“Our Brains Are Shaped For Fitness Not For Truth”
(draft for the next edition of Fooled by Randomness)
I progressively transcribe here the scribbling on the margins of the books (when I manage to read my handwriting). I am also trying to summarize the best-known papers in the Kahneman-Tversky Heuristic & Biases tradition and the Kahneman happiness research (so far around 160 of them).
My heroes are those who have the courage (and ability) to confront their own knowledge & are capable of tricking their own psychological biases (it generally starts by accepting one’s fallibility and unfitness to the modern world ). Now my direct specialty is not neurobiology but I cannot conceive of discussing theories of knowledge and risk perception without making an effort to understand how our brain works (without getting into naturalized epistemology).
This is a annotated list of those books that I found sufficiently pleasant to read that I finished them. Note that *** refers to the quality of the research not those of the book (Mean Genes for instance is the most readable of all but has no such designation).
Readers will see me plugging my own ideas on the properties of belief formation: we may be a “thinking animal” in the classroom, but not when acting. About EVERYTHING I do, which includes trading, is based on the point.
On April 23 2002, Salman Rushdie sat on the throne at the 92nd Street Y and discussed, as part of the Paris Review Writers at Work series, his career and recent book. Rushdie is a man of immense personal charm and a seductive and animated speaker, which easily explains the fact that females mob him at parties. Discussing Malik Sowanka, the protagonist of Fury, he spoke of “the events in his life that shaped his character”. For all his glibness, this statement, made in 2002, is identical to someone making a statement well into the 18th century to the effect that the earth was flat, or someone trained in classical physics who, in 1940, kept ignoring quantum mechanics, mostly on grounds that it was not part of his pre-war graduate training. What shapes someone’s character, it is now universally accepted on the scientific side of the tracks, is a nonlinear combination of genes interacting with some environment –not just historical or biographical events, even in the presence of trauma. If science is moving too fast, neuroscience has been moving the fastest since 1990, much like physics during the golden age of the 30s. We have now reached a point where statements like Rushdie’s deserve a scientific fatwa –so many parents have been blamed unfairly for the behavior of their children; so many people have been punished for traits they were not able to control –and did not really have to control (much on that, later). What Shaped Sowanka was largely his genetic heritage, his biology, and, perhaps, some (but not all) biographical events.
Legend has it that Flaubert (no Rushdie) read close to 250 books on Carthage before he set to write Salambo. Now this is certainly legend, for there were no 250 books on Carthage in the French language at the time (and there still may not be that many), but it was in character for him to read everything available on a subject (as the son of a prominent surgeon, he could not get himself to write Emma Bovary’s death scene without consulting dozens of medical treatises). Now, I wrote a book grounded on behavioral and cognitive science (generalizing my personal war against my biological condition & heritage) with almost no bibliography; it was natural that was asked for recommendations of things to read on the genetics of behavior.
At the request (and for the benefit) of M., a person of great intellectual curiosity, I have compiled here a selection of the major popular books on the topic, readable by the non-mathematician non-biologist –those I derived some pleasure reading and managed to finish. While the principal tool remains Kandel et al’s magisterial Principles of Neural Science (Kandel, a recent Nobel laureate, and one of the greatest psychiatrists of all times, represents the new scientific school of psychiatry grounded in biology and molecular biology rather than couch-talking), it remains a textbook and I will avoid textbooks because, to be honest, I did not derive any pleasure reading it. I only added research papers that found their way into books –unfair for the authors, but a selection criterion that simplifies things.
One question that keeps popping up: Why are we all obsessively drawn into neurobiology, behavioral and cognitive sciences? 1) Because as a systematic thinker and a speculator I am very curious about the cause of the epistemological biases that I am betting against, and 2) deep down I believe that the only way we can fight or escape our genetic misfitness is by knowing it as intimately as possible –Gnotos Seauton taken to its possible limit.
To rebel against our biases we need heavier weaponry than that provided by the soft sciences. While behavioral psychology offered us in the past only an indirect look at behavior (merely inductive-statistical), with evolutionary theory as a backbone for confirmation, we were still in the mushy-soft territory –though we still largely depend on the questioning statistical psychologists. Getting inside the hood now allows us experimental evidence, even in some cases direct causation. How do we get into the Black Box? 1) Surgically, say, through the ablation of a part of the brain and reverse engineering its function 2) Observation of brain activity (through the Positron Emission T Scans), and, best of all 3) Direct experiment, say by firing electrical impulses into a part of the brain to see whether it causes the subject to enter, say, religious trances or fits of laughter (see Ledoux’s Emotional Brain below).
This list of readable books with a cutoff point around 1990 covers neurobiology, neuroscience, behavioral genetics, behavioral financial economics, and related fields.
In December 1998 an unassuming article in the weekend FT edition by one obscure Rita Carter caused an epiphany. The article mentioned a direct peek inside the Black Box, with unsettling consequences. Carter mentioned research showing that a genetic defect in the amygdala could be responsible for the behavior of someone actually maximizing his outcomes and acting rationally. The what? That amygdala thing is almond-shaped structure in the base of the brain, very small, that plays a large part in controlling our emotions. It came from the evolutionary past (the second brain, the one that we share with other mammals). Eureka! December 1998 was the first time I read about anyone actually looking into our wiring for the direct cause of economic decision-making under uncertainty. We saw the enemy. Momentous!
It turned out that Rita Carter was not a scientist, but a medical writer plugging her popular science book, Mapping the Mind. Yet if there is a book on the brain I suggest taking to a desert island, this is it! It is very easy to read, extremely pictorial (I has the feel of an art book) and presents a complete picture of the state-of-the-art, probably thanks to her collaborator Christopher Firth, a prominent U.K. neuroscientist. It also contains some brief boxes by a diversity of scientists (including Roger Penrose and John Maynard Smith). I’ve read some harsh criticisms by academic nit-picking neuroscientists, but these were harsh in tone, with little meaningful substance as they concerned technicalities (I could not understand their insults). If Carter has mistakes in it, be it; for the gains are that the work is extremely pedagogical for the curious person getting into the mother of all modern pursuits: the functioning of the brain. I can only give Rita Carter my most sincere gratitude for allowing me and my friends to have something easy to fall back to when we are stuck on the topic outside our specialty.
Initially caused a shock (still felt). “The mind-body problem stopped there and then!” said a philosopher, then added sadly “but everyone is in denial”.
It is a very simple thesis: You perform a surgical ablation on a piece of someone’s brain (say to remove a tumor and tissue around it) with the sole resulting effect of an inability to register emotions, nothing else (the IQ and every other faculty remain the same). What you have done is a controlled experiment to separate someone’s intelligence from his emotions. Now you have a purely rational human being unencumbered with feelings and emotions. Let’s watch: Damasio reported that the purely unemotional man was incapable of making the simplest decision. He could not get out of bed in the morning, and frittered away his days fruitlessly weighing decisions.
Shock! This flies in the face of everything one would have expected: One cannot make a decision without emotion. Now mathematics gives the same answer: if one were to perform an optimizing operation across a large collection of variables, even with a brain as large as ours, it would take a very long time to decide on the simplest of tasks. So we need a shortcut; emotions are there to prevent us from temporizing. If someone were to write the greatest discoveries of modern time, this one would certainly be part of them. Strangely the result should have been known since 1848 when a construction worker, Phineas Gage, suffered brain damage in the frontal lobe.
Emotions now as a guardian of rationality! Damasio in the book covers all terrain: from Kahneman-Tversky theories of behavior into neurobiology. It is buffeting for a financial economist’s professional pride to see that the only precise definition for rationality comes from our field.
Psychologists call this phenomenon: the Affect Heuristic (see paper below by Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & Mc Gregor)–the lubricant of intelligence.
Also note that Simon the did a good job
A big book (owing to the author’s contributions), though discussions of the historical literature and the research methodologies make it harder to read than other books in this list. Most important message: connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems. Implications: we feel emotions (limbic brain) then find an explanation (neocortex).
A very humanistic book.
Three psychiatrists examine the neurobiology of love –but in reality it is the clearest and most readable account of the neurobiology of memory and the emotions of behavior –though unlike Ledoux, it does not focus on fear (i.e., amygdala) but on memory as cognitive shortcut and bias. It includes the clearest presentation of the archeology of the brain –for it is archeological owing to the evolutionary chronology of the brain formation (Reptilian, Limbic, Neocortex). We are archaic machines who like contact with other members of our species. We use our neocortex to reason but in reality it is our limbic system that makes us tick (our reasoning ability is at best 200,000 years old while our emotional machinery is 100 million years ahead of it). The book discusses “camouflaged learning”, in the form of implicit memory, as opposed to explicit memory (neocortical). The book portrays memory as a correlation in neuron connectivity rather than some CD-style recording –which explains the revisions of memory by people after events.
(…) that evolved before understanding existed
(…) our intellect is generally blind [ to limbic resonance]
“Reason is the substance of the universe”, Hegel crowned in an age when science still expected to replicate everything. But these memory studies have intuition leading comprehension by a country mile; they reveal our lives lit by the diffuse glow of a second sun we never see. When confronted with repetitive experiences, the brain unconsciously extract the rules that underlie them (…) Such knowledge …never destined for translation into words.
Never destined for translation into words: perhaps the clearest definition of intuition I have ever encountered.
An interesting extension is that communication by computers will never replace human contact: we just have a biological need to exchange emotions with others. While most people suspect it we now have an exposition of the scientific evidence.
The author gives the best summary.
A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions [emphasis mine].
Everything flows from that point: that we are not made to experience chronic or persistent worries, only acute ones which elicit a rapid response.
Much of aging seems to come from the deleterious effect of the glucocorticoids on the hippocampus –glucocorticoids come from stress.
Note that women in a hunter-gatherer society are made to experience around 20 menstrual periods, as compared to 500 for, say, an ad executive in NYC.
An interesting point to a probabilist: uncertainty can be worse than death. The murderer Gary Gilmore experienced euphoria when he finally received his death sentence. This just does not make me think of the impact of the feeling of determinism on stress –but rather the far more interesting point of the type of uncertainty one experiences: scheduled/unscheduled, tame v/s untamed stochasticity.
According to Benson, a Harvard cardiologist, believing in a god has a physiological benefit[emphasis mine]. Sapolsky discusses the controversies attached to generalizations of the statement –as well as Benson’s taking the statement to ludicrous extremes, like the improvement of the health of the patient should someone pray for her.
John-Henryism: individuals with an internal locus or control: once they make up their mind on anything, they believe that with enough effort and determination they can regulate all outcomes. Epidemiology shows that this can help people who come from privilege but does not seem to help people in a working class environment. My question (always some causality): if one has this trait and still operates in a working class environment, then perhaps the agent has some difficulties matching his abilities to his will. It may be more of a divorce between abilities and desire to win.
Sir Roger has a great reputation as a mathematician and theoretical physicist; strangely this controversial book, initially intended to be about the mind, is turning out to be the greatest and clearest on quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence. I did not quite understand the “quantum theory of the mind” proposed by Penrose, nor do I understand much of synaptic microbiology to comprehend its quantum effect. Penrose’s idea about the brain are criticized by all his peers in both quantum mechanics and neuroscience. Yet the book is a classic of literary science.
Eccles appeared interesting because he is a Popper co-author and one of the few Nobel laureates who studied the brain. It takes us all the way into consciousness. The book is very dense, though; I confess the need to re-read it some other time (on something like a Tokyo flight).
It includes articles by Ledoux and Kandel. The Ledoux paper summarizes the thinking: the amygdala gets information before the rest of the brain, etc. Same thing.
Point 1: I put pulchritude above reason –I have always believed that we are genetically fit for aesthetics not for the so-called rationality and worked out the theoretical arguments against the use of reason beyond the crucial and the functional.
Point 2: We live in a world of incomplete information, a point that has been the graveyard of, to mention a few, Aristotelian logic, propositional calculus, and, closer to my trading activity, neoclassical economic theory (and pretty much any form of fixed-point convergence-style reasoning). A price does not depend on information (i.e. exogenous variable): it is information (i.e. an endogenous one).
Point 3 (corrolary) Information is not exogenous to Truth, it is endogenous to it; it is Truth. Peirce said it 120 years ago and was just recently understood on the point (this is what is meant by Peircian semiotics).
Point 4: We have genetically inherited a heuristic (probability-based) valuation that integrates such signaling (Girgerenzer). It is inherently algorithmic (Pinker).
Point 5: It is the same heuristic valuation that works in both mate signaling (initial “courtship”) and economic exchange (“trading”). People like to own what is hard to own (direct signaling); people like to own what others want (lateral signaling).What is “hard to get” appears to be intrinsically superior, at least for a while. In addition I speculate that this wired heuristic is a) higher in females than males (female) b) extremely unevenly distributed in the population.
What do these five points have to do with each other (particularly aesthetics)? The strength of connection came to me in a flash while reading this book, so I will review the book along with my own reflections. It is always thrilling to see things seemingly unrelated come together.
Aesthetics is signaling; incomplete information is epistemology of the pragmatic kind (students of philosophy are too preoccupied with Byzantine arguments such as whether the world is like a movie in our brain to worry about problems that have such implications). Epistemologically, signals are endogenous and need to be treated using second order probabilistic arguments, along a Bayesian information-theoretic line of reasoning rather than plain conventional Aristotelian logic (nowhere do discrete syllogistic methods fail as strongly as with conditional probability –a condition that modal logic has not been able to cure, which shows that Bayesian probability theory is the only useable logic).
By endogenous signals I mean the following: assume two units with imperfect knowledge of each other’s contents engaging in courtship, trading, or simply social exchange. The mere act of signaling or non-signaling may constitute a signal.
We live in a framework of informational opacity: we never see each other’s DNA and will be manipulated accordingly. There is a black box; one does not see the inside, only signals coming out of it –although the theories of signaling have been worked out in mathematical economics, biologists lagged a bit in integrating them in their evolutionary models. Suddenly I fell on a book that uses the same line of arguments as mine for both aesthetics and manipulative signaling, but from a biological instead of an epistemological standpoint and shows that the reason we developed language and arts is precisely as tools for show-off.
To understand the mind’s evolution, it is probably best to forget everything one knows about human history and human civilization. Pretend that the last ten thousand years did not happen. [p. 20 (Anchor Books paperback edition)]
People interpret Darwin’s ideas as just “survival as the fittest” (note that just as with Montaigne and Descartes, Darwin is more read second hand than directly). To him it was insufficient an explanatory model and evolution needed a second component. He established that sexual selection played a large part in evolution, along fitness for survival. Sexual selection is far more subtle in its effects than survival of the fittest, because it can lead to extinction –interestingly enough it lends itself to mathematical modeling, with more pronounced chaotic effects than evolution of the fittest. Sexual selection went largely ignored in the mainstream evolutionary literature, until recently, with the popularization of sexual selection by Helen Fisher and the renewed interest in Amotz Zahavi’s handicap principle: costly signals are more trustworthy than cheaper ones (same as in economics: ostentation is costly, hence reliable, signaling). Aside from being costly they need to be useless (or at least way beyond the functional).
The economics of surviving have changed dramatically, while the romantic challenges of mating have remained rather similar. [p. 179]
Miller takes the signaling ideas into interesting territory: he holds that the human brain developed as part of a runaway sexual selection process –thus he disagrees on many points with Stephen Pinker who ignored sexual selection (although in separate interviews he positions himself as completing Pinker’s work by providing explanations for the “useless” traits) . A female shows a preference for a costly trait, say long tails, which has some signaling value (only healthy peacocks can afford to maintain such an onerous and dangerous display of their wares; tails are so sensitive that the slightest vulnerability to parasites or disease would be immediately advertised. It is what they do not show that is interesting). It will cause an overdevelopment of the trait through positive feedback, starting an evolutionary arms race between males. The key for the feedback (an argument used by Fisher) is that the offspring of the choosy female (who wants long tails) will not just inherit long tails but a gene for the sexual preference for long tails. Traits that come from sexual selection need to be unevenly distributed, compared to traits that come from survival advantage that stabilize to fit a given environment, as those without the trait vanish into evolutionary oblivion. There is no convergence to evolutionary stability.
A feminist should proudly note that sexual selection implies female choice: the female picks the male, not the other way around, as in conventional wisdom (a point that did not fall on deaf ears and the idea became popular after the publication of this book). But sexual selection also implies polygeny, both male and female.
A crucial question is how polygenous our ancestors were. The more polygenous the more potent runaway selection could have been. [p. 75]
[ …] polygeny help explain sex differences. The higher variation in reproductive success among males explain why male humans are so keen to show off, to dominate culture and politics, and to broadcast indicators of their fitness to any female who might listen. To the extent that our ancestors were polygenous, there were sexual selection pressures for males to display more intensely than females.
He is sufficiently aware of the economics argument (Veblen, game theory, Frank’s theories of luxury), but not of the more mathematical signaling framework of Stigler, Akerloff, Spence, Grossman, Vickrey. It is not my style to criticize another writer; I hold that a book is a take-it-or-leave it business. But I note that he did not push too deep into information economics –which means that I will have to do it.
There are signals that cost nothing, which are called “cheap talk”. Economists realized that cheap talk is not to be trusted. It means nothing because it costs nothing.
A word here on what I did not find in the book, but has been extensively explored in the economics literature: the sensitivity of humans to attention from others –take a female approaching a clingy male. Economics analyze an auction process in terms of winner’s curse. What is the winner’s curse? Say I am bidding for an item, a painting. The mere fact of winning is information that should lower the conditional valuation of the item.
Scorn of the Average (Kurtocracy): There is a native scorn of the average on the part of females. I knew of the trade-up argument with females (it is a common argument in the literature that a female’s optimal strategy is to have a provider while surreptitiously getting better genes elsewhere; they are more likely to cheat when ovulating, etc.) but was not aware of the fact that in such context females did not need males too much –males can be costly to maintain. For males do not sufficiently feed females; they are not needed for their support so much as they are wanted for their genes. Females only need superior males, which is another evidence of (male) polygeny: a few males get most of the females. There is a continuous race.
Interviews with contemporary hinter-gatherer women by anthropologists such as Marjorie Shostak reveal that these women view men as more trouble than they’re worth. If the men are hanging around, they usually eat more food than they provide, and demand more care than they give one’s children. If they have very high fitness, then their good genes, good sex, and good conversation might compensate for their messiness and lethargy. But if they are only average, their potential for sexual jealousy and violent irritability may render them a net cost rather than a benefit. [p 191]
Why did the selection affect the brain?
There is […] overlap between those aspects of the brain used for producing sexually attractive behavior, and those aspects of the brain used for assessing and judging that behavior. Speaking and listening use many of the same language circuits. […] Without intelligence it is hard to appreciate another person’s intelligence [doesn’t apply to peacock tails]. The more psychologically refined a courtship display is, the more overlap there may be between the psychology required to produce the display and the psychology required to appreciate it.
Psychologically refined selection may produce much smaller sex differences than runaway sexual selection for long bird tails. [p 92]
Sexual selection might drive a species to extinction. [p. 40]
Aesthetics as Zahavian handicaps?
In sexual selection, traits that began as indicators tend to grow more complexly ornamental because the sensory preferences of the opposite sex partially impose their own aesthetic agenda on the indicator [p. 161]
Fitness indicators… this is not a function like hunting, toolmaking, or socializing that contributes directly to fitness by promoting survival and reproduction. Instead fitness indicators serve a sort of meta-function. […] They are social and sales-oriented. They live in the semiotic space of symbolism and strategic deal-making not in the gritty world of factory production. The healthy brain theory proposes that our minds are clusters of fitness indicators: persuasive salesmen like art, music, and humor, that do their best in courtship, where the most important deals are made. [p 105]
This narrow definition of adaptation was perhaps reinforced by 20th-century aesthetics, which held conspicuous, costly ornamentation in low regard. […] In the 1920s Walter Gropius and other theorists of the Bauhaus movement in Germany had argued that, in a socialist utopia, working people would not waste time and energy hand-decorating objects for the purchase of the rich, merely so the rich could show how much wasteful ornamentation they could afford. [p. 61]
The conspicuous waste demanded by the handicap principle violates our values of frugality, simplicity, and efficiency. [p. 135]
The principles of coinage, like those of sexual selection, are not just economic but aesthetic. [p.161]
On the invariance in tastes:
When anthropologists claim that standards of beauty vary capriciously from one culture to another they are usually studying the wrong traits in the wrong ways. ..Individuals …all prefer clean, smooth, unwrinkled skin. [p. 228]
See also Buss(1995) for evidence that mate preferences were not “cultural” as there is great invariance of preferences between cultures.
Art & pleasure:
[…] from a Darwinian perspective, pleasure is usually an indication of biological significance. Subjectively, everything an animal does may appear to be done simply to experience pleasure or avoid pain. If we did not understand that animals need energy, we might say that they eat for the pleasure of eating. But we do understand that they need energy, so we say instead that they have evolved a mechanism called hunger that makes it feel pleasurable to eat. […] Pleasure explains noting; it is what needs explaining. [p. 262]
Closer to my department, small probabilities:
Evolution has no foresight. It lacks the long-term vision of drug company management. A species can’t raise venture capital to pay its bills while its research team […] Each species has to stay biologically profitable every generation, or else it goes extinct. Species always have cash-flow problems that prohibit speculative investments in their future. More to the point, every gene underlying every potential innovation has to yield higher evolutionary payoffs than competing genes, or it will disappear before the innovation evolves any further. This makes it hard to explain innovations. [p 167]
This is the book that caused a splash. An older woman in New Jersey with no university affiliation and who once flunked out of a PhD in psychology at Harvard writes a book that stands about everything accepted in the field called “psychology” on its head. The point is not the role of genes so much as that the role of culture is lateral: children are programmed to imitate each other, not adults. Thinks are settled: if we learn, we learn from our peers. As we grow older we start resembling our parents as genes take over.
Not just a must read, but a must re-read! My tattered copy is full of annotations. Ridley, while remaining informative, has a militant angle: trash the nurture delegation (particularly what the curmudgeonly Nabokov used to call the Viennese Delegation). He shows that belief in cultural determinism is even more vicious than genetic determinism (we would be the slaves of our environment). Ridley goes from chromosome to chromosome, but only metaphorically: he explains that a single gene is rarely responsible for any given trait (except when we have defects). One very, very interesting side information I’ve never seen anywhere else: people who are not in control of their lives, such as people in junior positions, suffer more stress and are more prone to heart attack. Executives who retire die early because they lose control, as they are now under domestic pressure. Also he reiterates interesting studies: if children of divorced parents are more likely to divorce, this only apply to biological children and comes from their sharing genes with their parents (the same applies to child abuse) –our methods of inferring causality from statistics have led us to strange policies. My coauthor Avital Pilpel made it required reading for his Columbia class The Theory and Practice of Science – Biology.
This is The Book for evolutionary psychology, written by a giant of our times –the man who took Chomsky’s ideas of language into the next step. Pinker is an elegant (and facile) writer, perhaps the second best writer in science (Dawkins remains the best). This book, now a classic, almost reads like a novel. The main message became my motto: Our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. It does not mean necessarily survival fitness, but it could be sexual selection –it is the Truth part that I find crucial.
Our brain consists in modules, each fit for a specific function, not in a general purpose top-down centralized processing system. The Tooby and Cosmides cheater-detection module allows us to grasp a given logic when presented in a certain manner, but not in another.
Impressive but not as informative for someone on the scientific side as it can be for your local English professor. He picks on a few straw men. Very readable though. The most interesting part is the presentation of Tom Sowell’s distinction between the two brands of intellectuals: the utopists and the fatalists.
It took me close to 3 years to finish it, but it was worth it. Dennett leaves no prisoners (poor Steven Jay Gould); he is harsh on Penrose, but as the most Darwinist of Darwinists he makes his evolutionary case from the top down. His focus on Artificial Intelligence gives him an edge. It is about as complete as a book could be: from Turing machines to the formation of consciousness.
A very smoothly written account of the role of genes in our behavior (it was made very readable thanks to the co-author, a professional writer). Hamer is the scientist who was deemed to have discovered the “gay gene”, but claims it to be a mere genetic predisposition. Hamer is also the one who used mathematical techniques of “genetic distance” on haplogenes (genes that transmit only male to male) to show that Syrians and Jews have a very close genetic distance.
Extremely entertaining. A catalogue of the role of genes in our lives, with an evolutionary twist. It covers food, mate selection, and greed. The larger share of mate selection is indicative of the role of evolution. One of the authors is a biologist, the other an economist who wrote a doctoral thesis on the evolutionary rationale behind utility curves.
A thorough but abbreviated description of the role of the neurobiology of emotions. Includes a complete description of the role of neurotransmitters, particularly in substance addictions.
Diamond provides a pleasant but brief exposition of the works of Sarah Hrdy, Helena Cronin on sexual selection.
It popularizes the scientific ideas on human mate selection and presents some aspect of associated brain chemistry. Easy to read.
Perhaps one of the first nonpolitically correct books on sexual asymmetry.
Plotkin seems to be an epistemologist –the book is couched in philosophical language. Aside from the usual review work, there is a chapter that examines the wirings of causation: interesting comparison between children and macaque monkeys in their perception of temporal causation.
Mostly presents the results of Minnesota twin study (separated at birth) and the social “scientists” in denial. The author is not a scientist, but a professional writer, so the book reads very well.
Somehow it weaves a biography of Darwin into the text.
Clear and entertaining. The Tooby-Cosmides cheater-detection test is clearest I’ve seen.
Probes deep into the brain –about the most complete descriptive exposition from first inductive principles. A little technical as it goes into the role of neurotransmitters, which requires some knowledge of the basics of the brain. Some mathematical insights about the nonlinearities (chaos-theoretic considerations) in neuron activation.
The first presents the author’s nontechnical lectures at the Collège de France. The second is more technical but conveys the same, very simple idea: using principal component analysis, a mathematical technique very used in finance to reduce the dimension of, say, a large co-variance matrix into components ranked by order of importance, one is able to construct “maps” that do not have to be necessarily two dimensional. This line of research takes DNA across populations and builds maps based on variability of components. One can then measure a “genetic distance” and compare it to geographical distance.
Dugatkin takes Keynes beauty contest (i.e. it is not important to select the one that has the most attractive attributes but the one who is most likely to be though to have the best attributes by others) into biological territory. People for mate selection are influenced by others as it is more optimal to select for one’s offspring the genes that will be in demand by others. Interestingly, one can even trick guppies!
We are optimized for informational opacity. The point is not trivial for us speculators –but with a twist. If people are willing to like garbage simply because it is comforting to own what others have (there is a substitution: by imitate because you think others may know something).
Note the corollary point from the same biological effect of informational opacity. It is very well developed in “signaling theory” (well covered in the literature that just won Akerloff, Stiglitz and Spence a greatly deserved Nobel Memorial Prize in economics). By making herself hard to get a potential mate/social friend becomes psychologically more valuable. Also consider the winners curse.
This is a very readable book, thanks to the opinionated militant tone of the author. I did not understand the theory that the ascent of man is caused by traits that can cause schizophrenia –and that changes in diet cause the switch. I learned that we are not even fit for an agricultural environment. The introduction has very pedagogical presentation of the various evolutionary theories.
Technical discussions –see next for a user friendly presentation.
Reviews the literature on happiness and material status. Immensely readable.
p 7 the naively optimistic view:
Over the past several years, the so-called voluntary simplicity movement has spawned dozens of popular self-help books that urge us to scale back, telling us we’ll be happier if we adopt simpler, less harried lifestyles. The brisk sales of these books suggest that their authors have struck a resonant chord.[...] All we need do is control our appetites.
He distinguishes between inconspicuous consumption & conspicuous (the former increases well being). The reason GNP growth did not lead to improvement in well being he finds attributable to most of it going to the latter, even the reduction of the former...
p 38 Winner-take-all arguments
At the turn of the century, when the state of Iowa alone had more than 1300 opera houses, thousands of tenors earned adequate, if modest, livings performing before live audiences. Now that most music we listen to is prerecorded, however, the world’s best tenor can be literally everywhere at once.
p 116 Proposer/responder game (fairness).
p 129 Influence of context on visual illusion, temperature, etc.
p 140 serotonin’s role, biochemical markers of concern about relative position (Chapter 1 in my book FBR)
p 144 health and hierarchy (see the same discussion in Ridley’s Genome). Incidence of coronary disease and length of illnesses function of hierarchical status.
p 162 The Solnick and Hemenway study. People had to choose between a world where 50K others 25K or one where 100K others 250K. 56% chose the first world.(I’ve seen a French study where people are asked to pay to reduce other’s income). Now the effect was not as pronounced when one had to trade vacation to lower others (20%). Implication: the satisfaction people derive from consuming material goods is more strongly context dependent than that of having free time.
p 199 SUMPTUARY LAWS
In the Ottoman Empire merchants were not allowed to wear furs.
Chinese law during the T’ang dynasty prohibited commoners from taming peregrine falcons
In medieval Florence a law limited the number of courses served during the evening meal. It precipitated the development of elaborate one-dish meals.
These laws disappeared (both East & West) between the 17th & 18th centuries.
Irrational Exuberance became a bestseller, and was timely. But Market Volatility, a compilation of his papers, show an insightful man with the courage of his opinions.
In the tradition of the Kahneman-Tversky results. He coined the term “probability blindness”.
Very dull! It provides a very academic and dry synthesis of the field of behavioral economics. Closer to a textbook. It is more interesting for what it does not have: neurobiological arguments are missing, which is indicative of the lag in economics.
Mostly a collection of old papers. Counterintuitive results on the “lottery effect” that resemble by own suspicions on perception of the risks of rare events.
A waste of time.
Seems to think that the Kahneman-Tversky heuristics are “fast and frugal” rather than “quick and dirty”. Gigerenzer does not seem to share the same planet as the rest of us –certainly no knowledge of financial markets or more complicated probability distributions..
The book that carried the most influence on my thinking this year (I went back to it half a dozen times).
This is a clearly written presentation of our inability to forecast our own behavior and to predict our emotional reactions to positive and negative events. One would think that the repetition of experiences with consistent forecasting biases would lead to some correction but this is not the case.
We are more resilient than we think ("immune neglect"). The book also discusses the reversion to baseline happiness after what we thought would bring a permanent improvement in our moods (yet we never learn from it).
The most important part covers the "hindsight bias" how we see past misfortunes as deterministic --and how we can confront negative emotions by making them even more so (by creating a narrative that make the events appear unavoidable).
Explores the delusions about both the effectiveness of intuition as acquired heuristic rule and intuition as misleading representation based on shallow understanding of matters.
Reviews the availability and representativeness heuristics, the attribution bias, the gambler’s fallacy.
Not quite a self-help book. Presents the distinction between hedonistic and eudamonistic.
Great presentation of the various treadmill effects. [comments forthcoming]
Naive –he did not seem to have read Robert Frank’s work.
Kasser’s specialty is how people react to material wealth, what satisfaction they derive, etc. Seems to be a moralizing review of the books on happiness –moralizing. Perhaps he should accept that people do not react to advice –a property of human nature. He misses the booming literature on economics & happiness.
In short those who pursue material status have poor self-worth, low self-esteem, etc.
Question: Why does someone have to write a book every few years saying that we should strive for things that are their own reward? There is nothing particularly new in the book aside from the reciprocal relation between materialism and happiness (that is since Cicero).
Epiphenomena (whether the compass is steering the ship). Is consciousness a press agent or a chief executive officer? Anyway it always believes it is the CEO.
An excellent presentation of the ideas on emotions. I discovered too late that it contains much of the other valuable discussions.
Aside from the East-West discussion with a scientific flavor, it presents the works of Paul Ekman on emotions, and those of Richard Davidson on the neuroscience of emotions.
Davidson: brain correlates of positive and negative sentiments. The same brain areas involved in positive emotions are also associated with the faculty of reasoning.
Neuroplasticity: our brains are adaptable (they keep growing brain cells counter to what we thought) . Through meditation we can rewire our brain. Davidson shows some evidence of that.
Elster is a “social scientist”, seemingly a combination of philosopher and a sociologist. It is very literary but difficult to read –not just owing to the density but the footnotes & excessive quoting.
Evans was a philosophy student when he wrote the book. It presents the major ideas on emotions as heuristic shortcuts then goes into an interesting tangent: using the concepts in AI. He seems to have succeeded as he became a researcher in robotics.
34 –On the study of statistical intuitions
Prospect Theory (Kahneman & Tversky), and Cumulative Prospect Theory (Tversky and Kahneman).
Take x a monetary outcome. Set Up[x] if x>0 and Un[x] otherwise. The most common representation is as follows:
Where g[p] is the probability weighting function.
Kahneman and Tversky at a 1969 meeting of hotshots asked authors of statistical papers and texts questions related to small samples and noticed that their statistical judgment showed little sensitivity to sample size.
[..]These sophisticated individuals apparently had access to two distinct approaches for answering statistical questions: one that is spontaneous, intuitive, effortless, and fast; and another that is deliberate, rule-governed, effortful, and slow.
Table 2.1 Two Cognitive Systems:
Contents on Which Processes Act
Good news: learning by doing.
Complex cognitive operations eventually migrate from System 2 to System 1. [...] ability of chess masters to observe the strength or weakness of chess positions instantly. For those experts, pattern matching has replaced effortful serial processing. Similarly, prolonged cultural exposure eventually produces a facility for social judgments[...]
My question: what would be the effect of training and practice on probabilistic clinical judgments? I’ve read conflicting discussions.
Connection to the availability heuristic:
Early research on the representativeness and availability heuristics was guided by a simple and general hypothesis: When confronted with a difficult question people often answer an easier one instead, usually without being aware of the substitution.
We will say that a judgment is mediated by a heuristic when the subject assesses a specific target attribute of a judgment object by substituting another property of that object – the heuristic attribute – which comes more readily to mind.
When both systems fail. Clarity of an object at the boundary indicative of distance [2 pieces of information: clarity of the object + ambient haziness-] The effects of haziness on impression of distance is a failure of system 1 [perceptual system]. The effect of haziness on judgments of distance is a failure of system 2 [correcting by the general context , here ambient haziness].
Systematic biases stemming from the substitution of the target attribute by the heuristic attribute. Of concern here are the weighting biases.
Timothy Wilson’s Stranger to Ourselves present the ideas.
the specific quality of “goodness” or “badness” 1) experienced as a feeling state (with or without consciousness) 2) demarcating a positive or negative quality of a stimulus.
The authors investigate the different courses of research on the effect of this powerful lubricant of reason that can be silently misleading.
Trying to show that these biases work well and serve a purpose. Not convincing.
The authors investigate the effect of the perception of one’s own accomplishments (see William James’ second best quote: “that he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing”, William James 1892)
Social psychologists have shown that people’s satisfaction with their objective circumstances is greatly affected by how their own circumstances compare with those of relevant others.
In addition to the differences (with one’s own expectations, with others), they examine the counterfactual alternatives, the imaginary outcomes “might have been”.
Examples: missing a plane by 5 minutes worse than missing it by 35 minutes. Missing the A by a point worse being in the middle of the pack for a B.
They study extensions to conflicts between individuals and between groups.
We are rationalizing rather than rational animals.
The dissonance researchers showed unparalleled ingenuity in demonstrating the ways in which people rationalize their actions and reduce discrepancies in their belief systems.
Two much-researched attributional biases directly affect interpersonal misunderstanding and enmity. The first bias involves people’s tendency to underestimate the impact of situational or contextual factors on overt action, and, as result, to make overly broad and overly “dispositional” attributions about other actors. The second bias involves the tendency for people to give greater weight to situational factors in assessing their own actions and outcomes than those of their peers.
Conflicts can be exacerbated not only by misattributions about others, but also by biased assessments about the self. Consider the “better-than-average” effect
The classic papers on happiness [longer discussion of the papers forthcoming]
Thom Hartman (1993) Attention Deficit Disorder: a Different Perception. He seems to have an insightful but questionable theory that people plagued with the so-called family of Attention Deficit Disorders are people genetically made to be hunters-gatherers, not settlers, holding genes from our pre-settlement days; hence they should not be forced to become laborers. Now, Thom Hartman is a “PhD” in something like nutrition from no University and does not understand much of evolutionary theory (he is not aware of the notions of phylogeny/ontogeny and frequently violates basic evolutionary logic –”hunter” traits belong to species not individuals); Untrained in scientific discourse his quotations are anecdotal mentions from something like Newsweek articles. Yet there is something in this idea that merits further investigation and testing, though along firmer lines: 1) The trait is highly heritable, hence subjected to natural selection and 2) it may present both adaptive and reverse-adaptive features using the notion of high variance in a world of random outcomes (argument of selection bias: if Americans have a higher incidence of ADHD than the rest of the world it may not be owing to more active diagnosis but simply because settlers may have had a more adventurous personalities). One evidence is a very high incidence of ADD both among geniuses and among the prison population; but we may consider the alternative explanation that the success of some people with such traits is the result of just lateral compensation (Einstein was comfortable scorning everything outside his large scale mission, to the point of not knowing his home address) rather than evolutionary fitness (it would not necessarily be an adaptive trait). (By lateral compensation I mean the overdevelopment of some faculties to make up of some weaknesses, such as the blind man’s overdeveloped hearing and sense of touch). Lateral compensation is not heritable.