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Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

The success of Deep Blue would seem not to shed much light on how expert chess players do what they do. It might well be objected, “ of course it doesn’t; it’s a computer!” This objection strikes me as just the right response, but sometimes common sense needs to be defended by an elaborate argument. We are constantly tempted to regard ourselves in the distorting mirror of technology, and in fact the “computational theory of mind” prevails in cognitive psychology (though it is becoming quite embattled). An entire academic field has its origin in the idea that we are computers. Further, the computer comes to represent an ideal, in light of which real thinking perversely begins to look deficient. Thus, when the postindustrial visionary reasons from the fact that complex systems involve “the interaction of too many variables for the mind to hold in correct order simultaneously” to the conclusion that “one has to use algorithms, rather than intuitive judgments, in making decisions,” he argues from the fact that the mind does not do what a computer does to an assertion about the incompetence of the mind. This seems to express an irrational prejudice against people. For, in fact, highly cultivated human minds can get to be pretty good at sussing out a burning building, playing chess, chasing down intermittent gremlins in a car’s electrical system, and who knows what else.

The fact that a firefighter’s knowledge is tacit rather than explicit, and therefore not capable of articulation, means that he is not able to give an account of himself to the larger society. He is not able to make a claim for the value of his mind in the terms that prevail, and may come to doubt it himself. But his own experience provides grounds for a radical critique of the view that theoretical knowledge is the only true knowledge.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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The basic idea of tacit knowledge is that we know more than we can say, and certainly more than we can specify in a formulaic way. Intuitive judgments of complex systems, especially those made by experts, such as an experienced firefighter, are sometimes richer than can be captured by any set of algorithms.

The psychologist Gary Klein has studied the decision making of firefighters and other experts who perform complex tasks in the real world. “In many dynamic, uncertain, and fast-paced environments, there is no single right way to make decisions,” Klein says. “Experts learn to perceive things that are invisible to novices, such as the characteristics of a typical situation.”

The experienced mind can get good at integrating an extraordinarily large number of variables and detecting a coherent pattern. It is the pattern that is attended to, not the individual variables. Our ability to make good judgments is holistic in character, and arises from repeated confrontations with real things: comprehensive entities that are grasped all at once, in a manner that may be incapable of explicit articulation. This tacit dimension of knowledge puts limits on the reduction of jobs to rule following. It is not just the firefighters intervention that is inherently in situ (as the economist Alan Blinder would point out). His knowledge, too, arises in particular places: places where there are fires.

Algorithms can be made to simulate the kind of tacit knowledge that experts possess, as when IBM’s Deep Blue succeeded in playing chess at the highest level in 1997. Through brute computation of every possible move that adheres to the rules of chess (200 million board positions per second), the program was able to pick winning moves. To constrain the problem, the programmers made it their goal to beat one man in particular, Gary Kasparov, the reigning champion. Knowing his preferred opening moves and strategies made the problem tractable. But in beating Kasparov at his own game, Deep Blue was doing something very different than what a human chess player does. This is illustrated by an experiment in which an international chess master played speed chess with a limit of five seconds per move while also doing mental arithmetic. The arithmetic tied up his working memory and capacity for explicit analysis, yet he was still able to “more than hold his own” against “a slightly weaker, but master-level player.” Clearly, human chess players are doing something other than applying the rules of chess and comparing downstream board configurations along different decision trees, like a computer.

There is further evidence to suggest that what an expert human chess player does do is recognize patterns, like a firefighter. In a famous experiment, chess players of varying levels of competence viewed chess boards projected on a screen for a few seconds each. They then had to reproduce the configuration of pieces they had seen. When the projected configurations were ones that actually occur in the game of chess, grandmasters were able to correctly reproduce the positions of twenty to twenty-five pieces, very good players about fifteen pieces, and beginners five or six. But when the pictures flashed before them showed random configurations of pieces, not corresponding to patterns they would have actually come across in playing chess, then there was no difference in the players’ ability to reproduce the positions from memory; players of all levels were able to reproduce the positions of only five or six pieces. The expert is expert not because he has a better memory in general, but because the patterns of chess are the patterns of his experience.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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[Note: BUMMER = Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent; BUMMER Platforms = Facebook, Google, etc.]

The ability to theorize about what someone else experiences as part of understanding that person is called having a theory of mind. To have a theory of mind is to build a story in your head about what’s going on in someone else’s head. Theory of mind is at the core of any sense of respect or empathy, and it’s a prerequisite to any hope of intelligent cooperation, civility, or helpful politics. It’s why stories exist.

You’ve heard expressions like “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” You can’t understand people without knowing a little of what they’ve gone through.

Most animals get by without theory of mind, but people need it.

When you can only see how someone else behaves, but not the experiences that influenced their behavior, it becomes harder to have a theory of mind about that person. If you see someone hit someone else, for instance, but you did not see that they did it in defense of a child, you might misinterpret what you see.

In the same way, if you don’t see the dark ads, the ambient whispers, the cold-hearted memes, and the ridicule-filled customized feed that someone else sees, that person will just seem crazy to you. And that is our new BUMMER world. We seem crazy to each other, because BUMMER is robbing us of our theories of one another’s minds.

— Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

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When people are solitary wolves, then each individual has access to slightly different information about the world, and slightly different ways of thinking about that information. I’ve been talking about the relationship between the Solitary setting and personal character, but there are other reasons to keep the switch in the Solitary position. Consider a demonstration that is often enacted on the first day of business school. A professor shows a class a big jar of jelly beans and asks each person to estimate the number of beans. Averaging all the estimates usually results in a pretty accurate count. Each person brings different perspectives, cognitive styles, skills, and strategies to the mystery, and the average gets at the agreements between them. (This only works for single-number answers. If you ask a committee to design a product or write a novel, the result comes out like something made by a committee.)

Now suppose that the students could look at the jar only through photos in a social media feed. Different camps of people with different ideas about the number of beans would form and would ridicule each other. Russian intelligence services would add pictures of similar jars with different numbers of beans. Bean promoters would motivate trolls to argue that there aren’t enough beans and you must buy more. And so on. There would no longer be a way to guess the number of beans because the power of diversity will have been compromised. When that happens, markets can no longer offer utility to the world.

You can replace the jar with a political candidate, a product, or anything else.

— Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

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[Note: BUMMER = Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent; BUMMER Platforms = Facebook, Google, etc.]

Customized feeds become optimized to “engage” each user, often with emotionally potent cues, leading to addiction. People don’t realize how they are being manipulated. The default purpose of manipulation is to get people more and more glued in, and to get them to spend more and more time in the system. But other purposes for manipulation are also tested. For instance, if you’re reading on a device, your reading behaviors will be correlated with those of multitudes of other people. If someone who has a reading pattern similar to yours bought something after it was pitched in a particular way, then the odds become higher that you will get the same pitch. You might be targeted before an election with weird posts that have proven to bring out the inner cynic in people who are similar to you, in order to reduce the chances that you’ll vote.

BUMMER platforms have proudly reported on how they’ve experimented with making people sad, changing voter turnout, and reinforcing brand loyalty. Indeed, these are some of the best-known examples of research that were revealed in the formative days of BUMMER.

The digital network approach to behavior modification flattens all these examples, all these different slices of life, into one slice. From the point of view of the algorithm, emotions, happiness, and brand loyalty are just different, but similar, signals to optimize.

— Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

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Forty percent of the people in this country still don’t use a seat belt, which I find simply amazing because it costs nothing to buckle up and clearly has the potential to save you from exiting through the windshield like Superman. (Vermont, which is one of the few states to keep careful track of these things, reported that in the first ten months of 1998, eighty-one people were killed on the state’s roads-and 76 percent of those people were not wearing seat belts.) Even more remarkably, since a spate of recent newspaper reports about young children being killed by airbags in minor crashes, people have been rushing to get their airbags disconnected. Never mind that in every instance the children were killed because they were sitting in the front seat, where they should not have been in the first place, and in nearly all cases weren’t wearing seat belts. Airbags save thousands of lives, yet many people are having them disabled on the bizarre assumption that they present a danger.

Much the same sort of statistical illogic applies to guns. Forty percent of Americans keep guns in their homes, typically in a drawer beside the bed. The odds that one of those guns will ever be used to shoot a criminal are comfortably under one in a million. The odds that it will be used to shoot a member of the household-generally a child fooling around- are at least twenty times that figure. Yet over 100 million people resolutely ignore this fact, even sometimes threaten to pop you one themselves if you make too much noise about it.

Nothing, however, better captures the manifest irrationality of people toward risks as one of the liveliest issues of recent years: passive smoking. Four years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report concluding that people who are over thirty-five and don’t smoke but are regularly exposed to the smoke of others stand a 1 in 30,000 risk of contracting lung cancer in a given year. The response was immediate and electrifying. All over the country smoking was banned at work and in restaurants, shopping malls, and other public places.

What was overlooked in all this was how microscopically small the risk from passive smoking actually is.  A rate of 1 in 30,000 sounds reasonably severe, but it doesn’t actually amount to much. Eating one pork chop a week is statistically more likely to give you cancer than sitting routinely in a roomful of smokers. So, too, is consuming a carrot every seven days, a glass of orange juice twice a month, or a head of lettuce every two years. You are five times more likely to contract lung cancer from your pet parakeet than you are from secondary smoke.

Now I am all for banning smoking on the grounds that it is dirty and offensive, unhealthy for the user, and leaves unsightly burns in the carpet. All I am saying is that it seems a trifle odd to ban it on grounds of public safety when you are happy to let any old fool own a gun or drive around unbuckled.

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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In her book Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, Esther Dyson tries to assure those who worry too much about the new electronic world that human nature will stay the same. Of course. If we mean by “human nature” our genetic structure or biological needs or fundamental emotions, no one has argued that technology will alter human nature (at least not by much). But human nature is not the issue. What is at issue are the changes that might occur in our psychic habits, our social relations, and, most certainly, our political institutions, especially electoral politics. Nothing is more obvious than that a new technology changes the structure of discourse. It does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence, and by demanding a certain kind of content. Ronald Reagan, for example, could not have been president were it not for the bias of television. This is a man who rarely spoke precisely and never eloquently (except perhaps when reading a speech written by someone else). And yet he was called The Great Communicator. Why? Because he was magic on television. His televised image projected a sense of authenticity, intimacy, and caring. It did not much matter if citizens agreed with what he said or understood what he said. This does not in itself suggest that he shouldn’t have been president or that he did his job poorly. It is to say that television gives power to some while it deprives others. It is not human nature we worry about here but rather what part of our humanness will be nurtured by technology. I have often wondered how Abraham Lincoln would have fared on television. Because of the invention of photography in the 1840s, he was the first president to be the subject of continuous comment about his looks (ugly and ungainly, many said). Would it be too much to say that Americans must be eternally grateful for the absence of television when Lincoln made his run for the presidency? Or perhaps we might say that had television existed, no such person as Lincoln could have become a serious candidate for president.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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