The Negativity Bias

Consider two different scenarios. Really try to imagine them and feel the emotions you might feel if they were real. The first is giving a hug to your mother/grandmother/someone you love dearly. If you’re particularly imaginative you might be able to conjure up some nice warm feelings, perhaps using past experiences to augment the imagined scenario.

The second scenario is hitting that same person in front of a group of your friends and family. This will almost certainly leave a pit in the bottom of your stomach. It will give you a visceral sense of unease. It may even make your palms sweat a bit. Even though you have not done anything, nor do you plan to do anything, you might feel some guilt for even thinking about the scenario.

Another example that might give you more of a visceral response is to remember your happiest and most embarrassing moment as a child. Odds are the embarrassing moments won’t be hard to conjure up, while the happiest ones will take some digging.

This is meant to illustrate the disproportionate ability for our minds to simulate negative emotions over positive ones. That concept is already pretty well established in psychological circles. The general explanation is that human evolution  biased our minds towards avoiding risk over seeking reward. I contend that the human mind suffers more than a deficit in positive thinking, it’s wholly incapable of simulating positive outcomes in the same way as it does negative.

In my last post about decision making, I pointed out that projected emotional states are the building blocks of choice. I pointed out that a rational choice that involves modeling a negative emotional state, even if it would result in net happiness, will be valued unfavorably by the mind. In an attempt to mitigate that bias I tried including positive scenarios in my decisions making. Instead of thinking “If everything fails I’ll have a back up plan” I tried “I’ll experience a sense of security in having a backup plan even if things are going well.” The concept was the same but the emotional content would ostensibly be very different.

It didn’t work, and not because I didn’t think the positive scenario I projected was valid. It failed because the emotional impact of that hypothetical positive is almost non-existent compared to the weight of the competing negative emotions. Try as I might, I just couldn’t imagine positive scenarios that could do battle with the negative ones. As an exercise I tried imagining positive scenarios outside the context of decision making. These were just meant to be free-for-all happy thoughts about the future. These too fell flat.

I found that I was actually quite poor at doing any sort of positive thinking. Sure, I could come up with some wouldn’t-it-be-nice stuff, but it lacked any of the emotional impact even the most idle rumination on my potential failures held. At this point I began to consider that I might just be suffering from un-diagnosed depression. I can’t see into other people’s minds to compare thought processes, so there’s no way to be sure if my own is abnormal. What I can do is compare my current mental state to previous ones.

In my past, I don’t have many strong recollections of  enjoying projected positive emotions. There were a few exceptions, most notably Christmas. As a child my excitement over what was sure to be an enormously positive experience overpowered any doubts or concerns I had towards whether I would finally get that toy I wanted. It was pure impulsive desire. That was the key.

Impulse is the one exception to the rule of negative bias. Impulses and urges very easily override even our strongest projections of negative repercussions to impel us towards reward seeking behavior. Anyone who has taken a risk for the chance at having sex, or broken a diet for a doughnut knows what I’m talking about.

Unfortunately, this lands me right back where I started in my last post about decision making. Impulse is the antithesis of rational choice. It’s hardly an aid in tipping the balance back in the direction of the rational option. I’m still left with two options of unequal emotional weight and no good way to dismiss one of them.

Advertisements

How do you know if a commentator has schizophrenia? Part 1

Years ago, the Right Wing realized the US has waaay more people than they needed (those needs only being cord wood troopers for lucrative Endless War (TM), former Seal Team 6 security goons, and only the top-shelf prostitutes and rent boys). So short of rolling the cattle trucks and firing up the ovens, how best to get rid of all these useless people?

The total destruction of any type of governmental safety net. Cut most and privatize the rest (just like they are with jails and prisons), and all those un-needed proles will [start] dropping like flies. First the aged, then the disabled, and most of the poor (with of a carve-out for the true believer white ones).

Donald’s daily circus shit-show is merely distraction from the real agenda of Ayn Rand devotees like Ryan.

-ThatsNotPudding

We’ve all seen it enough, but maybe haven’t put words to the gut feeling that something is wrong with the person we’re walking to on the internet. I use the term Schizophrenia loosely here, because I’m not actually trying to make a mental health diagnostic. What I mean to say is more along the lines of “someone in an altered mind state in which unrelated information is easily connected”.

Here is one good schizophrenia red flag:

Use of catch phrases or esoteric phraseology. Extra points if they put a (TM) on their made up word salad. This is evidence that their delusions are ruminant to the extent that even they are bored by explaining them fully. In place of thinking out full thoughts like “The Military-industrial-complex trends towards a state of constant conflict” they take a mental shortcut and just call it “Endless War (TM)”. This has the added benefit of what I like to call Plug-and-play Insanity (Patent Pending). That is to say, if the brain can encapsulate a non-sequitur idea in a packaged phrase, it doesn’t have to unpack it and examine how little sense it makes each time it is used.

 

 

Parentheticals (Always awful)

The parenthetical statement (The one that comes in between parentheses) is a universally bad writing tool.

The parenthetical statement, a statements that comes between parentheses, is a universally bad writing tool.

If you’re like me, which is a basic assumption I must make, you may find that those two almost identical sentences above read with very different attitude. The parenthetical statement fell out of vogue with the writing community some time ago, but still remains in popular culture as a way of cramming more information into a poorly thought out sentence. The problem is, information presented between two () marks reads as disingenuous. It doesn’t have to, but it does, and there is no way to change that.

Think of the various times you’ve seen parentheses used in the recent past. Perhaps you’ve seen a sentence like:

Whats the difference between a horse and a zebra (It’s not what you think it is)

Or maybe something like

…list of ten survival skills our grandfathers knew (and we have forgotten)

Or even

…First the aged, then the disabled, and most of the poor (with of a carve-out for the true believer white ones).

Notice how the information is either not relevant to the host sentence (it’s not what you think it is), or is crammed in like an after thought. Parentheticals read something like talking out the side of your mouth. They’re saying, “This information isn’t part of the planned programming, but I’m telling you anyway.” That can come off as anything ranging from patronizing to dishonest.

The phrase”It’s not what you think it is”, in addition to being the most universally unhelpful thing ever written, is also patronizing. It doesn’t enhance the host sentence.

On the other end is the use of parentheses to smuggle BS in at the end of a sentence and hope the reader doesn’t notice. This is most common in what I call “schizophrenic” writing. The body of the sentence will make a general claim, then the parenthetical will include some bullshit evidence that really should be given it’s own sentence and much much further examination. “Lights can often be seen in the sky (Which we all know to be the alien race xnou, bringers of knitting needle technology).” It’s like the writer thinks if they just slide that little tidbit in there real quick the reader wont question it, which is hallmark crazy.

It’s gotten to the point, for me at least, where the use of parentheses is a major red flag that the person writing has an alternative agenda. Keep an eye out for uses of parentheses (it could save your life).

 

A new take on decision paralysis

If you’re like me decisions come in two flavors, easy and impossible. The easy ones you almost don’t think of as decisions. They’re so obvious, choosing the wrong option would take an act of will. Then there are the impossible ones that seem to have no winner no matter how long and hard you think about them. Even advice doesn’t seem to illuminate a clear path.

The process begins like this, you round up your available options and narrow down the likely candidates to two or three. For each remaining option you go through the motions of attempting to predict what the outcome state of the world will be in contrast to the others. If it’s a matter of importance you might be going over these projections repeatedly, making best/worst case considerations and developing a matrix of comparative value within the range of possible results of all possible actions taken. It’s tiring stuff, but it ought to yield some result no matter how faulty they might prove to be.

Despite this, the decision making process routinely stalemates for me. It’s as if I have two perfectly equal options on my hands. If that were the case, the choice would be irrelevant as both would result in equal value outcomes. On the contrary, the more difficult the choice, the more important it seems to become. It’s almost as if it’s importance is derived from it’s difficulty.

There is a reason that two options might resist the ultimate comparison computer that is my mind, and that is if they are non-comparable. no mater how much time I spend, the options might just be apples and oranges. Interestingly, I think most decisions are between non-comparable items. Let me explain.

The matter at hand is a decision on whether to move in with my partner. We have cohabited before ending rather poorly for us both. Now, having some time pass, the suggestion of trying again has come around. The two options, barring some out of the box solution, are move in and not move in.

Move in has some serious benefits. I’ll get so see my partner a whole bunch without having to drive a whole bunch. I’ll save a ton of money on rent. Maybe most importantly, I’ll avoid the argument and resentment that comes from my saying “I’d rather be alone”.

The don’t-move-in camp has some rather sensible benefits as well. I’d have my own space, which I value highly. If the relationship where to go south, I wouldn’t be out on the street or stuck in a house with someone I’m on bad terms with. I’d be following the advice of just about everyone of my peers.

The disconnect comes from the fact that decisions are not weighed in abstract “value points” they’re weighed in projected emotional states, and the mind is notoriously bad at doing anything other than thinking about it’s current state. The idea of moving in with someone you love has a very high positive emotional value, and the brain projects that into the equation. The idea of having a fail safe has a very negative emotional value, even if it is a net utility. It doesn’t matter that the hypothetical breakup is independent of the decision being made. In the process of analyzing that particular prospect the brain is only able to get negative feedback. It rejects the possibility that a fail safe would result in a reduced negative outcome because it sees is the overall net emotional value of the scenario as a loss.

What you’re left with is one emotionally appealing option and one rationally “You ought to do this even though you don’t want to” option. Then it’s a battle of the cortices. In some folks, the battle might be won or lost based on their particular blend of grey matter. For me, I find a complete stall because the decision shifts from choosing option A or option B and rather becomes make a decision that will feel like crap either way or do nothing which hasn’t failed you just yet. It’s a perfect way of inducing a mental freeze on the issue.

What is odd is that advice from peers rarely effect this process. It might sway the scales, but only on the rational side. That only furthers the freeze. Because my brain is looking for an emotionally gratifying solution to the problem, it weeds out any and all information that sides with the rational.

Ultimately when the choice is made, it will be a failure of some sort. Either I cave to the emotional demands of my brain or I trick my rational mind with some emotional candy to get it to do something for once. neither of these is actual decision making.

Cellphones Kill Sex Drive

The constant connection to social media we have through our cellphones is making us more isolated. Who needs real social interaction when you can boil it down mainline it through Facebook?

-Some idiot on the internet

Cellphones seem to be a hot topic in the comment sections of the internet. Today, instead of killing drivers on the road, they’re killing our love lives. A recent study showed that the millennial generation is having less sex than previous generations. It’s startling news, unless you happen to be a male between the ages of 16-30.

Immediately the news that this trend had been quantified sparked some pretty serious speculation over its cause. Among the myriad of possible reasons, the cellphone kept popping up. It seems that social media, entertainment, and above all the phones that bring us those services are the prime suspects in the downturn of sex. At least, that’s the prevailing theory among the internet peoples.

It’s been a long couple of decades enduring the constant warnings that technology will turn us into inhuman creatures incapable of tolerating sunlight.Each time a new boogieman technology popped up to obsolete the previous one, we would once again hear about the downfall of a whole generation. It was getting old. This time however, there are numbers and facts on the side of the wolf-criers. Maybe it’s time to pay attention.

Or, maybe it’s still just a bunch of scapegoating. On the surface the idea that addiction to social behavior makes you less social kind of falls flat. Most of the social media services out there serve to supplement and augment real social connections. The same argument made against Facebook could be made against talking to a friend on the phone or having a pen-pal. Those technologies sound less scary though, so no one bats an eye at their use.

Even more absurd is the griping about dating apps. Here is a use of the cellphone that is expressly for the purpose of meeting new people in the real world. It’s the opposite of isolation, and yet things like tinder and OK Cupid often get bashed for ruining dating. Online dating is seen as dehumanizing the dating process because it turns normal human connections into a meat market. It makes people too picky.

What is lost in translation is that, picky or not, people still want dates. They still want sex. No one is going to forego social intimacy because they the poor facsimile that is social media. No one is skipping dating because they are on tinder. No one is giving up available options for sex because they have porn. Just not happening. If anything these online behaviors are indicative of people who can’t find other outlets for their social behaviors.

There is this troubling downturn in sex and people need some way to explain it. The scapegoating of social media is an attempt to avoid the real explanation and replace it with something actionable. people like actionable explanations, even if they’re wrong. In truth the downturn in sex is just a change in who is having it. The demand for sex has not lessened at all, but access to it has diminished for some.

The article in question has rather prominently left out any study of gender as a variable. It says that roughly 50% of young adults have gone two years since their last sexual encounter. It doesn’t mention the ratio of men to women in that group. Based on my understanding of how things work, it’s highly likely the ratio is something like 80% male – 20% female.

Most women have ready access to a sexual partner if they so chose. It’s only the bottom 10% of women who have trouble getting any access to sex. The drought comes from women’s newfound ability to exclusively have sex with the top 50% of males. That leaves a larger and larger group of men out of the game as women get more selective.

All of this is natural human behavior. That’s not to say it’s normal, just to say it stems from the natural inbuilt drives humans already have. Social media didn’t cause this. The effects of social media are probably going to be pretty hard to detect. Facebook is a little like the invention of bread. Humans had eaten and loved carbs for millennia beforehand but wheat and bread took the idea to a whole new level. Only now are we understanding the health effects of a high carb diet. Likewise only much later will we understand what augmented socialization does to people. Almost certainly it will be less spectacular than all these dire warnings have predicted.

 

 

 

Virtue Signals Against Texting

There’s been a bit of discussion in the recent past about “hands free” laws, as in no texting while driving. Most recently, the UK’s law that would have new drivers lose their licence for the offense of texting while driving. The law itself down’t interest me so much as the conversation it sparked. It became the catalyst for a rather large group of people all tripping over themselves to express how wrong texting while driving is. It was actually strange to see a whole group of people agreeing on the internet like that, which was my first indication that something stupid was going on.

Let me make the requisite disclaimer that I’m not defending texting while driving. I think it is dangerous and shouldn’t be done. I do it, but in moderation and I’m aware that I’m increasing my risks and breaking the law as I do so. Back to why the whole thing is stupid.

Texting while driving is quickly becoming the new drunk driving. That is, it’s becoming the social punching bag for people looking to virtue signal about safety. No one would defend drunk driving except a monster, and likewise no one seems to be defending texting. What you do find is a lot of people making a lot of noise trying to show how much they care about safety.

Under other circumstances I would attribute this behavior solely to  virtue signaling. That is, emphatically saying socially appropriate things in an attempt to make yourself look better in the eyes of your peers. It’s the adult version of your sister offhandedly mentioning to your parents that she cleans her room often. This particular bout of people shouting their non-controversial ideas is about more than that, though.

The frenzy around drunk driving and texting is an attempt to create an illusion of safety. Driving is an insanely dangerous thing. Your risk of dying in your car is demonstrably higher than most of the other things you worry about. Every time you get on the highway you are doing something that would scare the living daylights out of your ancestors. You are putting your life in the hands hundreds of strangers, any one of which could kill you with just the slightest flick of their wrist. The fact that the highway system works at all is astonishing.

And yet people need to get in their cars and go places and being terrified all the time isn’t conducive to that end. So we tell ourselves little lies that make us think we have some level of control over the matter. Lies like, “If I don’t text and drive, I will be safe”. It’s not true, but it’s actionable and that’s all that matters.

If you need further proof that the hubbub about hands free is not born out of genuine concern, consider this: No distinction is made between using a mobile device while cruising at 70MPH and using one while stopped at a red light. In fact there are numerous stories of police departments specifically targeting that behavior. No one cares about increasing actual safety, they care about having a ritualistic rule to please the safety gods.

If I were god-emperor writing up my own list of laws and regulations to increase road safety, you’d bet texting would be on the banned list, but so would eating, drinking, talking to passengers, and daydreaming. You’d be limited to five road hours a day and twenty hours a week. All roads would be divided. Driving tests would be annual. Obviously no one would enjoy these new rules, but they sure as hell would cut down on fatalities.

“But hands free laws cut down on a behavior that shows disproportionate risk”, you say, “Distracted driving, along with speed, are highly associated with accident rate”. It’s a good argument. If there were one or two things that were causing a bulk of the accidents, it’d probably be a good idea to do away with them. But it could plausibly be said that texting isn’t causing accidents, it’s associated with the other behaviors that do. Maybe there’s such a thing as “bad drivers” who for whatever reason have more accidents. They have a whole host of bad behaviors including distracted driving, speeding, drinking, not checking blind spots, road rage, driving while tired, and not understanding how to merge. These “bad drivers” will always cause accidents, but when polled for a particular behavior that caused a crash, statistics will show it was the phone in their hand that was at fault.

The fact of the matter is, drivers accept inherent risk when they go on the road. The rules are a balance between being safe and being productive. Law makers can set the scale where they see fit, but there will always be a trade off between safety and utility. The hands free laws are perhaps a poor trade. Ultimately none of that matters, because people are getting their social validation off ever more strict laws against insanely specific things. Perhaps we should just execute people who text and drive.