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nudge April 22, 2008

Posted by KG in econ, interviews, neuroscience, politics, psychology, science.
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freakonomics q&a with richard thaler and cass sunstein about their new book:

Q: You talk about heuristics and decision-making biases which influence most people’s thinking. Which heuristic or bias has taken you for a ride? Are we as a society more or less vulnerable to heuristics than we were 20 years ago and why?

CASS: The one that has most gotten to me is the availability heuristic, which means that people assess probabilities by asking whether examples easily come to mind.

For about two years after 9/11, I was scared to fly, even though I knew, from my own work, that the risks were really low. And after a bad incident with Chinese food (I have a severe shrimp allergy, and the vegetarian dish contained shrimp), I have been ridiculously nervous about shrimp hiding somewhere in Chinese food.

Fortunately, I am also subject to optimistic bias — with respect to just about everything — and so I now fly contentedly and eat Chinese food happily if sometimes a bit warily.

I don’t know if our society is more vulnerable to bad heuristics and errors than it was 20 years ago. Certainly there’s a lot of vulnerability to those things, but the same as been true for a very long time.

Q: Is there a situation where it would be imperative to shove instead of nudge. How would you, as a libertarian paternalist, justify such a situation?

A: When children and third parties are at risk, mandates and shoves may be OK. We are not opposed to mandatory vaccination laws, in part because those who don’t get vaccinated endanger others.

Many antipollution laws are fine too. A full answer here would point to the costs of bargaining: when people can’t contract their way to a sensible outcome, because of collective action problems and a lack of information, the argument for a mandate gets stronger.

Shoves that aren’t that big an intrusion, such as mandatory seatbelt laws, are OK too, if they can be shown to save a lot of lives. But generally, we like freedom of choice.


using science to explain religion March 23, 2008

Posted by AP in neuroscience, religion, science.
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Religion cries out for a biological explanation. It is a ubiquitous phenomenon—arguably one of the species markers of Homo sapiens—but a puzzling one. It has none of the obvious benefits of that other marker of humanity, language. Nevertheless, it consumes huge amounts of resources. Moreover, unlike language, it is the subject of violent disagreements. Science has, however, made significant progress in understanding the biology of language, from where it is processed in the brain to exactly how it communicates meaning. Time, therefore, to put religion under the microscope as well.

Explaining Religion is an ambitious attempt to do this. The experiments it will sponsor are designed to look at the mental mechanisms needed to represent an omniscient deity, whether (and how) belief in such a “surveillance-camera” God might improve reproductive success to an individual’s Darwinian advantage, and whether religion enhances a person’s reputation—for instance, do people think that those who believe in God are more trustworthy than those who do not? The researchers will also seek to establish whether different religions foster different levels of co-operation, for what reasons, and whether such co-operation brings collective benefits, both to the religious community and to those outside it.

the neuroscience of philanthropy March 11, 2008

Posted by AP in neuroscience.
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new york times magazine:

Charity, do-gooding, philanthropy it’s all just selfishness masquerading as virtue. So says the cynic. In modern times, the theory that each of us, despite occasional appearances of self-sacrificial nobility, is ultimately and invariably looking out for No. 1 got a big boost from Darwin’s theory of evolution. By the logic of natural selection, any tendency to act selflessly ought to be snuffed out in the struggle to survive and propagate. So if someone seems to be behaving as an altruist — say, by giving away a fortune to relieve the sufferings of others — that person is really following the selfish dictates of his own genes. The evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse confessed that he slept badly for many nights after absorbing this supposed discovery, which he called “one of the most disturbing in the history of science.”

Before resigning ourselves to a similar spell of disillusioned sleeplessness, it might be instructive to test this theory against a particular case of philanthropy. In recent years, Bill Gates has channeled billions of his dollars to a foundation devoted to fighting disease and poverty. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may today be the single-most-powerful force in the world for the relief of suffering. But what, one might ask, is in it for Bill?

neuroscience and price February 29, 2008

Posted by AP in econ, food, neuroscience, psychology.
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the boston globe discusses a caltech/stanford study where researchers:

provided people with cabernet sauvignons at various price points, with bottles ranging from $5 to $90. Although the tasters were told that all the wines were different, the scientists were in fact presenting the same wines at different prices.

The subjects consistently reported that the more expensive wines tasted better, even when they were actually identical to cheaper wines.

The experiment was even more unusual because it was conducted inside a scanner – the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubes – that allowed the scientists to see how the subjects’ brains responded to each wine. When subjects were told they were getting a more expensive wine, they observed more activity in a part of the brain known to be involved in our experience of pleasure.

michael shermer @ google February 18, 2008

Posted by KG in books, cognitive science, econ, history, marketing, media, neuroscience, politics, psychology, science, speeches, talks, tech.
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michael shermer @ google discussing his new book – the mind of the market: compassionate apes, competitive humans, and other tales from evolutionary economics

discusses the ultimatum game @ 27min, the evolution of moral sense/trolley car experiment @ 33min & how hormones affect trust/cooperation @ 43min:

related: shermer speaking about debunking superstitions @ TED & “why people believe weird things about money

tim harford @ google February 2, 2008

Posted by KG in books, econ, media, neuroscience, psychology, speeches, talks, tech.
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discussing his new book, the logic of life: the rational economics of an irrational world…interesting bit about “hyperbolic discounting,” or the idea that “consequences which occur at a later time, good or bad, tend to have a lot less bearing on our choices the more distantly they fall in the future” @ 43min:

steven pinker on npr January 29, 2008

Posted by KG in cognitive science, interviews, language, neuroscience, news, psychology, religion.
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discussing his nytimes magazine article, “the moral instinct,” on talk of the nation.

30min segment

“the moral instinct” – steven pinker January 12, 2008

Posted by KG in environment, neuroscience, news, politics, science.
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steven pinker with a brilliant essay in the nytimes magazine covering some of the cognitive science and evolutionary biology of morality

“the moral instinct”:

When people pondered the dilemmas that required killing someone with their bare hands, several networks in their brains lighted up. One, which included the medial (inward-facing) parts of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in emotions about other people. A second, the dorsolateral (upper and outer-facing) surface of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in ongoing mental computation (including nonmoral reasoning, like deciding whether to get somewhere by plane or train). And a third region, the anterior cingulate cortex (an evolutionarily ancient strip lying at the base of the inner surface of each cerebral hemisphere), registers a conflict between an urge coming from one part of the brain and an advisory coming from another.

But when the people were pondering a hands-off dilemma, like switching the trolley onto the spur with the single worker, the brain reacted differently: only the area involved in rational calculation stood out. Other studies have shown that neurological patients who have blunted emotions because of damage to the frontal lobes become utilitarians: they think it makes perfect sense to throw the fat man off the bridge. Together, the findings corroborate Greene’s theory that our nonutilitarian intuitions come from the victory of an emotional impulse over a cost-benefit analysis.

The five spheres are good candidates for a periodic table of the moral sense not only because they are ubiquitous but also because they appear to have deep evolutionary roots. The impulse to avoid harm, which gives trolley ponderers the willies when they consider throwing a man off a bridge, can also be found in rhesus monkeys, who go hungry rather than pull a chain that delivers food to them and a shock to another monkey. Respect for authority is clearly related to the pecking orders of dominance and appeasement that are widespread in the animal kingdom. The purity-defilement contrast taps the emotion of disgust that is triggered by potential disease vectors like bodily effluvia, decaying flesh and unconventional forms of meat, and by risky sexual practices like incest.

Though wise people have long reflected on how we can be blinded by our own sanctimony, our public discourse still fails to discount it appropriately. In the worst cases, the thoughtlessness of our brute intuitions can be celebrated as a virtue. In his influential essay “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” Leon Kass, former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, argued that we should disregard reason when it comes to cloning and other biomedical technologies and go with our gut: “We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings . . . because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. . . . In this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done . . . repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

There are, of course, good reasons to regulate human cloning, but the shudder test is not one of them. People have shuddered at all kinds of morally irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching an untouchable, drinking from the same water fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting men. And if our ancestors’ repugnance had carried the day, we never would have had autopsies, vaccinations, blood transfusions, artificial insemination, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization, all of which were denounced as immoral when they were new.