Archive for the ‘Education/Thought’ Category

Thinking About Thinking: Lateral Thinking

June 5, 2010

You’ve probably heard of critical thinking. Basically, it’s a set of techniques that you can use in order to decipher facts, investigate ideas, and so on. Critical thinking makes you better, as it were, at thinking. If thinking was swimming, critical thinking would be the ability to swim down and hold your breath.

But that’s not all thinking is. Lots of people write a lot of stuff about critical thinking, so I’ll not touch much on it at the moment. For now, I want to focus on lateral thinking. As you might be able to tell from their respective wikipedia articles, critical thinking gets way more attention than lateral thinking does – lateral thinking doesn’t get much at all in comparison, despite it being if anything more important – if thinking were swimming, lateral thinking would be the kind of swimming you’d do to actually go places.

A lot of that’s probably because there’s no clear method to teach lateral thinking – thoughts about it tend to go along the lines of, “How the heck does one teach creativity!” and giving up. When I did it, I instead started with, “So, how does my lateral thinking works, and why can’t I just try telling people to do that?”

So I figure, well, first I pick stuff up. Stories, ideas, riddles, that sort of thing. Most of my wit comes from somewhere else and then gets changed in my mind just enough to be useful for my purposes. I don’t think about how I do it – I just think about the things I do it with. Once I think about them long enough my brain just applies them automatically to other things. I suspect that if you have something in your mind, and then get another thing put in your mind, then your mind will automatically explore putting those two together.

So it’s like putting together lego blocks – you want a good supply of different ones so that you’ll always have something for the need. That requires seeing a lot of stuff and understanding it.

Now, just seeing something doesn’t put it in my lego idea bin. I need to understand something to do that, and to do that I need to put that thing into my own words. This links up the new idea with ideas already in my mind. So the kind of thing where someone says, “So it’s like so-and-so but different ’cause of someotherthing”? That’s really important.

Next step, lowering one’s inhibitions. A lot of lateral thinking is just silly-sounding (ninja zombies: more or less effective than normal ninjas?), so if you get comfortable with saying silly things, you eventually get comfortable with thinking silly things – which ultimately helps you to think creatively when you start out with something silly but then it turns out to not be silly at all.

That’s all I’ve got at the moment. Might think more about it later.

Interacting With Creationists and Other Pseudoscientists, Part 2: Treating the Problem

November 13, 2009

So, in Part 1 to this two-part series, I analyzed the phenomenon of pseudoscience not from an intellectual perspective, but from a pathological one. If you haven’t read it, go back and do that now because you’ll probably be lost on this article if you don’t.

Earlier, this article had identified pseudoscience as not an intellectual ailment, but a social and emotional one. As such, I would advocate a socially and emotionally-oriented treatment: A psychotherapeutic approach specifically designed to treat pseudoscience.

Please mind that this method is likely to share all the problems with psychotherapy as a whole, including, most notably, inconsistency in treatment effectiveness due to the strong interpersonal aspect of the treatment. I hope to outline the method clearly enough in this article to eliminate inconsistency caused by the application of different methods, but I’m sure that just about anyone who actually bothers to apply the method would add their own little spin on it in no time – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Furthermore, this method is unlikely to be able to address the problems with those who originate pseudoscientific communities – just people indoctrinated into them.

Yet, on the other hand, I don’t think there’s much else we can do. Pseudoscience involves the malfunction of some of our most fundamental functions as human beings, and applying, say, drugs to fix the problem is likely to cause way more problems than is worth.

The first thing to address is mental preparation – to ensure that you have all the cognitive tools required to try to cure a pseudoscientist.

  • Understanding: A strong layman’s understanding of the topic in question. You don’t need a specialist’s understanding, but you do need to grasp the subject in general terms.
  • Google-fu: Be able to quickly scour and parse the internet’s vast data repository, with a particular eye towards Google Scholar, a database of scientific papers. Awareness of a wide variety of specialized sources (such as an online bible, or TVTropes) is a plus. This point is why you don’t need a specialist’s understanding about anything – the internet can provide.
  • Empathy: Understand that you are interfacing with a real person, with a real problem, and who needs your help to overcome that problem.
  • Perceptiveness: Be able to gauge the emotional and social subtext behind a conversation, not just the intellectual content of that conversation.
  • Patience: Understand that you may need to explain things which you find to be very, very obvious. Do so in clear terms and without condescension, and reiterate when necessary.
  • Articulation: Be able to describe even fundamental ideas in a way that they can be understood by an individual who does not know them, so that you can convey them. Also, be able to rephrase statements in the form of (possibly rhetorical) questions.
  • A grasp of the scientific method on a philosophical level: You need to be able to describe, in plain-language terms, not only how the scientific method functions, but why it functions, and what it accomplishes in general.

All the above skills, in aggregate, will be referred to as your “toolbox”. The importance of each of the tools in said toolbox will be made clear below.

Now, to the method itself.

Recall the core pathology of pseudoscience: extreme emotional investment in a group. This subverts the individual’s intellectual functions towards protecting what they feel as the group’s doctrine against outsiders, rather than analyzing it objectively, and presents a block insurmountable by logical argumentation alone. The first phase of this method must be to remove or bypass that block.

Fortunately, the pathological analysis of the function provides insight as to key points that we can use to disable this self-reinforcing behavior:

  • Pathological pseudoscience is triggered by social conflict with a member of another group. Thus, therapy should include taking actions that let the patient see you as an individual, rather than as a member of an ‘enemy’ social group. I feel that this point builds the strong interpersonal relationship necessary to treat the condition, and as such I feel it to be a necessary part of the approach.
  • Pathological pseudoscience requires strong identification with a group. Thus, therapy could include taking actions that ease the emotional intensity of group association. Be careful with this point, as I imagine it’s very easy when taking this route to appear as an enemy (trying to ‘trick’ the patient into betraying his group), and thus carries some risk of triggering the condition.
  • Pathological pseudoscience is directed to the protection of what the patient believes is the group’s position. Thus, therapy could include taking actions that allow the patient to disassociate information with group membership, allowing him to analyze that information without triggering the condition.

At this stage of therapy, approach without hostility or aggressiveness – even intellectual aggressiveness if necessary (that is to say, don’t bother making any arguments, as they’ll just trigger the condition). Establish a personal rapport with the patient, preferably through discussion of an unrelated subject which the patient does not suffer pseudoscientific symptoms with. Optimally, demonstrate superior comprehension of one or more subjects on which the subject can be corrected, in order to instill in the subject respect for your opinions.

It should be noted that this approach should work optimally in a 1 on 1 scenario: If there is any quantity of individuals observing the exchange, you significantly increase the chances of the condition triggering if the patient has reason to believe the observers are at all relevant to the pseudoscientific affliction (either agreeing or actively disagreeing, and thus either part of the in-group or ‘enemies’ of that group). For that reason, I feel the effectiveness of the therapy would rapidly degrade as the number of observers increase.

Broach the afflicted subject or subjects with care, do not aggressively pursue afflicted subjects for discussion, and do not use statements of fact to correct the patient’s errors at this stage. Instead, rephrase your corrections into legitimate questions and posit them as if you’re genuinely curious as to the answer, ensuring to describe the logic that leads you to ask the question. While a statement correcting the patient strongly risks triggering the condition, a question the patient feels to be asked legitimately encourages a legitimate response, and reduces the chances of triggering the condition. This could allow you to make progress with the patient despite the condition.

For a small subset of patients, I imagine this could be sufficient – in particular, individuals already familiar with the scientific method and knowledgeable about the ‘enemy’ positions could draw their own conclusions once they have reached a point sufficient to become able to openly question the pseudoscience.

However, many more will need assistance in questioning the positions of their in-group. Thus, the second phase of the method is to instill in the patient the tools they need to effectively evaluate ideas.

Transitioning into this phase is unlikely to be an exact science, so I suggest that during this phase the first-phase measures are still kept in mind and adhered to when reasonable. As such, the second phase is more a progression stemming from the first rather than an entirely new approach.

Essentially, the second phase involves trying to teach the patient such that they understand, can follow, and want to follow the scientific method in order to better understand ideas. You never need to say what it is you’re trying to do – you should never even need to say the words ‘scientific method’ (in fact, doing so, particularly with individuals who have been exposed to people trying to correct them through argumentation, might even trigger the condition). Also importantly, don’t impose or push the information on the patient. Give them as much as they want, when they ask, and if you have sufficient control of the conversation you can try to work them into a position where they will ask, but do not teach without establishing that the patient is ready to try to learn.

Mind, when you teach, to focus on the three things we’re trying to get the patient to accomplish:

  • Understanding: The scientific method, at its’ core, is simply a series of techniques that people use in order to better evaluate information – so that they can know what is correct and what isn’t. Conveying this to some individuals may be exceedingly difficult, and may require extensive explanation at a very basic level. Be prepared to use simple examples in order to convey scientific methodological concepts, and try to build upon things you’ve already established whenever possible.
  • Capability: Ensure that the patient has understood the methods you’re teaching by encouraging the patient to apply them. Upon correct application, I recommend praising the patient to whatever degree you feel you can without sounding patronizing (patronization could be interpreted as an attack on a social or emotional level, and trigger the condition).
  • Inclination: This is the most important part – in fact, many patients may be aware of scientific methodology and simply not grasp the value of using it. This is why you need to be able to describe not just the how, but the why of science. Science is a way to understand and know more comprehensively, and knowledge is power. Science offers a potential solution to almost any conceivable problem, and you may even have an opportunity to use your previously established personal rapport with the patient in order to make a personal connection between the patient’s problems, and the ability of the scientific method to solve them.

When the patient openly, and completely without prompting, seems to be applying scientific methodology to the pseudoscientific affliction, this signals that it is time to move into the third and final phase.

The final phase is to hold a calm, logical discussion with the patient that directly and thoroughly addresses the topic. Mind that the subject could be new to this kind of thinking and be prepared to help walk them through the logical process. Have information resources onhand and, if the patient questions them, or brings up anything that you can not readily answer, work with the patient to find out the answers or evaluate any questionable sources.

Man, this took forever to write! Anyway, that’s my proposed treatment for any and all forms of pseudoscience. I hope people who read it find it insightful and helpful, and if it leads to anyone being cured, all the better.

As for myself, having written this article has gotten me thinking about normal human thought – pseudoscience is a dysfunction, but it’s a dysfunction stemming from a series of perfectly normal features of human cognition. What insights could such an understanding provide about the thoughts of people in general? Also, having proposed a rather extensive hypothesis regarding interaction between human socialization and human intelligence, I should probably think up experimental scenarios that could be used to verify aspects of that hypothesis.

Interacting With Creationists and Other Pseudoscientists, Part 1: Identifying the Problem

November 13, 2009

I’ve spent a significant amount of my time on the internet arguing with people. Often, with people so hopelessly lost in incredibly bad ideas that my interaction brings with it painfully little chance to drag them out.

But I’m a stubborn individual, and I’ve accumulated a lot of experience in the dusty corners of the internet, and I think I’d like to share my insights regarding interactions with pseudoscientists, such as young-earth Creationists. I’d like to think that insight would be interesting and help people to better correct people with incorrect ideas.

My advice only applies to well-prepared individuals with a degree of background understanding (a layman’s understanding of the topic will do, but you’re likely to need to compensate in other areas), who are interacting with individuals holding ideas which are known by the scientific community to be discredited (young-earth Creationism, global warming denying, homeopathy, etc). This approach will not be particularly applicable if you’re groping in the dark on the topic or if the discussion is a legitimate debate with someone holding a potentially correct position.

For starters, I think most people misdiagnose the problem with pseudoscience and those who have been indoctrinated into it. The common, intuitive, and direct approach to dealing with false information is to enter into a logical argument to demonstrate that the information is false. However, as you can see from the stubborn persistence of pseudoscience in the modern world, this approach often does not work.

The next step to go from there is to analyze why the debate-oriented approach towards correcting pseudoscience has such a low rate of success. Again, the common and intuitive conclusion is to assume the pseudoscientist lacks the ability to comprehend your argument, lacks the integrity to accept it, or is otherwise personally deficient and thus the failure is none of the business of the scientific debater – once the scientific debater presents their argument and it is not properly addressed, they are done, and can wash their hands of the business having said they have exhausted all options for the approach.

I think we need something more oriented towards results than that approach. Something that can allow us to fix pseudoscientists when we encounter them, with a high success rate – a cure for pseudoscience, as it were.

Which leads me to the primary and most critical theme of this article: Pseudoscience is not a mistake made by an individual that must be corrected, but a disease, afflicting a patient, that must be cured. The very large distinctions in approach I will propose compared with a debate-oriented approach stem directly from this paradigm.

The first major difference is that, if we’re to identify pseudoscience as a sickness, we can attempt to describe its’ pathology, or what precisely is malfunctioning in a pseudoscientist, as a first step towards a stronger understanding of the condition.

Under normal function, a human being will:

  • Evaluate (however briefly) information that they perceive in order to gauge its’ accuracy and truthfulness, and then take appropriate measures.
  • Check information for self-consistency if given a reason to do so.

Instead, a pseudoscientist will manifest the following impairments, impairments which constitute a large portion of the set of pseudoscientific behaviors:

  • Exhibit strong confirmation bias towards information relevant to the affliction.
  • Demonstrate extreme cognitive dissonance rather than analyze information relevant to the affliction for self-consistency.

The first major insight we can gain is the observation that pseudoscientists are not necessarily universally impaired in these functions – outside of the pseudoscience-afflicted area, a pseudoscientist can function intellectually without impairment. This implies that these malfunctions are not the primary cause of pseudoscience but either secondary causes or symptoms of the primary cause. In essence, a pseudoscientist is not necessarily of low intelligence, or intellectually impaired in any way other than the affliction of the pseudoscience itself. So we should stop calling them stupid, because they aren’t.

Now, the above describes a large portion of pseudoscientific behavior, but does not  by any means catch all behaviors associated with pseudoscience. Explaining the others is where my pet hypothesis (and proposed cure stemming from this hypothesis) comes into play.

Other behaviors pseudoscientists have a particular propensity for*:

  • A strong “Us vs. Them” mentality: pseudoscientists describe those who disagree with them (frequently actual scientists, or even scientifically literate laymen) in strong oppositional terms that often isn’t relevant to the specific subject matter that they would be discussing. (As an aside, google “us vs them”. I found the unusually politically charged results to be fascinating)
  • Spectacle: Unlike science, ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ for pseudoscience. Pseudoscience promotes aggressive, emotionally charged debate, and actual logical discussion is irrelevant to the approach. Rather, victory or defeat is called (well, victory is called, anyway, more on that momentarily) based on the status of the emotional undercurrent of the discussion, in a manner similar to how children argue with each other. That is to say, when arguing with a pseudoscience advocate, his objective isn’t really to make you think differently – it’s to make you feel differently.
  • Strong group pride: The strong social bond between pseudoscientists of the same flavor extends beyond the attacking of external forces. Pseudoscientists are known for making their own in-groups, including schools (complete with unaccredited degrees), journals (not strictly scientific journals, though, as they tend to lack peer review and other features which make scientific journals scientific), “Think Tanks” for PR purposes, and other socially or professionally flavored clubs. And, indeed, clubs they are, albeit themed by the pseudoscience. Pseudoscientific groups do not promote intellectual interaction, and this implies they do not exist for intellectual reasons. Pseudoscientific groups instead primarily provide social and emotional functions.
    This is further observable when pseudoscientists lose debates, even by the emotionally-charged pseudoscientist standard – the group simply forgets the event has happened, in what seems to be a subconscious act of in-group support. This phenomenon also cripples any attempts pseudoscientists may have to enforce internal intellectual consistency, as people violating that consistency can simply be forgiven without censure or possibly even conscious thought.

Do you see where I’m going with this yet? Pathological pseudoscience seems to be identified by exceptionally strong affiliation with a strongly-defined social group. Mind, here, that when I say ‘strongly-defined’, I’m not referring to any purpose a social group may have in and of itself. On the contrary, I would identify a strongly-defined social group as one that defines the group’s enemies.

Now, we know already that strong group cohesiveness can impair individual thinking. Pathological pseudoscience seems to be a phenomenon related to groupthinking, but I feel it to be much more powerful. Pseudoscientific groups aggressively pursue strong group cohesion, which is likely made stronger still by the perception that the pseudoscientists face a powerful, monolithic enemy – that enemy being, collectively, everyone who thinks they’re wrong. And conflict with those individuals, rather than correcting them, only stands to make the affliction worse, as the more absurd (and thus memorable) the actions an individual is forced to take to defend the group, the stronger their later emotional self-reinforcement towards that group could become.

So, to summarize: I feel that pseudoscience is identified by when an individual reaches a point of emotional investment in a social group so strong, that it inhibits the individual’s ability to think in the sense that we understand the concept. Instead, their cognitive resources are hijacked to support the group paradigm, regardless of how absurd it may be.

Having read it, it all may seem fairly obvious (it does to me, now having written it). Yet, this explanation indicates that the modern approach towards pseudoscience is dangerously flawed. While the debunking, argumentative approach may function to immunize those not afflicted, it does nothing to correct pseudoscience in the afflicted and could conceivably aggravate the condition. Accordingly, recovery rates for pseudoscience tend to be very low. We are, essentially, trying to treat the symptoms of pseudoscience, and in doing so we’re missing the disease.

This post is turning, frankly, very large, so I’m splitting it in two. The second half will go into depth for my proposed treatment method for pseudoscience.

*- For further reading, check out these articles (I used them as a refresher before writing this article):

http://www.stardestroyer.net/Empire/Science/Pseudoscience.html (Yes, it’s a Star Wars website. Yes, the article is good)

http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2009/09/science-non-sci.html

http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2007/09/pseudoscience-symptoms.html

Thinking About Thinking: Your Inner Avatar and You.

November 6, 2009

I don’t think the Wikipedia definition of “Avatar” does the concept justice.

When you enter a virtual space – such as a video game, or online community, you do so through a kind of logical entity which maps your actions into the designated space (for instance, you hit a button, your guy fires his rocket launcher) and which in turn maps the virtual actions in that space and presents them back to you (for instance, if your character dies, your screen might turn all red and say ‘You are dead’).

In that sense, an avatar isn’t just a representation of you, but a medium for you, allowing you to interact in other, artificial worlds. An avatar is used to make you – your identity, your thoughts and actions – extend beyond the physical world and into the logical one.

In that sense, the avatar is not just a concept in computers. It’s a strong aspect of people’s everyday lives.

Whenever you construct yourself in any artificial or imaginary space, and then use that extension of yourself to interact in that space, you’re making use of your avatar. A good example might be the fictional character type of the “Mary Sue” – an authorial self-insertion into a story for wish fulfillment purposes. Here, the avatar exists in a world created, in part or in whole, by the avatar’s designer.

And yet even that, I think, only represents a small fraction of our everyday avatar usage. I think, rather, that the ultimate origin of the concept of the avatar is our own imaginations.

Imagining ourselves in a different situation, to envision how we would act, or how we should or would like to act, is the most fundamental and vivid use of the concept of the avatar – our inner avatar, if you will.

Which all finally leads me to the point of this – thoughts on how to be better aware of that inner avatar and how to better use it.

Know when to be realistic versus being idealistic: It may be fun to imagine yourself effortlessly accomplishing everything in front of you, you don’t necessarily benefit from that mental exercise.

Framing a challenge for your avatar in detail, as the challenge you expect it to be, can provide intellectual or behavioral insight. It can show you how to behave, or it can show you what information you may be missing about the challenge.

But don’t think that it’s never beneficial to use your avatar in a powerfully emotional matter, even if the scenario you envision isn’t very likely. Instead, the insights you gain from such an exercise are emotional ones. For instance, you can use your avatar in this way to bolster yourself against your fears and anxieties, or to energize yourself to take action on behalf of someone else.

Understand when you want to use your inner avatar for immersion or interaction with a fictional world: This is a choice similar to the above realistic/idealistic choice, but tweaked a bit for the relevant context.

If you don’t do this already, don’t be afraid to place your avatar into fictional worlds you’re experiencing – movies or TV shows, or books, or comics, or anything – if there is a fictional story, you can imagine yourself interacting with it, to your ultimate enrichment.

Using your avatar for immersion falls under the ‘mary sue’ form of self-idealization that I mentioned earlier in the article. It increases your emotional involvement in a fictional environment, and thus increases the energy your brain spends drawing potentially useful information from that environment.

Using your avatar for interaction, however, is more like constructing a video game in your head and then operating your inner avatar as a character in that game, obeying the internal rules of the universe. By doing so, you increase your intellectual understanding of that fictional environment and its’ rules, allowing you to better explore any themes the author might have written into the work.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject. Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to go imagine I’m an ancient Greek hero now.

Thinking About Thinking: Start Thinking About What You’re Thinking!

October 24, 2009

I would suggest a new concept today. Well, kind of. Kind of an addition to an old idea, too.

Imagine what happens when you say something to someone else. If they’re paying attention, they remember what you said, and those words and ideas are, in a sense, absorbed into them. After that, all their actions after that, everything they do and say, is influenced, to some degree (however potentially incredibly small) by what they heard. And everything they say to other people becomes part of them, not only propagating their own ideas, but the influence your ideas had upon their ideas.

Thusly, everything you do and say can potentially, over time, influence any and every other person in the human species, to some degree. Ideas don’t just get propagated consciously, but eventually become subliminated to some degree in the behavior of many more individuals, perhaps to emerge without prompting, or even without the understanding of the person taking the action.

This produces a massively intricate system of human thoughts and behaviors, kind of like a cognitive ecosystem. Unlike most ecosystems, however, this one is entirely artificial, created by people, for people. Yet, in many ways, it behaves similarly.

A natural ecosystem is a robust thing, able to absorb and adapt to radical changes, though individual parts of the ecosystem may disintegrate. The components of ecosystems, however, grow more delicate the more complex your ecosystem gets. And ecosystems tend to be changed slowly, but respond to sufficient change quickly – changes will build up towards a critical mass which will start a chain reaction that, when the criteria are met, will flash through the ecosystem.

Our mental ecosystem behaves similarly in all these ways, right down to the fascinating similarities involving punctuated equilibrium phenomena. And this is an important part, as it implies that for something really big to happen in our society, it has to sufficiently suffuse itself among us, a process that basically requires us to talk with each other about it a lot, until eventually, one day, when we try to talk about it, we find that we all already agree with each other – and from there, we do something about it, all at once.

So, what does all this mean, you ask. It means that, if our minds, our culture, is like an ecosystem, then we desperately need some way to control pollution. And that control has to come from us as individuals.

It means that you should think about every word you say.

And to do that, it means you need to understand every word you say. If you’re about to say something, you need to ask yourself, “Do I know this is true, or is it just something I heard but never thought about? How do I know it’s true? What does it mean if it’s true?”

If you don’t know something is true, then don’t say it – or at least, make clear that you don’t know if it’s true. Always be able to answer the question, “But how do you know that?”, and always be willing to ask it to others.

The same applies to everything you do, too. “What’s the reason I do this? Do I know it’s a good reason? How do I know it’s a good reason?”

If you don’t have a good reason to do something, then don’t do it – or at least, do it with the understanding that you might not be doing the right thing. Always be able to answer the question, “Why do you act like that?” and always be willing to ask it to others.

It also means that we might not see the impact of what we’re doing – at least, not immediately. But thoughts and actions build up inertia, until eventually they burst, all of a sudden, into very real and very visible effects.

I Made A Picture!

October 9, 2009

It’s designed to exploit our inbuilt facial recognition functionality.

I call it "Circles and Lines".

I call it "Circles and Lines".

It’s also supposed to look creepy (because it hopefully exploits our facial recognition functionality).

So, how’d I do?

Thinking About Thinking: The Forer Effect.

September 20, 2009

Courtesy of Wikipedia:

In 1948, psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave a personality test to his students. Afterward, he told his students they were each receiving a unique personality analysis that was based on the test’s results and to rate their analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) on how well it applied to themselves. In reality, each received the same analysis:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

On average, the rating was 4.26, but only after the ratings were turned in was it revealed that each student had received identical copies assembled by Forer from various horoscopes.

To summarize, the Forer Effect describes how people take things they hear – particularly positive things – and believe it applies to them for the sole reason that they think it’s supposed to apply to them.

The most obvious consequence of the Forer Effect is that it encourages people to believe in systems that tell things about themselves, even if those systems make no sense.

A couple examples of those obvious Forer-influenced systems:

  • Horoscopes – a system about how the stars at the time of your birth dictate things about you.
  • Japanese blood type personality prediction – a system about how your blood type dictates things about you. (the wiki seems written by someone who does not speak English as a first language)
  • Phrenology – a system about how the bumps on your head dictate things about you.

The principle seems pretty simple: Humans have this little quirk, this ‘feature’, that can make us believe in silly things because they tell us things that we’re hardwired to want to hear and that we’re inherently inclined to believe.

But it’s a bit more significant than that. Vague statements make the effect more obvious, but the key to the effect is not the vagueness, but the impression of legitimacy of the source, which is what makes us inherently more likely to believe it.

As the Forer effect applies to any system which people believe legitimate, and which tells people things about themselves, this behavioral quirk applies to all systems which humans use to describe their own behavior.

This is a bit more significant, ’cause there are a lot of those systems, and some are considered pretty serious science this day and age.

Examples of systems to which the Forer effect applies that are (more)widely considered legitimate include:

  • The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator – a personality inventory that, given a wide battery of tests about what you prefer doing and what you like or don’t like, etc, tells you a bunch of stuff about yourself. Ditto any other personality inventories.
  • Pretty much any measurement of Emotional Intelligence, by definition, is going to end up telling you a lot about yourself.
  • While we’re talking about intelligence, IQ testing itself invokes the effect – it tells you about yourself and it’s very widely considered to be legitimate in doing so.

What seem to be very simple concepts would seem to invoke this inherently irrational feature in our behavior – introversion and extroversion, imagination and practicality, intelligence, wisdom…

It’s a phenomenon intricately tied into how we see ourselves – every time someone or something we trust says something about us, we’re inclined to believe it for no other reason than they said it about us.

Given all that, how much of our self-identities really describe us, versus just stuff we’ve been told describe us?

Anyway, all that philosophical navel-gazing aside, I think there’s a very practical application of this effect.

Human beings aren’t just inclined to believe things we think are about us. We enjoy hearing things that are about us. Invoking the Forer effect, even in nonsensical ways, appears to be emotionally and intellectually stimulating, and something that we inherently seek out.

My pet theory is that this is because being told things about ourselves is good for us – emotionally, and mentally. It strengthens our self-identity (for better or for worse, admittedly), and it ingrains concepts in our minds by associating them with something we obviously consider is important: Ourselves.

So being told about ourselves, even if those things are just outright false, can sharpen our focus and broaden our horizons – which I also imagine is why so many people tell themselves things about themselves so often.

So, knowing all this, why not use it? Take fancy personality, intelligence, and emotional intelligence tests. Read horoscopes. Find out which of the four humours you are (I’m phlegmatic!). Take the second half of this article seriously.

It’s good for you. Probably. After all, what’re the chances all the students in Dr. Forer’s class are wrong?

The Necessity of Mortality

August 29, 2009

Think of your parents. Compared to you, how well do they fit in in modern society? Do they know how to use their computers? Do they even have computers?

Now one step further. If you knew your grandparents, how about them? They ever own a computer? Or maybe they stick out in a more noticeable sense – maybe they don’t believe people should marry outside their race, for example, or that <enter religion or lack thereof here> is evil and Unamerican and all its’ adherents should be exterminated, or maybe they hold a number of wildly fictional beliefs about the world around them.

Now lets go back to great-grandparents. Maybe they lived with, and were okay with, slavery, or women not being able to vote. Maybe they thought the world was six thousand years old or that space was a painted shell around the earth or something like that (Okay, I admit, I’m exaggerating a bit for effect).

My point here is sometimes, people learn things they can’t unlearn. Our ability as human beings to relearn as the world and our society changes around us is limited, and we tend to leave our elderly behind, as our children will leave us behind in turn.

Within a couple generations, we’re likely to discover a way to attain clinical immortality – that is to say, diseases will no longer be able to kill us, and we may also overcome the process of aging itself.

Now, that introduces problems, of course – the earth can only hold so many people, for instance. But I think the biggest problem with that would be cultural.

What if, in America, all our great-grandparents were alive to vote in this last presidential election? Would the black or female candidates have had any chance? If we went back another generation or two, we’d need to ask if black people or women would even be able to vote.

Since the start of history, human culture has progressed continuously. And one of the primary motivators of that change – perhaps the primary motivator, and certainly a vital one – is that old people die.

Without old people dying, essentially getting out of the way for better-educated, slightly wiser future generations to take the reins of civilization, we would almost certainly stagnate.

This is a problem made worse by the fact that the first individuals likely to benefit from immortality are the ones who most need to die for society to proceed – wealthy, powerful, influential elderly.

A demographic of society which since time immemorial has resisted change, for themselves and for all of us, until the day they die will no longer be dying.

This is a problem compounded by other complications of immortality – what if our solution to overpopulation is to severely restrict the birthrate, causing the elderly to by far outnumber young people with fresh, new ideas? There might not even be any change for such a methuselah population to resist.

Mind that, when I refer to the elderly, I’m not referring to our parents and grandparents. They’re very unlikely to see clinical immortality.  Younger generations alive now – we are the ones most likely to be the oldest generations to experience immortality.

I see a few different possible scenarios unfolding for such a future:

  • The Methuselah Scenario: Mankind attains clinical immortality and deals with the subsequent sustainability problem by severely restricting new births. The elderly hold the overwhelming majority of economic and social power in civilization, and have hundreds of years to indoctrinate the youthful minority into the exact same civilization. Our progress as a society slows to a snail’s pace as the elderly are still replaced through attrition, but only the very slow attrition of tragic catastrophe.
  • The Olympian Scenario: Enough youths are born to form a notable subculture. These individuals are creative, energetic, and increasingly spiteful of the immortals who continue to control economic and social power. Eventually they reach their breaking point and attempt to impose a new order on society by any means, likely through violence as they lack the power to do it any other way. Eventually such a group succeeds and replaces the elderly that a new group of youths rails against, and the cycle repeats indefinitely if civilization is lucky.
  • Planned Obsolescence: Maybe we’re just not built to be immortal. People weary of life arrange their own deaths whenever they feel ready to take that step, and clinical immortality only works out to be a significant age increase. Society continues to progress, perhaps a bit slower than before, but not at an intolerable rate.
  • Future Generations Just Deal With It: As a civilization, we also figure out a way to relearn and/or reeducate ourselves sufficiently such that our brains become culturally sustainable across both young and old generations. I don’t see any living generation pulling that off, but maybe I’m just not being imaginative enough.

It could well be in our power to place our collective hands upon the march of human history, and with our undying strength, force that march to halt. Should we be allowed to let that happen?

Thinking About Thinking: This Stuff Is Hard!

July 3, 2009

So, I thought as a follow-up to one of my earlier thinking about thinking posts, that I could try classifying and describing how my memory was structured in detail, then look into how much of that might be generalizable to humanity as a whole – it might provide insight as to how we identify and treat our own ideas, which would be nifty.

Yeah, turns out, that’s not easy. In fact, it’s really hard to do. Brain-hurtingly hard. But it nonetheless seems interesting enough to keep working at.

Sooo, might not be making too many other blog posts until I hammer that whole thing out.

(I guess this post would be the first time I’m using the blog format as an actual blog, rather than as a dumping ground for my brain. Go figure)

An Idea for a Study on Disgust in Regards to Cognition

June 13, 2009

Establish two groups, a control group and an experimental group.

Show both groups a series of pictures, both disgusting and not disgusting, and ask the individuals how disgusting they found each picture, to get a baseline (100 pictures, 50 more disgusting and 50 less/not disgusting sounds like a good set – experimenters would be expected to eyeball the pictures for pre-baseline categorization, and reevaluate them after the baseline based on the mean disgust level).

Then, ask the persons in the control group to answer detailed questions about the pictures which were found less or not disgusting (providing them copies of the pictures for analysis), and meanwhile ask the persons in the experimental group to answer similar questions about the pictures that were found more disgusting.

Let’s say, 10 pictures with 3 questions regarding each, the pictures being selected randomly per individual.

Afterwards, show both groups a second set of pictures and ask the individuals how disgusting they found each picture.

I suspect the experimental group will show a decrease in degree of disgust relative to the control group versus the baseline measurements, despite the set of pictures being different.

More in-depth examination along this line would involve more engaging analysis of items found disgusting, and successively more distinct pictures in the second set, particularly in terms of content (i.e. if there are spiders in the first set, the second set should not have spiders).

The objective of this is to see if repeated use of articulation capability in regards to disgust reactions can instill a general shift in individual disgust response from purely emotional, to a more reasoned, articulated response.