Your Thoughts Can Release Abilities beyond Normal Limits

This is an interesting piece at Scientific American on how our thoughts may expand/better our cognitive and physical limits:

Our cognitive and physical abilities are in general limited, but our conceptions of the nature and extent of those limits may need revising. In many cases, thinking that we are limited is itself a limiting factor. There is accumulating evidence that suggests that our thoughts are often capable of extending our cognitive and physical limits.

Can our thoughts improve our vision? We tend to believe that an essentially mechanical process determines how well we see. Recent research by Ellen Langer and colleagues suggests otherwise. It is a common belief that fighter pilots have very good vision. The researchers put people in the mindset of an Air Force pilot by bringing them into a flight simulator. The simulator consisted of an actual cockpit including flight instruments. The cockpit was mounted on hydraulic lifts that mimic aircraft movement and performance. People were given green army fatigues; they sat in the pilot’s seat, and performed simple flight maneuvers. They took a vision test while “flying” the simulator. A control group took the same vision test in the cockpit while the simulator was inactive. People’s vision improved only if they were in the working simulator.

To rule out the possible effect of motivation, the researchers brought another group of people into the cockpit and asked them to read a brief essay on motivation. After people finished reading, they were strongly urged to be as motivated as possible and try hard to perform well in the vision test. The test was conducted while the simulator was inactive. They did not show a significant improvement.

In an eye exam, we are used to start experiencing problems at the bottom third of the eye chart, where letters start to get small. In another experiment, Ellen Langer and colleagues showed people a shifted chart. At the top, it included letters equivalent to the medium-size letters on the normal eye chart and the chart progressed to letters of very small size at the bottom. Because people were expecting to read the top two thirds of the shifted chart as well, they were able to read much smaller letters.

Here is the paper in which this premise is made clear: vision can be improved by manipulating mind-sets.

This reminds me of this adage I first encountered in high school: “If you believe you can or can’t, you’re right.”

Is Your iPhone App Making You Fat?

Kathy Sierra hasn’t blogged in years(1), but she’s written something new this week about willpower, self-control, and cognitive drain. In particular, she posits that many apps that you use on your phone deplete your cognitive resources, which make it easy for you to succumb to unwanted things (like eating more cookies, etc):

An experiment asked one group of dogs to sit, just sit, nothing else, for a few minutes before being released to play with their favorite treat “puzzle” toy (the ones where the dog has to work at getting the treats out of it). The other group of dogs were allowed to just hang out in their crates before getting the treat puzzle.

You know where this goes: the dogs that had to sit — exercising self-control — gave up on the puzzle much earlier than the dogs that were just hanging out in their crate.The dogs that were NOT burning cognitive resources being obedient had more determination and mental/emotional energy for solving the puzzle. Think about that next time you ask Sparky to be patient. His cognitive resources are easily-depleted too.

Now think about what we’re doing to our users.

If your UX asks the user to make choices, for example, even if those choices are both clear and useful, the act of deciding is a cognitive drain. And not just while they’re deciding… even after we choose, an unconscious cognitive background thread is slowly consuming/leaking resources, “Wasthat the right choice?” 

If your app is confusing and your tech support / FAQ isn’t helpful, you’re drawing down my scarce, precious, cognitive resources. If your app behaves counter-intuitively – even just once – I’ll leak cog resources every time I use it, forever, wondering, “wait, did that do what I expected?”. Or let’s say your app is super easy to use, but designed and tuned for persuasive brain hacks (“nudges”, gamification, behavioral tricks, etc.) to keep me “engaged” for your benefit, not mine (lookin’ at you, Zynga)… you’ve still drained my cognitive resources.

And when I back away from the screen and walk to the kitchen…

 Your app makes me fat.

I am not convinced entirely, but it does raise some good questions about the direction of modern-day distractions and our cognitive load.

Worth reading in entirety here.

On Knowing What Others Think about You

In a piece titled “I Know What You Think of Me,” Tim Kreider eloquently considers our bias in overestimating our abilities and positive qualities versus what others really think of us. It’s a must-read.

 Hearing other people’s uncensored opinions of you is an unpleasant reminder that you’re just another person in the world, and everyone else does not always view you in the forgiving light that you hope they do, making all allowances, always on your side. There’s something existentially alarming about finding out how little room we occupy, and how little allegiance we command, in other people’s heads. 

Just as teasing someone to his face is a way of letting him know that you know him better than he thinks, making fun of him behind his back is a way of bonding with your mutual friends, reassuring one another that you both know and love and are driven crazy by this same person.

Although sometimes, let’s just admit, we’re simply being mean. A friend of mine described the time in high school when someone walked up behind her while she was saying something clever at that person’s expense as the worst feeling she had ever had — and not just because of the hurt she’d inflicted on someone else but because of what it forced her to see about herself. That she made fun of people all the time, people who didn’t deserve it, who were beneath her in the social hierarchy, just to ingratiate herself or make herself seem funny or cool.

Another friend once shared with me one of the aphorisms of 12-step recovery programs: “What other people think of you is none of your business.” Like a lot of wisdom, this sounds at first suspiciously similar to idiotic nonsense; obviously what other people think of you is your business, it’s your main job in life to try to control it, to do tireless P.R. and spin control for yourself. Every woman who ever went out with you must pine for you forever. Those who rejected you must regret it. You must be loved, respected — above all, taken seriously! They who mocked you will rue the day! The problem is that this is insane — the psychology of dictators who regard all dissent as treason, and periodically order purges to ensure unquestioning loyalty. It’s no way to run a country.

THE operative fallacy here is that we believe that unconditional love means not seeing anything negative about someone, when it really means pretty much the opposite: loving someone despite their infuriating flaws and essential absurdity. “Do I want to be loved in spite of?” Donald Barthelme writes in his story “Rebecca” about a woman with green skin. “Do you? Does anyone? But aren’t we all, to some degree?”

This is a key paragraph:

We don’t give other people credit for the same interior complexity we take for granted in ourselves, the same capacity for holding contradictory feelings in balance, for complexly alloyed affections, for bottomless generosity of heart and petty, capricious malice. We can’t believe that anyone could be unkind to us and still be genuinely fond of us, although we do it all the time.

I’m reminded of this line from The Fountain, which I read earlier this year. In a private encounter with Howard Roark, the hero of the novel, Ellsworth Toohey asks Howard:

Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.

Roark responds:

But I don’t think of you.

On a book note, I can’t recommend Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care What Other People Think? highly enough.

The Surprising Psychology of Names

Adam Alter, author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, summarizes the surprising psychology of names:

In one study, the economists Bentley Coffey and Patrick McLaughlin examined whether female lawyers in South Carolina were more likely to become judges if their names were more “masculine.” Some names—like James, John, and Michael—are almost exclusively male; others—like Hazel, Ashley, and Laurie—are almost exclusively female. But a third group is shared almost equally by men and women—like Kerry and Jody—and women with those names were notably more likely than their nominally feminine counterparts to become judges. The researchers labelled the phenomenon the Portia Hypothesis, after the female character in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” who disguises herself as a man so she can appear before the all-male court. (Note that the experiment can’t rule out the possibility that the nominally masculine lawyers actually behaved differently from their nominally feminine counterparts.)

The most interesting point was the inherent biases that develop (I confess to thinking hilly implies going uphill, for example) in association to names:

Similar linguistic associations influence how we think and behave in other ways. For example, if I told you that I was driving north across hilly terrain tomorrow, would you expect that drive to be mostly uphill or mostly downhill? If you’re like most people, you associate northerly movement with going uphill, and southerly movement with going downhill. According to research by the psychologists Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons, this association produces some strange biases: people believe that a bird will take longer to migrate between the same two points if it flies north than if it flies south; they expect a moving company to charge eighty per cent more to move furniture north rather than south; and, as a different study concluded, they assume that property is more valuable when it sits in the northern part of town. Apparently these quirks stem from the decision of early Greek mapmakers to plot the northern hemisphere above the southern hemisphere—a decision that frustrated, among others, an Australian named Stuart McArthur, who proposed a corrective map that reversed the projection.

Interesting.

 

Why Do Rational People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories.”

From this interesting piece in the The New York Times, we learn some hallmarks of those people who believe in conspiracy theories:

While psychologists can’t know exactly what goes on inside our heads, they have, through surveys and laboratory studies, come up with a set of traits that correlate well with conspiracy belief. In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.

Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward. In these moments of powerlessness and uncertainty, a part of the brain called the amygdala kicks into action. Paul Whalen, a scientist at Dartmouth College who studies the amygdala, says it doesn’t exactly do anything on its own. Instead, the amygdala jump-starts the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive — prompting repeated reassessments of information in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now. This may be a useful way to understand how, writ large, the brain’s capacity for generating new narratives after shocking events can contribute to so much paranoia in this country.

On the “backfire effect”:

In 2006, the political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler identified a phenomenon called the “backfire effect.” They showed that efforts to debunk inaccurate political information can leave people more convinced that false information is true than they would have been otherwise. Nyhan isn’t sure why this happens, but it appears to be more prevalent when the bad information helps bolster a favored worldview or ideology.

In that way, Swami says, the Internet and other media have helped perpetuate paranoia. Not only does more exposure to these alternative narratives help engender belief in conspiracies, he says, but the Internet’s tendency toward tribalism helps reinforce misguided beliefs.

More here.

When Empathy Fails

Paul Bloom’s essay in The New Yorker titled “The Baby in the Well” has some excellent arguments on how empathy can backfire. To me, these two passages were most significant/interesting:

On many issues, empathy can pull us in the wrong direction. The outrage that comes from adopting the perspective of a victim can drive an appetite for retribution. (Think of those statutes named for dead children: Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, Caylee’s Law.) But the appetite for retribution is typically indifferent to long-term consequences. In one study, conducted by Jonathan Baron and Ilana Ritov, people were asked how best to punish a company for producing a vaccine that caused the death of a child. Some were told that a higher fine would make the company work harder to manufacture a safer product; others were told that a higher fine would discourage the company from making the vaccine, and since there were no acceptable alternatives on the market the punishment would lead to more deaths. Most people didn’t care; they wanted the company fined heavily, whatever the consequence.

This dynamic regularly plays out in the realm of criminal justice. In 1987, Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who had been released on furlough from the Northeastern Correctional Center, in Massachusetts, raped a woman after beating and tying up her fiancé. The furlough program came to be seen as a humiliating mistake on the part of Governor Michael Dukakis, and was used against him by his opponents during his run for President, the following year. Yet the program may have reduced the likelihood of such incidents. In fact, a 1987 report found that the recidivism rate in Massachusetts dropped in the eleven years after the program was introduced, and that convicts who were furloughed before being released were less likely to go on to commit a crime than those who were not. The trouble is that you can’t point to individuals who weren’t raped, assaulted, or killed as a result of the program, just as you can’t point to a specific person whose life was spared because of vaccination.

Read the rest here.

What Is It Like to Fast for One Week?

Writing for Aeon Magazine, S Abbas Raza and his wife decided to fast for one week. What ensued was a rollercoaster of boredom, increased energy, and diminished mental ability.

First of all, every single one of the seven days felt exactly the same: mornings were completely fine and I felt pretty much as I normally do until about lunchtime. I tried to pack in any work, especially work that required mental concentration, into this period of each day. After midday, I became a little fidgety and found it hard to concentrate on anything. I had much more than usual amounts of physical energy and did all kinds of household chores happily, such as defrosting and cleaning the refrigerator one afternoon (anyone who knows me will testify that this is highly unusual behaviour). But my mind flitted from one thing to the next, and my reactions were slowed down very noticeably by evening. If my wife asked me a question, it took about five seconds for it to register and another five before I could formulate and deliver a reply. In fact, I became decidedly cognitively impaired: one day after taking a shower and shaving, I applied aftershave lotion to my face and noticed that it didn’t have the mild sting it usually does. That is when I realised I had not actually shaved. I just thought I had.

A thoughtful conclusion: meals provide the much-needed punctuation throughout the day:

In fact, the biggest surprise was just how much more time we had on our hands. I was struck by how much of the day I normally spend attending to my digestive needs: thinking about what I would have for lunch or dinner; shopping for groceries (which we do almost daily); cooking — in my case, elaborate Pakistani meals most evenings; then actually eating, washing dishes, cleaning up, even moving one’s bowels. Eliminating the simple act of eating frees up much more time than you’d think. In addition to the couple of hours of daily exercise we kept up throughout, we took long walks in the mountains (we live in the Alps), did crosswords (rather slowly), surfed the net and fooled around on Facebook, and we still always had more time to fill. I realised that meals provide needed punctuation to the day, and without them our days seemed strangely lacking in structure.

It was an interesting experiment, but a fair warning: don’t try this at home.

I’ve done intermittent fasting before (for one day at a time), and I agree that one’s energy can (surprisingly) spike; however, I also became more mentally sluggish.