Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cognitive Psychology and Democracy.

I've spent the last week surveying the field  of cognitive psychology.  And whilst I had very little faith in Democracy prior, my reading has pretty much destroyed what little faith left I had in it.

The underlying, almost unspoken assumption in democratic theory (and economics as well) is that the average voter is both rational and objective, able to weigh and prudently consider the appropriate issues when it comes time to vote.  Unfortunately, cognitive science seems to have accumulated a rather large body of empirical evidence which shows that most peoples' thinking processes aren't rational but intuitive.  And as the cognitive scientists show, intuitive thinking is not rational thinking.

Keith Stanovich's book, What intelligence Tests Miss, provides an incomplete yet reasonable survey of field, and the emerging evidence strongly suggests that the average man is instinctively a cognitive miser (intuitive thinker).  Now, intuitive thinking is not irrational thinking, rather it needs to be thought of as "roughly rational". It's "judgements", being determined by our affect and not by the laws of logic or data: The answer feels right. 

For example, when asked which is heavier? A ton of bricks or a ton of feathers, a lot of people will instinctively state the feathers, and afterwards correct themselves. It appears that our mind forms associations, and uses these associations in a as the basis of an intuitive logic. Bricks are heavier than  feathers and therefore the conclusion of the intuitive logic . It's only after consciously analysing the question that we realise that the two are the same. I'm not a Darwinian HBD type of guy, but you could see how this type of logic could come very handy in survival situations.  In threatening situations, time is often of the essence, and sitting around trying to work out what is going on may have been counterproductive from the survival point of view. Sometimes its smarter to run first and think later.

Now, most cognitive psychologists seem to view cognitive miserliness in a negative light, seeing it at a sub-rational and "defective" form of thought, however,  I view the matter differently. Given the almost universal prevalence of this type of thinking, it needs to be thought of as the default cognitive process of mankind.  It's an efficient and computationally light type of thinking that is sufficient for the day to day tasks of life. We do things more by "feel" than by "logic". In fact, what probably happens is that logical actions which were cognitively appropriate for certain circumstance, become habituated, and applied to other similar circumstances. Most times this is inconsequential. Most times.

None of this is really new stuff. Advertisers have known for years that the way to convince people to buy their product was not to argue about it rationally but to present it in such a way that people would associate it with positive things.  Apple Guy is cool. Windows Guy is a nerd. Getting into the complex details of the operating systems is only going to alienate a lot of the customers. Go with what the cool guy is buying because I'm not a nerd: Advertising is the manipulation of intuitive logic.

What cognitive psychology does show is that rationality takes some effort, and for most people it is an uncomfortable exercise. Hence, rationality tends to be deliberately avoided and as a result, is poorly exercised: The average man is deliberatively sloppy. From a systems point of view, this does not really matter s much when a man is the only person who suffers from the consequences of his actions, the real danger arises when this type of man is able to infect the governing process of the system as in a democracy. A irrational system is a system that will fail.

To the rational man, there is always a tradeoff between government spending and taxation, but to an intuitive man there is no such logic. To the intuitive man, when it comes time to vote, promises of lower taxes and higher social security payments  are "no brainer", because both concepts are associated with pleasant thoughts, and hence there is no intuitive cognitive dissonance. Taxes, especially those paid by ourselves are always intuitively bad, no matter how justified, and are often resisted. Politicians who point out "inconvenient truths" are voted out in favour of the "feel good" politician. Sugar coated poison is preferred to bitter medicine. Democracy fails because the hard, yet necessary, decisions are intuitively wrong.

But the failure is not only political, it's cultural as well. The law is an both a reflection of culture and an agent of its change. When moral questions are put to the public vote, the intuitive mind wins over sober reflection.  For example, the abortion argument was initially argued on "tough case" grounds, such as the rape victim impregnated, or the horribly deformed fetus. Even strong anti-abortionists can sympathise with the women in these circumstances, but rational (religious) thought would forbid the abortion whilst intuitive thought would permit it. In the end, a democracy votes for a utilitarian morality which ultimately corrupts the society.

Democracy fails because the underlying foundation of democracy, that man is a rational animal,  is wrong. Very few men are consciously rational. It's not my opinion, it's an empirical fact.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


A few things people may be interested in.

Tasks that do and don't correlate with IQ.

And one that probably didn't get much publicity by the mainstream media.

Income and Ideology: How Personality Traits, Cognitive Ability, and Education Shape Political Attitudes.
Good Study from Denmark. Basically, intelligent wealthy people are right wing, intelligent poor people, Left.

Jonathan Haidt gives a very good presentation showing just how biased the cognitive psychology crowd is. He ends up getting a serve from our favourite Nobel Laureate. Apparently he is an expert on cognitive psychology as well.

With regard to bias, this study gave conservatives quite a bit of consternation:
Neurocognitive Correlates of Liberalism and Conservatism, demonstrated differences in experimental performance based on political ideology.
Political scientists and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty. We tested the hypothesis that these profiles relate to differences in generalneurocognitive functioning using event-related potentials, and found that greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greaterneurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.
There was much self congratulatory press amongst the liberal crowd, which was probably premature. Now, I personally don't have a problem with the experimental data, it's the interpretations that I have a problem with. Now another set of researchers have looked at anterior cingualate activity and found that it is involved with the "policing" of conflicting information.  From a review paper:
How should we interpret the anterior cingulate activation? There are two main views of the primary role of the anterior cingulate in cognition. One view is that it is an area of the brain that notes unusual events or errors in the environment. The other view is that the anterior cingulate is involved ininhibiting responses. Either of these two views indicates that in our experiment, participants are treating data that are inconsistent with their plausible theories in ways that are different from consistent information. From the perspective of science education these data clearly show that just presenting students with anomalies will not produce conceptual change. What the results of these two experiments show is that prior belief in a theory influences the interpretation of data in a highly specific way. Specifically, data inconsistent with one’s expectations are treated as errors and thus not easily incorporated into one’s knowledge representation. [Ed]
Yep, liberal brains are more active in suppressing novel data that doesn't accord with preconceived views.

Finally, I managed to track down this interesting paper;  The role of cognitive resources in determining our moral intuitions: Are we all liberals at heart?

Once again, the data is good, the interpretation is not. What the study shows, is that conservatives begin to morally reason like liberals only when their cognitive resources are preoccupied with something else.  My take on it, to put it very bluntly, is that a liberal is a conservative with half a brain.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Intelligence is not Rationality.

Unlike most of the HBD crowd, I don't hold IQ in nearly the esteem that they do. Medicine attracts a lot of highly gifted people, people who still manage to do incredibly dumb things. Still, any fair observer of the literature out there cannot but agree that IQ is a strong correlate to worldly success.

It's therefore with some interest, that I've had the pleasure of  acquainting myself with the  works of Dr Keith Stanovich, Professor of Human Development and Applied Psychology of the University of Toronto, who has much to say on the subject of intelligence and rationality.

Stanovich is critical of the unquestioning acceptance of the IQ test. Unlike other detractors, he does not claim that the tests are not valid measures of intelligence, or that there are different types of intelligence, rather, Stanovich recognises that the IQ testing is valid for the determination of intelligence but misses the mark with regard to rationality. Rationality, according to Stanovich, is an all-together different thing to intelligence, and unlike most critics of IQ testing, is able to prove his case with some conviction.

Here is an easy-to-read article he wrote for Scientific American. 

There is a good YouTube video of him presenting his ideas. (Warning, it's about an hour and a half long). His use of George Bush in the early part of the video, as an example of the limitations of IQ testing--Bush was reputed to have an IQ in the 120-130 range--is reason enough to watch it.

He also has a home page where numerous papers of his are available for those who are interested.

One of the very surprising findings of his research is that high IQ, is in many instances, either weakly or not at all correlated to rationality, as it appears that high IQ individuals are just as able to irrationally "solve problems" as their low IQ peers.  The cause of rationality failures amongst the high IQ crowd seem to cluster around cognitive biases, information lack and "cognitive miserliness ". There also seems to be some evidence of cognitive limitations in rationalisation. All in all he provides a convincing, and more importantly, empirically justifiable argument.

There is also a kindle version of his book, What Intelligence Tests Miss. I'm off to read mine now.

Stenosophic Liberalism.

In my previous post, commentator KJJ made the following comment:
Have you considered Jonathan Haidt's examination of the moral reasoning of "liberals" and "conservatives"?

It dovetails with your concerns about overoptimization for one set of priniciples.

Whether by custom or nature, liberals tend to overoptimize for the "caring" and "fairness" virtues, while conservatives have a broader moral palette.

Haidt has noted that liberal populations tracks with major trade centers, especially longtime port cities.

This suggests to me that liberalism is the default governing morality for a diverse, commercial society in a time dominated by global trade.

And so our policies end up being set by specialists in equality and utilitarian analysis, with traditionalist concerns going by the wayside.
I'd like to thank KJJ for the link to Jonathan Haidt, whom I'd not heard of before. Haidt's specialty is the psychology of morality, particularly with regard to how people come to moral determination. He began by analysing the moral codes of many different cultures and was able to identify five common meta-themes. They are:

  1. Care for others, protecting them from harm. 
  2. Fairness, Justice, treating others equally.
  3. Loyalty to your group, family, nation. 
  4. Respect for tradition and legitimate authority. 
  5. Purity, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.
Haidt notes that the meta themes had different functions. Care and fairness seemed to related to our personal relationships with one another, whilst loyalty, respect and purity are group binding virtues.
Now, he is not the first person to have identified these themes. C.S. Lewis, in his book the Abolition of Man, recognised  this concordance amongst religions which he described as the  "Tao of Life". (He had a few more categories than Haidt). What Haidt notes is that loyalty, respect, and purity are virtues necessary for group binding. But what Haidt then proceeded to do is analyse how liberals differ from conservatives when it comes to moral determinations. The result is fascinating :

Haidt discovered when it comes to moral discernment, Liberals tend to weight Fairness and care above all else, whilst conservatives tend to weigh all elements equally. He described liberal moral reasoning as being a "two channel" [Ed: parameter] determination whilst conservatives were five. Conservatives take more factors into account at coming to moral determinations than liberals do: They are more multiparametric.

Now, Haidt doesn't ask why liberals are less "parametric" than conservatives, he simply registers the fact,  but it does demonstrate that there are different cognitive process which separate the two.  Now, it's my theory that multiparemetric analysis is computationally intensive and a high "broad" IQ is harder to achieve than than a "thin" high IQ. It would appear that there is now some evidence for this hypothesis in an experiment performed by Wright and Baril. In this experiment, conservatives defaulted to a liberal morality when they were intellectually distracted or cognitively exhausted. In other words, conservatism is a computationally intensive exercise. Liberalism is intellectually undemanding.
Previous research on moral intuitions has revealed that while both liberals and conservatives value the individualizing foundations, conservatives also value—while liberals discount—the binding foundations. Our control group displayed this same pattern of responses. This study examined two alternative hypotheses for this difference—the first that liberals cognitively override and, the second, that conservatives cognitively enhance, their binding foundation responses. We employed self-regulation depletion and cognitive load tasks, both of which have been shown to compromise people’s ability to effortfully monitor and regulate automatic responses. In particular, we were interested in determining whether, when the ability to monitor/regulate their automatic moral responses was compromised (either by exhausting their cognitive resources or by distracting them), liberals would give more moral weight to the binding foundations or conservatives would give less. What we found was support for the latter: When cognitive resources were compromised, only the individualizing foundations (harm/fairness) were strongly responded to by participants, with the binding foundations (authority/in-group/purity) being de-prioritized by both liberals and conservatives. In short, contrary to Joseph et al.’s contention that the “…automatic moral reactions of liberals could be similar to those of conservatives”, we found that the automatic moral reactions of conservatives turned out to be more like those of liberals.
Haidt gives a very good talk on the subject here.  It's well worth the look.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Some thoughts on Stenosophism.

For those who are interested, I just thought that I would try to clarify by what I mean by Stenosophism.

Stenosophism needs to be thought as a form of cognitive provincialism. It is where the mind is limited to grasping the familiar, concrete, proximate and immediate; and it has a hard time stepping outside these boundaries. It does not mean stupid or low IQ, rather it refers to an individuals "breadth" of understanding: their ability to see the context of things.  Stenosophism needs to be thought of as "Narrow IQ", a sort of cognitive aspergism.

IQ for many people is a proxy for intelligence, but nearly all of us know individuals who are of very high IQ and yet failures in their lives. Dorner listed the example of Mozart, a musical genius who was unable to transfer his talents to finance, dying a pauper. Indeed, Mozart is a good example of stenosophism. His enormous intellectual ability seemed to only to apply to the musical sphere of his life, outside that, he really didn't do that well. Another example was Nikola Tesla, a super brilliant physicist/engineer, who ended up dying alone and near penniless in hotel room in New York. Linus Pauling, though a brilliant chemist, was idiotic when it came to Vitamin C and Fluoridation.  And it needs to be remembered that it's not only the high IQ end of the spectrum that has this problem. During the 1930's for example, thousands of otherwise intelligent professional men and women believed that Stalin was some emissary of world peace despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Bruce Charleton has a good name for these type of people, the clever sillies. Lenin thought them "useful idiots".

The phenomenon of the clever-sillies is easily understood you merge the concepts of IQ and stenosophism. High IQ, with narrow "breadth of view" produces a man who is extraordinarily brilliant in his specialty but a bit of failure outside it. Likewise, a man with moderate IQ but broad contextual perception seems pretty good at all things but he won't be winning any Nobel prizes. In my experience, and I don't have any scientific evidence to back this up, it would appear that "perceptual breadth" peaks somewhere between and IQ of 120 and 130. Note, this does not mean that people with an IQ of 120-130  all have a broad perceptual breadth, rather, the perceptual breath of the human race peaks in that IQ band, and that within that IQ band there is a normal distribution of it: A lot of people with an IQ of 120 will be narrow and a few will be really broad. Above an below this range, the "perceptual breadth" is narrower.

Graphing this ability would yield the following (note, they are drawn for conceptual illustration only and are not exact):
Note, that IQ "width", i.e the ability to do multiparametric analysis  peaks at the 120-130 range, but if we were to look at that population within that rage we would get the following:

We see that within the 120-30 range , there vast majority of people are below the "4" range and only a very few above. The group of people in the 5-6 range, who are a small number, are humanity's best generalists, since their ability to perform multiparametric analysis is better than their higher IQ superiors.

In my experience, it would appear that at lower IQ's there may be a broader perceptual range than compared to the highest levels, but there is not enough intelligence to tie it all together. However,  over the 130 IQ range, the rapid acceleration in problem solving ability comes at the expense of contextual breadth: It's a trade off, and one with pretty significant implications.

The scientific method, with its reductionist approach--which aims to limit the effect of confounding variables--is profoundly suited to the stenosophistic mind. Perhaps one of the reasons why the scientific method is so powerful, and has become so widespread,  is because of its reductionist approach which is suited to the average stenosophistic mind. Science is easily understood because the variables involved in an experiment are usually "limited".

Specialisation is likewise suited. Specialisation is to knowledge what Adam Smith's division of labour is to production. By getting a man to devote his brain to only a small intellectual field, he is better able to master it due to his limited intellectual breadth. Specialisation and the scientific method "worked" because they were suited to human cognitive limitations with regard to its "breadth": Narrow minds are suited to narrow specialties. Naturally, those of a high IQ were most likely to be the supreme specialists in any particularly field.

But the problem with the divide and conquer approach is that knowledge tends to become fragmented, especially amongst those who are foremost in their field. The end result being, that the specialists, whilst very good in their specialty, aren't that great outside it. This is not itself bad, provided a specialists limitations are recognised, but people tend to think that high IQ people have an understanding and competency across the board, ............and this is not good.

Our society tends to assume that high IQ individuals are high IQ across the board. The opinion of Nobel Prize physicists is given far more weight, let's say with regard to regard to arms reduction, than a professional soldier. It's  because we assume that just because the physicist has a Nobel prize and hence has a higher IQ he is smarter than the soldier and is able to solve "military problems" better.

In the real word, reality is not neatly fragmented like in the academic disciplines, but integrated, and hence, the specialist is frequently unable to see the practical limitations and other conflicting variables that impact upon his knowledge. In other words, he may be giving us useless real world advice. The problem then is of too much specialisation and not enough integration: we need to bring back, to a degree, the legitimacy of the competent generalist; the guy who see's the big picture and who can relate the parts to the whole.

But the problem, is that the best generalists have IQ's of around 120, whilst the specialists have IQ's above that. Guess who progresses up the academic ranks? Guess who gets all the all the important jobs, and as such, influence on social affairs? The conflicting advice that we get in papers and in the media is due to the fact that our system is biased against the "Broad IQ" individuals. No one see's the big picture because the world rewards, and is run, by small picture men.
TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
 (W.B. Yeats)

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Vox Homer

Thought is also always rooted in values and motivations. We ordinarily think not for the sake of thinking but to achieve certain goals based on our system of values. Here possibilities for confusion arise: the conflict between treasured values and measures that are regarded as necessary can produce some curious contortions of thought-"Bombs for Peace!" The original value is twisted into its opposite. Motivations provide equally ambiguous guidelines. There are those who would say that what counts are the intentions behind our thinking, that thought plays only a serving role, helping us achieve our goals but failing to go to the root of the evils in our world. In our political environment, it would seem, we are surrounded on all sides with good intentions. But the nurturing of good intentions is an utterly undemanding mental exercise, while drafting plans to realize those worthy goals is another matter. Moreover, it is far from clear whether "good intentions plus stupidity" or "evil intentions plus intelligence" have wrought more harm in the world. People with good intentions usually have few qualms about pursuing their goals. As a result, incompetence that would otherwise have remained harmless often becomes dangerous, especially as incompetent people with good intentions rarely suffer the qualms of conscience that sometimes inhibit the doings of competent people with bad intentions. The conviction that our intentions are unquestionably good may sanctify the most questionable means. [Ed]

Dietrich Dorner, The Logic of Failure.

Democratic political theory places a particular importance in checking the power of government, fearing that the untrammeled exercise of power is the pre-condition of eventual tyranny. Therefore, the constitutions of Western governments place checks and balances on the exercise of governing power. The threat of malevolent government is easily recognised, what's not recognised however, is the threat of the benevolent yet stenosophistic mob.

Stenosophism's evil lays in frustrating the goal of its possessor, through an inability to grasp the complexities of the situation, and hence act appropriately to achieve his goals. So while the actor may have good intentions, his actions produce unintended effects. Being on the side of the angels is of no merit if a man's actions have resulted in the ruin of the temple.

Now one of the many problems with recognition of evil is the common misunderstanding of evil as being associated with malice. But malice itself is of no harm unless it is expressed in act; an act which results in the privation of the thing being acted on. What matters then is not the intentionality behind a an act but the consequences of it. Hence, men acting with incomplete knowledge are more likely to harm than make better. This isn't rocket science. For example, we don't ask the passengers to fly an aircraft, no matter how competent they feel or how sincere their intention to fly well; we demand a suitably qualified pilot. Pilots' knowledge of the reality and complexities of flying gives them a greater understanding of the consequences of their actions: something the passengers don't have.

Now, it's quite possible for the pilot, despite all his training, to crash the aircraft, but the odds are far less likely than if we were to give a random passenger control of the aircraft. Now, this may sound like a silly example but it isn't. Everyone recognises the importance of airline safety but very few recognised the importance of government survival, yet government survival is far more important than flying an aircraft. A country can survive without an aviation industry, but it can't survive without a government. Think about who controls your social security, regulates the banks, conscripts your children and polices your streets.

Even Austrian Economics, that great bastion of individual choice,  relies on the common good of property being protected by the existence of government. It the government fails so does property, and the world quickly descends into a Hobbsian state. Tyranny is not the only fear of the constitutional thinker ( Essentially as social "systems engineer"), so is self destruction.

John Boyd, a military strategist,  thought about system destruction in the context of military operations quite a lot. His way of beating the enemy was to assess the situation (gain a greater grasp of reality) and then act accordingly. One the implied methods of attack, according to his theory, was to get the enemy to become disorientated with regard to reality and to act in such a way that contrary to his interest.  The ideal Boydian strategist then, should be able to get the enemy to shoot himself in the head voluntarily and eagerly by perceptual manipulation.What you want, if you wish destruction, is for the enemy to eagerly pursue actions which are contrary to his goals.

In my opinion, Boyd had some flaws with his theory, and one of them was the failure to recognise that most humans simply don't have the capacity to fully grasp reality: It's a hardware problem. You can teach people all you want about system stability, but the proof of it is in being able to apply it in practice; there has to be a functional ability there.

The stable democracies of the west were initially set up with a limited franchise, as the respective constitutional architects were well aware that limiting the power of a irresponsible or evil monarch was of no benefit if political power was passed onto to an irresponsible, stupid or evil mob. They wanted political power wielded by responsible hands to ensure system stability as they were well aware of both the malice of kings and the stenosophism of the proles. Something that seems to be forgotten in today's deification of the common man and unquestioning approval of the universal franchise. A lot of righties, who otherwise vigourously defend current democracy, fail to note that the leftward shift of modern culture is correlated with the expansion of the voting franchise.

Now, how you limit the franchise is open to honest debate. Personally, I'd like the qualification to be based on a proven ability of an individual to successfully manage their own affairs. A man who can't get his own stuff together has no right lecturing me on mine. Bankrupts, adulterers, criminals, people who still have a mortgage, certain welfare recipients, those who are not paying taxes, people possessing too much wealth, etc, would all be excluded the franchise in my scheme things. The point here is not where you draw the line, but in recognising that a line needs to be drawn. To many people on the right worry endlessly about the responsible and limited government power without paying any attention to responsible voting: not recognising that one is impossible without the other.

Democracy fails when the imprudent prevail.