes you on a journey of understanding. That requires grappling with the material and making it your own. Usually that means applying your knowledge to a problem you haven’t see before. At least that’s often the case in economics. I think Doug Lemov said it in his EconTalk episode — you haven’t taught it until they’ve learned it and learning is more than just hearing the facts or the answer to a problem.

This was the view I heard at UC Berkeley among faculty — when they weren’t complaining about teaching.

I disagree with this. The best teachers bring out what is inside their students. They provide the right environment so what is inside each student is expressed. How to do this will be different for each student, so you have to learn about them — not just generally, you have to learn about each one. (Or at least you have to grasp their diversity and allow for it.)

Learning is natural. Every student, in my experience, wants to learn something. What makes the situation much more difficult, is the false assumption that every student wants to learn the same thing or can be cajoled into learning the same thing. One of my Berkeley students said that in high school he had had a “great teacher” of philosophy, much like the teachers that Roberts praises. He had made philosophy so interesting that my student had originally majored in it. That had been a mistake, said my student.

I believe human nature has been shaped in many ways to make our economy work. Human economies center on trading. You make X, I make Y, we trade. If everyone made X, that would be bad economics. So we have been shaped to want to go in different occupational directions — you want to be an Xer, I want to be a Yer. This is deep inside us and impossible to change. When healthy students have trouble learning, I think the underlying problem is their teacher wants them to be an Xer (like the teacher) — but they want to be something else. A great teacher finds that something else.

Even the term great teacher is misleading, because it seems to imply that being a great teacher (= every student learns a lot) is difficult. I have found it’s easy, just as swimming with the current is easy. It requires a certain psychological ingenuity to fit this way of teaching into a system that doesn’t understand it. But after I figured out how to do it, it was so much easier than teaching the traditional way. I used to try to make all my students learn the same thing. That was really tiring — like swimming against the current. After class I’d be exhausted. Now I feel fine after class.

Myopia Increases Innovation

Big public works projects inevitably cost far more than the original budget. I heard a talk about this a few years ago. The speaker gave many examples, including Boston’s Big Dig. His explanation was that these projects would not be approved if voters were told the truth. The German newspaper magazine Der Spiegel has just published an interview with several architects responsible for recent German projects with especially large discrepancies between what people were told at the beginning and the unfolding reality — Berlin’s new airport, for example. The article’s headline calls them “debacles”. One architect gives the same explanation as the speaker I heard: “The pure truth doesn’t get you far in this business. The opera house in Sydney would never have been approved if they had known how much it would cost from the start.”

I disagree. I see the same massive underestimation of time and effort in projects that I do and that my colleagues and friends do, projects we do for ourselves that require no one’s approval. I think something will take an hour. It takes five hours. Plainly the world is more complicated than our mental model of it, sure, but there is more to it than that. Someone did a survey of people in Maryland who had been in a car accident so bad they had had to go to the hospital. Within only a year, a large fraction of them (half?) had forgotten about it. When asked if within the last year they had had an accident so bad they were hospitalized, they said no. Apparently we forget difficulties, even extreme ones, really fast. If you forget difficulties, you will underestimate them.

If I had realized how difficult everything would be, I couldn’t have done any of it is one explanation, which I’ve heard attributed to Gregory Bateson. From Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent review in this week’s New Yorker of a biography of Albert Hirschman, the economist, I learned that Hirschman — had he realized that this was human nature — would have had a different evolutionary explanation: We underestimate difficulties because this way of thinking increases innovation. Debacle . . . or opportunity? Difficulty is the mother of invention. 




Occupational Specialization as Far Back as the Bronze Age

Linear B is an ancient form of Greek, used around 1500 BC (the Bronze Age) in Mycenean Greece. Stuff written in Linear B gives us one of our oldest views of human life and can reveal things that other ways of looking at the past (e.g., bones, genes, tools, pottery) cannot. At the end of The Riddle of the Labyrinth (2013) by Margalit Fox, a book about how Linear B was deciphered, is a section about what the deciphered tablets turned out to say.

One thing they revealed is considerable occupational specialization. According to Fox  (pp. 273-5),

Mycenaeans plied a range of trades. Many tablets reveal the names of occupations . . . metalsmiths . . . textile work . . . tanners . . . leatherworkers . . . priests and priestesses . . . soldiers, rowers, and archers . . . swordmakers and bowmakers, chariot makers and chariot-wheel repairmen . . . goldsmiths and perfumers . . . woodcutters, carpenters, shipbuilders and net makers; fire kindlers and bath attendants; heralds, hunters, herdsmen, and beekeepers. . . . bronzesmiths.

Occupational specialization is at the center of my theory of human evolution. The decipherment of Linear B showed that it has existed as far back as we can see. Today there is an enormous amount of occupational specialization, but it also flourished when accumulated knowledge was much less.

The more you see the centrality of occupational specialization to human nature, the more you will see how modern schooling malnourishes almost everyone who undergoes it — which is almost everyone. Human nature takes people at one place and time — such as Mycenaean Greece — and pushes them to become adults who do all sorts of different things (woodcutter, herald, beekeeper . . . ). It takes people who start off the same or almost the same — same place, same food, same weather, similar genes — and creates diversity among them. Modern education tries to do the opposite: Take a diverse set of students and make them the same. One example is No Child Left Behind. Another is that in almost every college class, all students are given the same material, the same assignments, and graded on the same one-dimensional scale. We don’t need everyone to be the same; in fact, we need exactly the opposite. The more diverse we are, the sooner we will find solutions to pressing problems, because they will be attacked in many different ways.

Assorted Links

Thanks to David Cramer and Nadalal.

This American Life Retracts Daisey Show

This American Life has retracted the Mike Daisey show it did a few months ago because it turns out several details — not trivial ones — were wrong. Daisey knew this, and kept the TAL producers from finding out by concealing the cellphone number of his translator. He told them it no longer worked. TAL producers didn’t ask for her email address, apparently. It is a lot like Gleickgate — Daisey/Gleick  believing it was okay to stretch the truth in pursuit of some greater good (better Foxconn working conditions/less global warming). At least, I would like to think that is why Daisey did it. I hate to think he needed the money.

The position of This American Life is more complicated than their press release reveals. A few years ago Alex Heard revealed that parts of David Sedaris stories were made up. Sedaris is one of TAL’s biggest contributors. He is also their most famous. He probably owes his success to TAL. Did TAL retract his stories? Did it even mention the new information? Uh, no. But TAL remains a great show. These are missteps.

A few weeks ago I complained about Sedaris in a comment on the New Yorker website: Why does The New Yorker publish his stuff as memoir rather than fiction? What exactly is funny about making up derogatory stuff about living people (e.g., Sedaris’s guitar teacher) and spreading the false info far and wide?






Danny Kahneman’s Decision Making

A lovely article by Michael Lewis about Daniel (“Danny”) Kahneman, my former Berkeley colleague, emphasizes his indecision whether to write a popular book about his work. Should I or shouldn’t I? He doesn’t like what he’s written so far. Finally he decides to pay some experts for their opinion:

He called a young psychologist he knew well and asked him to find four experts in the field of judgment and decision-making, and offer them $2,000 each to read his book and tell him if he should quit writing it. “I wanted to know, basically, whether it would destroy my reputation,” he says. He wanted his reviewers to remain anonymous, so they might trash his book without fear of retribution. The endlessly self-questioning author was now paying people to write nasty reviews of his work. The reviews came in, but they were glowing.

Uh, why would anonymous experts trash his book? They gain in two ways from having it published: 1. It draws attention to their field, making them more important. 2. They can use it as a textbook. I love that Michael Bailey wrote The Man Who Would Be Queen (pdf). It allows me to assign my students a book I admire.

I think Danny has raised two great questions here:

  1. How can we set up a situation so that others will tell us the truth (= what they actually think)?
  2. How can we tell if we’ve succeeded — if they’ve told the truth?

The answers aren’t obvious, at least to me. The best answer I can give to Question 1 (what situation?) is write a blog. I take positive and negative comments to be what their authors actually think.  Variations on Question 1 are common. my recent post about E-Cat was  poorly-informed (unintentionally). The comments quickly and overwhelmingly said so. That supports my belief. In contrast to Question 1, Question 2 is rare.

The last time I talked to Danny was in the 90s. I was thinking of writing a book based on my introductory psychology lectures. I wrote a sample chapter based on my possessiveness lecture. The center of that lecture was the endowment effect (we value what we possess much more than the same thing when we do not possess it). Danny had written about it and loss aversion is part of prospect theory. By then Danny was at Princeton. I spoke to him on the phone. Does the endowment effect affect your everyday life? Does it affect what you do?  I asked. He thought about it.  No, he said. Or at least he couldn’t think of examples. In contrast, Richard Thaler chatted happily about the everyday implications.

One everyday sign of the endowment effect is a car in front of a big garage. The car isn’t in the garage because the garage is full of “junk”. Another is garage sales (also called yard sales). Such sales are held when the clutter becomes unbearable. They illustrate the everyday relevance of the effect. My point isn’t that Danny was unobservant, it’s the difference between his answer and Thaler’s. There is definitely room for two answers to my question. Humans are traders. We specialize and trade. This is central to economic life. Early papers about the endowment effect (I haven’t looked at recent papers) didn’t notice the problem/puzzle. How can we both (a) hold on to stuff tightly (= the endowment effect, loss aversion) and (b) trade easily?  John List noticed.

My friend Michel Cabanac, whose research was behind the Shangri-La Diet, has criticized Danny. In a book (p. 140), Michel wrote:

At a lecture in Jerusalem on January 19, 2001, he [Danny] was kind enough to inform the audience that the recent reorientation of his research toward what he calls “experienced utility,” which he acknowledged to be a synonym of pleasure, had been inspired by my 1993 lecture at Princeton University and by previous readings of my publications on pleasure.

In an email he elaborated:

However the “lecture” [at Princeton] was a only an invited seminar in his laboratory with an audience limited to him and his team. If I remember well, he reimbursed my travel and housing expenses. Yet, the Jerusalem mentioning of my contributions was only verbal [i.e., spoken], as I failed and still fail to find reference to Cabanac in his publications.

Michel’s whole research career has centered on the idea that pleasure guides our actions,  including “cognitive” ones. Faced with an arithmetic problem (2 + 7 = ?), for example, some answers will seem more pleasant than others. (2 + 7 = 9 is more pleasant than 2 + 7 = 10, not just more familiar.) He has especially stressed that changes in pleasure — the same events become more or less pleasant — help us self-regulate. We stop eating when food becomes unpleasant, for example. The food stays the same, we change. No one has understood the role of pleasure — which is at the center of all human decision making  — better than Michel.

When I get a copy of Danny’s new book, Thinking Fast and Slow, I will be curious to see what he says about the endowment effect, loss aversion, and Michel Cabanac.

More  Via scrbd, I have found that Danny’s new book does reference Michel — see p. 488. And, in a chapter about the endowment effect, I found this: “Knetsch, Thaler, and I set out to design an experiment that would highlight the contrast between goods that are held for use and for exchange.”  He goes on to discuss List’s research. I am unable to find anything like the phrase “the contrast between goods that are held for use and for exchange” in the paper that the three of them wrote about the effect. Jack Knetsch began to study the effect because different ways of trying to establish the value of the environment (e.g., clean water) produced enormously different answers. The endowment-effect chapter is weak on everyday examples — nothing about garage sales — but does include an unsourced quote: “She didn’t care which of the two offices she would get, but a day after the announcement was made, she was no longer willing to trade. Endowment effect!”

Thanks to Dave Lull, who suggested online searching.

“We are Heroes, They are Villains”: My Brilliant Students

At Tsinghua University, which is like a Chinese MIT, I am teaching a small class (25 students) called Frontiers of Psychology. It is required of freshmen psychology majors. There are a few students from other majors. So many of my students do brilliant work that it is hard to keep track. For example, two classes ago I started having presentations (short talks related to the reading). In the very first one, a student talked about her dysmenorrhea and self-experimentation to stop it. Later, during a discussion of how to give a talk, another (female) student said, “I could not have given such a talk.” “That’s a compliment, right?” I said. “I don’t know,” she said. Which is only to say what a radical and stunning talk it was.

For this week’s class I assigned several readings, from which students chose one. The shortest and most popular paper, by Joshua Knobe, a Yale professor of philosophy, was about judgments of intentionality. Knobe showed subjects various scenarios and asked them whether the side effects of a action described in the scenario should be considered intentional or not. Changing one word had a big effect. Knobe concluded that we tend to see bad side effects as intentional, good side effects as unintentional. I assigned it because the effect of changing one word was large and I liked the source of data (“Subjects were 78 people spending time in a Manhattan public park”).

Here is one student’s comment:

When I was in primary school, we had a very kind English teacher who was quite close to me. After she left school, she sent some photos to me and I found it a great honor to deliver them to my classmates. Later on, a math teacher got married and she gave another pupil some sweets to deliver the class. I felt unpleasant since not every student could get a sweet. I thought it unjust.

However, in both cases, photos and sweets, there weren’t enough for the whole class. The only difference was who passed them out. When I did, the main issue I cared about was “I’m the one to deliver them”; in the other case, “Why can’t everyone get one?”

She titled her comment “We are the Heroes, They are the Villains”. Her point was that Knobe’s results could be explained by the idea that we slant our judgments of others and ourselves to make them look worse and us look better — an explanation that Knobe didn’t consider.

Knobe isn’t the only one who didn’t think of it. Other students proposed other plausible explanations. But I think the “we are heroes” explanation is quite plausible because three other students made the same point in other ways. One of them repeated a story from a test preparation book:

A teacher had a student do ten math problems on the board. Then she asked another student to describe what he saw. “Two of the answers are wrong,” he said. “What about the eight correct answers?” said the teacher.

Not a true story but surely based on actual events. Another student told of the time her teacher had made her push her fellow students to exercise for an half-hour per day. The students complained to her about their loss of time. Later, however, her class had finished first in a physical competition — much better than usual. Her classmates did not give her any credit for this.

To emphasize how unobvious this idea is, here is what two professors make of Knobe’s results:

This asymmetry in responses between the ‘harm’ and ‘help’ scenarios, now known as the Knobe effect, provides a direct challenge to the idea of a one-way flow of judgments from the factual or non-moral domain to the moral sphere. ‘These data show that the process is actually much more complex,’ argues Knobe.

My students disagree. Their proposed explanations, such as the “we are heroes” idea, were not “much more complex”.

I believe they have noticed a broad truth about human nature that has escaped many psychologists, not just Knobe. In this excerpt from his new book, my former colleague Danny Kahneman describes what he calls “the illusion of validity”: personality judgments were considered more predictive than they actually were by the people who made them. Could this be another example of “we are heroes”? The “we are heroes” idea also explains the Lake Wobegone Effect: Most people consider themselves above average. The technical name for this is illusory superiority. The Wikipedia article about illusory superiority does not mention the Knobe Effect and vice-versa. In this important aspect of human nature, professors (including me) have had trouble seeing that the trees make a forest.

Willat Effect Experiments With Tea

The Willat Effect is the hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things. Your hedonic response to the things compared (e.g., two or more dark chocolates) expands in both directions. The “better” things become more pleasant and the “worse” things become less pleasant. In my experience, it’s a big change, easy to notice.

I discovered the Willat Effect when my friend Carl Willat offered me five different limoncellos side by side. Knowing that he likes it, his friends had given them to him. Perhaps three were homemade, two store-bought. I’d had plenty of limoncello before that, but always one version at a time. Within seconds of tasting the five versions side by side, I came to like two of them (with more complex flavors) more than the rest. One or two of them I started to dislike. When you put two similar things next to each other, of course you see their differences more clearly. What’s impressive is the hedonic change.

The Willat Effect supports my ideas about human evolution because it pushes people toward connoisseurship. (I predict it won’t occur with animals.) The fact that repeating elements are found in so many decorating schemes and patterns meant to be pretty (e.g., wallpapers, textile patterns, rugs, choreography) suggests that we get pleasure from putting similar things side by side — the very state that produces the Willat Effect. According to my theory of human evolution, connoisseurship evolved because it created demand for hard-to-make goods, which helped the most skilled artisans make a living. Carl’s limoncello tasting made me a mini-connoisseur of limoncello. I started buying it much more often and  bought more expensive brands, thus helping the best limoncello makers make a living. Connoisseurs turn surplus into innovation by giving the most skilled artisans more time and freedom to innovate.

Does the Willat Effect have practical value? Could it improve my life? Recently I decided to see if it could make me a green tea connoisseur. Ever since I discovered the Shangri-La Diet (calories without smell), I’d been drinking tea (smell without calories) almost daily but I was no connoisseur. Nor had I done many side-by-side comparisons. At home, I had always made one cup at a time.

In Beijing, where I am now, I can easily buy many green teas. I got three identical tea pots (SAMA SAG-08) and three cheap green teas. I drink tea every morning. Instead of brewing one pot, I started making two or three pots at the same time and comparing the results. I compared different teas and the same tea brewed different lengths of time (Carl’s idea).

I’ve been doing this about two weeks. The results so far:

1. The cheapest tea became undrinkable. I decided to never buy it again and not to drink the  rest of my purchase. I will use it for kombucha. Two of the three teas cost about twice the cheapest one. After a few side by side comparisons I liked the more expensive ones considerably more than the cheaper one. The two more expensive ones cost about the same but, weirdly, I liked the one that cost (slightly) more a little better than the one that cost less. (Tea is sold in bulk with no packaging or branding so the price I pay is closely related to what the grower was paid. The buyers taste it and decide what it’s worth.)

2. I decided to infuse the tea leaves only once. (Usual practice is to infuse green tea two or more times.)  The quality of later infusions was too low, I decided. Before this, I had found second and later infusions had been acceptable.

The Willat Effect is working, in other words. After a decade of drinking tea, my practices suddenly changed.  I will buy different teas and brew them differently. I will spend a lot more per cup since (a) each cup will require fresh tea, (b) I won’t buy the cheapest tea, and (c) I have become far more interested in green tea, partly because each cup tastes better, partly because I am curious if more expensive varieties taste better. When I bought the three varieties I have now I didn’t bother to learn their names; I identified them by price. In the future I will learn the names.

To get the Willat Effect, the things being compared must be quite similar. For example, comparing green tea with black tea does nothing. I have learned a methodological lesson: That tea is a great medium for studying this not only because it’s cheap but also because you can easily get similar tasting teas by brewing the same tea different lengths of time. I haven’t yet tried different water temperatures but that too might work.

I have done similar things before. I bought several versions of orange marmalade, did side-by-side tastings, and indeed became an orange marmalade connoisseur. After that I bought only expensive versions. After a few side-by-side comparisons of cheese that included expensive cheeses, I stopped buying cheap cheese. You could say I am still an orange marmalade and cheese connoisseur but this has no effect on my current life. Because I avoid sugar, I don’t eat orange marmalade. Because of all the butter I eat, I rarely eat cheese. My budding green tea connoisseurship, however, is making a  difference because I drink tea every day.

My posts about human evolution.

The Value of a Diagnosis of Asperger’s

In a recent post I said Marcia Angell was too hard on psychiatric diagnosis. Long before perfection, diagnoses can be useful. For example, Alexandra Carmichael recently found out she has something close to Asperger’s Syndrome (note that she has not been diagnosed by a doctor). She explained why:

I feel like at least I’m on the *path* to a much smoother life now – whether I’m there or not can be debated. 🙂 Learning about Asperger’s has illuminated sensory and social sensitivities that I didn’t realize other people *didn’t* have. It was understandably confusing to live in a world where I thought I was defective because I couldn’t do what other people were doing as easily. Knowing that there is a subset of people who experience the world the way I do has been liberating, and seeing how other “aspies” modify their lives and routines to suffer less has helped me make helpful structural changes in my life, too.
For example, right now I am wearing my Bose QC 15 headphones on a flight from Boston to San Francisco, because I know that too much sound in a day can make me incredibly weak the next day. I’ve arranged to do 90% of my work by email and chat these days, with the occasional in-person meeting, because I know that my auditory processing is not great for phone calls, and it takes me days to prepare for and recover from a social meeting/event. I say no to most things I get invited to (conferences, dinners, etc), because I prefer to contribute my thinking/organizing/connecting talents online and reserve social energy for one-on-one time with close friends. I’ve also become aware that my ability to listen and empathize with people is powerful and something I enjoy, maybe in part because I build such intricate models of everyone I meet, so my purpose in life has become to listen and help where I can. I only wear comfortable clothes, because my mood will suffer terribly if I have jeans or high heels on. I give and receive lots of hugs, because these are very calming for me. I have a very detailed daily routine that I follow, which reduces cognitive load used to consider options every day and feels comfortable for me. I’m much more aware of my weaknesses, especially regarding relationships, and am very careful about communicating clearly and non-violently, making sure I have a good understanding of both my needs and the needs of people around me – so that I can help, or at least not harm them.
So things like this have all come about because of trying on the Asperger’s hat for a while, and the increased self-awareness that came with it. After a certain point, you can drop the label and integrate what you’ve learned into your identity. But for me, having the label for a while was a guide and a relief, helping me realize that it’s really ok to be myself.

Health Care Stagnation

In December, the Los Angeles Times reported — very briefly — that from 2007 to 2008, life expectancy in the United States declined by 0.1 year. It should have been the lead story of every newspaper in the country with the largest possible headlines (“LESS LIFE“). Did 9/11 reduce life expectancy this much? Of course not. Did World War II? Not in a visible way — American life expectancy rose during World War II. I can’t think any event in the last 100 years that made such a difference to Americans. The decline is even more newsworthy when you realize: 1. It is the continuation of trends. The yearly increase in life expectancy has been dropping for about the last 40 years. 2. Americans spend far more on health care than any other country. Meaning vast resources have been available to translate new discoveries into practice. 3. Americans spend far more on health research than any other country and should be the first to benefit from new discoveries.

Maybe I’m biased (because my research is health-related) but I think this is the biggest event of our time. It is the Industrial Revolution in reverse — progress grinding to a halt. For no obvious reason, just as the Industrial Revolution had no obvious reason. Health researchers have been given billions of dollars to improve our health, the whole system has been given tens of billions of dollars, and the result is … nothing. Worse than nothing.

No journalist, with the exception of Gary Taubes, seems the least bit aware of this. It is a difficult story to cover, true. But several journalists, such as health writers for The New Yorker (Atul Gawande, Michael Specter, and Jerome Groopman) are perfectly capable of covering it. They haven’t. With a few exceptions, they write about progress (e.g., Peter Provonost’s checklists). It is like only reporting instances when Dirk Nowitzki missed a free throw. Each instance is true but the big picture they create — he misses all free throws — is profoundly false.

Among academics, the stagnation has received a tiny amount of attention. In a recent paper (gated), two University of Southern California professors, considering a wider time period, point out that there has been some improvement in how long you live after you get sick, but no improvement in how long you live before getting sick. Here is how the discussion section of their article begins:

There is substantial evidence that we have done little to date [meaning: from the 1960s to the 1990s] to eliminate or delay disease or the physiological changes that are linked to age. For example, the incidence of a first heart attack has remained relatively stable between the 1960s and 1990s and the incidence of some of the most important cancers has been increasing until very recently. Similarly, there have been substantial increases in the incidence of diabetes in the last decades.

Here is my explanation of the paradox of: 1. Enormous and increasing health care costs. 2. Vast amounts spent on research. 3. No better health. Health researchers, such as medical school professors, shape their research to favor expensive treatments, such as expensive drugs. In fact, the best treatments would cost nothing (e.g., the Shangri-La Diet). To make the expensive treatments seem worth studying, they invent utterly false theories and claim to believe them. For an example (research about depression), see The Emperor’s New Drugs by Irving Kirsch. Because health researchers are forced to worship absurd theories, they are incapable of good research. Absence of good research is why there is no progress. The health care supply chain — everyone between you and the research, such as doctors, nurses, drug company employees, hospital employees, alternative medicine practitioners, medical device makers, and so on — is happy with the situation (useless research) because it ensures that little will change and they will continue to get paid. They are the supposed experts — and remain silent.

It is human nature that everyone in the supply chain remains silent. They are protecting their jobs. But the silence of the journalists is The Emperor’s New Clothes writ large. To explain why smart journalists fail to notice the stagnation, I think you have to go back to studies of conformity. When everyone you talk to — people in the supply chain  — says black = white (i.e., that progress is being made), you say the same thing.

Why is personal science, the main subject of this blog, important? Because it is a way out of this stagnation.

Power Makes You More Dismissive

An excellent essay by Jonah Lehrer describes a pair of studies I didn’t know about:

In a recent study led by Richard Petty, a psychologist at Ohio State, undergraduates role-played a scenario between a boss and an underling. Then the students were exposed to a fake advertisement for a mobile phone. Some of the ads featured strong arguments for buying the phone, such as its long-lasting battery, while other ads featured weak or nonsensical arguments. Interestingly, students that pretended to be the boss were far less sensitive to the quality of the argument. It’s as if it didn’t even matter what the ad said—their minds had already been made up.

. . . Instead of analyzing the strength of the argument, those with authority focus on whether or not the argument confirms what they already believe. If it doesn’t, then the facts are conveniently ignored.

Deborah Gruenfeld, a psychologist at the Stanford Business School, demonstrated a similar principle by analyzing more than 1,000 decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court between 1953 and 1993. She found that, as justices gained power on the court, or became part of a majority coalition, their written opinions tended to become less complex and nuanced. They considered fewer perspectives and possible outcomes.

Scary. Thomas Paine wrote about this: “The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly.”

Lucky Charms Can Work

Speaking of good-luck charms, a study at the University of Cologne found in four different experiments with four different tasks that people did better when they believed that they somehow had Lady Luck on their side. For example, they did better when they had their lucky charm with them than when they didn’t.

If lucky charms work then it’s reasonable to buy them. I explained why it’s helpful in an evolutionary (i.e., long-term) sense to buy them: long ago, the resources paid for them supported technological innovation.
Via Bad Science.

The Hockey Stick Illusion

Recently a WSJ columnist told this story:

I was chatting with a friend who, over the years, has helped her kids slog through the obligatory science-fair projects.

“The experiments never turned out the way they were supposed to, and so we were always having to fudge the results so that the projects wouldn’t be screwy. I always felt guilty about that dishonesty,” she said, “but now I feel like we were doing real science.”

Yes, science with a human touch. The Hockey Stick Illusion by Andrew Montford (sent to me by the publisher) is a great book because it tells a great story. That story has a hero (Stephen McIntryre) and a villain (Michael Mann) and illustrates a basic truth about the world: A consensus of the “best people” can be wrong. This point was first made, as far as I know, by The Emperor’s New Clothes. It was later made by the Asch experiment (about line-length judgments). It’s not obvious; Elizabeth Kolbert and her editors at The New Yorker, not to mention Bill McKibben, have yet to understand it. (“No one has ever offered a plausible account of why thousands of scientists at hundreds of universities in dozens of countries would bother to engineer a climate hoax,” Kolbert recently wrote, with the permission of her editors.)  It’s a sad comment on our education system that I first learned it via self-experimentation. My results showed that an acne medicine that my dermatologist prescribed didn’t work — a possibility for which my dermatologist (in consensus with other dermatologists) hadn’t allowed. As truths go, this one is scary: It means you have to think for yourself. But it is also the most liberating truth I know.

The Hockey Stick Illusion tells how McIntyre, skeptical of Mann’s hockey-stick result (a sharp increase in global temperature to unprecedented levels during the 20th century), tried to get the data and computer code that Mann used. Mann put him off. He still hasn’t released the computer code he used. Mann found a hockey stick where none existed because (a) he used principal-components analysis to summarize a lot of temperature series (bad idea), (b) he used that method in an unusual way, making a bad idea worse, and (c) one of his time series had a serious problem. After McIntyre noticed this problem and pointed it out, the story really begins: How did everyone react? Much as a reader of The Emperor’s New Clothes would expect. Nature denied it. The Washington Post denied it. Most climate scientists denied it (and continue to). Montford started writing the book before Climategate, whose overall message was the same — that climate scientists have been distorting the truth, that the case for man-made global warming is far weaker than they say, that a consensus of experts can be wrong. As Montford puts it,

None of the corruption and bias and flouting of rules we have seen in this story [and in the Climategate emails] would have been necessary if there is, as we are led to believe, a watertight case that mankind is having a potentially catastrophic effect on the climate.

Climategate and the story within The Hockey Stick Illusion are bad news for some very powerful people, such as Al Gore and those who gave him a Nobel Prize, but are helpful to the rest of us. When Big Shot X says “This is incredibly clear, everyone knows this” . . . maybe they’re wrong.

The Silver Lining of a Cloud of Volcanic Ash

A New York Times article on the volcanic ash preventing air travel ended like this:

Leo Liao, a Hong Kong businessman who was stranded at the Frankfurt airport, was cheerful and philosophical. “It’s a natural issue,” he said. “Never complain. You can’t change this.”

Not cheerful enough. I once heard Edward Teller, the physicist, give a talk. In the middle, he said if we managed to control the weather we would take away the last topic of civilized conversation. Several years ago Berkeley had the rainiest winter in memory. It was never so easy to talk to strangers — you could commiserate about the rain. The stranded travelers have an unparalleled opportunity to meet people different from themselves, people they would ordinarily never be able to meet.

How to Talk to Strangers. Paris Syndrome.

Assorted Links

  • the I Practice My Own Methods Developed From Self-Experimentation group. Which, when this was written, had one member. She has Parkinson’s Disease and found that yoga helps. “I started watching yoga on tv because [my husband] had the tv on and he likes to watch attractive women expressing themselves physically.”
  • umami basics. “Maturation increases the content of umami.”
  • reasonable talk about addiction by Gabor Mate, a Vancouver doctor. “The first time I took heroin, it felt like a warm soft hug.” Mate says his addiction to classical CDs was like a heroin addiction. Sure, you laugh, he says, and goes on to say that one weekend he spent $8,000 on classical CDs, that his wife could tell when he’d been classical-CD shopping, and he once neglected a woman in labor (he was an obstetrician) because he was buying classical CDs. “In effect, our system punishes and prosecutes people for having been abused in the first place.”

Thanks to Bob Levinson.

Mood and Attentiveness

In Jonah Lehrer’s article about the benefits of depression, nothing seemed solid until I came across this:

[Joe] Forgas [an Australian psychology professor] placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To [vary] mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days — he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s “Requiem” — and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the “low mood” condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.

I found the scientific article that reports this experiment, in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Memory for the trinkets was measured two ways — recall and recognition — and both ways the “sad” shoppers did much better. I didn’t know about this; the size of the effect suggests it’s important. Calling it variation in “memory” is odd, since the remembered event was only a minute ago. Variation in attentiveness is a better summary.

Whatever you call it, I like the general point made in the scientific article. When you are in a good mood, you pay less attention to your surroundings than when you are in a bad mood. When you’re in a good mood, the model of the world in your head is working well. No need to change it. When you’re in a bad mood, the model of the world in your head isn’t working well. Time to gather more data and revise it.

My colleagues and I have studied a different effect along these lines (in rats): When things aren’t going well, you vary your actions more. You try new things more. That’s another way to update your model of the world.

Boring + Boring = Pleasant!?

Fact 1: For the last few weeks, I’ve been studying Chinese using a flashcard program called Anki. It’s an excellent program but boring. I’ve never liked studying — maybe no one does. Fact 2: I’ve had a treadmill for a very long time. Walking on a treadmill is boring so I always combine it with something pleasant — like watching American Idol. That makes it bearable. I don’t think listening to music would be enough.

Two days ago I discovered something that stunned me: Using Anki WHILE walking on my treadmill was enjoyable. I easily did it for an hour and the next day (yesterday) did it for an hour again. The time goes by quickly. Two boring activities, done together, became pleasant. Anki alone I can do maybe ten minutes. Treadmill alone I can do only a few minutes before I want to stop. In both cases I’d have to be pushed to do it at all. Yet the combination I want to do; 60 minutes feels like a good length of time.

I’ve noticed several related things: 1. I could easily study flashcards while walking. This was less mysterious because I coded walking as pleasant. 2. I can’ t bear to watch TV sitting down. Walking on a treadmill makes it bearable. This didn’t puzzle me because I coded TV watching as pleasant and sitting as unpleasant (although I sit by choice while doing many other things). 3. I have Pimsler Chinese lessons (audio). I can painlessly listen to them while walking. While stationary (sitting or standing), it’s hard to listen to them. 4. When writing (during which I sit), it’s very effective to work for 40 minutes and then walk on my treadmill watching something enjoyable for 20 minutes. I can repeat that cycle many times. 5. Allen Neuringer found he was better at memorization while moving than while stationary. 6. There’s some sort of movement/thinking connection — we move our arms when we talk, we may like to walk while we talk, maybe walking makes it easier to think, and so on.

You could say that walking causes a “thirst” for learning or learning causes a “thirst” for walking. Except that the “thirst” is so hidden I discovered it only by accident. Whereas actual thirst is obvious. The usual idea is that what’s pleasant shows what’s good for us — e.g., water is pleasant when we are thirsty. Yet if walking is good for us — a common idea — why isn’t it pleasant all by itself? And if Anki is good for us, why isn’t it pleasant all by itself? The Anki/treadmill symmetry is odd because lots of people think we need exercise to be healthy but I’ve never heard someone say we need to study to be healthy.

The evolutionary reason for this might be to push people to walk in new places (which provide something to learn) rather than old places (which don’t). To push them to explore. David Owen noticed it was much more fun  for both him and his small daughter to walk in the city than in the country. He was surprised. When I drive somewhere, and am not listening to a book or something, I prefer a new route over a familiar one. If I am listening to a book I prefer the familiar route because it makes it easier to understand the book.

Maybe the practical lesson is that we enjoy learning dry stuff when walking but not when stationary. Pity the 99.9% of students who study stationary. Ideally you’d listen to a lecture while walking somewhere, perhaps around a track. Now and then I’ve interviewed people while walking; it worked much better than the usual interview format (seated). The old reason was I disliked sitting. Now I have a better reason.

Widespread Loneliness

I’m fond of arguing that the Ten Commandments was a very political document. Notice it’s aimed at men? Notice that women aren’t protected, much less children? That’s because men had all the power. No one has said they already knew this or that I was wrong.

I thought of the Ten Commandments when a friend from Amsterdam wrote me about a recent experience of hers:

A very old man asked me to come to his apartment, and he would donate a bike to the project.  I went over to get it, and it was half a bike, and it was locked to a pole…had obviously been there for years.  The temperature was well below zero.  It became clear that he was in fact super-lonely, and torn between usual Dutch suspicion of strangers… and desperation for human contact.  He finally pleaded with me to come up to his apartment (where he obviously lived alone) but not before we spent 15 minutes trying to saw that rusty old bike loose, with his World War II-vintage hacksaw with missing teeth.

You may know that Dutch people are the tallest in the world, reflecting a very high standard of living. But — if this old man is not unusual — alleviating the loneliness of old people isn’t part of the Dutch social contract, admirable as it may be.

I recently watched the Frontline program Sick Around the World. It suggested that that old man isn’t unusual. In England, where doctor visits are free, a doctor said he has several patients who come weekly, purely because they’re lonely. In Japan, some patients have their blood pressure measured very often — presumably for the same reason. In Taiwan, if you see a doctor 20 times in one month someone from the government will come to talk to you. Not about loneliness — about overuse of medical care. The Frontline program made nothing of any of these facts, which were included to show that access was easy. That’s not all they show. What if the British doctor had said that several patients visit him often because they need water? Then we’d be shocked. Yet the idea that everyone needs human contact isn’t mysterious or controversial.

My explanation is there’s a double whammy: Not only do lonely old people have little power, it’s also clear that their problem (loneliness) isn’t caused by a “chemical imbalance”. So no drugs can be sold to treat it. And there’s no diagnostic category. It’s another example of gatekeeper syndrome. When these lonely old people exert what little power they have by visiting their doctor, the doctor — I’m assuming — doesn’t do anything to get rid of the loneliness. Even if you visit 20 times in a month.

North Korea and Penn State

In an excellent talk last week about North Korea — linked to his book The Cleanest Race — Brian Myers, a professor in South Korea, said that people don’t fear dying, they fear dying without significance. Without their life having meant something. Life in North Korea is far more attractive than Americans realize, he said. The border between North Korea and China is easy to cross, and about half of the North Koreans who go to China later return, in spite of North Korea’s poverty. How does the North Korean government do such a good job under such difficult circumstances? Partly by playing up external threats (U.S. troops in South Korea), the obvious way politicians win support, but also by telling the North Korean people they are special. Maybe it plays this card because it has to — they can’t afford a police state — but there is no denying how well it works. In contrast, Myers said, the South Korean government offers its citizens no more than consumerism. That doesn’t work well, and South Korea, in spite of high per capita income, has high rates of depression and suicide.

I think the attractiveness of North Korean life has a lot to do with why Penn State students like Penn State so much. This American Life did a show about Penn State a few months ago. Life at the nation’s top party school said the description. Sounds boring, I thought, so I waited to listen to it until I’d run out of stuff to listen to. It turned out to be one of their best shows ever. Mostly it’s about the large amount of drinking — this is why they did the show — but at the very end is a short segment about how much Penn State students love their school. Not much detail but I was convinced. The attractive school cheer (“We Are Penn State”) comes up in conversation! A few people reading this won’t know that Penn State has an extremely successful football team. A large fraction of the students attend its games. After graduation, a lot of them continue to attend the games.

Here is a powerful and neglected force in human life. The bland technical term is group identity.  As the South Korea comparison indicates, governments don’t routinely use it to govern. As Penn State exceptionalism indicates, colleges don’t routinely use it either. Faculty routinely disparage football. Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Has Crippled Undergraduate Education was written by a professor — of course. The Penn State chancellor seemed mystified that his students were so proud and supportive of their school. (They’re just that way, he seemed to say.) A lot of my self-experimentation has been about discovering what we need to be healthy, such as morning faces. I can’t self-experiment about this but I would if I could. It’s yet another thing that people must have routinely gotten in Stone-Age life but don’t get any more — unless you happen to be a rabid sports fan or an alumnus of a college with a sufficiently successful football team. Or live in North Korea.