Proteus Effect and Mediated Experience

The Proteus effect is how our appearance on media results in mediating our experience, perception, and identity. It also shapes how we relate and how others relate to us. Most of this happens unconsciously.

There are many ways this might relate to other psychological phenomenon. And there are real world equivalents to this. Consider that how we dress influences how we act such as wearing a black uniform will increase aggressive behavior. Another powerful example is that children imagining themselves as a superhero while doing a task will exceed the ability they would otherwise have.

Most interesting is how the Proteus effect might begin to overlap with so much else as immersive media comes to dominate our lives. We already see the power of such influences by way of placebo effect, Pygmalion/Rosenthal effect, golem effect, stereotype threat, and much else. I’ve been particularly interested in the placebo effect as the efficacy of antidepressants for most people are no more statistically significant than that of a placebo, demonstrating how something can allow us to imagine ourselves into a different state of mind. Or consider how simply interacting with a doctor or someone acting like a doctor brings relief without any actual procedure having been involved.

Our imaginations are powerful, imagination of both of ourselves and others along with the imagination of others of ourselves. Tell a doctor or a teacher something about a patient or student, even if not true, and the individual will respond in such a way as if it is true with real world measurable effects. New media could have similar effects, even when we know it isn’t ‘real’ but merely virtual. Imagination doesn’t necessarily concern itself with the constraints of supposed rationality, as shown how people will viscerally react to a fake arm being cut after they’ve come to identify with that fake arm, despite their consciously knowing it is not actually their arm.

Our minds are highly plastic and our experience easily influenced. The implications are immense, from education to mental health, from advertising to propaganda. The Proteus effect could play a transformative role in the further development of the modern mind, either through potential greater self-control or greater social control.

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Virtual Worlds Are Real
by Nick Yee

Meet Virtual You: How Your VR Self Influences Your Real-Life Self
by Amy Cuddy

The Proteus Effect: How Our Avatar Changes Online Behavior
by John M. Grohol

Enhancing Our Lives with Immersive Virtual Reality
by Mel Slater & Maria V. Sanchez-Vives

Virtual Reality and Social Networks Will Be a Powerful Combination
by Jeremy N. Bailenson and Jim Blascovich

Promoting motivation with virtual agents and avatars
by Amy L. Baylor

Avatars and the Mirrorbox: Can Humans Hack Empathy?
by Danna Staaf

The Proteus effect: How gaming may revolutionise peacekeeping
by Gordon Hunt

Can virtual reality convince Americans to save for retirement?
by The Week Staff

When Reason Falters, It’s Age-Morphing Apps and Virtual Reality to the Rescue
by David Berreby

Give Someone a Virtual Avatar and They Adopt Stereotype Behavior
by Colin Schultz

Wii, Myself, and Size
by Li BJ, Lwin MO, & Jung Y

Would Being Forced to Use This ‘Obese’ Avatar Affect Your Physical Fitness?
by Esther Inglis-Arkell

The Proteus Effect and Self-Objectification via Avatars
by Big Think editors

The Proteus Effect in Dyadic Communication: Examining the Effect of Avatar Appearance in Computer-Mediated Dyadic Interaction
by Brandon Van Der Heide, Erin M. Schumaker, Ashley M. Peterson, & Elizabeth B. Jones


Verbal Behavior

There is a somewhat interesting discussion of the friendship between B.F. Skinner and W.V.O. Quine. The piece explores their shared interests and possible influences on one another. It’s not exactly an area of personal interest, but it got me thinking about Julian Jaynes.

Skinner is famous for his behaviorist research. When behaviorism is mentioned, what immediately comes to mind for most people is Pavlov’s dog. But behaviorism wasn’t limited to animals and simple responses to stimuli. Skinner developed his theory toward verbal behavior as well. As Michael Karson explains,

“Skinner called his behaviorism “radical,” (i.e., thorough or complete) because he rejected then-behaviorism’s lack of interest in private events. Just as Galileo insisted that the laws of physics would apply in the sky just as much as on the ground, Skinner insisted that the laws of psychology would apply just as much to the psychologist’s inner life as to the rat’s observable life.

“Consciousness has nothing to do with the so-called and now-solved philosophical problem of mind-body duality, or in current terms, how the physical brain can give rise to immaterial thought. The answer to this pseudo-problem is that even though thought seems to be immaterial, it is not. Thought is no more immaterial than sound, light, or odor. Even educated people used to believe, a long time ago, that these things were immaterial, but now we know that sound requires a material medium to transmit waves, light is made up of photons, and odor consists of molecules. Thus, hearing, seeing, and smelling are not immaterial activities, and there is nothing in so-called consciousness besides hearing, seeing, and smelling (and tasting and feeling). Once you learn how to see and hear things that are there, you can also see and hear things that are not there, just as you can kick a ball that is not there once you have learned to kick a ball that is there. Engaging in the behavior of seeing and hearing things that are not there is called imagination. Its survival value is obvious, since it allows trial and error learning in the safe space of imagination. There is nothing in so-called consciousness that is not some version of the five senses operating on their own. Once you have learned to hear words spoken in a way that makes sense, you can have thoughts; thinking is hearing yourself make language; it is verbal behavior and nothing more. It’s not private speech, as once was believed; thinking is private hearing.”

It’s amazing how much this is resonates with Jaynes’ bicameral theory. This maybe shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Jaynes was trained in behaviorism and early on did animal research. He was mentored by the behaviorist Frank A. Beach and was friends with Edward Boring who wrote a book about consciousness in relation to behaviorism. Reading about Skinner’s ideas about verbal behavior, I was reminded of Jaynes’ view of authorization as it relates to linguistic commands and how they become internalized to form an interiorized mind-space (i.e., Jaynesian consciousness).

I’m not the only person to think along these lines. On Reddit, someone wrote: “It is possible that before there were verbal communities that reinforced the basic verbal operants in full, people didn’t have complete “thinking” and really ran on operant auto-pilot since they didn’t have a full covert verbal repertoire and internal reinforcement/shaping process for verbal responses covert or overt, but this would be aeons before 2-3 kya. Wonder if Jaynes ever encountered Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior”…” Jaynes only references Skinner once in his book on bicameralism and consciousness. But he discusses behaviorism in general to some extent.

In the introduction, he describes behaviorism in this way: “From the outside, this revolt against consciousness seemed to storm the ancient citadels of human thought and set its arrogant banners up in one university after another. But having once been a part of its major school, I confess it was not really what it seemed. Off the printed page, behaviorism was only a refusal to talk about consciousness. Nobody really believed he was not conscious. And there was a very real hypocrisy abroad, as those interested in its problems were forcibly excluded from academic psychology, as text after text tried to smother the unwanted problem from student view. In essence, behaviorism was a method, not the theory that it tried to be. And as a method, it exorcised old ghosts. It gave psychology a thorough house cleaning. And now the closets have been swept out and the cupboards washed and aired, and we are ready to examine the problem again.” As dissatisfying as animal research was for Jaynes, it nonetheless set the stage for deeper questioning by way of a broader approach. It made possible new understanding.

Like Skinner, he wanted to take the next step, shifting from behavior to experience. Even their strategies to accomplish this appear to have been similar. Sensory experience itself becomes internalized, according to both of their theories. For Jaynes, perception of external space becomes the metaphorical model for a sense of internal space. When Karson says of Skinner’s view that “thinking is hearing yourself make language,” that seems close to Jaynes discussion of hearing voices as it develops into an ‘I’ and a ‘me’, the sense of identity split into subject and object which asserted was required for one to hear one’s own thoughts.

I don’t know Skinner’s thinking in detail or how it changed over time. He too pushed beyond the bounds of behavioral research. It’s not clear that Jaynes’ ever acknowledged this commonality. In his 1990 afterword to his book, Jaynes’ makes his one mention of Skinner without pointing out Skinner’s work on verbal behavior:

“This conclusion is incorrect. Self-awareness usually means the consciousness of our own persona over time, a sense of who we are, our hopes and fears, as we daydream about ourselves in relation to others. We do not see our conscious selves in mirrors, even though that image may become the emblem of the self in many cases. The chimpanzees in this experiment and the two-year old child learned a point-to-point relation between a mirror image and the body, wonderful as that is. Rubbing a spot noticed in the mirror is not essentially different from rubbing a spot noticed on the body without a mirror. The animal is not shown to be imagining himself anywhere else, or thinking of his life over time, or introspecting in any sense — all signs of a conscious life.

“This less interesting, more primitive interpretation was made even clearer by an ingenious experiment done in Skinner’s laboratory (Epstein, 1981). Essentially the same paradigm was followed with pigeons, except that it required a series of specific trainings with the mirror, whereas the chimpanzee or child in the earlier experiments was, of course, self-trained. But after about fifteen hours of such training when the contingencies were carefully controlled, it was found that a pigeon also could use a mirror to locate a blue spot on its body which it could not see directly, though it had never been explicitly trained to do so. I do not think that a pigeon because it can be so trained has a self-concept.”

Jaynes was making the simple, if oft overlooked, point that perception of body is not the same thing as consciousness of mind. A behavioral response to one’s own body isn’t fundamentally different than a behavioral response to anything else. Behavioral responses are found in every species. This isn’t helpful in exploring consciousness itself. Skinner too wanted to get beyond this level of basic behavioral research, so it seems. Interestingly, without any mention of Skinner, Jaynes does use the exact phrasing of Skinner in speaking about the unconscious learning of ‘verbal behavior’ (Book One, Chapter 1):

“Another simple experiment can demonstrate this. Ask someone to sit opposite you and to say words, as many words as he can think of, pausing two or three seconds after each of them for you to write them down. If after every plural noun (or adjective, or abstract word, or whatever you choose) you say “good” or “right” as you write it down, or simply “mmm-hmm” or smile, or repeat the plural word pleasantly, the frequency of plural nouns (or whatever) will increase significantly as he goes on saying words. The important thing here is that the subject is not aware that he is learning anything at all. [13] He is not conscious that he is trying to find a way to make you increase your encouraging remarks, or even of his solution to that problem. Every day, in all our conversations, we are constantly training and being trained by each other in this manner, and yet we are never conscious of it.”

This is just a passing comment in using one example among many, and he states that “Such unconscious learning is not confined to verbal behavior.” He doesn’t further explore language in this immediate section or repeat again the phrase ‘verbal behavior’ in any other section, although the notion of verbal behavior is central to the entire book. But a decade after the original publication date of his book, Jaynes wrote a paper where he does talk about Skinner’s ideas about language:

“One needs language for consciousness. We think consciousness is learned by children between two and a half and five or six years in what we can call the verbal surround, or the verbal community as B.F Skinner calls it. It is an aspect of learning to speak. Mental words are out there as part of the culture and part of the family. A child fits himself into these words and uses them even before he knows the meaning of them. A mother is constantly instilling the seeds of consciousness in a two- and three-year-old, telling the child to stop and think, asking him “What shall we do today?” or “Do you remember when we did such and such or were somewhere?” And all this while metaphor and analogy are hard at work. There are many different ways that different children come to this, but indeed I would say that children without some kind of language are not conscious.”
(Jaynes, J. 1986. “Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind.” Canadian Psychology, 27, 128– 148.)

I don’t have access to that paper. That quote comes from an article by John E. Limber: “Language and consciousness: Jaynes’s “Preposterous idea” reconsidered.” It is found in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness edited by Marcel Kuijsten (pp. 169-202).

Anyway, the point Jaynes makes is that language is required for consciousness as an inner sense of self because language is required to hear ourselves think. So verbal behavior is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the emergence of consciousness as we know it. As long as verbal behavior remains an external event, conscious experience won’t follow. Humans have to learn to hear themselves as they hear others, to split themselves into a speaker and a listener.

This relates to what makes possible the differentiation of hearing a voice being spoken by someone in the external world and hearing a voice as a memory of someone in one’s internal mind-space. Without this distinction, imagination isn’t possible for anything imagined would become a hallucination where internal and external hearing are conflated or rather never separated. Jaynes proposes this is why ancient texts regularly describe people as hearing voices of deities and deified kings, spirits and ancestors. The bicameral person, according to the theory, hears their own voice without being conscious that it is their own thought.

All of that emerges from those early studies of animal behavior. Behaviorism plays a key role simply in placing the emphasis on behavior. From there, one can come to the insight that consciousness is a neurocognitive behavior modeled on physical and verbal behavior. The self is a metaphor built on embodied experience in the world. This relates to many similar views, such as that humans learn a theory of mind within themselves by first developing a theory of mind in perceiving others. This goes along with attention schema and the attribution of consciousness. And some have pointed out what is called the double subject fallacy, a hidden form of dualism that infects neuroscience. However described, it gets at the same issue.

It all comes down our being both social animals and inhabitants of the world. Human development begins with a focus outward, culture and language determining what kind of identity forms. How we learn to behave is who we become.

Online Weirdness

The internet, especially social media, makes people weird. This includes: suspiciousness, rudeness, aggressiveness, unresponsiveness, misplaced common courtesy, absent social norms, lack of typical friendliness, bluntness, etc. I notice the differences in others, as well as in myself.

For instance, there is a fellow blogger I know. We mutually follow each other’s blogs. He recently shared his personal experience in his blog. He doesn’t usually write about personal experiences and so I thought this would be a good opportunity to get to know him better. I responded with some personal experience that was similar to his. I had interacted with this guy before and was trying to make a personal connection, to treat him like a normal person I might meet in normal life, but he gave me no response whatsoever. Just silence.

As another example, I was interacting with a guy I know on Facebook who lives in my community. He mentioned working at a library. As there are several libraries in town, I asked him about which library he works at (with an added “if you don’t mind my asking”). I got no response, not even saying that he’d rather not tell me, despite my having interacted with him online at least hundreds of times over many years, live in the same area as him, know some of the same people, and likely have met him in person at some point.

Ignoring people like that seems rude, or at least it would be in normal life. How can people apparently be so oblivious and unaware about their behavior? why don’t they think the same rules of conduct apply in all aspects of life? Why the division in relating, the dissociation of experience, or whatever it is?

It isn’t just strangers and casual acquaintances. I’ve had similar experiences with people I known personally for years and decades. Sometimes close friends won’t even acknowledge comments I make to their Facebook posts or posts I make to their page. Such silence wouldn’t be considered acceptable in a face-to-face encounter. Why is it acceptable online?

I always respond to people, even strangers, as long as I deem them worthy of a response. On my blog, if I deem someone unworthy of a response, I also deem them unworthy to have their comment to be approved for showing up in my blog. I treat my small corner of the internet as a semi-personal space and so I treat people I meet on the internet personally, which includes both positive and negative responses.

People I meet online are real to me in my experience, even if I’ve never met them in person. I’ve had internet friends who I’ve known and regularly conversed with for years. I know about their lives and their dreams, although I’ve never even heard the sound of their voices. I also treat people I know from my everyday life the same way online as I do offline. I don’t treat the two worlds as separate. It is all the same world, same common courtesy, same way of relating.

I do act differently online, in some ways. I’ll admit to that. I’m an introvert and, like many introverts, I find it more comfortable to be friendly online. I like meeting people online, but less so offline. I’m not a social person in the traditional sense, but I’m not exactly a private person either. I’ve always been a person to which applies, what you see is what you get. The internet hasn’t changed that, although the internet has given a vehicle for that philosophy to play out differently.

I also can be more aggressive online, at times. So, maybe I’m not in a position to judge others for acting out of character. That said, I tend to only act aggressively online to strangers, the type of people I’d never normally interact with at all. So, the internet merely opens me up to interactions that wouldn’t otherwise happen, but it doesn’t change the way I interact with people I already know; at least, I don’t think it does.

I’m not sure what is my point. Maybe people are always weird, but are better at hiding it in everyday life.

What Scientific Idea Is Ready For Retirement?

This is a question asked by They ask a different question each year and that is the question this year, 2014. Several of the responses fit into my recent thinking about human nature, race, genetics, intelligence, behavior, scientific methodology, etc..

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Biological Anthropologist and Paleobiologist; Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at The Pennsylvania State University

“Race has a hold on history, but it no longer has a place in science. The sheer instability and potential for misinterpretation render race useless as a scientific concept. Inventing new vocabularies of human diversity and inequity won’t be easy, but is necessary. ”

Senior Lecturer in Behavioural Biology School, University of Bristol
Life Evolves Via A Shared Genetic Toolkit

“A conserved genome can generate novelties through rearrangements (within or between genes), changes in regulation or genome duplication events. For example, the vertebrate genome has been replicated in their entirety twice in their evolutionary history; salmonid fish have undergone a further two whole genome duplications. Duplications reduce selection on the function of one of the gene copies, allowing that copy to mutate and evolve into a new gene whilst the other copy maintains business as usual. Conserved genomes can also harbour a lot of latent genetic variation—fodder for evolving novelty—which is not exposed to selection. Non-lethal variation can lie dormant in the genome by not being expressed, or by being expressed at times when it doesn’t have a lethal effect on the phenotype. The molecular machinery that regulates expression of genes and proteins depends on minimal information, rules and tools: transcription factors recognise sequences of only a few base-pairs as binding sites, which gives them enormous potential for plasticity in where they bind. Pleiotropic changes across many conserved genes using different combination of transcription, translation and/or post-translation activity are a good source of genomic novelty. E.g. the evolution of beak shapes in Darwin’s finches is controlled by pleiotropic changes brought about by changes in the signalling patterns of a conserved gene that controls bone development. The combinatorial power of even a limited genetic toolkit gives it enormous potential to evolve novelty from old machinery.”

Journalist; Author, Us and Them
People Are Sheep

“Perhaps the behavior of people in groups will eventually be explained as a combination of moment-to-moment influences (like waves on the sea) and powerful drivers that work outside of awareness (like deep ocean currents). All the open questions are important and fascinating. But they’re only visible after we give up the simplistic notion that we are sheep.”

founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute
Large Randomized Controlled Trials

“We need new, more thoughtful experimental designs and systems approaches that take into account these issues. Also, new genomic insights will make it possible to better understand individual variations to treatment rather than hoping that this variability will be “averaged out” by randomly-assigning patients.”

Psychiatrist; Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, NYU School of Medicine
Neuroscientist; Canada Research Chair in Philosophy & Psychiatry, McGill University
Mental Illness is Nothing But Brain Illness

“That a theory of mental illness should make reference to the world outside the brain is no more surprising than that the theory of cancer has to make reference to cigarette smoke. And yet what is commonplace in cancer research is radical in psychiatry. The time has come to expand the biological model of psychiatric disorder to include the context in which the brain functions. In understanding, preventing and treating mental illness, we will rightly continue to look into the neurons and DNA of the afflicted and unafflicted. To ignore the world around them would be not only bad medicine but bad science.”

Assistant Professor of Psychology, Stanford University
The Altruism Hierarchy

“It often appears to me that critics of “impure” altruism chide helpers for acting in human ways, for instance by doing things that feel good. The ideal, then, seems to entail acting altruistically while not enjoying those actions one bit. To me, this is no ideal at all. I think it’s profound and downright beautiful to think that our core emotional makeup can be tuned towards others, causing us to feel good when we do. Color me selfish, but I’d take that impure altruism over a de-enervated, floating ideal any day.”

Eugene Higgins Professor, Department of Psychology, Princeton University
Rational Actor Models: The Competence Corollary

“People are most effective in social life if we are—and show ourselves to be—both warm and competent. This is not to say that we always get it right, but the intent and the effort must be there. This is also not to say that love is enough, because we do have to prove capable to act on our worthy intentions. The warmth-competence combination supports both short-term cooperation and long-term loyalty. In the end, it’s time to recognize that people survive and thrive with both heart and mind.”

Scientist; Inventor; Entrepreneur
Intelligence As a Property

“Based on recent discoveries, I have now come to suspect that the reason for this lack of progress in physically defining intelligence is due to the entire scientific concept of treating intelligence as a static property—rather than a dynamical process—being ready for retirement.

Science Writer; Consultant; Lecturer, Copenhagen; Author, The Generous Man

“But then this concept is rooted in the notion that human beings (and animals) are really dominated by selfishness and egoism so that you need a concept to explain why they sometimes behave unselfish and kind to others.

“But the reality is different: Humans are deeply bound to other humans and most actions are really reciprocal and in the interest of both parties (or, in he case of hatred, in the disinterest of both). The starting point is neither selfishness nor altruism, but the state of being bound together. It is an illusion to believe that you can be happy when no one else is. Or that other people will not be affected by your unhappiness.

“Behavioral science and neurobiology has shown how intimately we are bound: Phenomena like mimicry, emotional contagion, empathy, sympathy, compassion and prosocial behavior are evident in humans and animals. We are influenced by the well-being of others in more ways than we normally care to think of. Therefore a simple rules applies: Everyone feels better when you are well. Your feel better when everyone is well.

“This correlated state is the real one. The ideas of egoism and hence its opposite concept altruism are second-order concepts, shadows or even illusions.”

Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in Developmental Psychology, University of British Columbia
Moral Blank State-ism

“Again, experience matters. Several studies have now documented that experience may influence moral outcomes via a “gene-environment interaction.” That is, rather than a simple equation in which, say, adverse experiences lead to antisocial children: [child + abuse – ameliorating experiences = violence], the relationship between abuse and antisocial behavior is only observed in children with particular versions of various genes known to regulate certain social hormones. That is, whether they have been abused or not, children with the “safe” gene alleles are all about equally (un)likely to engage in antisocial behavior. Children with the “at risk” alleles, on the other hand, are more susceptible to the damages of abuse.”

Associate Professor of Psychology, Director, NYU Infant Cognition and Communication Lab, New York University
Natural Selection is the Only Engine of Evolution

“These findings fit in a relatively new field of study called epigenetics. Epigenetic control of gene expression contributes to cells in a single organism (which share the same DNA sequence) developing differently into e.g. heart cells or neurons. But the last decade has shown actual evidence–and possible mechanisms–for how the environment and the organism’s behavior in it might cause heritable changes in gene expression (with no change in the DNA sequence) that are passed onto offspring. In recent years, we have seen evidence of epigenetic inheritance across a wide range of morphological, metabolic, and even behavioral traits.

“The intergenerational transmission of acquired traits is making a comeback as a potential mechanism of evolution. It also opens up the interesting possibility that better diet, exercise, and education which we thought couldn’t affect the next generation–except with luck through good example–actually could.”

Philosopher; Director, Scientific Vortex, Inc
Crime is Only About The Actions Of Individuals

“Despite the significant role of these “gray” actors, social scientists interested in analyzing crime usually focus their attention only on criminal individuals and criminal actions. Those scientists usually study crime through qualitative and quantitative data that informs only of those “dark” elements, while omitting the fact that transnational and domestic crime is carried out by various types of actors who don’t interact solely through criminal actions. This is a hyper-simplified approach—a caricature—because those “dark” elements are only the tip of the iceberg regarding global crime.

“This simplified approach also assumes that society is a digital and binary system in which the “good” and the “bad” guys—the “us” and “them”—are perfectly distinguishable. This distinction is useful in penal terms when simple algorithms—”if individual X executes the action Y, then X is criminal”—orient the decision of judges delivering final sentences. However, in sociological, anthropological, and psychological terms, this line is more difficult to define. If society is a digital system, it is certainly not a binary one.”

Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; Author, The Science of Evil
Radical Behaviorism

“My scientific reason for arguing for Radical Behaviorism should be retired is not to revisit the now stale nature-nurture debate (all reasonable scientists recognize an organism’s behavior is the result of an interaction of these), but rather because Radical Behaviorism is scientifically uninformative. Behavior by definition is the surface level, so it follows that the same piece of behavior could be the result of different underlying cognitive strategies, different underlying neural systems, and even different underlying causal pathways. Two individuals can show the same behavior but can have arrived at it through very different underlying causal routes. Think of a native speaker of English vs. someone who has acquired total fluency of English as a second language; or think of a person who is charmingly polite because they are genuinely considerate to others, vs. a psychopath who has learnt how to flawlessly perform being charmingly polite. Identical behavior, produced via different routes. Without reference to underlying cognition, neural activity, and causal mechanisms, behavior is scientifically uninformative.”

Information Scientist and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Law, the University of Southern California; Author, Noise
Statistical Independence

“The world is massively interconnected through causal chains. Gravity alone causally connects all objects with mass. The world is even more massively correlated with itself. It is a truism that statistical correlation does not imply causality. But it is a mathematical fact that statistical independence implies no correlation at all. None. Yet events routinely correlate with one another. The whole focus of most big-data algorithms is to uncover just such correlations in ever larger data sets.

“Statistical independence also underlies most modern statistical sampling techniques. It is often part of the very definition of a random sample. It underlies the old-school confidence intervals used in political polls and in some medical studies. It even underlies the distribution-free bootstraps or simulated data sets that increasingly replace those old-school techniques.”

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy & Cognitive Science, Rutgers University
“Our” Intuitions

“About a decade ago, this question led a group of philosophers, along with sympathetic colleagues in psychology and anthropology, to stop assuming that their intuitions were widely shared and design studies to see if they really are. In study after study, it turned out that philosophical intuitions do indeed vary with culture and other demographic variables. A great deal more work will be needed before we have definitive answers about which philosophical intuitions vary, and which, if any, are universal.”

Physicist, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“You probably already knew that naïve reductionism is often too simplistic. However, there is another point. It’s not just that you are composite, something you already knew, but you are in some senses not even human. You have perhaps a hundred trillion bacterial cells in your body, numbering ten times more than your human cells, and containing a hundred times as many genes as your human cells. These bacteria are not just passive occupants of the zoo that is you. They self-organize into communities within your mouth, guts and elsewhere; and these communities—microbiomes—are maintained by varied, dynamic patterns of competition and cooperation between the different bacteria, which allow us to live.

“In the last few years, genomics has given us a tool to explore the microbiome by identifying microbes by their DNA sequences. The story that is emerging from these studies is not yet complete but already has led to fascinating insights. Thanks to its microbes, a baby can better digest its mother’s milk. And your ability to digest carbohydrates relies to a significant extent on enzymes that can only be made from genes not present in you, but in your microbiome. Your microbiome can be disrupted, for example due to treatment by antibiotics, and in extreme cases can be invaded by dangerous monocultures, such as Clostridium difficile, leading to your death. Perhaps the most remarkable finding is the gut-brain axis: your gastrointestinal microbiome can generate small molecules that may be able to pass through the blood-brain barrier and affect the state of your brain: although the precise mechanism is not yet clear, there is growing evidence that your microbiome may be a significant factor in mental states such as depression and autism spectrum conditions. In short, you may be a collective property arising from the close interactions of your constitutents.”

Physician and Social Scientist, Yale University; Coauthor, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives
The Average

“Yes, we can reliably say that men are taller than women, on average; that Norwegians are richer than Swedes; that first-born children are smarter than second-born children. And we can do experiments to detect tiny differences in means—between groups exposed and unexposed to a virus, or between groups with and without a particular allele of a gene. But this is too simple and too narrow a view of the natural world.

“Our focus on averages should be retired. Or, if not retired, we should give averages an extended vacation. During this vacation, we should catch up on another sort of difference between groups that has gotten short shrift: we should focus on comparing the difference in variance (which captures the spread or range of measured values) between groups.”

Physicist, Computer Scientist, Chairman of Applied Minds, Inc.; author, The Pattern on the Stone
Cause and Effect

“Unfortunately, the cause-and-effect paradigm does not just fail at the quantum scale. It also falls apart when we try to use causation to explain complex dynamical systems like the biochemical pathways of a living organism, the transactions of an economy, or the operation of the human mind. These systems all have patterns of information flow that defy our tools of storytelling. A gene does not “cause” the trait like height, or a disease like cancer. The stock market did not go up “because” the bond market went down. These are just our feeble attempts to force a storytelling framework onto systems that do not work like stories. For such complex systems, science will need more powerful explanatory tools, and we will learn to accept the limits of our old methods of storytelling. We will come to appreciate that causes and effects do not exist in nature, that they are just convenient creations of our own minds.”

Journalist; Editor, Nova 24, of Il Sole 24 Ore
The Tragedy Of The Commons

“Ostrom’s factual approach to the commons came with very good theory, too. Preconditions to the commons’ sustainability were, in Ostrom’s idea: clarity of the law, methods of collective and democratic decision-making, local and public mechanisms of conflict resolution, no conflicts with different layers of government. These preconditions do exist in many historically proven situations and there is no tragedy there. Cultures that understand the commons are contexts that make a sustainable behaviour absolutely rational.”

Anthropologist, National Center for Scientific Research, Paris; Author, Talking to the Enemy

“There is a long history of acrimonious debate over which, if any, aspects of IQ are heritable. The most compelling studies concern twins raised apart and adoptions. Twin studies rarely have large sample populations. Moreover, they often involve twins separated at birth because a parent dies or cannot afford to support both, and one is given over to be raised by relatives, friends or neighbors. This disallows ruling out the effects of social environment and upbringing in producing convergence among the twins. The chief problem with adoption studies is that the mere fact of adoption reliably increases IQ, regardless of any correlation between the IQs of the children and those of their biological parents. Nobody has the slightest causal account of how or why genes, singly or in combination, might affect IQ. I don’t think it’s because the problem is too hard, but because IQ is a specious rather natural kind.”

University Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Northeastern University; Research Scientist and Neuroscientist, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School
Essentialist Views of the Mind

“Ridding science of essentialism is easier said than done. Consider the simplicity of this essentialist statement from the past: “Gene X causes cancer.” It sounds plausible and takes little effort to understand. Compare this to a more recent explanation: “A given individual in a given situation, who interprets that situation as stressful, may experience a change in his sympathetic nervous system that encourages certain genes to be expressed, making him vulnerable to cancer.” The latter explanation is more complicated, but more realistic. Most natural phenomena do not have a single root cause. Sciences that are still steeped in essentialism need a better model of cause and effect, new experimental methods, and new statistical procedures to counter essentialist thinking.

“This discussion is more than a bunch of metaphysical musings. Adherence to essentialism has serious, practical impacts on national security, the legal system, treatment of mental illness, the toxic effects of stress on physical illness… the list goes on. Essentialism leads to simplistic “single cause” thinking when the world is a complex place. Research suggests that children are born essentialists (what irony!) and must learn to overcome it. It’s time for all scientists to overcome it as well.”

Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
Humans Are By Nature Social Animals

“At the same time, the concept of humans as “social by nature” has lent credibility to numerous significant ideas: that humans need other humans to survive, that humans tend to be perpetually ready for social interaction, and that studying specifically the social features of human functioning is profoundly important. ”

Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan; Author, Intelligence and How We Get It
Multiple Regression as a Means of Discovering Causality

“Multiple regression, like all statistical techniques based on correlation, has a severe limitation due to the fact that correlation doesn’t prove causation. And no amount of measuring of “control” variables can untangle the web of causality. What nature hath joined together, multiple regression cannot put asunder. ”

Evolutionary Biologist; Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Magic of Reality

“Essentialism rears its ugly head in racial terminology. The majority of “African Americans” are of mixed race. Yet so entrenched is our essentialist mind-set, American official forms require everyone to tick one race/ethnicity box or another: no room for intermediates. A different but also pernicious point is that a person will be called “African American” even if only, say, one of his eight great grandparents was of African descent. As Lionel Tiger put it to me, we have here a reprehensible “contamination metaphor.” But I mainly want to call attention to our society’s essentialist determination to dragoon a person into one discrete category or another. We seem ill-equipped to deal mentally with a continuous spectrum of intermediates. We are still infected with the plague of Plato’s essentialism.”

Professor of Genomics, The Scripps Research Institute; Author, The Creative Destruction of Medicine
One Genome Per Individual

“But we still don’t know if this is merely of academic interest or has important disease-inducing impact. For sure the mosaicism that occurs later in life, in “terminally differentiated” cells, is known to be important in the development of cancer. And the mosaicism of immune cells, particularly lymphocytes, appears to be part of a healthy, competent immune system. Beyond this, it largely remains unclear as to the functional significance of each of us carrying multiple genomes.

“The implications are potentially big. When we do use a blood sample to evaluate a person’s genome, we have no clue about the potential mosaicism that exists throughout the individual’s body. So a lot more work needs to be done to sort this out, and now that we have the technology to do it, we’ll undoubtedly better understand our remarkable heterogeneous genomic selves in the years ahead.”

Managing Director, Digital Science, Macmillan Science & Education; Former Publishing Director,; Co-Organizer, Sci Foo
Nature Versus Nurture

“Inheritability is not the inverse of mutability, and to say that the heritability of a trait is high is not to say that the environment has no effect because heritability scores are themselves affected by the environment. Take the case of height. In the rich world, the heritability of height is something like 80 per cent. But this is only because our nutrition is universally quite good. In places where malnutrition or starvation are common, environmental factors predominate and the heritability of height is much lower.”

Psychologist, UC, Berkeley; Author, The Philosophical Baby

“All three of these scientific developments suggest that almost everything we do is not just the result of the interaction of nature and nurture, it is both simultaneously. Nurture is our nature and learning and culture are our most important and distinctive evolutionary inheritance.”

Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Better Angels of Our Nature
Behavior = Genes + Environment

“Even the technical sense of “environment” used in quantitative behavioral genetics is perversely confusing. Now, there is nothing wrong with partitioning phenotypic variance into components that correlate with genetic variation (heritability) and with variation among families (“shared environment”). The problem comes from the so-called “nonshared” or “unique environmental influences.” This consists of all the variance that is attributable neither to genetic nor familiar variation. In most studies, it’s calculated as 1 – (heritability + shared environment). Practically, you can think of it as the differences between identical twins who grow up in the same home. They share their genes, parents, older and younger siblings, home, school, peers, and neighborhood. So what could make them different? Under the assumption that behavior is a product of genes plus environment, it must be something in the environment of one that is not in the environment of the other.

“But this category really should be called “miscellaneous/unknown,” because it has nothing necessarily to do with any measurable aspect of the environment, such as one sibling getting the top bunk bed and the other the bottom, or a parent unpredictably favoring one child, or one sibling getting chased by a dog, coming down with a virus, or being favored by a teacher. These influences are purely conjectural, and studies looking for them have failed to find them. The alternative is that this component actually consists of the effects of chance – new mutations, quirky prenatal effects, noise in brain development, and events in life with unpredictable effects.”

Publisher, Skeptic magazine; monthly columnist, Scientific American; Author, The Believing Brain

“So it has been and will continue to be with other forms of the hard-wired=permanent idea, such as violence. We may be hard-wired for violence, but we can attenuate it considerably through scientifically tested methods. Thus, for my test case here, I predict that in another 500 years the God-theory of causality will have fallen into disuse, and the 21st-century scientific theory that God is hardwired into our brains as a permanent feature of our species will be retired.”

Political Scientist, University Professor, University of Washington & University of Sydney
Homo Economicus

“The reliance on homo economicus as the basis of human motivation has given rise to a grand body of theory and research over the past two hundred years. As an underlying assumption, it has generated some of the best work in economics. As a foil, it has generated findings about cognitive limitations, the role of social interactions, and ethically based motivations. The power of the concept of homo economicus was once great, but its power has now waned, to be succeeded by new and better paradigms and approaches grounded in more realistic and scientific understandings of the sources of human action.”

Response to ‘Why are zealots so happy?’

Response to ‘Why are zealots so happy?’

Posted on May 29th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Child Marmalade
I came across a recent blog post by C4Chaos titled Why are zealots so happy?

Basically, I do believe such presently uncontrollable factors as genetics do have a disproportionate influence on human experience and behavior, but I’m not sure how disproportionate it is.  This is something I’ve thought about a lot over the years and I did enjoy Seligman’s book even though I’m uncertain about his optimistic conclusions.  I want to look further into the happiness research to see what the latest evidence is showing.

C4Chaos touches upon how happiness fits into religion.  Here is the statistics(from the link in C4Chaos‘ blog) that relate to happy zealots(ie extremists):

SurveySource: 2004 General Social Survey

I would add the morality angle.  What has troubled me over the years is how the ideal of The Good is inextricably tangled with feeling good.  And, yet, I sense they aren’t identical even though there may be an influence.  If there is an influence, does the influence go both ways?  I can imagine how feeling out The Good may help one to feel good.  But by seeking to feel good can we feel out The Good?

Here is an insightful paper that relates:
The Sense of Happiness:
Biological Explanations and Ultimate Reality and Meaning
Kevin Sharpe

Here is my response to C4Chaos:

I do think there is a connection between discontentment and questioning, and also between discontentment and creatively seeing possibilities.  This translates as unhappy people are more motivated to ask new questions and to seek new answers.  Of course, there is a point of too much discontentment and unhappiness that shuts the mind down.

Here is a nice dialogue between Steven Pinker and Martin Seligman.

I’ve read one of Seligman’s books.  His view is that human choice is greater than genetics.  The limitation of his writing is that its basically pop psychology and its only moderately backed up by research.  One thing I remember is that pessimists have a more realistic perception of reality, but optimists have more ability to create a different future.  Its funny that the optimists delusion is what makes them effective, but you don’t want to ask them for objective understanding.  On the other hand, the pessimist knows precisely what is going on, but doesn’t know how or feel capable of changing it.  (Interestingly, I’m a depressed person and I value the straight truth more than anything including happiness… which conforms to this view.)

However, despite the pessimist’s useful ability to see reality clearly, Seligman believes that everyone should strive to be optimistic.  He does concede that society needs a few pessimists to ground the optimists’ vision. But, as I remember, he seems to optimistically think that the strengths of pessimism can be carried over into a more optimistic attitude.

Steven Pinker comes at it from a pure scientific perspective.  He limits himself to what the research says.  And his book isn’t meant as inspirational writing.  I haven’t read his book, but I have recently come across some of the research done on happiness.  Here is an interesting one:
Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon
David Lykken and Auke Tellegen
University of Minnesota
Psychological Science Vol.7, No. 3, May 1996

“Happiness or subjective wellbeing was measured on a birth-record based sample of several thousand middle-aged twins using the Well Being (WB) scale of the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire (MPQ). Neither socioeconomic status (SES), educational attainment, family income, marital status, nor an indicant of religious commitment could account for more than about 3% of the variance in WB. From 44% to 53% of the variance in WB, however, is associated with genetic variation. Based on the retest of smaller samples of twins after intervals of 4.5 and 10 years, we estimate that the heritability of the stable component of subjective wellbeing approaches 80%.”

Access_public Access: Public 6 Comments Print Post this!views (266)

Nicole : wakingdreamer 

about 10 hours later

Nicole said

wow. very interesting. i wonder why people think zealots are happy? the ones i know are a pretty miserable lot actually…


Marmalade : Gaia Child 

about 22 hours later

Marmalade said

Good question.  There is a lot of research out there, but I’m not a scientist.  Here is one paper that looked particularly interesting.

Religious orientation, religious Coping and happiness among UK adults

Christopher Alan Lewis, John Maltby and Liz Day
“In general, no significant associations were found between religiosity scores and happiness scores. However, both higher intrinsic orientation scores and positive religious coping were significantly associated with higher scores on the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire Short-Form. It is proposed that these differential findings are consistent with the theoretical distinction between subjective and psychological well-being. It is suggested that when religiosity is related to happiness, it is related to psychological well-being, which is thought to reflect human development, positive functioning and existential life challenges.”

Here is from the link in C4Chaos’ blog:

“In the 2004 General Social Survey, 35 percent of people who said they were extremely liberal were very happy (versus 22 percent of people who were just liberal). At the same time, a whopping 48 percent of people who were “extremely conservative” gave this response (compared with 43 percent of non-extreme conservatives). Twenty-eight percent of people squarely in the middle – “slightly liberal” to “slightly conservative” – were very happy.”

“A happiness edge enjoyed by the extremes persists even if we control for the other relevant forces like income, education, race, religion, and so on.”

The conclusion of this author is based on 3 factors: evidence showing extremists as more happy than moderates, evidence showing conservatives as more happy than liberals, and evidence showing the religious as more happy than the non-religious.  He notes that conservative extremists are the happiest of any political sector and implies the connection with how vocally religious this group of people are.  Hence, religious zealots are happier.

The conclusion is fairly straightforward.  Any disagreements would be with the research he uses as evidence.  Is it accurate?


Marmalade : Gaia Child 

about 22 hours later

Marmalade said

Here are some comments from this section in the series that C4Chaos was linking to:

1. May 14th,
11:43 am

I haven’t read all 4 parts completely but I wonder if this is true all the time. In other words, could the extreme be happy right now because of current conditions in our country? Extreme left: “Change is coming, yoo-hoo!” Extreme right: “We have beaten off terrorists and liberals for 7 years, who would have thought?!”

– Posted by Marcus Lynn
4. May 14th,
11:55 am

Interesting… but isn’t it likely that anyone who rates themselves as “extremely” anything is likely to have strong views in general, and therefore more likely to put “very happy” rather than just “happy”. It would be interesting to see the above graph with numbers of people who are “very UNhappy”

– Posted by Charles
17. May 14th,
2:15 pm

To follow on what frankenduf(14) said:
Psychological studies have shown that when people believe they have control over their lives and actions, they are happier; whether or not they ever exercise that control. Could it be that extremists, because they are more likely to be “acting out”, feel that they are in greater control? Moderates, on the other hand, “moderate” their views to accomodate multiple other points-of-view; in essence, ceding control, and increasing their discomfort.

A second, not necessarily contradictory, explanation would be that cognitive dissonance causes most frustration. Other psychological studies have shown that the more extreme our beliefs, the more likely we are to attribute facts that belie our worldview to chicanery, and the more likely we are to become emotional rather than analytical in response to statements that contradict our ideas. Byt this theory, extremists will become angry, per frankenduf, release anger, and thus avoid unpleasant cognitive dissonance by avoiding considering inconvenient truths.

– Posted by misterb
33. May 16th,
7:04 am

This analysis misses one significant point.

Combined with those in the “moderate” camps, left and right, are those who can’t bother to have strong political opinions. Among these are those who are depressed, clinically or otherwise.

This subset of depressed people can completely skew the numbers when it comes to associating happiness with political fervor.

– Posted by Greta
36. May 18th,
11:47 am

#1: Depressed people tend to have a more accurate self-assessment of their abilities and performance. (I really hate to say “studies show…”, but they do. It’s a simply psychological experiment: give people a task to do, then ask them to rate their own performance.)
It’s certainly been my experience as well….

#2: Well, duh! The message of the study is not that conservatives are happier, it is that IN THE USA, conservatives are happier. It’s an easy bet that in a liberal society, the happiness distribution would be reversed. Anyway you cut it, compared to other nations, the US is politically & religiously conservative society.

So, yeah, you analyze the data controlling for income, education, race, religion, etc, so that you can conclude that conservatives are happier folks, but the results are only valid in the USA!

– Posted by Dennis


Nicole : wakingdreamer 

2 days later

Nicole said

interesting… i think there is some amount of truth in each comment… so who can say really what it all means?


Marmalade : Gaia Child 

2 days later

Marmalade said

Yes, interesting… but what to make of it?!  I find research about this very intriguing, but I don’t have the capacity to really understand it.  Statistics are so easily interpreted with one’s bias.  Seligman interprets it one way but there is no objective reason for him to interpret it that way.  He gives it an optimistic slant and he is probably the happier for it whether or not he is correct.  🙂


Nicole : wakingdreamer 

3 days later

Nicole said

i have similar reservations to you about this whole optimism thing…

and yes, like archaeology where “rocks are plastic” or in other words, diggings can “reveal” many things depending on the assumptions of the scientist or interpreter, statistics can mean pretty much anything. So, IMO are often meaningless

How is the internet used?

Search Engines Are Source of Learning

ScienceDaily (Nov. 27, 2009) — Search engine use is not just part of our daily routines; it is also becoming part of our learning process, according to Penn State researchers.

The researchers sought to discover the cognitive processes underlying searching. They examined the search habits of 72 participants while conducting a total of 426 searching tasks. They found that search engines are primarily used for fact checking users’ own internal knowledge, meaning that they are part of the learning process rather than simply a source for information. They also found that people’s learning styles can affect how they use search engines.

“Our results suggest the view of Web searchers having simple information needs may be incorrect,” said Jim Jansen, associate professor of information sciences and technology. “Instead, we discovered that users applied simple searching expressions to support their higher-level information needs.”

Jansen said the results of this study provide useful information about how search engine use has evolved over the past decade and clues about how to design better search engines to address users’ learning needs in the future. He and Brian Smith, associate professor information sciences and technology and Danielle Booth, former Penn State student, published their findings in the November issue of Information Processing and Management.

“If we can incorporate cognitive, affective and situational aspects of a person, there is the potential to really move search performance forward,” Jansen said. “At its core, we are getting to the motivational elements of search.”

National Science Foundation and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research funded this research.

Digital Youth Project: If you care about kids and want to understand how they use technology and why, this is a must-read
Posted by Cory Doctorow, November 20, 2008 3:38 AM | permalink

The Digital Youth Project, a MacArthur-funded three year, 22 case study, $3.3 million ethnographic study of what kids are doing online, has wound up and published its results. The project was undertaken by the eminent sociologist Mimi Ito and her talented colleagues (including the incomparable danah boyd) and is the largest and most comprehensive study of young peoples’ internet use ever undertaken in the US.

The conclusions are sane, compassionate, and compelling: in a nutshell, the “serious” stuff we all hope kids will do online (researching papers and so on) are only possible within a framework of “hanging out, messing around and geeking out.” That is to say, all the “time-wasting” social stuff kids do online are key to their explorations and education online.

Ito and her team establish a taxonomy of social activity, dividing it first into “peer-driven” and “interest-driven” — the former being what kids do with their real-world friends, the latter being the niche interests that drive them to locate other people who are as fascinated as they are by whatever brand of esoterica they fancy.

Within these two categories, the researchers break things down further into “hanging out” (undirected, social activities), “messing around” (tinkering with media, networks and technologies) and “geeking out” (delving deep into subjects based on global communities of interest) and for each one, they describe the successful and unsuccessful techniques deployed by parents and educators to direct kids’ activities.

All this is explained in a crisp, 55-page white paper, a snappy two-pager, and a full-length book called (appropriately), “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media.” All three are available as free downloads, naturally, and the book can also be purchased as a physical object in a year when it’s published.

This project is the best set of research-driven recommendations and observations about young peoples’ use of technology I’ve seen — it’s the perfect antidote to the scare stories of “internet addiction” and pedophiles stalking MySpace, and the endless refrain about “kids today.” If you care about kids and want to understand how they use technology and why, this is a must-read.

Two-pager, White paper, Book: Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out (download), Digital Youth homepage

#2 posted by mwsmedia , November 20, 2008 11:59 AM

I’m keenly interested in reading the entire book, but I don’t want to do it on my computer, and I figure a lot of other folks might feel the same way… so I created a PDF version.

I also made an Open Office ODT version for easy conversion to other formats, if you like.

Find PDF and ODT versions of “”Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media” at