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Posts Tagged ‘Psychology

“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 LW

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


“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub”*…

I’m not the first person to note that our understanding of ourselves and our society is heavily influenced by technological change – think of how we analogized biological and social functions to clockwork, then steam engines, then computers.

I used to think that this was just a way of understanding how we get stuff hilariously wrong – think of Taylor’s Scientific Management, how its grounding in mechanical systems inflicted such cruelty on workers whom Taylor demanded ape those mechanisms.

But just as interesting is how our technological metaphors illuminate our understanding of ourselves and our society: because there ARE ways in which clockwork, steam power and digital computers resemble bodies and social structures.

Any lens that brings either into sharper focus opens the possibility of making our lives better, sometimes much better.

Bodies and societies are important, poorly understood and deeply mysterious.

Take sleep. Sleep is very weird.

Once a day, we fall unconscious. We are largely paralyzed, insensate, vulnerable, and we spend hours and hours having incredibly bizarre hallucinations, most of which we can’t remember upon waking. That is (objectively) super weird.

But sleep is nearly universal in the animal kingdom, and dreaming is incredibly common too. A lot of different models have been proposed to explain our nightly hallucinatory comas, and while they had some explanatory power, they also had glaring deficits.

Thankfully, we’ve got a new hot technology to provide a new metaphor for dreaming: machine learning through deep neural networks.

DNNs, of course, are a machine learning technique that comes from our theories about how animal learning works at a biological, neural level.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that DNN – based on how we think brains work – has stimulated new hypotheses on how brains work!

Erik P Hoel is a Tufts University neuroscientist. He’s a proponent of something called the Overfitted Brain Hypothesis (OBH).

To understand OBH, you first have to understand how overfitting works in machine learning: “overfitting” is what happens when a statistical model overgeneralizes.

For example, if Tinder photos of queer men are highly correlated with a certain camera angle, then a researcher might claim to have trained a “gaydar model” that “can predict sexual orientation from faces.”

That’s overfitting (and researchers who do this are assholes).

Overfitting is a big problem in ML: if all the training pics of Republicans come from rallies in Phoenix, the model might decide that suntans are correlated with Republican politics – and then make bad guesses about the politics of subjects in photos from LA or Miami.

To combat overfitting, ML researchers sometimes inject noise into the training data, as an effort to break up these spurious correlations.

And that’s what Hoel thinks are brains are doing while we sleep: injecting noisy “training data” into our conceptions of the universe so we aren’t led astray by overgeneralization.

Overfitting is a real problem for people (another word for “overfitting” is “prejudice”)…

Sleeping, dreaming, and the importance of a nightly dose of irrationality– Corey Doctorow (@doctorow) explains: “Dreaming and overfitting,” from his ever-illuminating newsletter, Pluralistic. Eminently worthy of reading in full.

(Image above: Gontzal García del CañoCC BY-NC-SA, modified)

* Shakespeare, Hamlet


As we nod off, we might send fully-oxygenated birthday greetings to Corneille Jean François Heymans; he was born on this date in 1892. A physiologist, he won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1938 for showing how blood pressure and the oxygen content of the blood are measured by the body and transmitted to the brain via the nerves and not by the blood itself, as had previously been believed.


“Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain”*…

You may not have heard of Robin Dunbar. But you will, perhaps, know of his work. Dunbar, now emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, is the man who first suggested that there may be a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom you can comfortably maintain stable social relationships – or, as Stephen Fry put it on the TV show QI, the number of people “you would not hesitate to go and sit with if you happened to see them at 3am in the departure lounge at Hong Kong airport”. Human beings, Dunbar found when he conducted his research in the 1990s, typically have 150 friends in general (people who know us on sight, and with whom we have a history), of whom just five can usually be described as intimate.

In his new book, Dunbar revisits and unpicks this number, by which he stands; and he brings together several decades of other research in the area of friendship, some of it his own, some that of anthropologists, geneticists and neuroscientists with whom he has worked. It can’t be definitive: the possibilities in this field are surely limitless. But for the reader, it sometimes feels like it is. Why do most women have a best friend? Why do many men struggle to share confidences? Why is it so painful when we fall out with our friends? Above all, what effect do friends (or a lack of them) have on our mental and physical health? Think of any question you might have and you’ll find some kind of an answer to it here. What you may feel in your gut, it will back with science. Its central message, however, may be summed up in a sentence. In essence, the number and quality of our friendships may have a bigger influence on our happiness, health and mortality risk than anything else in life save for giving up smoking.

Dunbar could not have known that his book would be published in a time of such loneliness, and some readers may find what he has to say, in this context, reassuring…

Dunbar’s Number, a (confirmatory) reconsideration of the value– and limitations– of friendship: “How important are your pals?

* Muhammad Ali


As we contemplate companionship, we might humbly note that today is Everything You Think Is Wrong Day, a celebration fo imperfection created to remind one that one is not always right.


“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”*…

In the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, based on a novel by Walter Tevis, a burly custodian in an orphanage basement, hunched over a chess board, intrigues a nine-year-old girl named Beth Harmon, who sees him playing, under a dim light, against himself. This Mr. Shaibel can tell Beth’s a bit desperate to understand what he’s doing, and begrudgingly agrees to teach her to play. At night, high on the tranquilizers the staff administers to orphans—this is the early 1960s—she practices tactics in bed, staring up at a chess board that she hallucinates on the ceiling. Beth advances rapidly in skill, until Mr. Shaibel, who plays in a club, can no longer reserve how impressed he is at her abilities. He invites a fellow chess player, who heads the local high school chess group, to meet Beth, and recruit her. She ends up playing the boys in the club simultaneously, including last year’s champion. A crowd of students forms as she bests each one.

As I watched Beth dreamily focus on her imaginary chess board, simulating alternative possibilities, I thought about how that must be shaping her brain, particularly the part dedicated to planning and decision-making, the frontal cortex. Compared to other regions, it’s uniquely malleable, or plastic. Stanford behavioral endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky calls it “the brain’s hotspot for plasticity.” Our brains are changing, forming new neural connections and severing others all the time, of course. But at a young age the brain’s plasticity is much more pronounced. This is something that Tom Vanderbilt discussed in his Nautilus feature, “Learning Chess at 40,” in which he reports what it was like taking up the game with his four-year-old daughter. Neil Charness, a psychologist who has studied cognition through chess for years, told Vanderbilt, “If you’re talking about two novices, your daughter would probably pick things up about twice as fast as you could.” In that way it’s like learning a language—children can assimilate the game’s complex rules and action much more intuitively and quickly than an adult.

This means that chess offers a unique opportunity. It could perhaps be the ultimate window through which we might see how our mental powers shift during our lives. This is because the moves of professional chess players in games, going back over a century, are recorded, and so researchers can objectively analyze the quality of players’ moves over their career, inferring cognitive rise and decline. And that’s exactly what a recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, did…

How a game that dates from the 6th century can teach us about ourselves and how we change as we age: “Scientists Analyzed 24,000 Chess Matches to Understand Cognition.”

The study- is here: “Life cycle patterns of cognitive performance over the long run.”

* George Bernard Shaw


As we consider our next move, we might recall that it was on this date in 1877 that the first meeting of the Manhattan Chess Club was held; the entrance fee was $1 per person and dues were $4 per year. MCC was, until it closed in 2002, the second-oldest chess club in the U.S. (The oldest, The Mechanics Library Chess Club in San Francisco, first met in 1854– and is still in operation.)

Bobby Fischer, left, played a speed match against Andrew Soltis in 1971 at the Manhattan Chess Club


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