Posts Tagged ‘irrationality’

How do we motivate our members (and ourselves)?

We’ve been talking about how to motivate our members and ourselves for the past two months.  It’s time to sum it up and start turning theoretical insight into practical actions. Here’s the insight.

1. The basic problem in workout motivation is that the reward comes too late.
Our daily routines are guided by “autopilot” functions that reside in the primitive parts of our brains. These systems operate on a straightforward reward-or-punishment system. If an activity gets associated with our reward systems, we like doing it, which makes us want to do it more. If it gets associated with pain, fear or loss, we develop an aversion. This principle is called conditioning. With our conscious minds, we can override what we have been conditioned to do, but it takes an effort. When our conscious minds relax, we will continue doing what we’ve been conditioned to.
The big problem in the workout context is that the conditioning (the primitive direct association in the primitive part of the brain ) only happens when the pleasantness (or unpleasantness) happens at precisely the right moment, while we’re about to do or still doing the right (or wrong) thing. Read more…


Irrationality in Autism Research

Today’s post is about a piece of writing that I don’t really recommend: A report from the French Food Safety Agency called

Efficacy and safety of gluten-free and casein-free diets proposed in children presenting with pervasive developmental disorders (autism and related syndromes)

This report is a splendid example of irrational “scientific” thinking: Intelligent people following what they consider good rules, and ending up with a completely ridiculous result. Just how ridiculous it is, becomes apparent if we try to use the same logic to decide whether or not we should use CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation) to save drowning victims. The French researchers’ point of view would have to be that we should never make this attempt:

  • CPR involves risk. You can blow air into the patient’s stomach, which can can cause vomiting, which can get gastric acid into his airways. You can also blow in too much air, and can cause lung damage. And you do heart compressions, you risk fracturing his ribs.
  • You don’t know whether it’s going to work or not. No double-blind study has yet been done, where drowned patients have randomly been assigned to the treatment group and placebo group.

Everybody can see that it’s a completely ridiculous proposition to advise against attempting CPR to save drowning victims.

Why is it so much harder to see that it’s just as ridiculous to argue against attempting to use dietary changes to save autistic children?

That question is actually quite easy to answer. There are seven reasons:

Read more…

IQ and Rationality

I’m reading about the distinction between intelligence and rationality these days:

What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought
by Keith E. Stanovich

There’s one aspect of the book that I’d like to comment on so far:

Intelligence has to do with the processing power of the brain. Rationality has to do with how we form our beliefs.

In other (my) words: You don’t have to be unintelligent to believe that you’re safer with a gun in your house, or that lower taxes are always better. You just have to be irrational.

What do I mean with irrational? It’s a lot of things, but an important element is our common tendency to be more impressed by evidence that supports our worldview, than by evidence that contradicts it.

Let’s start with the pistols and revolvers. Of course, it’s easy to create in our minds a scenario where you’re safer with a gun in your house than without it. “You hear an intruder. You have time to find your gun and load it before the intruder finds it. You know how to use it effectively and responsibly, even when your adrenaline is sky high. The intruder is either unarmed or unprepared.” And at the end of the story, you are the hero, unhurt, and the intruder is either dead, wounded or (hopefully just) in chains. Read more…

Why Argumements Escalate

How facts backfire

One of the most thankless jobs a lawyer can take on, is to try to dampen, rather than escalate a conflict. This article by Joe Keohane sheds some light on why this is so.

Instead of giving you an explanation or a summary, I’ll give you a few selected quotes.

“New research, published in the journal Political Behavior last month, suggests that once those facts — or “facts” — are internalized, they are very difficult to budge. In 2005, amid the strident calls for better media fact-checking in the wake of the Iraq war, Michigan’s Nyhan and a colleague devised an experiment in which participants were given mock news stories, each of which contained a provably false, though nonetheless widespread, claim made by a political figure: that there were WMDs found in Iraq (there weren’t), that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenues (revenues actually fell), and that the Bush administration imposed a total ban on stem cell research (only certain federal funding was restricted). Nyhan inserted a clear, direct correction after each piece of misinformation, and then measured the study participants to see if the correction took.

For the most part, it didn’t. The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire.”

“… people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.”

“A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong. Taber and Lodge found this alarming, because engaged, sophisticated thinkers are “the very folks on whom democratic theory relies most heavily.””

“… relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting. Our brains are designed to create cognitive shortcuts — inference, intuition, and so forth — to avoid precisely that sort of discomfort while coping with the rush of information we receive on a daily basis. Without those shortcuts, few things would ever get done. Unfortunately, with them, we’re easily suckered by political falsehoods.”

My reflections: This article explains all the main reasons why arguments tend to be self-reinforcing. The sentence “The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are” echoes particularly strongly with me. The more important it is for us to resolve a conflict, for example with someone we love and feel dependent on, the harder it is to do it. Our ability to catch our own mistakes are always at the weakest, when we need them the most.


The Sandra Bullock Trade

The Sandra Bullock Trade

By David Brooks, published as an Op-Ed article in the New York Times on March 29, 2010

In this article, David Brooks uses the recent media storm around Sandra Bullock as an angle on the age-old problem of happiness. Apparently, Bullock’s professional life has just gone through the roof, with an Academy Award, at roughly the same time that her marriage went down the drain.

So, what’s more important in life: A good income or a happy marriage? There’s a lot of research on this topic now, and the message I got from Brooks’s article is that if you’re planning to get happy by making money, rather than by being happily married, you need to aim for at least $100.000 extra per year.

Research has, in other words, confirmed the story of the romantic movies and novels: You gain more happiness by marrying for love, than by marrying for money.

Towards the end of the article, Brooks has a paragraph that I think is important, and which don’t want to compress:

“Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives. Most schools and colleges spend too much time preparing students for careers and not enough preparing them to make social decisions. Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most. They have an affinity for material concerns and a primordial fear of moral and social ones.”


Another Look at the Danish Study of the MMR Vaccine and Autism

Another look at the Danish study of the MMR vaccine and autism

The famous Danish study comparing the vaccination and autism rates of Danish children born between 1991 with 1998, has been in the news again lately. The reason is that one of the key witnesses for the defense of the MMR vaccine has gone missing along with approximately 10 million DKK (2 mill USD) of other people’s money.

This morning, I took a closer look at both the study and Ulf Brånell’s analysis of it. Brånell’s conclusion starts out soundly enough:

“All the sources of error identified in the study distort it in the same direction: obscuring the role of the MMR vaccine and exonerating it from any suspicion that it may cause autism. This strongly indicates deliberate fraud”.

I can follow him all the way here. The study authors have designed their study so that it counts vaccinated children too young to be diagnosed with autism, as non-autistic. What kind of proof is that? To me, it’s proof of either stupidity or dishonesty. Brånell points to four other sources of error as well, all leaning the same way.

Brånell doesn’t stop there, however. Here’s how his conclusion continues, in a crescendo of improbables: Read more…