Supporting Evidence

Research supporting my work on subjects that science has something to say about. A cuddly, fuzzy blanket of confirmation bias.

More boys than girls are born in the wake of war. Statistically beyond doubt, everywhere, and consistently. If you shoulder this question like it’s yours to answer it squeezes your think-bone till it taps out. Either there is:

  • Individually something in the nervous system of men and women, or at least of women that turns direct observation of their society at war into a temporary preference for boys.
  • or –
  • Some sort of “Community Organism” feedback system sending that message as instructions that are followed.

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Gender study finds 90% of people are biased against women

A new UN report has found at least 90% of men and women hold some sort of bias against females. The “Gender Social Norms” index analyzed biases in areas such as politics and education in 75 countries. There are no countries in the world with gender equality, the study found.

Pedro Conceição, head of UNDP’s Human Development Report Office said: “We have come a long way in recent decades to ensure that women have the same access to life’s basic needs as men. But gender gaps are still all too obvious in other areas, particularly those that challenge power relations and are most influential in actually achieving true equality. Today. the fight about gender equality is a story of bias and prejudices.”

  • Globally, close to 50% of men said they had more right to a job than women. Almost a third of respondents thought it was acceptable for men to hit their partners.
  • Zimbabwe had the highest amount of bias with only 0.27% of people reporting no gender bias at all. At the other end of the scale was Andorra where 72% of people reported no bias.
  • In Zimbabwe, 96% of people expressed a bias against women’s physical integrity – a measure covering support for violence against women and opposition to reproductive rights. In the Philippines, 91% of people held views that were detrimental to women’s physical integrity.
  • According to the report, about half of the world’s men and women feel that men make better political leaders.
  • In China, 55% of people thought men were better suited to be political leaders.
  • Around 39% of people in the US, which is yet to have a female president, thought men made better leaders. Globally, 40% of people thought men made better business executives. In the UK, 25% of people thought men should have more right to a job than women and said men made better business executives than women did. In India, that figure was 69%.

Share of seats in parliament held by women

Region Percentage
Arab States 18.3
East Asia & Pacific 20.3
Europe & Central Asia 21.2
Latin America & the Caribbean 31
South Asia 17.1
Sub-Saharan Africa 23.5
Source: United Nations Development Programme

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Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber are the authors of “The Enigma of Reason,” a new book from Harvard University Press. Their arguments about human reasoning have potentially profound implications for how we understand the ways human beings think and argue, and for the social sciences.

“Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from…

If reason is designed to generate sound judgments, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias. Imagine, Mercier and Sperber suggest, a mouse that thinks the way we do. Such a mouse, “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around,” would soon be dinner. To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or underappreciated threats—the human equivalent of the cat around the corner—it’s a trait that should have been selected against. The fact that both we and it survive, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive function, and that function, they maintain, is related to our “hyper-sociability.”

Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own…”

“…Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.

In a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question. Mercier, who works at a French research institute in Lyon, and Sperber, now based at the Central European University, in Budapest, point out that reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.”

Elizabeth Kolbert –  Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds – The New Yorker February 27, 2017, issue.

 

Henry Farrell: So, many people think of reasoning as a faculty for achieving better knowledge and making better decisions. You disagree. Why is the standard account of reasoning implausible?

HM: By and large, reasoning doesn’t fulfill this function very well. In many experiments — and countless real-life examples — reasoning does not drive people towards better knowledge or decisions. If people start out with the wrong intuitive idea, and then start reasoning, it rarely does them any good. They’re stuck on their initial wrong idea.

What makes reasoning fail is even more damning. Reasoning fails because it has a so-called ‘myside bias.’ This is what psychologists often call confirmation bias — that people mostly reason to find arguments that whatever they were already thinking is a good idea. Given this bias, it’s not surprising that people typically get stuck on their initial idea.

More or less everybody takes the existence of the myside bias for granted. Few readers will be surprised that it exists. And yet it should be deeply puzzling. Objectively, a reasoning mechanism that aims at sounder knowledge and better decisions should focus on reasons why we might be wrong and reasons why other options than our initial hunch might be correct. Such a mechanism should also critically evaluate whether the reasons supporting our initial hunch are strong. But reasoning does the opposite. It mostly looks for reasons that support our initial hunches and deems even weak, superficial reasons to be sufficient.

HF: So why did the capacity to reason evolve among human beings?

HM: We suggest that the capacity to reason evolved because it serves two main functions:

The first is to help people solve disagreements. Compared to other primates, humans cooperate a lot, and they evolved abilities to communicate in order to make cooperation more efficient. However, communication is a risky business: There’s always a risk that one might be lied to, manipulated or cheated. Hence, we carefully evaluate what people tell us. Indeed, we even tend to be overly cautious, rejecting messages that don’t fit well with our preconceptions.

Reasoning would have evolved in part to help us overcome these limitations and to make communication more powerful. Thanks to reasoning, we can try to convince others of things they would never have accepted purely on trust. And those who receive the arguments benefit by being given a much better way of deciding whether they should change their mind or not.

The second function is related but still distinct: It is to exchange justifications. Another consequence of human cooperativeness is that we care a lot about whether other people are competent and moral: We constantly evaluate others to see who would make the best cooperators. Unfortunately, evaluating others is tricky, since it can be very difficult to understand why people do the things they do. If you see your colleague George being rude with a waiter, do you infer that he’s generally rude, or that the waiter somehow deserved his treatment? In this situation, you have an interest in assessing George accurately and George has an interest in being seen positively. If George can’t explain his behavior, it will be very difficult for you to know how to interpret it, and you might be inclined to be uncharitable. But if George can give you a good reason to explain his rudeness, then you’re both better off: You judge him more accurately, and he maintains his reputation.

If we couldn’t attempt to justify our behavior to others and convince them when they disagree with us, our social lives would be immensely poorer and more complicated.

HF: So, if reasoning is mostly about finding arguments for whatever we were thinking in the first place, how can it be useful?

HM: Because this is only one aspect of reasoning: the production of reasons and arguments. Reasoning has another aspect, which comes into play when we evaluate other people’s arguments. When we do this, we are, on the whole, both objective and demanding. We are demanding in that we require the arguments to be strong before changing our minds — this makes obvious sense. But we are also objective: If we encounter a good argument that challenges our beliefs, we will take it into account. In most cases, we will change our mind — even if only by a little.

This might come as a surprise to those who have heard of phenomena like the “backfire effect,” under which people react to contrary arguments by becoming even more entrenched in their views. In fact, backfire effects seem to be extremely rare. In most cases, people change their minds — sometimes a little bit, sometimes completely — when exposed to challenging but strong arguments.

When we consider these two aspects of reasoning together, it is obvious why it is useful. Reasoning allows people who disagree to exchange arguments with each other, so they are in a better position to figure out who’s right. Thanks to reasoning, both those who offer arguments (and, hence, are more likely to get their message across) — and those who receive arguments (and, hence, are more likely to change their mind for the better) — stand to win. Without reasoning, disagreements would be immensely harder to resolve.

HF: Despite reason’s flaws, your book argues that it “in the right interactive context, works.” How can group interaction harness reason for beneficial ends?

HM: Reasoning should work best when a small number of people (fewer than six, say) who disagree about a particular point but share some overarching goal engage in discussion.

Group size matters for two reasons. Larger groups are less conducive to efficient argumentation because the normal back and forth of discussion breaks down when you have more than about five people talking together. You’ll see that at dinner parties: Four or five people can have a conversation, but larger groups either split into smaller ones, or end up in a succession of short “speeches.” On the other hand, smaller groups will necessarily encompass fewer ideas and points of view, lowering both the odds of disagreement and the richness of the discussion.

Disagreement is crucial because if people all agree and yet exchange arguments on a given topic, arguments supporting the consensus will pile up, and the group members are likely to become even more entrenched in their acceptation of the consensual view.

Finally, there has to be some commonality of interest among the group members. You’re not going to convince your fellow poker player to fold when she has a straight flush. However, it’s often relatively easy to find such a commonality of interest. For example, we all stand to gain from having more accurate beliefs.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the Network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts in the series can be found here.

Henry Farrell, washingtonpost.com © 1996-2020 The Washington Post

 

 

 

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Knowing Things We Never Learned:

Nearly all of us must struggle diligently to acquire even modest talent in Mathematics, Music, and Art. We encounter genius as a rare group of people who display an amazing gift that seems to come to them easily compared to our sweaty, grinding, display. People with this kind of talent are sometimes called savants. Below them are random individuals of great talent and below them, the rest of us in a bell curve spread from mediocre to hopeless. Yet effortless, genius-level mastery of these areas appears to be latent in our brains, modularized in you and me, right now. How to back up such a claim? We learn much about ourselves through the exceptions of pathology and extreme variation. A break in the pattern reveals the pattern.

There are three kinds of savants that reveal these “genius modules”. Continue reading

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I began meditating a few months back and it feels very positive, even transformative. That feeling is backed up empirically.

There are a number of interesting published studies on the effects of meditation but these two are amazing! Both have high strength of evidence. The titles below link to the full articles. Here’s the nutshell summary:

  1. Long term meditation alters brain anatomy in positive ways, such as larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter
  2. Meditation and yoga can rewrite our DNA and alter the gene expression of enduring trauma and stress correlates

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A number of my posts declare that there’s a feedback loop constraining variation from cultural norms and local genetic norms. Here’s one example:

The Face on the Cutting Room Floor

Policing observance of cultural behavior norms makes certain culturally approved traits into positive sexual selection traits. This has the effect of maintaining the status quo of the population and the culture. This is a bit of supporting evidence.


Selection, adaptation, inheritance and design in human culture:
The view from the Price equation

“A number of statements are made recurrently in summarising cultural evolutionary theory. One is that culture is a system of inheritance. Thus, humans have not just the standard one system of inheritance (genetics), but (at least) a second one, culture [5]. We have, in other words, a dual inheritance [3], and two inheritance systems entails two distinct fitnesses, genetic fitness, and cultural fitness. Another statement is that cultural evolution produces design-like properties that would not emerge without it [6,7]. The key insight of Darwinian genetic evolutionary theory was that design-like properties could be produced, over time, by selection processes. Thus, it is quite natural, seeing design-like properties in culture, to assume they must be produced by selection processes too. Still another generalization is that cultural evolution can increase genetic fitness. For example, this claim is implicit in the idea that having a second inheritance system is adaptive for coping with environmental fluctuations faster than those that can be tracked by genetic selection, but slower than those generally tracked by individual learning (see e.g. [8]). ‘Adaptive’ in this context means genetically adaptive—more survival, more babies—and so for the claim to work, cultural evolution would have not only to increase cultural fitness, but genetic fitness too.”  -Daniel Nettle

Download the paper (pdf format)183-preprint

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Hal Whitehead, Kevin N. Laland, Luke Rendell, Rose Thorogood & Andrew Whiten 
Nature Communications volume 10, Article number: 2405 (2019)

Abstract

Culture (behaviour based on socially transmitted information) is present in diverse animal species, yet how it interacts with genetic evolution remains largely unexplored. Here, we review the evidence for gene-culture coevolution in animals, especially birds, cetaceans and primates. We describe how culture can relax or intensify selection under different circumstances, create new selection pressures by changing ecology or behaviour, and favour adaptations, including in other species. Finally, we illustrate how, through culturally mediated migration and assortative mating, culture can shape population genetic structure and diversity. This evidence suggests strongly that animal culture plays an important evolutionary role, and we encourage explicit analyses of gene-culture coevolution in nature.

Link to the full article

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Winners interpret good luck as merit-based, even when the rules overtly favor them and no skill is involved. 

When I notice evidence-based research relating to my articles I am adding them.

“At the end of their game, people were asked if it had been fair. Regardless of the conditions, winners were more likely to say yes than losers. Even when the winners benefited from receiving either one or two strong cards from their opponent, they were twice as likely to judge it a fair game as the losers. What’s more, in most versions of the game winners were more likely than losers to attribute success in the game to talent – even though the game required very little.”

Link to the popular article 

Abstract
Growing disparities of income and wealth have prompted extensive survey research to measure the effects on public beliefs about the causes and fairness of economic inequality. However, observational data confound responses to unequal outcomes with highly correlated inequality of opportunity. This study uses a novel experiment to disentangle the effects of unequal outcomes and unequal opportunities on cognitive, normative, and affective responses. Participants were randomly assigned to positions with unequal opportunities for success. Results showed that both winners and losers were less likely to view the outcomes as fair or attributable to skill as the level of redistribution increased, but this effect of redistribution was stronger for winners. Moreover, winners were generally more likely to believe that the game was fair, even when the playing field was most heavily tilted in their favor. In short, it’s not just how the game is played, it’s also whether you win or lose.

Link to research journal 

 

 

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Another example of life experience heredity via an unknown process.

Excerpts from Scientific American

A stressed-out and traumatized father can leave scars in his children. New research suggests this happens because sperm “learn” paternal experiences via a mysterious mode of intercellular communication…

The findings are “novel and of very high impact, especially when we consider the impact of military service or other work environments that can confer high stress,” says Robert Rissman, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved with the research. “I think it would be important to better understand the specificity of the effect and how different types of stressors or strength of stressors can modulate this system.”

Article here

 

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