AlphaPsy

Tuesday 31 October 2006

Peculiar Tastes

David Hume famously argued that rationality had everything to do with formal consistency of our choices, and nothing to do with the content of our individual preferences; Hume thought motives and preferences were immune to choice and argument. In this view, there is no way you could rationally judge a preference:

'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. 'Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. (Treatise of Human Nature, III.3).

This view has more or less become common currency among economists and rational choice theorists. But even they reject as mad some behaviors based on highly unusual preferences - what do you think, for example, of the man who fucked up his whole life for the pleasure of having a naked woman with rubber gloves clean up his house?

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Monday 30 October 2006

Sex Differences in Cognition: a primer

In keeping with Hugo's recent post, here is a very short introduction to the cognitive sciences of gender. It forms part of the AlphaPsy primers series, a very rough guide to naturalistic anthropology, written for the lay reader.

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Sunday 29 October 2006

Campaign Chronicles II

Few weeks ago, I noticed the willingness of Ségolène Royal, the favorite candidate for french socialist primary for presidential election, to tap into our naïve morality (“I am in favor of the just order.” Well, you’re not alone Ms Royal !). But recently, she has put on the table a much more controversial proposition, namely to create Citizens' Juries to evaluate public policies. This aroused a lot of indignation among politicians (who also are her adversaries). But one can also worry about the open-mindedness of scientists on public deliberation.

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Wednesday 25 October 2006

Methodological opportunism

In November the Ecole des hautes études in Paris will organize a conference about social sciences and the “threat” of reductionism.

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Monday 23 October 2006

What is neuroaesthetics about anyway ?

Brainethics has a very nice post introducing bioaesthetics, a field that endeavours to use "neuroscience to understand art and aesthetic behaviour". I'd like to take this opportunity to jump up on my soapbox and ask, what exactly do we want biology (or neuroscience) to say about art ? What are the questions that biology can hope to answer and art history or aesthetics cannot ?

Titian, Venus Anadyomene

Is that your amygdala lighting up ? Painting by Titian, Venus Anadyomene. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

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Saturday 21 October 2006

From Sudoku to Spinoza: The Hedonistic Side of Reasoning

We all have a friend who has spent some time trying to convince us that {insert here your personal bête noire, be it mathematics, philosophy or logic} was actually fun. All of these domains involve reasoning, by which I mean pondering on the reasons for our beliefs: mathematicians and logicians have to find proofs for their theorems and philosophers use reason to persuade us that their claims are true (some of them at least).

Despite their valiant attempts at making their favorite discipline sound sexy, you might remain unconvinced. The question I'd like to ask you then is: do you enjoy Sudoku? If you do then you might actually be enjoying reasoning, and your feelings when you search the missing numbers might not be that different from those of the philosopher who tries to understand metaphysics.


Portrait found here

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Friday 20 October 2006

Evolvability, contingency and convergence

Last month, I reported a Primer on Social Cognition in Current Biology. In the last issue is another interesting primer, on evolvability, and two short papers on contingency and convergence.

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Naive theories of gender differences in maths

An interesting study published in the last issue of Science sheds some new light on the "gender and math" controversy, (in)famously reignited last year by Larry Summers.

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Thursday 19 October 2006

Where do I sign up?

Oliver Curry, of the LSE, has just completed a "report" for Bravo (yes, the television network) in which he argues that in approximately 100,000 years the human species will fork into two sub-species...

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Wednesday 18 October 2006

Dennis Whistles

I heard through MindHacks that a new book has been published about rumors; they say an internet survey on rumors has been launched, some people have good reasons to think that it is founded by Procter and Gamble. Meanwhile, it is rumored that an online game of Chinese Whispers is provoking a fad. One hears all sorts of things...

"The Easter Bunny got into a car accident with Hulk Ogan": picture from the online game The Sentence.

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Tuesday 17 October 2006

The rampant manager and…the evolutionary psychology of personality

Is mating primacy as the most glamorous topic in evolutionary psychology being challenged? It is what a new study (featuring nothing less that the king of evolutionary psychology of mating David Buss) on the tactics of hierarchy negotiation in businessmen may suggest.

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Monday 16 October 2006

Still frightened of the Postmodern Scarecrows?

It's official: from Benedict XVI to Dan Dennett, debunking postmodernism is fashionable. Even in a feminist book review, one can read such things as:

In her last book, The Female Thing, Laurence Kipnis offers no answers but does a Derrida on the female situation and leaves us to sort out the awful mess.

As though the author was alluding to some entry in our mental lexicon, reading:

Derrida (to do a): to spoil a subject-matter. To obscure it with irrational sophistry. ex: "Your next exam shall deal with physical geography of the Netherlands. This time, please, don't do a derrida!" ; "In the eighties, talking seriously about AIDS became very difficult after Susan Sontag did a derrida on it"

To Derride: to demean one's claims to truth and accuracy with a spurious mixt of ideological and historical arguments; to debase a science or an academic field with the same technique (also: to do a derrida of it). Ex: "I wonder how long he will keep on derriding quantum mechanics without some real physicist stopping him".

A picture of the Hard Rock band Derrida; below: the Derrida Faux Leather Couch (which you can order here).

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Sunday 15 October 2006

Links Galore

We've been very busy lately repelling a huge spamming attack (thanks to the amazing french soft Spamplemousse for saving us!), while the naturalistic news were piling up. Here is a list of the posts you just escaped.

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Thursday 12 October 2006

Sweet dilemma

Last April, Michael Pollan - author, among other books, of "The Botany of Desire", see this post - published a new book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma". It aims primarily at giving us more information about the food we eat, and the food we should eat. I would recommend the book very strongly, but my lack of knowledge in the field makes me a gullible critic and, as a Frenchman spending some time in the USA, all references to the "French paradox" by American journalists are bound to hit a soft spot...


yummy!+++not so yummy...

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Wednesday 11 October 2006

How to Corax your Theory of Mind

This blog is supposed to deal with "Humanities and Human Nature"; but as you might have noticed, there is much of the latter and little of the former in it. To remedy this lamentable state of things, I decided to take a course in Greek Rhetoric this semester. Those who are still reading this will be glad to learn that I really had fun! I came across a jewel of a mind-twister, an argument called the Corax. I think the Corax and its use might shed light on the structure of our folk psychology (a.k.a. Theory of Mind).

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Tuesday 10 October 2006

Life's so unfair (says the dorso-lateral part of the prefrontal cortex)

Economists, when they're not busy pimping the free market as a solution to all the world's ills (such as global warming, unemployment, and high celibacy rates), come up with really cool games. One such game is called the Ultimatum game.

Giuseppe Cades, Judgment of Solomon

Solomon in an early version of the Ultimatum Game. Painting by Guiseppe Cades, Royal Academy of Arts, London

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Monday 9 October 2006

(Dis)comforting explanations

Explanations are necessary. Without them, hunter-gatherers would have trouble learning sophisticated hunting techniques and we would have trouble learning how to program our VCRs (equally terrible threats). Since natural selection tends to make us like things that are good for us, we would expect that being able to explain something would be agreeable. Alison Gopnik’s aptly titled paper “Explanation as Orgasm” makes this point very well. On the other hand, explanations can be disquieting: some might remember their first confrontations with psychology and neuroscience (“I did that because of my unconscious drives / PFC / short term memory limits?!?”) as being something of a distressing experiment. A very nice set of experiments published last year suggests why not all explanations are comforting.


Two explanations for life. Depending on your convictions and knowledge, either can be more or less comforting or discomforting. One thing is sure though: having a beard is necessary to explain life.

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Sunday 8 October 2006

The good, the bad and the guy from mixing memory

Chris, from mixing memory, has drawn my attention to a debate that currently takes place between Steven Pinker (the good) and George Lakoff (the bad). It was ignited by a very critical review of Lakoff's last book Whose Freedom? by Pinker. Lakoff responded to the review, and Chris offers his own rebuttal of Lakoff's defence. (Both the review and the answer can be read here, thanks to gene expression)

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Eye language vs. lip reading?

As you might have noticed, japanese emoticons and american ones differ (see illustration below). An empirical study by psychologists from these two countries (still in press) suggests that people from this two cultures differ in the way they perceive emotions expressed on faces: while easterners focus on eyes, westerners look at the mouth. Although weak, this difference might prove sufficent to have lead each culture in using different styles of emoticons, Masaki Yuki and his colleagues argue.

Illustration: a japanese smiley on the left and an american/european one on the right

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Saturday 7 October 2006

The emergence of a convention without selection

In a post on language evolution, Hugo lamented the fact that pragmatics and social cognition were not taken into account by students of the field. They usually focus their attention on evolutionary models of conventions among agents lacking theory of mind, that is to say the ability to think about what others are trying to communicate. They treat human communication as (non-human) animal communication (Vervet monkeys or bees for example). In a recent experiment, Galantucci adds to the growing evidence that adults (and children) are able to create and negotiate complex communication systems from scratch and relatively quickly, without a blind selective process.

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Friday 6 October 2006

Nails, Blackboards, Woodpeckers and Hiccups

The name of the 2006 Nobel Prizes for Improbable Research were disclosed yesterday night (you can witness the ceremony in video here). To my delight, one of the awards goes to three psychophysicists, who, at last, have tackled the question that's been haunting me for years: why do fingernails scratching blackboards, and other irksome noises, give you a toothache?

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Who killed Gwen Stacy?

Or why Superheroes need to know about physics' law of momentum conservation, causal deviance, possible world ontology and memetics.
Spider-man comic strip

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In madness they mistrust

A short notice of a short paper investigating whether clinicians hold an essentialist view on mental disorders, i.e. whether they consider that mental disorders represent natural kinds possessing "an underlying reality or true nature, shared by members of [the same] category". What is your guess? Well, clinicians doubt it, at least much more than for other medical disorders.

Adapted from The Cure of Folly, by H. Bosch, 1475

The 19th century German psychatrist Emil Kraepelin submitted to the medieval Cure of Folly. Adapted from The Cure of Folly by Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1475, now at the Museo del Prado, Madrid. See commentary on the original painting by C. G. Gross.

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Thursday 5 October 2006

The death of Terror Management Theory?

In a recent post on the psychology of religion, Hugo judged “dubious that we should be endowed with a fear of death so strong that we need to have other mechanisms to hold it in check”. Actually, Carlos Navarrete and Dan Fessler, two evolutionary psychologists, have already suggested that existential concerns are not an ecological category but rather can be subsumed under a larger category of adaptive challenges that prime coalitional thinking. There is a relation between death and religion, but it is not an adaptive one. People support religion when they are threatened not because it helps them alleviating their anxiety but rather because they advertise their adherence to their own group’s social norms in a situation where allies are potentially useful.

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Wednesday 4 October 2006

Evolution made saccharine

George Levine's book Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-Enchantment of the World, has just been published (and you can read a sample chapter here). It is a historical-philosophical essay that tries to make the point that Darwin was a romantic, and that natural selection is positively kawaï. I argue against the project of defeating the enemies of Darwinism by giving them a heart-shaped box of chocolates.

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Tuesday 3 October 2006

Long live the Majority!

"How should groups make decisions?" this old question is on the way of being answered, as researchers Reid Hastie and Tatsuya Kameda vindicate the use of the majority rule. In a paper published last year in Psychological Review, the authors show by means of extensive simulation and experiments that in a wide range of cases choosing the answer that is favored by most people in the group is the best way to go.

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Monday 2 October 2006

Disappointing is OK, deceiving is not

It has become a truism that trust is easier to destroy than to built. But can every wounded trust be healed? A new study shows that if we tend to forgive people who have been untrustworhty, we never regain complete trust in those who have deceived us (in the experiment at least).

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Sunday 1 October 2006

The naive theories of "Honey I shrunk the kids!"

Biomorphologist Michael C. LaBarbera has an amazing paper (actually a seven parts lesson) on the physics and biology of B-movie monsters (thanks to AL Daily for bringing me this one). It shows that cinema creatures consistently violates basic assumptions of biomorphology concerning scaling effects. This makes me wonder why our naive theories of physics and biology are so blissfully unaware of what it means for a living body to travel from Lilliput to Brobdingnag (and back).

The picture shows a giant radioactive ant from the movie Them!

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