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Archive for August 12th, 2016

How long is the reach of reason? Pretty slow and forgotten in the shorter terms?

Here’s a TED first: an animated Socratic dialog!

In a time when irrationality seems to rule both politics and culture, has reasoned thinking finally lost its power?

Watch as psychologist Steven Pinker is gradually, brilliantly persuaded by philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein that reason is actually the key driver of human moral progress, even if its effect sometimes takes generations to unfold.

The dialog was recorded live at TED, and animated, in incredible, often hilarious, detail by Cognitive

Steven Pinker. Psychologist
Steven Pinker questions the very nature of our thoughts — the way we use words, how we learn, and how we relate to others.
In his best-selling books, he has brought sophisticated language analysis to bear on topics of wide general interest. Full bio

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Philosopher and writer
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein writes novels and nonfiction that explore questions of philosophy, morality and being. Full bio
Filmed in Feb. 2012

[“Rebecca Newberger Goldstein”] [“Steven Pinker”] [“The Long Reach of Reason”]

Cabbie: Twenty-two dollars.

Steven Pinker: Okay.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Reason appears to have fallen on hard times: Popular culture plumbs new depths of dumbth and political discourse has become a race to the bottom.

We’re living in an era of scientific creationism, 9/11 conspiracy theories, psychic hotlines, and a resurgence of religious fundamentalism.

People who think too well are often accused of elitism, and even in the academy, there are attacks on logocentrism, the crime of letting logic dominate our thinking.

1:07 SP: But is this necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps reason is overrated.

Many pundits have argued that a good heart and steadfast moral clarity are superior to triangulations of overeducated policy wonks, like the best and brightest… that dragged us into the quagmire of Vietnam.

And wasn’t it reason that gave us the means to despoil the planet and threaten our species with weapons of mass destruction? (Kind of needing a taxonomy for defining various basis for reasons?)

In this way of thinking, it’s character and conscience, not cold-hearted calculation, that will save us.

Besides, a human being is not a brain on a stick. My fellow psychologists have shown that we’re led by our bodies and our emotions and use our puny powers of reason merely to rationalize our gut feelings after the fact. (All kinds of biases?)

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
ted.com|By Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

 RNG: How could a reasoned argument logically entail the ineffectiveness of reasoned arguments? Look, you’re trying to persuade us of reason’s impotence. You’re not threatening us or bribing us, suggesting that we resolve the issue with a show of hands or a beauty contest.

By the very act of trying to reason us into your position, you’re conceding reason’s potency. Reason isn’t up for grabs here. It can’t be. You show up for that debate and you’ve already lost it.

SP: Can reason lead us in directions that are good or decent or moral? After all, you pointed out that reason is just a means to an end, and the end depends on the reasoner’s passions.

Reason can lay out a road map to peace and harmony if the reasoner wants peace and harmony, but it can also lay out a road map to conflict and strife if the reasoner delights in conflict and strife. Can reason force the reasoner to want less cruelty and waste?

 RNG: All on its own, the answer is no, but it doesn’t take much to switch it to yes. You need two conditions:

The first is that reasoners all care about their own well-being. That’s one of the passions that has to be present in order for reason to go to work, and it’s obviously present in all of us. We all care passionately about our own well-being.

The second condition is that reasoners are members of a community of reasoners who can affect one another’s well-being, can exchange messages, and comprehend each other’s reasoning. And that’s certainly true of our gregarious and loquatious species, well endowed with the instinct for language.

 SP: Well, that sounds good in theory, but has it worked that way in practice? In particular, can it explain a momentous historical development that I spoke about five years ago here at TED?

Namely, we seem to be getting more humane. Centuries ago, our ancestors would burn cats alive as a form of popular entertainment. Knights waged constant war on each other by trying to kill as many of each other’s peasants as possible. Governments executed people for frivolous reasons, like stealing a cabbage or criticizing the royal garden. The executions were designed to be as prolonged and as painful as possible, like crucifixion, disembowelment, breaking on the wheel. Respectable people kept slaves. For all our flaws, we have abandoned these barbaric practices.

 RNG: So, do you think it’s human nature that’s changed?

SP: Not exactly. I think we still harbor instincts that can erupt in violence, like greed, tribalism, revenge, dominance, sadism. But we also have instincts that can steer us away, like self-control, empathy, a sense of fairness, what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.

RNG: So if human nature didn’t change, what invigorated those better angels?

4:41 SP: Well, among other things, our circle of empathy expanded. Years ago, our ancestors would feel the pain only of their family and people in their village. But with the expansion of literacy and travel, people started to sympathize with wider and wider circles, the clan, the tribe, the nation, the race, and perhaps eventually, all of humanity.

5:02 RNG: Can hard-headed scientists really give so much credit to soft-hearted empathy?

5:07 SP: They can and do. Neurophysiologists have found neurons in the brain that respond to other people’s actions the same way they respond to our own. Empathy emerges early in life, perhaps before the age of one. Books on empathy have become bestsellers, like “The Empathic Civilization” and “The Age of Empathy.”

5:25 RNG: I’m all for empathy. I mean, who isn’t? But all on its own, it’s a feeble instrument for making moral progress. For one thing, it’s innately biased toward blood relations, babies and warm, fuzzy animals.

As far as empathy is concerned, ugly outsiders can go to hell. And even our best attempts to work up sympathy for those who are unconnected with us fall miserably short, a sad truth about human nature that was pointed out by Adam Smith.

 Adam Smith: Let us suppose that the great empire of China was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe would react on receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people. He would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure with the same ease and tranquility as if no such accident had happened. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight, but provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren.

6:38 SP: But if empathy wasn’t enough to make us more humane, what else was there?

6:43 RNG: Well, you didn’t mention what might be one of our most effective better angels: reason. Reason has muscle. It’s reason that provides the push to widen that circle of empathy. Every one of the humanitarian developments that you mentioned originated with thinkers who gave reasons for why some practice was indefensible. They demonstrated that the way people treated some particular group of others was logically inconsistent with the way they insisted on being treated themselves.

7:17 SP: Are you saying that reason can actually change people’s minds? Don’t people just stick with whatever conviction serves their interests or conforms to the culture that they grew up in?

7:27 RNG: Here’s a fascinating fact about us: Contradictions bother us, at least when we’re forced to confront them, which is just another way of saying that we are susceptible to reason. And if you look at the history of moral progress, you can trace a direct pathway from reasoned arguments to changes in the way that we actually feel. Time and again, a thinker would lay out an argument as to why some practice was indefensible, irrational, inconsistent with values already held.

Their essay would go viral, get translated into many languages, get debated at pubs and coffee houses and salons, and at dinner parties, and influence leaders, legislators, popular opinion. Eventually their conclusions get absorbed into the common sense of decency, erasing the tracks of the original argument that had gotten us there. Few of us today feel any need to put forth a rigorous philosophical argument as to why slavery is wrong or public hangings or beating children. By now, these things just feel wrong. But just those arguments had to be made, and they were, in centuries past.

8:45 SP: Are you saying that people needed a step-by-step argument to grasp why something might be a wee bit wrong with burning heretics at the stake?

8:52 RNG: Oh, they did. Here’s the French theologian Sebastian Castellio making the case.

8:58 Sebastian Castellio: Calvin says that he’s certain, and other sects say that they are. Who shall be judge? If the matter is certain, to whom is it so? To Calvin? But then, why does he write so many books about manifest truth? In view of the uncertainty, we must define heretics simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill heretics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, since each is sure of himself.

9:19 SP: Or with hideous punishments like breaking on the wheel?

9:22 RNG: The prohibition in our constitution of cruel and unusual punishments was a response to a pamphlet circulated in 1764 by the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria.

Cesare Beccaria: As punishments become more cruel, the minds of men, which like fluids always adjust to the level of the objects that surround them, become hardened, and after a hundred years of cruel punishments, breaking on the wheel causes no more fear than imprisonment previously did. For a punishment to achieve its objective, it is only necessary that the harm that it inflicts outweighs the benefit that derives from the crime, and into this calculation ought to be factored the certainty of punishment and the loss of the good that the commission of the crime will produce. Everything beyond this is superfluous, and therefore tyrannical.

SP: But surely antiwar movements depended on mass demonstrations and catchy tunes by folk singers and wrenching photographs of the human costs of war.

RNG: No doubt, but modern anti-war movements reach back to a long chain of thinkers who had argued as to why we ought to mobilize our emotions against war, such as the father of modernity, Erasmus.

Erasmus: The advantages derived from peace diffuse themselves far and wide, and reach great numbers, while in war, if anything turns out happily, the advantage redounds only to a few, and those unworthy of reaping it. One man’s safety is owing to the destruction of another. One man’s prize is derived from the plunder of another. The cause of rejoicings made by one side is to the other a cause of mourning. Whatever is unfortunate in war, is severely so indeed, and whatever, on the contrary, is called good fortune, is a savage and a cruel good fortune, an ungenerous happiness deriving its existence from another’s woe.

 SP: But everyone knows that the movement to abolish slavery depended on faith and emotion. It was a movement spearheaded by the Quakers, and it only became popular when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” became a bestseller.

RNG: But the ball got rolling a century before. John Locke bucked the tide of millennia that had regarded the practice as perfectly natural. He argued that it was inconsistent with the principles of rational government.

John Locke: Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by common to everyone of that society and made by the legislative power erected in it, a liberty to follow my own will in all things where that rule prescribes not, not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man, as freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature.

11:54 SP: Those words sound familiar. Where have I read them before? Ah, yes.

Mary Astell: If absolute sovereignty be not necessary in a state, how comes it to be so in a family? Or if in a family, why not in a state? Since no reason can be alleged for the one that will not hold more strongly for the other, if all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves, as they must be if being subjected to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of men be the perfect condition of slavery?

RNG: That sort of co-option is all in the job description of reason. One movement for the expansion of rights inspires another because the logic is the same, and once that’s hammered home, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to ignore the inconsistency.

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement inspired the movements for women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights and even animal rights. But fully two centuries before, the Enlightenment thinker Jeremy Bentham had exposed the indefensibility of customary practices such as the cruelty to animals.

Jeremy Bentham: The question is not, can they reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer?

 RNG: And the persecution of homosexuals.

JB: As to any primary mischief, it’s evident that it produces no pain in anyone. On the contrary, it produces pleasure. The partners are both willing. If either of them be unwilling, the act is an offense, totally different in its nature of effects. It’s a personal injury. It’s a kind of rape. As to the any danger exclusive of pain, the danger, if any, much consist in the tendency of the example. But what is the tendency of this example? To dispose others to engage in the same practices. But this practice produces not pain of any kind to anyone.

13:43 SP: Still, in every case, it took at least a century for the arguments of these great thinkers to trickle down and infiltrate the population as a whole. It kind of makes you wonder about our own time. Are there practices that we engage in where the arguments against them are there for all to see but nonetheless we persist in them?

14:00 RNG: When our great grandchildren look back at us, will they be as appalled by some of our practices as we are by our slave-owning, heretic-burning, wife-beating, gay-bashing ancestors?

14:13 SP: I’m sure everyone here could think of an example.

14:16 RNG: I opt for the mistreatment of animals in factory farms.

14:20 SP: The imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders and the toleration of rape in our nation’s prisons.

14:24 RNG: Scrimping on donations to life-saving charities in the developing world.

14:29 SP: The possession of nuclear weapons.

14:31 RNG: The appeal to religion to justify the otherwise unjustifiable, such as the ban on contraception.

14:38 SP: What about religious faith in general?

14:40 RNG: Eh, I’m not holding my breath.

14:42 SP: Still, I have become convinced that reason is a better angel that deserves the greatest credit for the moral progress our species has enjoyed and that holds out the greatest hope for continuing moral progress in the future.

14:55 RNG: And if, our friends, you detect a flaw in this argument, just remember you’ll be depending on reason to point it out.

Note: Reason is a continuous process, for individual and generations, and is an integral part of our survival instinct. If the women are taught to reason and reflect early on, the new generations will be inducted to reflect and learn to be pessimistic on many idiosyncrasies.

The educated mothers will generate a developing survival instinct. Those left on their own with truncated and incomplete knowledge of facts and discoveries will generate a disintegrating survival instinct. In all cases, state governments play a central and critical function in developing a mature survival instinct for the species.

Why it pays to be grumpy and bad-tempered

  • By Zaria Gorvett. 10 August 2016

On stage he’s a loveable, floppy-haired prince charming. Off camera – well let’s just say he needs a lot of personal space. He hates being a celebrity. He resents being an actor. To his ex-girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley’s friends he was apparently known as ‘Grumpelstiltskin’. (A typical introvert who has to temporarily act extrovert?)

Hugh Grant may be famed for being moody and a little challenging to work with. But could a grumpy attitude be the secret to his success?

The pressure to be positive has never been greater. Cultural forces have whipped up a frenzied pursuit of happiness, spawning billion-dollar book sales, a cottage industry in self-help and plastering inspirational quotes all over the internet.

Now you can hire a happiness expert, undertake training in ‘mindfulness’, or seek inner satisfaction via an app.

The US army currently trains its soldiers – over a million people – in positive psychology and optimism is taught in UK schools.

Meanwhile the ‘happiness index’ has become an indicator of national wellbeing to rival GDP.

The truth is, pondering the worst has some clear advantages. Cranks may be superior negotiators, more discerning decision-makers and cut their risk of having a heart attack. Cynics can expect more stable marriages, higher earnings and longer lives – though, of course, they’ll anticipate the opposite.

Good moods on the other hand come with substantial risks – sapping your drive, dimming attention to detail and making you simultaneously gullible and selfish. Positivity is also known to encourage binge drinking, overeating and unsafe sex.

Andrew Bossone commented and shared this link after receiving feedbacks on his statement:

Does anyone have the cure for chronic cynicism?

All you people are wrong! http://www.bbc.com/…/20160809-why-it-pays-to-be-grumpy…

Being bad-tempered and pessimistic helps you to earn more, live longer and enjoy a healthier marriage. It’s almost enough to put a smile on the dourest of faces.
bbc.com|By Zaria Gorvett

At the centre of it all is the notion our feelings are adaptive: anger, sadness and pessimism aren’t divine cruelty or sheer random bad luck – they evolved to serve useful functions and help us thrive.

Take anger. From Newton’s obsessive grudges to Beethoven’s tantrums – which sometimes came to blows – it seems as though visionary geniuses often come with extremely short tempers. There are plenty of examples to be found in Silicon Valley. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is famed for his angry outbursts and insults (such as “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”) yet they haven’t stopped him building a $300 billion company.

For years, the link remained a mystery.

Then in 2009 Matthijs Baas from the University of Amsterdam decided to investigate. He recruited a group of willing students and set to work making them angry in the name of science. Half the students were asked to recall something which had irritated them and write a short essay about it. “This made them a bit angrier, though they weren’t quite driven to full-blown fits of rage,” he says. The other half of the group were made to feel sad.

Next the two teams were pitched against each other in a game designed to test their creativity. They had 16 minutes to think of as many ways as possible to improve education at the psychology department. As Baas expected, the angry team produced more ideas – at least to begin with. Their contributions were also more original, repeated by less than 1% of the study’s participants.

Crucially, angry volunteers were better at moments of haphazard innovation, or so-called “unstructured” thinking. Let’s say you’re challenged to think about possible uses for a brick. While a systematic thinker might suggest ten different kinds of building, it takes a less structured approach to invent a new use altogether, such as turning it into a weapon.

In essence, creativity is down to how easily your mind is diverted from one thought path and onto another. In a situation requiring fight or flight, it’s easy to see how turning into a literal “mad genius” could be life-saving.

“Anger really prepares the body to mobilise resources – it tells you that the situation you’re in is bad and gives you an energetic boost to get you out of it,” says Baas.

To understand how this works, first we need to get to grips with what’s going on in the brain. Like most emotions, anger begins in the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure responsible for detecting threats to our well-being. It’s extremely efficient – raising the alarm long before the peril enters your conscious awareness.

Then it’s up to chemical signals in the brain to get you riled up. As the brain is flooded with adrenaline it initiates a burst of impassioned, energetic fury which lasts for several minutes. Breathing and heart rate accelerate and blood pressure skyrockets. Blood rushes into the extremities, leading to the distinctive red face and throbbing forehead veins people get when they’re annoyed.

Though it’s thought to have evolved primarily to prepare the body for physical aggression, this physiological response is known to have other benefits, boosting motivation and giving people the gall to take mental risks.

All these physiological changes are extremely helpful – as long as you get a chance to vent your anger by wrestling a lion or screaming at co-workers. Sure, you might alienate a few people, but afterwards your blood pressure should go back to normal. Avoiding grumpiness has more serious consequences.

The notion that repressed feelings can be bad for your health is ancient.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle was a firm believer in catharsis (he invented the modern meaning of the word); viewing tragic plays, he conjectured, allowed punters to experience anger, sadness and guilt in a controlled environment. By getting it all out in the open, they could purge themselves of these feelings all in one go.

His philosophy was later adopted by Sigmund Freud, who instead championed the cathartic benefits of the therapist’s couch.

Then in 2010 a team of scientists decided to take a look. They surveyed a group of 644 patients with coronary artery disease to determine their levels of anger, suppressed anger and tendency to experience distress, and followed them for between five and ten years to see what happened next.

Over the course of the study, 20% experienced a major cardiac event and 9% percent died. Initially it looked like both anger and suppressed anger increased the likelihood of having a heart attack. But after controlling for other factors, the researchers realised anger had no impact – while suppressing it increased the chances of having a heart attack by nearly 3-fold.

It’s still not known exactly why this occurs, but other studies have shown that suppressing anger can lead to chronic high blood pressure.

And not all benefits are physical: anger can help with negotiating, too.

A major flashpoint for aggression is the discovery that someone does not value your interests highly enough. It involves inflicting costs – the threat of physical violence – and withdrawing benefits – loyalty, friendship, or money – to help them see their mistake.

Support for this theory comes from the faces we pull when angry. Research suggests they aren’t arbitrary movements at all, but specifically aimed at increasing our physical strength in the eyes of our opponent. Get it right and aggression can help you advance your interests and increase your status – it’s just an ancient way of bargaining.

In fact, scientists are increasingly recognising that grumpiness may be beneficial to the full range of social skills – improving language skills, memory and making us more persuasive.

“Negative moods indicate we’re in a new and challenging situation and call for a more attentive, detailed and observant thinking style,” says Joseph Forgas, who has been studying how emotions affect our behaviour for nearly four decades.

In line with this, research has also found that feeling slightly down enhances our awareness of social cues. Intriguingly, it also encourages people to act in a more – not less – fair way towards others.

Harsh, but fair

Though happiness is often thought of as intrinsically virtuous, the emotion brings no such benefits. In one study, a group of volunteers was made to feel disgusted, sad, angry, fearful, happy, surprised or neutral and invited to play the “ultimatum game”.

In the game, the first player is given some money and asked how they’d like to divide it between themselves and another player.

Then the second player gets to decide whether or not to accept. If they agree, the money is split how the first player proposed. If not, neither player gets any money.

Happier participants keep more of the prize for themselves, while those in a sad mood are significantly less selfish

The ultimatum game is often used as a test of our sense of fairness by showing whether you expect to get a 50-50 share or whether you are happy for each person to be in it for themselves. Interestingly, all negative emotions led to more rejections by the second player, which might suggest that these feelings enhance our sense of fairness and the need for everyone to be treated equally.

Reversing the set-up reveals this is not just a case of sour grapes, either.

The “dictator game” has exactly the same rules except this time the second player has no say whatsoever – they simply receive whatever the first player decides not to keep. It turns out that happier participants keep more of the prize for themselves, while those in a sad mood are significantly less selfish.

“People who are feeling slightly down pay better attention to external social norms and expectations, and so they act in a fairer and just way towards others,” says Forgas.

In some situations, happiness carries far more serious risks. It’s associated with the cuddle hormone, oxytocin, which a handful of studies have shown reduces our ability to identify threats. In prehistoric times, happiness would have left our ancestors vulnerable to predators. In modern life, it prevents us paying due attention to dangers such as binge drinking, overeating and unsafe sex.

“Happiness functions like a shorthand signal that we’re safe and it’s not necessary to pay too much attention to the environment,” he says. Those in a continuous happy haze may miss important cues. Instead, they may be over-reliant on existing knowledge – leaving them prone to serious errors of judgement.

Those in a good mood were less able to think sceptically and were significantly more gullible

In one study, Forgas and colleagues from the University of New South Wales, Australia, put volunteers in either a happy or sad mood by screening films in the laboratory. Then he asked them to judge the truth of urban myths, such as that power lines cause leukaemia or the CIA murdered President Kennedy. Those in a good mood were less able to think sceptically and were significantly more gullible.

Next Forgas used a first-person shooter game to test if good moods might also lead people to rely on stereotyping. As he predicted, those in a good mood were more likely to aim at targets wearing turbans.

Of all the positive emotions, optimism about the future may have the most ironic effects. Like happiness, positive fantasies about the future can be profoundly de-motivating. “People feel accomplished, they relax, and they do not invest the necessary effort to actually realise these positive fantasies and daydreams,” says Gabriele Oettingen from New York University.

Graduates who fantasise about success at work end up earning less, for instance.

Patients who daydream about getting better make a slower recovery.

In numerous studies, Oettingen has shown that the more wishful your thinking, the less likely any of it is to come true. “People say ‘dream it and you will get it’ – but that’s problematic,” she says. Optimistic thoughts may also put the obese off losing weight and make smokers less likely to plan to quit.

Defensive pessimism

Perhaps most worryingly, Oettingen believes the risks may operate on a societal level, too.

When she compared articles in the newspaper USA Today with economic performance a week or a month later, she found that the more optimistic the content, the more performance declined.

Next she looked at presidential inaugural addresses – and found that more positive speeches predicted a lower employment rate and GDP in during their time in office.

Combine these unnerving findings with optimism bias – the tendency to believe you’re less at risk of things going wrong than other people – and you’re asking for trouble.

Instead, you might want to consider throwing away your rose-tinted spectacles and adopting a glass half-empty outlook. “Defensive pessimism” involves employing Murphy’s Law, the cosmic inevitability that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. By anticipating the worst, you can be prepared when it actually happens.

It works like this. Let’s say you’re giving a talk at work. All you have to do is think of the worst possible outcomes – tripping up on your way to the stage, losing the memory stick which contains your slides, computer difficulties, awkward questions (truly accomplished pessimists will be able to think of many, many more) – and hold them in your mind. Next you need to think of some solutions.

Psychologist Julie Norem from Wellesley College, Massachusetts, is an expert pessimist.

“I’m a little clumsy, especially when I’m anxious, so I make sure to wear low-heeled shoes. I get there early to scope out the stage and make sure that there aren’t cords or other things to trip over. I typically have several backups for my slides: I can give the talk without them if necessary, I email a copy to the organizers, carry a copy on a flash drive, and bring my own laptop to use…” she says. Only the paranoid survive, as they say.

So the next time someone tells you to “cheer up” – why not tell them how you’re improving your sense of fairness, reducing unemployment and saving the world economy? You’ll be having the last laugh – even if it is a world-weary, cynical snort.


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