Category Archives: Psychology


Can you switch off your sense of fairness (and your selfishness)?

You can, with the help of magnetic ‘stimulation’ of certain parts of your brain. Check out this Scientific Americanpiece:

In the [ultimatum] game, a researcher offers two players a set amount of money and explains that if they agree on how to divvy it up they will keep that money for themselves. If they don’t, neither will get anything. One player then offers the other a split. Our thirst for fairness dictates that most players will reject a patently unfair division–such as offering only $4 out of a total of $20. Yet, self interest would argue that even $4 is better than nothing …

TMS [transcranial magnetic stimulation] affects electrical activity in the brain, altering neuron firing in the area where it is applied. During … tests, 44.7 percent of the young men who experienced TMS on the right side of their prefrontal cortex accepted the most unfair offers–a split of 16 to fourcompared with just 14.7 percent of those whose left side had been stimulated and 9.3 percent of the controls. …



John Cassidy has a wonderful New Yorker essay on what neuroeconomists do, new insights the subject might offer us about our economic behaviour and decisions, how it might make mainstream economics revisit some of its rather restrictive assumptions, and what the detractors of neuroeconomics have to say about its techniques.

Here’s a two paragraph summary of the need for behavioural economics:

In 1979, two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, published a paper in the economics journal Econometrica, describing the concept of loss aversion. At the time, few economists and psychologists talked to one another. In the nineteenth century, their fields had been considered closely related branches of the “moral sciences.” But psychology evolved into an empirical discipline, grounded in close observation of human behavior, while economics became increasingly theoretical—in some ways it resembled a branch of mathematics. Many economists regarded psychology with suspicion, but their preference for abstract models of human behavior came at a cost.

In order to depict economic decisions mathematically, economists needed to assume that human behavior is both rational and predictable. They imagined a representative human, Homo economicus, endowed with consistent preferences, stable moods, and an enviable ability to make only rational decisions. This sleight of hand yielded some theories that had genuine predictive value, but economists were obliged to exclude from their analyses many phenomena that didn’t fit the rational-actor framework, such as stock-market bubbles, drug addiction, and compulsive shopping. Economists continue to study Homo economicus, but many recognize his limitations. Over the past twenty-five years, using methods and insights borrowed from psychology, they have devised a new approach to studying decision-making: behavioral economics.

Here’s a framing of the ‘new new thing’ in economics by one of its practitioners. I like to call it ‘glory by association‘:

“Natural science has moved ahead by studying progressively smaller units,” [Harvard’s David Laibson said]. “Physicists started out studying the stars, then they looked at objects, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and so on. My sense is that economics is going to follow the same path. Forty years ago, it was mainly about large-scale phenomena, like inflation and unemployment. More recently, there has been a lot of focus on individual decision-making. I think the time has now come to go beyond the individual and look at the inputs to individual decision-making. That is what we do in neuroeconomics.”

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See also this recent post titled Is economics the new physics?.

The Fame Motive

People with an overriding desire to be widely known to strangers are different from those who primarily covet wealth and influence. Their fame-seeking behavior appears rooted in a desire for social acceptance, a longing for the existential reassurance promised by wide renown.

These yearnings can become more acute in life’s later years, as the opportunities for fame dwindle, “but the motive never dies, and when we realize we’re not going to make it in this lifetime, we find some other route: posthumous fame,” said Orville Gilbert Brim, a psychologist who is completing a book called “The Fame Motive.”

From this fascinating NYTimes piece by Benedict Carey on fame as a strong motivator.

Revenge and retribution: Beware the tricks our minds play

In his NYTimes op-ed, Harvard psychologist and author of the recently published Stumbling on Happiness Daniel Gilbert says:

… In virtually every human society, “He hit me first” provides an acceptable rationale for doing that which is otherwise forbidden. Both civil and religious law provide long lists of behaviors that are illegal or immoral — unless they are responses in kind, in which case they are perfectly fine.

After all, it is wrong to punch anyone except a puncher, and our language even has special words — like “retaliation” and “retribution” and “revenge” — whose common prefix is meant to remind us that a punch thrown second is legally and morally different than a punch thrown first.

That’s why participants in every one of the globe’s intractable conflicts — from Ireland to the Middle East — offer the even-numberedness of their punches as grounds for exculpation.

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. […]

[Bold emphasis added]

People count differently! Gilbert goes on to describe some interesting experiments that show clearly the asymmetry with which we perceive — and justify — our own ‘second blow’ and that of the other guy. It may not help resolve any of the conflicts (or wars) we (or our societies) get into, but it certainly helps us understand one of the important ways in which our minds trick us into not-quite-rational ways of perceiving ourselves and the world around us.

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Here’s the link to Gilbert’s blog post where he provides some additional perspectives behind this op-ed.

The expert mind

In the latest issue of Scientific American, Philip E. Ross presents an overview of what we know about the Expert Mind, culled from decades of research on chess (which he calls the Drosophila of cognitive science). Here are some of the key conclusions:

The better players did not examine more possibilities, only better ones…

… [T]he expert relies not so much on an intrinsically stronger power of analysis as on a store of structured knowledge …

… [E]xperts rely more on structured knowledge than on analysis …

… [A]bility in one area tends not to transfer to another.

… [I]t takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. [Herbert] Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. Even child prodigies, such as Gauss in mathematics, Mozart in music and Bobby Fischer in chess, must have made an equivalent effort, perhaps by starting earlier and working harder than others. …

… [K. Anders] Ericsson [whose views on expertise was linked to here] eargues that what matters is not experience per se but “effortful study,” which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence. …

… [M]otivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. It is no accident that in music, chess and sports–all domains in which expertise is defined by competitive performance rather than academic credentialing–professionalism has been emerging at ever younger ages, under the ministrations of increasingly dedicated parents and even extended families. …

… [S]uccess builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child’s motivation.

All of which lead to the ultimate conclusion:

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born.

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See also After the Bell Curve by David Kirp in the NYTimes Magazine, and the comments on this article on the blogs of Mark Thoma and Brad DeLong.


There’s a wonderful survey article in the New York Magazine on happiness. It features the research of such key figures as Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness), Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) and Barry Schwartz (Paradox of Choice). Some excerpts:

Smarter people aren’t any happier, but those who drink in moderation are. Attractive people are slightly happier than unattractive people. Men aren’t happier than women, though women have more highs and more lows. Surprisingly, the young are not happier than the elderly; in fact, it’s the other way round, with older people reporting slightly higher levels of life satisfaction and fewer dark days.

Money doesn’t buy happiness—or even upgrade despair, as the playwright Richard Greenberg once wrote—once our basic needs are met. In one well-known survey, Ed Diener of the University of Illinois determined that those on the Forbes 100 list in 1995 were only slightly happier than the American public as a whole; in an even more famous study, in 1978, a group of researchers determined that 22 lottery winners were no happier than a control group (leading one of the authors, Philip Brickman, to coin the scarily precise phrase “hedonic treadmill,” the unending hunger for the next acquisition).

As a general rule, human beings adapt quickly to their circumstances because all of us have natural hedonic “set points,” to which our bodies are likely to return, like our weight. This is true whether our experiences are marvelous—like winning the lottery—or shattering. Not only did Brickman and his colleagues look at lottery winners but also at 29 people who’d recently become paraplegic or quadriplegic. It turned out the victims of these accidents reported no more unhappy moments than a control group. (This exceptionally counterintuitive finding, however, has not been replicated in a published paper—and subsequent studies have certainly shown that the loss of a spouse or a child can dramatically depress our happiness thermostats, as can sustained unemployment.)

There’s surprisingly little in the happiness literature about raising children, which in and of itself is odd. Odder still is that most of it suggests children don’t make parents any happier. Gilbert wrote only three scant pages about this in Stumbling on Happiness. But he says he’s been asked about it on his book tour more than almost anything else. “It really violates our intuition,” he says. “Yet every bit of data says children are an extreme source of negative affect, a mild source of negative affect, or none at all. It’s hard to find a study where there’s one net positive.” (One possible explanation, he says, is that children are sources of transcendent moments, and those highs are what people remember.)

There’s even an accompanying piece suggesting 20 strategies for a happier life!

Punishment and altruism

An interesting paper in Science (a publicly available summary is here; link via Brain Ethics) shows that human beings’ propensity to punish (unfair acts by others) is correlated with their altruism. This finding is based on a pretty large scale study involving populations in no less than 15 different societies or tribes. The implication is that these two cultural traits co-evolved. Here’s a key quote:

A hallmark of humanity is that people help other people–not just relatives and friends but even complete strangers. Such altruism, which goes beyond the mere exchange of favors and forms the scaffolding of large-scale cooperation in human societies, has long been an evolutionary mystery. On page 1767, anthropologist Joseph Henrich of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and his colleagues take a crack at solving the puzzle, concluding that such helpful behavior may have arisen as a result of punishment.

Reporting on experiments they conducted in 15 different societies on five continents, the researchers argue that altruism evolved hand in hand with a willingness to punish selfish behavior. Their results lend support to models of gene-culture coevolution that propose that cultural norms such as the punishment of unfair actions drive the selection of genes favoring altruism.

What was interesting (to me, at least) was the use of three fairly simple prototype games that allowed the researchers to assess the participants’ inclination towards “costly punishment” and “altruism”. For assessing punishment, they used the Ultimatum Game and Third Party Punishment Game; for assessing altruism, they used the Dictator Game. In case you are not able to access the paper from the Science website, Brain Ethics has a description of the three games (with links).

Over at Reason Online, Ronald Bailey has an article explaining this ‘punishment-and-altruism’ research, and this is his concluding paragraph:

The results are intriguing. It turns out that the societies in which the player ones in the dictator game were willing to give more to the player twos are also the societies in which people were more willing to punish less generous players in the other two games. In other words, societies that punished strongly were also the most likely to have strong altruistic impulses. The moral of the story is that if you want to live in a world of caring generous cooperative people, make sure that you thoroughly thrash all the greedy, chiseling scoundrels you come across. It may cost you, but the world will be a better place. [bold emphasis added]

Illusory link between income and happiness

Ttwo Princeton professors, economist Alan B. Krueger and psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in collaboration with three others from other universities (psychologists David Schkade of the University of California-San Diego, Norbert Schwarz of the University of Michigan and Arthur Stone of the State University of New York-Stony Brook) are reporting something quite interesting:

While most people believe that having more income would make them happier, Princeton University researchers have found that the link is greatly exaggerated and mostly an illusion.

People surveyed about their own happiness and that of others with varying incomes tended to overstate the impact of income on well-being, according to a new study. Although income is widely assumed to be a good measure of well-being, the researchers found that its role is less significant than predicted and that people with higher incomes do not necessarily spend more time in more enjoyable ways.

… The new findings build on their efforts to develop alternative methods of gauging the well-being of individuals and of society. The new measures are based on people’s ratings of their actual experiences, instead of a judgment of their lives as a whole.

The study is being published in Science, in the issue dated 30 June 2006. Here’s the abstract:

The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient. We argue that people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness because they focus, in part, on conventional achievements when evaluating their life or the lives of others.


Pleasure by itself does not bring happiness. We can experience pleasure (e.g. eating, sleeping, sex) without an investment of psychic energy. Enjoyment on the other hand, happens only as a result of an unusual amount of attention. Pleasure is fleeting and, unlike enjoyment, does not bring complexity (growth) to the self. If one only invests energy in new directions solely for extrinsic rewards, one may end up no longer enjoying life, and pleasures become the only source of positive experience. Without enjoyment life can be endured and can even be pleasant. But it can be so only precariously, depending on luck and the cooperation of the external environment.

From this article by Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi, the author of the wonderful book on Flow. This article presents a good summary of the main ideas in his book.

Science of cuteness

Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can’t lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.

From Natalie Angier’s piece in the New York Times.

Among the several examples of cuteness-filled 2005, I found this:

Women’s fashions opted for the cute over the sensible or glamorous, with low-slung slacks and skirts and abbreviated blouses contriving to present a customer’s midriff as an adorable preschool bulge.

Do you find this cute? What would be cute in male fashion?

Just say no to …

… to new year resolutions. It will make you happier. So says Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Charlottesville, in this wonderful NYTimes op-ed.

Social psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues at the University of Kansas found that participants who were given an opportunity to do a favor for another person ended up viewing themselves as kind, considerate people – unless, that is, they were asked to reflect on why they had done the favor. People in that group tended in the end to not view themselves as being especially kind.

The trick is to go out of our way to be kind to others without thinking too much about why we’re doing it. As a bonus, our kindnesses will make us happier.

Wilson advises us to not waste our time thinking about all that we did wrong during this year, and about how we can improve upon them in the new year. In other words, no new year resolutions. The advice is based on the finding that when you brood over negative stuff in your life, well, you end up with an even more negative mood. The punchline is this:

If we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, one of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves.

I like the advice about new year resolutions, and it has already made me happy. I can’t imagine how much happier I will be when I actually follow this advice …


In his article, Wilson uses a couple of nice quotes:

“Self-contemplation is a curse / That makes an old confusion worse”, by the poet Theodore Roethke.

“We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage”, by Aristotle.

Happiness and the new year

So in these last days of 2005 I say to you, “Don’t have a happy new year!” Have dinner with your family or walk in the park with friends. If you’re so inclined, put in some good hours at the office or at your favorite charity, temple or church. Work on your jump shot or your child’s model trains. With luck, you’ll find happiness by the by. If not, your time won’t be wasted. You may even bring a little joy to the world.

So says the New York Times op-ed by Darrin M. McMahon, a professor of history at Florida State University and the author of the forthcoming”Happiness: A History.”