Power is as addictive as cocaine [hindustantimes.com]

Noted historian Baron John Acton coined the phrase ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ more than a hundred years ago. Now, scientists have claimed that the saying is biologically true. The feeling of power has been found to have a similar effect on the brain to cocaine by increasing the levels of testosterone and its by-product 3-androstanediol in both men and women. This in turn leads to raised levels of dopamine, the brain’s reward system called the nucleus accumbens, which can be very addictive, the Daily Mail reported. Cocaine works in a similar way, which can have varied effects from increasing alertness, confidence, energy, feelings of well-being and euphoria, but also anxiety, paranoia and restlessness. Power has almost identical effects to cocaine and too much of it can produce too much dopamine leading to more negative effects such as arrogance and impatience. The claims made by Dr Ian Robertson may help explain the outlandish and impulsive behaviour of city fatcats, tycoons and celebrities. “Baboons low down in the dominance hierarchy have lower levels of dopamine in key brain areas, but if they get ‘promoted’ to a higher position, then dopamine rises accordingly,” Dr Robertson wrote in the Daily Telegraph. “This makes them more aggressive and sexually active, and in humans similar changes happen when people are given power.

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What makes heroic strife [The economist]

Computer models that can predict the outbreak and spread of civil conflict are being developed -

(Guess Why)

 

FOR the past decade or so, generals commanding the world’s most advanced armies have been able to rely on accurate forecasts of the outcomes of conventional battles. Given data on weather and terrain, and the combatants’ numbers, weaponry, positions, training and level of morale, computer programs such as the Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model, designed by the Dupuy Institute in Washington, DC, can predict who will win, how quickly and with how many casualties.

Guerrilla warfare, however, is harder to model than open battle of this sort, and the civil insurrection that often precedes it is harder still. Which, from the generals’ point of view, is a pity, because such conflict is the dominant form of strife these days. The reason for the difficulty is that the fuel of popular uprisings is not hardware, but social factors of a type that computer programmers find it difficult to capture in their algorithms. Analysing the emotional temperature of postings on Facebook and Twitter, or the telephone traffic between groups of villages, is always going to be a harder task than analysing physics-based data like a tank’s firing range or an army’s stocks of ammunition and fuel.

Harder, but not impossible. For in the war-games rooms and think-tanks of the rich world’s military powers, bright minds are working on the problem of how to model insurrection and irregular warfare. Slowly but surely they are succeeding, and in the process they are helping politicians and armies to a better understanding of the nature of rebellion.

SCARE tactics

One of the best-known projects in this field is SCARE, the Spatio-Cultural Abductive Reasoning Engine, developed at the United States Military Academy at West Point by a team led by Major Paulo Shakarian, a computer-scientist-turned-soldier. SCARE operates at the most militarily conventional end of the irregular-conflict spectrum: the point where an army of guerrillas is already in being and is making life hard for a notionally better-armed army of regular troops. That, of course, has been the experience of American forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Major Shakarian and his team have analysed the behaviour of guerrillas in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and think they understand it well enough to build reliable models.

Their crucial insight is the local nature of conflict in these countries. In particular, bombs directed at occupying forces are generally planted close to the place where they were made, and on the territory of the bombmaker’s tribal kin or co-religionists. That is not a surprise, of course. Kin and co-religionists are the most reliable allies in wars where different guerrilla groups may not always see eye to eye about objectives, beyond the immediate one of driving out foreign troops. But it does give Major Shakarian and his team a convenient way in. Using the co-ordinates of previously bombed sites, data from topographical and street maps, and information on an area’s ethnic, linguistic and confessional “human terrain”, SCARE is able to predict where guerrillas’ munition dumps will be to within about 700 metres. That is not perfect, but it is close enough to be able to focus a search in a useful way.

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The Tiranny of Numeracy [THE PSY-FI BLOG]

Count the Errors
It seems that numeracy is the next big idea because important people, whoever they are, have suddenly woken up to the fact that having a workforce that needs to understand linear regression, but which actually can’t count the number of shoes it needs to find in the morning, is probably going to be a drawback in a world where math is increasingly going to differentiate the haves from the have-nots. Although the have-nots won’t be able to figure this out, other than they’ll notice that other people aren’t stacking shelves and flipping burgers for a living.
The solution to this, obviously, is to improve numeracy skills to make sure people can do enough maths to get through the average day. Unfortunately while this may help them not get ripped off by their next waiter and ensure that they can check they’ve got all their children with them at home-time, it’s quite likely that it won’t be anywhere enough to help them make the important financial decisions being required of them.
Roll Your Own Finances
In an excellent recent paper, Numeracy, Financial Literacy and Financial Decision Making, Annamaria Lusardi powerfully makes the case for why people need better math skills:
“Prior to the 1980s, many Americans relied mainly on Social Security and employer-sponsored defined benefit (DB) pension plans. Today, by contrast, Baby Boomers are increasingly turning to defined contribution (DC) plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) to help finance their retirement years … individuals will increasingly be called to “roll their own” retirement saving and decumulation plans, and their retirement security will depend ever more on their own decisions and behavior.”
This increased self-reliance for financial decision making is mirrored in other areas, such as the widespread ability of individuals to choose how much money to borrow and on what terms. In general the state, and lenders, are increasingly putting the onus on individuals to make their own financial decisions.
Compounding Problems
Unfortunately, as Lusardi shows, the actual ability of people to figure out relatively simple financial problems is very low. Only 18% of American respondents could answer this correctly:
“Let’s say you have 200 dollars in a savings account. The account earns 10 percent interest per year. How much would you have in the account at the end of two years?”
And only 11% of Britons could answer this and four other, simpler questions. These findings generalise across the world, and it seems that the idea of compound interest is a real puzzler for a lot of people.  Lusardi also points to research indicating that financial numeracy is linked to behaviors associated with important financial decisions, like planning for retirement or choosing to invest in the stockmarket – although whether that latter decision is a good one or not is open to question, as we saw in Do Stocks Always Outperform (in the Long Run)? Unsurprisingly her conclusion is that improving numeracy is critical to improving people’s financial decision making.
With which I have no problem – it’s clearly true that having a basic grasp of maths is going to help people make better decisions. However, the idea that this is all that’s required – which isn’t one that Lusardi explicitly makes but is one the uninitiated might conclude from this, is simply wrong.
The Tyranny of Choice
There are at least two reasons why this is the case. The first is our old friend cognitive bias, compromising investor decision making, and the second is the paradox of choice, Barry Schwartz’s idea that too many options are both depressing and likely to lead to worse decision making. As Schwartz points out about people who are maximisers, as opposed to satisficers (see: Satisficing Stockpicking), always looking for the best option:
“Naturally, no one can check out every option, but maximizers strive toward that goal, and so making a decision becomes increasingly daunting as the number of choices rises. Worse, after making a selection, they are nagged by the alternatives they have not had time to investigate. In the end, they are more likely to make better objective choices than satisficers but get less satisfaction from them.”

Why Do Individuals Exhibit Investment Biases?

A working paper by:  Henrik Cronqvist  (Claremont McKenna College – Robert Day School of Economics and Finance) and Stephan Siegel (University of Washington – Michael G. Foster School of Business)

 

Abstract: 
We find that a long list of investment biases, e.g., the reluctance to realize losses, performance chasing, and the home bias, are “human,” in the sense that we are born with them. Genetic factors explain up to 50% of the variation in these biases across individuals. We find no evidence that education is a significant moderator of genetic investment behavior. Genetic effects on investment behavior are correlated with genetic effects on behaviors in other domains (e.g., those with a genetic preference for familiar stocks also exhibit a preference for familiarity in other domains), suggesting that investment biases is only one facet of much broader genetic behaviors. Our evidence provides a biological basis for non-standard preferences that have been used in asset pricing models, and has implications for the design of public policy in the domain of investments.

Full paper here and here

Understanding The Slave Mentality

In the initial stages of nearly every recorded tyranny, the saucer eyed dumbstruck masses exhibit astonishing and masterful skill when denying reality.  The facts behind their dire circumstances and of their antagonistic government become a source of cynical psychological gameplay rather than a source of legitimate concern.  Their desperate need to maintain their normalcy bias creates a memory and observation vacuum in which all that runs counter to their false assumptions and preconceptions disappears forever.  It is as if they truly cannot see the color of the sky, or the boot on their face.  The concrete world of truth becomes a dream, an illusion that can be heeded or completely ignored depending on one’s mood.  For them, life is a constant struggle of dissociation, where the tangible is NOT welcome…

This is the problem that we in the Liberty Movement deal with most often in our writings and films.  Our confrontation with willful ignorance has been epic, even by far reaching historical standards.  The gains in social awareness have been substantial, and yet the obstacles are incredible.  Unprecedented.  As an activist trend, we have an almost obsessive drive to draw back the curtain so that the public has at least the opportunity to see what is on the other side.  Unfortunately, there is another danger that must be taken into account…

It is one thing to bear witness to the rejection of truth in our time and the oblivious attitudes of many towards the growth of totalitarianism.  Eventually, though, a second phase in the development of oligarchy arises.  I am speaking of the point at which tyranny becomes so blatant that the skeptics have to acknowledge its existence, but after doing so, they choose to rationalize it as necessary.  Yes, there are many in this world that will laugh at the prospect of the Orwellian nightmare only to happily embrace it when it arrives in full color.

I was recently looking into the divisive issue of U.S. Marine Sgt. Gary Stein, whose position has come under threat due to his criticisms of Barack Obama and his founding of the ‘Armed Forces Tea Party Facebook Page’.  What I discovered was a large number of Americans in support of Stein’s right to speak as a citizen (even under Marine regulations) against the unconstitutional actions of any president or presidential candidate.  I also discovered a considerable number who wanted to see the soldier dishonorably discharged, or even set upon a noose as punishment.

Now, we all know that the Department of Defense monitors web news and social networking activity, and they have been caught red handed in the past posing as regular citizens with strangely militant pro-authoritarian views (look into their organized propaganda attacks on websites dealing with the levee failures during Katrina, for instance).  It is by no means a stretch to suggest that they would also troll the comments sections of mainstream news articles in an attempt to engineer a fraudulent consensus that Sgt. Stein’s actions have been negatively received by the majority of Americans.  But that aside, the underlings at the DOD are still Americans, and the views they espouse are still expressions of a subsection of this country (a small elitist one).  Also, sadly, there are plenty of non-government-paid people out there who believe exactly as they do.

Surely, we can debate over the details of Marine regulations until our ears bleed, and I could point out several facts that the mainstream media did not cover in their hit pieces on Stein (like the fact that he went to his superiors and asked them to advise him in the handling of his political position long before the present charges against him were ever formulated, and the fact that he followed many of their suggestions…), but ultimately, the regulations of the Marines or the Federal Government are irrelevant.  Such laws are transitory, and are usually written so broadly that the authorities of the day can execute them however they wish to fit their needs at the moment.  The real question here is one of principle, moral compass, and Constitutionality (a document which is a reflection of eternal natural law).  We have to set aside the pointless legalese of defense standards in the case of Sgt. Stein and ask ourselves an important question; do U.S. troops have a right to free speech?

If you believe so, then their rights are not limited or exclusive.  They are free to say whatever any other American has a right to say.  If you believe they do not, then you have relegated the troops to the position of second class citizens, or even property of the state.  There is NO in-between.  Discipline and military coherence be damned.  Either these men and women have First Amendment protections and are full citizens or they are mechanisms of the government whose civil liberties have been erased.

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Biased but Brilliant

By Cordelia Fine

 

How’s this for a cynical view of science? “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Scientific truth, according to this view, is established less by the noble use of reason than by the stubborn exertion of will. One hopes that the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck, the author of the quotation above, was writing in an unusually dark moment.

And yet a large body of psychological data supports Planck’s view: we humans quickly develop an irrational loyalty to our beliefs, and work hard to find evidence that supports those opinions and to discredit, discount or avoid information that does not. In a classic psychology experiment, people for and against the death penalty were asked to evaluate the different research designs of two studies of its deterrent effect on crime. One study showed that the death penalty was an effective deterrent; the other showed that it was not. Which of the two research designs the participants deemed the most scientifically valid depended mostly on whether the study supported their views on the death penalty.

In the laboratory, this is labeled confirmation bias; observed in the real world, it’s known as pigheadedness.

Scientists are not immune. In another experiment, psychologists were asked to review a paper submitted for journal publication in their field. They rated the paper’s methodology, data presentation and scientific contribution significantly more favorably when the paper happened to offer results consistent with their own theoretical stance. Identical research methods prompted a very different response in those whose scientific opinion was challenged.

This is a worry. Doesn’t the ideal of scientific reasoning call for pure, dispassionate curiosity? Doesn’t it positively shun the ego-driven desire to prevail over our critics and the prejudicial urge to support our social values (like opposition to the death penalty)?

Perhaps not. Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Let’s take pigheadedness first. In a much discussed article this year in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that our reasoning skills are really not as dismal as they seem. They don’t deny that irrationalities like the confirmation bias are common. Instead, they suggest that we stop thinking of the primary function of reasoning as being to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Reasoning, they claim, is for winning arguments. And an irrational tendency like pigheadedness can be quite an asset in an argumentative context. A engages with B and proposes X. B disagrees and counters with Y. Reverse roles, repeat as desired — and what in the old days we might have mistaken for an exercise in stubbornness turns out instead to be a highly efficient “division of cognitive labor” with A specializing in the pros, B in the cons.

It’s salvation of a kind: our apparently irrational quirks start to make sense when we think of reasoning as serving the purpose of persuading others to accept our point of view. And by way of positive side effect, these heated social interactions, when they occur within a scientific community, can lead to the discovery of the truth.

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The Filter Bubble — What the Internet is Hiding From You – [Farnam Street]

As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there’s a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a “filter bubble” and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview. Eli Pariser argues powerfully that this will ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.

 iA

The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser, puts forth an argument that we’re increasingly trapped inside an algorithm that filters our news based on what it thinks is best for us. Computers and the algorithms they run are increasingly aware of the things we seem to like. These algorithms even tailor results so we get more of what we like and less of what we don’t like. That means if you google Farnam Street and I google Farnam Street, we’re likely to see different results. The problem with this, Pariser argues, is that you’re not making a conscious choice to have your results filtered – it happens without your knowledge or consent. And that causes a whole host of issues, of which Pariser is primarily concerned with the social and political implications.

When technology’s job is to show you the world, it ends up sitting between you and reality, like a camera lens.

“If we want to know what the world really looks like,” Pariser writes, “we have to understand how filters shape and skew our view of it.” It’s useful to borrow from nutrition to illustrate this point:

Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature. Thus, when they come around, we should grab them. In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.

Consider for a moment where we are headed. If Google knows that I’m a democrat or republican they could now add a filter to my news to show me only the stories I’m predisposed to agree with. Based on their guess as to my education level, they may then tailor the article’s words and language to maximize its impact on me. In this world I only see thing I agree with and writing that I easily comprehend and that’s a problem. Google might know that I don’t read anything about republican tax cuts or democratic spending so they might just filter those articles out. Reality, as I see it, becomes what the lens shows me.

If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.
—Andrew Lewis

Continue reading of Farnam Street

The Milgram experiment

From wikipedia:

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of notable social psychologyexperiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personalconscience. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology,[1] and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.[2]

The experiments began in July 1961. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the question: “Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?” In other words, “Was there a mutual sense of morality among those involved?” Milgram’s testing suggested that it could have been that the millions of accomplices were merely following orders, despite violating their deepest moral beliefs. The experiments have been repeated many times, with consistent results within societies, but different percentages across the globe.[3] The experiments were also controversial, and considered by some scientists[which?] to be unethical or psychologically abusive, motivating more thorough review boards for the use of human subjects.

 

 

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