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? (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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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (71): Poverty of Willpower and of Self-Control, Revisited

marshmallow test

(source)

Almost as old as the problem of poverty itself is the story that poverty is caused by insufficient self-control and willpower. Never mind that things may just as well be the other way around: poverty drains the will. And never mind that the most famous study cited by proponents of the willpower story is apparently misleading:

For the past four decades, the “marshmallow test” has served as a classic experimental measure of children’s self-control: will a preschooler eat one of the fluffy white confections now or hold out for two later? … The research … began at Stanford University in the late 1960s. Walter Mischel and other researchers famously showed that individual differences in the ability to delay gratification on this simple task correlated strongly with success in later life. Longer wait times as a child were linked years later to higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, and parental reports of better social skills.

Because of the surprising correlation, the landmark marshmallow studies have been cited as evidence that qualities like self-control or emotional intelligence in general may be more important to navigating life successfully than more traditional measures of intelligence, such as IQ.

The Rochester team wanted to explore more closely why some preschoolers are able to resist the marshmallow while others succumb to licking, nibbling, and eventually swallowing the sugary treat. The researchers assigned 28 three- to five-year-olds to two contrasting environments: unreliable and reliable. The study results were so strong that a larger sample group was not required…

Children who experienced unreliable interactions with an experimenter waited for a mean time of three minutes and two seconds on the subsequent marshmallow task, while youngsters who experienced reliable interactions held out for 12 minutes and two seconds. Only one of the 14 children in the unreliable group waited the full 15 minutes, compared to nine children in the reliable condition.

“I was astounded that the effect was so large,” says Aslin. ” … You don’t see effects like this very often.” …

The findings, says Kidd, are reassuring. She recalls reading about the predictive power of these earlier experiments years ago and finding it “depressing.” At the time she was volunteering at a homeless shelter for families in Santa Ana, California. “There were lots of kids staying there with their families. Everyone shared one big area, so keeping personal possessions safe was difficult,” she says. “When one child got a toy or treat, there was a real risk of a bigger, faster kid taking it away. I read about these studies and I thought, ‘All of these kids would eat the marshmallow right away.’ “

But as she observed the children week after week, she began to question the task as a marker of innate ability alone. “If you are used to getting things taken away from you, not waiting is the rational choice. Then it occurred to me that the marshmallow task might be correlated with something else that the child already knows—like having a stable environment.” (source, source)

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of human rights violations

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (46): Justificational Reasoning

swimsuit special

(source)

People act in all sorts of dubious ways, but they often justify their behavior after the event using imaginary motives or reasons, and then they come to believe those motives and reasons themselves. It’s a kind of cognitive failure and self-deception which, when it occurs in the field of human rights, makes it hard to do something about rights violations. If people can’t even admit to themselves what the real reasons are for their bad behavior – rights violations in this case – then it becomes very difficult – for others and for themselves – to do something about those reasons and to prevent future occurrences of the behavior.

As long as we – and, as a result, others as well - believe that we were motivated by ethical justifications which we in fact constructed and invented after the facts rather than by the often more suspicious justifications that really drove our actions, then we have less reasons to avoid those actions in the future. True, well-intentioned rights violations do exist and good intentions don’t make remedies more difficult – often it’s enough that we become aware of the possible dangers of good intentions. But when bad intentions masquerade as good ones, even to the person having the intentions, then things become more difficult. It’s always good to know the exact and true causes of something if you want to avoid it in the future. When people really know what motivates them but choose to present themselves in another way – perhaps because of shame -we can still try to pierce their cover. But when people fool even themselves, then there’s very little we can do. And it seems that people are indeed frequently unaware of the real causes of their own behavior.

An innocent example of justificational reasoning to begin with:

[M]ale students [were asked] to choose between two specially created sports magazines. One had more articles, but the other featured more sports. When a participant was asked to rate a magazine, one of two magazines happened to be a special swimsuit issue, featuring beautiful women in bikinis.

When the swimsuit issue was the magazine with more articles, the guys said they valued having more articles to read and chose that one. When the bikini babes appeared in the publication with more sports, they said wider coverage was more important and chose that issue. (source, source)

A more harmful case from another experiment:

Managers … have been found to favour male applicants at hypothetical job interviews by claiming that they were searching for a candidate with either greater education or greater experience, depending on the attribute with which the man could trump the woman. (source)

And it’s not easy to imagine the same thing going on in even more harmful actions.

There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance behind justificational reasoning: we want others to think that were are good people and we want to think of ourselves this way. When the facts contradict this belief, we change the facts.

Other posts in this series are here.

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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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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (67): Lack of Hope

Despair Nr.2 by Kenneth-Edward Swinscoe

Despair Nr.2 by Kenneth-Edward Swinscoe

(source)

Esther Duflo tells us about a program in West Bengal. People were given a “small productive asset” such as a farm animal for instance, and some money so as to prevent people from eating or selling the animal.

Well after the financial help and hand-holding had stopped, the families of those who had been randomly chosen for the … programme were eating 15% more, earning 20% more each month and skipping fewer meals than people in a comparison group. They were also saving a lot. The effects were so large and persistent that they could not be attributed to the direct effects of the grants: people could not have sold enough milk, eggs or meat to explain the income gains. Nor were they simply selling the assets (although some did). (source)

The most likely reason for this is hope. The handouts broke the cycle of pessimism and lack of hope. People were finally offered some mental space to think about something else than just mere survival. The tiny bit of security that came with a farm animal and a financial buffer opened up the possibility of planning, of looking into alternative livelihoods etc. For example, recipients worked 28% more hours, mostly on activities not directly related to the assets they were given. The rate of depression among participants also plummeted.

Some older and related posts:

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, health, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (63): Stress, Ctd.

stress

(source)

Poor people are often blamed for their own poverty. And indeed, it’s not difficult to find anecdotal evidence of poor people doing dumb and self-destructive things. However, even if we assume – and that’s a big if – that this evidence can be confirmed by more rigorous statistical analysis, then we’re still not allowed to claim that stupidity is in general – and not just in some cases – an important cause of poverty. First, it may very well be the case that everyone, rich and poor, is likely to make the same stupid mistakes but that the poor just have a smaller margin of error. The same stupid mistake made by a poor person costs him or her more dearly. Rich people on the other hand can afford to be stupid. Second, even if it’s true that the poor are on average somewhat more stupid and self-destructive, they should perhaps not be blamed for this. There’s some evidence from psychology that the pressure and stress of poverty reduces our cognitive abilities:

In a behavioral economics experiment several years ago, researchers asked shoppers at a New Jersey mall to handle the following decision: Have your faulty car repaired for either $150 or $1,500. While the participants were considering how to decide, they were given simple cognitive tasks like solving puzzles.

The researchers, Prof. Eldar Shafir and Jiaying Zhao, both from Princeton University, and Harvard University Prof. Sendhil Mullainathan, expected that the stress from contemplating the $1,500 expense would hurt performance. They were right. But participants with above-average incomes succeeded in their tasks under both scenarios, while those with average or low incomes did worse as repair costs climbed.

Even the prospect of spending any money at all damaged the ability of low-income earners to think rationally. (source)

Other tests measured IQ before and after a harvest, i.e. in uncertain times and in more comfortable times:

The farmers had better IQ results during the season of plenty. Before the harvest they had problems making fateful decisions, because of stress. (source)

The stress of poverty causes distractions, which in turn show up as cognitive deficiencies. It’s not cognitive deficiencies that cause poverty but the other way around. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the causality goes both ways.

More on poverty and behavior, on poverty and stress, on poverty and intelligence and on poverty and brain functions.

More posts in this series.

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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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