(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Psychology

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it people like me”*…

The Cummings Center for the History of Psychology has a large collection of some of the most important apparatus and objects related to psychological science and practice covering the past 150 years.  There are brass chronoscopes from the 1800s that measured reaction time in one-thousandths of a second.  There are a variety of rat mazes, tachistoscopes, and Skinner boxes.  The “shock” machine used by Stanley Milgram in his famous obedience studies is in the Center’s collections as are a Bobo doll from Albert Bandura’s research, guard uniforms from Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison study, a surrogate monkey head from Harry Harlow’s studies of love in monkeys, and one of B. F. Skinner’s air cribs.  The Center is always looking to add to its collections, including items that were of questionable scientific value.  One such item is the Psycho-Phone [pictured above].

Similar in principle to audio devices today that play messages during a person’s sleep, for example, alleging sleep learning, the Psycho-Phone was the invention of Alois Benjamin Saliger (1880-1969) who patented his machine in 1932 as an “Automatic Time-Controlled Suggestion Machine.”  The device was essentially an Edison-style phonograph with a timer that played the contents from a wax cylinder during the period of sleep.  Saliger believed that the messages delivered during sleep would enter a person’s unconscious and have a powerful influence on the individual’s behavior…

The machine was quite expensive, selling for $235 in 1929.  That would be the equivalent of $3,250 in 2017.  It came with several wax cylinders, each with messages relating to a different theme; one was labeled “Prosperity”, another “Life Extension,” and a third “Mating.”  Eventually Saliger expanded the record library to more than a dozen titles, even one in Spanish.  According to a story in The New Yorker in 1933, the message on the Mating recording included the following statements: “I desire a mate.  I radiate love.  I have a fascinating and attractive personality.  My conversation is interesting.  My company is delightful.  I have a strong sex appeal.”  Saliger was convinced of the effectiveness of the Psycho-Phone noting that 50 of his customers reported finding a mate…

From the annals of self-help: “The Psycho-Phone.”

[TotH to Ted Gioia (@tedgioia)]

“Stuart Smalley”


As we get better every day, we might recall that it was on this date in 1934 that Mandrake the Magician first appeared in newspapers. A comic strip, it was created by Lee Falk (before he created The Phantom)… and thus is regarded by most historians of the form to have been America’s first comic superhero.


“Everyone should be able to do one card trick, tell two jokes, and recite three poems, in case they are ever trapped in an elevator”*…

Two things make tall buildings possible: the steel frame and the safety elevator. The elevator, underrated and overlooked, is to the city what paper is to reading and gunpowder is to war. Without the elevator, there would be no verticality, no density, and, without these, none of the urban advantages of energy efficiency, economic productivity, and cultural ferment. The population of the earth would ooze out over its surface, like an oil slick, and we would spend even more time stuck in traffic or on trains, traversing a vast carapace of concrete. And the elevator is energy-efficient—the counterweight does a great deal of the work, and the new systems these days regenerate electricity. The elevator is a hybrid, by design…

The history, design, economics, and psychology of the technology that made modern cities possible– the lives of elevators: “Up and Then Down.”

* Daniel Handler


As we press the button, we might recall that it was on this date in 1527, during the War of the League of Cognac, that an estimated 20,000 mutinous troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (angered over unpaid wages) carried out the Sack of Rome (which was then part of the papal States). For three days, they pillaged the city, grabbing valuables and demanding tributes. They overpowered (and killed most of) the Swiss Guard, and took Pope Clement VII hostage (in Castel Sant’Angelo); he was freed only after a hefty ransom was paid. Benvenuto Cellini, witnessed the Sack and described the it in his works.

In the aftermath, Rome– which had been the center of Italian High Renaissance culture– never recovered its momentum. Indeed, many historians consider the Sack of Rome the end of the Renaissance.

The Sack of Rome, by Johannes Lingelbach (17th century)


Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 6, 2021 at 1:01 am

“The urge to gamble is so universal and its practice so pleasurable that I assume it must be evil”*…

Gambling has existed since antiquity, but in the past 30 years it’s grown at a spectacular rate, turbocharged by the internet and globalisation. Problem gambling has grown accordingly, and become particularly prevalent in the teenage population. Even more troublingly, a study in 2013 reported that slightly over 90 per cent of problem gamblers don’t seek professional help. Gambling addiction is part of a suite of damaging and unhealthy behaviours that people do despite warnings, such as smoking, drinking or compulsive video gaming. It draws on a multitude of cognitive, social and psychobiological factors.

Psychological and medical studies have found that some people are more likely to develop a gambling disorder than others, depending on their social condition, age, education and experiences such as trauma, domestic violence and drug abuse. Problem gambling also involves complex brain chemistry, as gambling stimulates the release of multiple neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine, which in turn create feelings of pleasure and the attendant urge to maintain them. Serotonin is known as the happiness hormone, and typically follows a sense of release from stress or fear. Dopamine is associated with intense pleasure, released when we’re engaged in activities that deserve a reward, and precisely when that reward occurs – seeing the ball landing on the number we’ve bet on, or hearing the sound of the slot machine showing a winning payline.

For the most part, gambling addiction is viewed as a medical and psychological problem, though this hasn’t resulted in widely effective prevention and treatment programmes. That might be because the research has often focused on the origins and prevalence of addiction, and less on the cognitive premises and mechanisms that actually take place in the brain. It’s a controversial area, but this arguable lack of clinical effectiveness doesn’t appear to be specific to gambling; it applies to other addictions as well, and might even extend to some superstitions and irrational beliefs.

Can a proper presentation of the mathematical facts help gambling addiction? While most casino moguls simply trust the mathematics – the probability theory and applied statistics behind the games – gamblers exhibit a strange array of positions relative to the role of maths. While no study has offered an exhaustive taxonomy, what we know for sure is that some simply don’t care about it; others care about it, trust it, and try to use it in their favour by developing ‘winning strategies’; while others care about it and interpret it in making their gambling predictions.

Certain problem gambling programmes frame the distortions associated with gambling as an effect of a poor mathematical knowledge. Some clinicians argue that reducing gambling to mere mathematical models and bare numbers – without sparkling instances of success and the ‘adventurous’ atmosphere of a casino – can lead to a loss of interest in the games, a strategy known as ‘reduction’ or ‘deconstruction’. The warning messages involve statements along the lines of: ‘Be aware! There is a big problem with those irrational beliefs. Don’t think like that!’ But whether this kind of messaging really works is an open question. Beginning a couple of decades ago, several studies were conducted to test the hypothesis that teaching basic statistics and applied probability theory to problem gamblers would change their behaviour. Overall, these studies have yielded contradictory, non-conclusive results, and some found that mathematical education yielded no change in behaviour. So what’s missing?…

Catalin Barboianu, a gaming mathematician, philosopher of science, and problem-gambling researcher, asks if philosophers and mathematicians struggle with probability, can gamblers really hope to grasp their losing game? “Mathematics for Gamblers.”

For a deeper dive, see Alec Wilkinson’s fascinating New Yorker piece, “What Would Jesus Bet? A math whiz hones the optimal poker strategy.”

For cultural context (and an appreciation of the broader importance of the issue), see “How Gambling Mathematics Took Over The World.”

And for historical context, see (one of your correspondent’s all-time favorite books) Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk.

[image above: source]

* Heywood Hale Broun


As we roll the dice, we might spare a thought for Srinivasa Ramanujan; he died on this date in 1920. A largely self-taught mathematician from Madras, he initially developed his own mathematical research in isolation: according to Hans Eysenck: “He tried to interest the leading professional mathematicians in his work, but failed for the most part. What he had to show them was too novel, too unfamiliar, and additionally presented in unusual ways; they could not be bothered.” Seeking mathematicians who could better understand his work, in 1913 he began a postal partnership with the English mathematician G. H. Hardy at the University of Cambridge, England. Recognizing Ramanujan’s work as extraordinary, Hardy arranged for him to travel to Cambridge. In his notes, Hardy commented that Ramanujan had produced groundbreaking new theorems, including some that “defeated me completely; I had never seen anything in the least like them before.”

Ramanujan made substantial contributions to mathematical analysisnumber theoryinfinite series, and continued fractions, including solutions to mathematical problems then considered unsolvable. During his short life, he independently compiled nearly 3,900 results (mostly identities and equations).  Many were completely novel; his original and highly unconventional results, such as the Ramanujan prime, the Ramanujan theta functionpartition formulae, and mock theta functions, have opened entire new areas of work and inspired a vast amount of further research.  Nearly all his claims have now been proven correct.

See also: “Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater,” and enjoy the 2015 film on Ramanujan, “The Man Who Knew Infinity.”


“Ask no questions and you’ll hear no lies”*…

Police thought that 17-year-old Marty Tankleff seemed too calm after finding his mother stabbed to death and his father mortally bludgeoned in the family’s sprawling Long Island home. Authorities didn’t believe his claims of innocence, and he spent 17 years in prison for the murders.

Yet in another case, detectives thought that 16-year-old Jeffrey Deskovic seemed too distraught and too eager to help detectives after his high school classmate was found strangled. He, too, was judged to be lying and served nearly 16 years for the crime.

One man was not upset enough. The other was too upset. How can such opposite feelings both be telltale clues of hidden guilt?

They’re not, says psychologist Maria Hartwig, a deception researcher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. The men, both later exonerated, were victims of a pervasive misconception: that you can spot a liar by the way they act. Across cultures, people believe that behaviors such as averted gaze, fidgeting and stuttering betray deceivers.

In fact, researchers have found little evidence to support this belief despite decades of searching. “One of the problems we face as scholars of lying is that everybody thinks they know how lying works,” says Hartwig, who coauthored a study of nonverbal cues to lying in the Annual Review of Psychology. Such overconfidence has led to serious miscarriages of justice, as Tankleff and Deskovic know all too well. “The mistakes of lie detection are costly to society and people victimized by misjudgments,” says Hartwig. “The stakes are really high.”

Science-based reforms have yet to make significant inroads among police and other security officials. The US Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration, for example, still uses nonverbal deception clues to screen airport passengers for questioning. The agency’s secretive behavioral screening checklist instructs agents to look for supposed liars’ tells such as averted gaze — considered a sign of respect in some cultures — and prolonged stare, rapid blinking, complaining, whistling, exaggerated yawning, covering the mouth while speaking and excessive fidgeting or personal grooming. All have been thoroughly debunked by researchers.

With agents relying on such vague, contradictory grounds for suspicion, it’s perhaps not surprising that passengers lodged 2,251 formal complaints between 2015 and 2018 claiming that they’d been profiled based on nationality, race, ethnicity or other reasons. Congressional scrutiny of TSA airport screening methods goes back to 2013, when the US Government Accountability Office — an arm of Congress that audits, evaluates and advises on government programs — reviewed the scientific evidence for behavioral detection and found it lacking, recommending that the TSA limit funding and curtail its use. In response, the TSA eliminated the use of stand-alone behavior detection officers and reduced the checklist from 94 to 36 indicators, but retained many scientifically unsupported elements like heavy sweating…

In a statement to Knowable, TSA media relations manager R. Carter Langston said that “TSA believes behavioral detection provides a critical and effective layer of security within the nation’s transportation system.” The TSA points to two separate behavioral detection successes in the last 11 years that prevented three passengers from boarding airplanes with explosive or incendiary devices.

But, says [Samantha Mann], without knowing how many would-be terrorists slipped through security undetected, the success of such a program cannot be measured. And, in fact, in 2015 the acting head of the TSA was reassigned after Homeland Security undercover agents in an internal investigation successfully smuggled fake explosive devices and real weapons through airport security 95 percent of the time…

You can’t spot a liar just by looking — but psychologists are zeroing in on methods that might actually work: “The truth about lying,” from @knowablemag.

[Image at the top: source]

* James Joyce, Ulysses (barmaid Miss Douce, in “Sirens,” 11.219)


As we deliberate with Diogenes, we might recall that this date in 1954 was, according to the True Knowledge Answer Engine, the most boring day since 1900. The site analyzed more than 300 million historical facts and discovered that April 11, 1954 was the most uneventful news day of the 20th century. No typically newsworthy events occurred at all… though of course now the day has become a bit more newsworthy, because it has the distinction of being so completely uneventful.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 11, 2021 at 1:01 am

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work”*…

The Attention Economy…

“Attention discourse” is how I usually refer to the proliferation of essays, articles, talks, and books around the problem of attention (or, alternatively, distraction) in the age of digital media. While there have been important precursors to digital age attention discourse dating back to the 19th century, I’d say the present iteration probably kicked off around 2008 with Nick Carr’s essay in the Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” And while disinformation discourse has supplanted its place in the public imagination over the past few years, attention discourse is alive and well…

Attention discourse proceeds under the sign of scarcity. It treats attention as a resource, and, by doing so, maybe it has given up the game. To speak about attention as a resource is to grant and even encourage its commodification. If attention is scarce, then a competitive attention economy flows inevitably from it. In other words, to think of attention as a resource is already to invite the possibility that it may be extracted. Perhaps this seems like the natural way of thinking about attention, but, of course, this is precisely the kind of certainty [Ivan Illich] invited us to question…  

His crusade against the colonization of experience by economic rationality led him not only to challenge the assumption of scarcity and defend the realm of the vernacular, he also studiously avoided the language of “values” in favor of talk about the “good.” He believed that the good could be established by observing the requirements of proportionality or complementarity in a given moment or situation. The good was characterized by its fittingness. Illich sometimes characterized it as a matter of answering a call as opposed to applying a rule. 

“The transformation of the good into values,” he answers, “of commitment into decision, of question into problem, reflects a perception that our thoughts, our ideas, and our time have become resources, scarce means which can be used for either of two or several alternative ends. The word value reflects this transition, and the person who uses it incorporates himself in a sphere of scarcity.”

A little further on in the conversation, Illich explains that value is “a generalization of economics. It says, this is a value, this is a nonvalue, make a decision between the two of them. These are three different values, put them in precise order.” “But,” he goes on to explain, “when we speak about the good, we show a totally different appreciation of what is before us. The good is convertible with being, convertible with the beautiful, convertible with the true.”…

Your Attention Is Not a Resource“: L.M. Sacasas (@LMSacasas) wields Illich to argue that “you and I have exactly as much attention as we need.”

(image above: source)

* Mary Oliver


As we go for the good, we might recall that it was on his date in 1965 that NASA launched Hughes Aircraft’s Early Bird (now known officially as Intelsat I) into orbit. It was the first communications satellite to be placed in synchronous earth orbit– and successfully demonstrated their (subsequently explosively growing) use for commercial communications.

“Early Bird” being prepared


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