Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Beyond OWS: Problem #3: The Age of Unreason

What is society? Or, more importantly, what’s it for? And how do we want it to be?

It seems there are precious few asking questions like these. And while the Occupy Wall Street movement appears to be rebelling against the way society is structured today, and the direction in which it’s travelling, this rebellion is only the first step. Identifying that there’s a problem is one thing, diagnosing it in detail another. And then there’s the ultimate goal of figuring out how to fix it.

In this post I offer my take on the underlying issues with our conception of society and its function that I believe underlie the Occupy Wall Street movement’s grievances, and in a future post in this series, I’ll offer some suggested alternatives that might take us in a more fruitful direction.

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Beyond OWS: Problem #1: The Market Ain’t So Free

This post is one of my series on the Occupy Wall Street movement, on the problems that I believe are underlying the protest and, at the end of the series, some proposed solutions. This post is on the first of the three core problems: that the market makes us miserable:

The Occupy Wall Street movement began as a collective expression of outrage at the current economic conditions in the United States. Crippling public and private debt, high unemployment, gaping income inequality and a recession caused by excessive borrowing and reckless behaviour on Wall Street. Yet, at the same time that many people can’t find a job, there are massive bailouts for those on Wall Street who precipitated this economic disaster.

But these are just the surface problems. While many OWS protesters are championing these issues (among others), they’re but symptoms of a far deeper malaise. If the OWS movement is to go beyond being a protest, it needs to direct its outrage not only at the present economic circumstances, but at the deeper causes of those circumstances. And that’s what this post is about.

Because economics is wonderful tool, but a horrible master. And we let it become our master.

The word “economy” originally meant “efficiency” or “frugal”, particularly in terms of management of resources. It used to be an approach. But now it’s a thing, and it’s a thing that we serve.

This is arse-backwards.

Economics is a science that helps us understand how to manage resources to reach a desired end. If people desire X, the market will often be the most efficient process to produce X to meet that desire.

But sometime around the mid-20th Century (1944, to be precise – the year in which Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was published), we let economics stop being the arbiter of the means to achieve some valued end, and opened the door for economics to become the arbiter of the values themselves.

According to this ideology (now often called ‘neoliberal’), if the market deigns not to produce some product, that’s because we, by definition, don’t value that product. Likewise, if the market encourages the production of some product, that’s because, by definition, we value that product.

This is wrong.

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The Moral Psychology of the London Riots

Many of us have been struggling to comprehend what psychology, what such vicious and destructive behaviour as we’ve seen over the past few days in London. Behaviour that many of us wouldn’t flinch at calling baldly immoral.

Yet much of the discourse has so far struggled to grasp the psychology behind these acts, psychology that looks on the surface to be wild and irrational. But there is a rhyme, and even a reason, to the rioters’ and looters’ behaviour. This is not to excuse the behaviour, but it’s crucial to understand the psychology behind it particularly if we’re to attempt to prevent such behaviour from occurring again in the future.

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Norway, Mental Illness, Ideology and Computer Games

Tragedy piled upon tragedy. Needless to say, I was shocked and sickened by the news emanating from Norway of the atrocities enacted by Anders Behring Breivik. But I wasn’t only outraged by his actions, but also some of the sadly predictable responses to them. So, first up:

Reality Check

Despite the impression one might get from watching the evening news over the weekend, the world most of us live in today is safer, more tolerant, more pluralist, more just and less violent than at any other period in history.

It’s easy to become despondent at the news coming from Norway (or the double whammy if you’re a fan of Amy Winehouse). But remember that if we had today’s mass media presence 500 years ago, such appalling massacres, and worse, would be documented on an almost daily basis. Today their impact is all the more poignant because of their rarity.

Yet it is in response to such tragedies that the world struggles to improve. It’s in our collective outrage at the inhumanity of individuals like Behring Breivik that we work to make the world more tolerant, more peaceful, more just. We must not let ourselves become despondent. Nor should we let ourselves become filled with retributionist rage. Instead we must use this outrage to drive us towards positive ends.

Extremism Starts with Psychology

It’s natural for us to strive to make sense of such a senseless act. One of the obvious targets is ideology. Behring Breivik was clearly charged with a radical ideology that incorporated elements of nationalism, Christianity and social conservatism. But nationalism, Christianity and social conservatism aren’t the sole cause of his actions.

It’s not extremist views that make people like Behring Breivik. It’s the other way around. It’s unstable psychology that draws people like Behring Breivik to extremist ideologies. These ideologies then reinforce whatever twisted worldview people like this have and act to facilitate and condone their actions.

Ideologies are like catalysts rather than causes. Likewise with terrorism conducted under the banner of Islam.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work tirelessly to combat extremist attitudes and ideologies. But we can’t pretend that by banning all neo-Nazi groups we will rid the world of neo-Nazi views, nor the psychological proclivities that draw some people to those views.

What we also need to target with just as high a priority is understanding the psychological proclivities and how they lead to extremist attitudes, and how to work on preventing people disposed to violence from acting on their dispositions.

What this tragedy really compels us to do is place greater focus on mental health, education, anti-extremism and, of course, tighter gun control.

Games Don’t Make Killers

S0me opportunistic reporters have latched on to a handful of comments made by Behring Breivik is his rambling manifesto to the effect that computer games were a “part of my training-simulation” to suggest that violent video games played a causal role in his horrendous acts.

This, like the above idea that ‘ideology made him do it,’ is a spurious notion that only muddies our understanding of people like Behring Breivik and makes it harder for us get to the real root of his behaviour.

The evidence suggests that games don’t turn normal people into psychopathic killers, but that individuals with a disposition towards violence are drawn to violent video games.

Games, like ideology, may also act as a catalyst, but ridding the world of violent games (or movies, or television shows, or books etc) will likely have a negligible impact on the frequency of such actions.

And comments by some startlingly ignorant commentators only steer the conversation into unfruitful territory. Consider these ruminations from the article linked to above:

The Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace criticised O’Connor over his remarks and said that if even a few deranged minds could be “taken over the edge by an obsession with violent games” then the game should be banned.

“How can we allow the profits of the games industry and selfishness of games libertarians to place our increasingly dysfunctional society at further risk? Even if this prohibition were to save only one tragedy like this each twenty years it would be worth it.”

Mr Wallace might rethink his position if he applied the same argument to Behring Breivik’s Christian views, which might go something like this:

The Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace criticised O’Connor over his remarks and said that if even a few deranged minds could be “taken over the edge by an obsession with violent games religion” then the game religion should be banned.

“How can we allow the profits evangelism of the games industry religion and selfishness dogma of games libertarians the faithful to place our increasingly dysfunctional society at further risk? Even if this prohibition of religion were to save only one tragedy like this each twenty years it would be worth it.”

That last sentence is particularly stinging for the likes of Mr Wallace.

A Better Way

We may never rid the world of individuals like Behring Breivik, or Timothy McVeigh, or Osama bin Laden, no matter how many of them we imprison or execute. Human psychology is fickle, ignorance and insecurity is the norm, and we now have more power to impact the around us in destructive ways than ever before.

But we also have more power to impact the world in positive ways than ever before too. And the very fact that the entire world has spoken out in horror and condemnation of Behring Breivik’s actions reminds us that, on the whole, we do believe in peace, tolerance and justice.

With continued and determined focus on: comprehensive education; encouraging mental health and treating mental illness; taking deadly weapons out of the hands of citizens; challenging extremist views; understanding extremist psychology; developing stable and sustainable economies; and encouraging healthy rational public discourse, we can and do make the world a better place.

Ultimately the likes of Behring Breivik can never turn the tide of history towards peace, tolerance and justice.

The Limits of the Law

Alcohol can be fun stuff. But it can turn on you. Living in Sydney’s inner west, only a block from one of the highest concentration of pubs and bars in the city, I see it’s unsavoury side all-too often.

In fact, the normally convivial family-friendly disposition of Newtown’s King St turns decidedly ugly after midnight, especially on weekends. Clusters of drunken revellers, typically 20-somethings but often older, stumble around shouting, swearing, groping, imbibing kebabs of dubious repute and leaving little puddles of said kebab strategically placed on street corners.

What is truly striking is that just about everyone you encounter after midnight in the city or the inner west is in some state of drunkenness, often nearly paralytic, or as it’s commonly known around these parts: “rat-arsed.”

After midnight, our city turns into a menagerie of hominins in fancy shoes regressed to their primal roots, urged on by thoughts of sex, food and chest thumping competitiveness.

It’s undignified at best, descending into violence and public mayhem at worst.

And it exacts a cost not only in terms of throbbing heads and deep regrets the next morning. The cost is spread out on the whole of society.

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Why Cooperate?

There’s every possibility that I’ve missed something utterly obvious, but I’ve been reading up on the fickle nature of cooperation for my thesis, and I’ve found what appears to be a gaping hole in the literature.

There are countless studies that explore the challenges of encouraging cooperation – primarily via the use of the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a tool. There are also plenty of studies that look at cooperation from a social perspective, at the motivations that individual agents employ and the psychological benefits they receive from group activity.

But I’m yet to find a paper that clearly defines what cooperation really is and, more importantly, it’s benefits.

It seems the existing studies skip the question: why cooperate?, and barrel forth into questions about the difficulty of encouraging cooperation, apparently assuming that cooperation is a universally desirable outcome. Maybe it is, but I want to know precisely what are the benefits of cooperation that makes it so attractive.

So far I’ve come up with six reasons why cooperation is deemed desirable:

1) Force multiplication

Cooperation allows two or more individuals to combine forces to perform a task that would be impossible by one individual alone. A simple example would be lifting a heavy weight (we’ve all asked friends and family to pop around to shift that couch).

In fact, the task could be defined as anything that is beyond the capacities of an individual, whether that capacity is physical (strength), intellectual or spatiotemporal (manipulating two distant objects simultaneously). This doesn’t necessarily imply an improvement to efficiency, just that a previously impossible task is rendered possible.

2) Division of labour

Cooperation enables a large task to be broken up into smaller sub-tasks which are easier to perform than the whole task taken as one. This not only makes one large complex task into smaller simple tasks, but it allows a large serial task to be parallelised, thus improving efficiency.

3) Sepcialisation

Cooperation allows individuals to devote a greater proportion of their finite resources towards improving performance at a particular task. Combined with division of labour this not only improves efficiency but can also enable tasks that were previously impossible without specialisation.

Specialisation also allows individuals to capitalise on their intrinsic strengths and mitigate their intrinsic weaknesses by cooperating with a sympathetic individual.

4) Coordination

Division of labour and specialisation in turn allow greater coordination through devoting finite resources specifically towards directing effort in a way that is more efficient than if it is undertaken on an ad hoc basis. The benefit of coordination would only emerge if the energy expended coordinating is more than made up for by increased efficiency or productivity in the task at hand (a problem for corporations riddled with middle managers today…).

Coordination can also prevent conflicts of interest and potentially costly clashes (see the donkeys in the pic).

5) Trade

Cooperation also allows one individual to ‘trade’ a surplus for a surplus produced by another individual. This trade can be literal, such as trading goods, or it can be figurative, such as trading labour.

6) Risk mitigation

Cooperation enables a task to be unshackled from being dependent on any one individual, such that if that individual is in some way prevented from performing that task, the entire endeavour doesn’t collapse around their ears.

I’m sure there must be more benefits to cooperation. I reckon economics must have studied cooperation extensively, but I’m not as familiar with economic texts, so don’t really know where to dig to find the answers. Most of my research has been in evolutionary biology, behavioural ecology, game theory and ethics, and it seems the benefits of cooperation are largely taken for granted in these fields.

If you think I’ve missed anything, or you have some tips on where I can read up on research on cooperation, please do let me know.

Concrete Cognition and the Cogs of the Brain

It’s somewhat unfashionable in polite circles to refer to the brain as a machine. But I reckon that’s precisely what it is. This isn’t in any way diminishing the wonder of the mind or the brain, but the notion, when understood, dramatically elevates the wonder we ought to feel for machines.

The Difference Engine in the British Science Museum.

And I use the word “machine” deliberately rather than “computer.” It’s actually both, but the machine comes first. It’s in the properties and interactions of the cogs of the machine that we can ultimately find intelligence, and it’s insufficient to refer only to symbol manipulation or cognitive models. We must see that intelligence is built in to the physical properties of the brain. But in a particularly clever way – but not fundamentally much more clever than an abacus.

This approach also sheds light on why I find so distasteful the notion that all knowledge is knowledge-that – i.e. propositional or explicit knowledge that can be captured in propositional form, such as “I know the sky is blue.” I far prefer to start with knowledge-how – concrete knowledge and abilities, and things like “I know how to ride a bike” – as the foundation of knowledge.

Let me explain:

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Save Cows, Not People

Animal welfare is a pickle. It’s one of those issues that continues to vex me, largely because consideration for the well-being of animals doesn’t slot trivially into the normative moral framework that I’m developing as a part of my thesis.

A social contract-based moral system that sees everyone buy in to an agreement to limit their freedoms to impinge on others’ interests if others agree to limit their freedom to impinge on mine as well, with the intention that we’ll all be better able to pursue our interests (whatever they are), is straight forward enough. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls blah blah blah.

Be nice to me!

But it’s a contract between humans and other humans, not humans and animals. I am averse to inflicting suffering on other humans because I wouldn’t want such suffering to be inflicted on me. But why be averse to the suffering of animals? It’s not like cows can enter into a contract that says they’ll agree not to gore me if I’ll not kill and eat them.

Add to this that I don’t believe in intrinsic value or natural rights (although I do believe in a kind of overriding moral rights, but that’s another matter). So I can’t appeal to the suffering of animals as being intrinsically bad, and something that should be avoided for its own sake. I also don’t subscribe to the notion that animals have intrinsic rights and interests that are equivalent to our own; after all, I believe our interests are contingent on us being human and our rights stem from the social contract. Hmm. Pickle.

However, I think part of the the answer as to why we should care about the welfare and suffering of animals comes down to the moral psychology of the matter. It comes down to character, empathy, an aversion to violence and inflicting suffering etc. When a society develops to the level of cooperation and affluence that developed nations have, then fostering a strong sense of empathy is a useful character trait to encouraging more cooperation. And that empathy extends to many animals – although, interestingly, not all, and particularly not to non-anthropomorphic animals. Cuttlefish (which rock) don’t get afforded the same levels of empathy as pandas.

This position is still not unproblematic. If the society collectively disregarded the welfare of some animals, and their suffering didn’t trigger an empathy response, then it would be difficult for me to justify reversing that attitude.

It’s a pickle, and one I’m not finished un-pickling quite yet. I’d be interested to hear other perspectives on how animal welfare can factor into a social contract-based moral system.

In lieu of all this jumbling, the ABC’s Drum website asked me to pen something on the specific issue of why Australia rose up to ban live export of cattle in the wake of shocking images of mistreatment in Indonesian abattoirs broadcast on current affairs programme, Four Corners, yet remains ambivalent towards manifold cases of human suffering domestically and worldwide.

My response to the question essentially consists of two elements: emotionally salient imagery elicits a stronger moral response than diluted reports or rational arguments about human suffering around the world; and this case of mistreatment of cattle was a ‘perfect moral storm’ in that it hit all at once, engaged a nation with morally salient imagery and the problem itself was relatively easily solved, unlike most problems of human suffering around the world.

It’s one theory to explain the apparent hypocrisy of Australia’s response – although I don’t think it’s strictly ‘hypocrisy’ because the cases of the mistreatment of cattle and the cases of human rights abuses are not identical, so it’s not surprising they’re not morally equivalent. Doesn’t mean there isn’t some double standard going on, but it’s not a black-and-white-and-black case of hypocrisy.

Interestingly – or perhaps sadly – the comments to the piece have already fired up. Most miss the point of my piece – I’m not actually arguing that this is how Australia should have responded, only that this is how it did (seems many commenters fail to distinguish between a descriptive and a prescriptive thesis). I’m also not suggesting banning live exports is without cost, nor that not intervening in human rights abuses worldwide is justified. But then, one shouldn’t read the comments. That, at least, is clearly a prescriptive statement…

Where’s Tim?

I’m back, that’s where I am. Back in Sydney, that is, after a month abroad jaunting across Europe. My first such jaunt to said continent. So you can expect a greater volume of posts on Ockham’s Beard once again. Cheer!

As for the trip, it kicked off in Riga, Latvia, at the 7th International Symposium of Cognition, Logic and Communication “Morality and the Cognitive Sciences”, where I gave a paper on the core theme of my thesis, titled Evolution and Moral Ecology.

Guess where this photo was taken (clue: look closely at the glasses).

The symposium was bloody spectacular. Some top people attended, including Stephen Stich (who gave a wonderful synopsis of how our moral psychology evolved), Jesse Prinz (who also tackled the evolution of morality), Michael Bishop (who can put away a beer or two as well as deliver a compelling talk), Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (who is a powerhouse in moral psychology) and may others.

Riga is also a gorgeous city with a rich history (and it’s filled with stunningly beautiful women). It was a pleasure just wandering the streets, getting taste of the culture (and the beer).

Next stop was Turkey, where I caught up with two old friends of mine who are on a six-month tour of the world. Turkey was spectacular. Istanbul is a vibrant and lively city, very cosmopolitan and a wondrous mix of the ancient and the modern.

We then ventured into central Turkey to Cappadocia, home of the ‘fairy chimneys’, which are conical towers of soft stone into which peoples over the last millennia have carved out their homes. Goreme, the town at the centre of the region, is one of the nicest touristy places I’ve visited – the Kelebek hotel is amazing, with rooms carved out of stone, along with excellent service, great food and friendly staff.

After Turkey was Rome, which is a bizarre mix of ancient relics and modern hubub. The scooter riders, in particular, are entertaining, if menacing, for their suicidal tendencies. Then there’s the Pantheon. Bugger me, it’s breathtaking.

Then was the overnight train to Paris, which wasn’t necessarily the best option in the world – it ran four hours late, was uncomfortable, the food in the dining car was expensive and terrible. But I made it.

And Paris. Holy cow. A good friend of mine once remarked that if aliens arrive and declare that we can save only one city from their Death Rays, the world would huddle for a couple of minutes and announce with unanimity that it would be Paris.

Hanging with the big D in the British Natural History Museum - a modern temple to reason.

The experience was also enhanced by forgoing the usual hotel and renting an apartment for a week. It was bloody amazing, with a fully equipped kitchen, two gorgeous loft bedrooms and was located right in the middle of Marais, a funky district close to just about everything.

A EuroStar to London later, and another week was spent familiarising myself with ol’ blighty. Curries were eaten, museums were devoured. Also caught up with a branch of my family that I’d never met – even ate an eel at the last of the family eel and pie shops (no, they don’t sell eel pies – that’s a ridiculous notion).

And in between all that, I even managed to put out an issue of Australian Life Scientist. No-one really knows how, but it worked.

Sadly I didn’t manage to extend my jaunt to include the conference in Provence, where I had hoped to give a paper on the burgeoning idea of Synthesis. Oh well, next time.

And now I’m back. Cor. I’m tired just reading through all that. And bankrupt. But hey.

So, I pretty much bypassed May in Australia. Did I miss anything interesting?

The Poverty of Postmodernism

You may not realise it, but you’ve probably been poisoned by postmodernism. No-one who lived through the 1970s would have escaped untainted. And just about anyone who underwent schooling or a university education in the 1980s or 1990s received a crippling dose. I was entirely oblivious to my own indoctrination during my undergraduate in the early ‘90s until only a few years ago.

You can blame postmodernism for the banalities of political correctness.

You can blame it for making contemporary art ugly and incomprehensible.

You can blame it for moral relativism, and the inability to criticise individuals from other cultures when they do plainly heinous things.

You can blame it for rampant individualism and greed.

You can also blame it for words like ‘deconstruction,’ ‘hermeneutics,’ and my favourite, ‘subversion.’ You can even blame it for the identity crisis afflicting the political Left.

The good news is that postmodernism is philosophically defunct. Deep exhale. We can all let it go now. Let it sink to the bottom of the Swamp of Bankrupt Ideas. And we can move on to firmer conceptual territory, in doing so discovering the world is, in fact, more (and less) explicable than we probably think, and intractable problems – like multiculturalism, for one – are more solvable than we realise.

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