what is freedom

What is Freedom? (14): Do We Have Free Will?

free will

The evidence seems to say “no, there is no free will”. The notion of free will has been the object of criticism and even ridicule for as long as it exists, but it has recently become the target of a truly continuous and seeming devastating scientific onslaught. Study after study argues that we really don’t want what we do or do what we want, that we have no choice in a lot of things we do, and that we don’t decide to act the way we act and can’t act otherwise even if we want to. Here’s a short summary of the evidence:

  • Priming. People in advertising have long known that exposure to certain images – perhaps even subliminally – can change behavior. Studies have shown that American voters exposed to the American flag are increasingly supportive of the Republican Party, even if they identify as Democrats, and even if the exposure is fleeting. And it’s not just images. If a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that he or she will answer table is greater than if they are not primed (source). If it’s this easy for other people to decide how we act, then we can assume that we often act in ways that they decide.
  • Stereotype threat. When the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task. Again, this makes it easy for others to change how we act.
  • free willAnchoring. In one study, German judges first read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, then rolled a pair of dice that were loaded so every roll resulted in either a 3 or a 9.  As soon as the dice came to a stop, the judges were asked whether they would sentence the woman to a term in prison greater or lesser, in months, than the number showing on the dice.  Finally, the judges were instructed to specify the exact prison sentence they would give to the shoplifter.  On average, those who had rolled a 9 said they would sentence her to 8 months; those who rolled a 3 said they would sentence here to 5 months. Yet another example of how we often act not because we freely want (or “willed”) our actions but because of external pressure and manipulation.
  • Learned helplessness. Rather than try their best to escape oppression, subjugation and other predicaments, people often give up and accept their situation. A failure of the will, but a failure determined by outside forces.
  • Adaptive preferences. We settle for second best and call it the best, not because that is our free choice but because the thing that we really believe is best is out of reach. Free will? Meh.
  • Peer effects. Group membership and the presence of role models determine what is the “natural” way to act.
  • Justificational reasoning. When we defend our so-called free and freely willed actions, we tend to do so after the fact and with special attention to the good or bad reasons justifying our actions, at the expense of reasons justifying other kinds of actions. This suggests that we didn’t weigh all the reasons for all possible actions beforehand, and that our actions are therefore not actions we chose to want on the basis of good reasons. Perhaps then our actions are caused by something else, such as habit, conformism, reflexes, tradition etc. Free will is incompatible with those causes.
  • Poverty of willpower. Power of the will seems to be a finite resource that can be depleted. No willpower means no free will.
  • And then there are Benjamin Libet’s infamous studies showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before people are consciously aware of their desires.

I could go on, but this will do. Of course, none of this proves that there is no free will. At most, it makes us realize that free will is severely constrained: if it exists at all, it’s only a partial and intermittent faculty, present in unequal degrees in different people at different times in their lives.

And yet, despite all this evidence, we continue to act as if all people, , with the exception of minors and the mentally handicapped; have free will all of the time. We constantly blame people, we punish and praise them, and we say that they deserve what they get. If I – being a mentally healthy adult (at least according to some) – were to hit the person sitting next to me now, I would be castigated because everyone agrees that I could have acted otherwise. I probably could have, but perhaps I couldn’t. Who’s to tell? Perhaps a little less blame and praise could be one good outcome of psychological research. But I’m not holding my breath. We can follow this advice, or we can all act otherwise, unfortunately.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of human rights violations, human rights violations

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (52): Not Enough Bias

Mr Spock illogical

“Your illogical approach to chess does have its advantages on occasion, Captain”

If I count correctly, I have blogged about at least 12 ways in which our psychological or mental biases can lead us to violate other people’s rights:

  1. spurious reasoning justifying our actions to ourselves post hoc
  2. the role distance plays in our regard for fellow human beings
  3. the notion that what comes first is also best
  4. a preference for the status quo
  5. the anchoring effect
  6. last place aversion
  7. learned helplessness
  8. the just world fallacy
  9. adaptive preferences
  10. the bystander effect
  11. inattentional blindness, and
  12. stereotype threat

So it may come as a surprise that rationality – in the sense of the absence of biases that distort our proper thinking – can also cause rights violations. But when you think about it, it’s just plain obvious: whatever the irrational basis of Nazi anti-Semitism, the Holocaust was an example of rational planning; many people argue that Hiroshima and Nagasaki made perfect military sense; and others say the same about torture in the ticking bomb scenario.

However, the point is not just that rationality can be harmful, but that biases can be helpful. For example:

Take crime. The rational person weighs the benefit of mugging someone – the financial reward and the buzz of the violence netted off against the feeling of guilt afterwards – against the cost; the probability of being caught multiplied by the punishment.

But we don’t really want people to think so rationally because it would lead them to actually mug someone occasionally. It would be better if they had the heuristic “don’t mug people.” Such a heuristic is, however, irrational in the narrow economistic sense, as it would cause people to reject occasionally profitable actions. (source)

Given the low probability of getting caught for any crime, we would encourage crime if we would favor rationality over bias. If, on the other hand we could adopt a bias that people like us are highly likely to get caught (or, for that matter, another bias, such as the one that rich people deserve their wealth), then crime would go down.

All this is related to the question of whether false beliefs are useful for human rights.

More posts in this series are here.

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democracy, what is democracy?

What is Democracy? (66): A Sports-Based Selection Process For Politicians

football game

I’ve already documented several ways in which democracy tends to malfunction. Democracy seems to be a system for

Here’s another one:

It is statistically possible that the outcome of a handful of college football games in the right battleground states could determine the race for the White House.

Economists Andrew Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Mo make this argument in a fascinating article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They examined whether the outcomes of college football games on the eve of elections for presidents, senators, and governors affected the choices voters made. They found that a win by the local team, in the week before an election, raises the vote going to the incumbent by around 1.5 percentage points. When it comes to the 20 highest attendance teams—big athletic programs like the University of Michigan, Oklahoma, and Southern Cal—a victory on the eve of an election pushes the vote for the incumbent up by 3 percentage points. That’s a lot of votes, certainly more than the margin of victory in a tight race. (source)

Compared to some of the previously cited distortions of the democratic process, this one is particularly disturbing. You could still argue that the way politicians look or sound has at least some relevance to the political process, even though it shouldn’t determine elections. You could also argue, even if it means stretching your neurons to breaking point, that a long spell of bad weather has an adverse effect on the economy, that politicians should take countermeasures, and that they should be punished if they don’t. If you’re feeling very generous, you could even say that the order effect is a general human bias and that we shouldn’t single out democracy for condemnation when we see this effect appearing in elections.

However, there seems to be no possible excuse for voting in favor of incumbents simply because your local football team scores a win. OK, I can understand that the exhilaration makes you feel good about everything, including perhaps the performance of the incumbents and the status quo in general, but that means we should see the same distortions when people vote after having had sex or after having eaten a chocolate bar. And those latter distortions may have an even greater impact on elections, given the fact that eating chocolate and having sex is more common than watching football. Given the large number of possible distortions like these, I simply can’t convince myself that they really do occur.

Bonus malfunction:

In the summer of 1916 … a dramatic weeklong series of shark attacks along New Jersey beaches left four people dead. Tourists fled, leaving some resorts with 75 percent vacancy rates in the midst of their high season. Letters poured into congressional offices demanding federal action; but what action would be effective in such circumstances? Voters probably didn’t know, but neither did they care. When President Woodrow Wilson—a former governor of New Jersey with strong local ties—ran for reelection a few months later, he was punished at the polls, losing as much as 10 percent of his expected vote in towns where shark attacks had occurred. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

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democracy, what is democracy?

What is Democracy? (65): A Political Decision Procedure Distorted by the Order Effect

ballot

ballot

(source)

People’s choices are often sensitive to differences in the order in which the options appear. This is one among many psychological biases we all suffer from to some extent. For example,

In the Eurovision song contest, for example, the first or later performers have more chance of winning than those appearing in the middle of the show. (source)

Unsurprisingly, democracy is not immune from this bias. Here’s some evidence from the Irish democracy showing that the order of candidates on ballots affects election outcomes:

The estimated effect of being listed first on an alphabetical ballot paper in an Irish general election is approximately 544 first preference votes or 1.27 percentage points for the average candidate. (source)

In California,

being listed first benefits everyone. Major party candidates generally gain one to three percentage points, while minor party candidates may double their vote shares. (source)

And it’s not just candidates’ surnames or positions on ballots that affect democratic selection procedures. The tone of their voice, their looks and a ton of other biases also play a role. And yet I still believe in the value of democracy.

Needless to say that the order effect – or “ordering effect”, or “serial position effect” – isn’t limited to politics. Next time you walk into a shop and ask for advice, you can bet that the sales person will present you the most expensive item first, because having seen this one first, all the others will look like a bargain and will influence your decision to buy.

More on the order effect here. More posts in this series are here.

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human rights promotion, human rights violations, law, philosophy

Human Rights Promotion (11): Intentionality Bias Causing the Surge in Human Rights Talk

Laurel and Hardy accident

First, there has indeed been a surge in human rights talk over the past decades and even centuries (see here for some evidence). This is particularly obvious for the period since the end of WWII. Human rights have become the lingua franca among the oppressed, the persecuted and the bleeding hearts worldwide, effectively replacing language based on benevolence, honor etc. (No insult intended, I’m a bleeding heart myself). There’s something about the notion of a human right that captures the strength of demands for freedom and equality like nothing else. It makes a claim sound very strong and difficult to ignore.

Other reasons for the popularity of human rights – or better the fascination with human rights – are their clarity and simplicity, their obvious universality and the fact that they cover most if not all areas of human suffering, depravity and failing, including persecution, violence, lack of freedom, discrimination, poverty, work and the family.

A further, and as yet unexplored reason is the so-called intentionality bias. The intentionality bias is a psychological bias where actions are viewed as intentional even when they’re not.

Three studies tested the idea that our analyses of human behavior are guided by an ‘‘intentionality bias,” an implicit bias where all actions are judged to be intentional by default. In Study 1 participants read a series of sentences describing actions that can be done either on purpose or by accident (e.g., ‘‘He set the house on fire”) and had to decide which interpretation best characterized the action. To tap people’s initial interpretation, half the participants made their judgments under speeded conditions; this group judged significantly more sentences to be intentional. Study 2 found that when asked for spontaneous descriptions of the ambiguous actions used in Study 1 (and thus not explicitly reminded of the accidental interpretation), participants provided significantly more intentional interpretations, even with prototypically accidental actions (e.g., ‘‘She broke the vase”). Study 3 examined whether more processing is involved in deciding that something is unintentional (and thus overriding an initial intentional interpretation) than in deciding that something is unpleasant (where there is presumably no initial ‘‘pleasant” interpretation). Participants were asked to judge a series of 12 sentences on one of two dimensions: intentional/unintentional (experimental group) or pleasant/unpleasant (control group). People in the experimental group remembered more unintentional sentences than people in the control group. Findings across the three studies suggest that adults have an implicit bias to infer intention in all behavior. This research has important implications both in terms of theory (e.g., dual-process model for intentional reasoning), and practice (e.g., treating aggression, legal judgments). (source)

Laurel and Hardy accident2If there is indeed a tendency to view actions as intentional, then there will also be a tendency to frame problems in terms of human rights. For example, if the intentional actions of an oppressive majority assisted by prejudiced legislators and law enforcers are believed to be the main cause of discrimination of a racial minority, then holding those intentional actors legally and judicially responsible for rights violations makes sense and may be effective. When, on the other hand, a lot of this discrimination is in fact the result of unconscious bias, or when it is statistical discrimination rather than taste-based discrimination, then judicial action based on human rights is much less effective.

And it’s my opinion that a lot of human rights violations are unintentional, unconscious and statistical. That doesn’t mean we should stop framing the underlying problems in human rights terms, but it does mean that our efforts to do something about them should be non-legal and non-judicial. Story telling, making people aware of their unconscious biases against certain groups of people, incentivizing people and other strategies can then be more successful in stopping rights violations.

The intentionality bias can be understood as an example of the fundamental attribution error: the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. A simple example, if Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (dispositional). If Alice later tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).

More on human rights and intentionality is here, here and here. More on biases is here.

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equality, racism

Racism (29): A Natural or An Acquired Vice?

fMRI scan of the Amygdala

fMRI scan of the Amygdala

(source)

We now have strong evidence that human evolution has produced natural tendencies to favor members of the same group and to distrust and disadvantage outsiders. Insider-outsiders distinctions seem to be innate. This is the consequence of the substantial benefits of group solidarity in early human evolution, and we still live with it today.

Psychologist Catherine Cottrell at the University of Florida and her colleague Steven Neuberg at Arizona State University, argue that human prejudice evolved as a function of group living. Joining together in groups allowed humans to gain access to resources necessary for survival including food, water, and shelter. Groups also offered numerous advantages, such as making it easier to find a mate, care for children, and receive protection from others. However, group living also made us more wary of outsiders who could potentially harm the group by spreading disease, killing or hurting individuals, or stealing precious resources. To protect ourselves, we developed ways of identifying who belongs to our group and who doesn’t. Over time, this process of quickly evaluating others might have become so streamlined that it became unconscious. (source)

So, to some extent, our brains are wired for bias. Even the most liberal among us show some level of implicit bias when tested for it. All we can do is try to be aware of our prejudices as much as possible, and then correct for them.

Some want to extrapolate from these relatively uncontroversial findings and argue that racism as well is innate, even though racism is a relatively recent phenomenon unknown to early humans who almost never met members of other races.

Those who argue that racism is a natural tendency can appeal to certain findings to back up their claims. Studies have found that when whites see black faces there is increased activity in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, with the detection of threats (source).

The problem with this sort of argument is that a biological fact doesn’t have to be innate. In fact, in this case, it has been shown that the detected brain reaction – a biological fact – does not occur in young people:

In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14. What’s more: once it kicks in, it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that ”these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.” (source)

In a sense, this is good news, because it means that people can be taught not to be racist, even if we can’t be taught to be completely unprejudiced.

More on race as a social construction is here. More posts in this series are here.

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equality, racism

Racism (28): Shooter Bias

armed black suspect

(source unknown)

When called to the scene of an on-going crime, police officers often have to make split-second decisions whether to shoot or not. There’s chaos, darkness, running, shouting, shooting perhaps, and no time to determine who’s who and who’s likely to do what. Training can help, but in most cases officers just rely on instincts. In other words, these are the ideal situations for the revelation of personal biases.

Because of the nature of those situations, officers sometimes make mistakes and shoot innocent persons or unarmed suspects. Now, somewhat unsurprisingly there’s research telling us that it’s more likely for white people to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects. This bias is called the shooter bias, and it’s not the monopoly of police officers (as lab tests with ordinary citizens have confirmed). (More here).

It seems that a lot of people have internalized the stereotype about dangerous black men, even those who would not think of themselves as having done so.

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (68): Rich People Not Giving Enough Money to Poor People

An illustration of Andrew Carnegie, originally published on July 25, 1903

An illustration of Andrew Carnegie, originally published on July 25, 1903

(source)

You can criticize trade policy, immigration restrictions, bad governance or any other commonly cited cause of poverty, but you shouldn’t forget the obvious: there are a lot of wealthy people in the world who could, without losing much wellbeing (due to the diminishing marginal utility of money), help to lift every single poor person in the world to a much higher level of wellbeing.

The fact is that they could but don’t. We do have progressive taxation systems and other means of redistribution, we have development aid, we have charity etc., but none of these things yields enough money to lift everyone out of poverty. And there’s not enough public support to strengthen these redistribution mechanisms. Development aid is already unpopular at current levels, and don’t even start to talk about tax increases. The tireless efforts of Peter Singer and company to promote giving also have only a small effect.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer

The insufficiency of giving and other means of redistribution is hard to understand, in particular given the fact that rich people are generally not very dumb and able to understand the law of diminishing marginal utility. Of course, I know about loss aversion, the endowment effect, habit formation, the importance of status etc. But again, wealthy people should in general be the ones best able to overcome biases, to distinguish the important things in life from the unimportant, and to see how helping others can be beneficial to ourselves, both psychologically and socially (helping makes you feel good, and living a good life amid misery is socially untenable). But perhaps I’m wrong about rich people.

And then there’s something else stopping us from giving more (or allowing ourselves to be taxed more, which is roughly the same thing), namely the stories we tell ourselves. For example, you often hear that it’s better to allow people to look after themselves first, so that they can create the conditions in which they unintentionally help. Allowing entrepreneurs to get rich – i.e. not taxing them too heavily and not insisting that they should give their money away rather than invest it – will be much more beneficial to the poor. Many of the poor will get a job thanks to them, and their products and services will also make the lives of many a lot better.

However, this is not incompatible with giving. True, what you give you can’t invest, but we can allow people to delay their giving until the day that they don’t need to invest a lot more. The example of Bill Gates comes to mind. So we can accept that there is some truth to the story that free enterprise takes care of a lot of poverty, and at the same time insist that there should be more giving.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates

Another story we tell ourselves goes like this: giving people money isn’t a very good way of helping poor people. Many of them will just waste it, middle men will confiscate it, third world governments will misuse it, people will become to depend on it etc. Well, that doesn’t seem to be completely correct. Experiments with conditional cash transfers are very promising. And even if it’s correct to some extent, that’s just an argument to be smarter when giving money: invest it in businesses, healthcare etc.

And finally, there’s the story about agency: helping people is disrespecting them as self-authors and self-governing moral creatures. You may make them materially better off – at least in the short run because dependence on help may create motivational problems in the long run – but you take away their dignity and make them psychologically and morally worse off. People may not want to be helped, and even if they do it may not be in their best long term interest. The problem with this story is not that it’s false as such; it’s that people may not have a long term if we fail to help, and that starvation or homelessness is also an affront to dignity, and surely one that is a lot worse than receiving help.

More about giving is here. More posts in this series are here.

(image source, image source)
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causes of human rights violations, human rights violations, law

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (42): First is Best

prison photo

Psychological tests have shown that the first experience in a series of two or more is cognitively privileged. The order in which people experience things affects how they evaluate them: they tend to think the first option is the best.

Here’s an experiment showing how people decide that a criminal presented first is more worthy of parole:

Two criminals’ photographs, from the Florida Department of Corrections website … were used. Photos depicted 29 year-old males known to have committed the same violent crimes. Criminals were wearing identical correctional facility outfits; photos were pre-tested to be equally attractive and both expressing neutral facial expressions. …

Thirty-one participants … were asked to evaluate [the] two criminals and to determine who should “stay in jail” versus “be released on parole.” … [P]articipants automatically associated the first criminal with being more worthy of parole (rather than prison) compared to the second criminal. Regardless of which photo was presented first, it was the one presented first who was judged to be more worthy of parole. (source)

This is a form of order effect: people’s choices are often sensitive to differences in the order in which the options appear. (“First is best” is only one form of order effect; in some other cases, order effects show that the last options are privileged). As is clear from the example above, order effects can have consequences for human rights: if people are given parole on the basis of the psychological biases of those who decide rather than on the merits of the case, then equality before the law is done with.

It wouldn’t be very difficult to imagine and test other cases.

More posts in this series are here.

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lies and statistics, statistics

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (39): Availability Bias

availability bias on newspaper frontpage

example of availability bias on a newspaper’s frontpage

(source)

This is actually only about one type of availability bias: if a certain percentage of your friends are computer programmers or have red hair, you may conclude that the same percentage of a total population are computer programmers or have red hair. You’re not working with a random and representative sample – perhaps you like computer programmers or you are attracted to people with red hair – so you make do with the sample that you have, the one that is immediately available, and you extrapolate on the basis of that.

Most of the time you’re wrong to do so – as in the examples above. In some cases, however, it may be a useful shortcut that allows you to avoid the hard work of establishing a random and representative sample and gathering information from it. If you use a sample that’s not strictly random but also not biased by your own strong preferences such as friendship or attraction, it may give reasonably adequate information on the total population. If you have a reasonably large number of friends and if you couldn’t care less about their hair color, then it may be OK to use your friends as a proxy of a random sample and extrapolate the rates of each hair color to the total population.

The problem is the following: because the use of available samples is sometimes OK, we are perhaps fooled into thinking that they are OK even when they’re not. And then we come up with arguments like:

  • Smoking can’t be all that bad. I know a lot of smokers who have lived long and healthy lives.
  • It’s better to avoid groups of young black men at night, because I know a number of people who have been attacked by young black men (and I’ll forget that I’ll hardly ever hear of people not having been attacked).
  • Cats must have a special ability to fall from great heights and survive, because I’ve seen a lot of press reports about such events (and I forget that I’ll rarely read a report about a cat falling and dying).
  • Violent criminals should be locked up for life because I’m always reading newspaper articles about re-offenders (again, very unlikely that I’ll read anything about non-re-offenders).

As is clear from some of the examples above, availability bias can sometimes have consequences for human rights: it can foster racial bias, it can lead to “tough on crime” policies, etc.

More posts in this series are here.

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