Showing posts with label psychology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label psychology. Show all posts

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Amazing zomby show

Three psychology researchers (including the Queenslander Matthew Thompson) have hit upon one of the most amazing distortion illusions I've ever seen:

While you're gazing at the cross in the middle of the screen, nothing prevents you from taking a brief glimpse at times, to the left or right, just to make sure that the video creators were not cheating.

The viewer's situation reminds me of what a driver might see when he's traveling at night along a narrow mountain road, with his eyes fixed on the road ahead. This was often the case back in 1993, when I resided for three months at St-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, which is separated from the outside world by a treacherous winding trail through dark gorges, between cliffs and ravines.

I can now understand retrospectively why I often imagined, in the darkness, that I was driving along a mountain road inhabited by the medieval ghosts of Saint Bruno and his fellow monks.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Psychology of a novel kind

I hastened to read Thinking, fast and slow by the Israeli-born Daniel Kahneman after coming upon a description of the Princeton professor by Steven Pinker:

Daniel Kahneman is among the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today. He has a gift for uncovering remarkable features of the human mind.

Another enthusiastic reviewer described Kahneman's book as "a big slice of sober pie". Today, having completed a first reading of the book, I'm intrigued by Pinker's appraisal. Admittedly, Kahneman's book often aroused my curiosity, but many parts of it bored and indeed irritated me. In any case, I remain convinced that if any individual deserved to be thought of as "the most important psychologist alive today" (an excessive description whose fuzziness also troubles me), it would surely be Pinker himself rather than Kahneman. But I prefer to avoid unnecessary evaluations of that kind.

The basic theme of Thinking, fast and slow is trivially simple. When humans are thinking—for example, when they're faced with questions or problems—they actually behave at two complementary levels. First, they "think fast", immediately, automatically and instinctively. Then they "think slow", calling explicitly upon reasoning processes. At the start of his explanations, Kahneman (who seems to get a thrill out of of coining new expressions) has introduced a terminological gimmick, which also annoys me. He designates "fast thinking" as System 1, and "slow thinking" as System 2. OK, fair enough. But was it necessary to write an entire book on the basis of this obvious hierarchy, which has been been a constant preoccupation of researchers for ages in fields such as cognitive science, artificial intelligence and brain research?

At times, I had the impression that the subject of Kahneman's book was closer to elementary statistics, decision-making (as in business) and games theory than to psychology. Many of his explanations are based upon personal anecdotes in various professional and academic environments, where Kahneman often seemed to arrive on the scene like Zorro, eager to correct all the mistakes perpetrated by the numbskulls who had been there prior to him. For example, there's a chapter entitled "Regression to the mean" which starts out by explaining that the author had "one of the most satisfying eureka experiences of [his] career while teaching flight instructors in the Israeli Air Force about the psychology of effective training". A seasoned instructor pointed out that praising an exceptionally high-quality flight performance served no useful purpose, because the pilot would inevitably fly much worse the following day. On the other hand, this instructor considered that it was a good idea to scream at a pilot who had flown exceptionally poorly, because he would inevitably improve his performance the following day. Now, on the surface, that situation might appear to have something to do with the question of rewards and punishment in the domain of human psychology. But Kahneman's "eureka experience" consisted of his realizing a very banal fact that has nothing to do with psychology. If a pilot flies exceptionally well one day, then he's likely (for purely statistical reasons) to fly less well the next day. And if a pilot flies exceptionally badly one day, then he's likely (for the same statistical reasons) to fly a little better the next day. So, what else is new? Kahneman is so excited about this personal revelation that he introduces another example, summed up in the following sentence:

Highly intelligent women tend to marry men who are less intelligent than they are.

Is this banal observation a pretext for getting involved in reflections about the reasons that might push a bright girl into wedding a dumb guy? No, there is no reason whatsoever to tackle the question at that level. The elementary theory of probability provides a total explanation of the situation. There are only so many highly intelligent women looking for husbands, whereas there are hordes of numbskulls ready to be chosen. So, it's inevitable, statistically, that most bright girls end up marrying relatively dumb guys.

I was a 17-year-old student back in Australia when I heard about regression analysis (the name of the approach that started out as "regression to the mean") and correlation. Admittedly, Kahneman introduces these cases of regression as counter-examples, which have nothing to do with genuine human psychology, but I find it amazing that a Nobel laureate in economics could get excited today about such everyday stuff.

Something about Kahneman's style makes me consider his book as a specimen of popular psychology of the kind you often meet up with in magazines and training seminars. He reminds me of Edward de Bono and his thinking hats, or Nassim Taleb and his black swans. In any case, one of these days I promise to reread Kahneman's book, to see if I maybe missed out on something during my initial reading.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Simple problems

There's an amusing article in The Wall Street Journal [display] about a Nobel Laureate in economics, Daniel Kahneman, who's a professor of psychology at Princeton.

Apparently Kahneman is intrigued by the fact that many people are surprisingly irrational… which would seem to be a polite way of saying that they often react in a foolish manner, as if they were incapable of reasoning correctly. Kahneman has the habit of asking allegedly smart individuals to answer extremely simple questions. Here's a specimen:

A bat and ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs $1 more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

According to the article, about half the students of Harvard, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology give the wrong answer. That's amazing! Personally, although I'm not particularly bright (as friends and members of my family know), it took me no more than a dozen seconds of mental arithmetic to obtain the right answer.

How about you?

I'm a little troubled, though, by the fact that, in handling questions of this kind, I immediately resort to basic algebra, rather than trying to find a solution intuitively, using so-called common sense. I'm disturbed because I have the impression that I'm cheating. I know beforehand that, as soon as I say "Let's refer to the unknown as x", I'm absolutely certain to find a solution, rapidly. Funnily, I would feel more like an honest citizen if I were to force myself to stagger around in the sludge of common sense for a while, waiting for a solution to drop down upon me like the gentle rain from heaven. In using mental algebra, I feel like an exam student who's exploiting stealthily his iPhone to obtain vital data.

Am I an abnormal cheat?

CORRECT ANSWER: The ball costs 5 cents and the bat, $1.05.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why do we like the things we like?

The Yale psychologist Paul Bloom is interested in big fundamental questions of an aesthetic or moral kind, such as: Why do we like certain things, but dislike others? Why do we consider that one thing is right, whereas another is wrong? In this entertaining 16-minute video, Bloom provides us with fascinating and often amusing cases of human likes and dislikes.

In the great debate of nature v. nurture, I'm pleased to discover that Paul Bloom is an opponent—like Steven Pinker—of the infamous "blank slate" theory [display]. He says: "A growing body of evidence suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Is this guy crazy?

It's not unlikely that the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik is in fact "crazy"—as his lawyer Geir Lippestad is starting to suggest—and that "he lives in a bubble" where he depends upon pharmaceutical products in order "to be strong, to be efficient, to be awake". OK, fine (yawn). Let's suppose, then, that he's a lethally dangerous former citizen of a finely civilized Scandinavian society. The next question is: What should be done with this creature?

As I stated clearly in a previous post [display], he must be examined profoundly, clinically, above all, for his case and condition might alert us to future risks. The concept of punishment is anathema… but Breivik must be sentenced to silence. Society neither wishes nor needs to listen to a syllable of anything that this nauseating blond Viking might vomit.

The rest of the civilized world will be awaiting Norway's honest analysis of what might have gone wrong in their harboring such an individual—apparently unknowingly—in their midst. Maybe we're all potential lunatics capable of destroying everything that's precious. Personally, I've never been anguished nor even intrigued by such an idea, which I look upon as totally false, indeed ridiculous. Whenever I touch the tender head of one of my dear dogs, Sophia or Fitzroy, I'm profoundly aware that they are precious but fragile treasures, who must never be harmed, who must be caressed forever, and that the potential violence of my giant human paws must be controlled, and intelligently restrained. My dogs are not mad animals, fit to be killed by a madman... and neither am I. If Breivik's sick brain thinks otherwise, then researchers in psychology and neurophysiology must try to determine what has happened. What was it that apparently transformed this Norwegian citizen into a monster?


When I was a 14-year-old kid hanging around in the rough competitive-cycling environment of my native Grafton and Coffs Harbour, the very idea of a cultivated gentleman cyclist such as Cadel Evans would have been unthinkable. Inversely, I eavesdropped on many uncouth conversations about sex. Retrospectively, I believe—although I can't vouch for it—that I had already, at that time, acquired sufficient algebraic knowledge and sexual self-awareness to appreciate a remarkable law of the dynamics of male nature: The angle of the dangle is proportional to the heat of the meat. That's to say, a cold penis will hang limply and vertically (angle zero), whereas a warmed-up hunk of meat will rise magically to a right angle, or even greater. What I didn't understand clearly at that time was that the warming-up process was a largely-cerebral affair, which only needed to be triggered by the vision of a nymph, a young angel, an ethereal creature with a seductive look… accompanied generally by a luscious mouth, attractive breasts and an enticing backside. In those days, people used to talk a lot about love, even divinely-consecrated eternal love… but I had to wait a long while before I started to hear intelligent talk—from brilliant happily-married intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker—about our inbuilt animal sex drives.

Concerning my former politico-economic hero Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I must admit that a cloud of disbelief engulfed me when I witnessed the female object that apparently heated his meat. I'm not talking of the complex human being named Nafissatou Diallo, herself, but merely of her image as a sexual challenge: an object capable of augmenting Strauss-Kahn's angle of the dangle.

Once upon a time, I revered the ethereal beauty and brilliance of Anne Sinclair, who appeared to me (that's to say, to my concupiscent regard) as the epitome of the French female. At that time, I didn't yet know that she was filthy rich, attached to the USA, and capable of falling totally in love with, and protecting, a powerful male. Today, I still admire Anne, of course, but she doesn't come through quite as angelically untainted as she used to. More precisely, I can't help wondering whether she might have been duped by the indubitable promises of DSK. Even more precisely, it would be good if Anne were to tell us simply (former admirers of the journalist and partisans of DSK) how she looks upon, globally, this whole "heat of the meat" subject.

Let me turn to another distortion: Rupert Murdoch.

[Click the image for an amusing Onion satire on Rupert's distortions of reality.]

I've always loved the Simpsons, who remain for me the perfect illustration of nasty life in God's Own Country. Apparently, there are evil-minded observers who would wish to see similarities between Rupert and the venerable Grandpa Simpson.

Personally, I'm profoundly attached to the past, particularly through my genealogical pursuits. On the other hand, I've always been terrified by the horrible eventuality of becoming, as my age advances, what my Aussie mates in Grafton would have labeled an SOB [silly old bugger]. For the moment, I'm sufficiently lucid, I believe, to know what I'm doing, especially in the domain of autobiographical writing, which forces me to be alert and perspicacious. But I'm terrified at times by the looming apparitions, around me, of certain former friends who seem to be transforming themselves inevitably—cerebrally, no doubt, but not knowingly, I'm afraid—into SOBs of the saddest ranting Rupert kind.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Aussie psychologist creates monsters

This is really weird stuff. And so it should be, because the Queensland psychologist Matthew Thomson has hit upon a way of transforming portraits of ordinary individuals into fleeting images of monsters.

Should we be surprised by the fact that this bright young Fullbright scholar happens to be an expert in criminal fingerprinting, who'll soon be comparing notes with the Los Angeles police and the FBI? No comment… except to suggest that it might have been nicer if Matthew's monsters had sprung into existence, say, in the course of an artistic career devoted to the production of ghost movies for Aussie kids. But psychologists are psychologists, and they need to earn their living in the most propitious manner.

Let's look at the monsters. You might click around in such a way as to fill up your entire screen with the following video. Then you should watch it at least twice.

• The first time, keep your eyes on the cross in the middle of the screen, and try to recollect your impressions of the kind of unrecognizable faces that are fleeting past you on both sides of the cross. You'll probably feel that these fleeting images are monstrous.

• The second time, verify calmly the look of the various portraits on the left and right of the cross. You'll be astonished to discover that they weren't really monsters at all…

Matthew's diabolical secret? The eyes have it. From one portrait to the next, the eyes remain exactly in the same position on your computer screen. And this is what gives the impression that the faces are being expanded, distended, stretched, compressed and distorted grotesquely around those lovely fixed eyes.

In real life, I have no reasons to believe that Matthew's not a nice guy. But I can't help imagining him as a distorted monster in a Queensland police uniform on a motor bike. In a nightmare, I see the Fullbright scholar pulling me over to the edge of a Gold Coast highway and informing me that I don't look like a normal law-abiding citizen.

EMPTY AFTERTHOUGHT: Jeez, it would be fucking lovely if Australian scholarship, particularly in a domain such as psychology, could move away forever from prisons and police, and our historical heritage as an end-of-the-boat-ride dump for the poor bastards who prevented English aristocracy from living perpetually in a land of fairytale princes and princesses. In the 18th and 19th centuries, long before the psychologist Matthew, vicious Poms had already invented the vision of ordinary folk as monsters.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Google gag

On April 1, I was looking so eagerly for gags of all unexpected kinds (including those that turned out to be perfectly serious stuff) that I misinterpreted lots of things while failing to see the great Google gag, pointed out to me by my Romanian friend Corina.

The Google gag invokes a fabulous woman who's a specialist in motion of all kinds. Click on her image to see the Google gag.

Is Motion Woman a colleague of Corina ? Maybe I shouldn't imagine such things. I'm unskilled in advanced Parisian notions of psychology. It happens that we Google admirers stop and wonder. What I mean to say is that, somewhere between Corina, Google, me, Motion Woman, Lacan, and all the other stuff... maybe Google's alleged gag should be taken seriously. Maybe it's a bit like believing in God.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Talking about invisible things

Nowadays, my children Emmanuelle and François do a lot of traveling, often for professional reasons. I think back with nostalgia to the days in 1978 when I suggested that they might accompany me on an excursion to England and Scotland when I was working on my future tourist guide. One of the highlights of our trip was a car journey alongside Loch Ness. Naturally, the children quizzed me at length for precise information concerning the monster. My 9-year-old son digested all these explanations in silence, obviously trying to form his own personal analysis of the affair. When his words emerged, they were a splendid summary of subtle psychology, bordering on existentialist philosophy.

FRANCOIS: "Papa, suppose the monster exists, hidden in the depths of Loch Ness. Do you think he worries a lot about whether or not we tourists exist?"

WILLIAM: "No, I don't suppose so."

FRANCOIS: "Well, if the monster isn't worrying a lot about whether or not we tourists exist, then why should all of us be wasting our time talking about whether or not the monster exists?"

I seem to recall that this line of thought corresponds to an argument in one of the appendices of the wonderful novel by Rebecca Goldstein, which I described recently in an article entitled God travels incognito [display]. In blunt negative terms: If God doesn't give a damn about us, then why care about Him? My son's question reminds me, above all, of the ad on the atheist bus:

Normally, we humans are on firm grounds when we talk about "things" that we can actually see, like our homes and our neighborhoods, our families and friends, etc. Past memories (like the story I've just told) are almost in that visible category, because we're absolutely convinced that we did in fact see the people and places we describe, once upon a time. On the other hand, there's a big category of "things" that we talk about regularly, without ever having seen them… like the Loch Ness monster. The "things" I'm thinking of are… thoughts in the minds of other people. This is an intriguing branch of contemporary psychology designated by an unusual but nevertheless precise expression: the theory of mind. Here's a tiny video masterpiece that sums up this subject very nicely:

Robert Seyfarth has done a wonderful didactic job in presenting these sophisticated notions so tersely. Recently, by chance, I've noticed quite a few references to this kind of intellectual inquiry, which seems to be currently fashionable. Somebody pointed out that, in the narrations of an "ordinary" novelist such as Jane Austen (it goes without saying that she's in no way "ordinary"), the convoluted descriptions of what is said to be going on in the minds of her characters are extraordinarily complex. Indeed, on the reader's part, it takes a high degree of intelligence and concentration to be able to keep track of what's happening.

In French, a delightful little expression designates all this invisible stuff that is so vital in human relationships. It's referred to as the non-dit: the things that are "not said". Maybe the title of this article should be Talking (and NOT talking) about invisible things.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Loose language

I've already evoked the brilliant books of the Canadian-American psychologist Steven Pinker. He's best tackled, I believe, by The Language Instinct (1994), which explains simply—as its title suggests—that we humans have an instinctive relationship (as if anybody ever doubted it) with the gift of the gab.

From a Pinkerian point of view, my blog title, Loose language, is abominable, since human language is a constantly-evolving process that should never be described as "loose". Lame, lost or lousy, maybe... but never loose, since it remains a mysterious archaic art that experienced human practitioners are constantly perfecting.

This afternoon, I was momentarily surprised to see an exhortation on the cover of a popular French science magazine: Mangez sain. Translated literally into English, that reads: Eat healthy. In grammatical terms, the adjective "healthy" has been placed into a slot that normally receives an adverb such as "healthily". Now, is this a problem that should upset me? No, not at all.

I was vaccinated by the publicity of my favorite computer company:

Apple wasn't suggesting that we should think differently in the same way that you might ask somebody to reply rapidly, to talk calmly or to argue intelligently. The "think different" exhortation simply urged viewers to adjust their thinking to a different context: that of Apple products. That's to say, it was shorthand for: Do your thinking in a different context. So, no major grammatical crime was committed.

The most striking Pinker book, to my mind, is How the Mind Works, which is guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of old-fashioned adepts of Freud. Pinker adopts a totally "mechanistic" explanation of the human mind... where my adjective in inverted commas designates everything that has been happening in computer science and brain research over the last half-century. In a nutshell, everybody knows by now that humans are magnificent machines, neither more nor less. So, why carry on talking as if there were mysterious ghosts in the machines?

As for Freud, he has been thrown out wordlessly and unceremoniously with the slops. Maybe it would have been nicer, more polite, if Pinker had pronounced a wordy eulogy concerning this well-minded Viennese quack doctor who fascinated the Western intellectual world for a century or so... and still does. History has its charms. But time wasted in talking about what we now know to be obsolete nonsense would be better devoted to catching up with the fabulous realities of contemporary science.