On Trustworthiness and Apologies for Rain

A paper titled “I’m Sorry About the Rain! Superfluous Apologies Demonstrate Empathic Concern and Increase Trust” out of Harvard Business School explains how if you want to be perceived as more trustworthy, attempt to apologize for things outside your control (the terrible Atlanta traffic, the gloomy Portland weather, and so on). BPS Research Digest summarizes:

The most compelling evidence came from Alison Brooks and her colleagues’ fourth and final study in which a male actor approached 65 strangers (30 women) at a train station on a rainy day to ask to borrow their mobile phone. Crucially, for half of them he preceded his request with the superfluous apology: “I’m sorry about the rain!” The other half of the time he just came straight out with his request: “Can I borrow your cell phone?” The superfluous apology made a big difference. Forty-seven per cent of strangers offered their phone when the actor apologised for the rain first, compared with just nine per cent when there was no apology.

The field study followed three laboratory experiments. In the first, 178 students thought they were playing a financial game with a partner located in another room. They were told that on some rounds the computer would override their partner’s decisions. Later, if their “partner” (actually the whole thing was pre-programmed) apologised for a computer override, the participants tended to rate him or her as more trustworthy and were more generous towards him or her as a result. This despite the fact the apology was superfluous and for a situation beyond their (the partner’s) control.

In a second experiment, 177 adult participants (average age 28) watched a video of a stranger approaching a flight-delayed passenger at an airport to ask to borrow his/her mobile phone. The participants were to imagine they were the passenger and to decide how to act. If the stranger was shown apologising for the flight delay before making his request, the participants were more likely to say they’d agree to share their phone with him.

Another experiment involved 310 adult participants imagining they were heading in the rain to meet a seller of a second-hand iPod. If they were told the seller apologised for the rain, the participants tended to rate him as more trustworthy, likeable and empathic.

“Across our studies, we identify significant benefits to apologising,” the researchers concluded. “Superfluous apologies represent a powerful and easy-to-use tool for social influence. Even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust and liking by saying ‘I’m sorry’ – even if they are merely ‘sorry’ about the rain.”

Does this work too? I am sorry if you read something terrible on the Internet today.

Can an Alligator Run the Hundred Meter Hurdles?

Gary Marcus, writing in The New Yorker, offers a summary of why artificial intelligence isn’t so intelligent (and has a long way to go to catch up with the human brain). He focuses on the research of Hector Levesque, who is a critic of the modern A.I.:

In a terrific paper just presented at the premier international conference on artificial intelligence, Levesque, a University of Toronto computer scientist who studies these questions, has taken just about everyone in the field of A.I. to task. He argues that his colleagues have forgotten about the “intelligence” part of artificial intelligence.

Levesque starts with a critique of Alan Turing’s famous “Turing test,” in which a human, through a question-and-answer session, tries to distinguish machines from people. You’d think that if a machine could pass the test, we could safely conclude that the machine was intelligent. But Levesque argues that the Turing test is almost meaningless, because it is far too easy to game. Every year, a number of machines compete in the challenge for real, seeking something called the Loebner Prize. But the winners aren’t genuinely intelligent; instead, they tend to be more like parlor tricks, and they’re almost inherently deceitful. If a person asks a machine “How tall are you?” and the machine wants to win the Turing test, it has no choice but to confabulate. It has turned out, in fact, that the winners tend to use bluster and misdirection far more than anything approximating true intelligence. One program worked by pretending to be paranoid; others have done well by tossing off one-liners that distract interlocutors. The fakery involved in most efforts at beating the Turing test is emblematic: the real mission of A.I. ought to be building intelligence, not building software that is specifically tuned toward fixing some sort of arbitrary test.

The crux, it seems to me, is how machines interpret the subtleties of human communication and how we talk. Marcus offers the following example in which a substitute of one word yields disparate answers:

The large ball crashed right through the table because it was made of Styrofoam. What was made of Styrofoam? (The alternative formulation replaces Stryrofoam with steel.)

a) The large ball
b) The table

Continuing, he explains:

These examples, which hinge on the linguistic phenomenon known as anaphora, are hard both because they require common sense—which still eludes machines—and because they get at things people don’t bother to mention on Web pages, and that don’t end up in giant data sets.

More broadly, they are instances of what I like to call the Long-Tail Problem: common questions can often be answered simply by trawling the Web, but rare questions can still stymie all the resources of a whole Web full of Big Data. Most A.I. programs are in trouble if what they’re looking for is not spelled out explicitly on a Web page. This is part of the reason for Watson’s most famous gaffe—mistaking Toronto for a city in the United States.

Levesque’s paper is short and easily accessible for the layman.

Becoming Better Through Practice, Leading to Transformation

This post by @saulofhearts titled “I Was A Pretty Strange Kid: Or, How I Became An Expert in the Things That Scared Me” is timely for me. It’s about becoming better at things through practice, iteration, failing, and persevering. Here’s a passage on improving his dating skills:

Around that same time, I decided to get serious about my dating life. I’d grown up in a pretty repressed environment — thirteen years of Catholic school, a virtually non-existent dating life, and a family who never talked about sex, much less suggested I have it.

In college, I went straight into a long-term relationship. While my college friends were dating casually and having one-night stands, I was happily monogamous.

When my girlfriend and I broke up, I thought it would be just a matter of time before I ended up in another relationship. I’m not a virgin, right? I know what I’m doing….

What I didn’t realize was that my long-term monogamous relationship had covered up the fact that I was terrible with women.

I didn’t know how to ask a girl out, or meet someone new at a party.

So what did I do? I went on a billion dates. I set up an OK Cupid profile, sent out a bunch of messages, and arranged to have dinner with some of the girls that I clicked with.

I was scared as hell, terrible at making small talk — was it OK to mention Burning Man? weed? sex? — and most of the dates were awkward.

But over time, I got better. And I continued to challenge myself.

I went to workshops: tantric yoga, cuddle parties, an S&M club. I grewcomfortable talking about subjects that would have embarrassed my 10-year-old self.

This is the key takeaway that I need to repeat, repeat, repeat:

We’re not defined by the identity that we grew up with. We’re not defined by the expectations other people have of us.

It’s time to start becoming a better human.

The Uner Tan Syndrome, or The Case of The Bear Walking Family

I’d never heard of the Uner Tan Syndrome before reading this article. It is named after a Turkish scientist who discovered a family who walk on all fours:

The subject of bear crawling hibernated for many decades until a couple of Turkish doctors, in 2004, made a discovery that was more science fiction than science. In a rural village, they happened upon a group of siblings who had never stood up. Members of a family with 19 children, all of whom bear-walked in their infancy, these five brothers and sisters had never lifted up off their hands. They had walked like bears all their life. The siblings actually wrist-walked, with their palms pressed flat against the ground. (Think of someone doing the downward-facing dog yoga pose while walking.) No one had ever seen an adult human move like this before.

The siblings were able to stand upright if they really concentrated on it, an early report on them noted, “but they become unsteady if they try to walk bipedally, and soon go down onto their hands.” They were quadrupeds. To help support the family, the lone male bear crawler ranged as far as a mile from home collecting cans and bottles. While bear-crawling, he was indefatigable. “This contrasts markedly with normal adult humans,” the report noted, “who find such a gait—if and when they try it—tiring and uncomfortable even after practice.”


I’d also never heard of the term “reverse evolution,” but that is the phrase that was used in this academic paper on the syndrome.


More: a documentary on the bear-walking family.

Earliest Human Use of Fire: One Million Years Ago

An international team led by the University of Toronto and Hebrew University has identified the earliest known evidence of the use of fire by human ancestors. Microscopic traces of wood ash, alongside animal bones and stone tools, were found in a layer dated to one million years ago at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.

The analysis pushes the timing for the human use of fire back by 300,000 years, suggesting that human ancestors as early as Homo erectus may have begun using fire as part of their way of life…

This research was published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From the paper’s abstract:

Here we show that micromorphological and Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy (mFTIR) analyses of intact sediments at the site of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa, provide unambiguous evidence—in the form of burned bone and ashed plant remains—that burning took place in the cave during the early Acheulean occupation, approximately 1.0 Ma. To the best of our knowledge, this is the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archaeological context.

From this Boston Globe article, a note on the surprising finding:

The BU team wasn’t looking for evidence of fire. The discovery was so unexpected that Francesco Berna, a research assistant professor who led the work, found himself trying to poke holes in his provocative observation. But he ruled out that the fires could have been caused by the spontaneous combustion of bat droppings, or that the signal he was seeing was due to the age of the burned bones, by comparing them with 8-million-year-old bones.

Sounds like history books need to be rewritten…

On The Diversity and Genetics of Dogs

This short National Geographic piece explains how the enormous diversity of dog breeds can be explained away by a relatively small change in genetic manipulations:

The difference between the dachshund’s diminutive body and the Rottweiler’s massive one hangs on the sequence of a single gene. The disparity between the dachshund’s stumpy legs—known officially as disproportionate dwarfism, or chondrodysplasia—and a greyhound’s sleek ones is determined by another one.

The same holds true across every breed and almost every physical trait. In a project called CanMap, a collaboration among Cornell University, UCLA, and the National Institutes of Health, researchers gathered DNA from more than 900 dogs representing 80 breeds, as well as from wild canids such as gray wolves and coyotes. They found that body size, hair length, fur type, nose shape, ear positioning, coat color, and the other traits that together define a breed’s appearance are controlled by somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 genetic switches. The difference between floppy and erect ears is determined by a single gene region in canine chromosome 10, or CFA10. The wrinkled skin of a Chinese shar-pei traces to another region, called HAS2. The patch of ridged fur on Rhodesian ridgebacks? That’s from a change in CFA18. Flip a few switches, and your dachshund becomes a Doberman, at least in appearance. Flip again, and your Doberman is a Dalmatian.

This is in stark contrast to genes in humans, where something like human height is controlled by interaction of 200 or more genes. So why is there such a difference in dogs? The answer lies in domestication of dogs:

Sheltered from the survival-of-the-fittest wilderness, those semidomesticated dogs thrived even though they harbored deleterious genetic mutations—stumpy legs, for instance—that would have been weeded out in smaller wild populations.

The most fascinating part of the piece is the relevance of dog to human diseases, and how they may be related:

Cornell researchers studying the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa—shared by humans and dogs—found 20 different canine genes causing the disorder. But a different gene was the culprit in schnauzers than in poodles, giving researchers some specific leads for where to start looking in humans. Meanwhile a recent study of a rare type of epilepsy in dachshunds found what appears to be a unique genetic signature, which could shed new light on the disorder in us as well.

Here is the link to the Cornell genetic diversity project in dogs.


(hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

Why Do Humans Have Chins?

According to this piece in the Smithsonian, the human chin is unique to homo sapiens and isn’t found in other hominid species (I didn’t know this). So what’s the purpose of the chin in humans?

Perhaps the most common explanation is that our chin helps buttress the jaw against certain mechanical stresses. Ionut Ichim, a Ph.D. student at the University of Otago in New Zealand, and colleagues suggested in the journal Medical Hypotheses in 2007 that the chin evolved in response to our unique form of speech, perhaps protecting the jaw against stresses produced by the contraction of certain tongue muscles. Others think the chin evolved to safeguard the jaw against forces generated by chewing food. Last year, Flora Gröning, a biological anthropologist at the University of York in England, and colleagues tested the idea by modeling how modern human and Neanderthal jaws withstand structural loads. Their results, which they reported in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, indicated the chin does help support the jaw during chewing. They suggested the chin may have evolved to maintain the jaw’s resistance to loads as our ancestors’ teeth, jaws and chewing muscles got smaller early on in our species’ history.

A completely different line of reasoning points to sexual selection as the driver of the evolution of the chin. Under sexual selection, certain traits evolve because they are attractive to the opposite sex. Psychological research suggests chin shape may be a physical signal of the quality of a mate. For example, women may prefer men with broad chins because it’s sign that a man has good genes; likewise, a woman’s narrow chin may correlate with high levels of estrogen…

(hat tip: Tyler Cowen)