Friday, 24 December 2010

Emotions Part3


Have you read Part1 and Part2?
Evolution depends on procreation of offspring that live to successfully procreate themselves. When a woman becomes pregnant she is vulnerable, and, in our past, would not be able to look after and feed herself. When she gives birth this remains true, and the early years of the infant have a high relative mortality rate (by this I mean that if a child survives the first couple of years, there is a high probability it will make it to adulthood).
This means that it is an evolutionarily fit strategy for men and women to couple off for at least a few years – to ensure their genes are passed on successfully.

When choosing a mate, you want to select the best mate that will also be happy to have you, and for that selection period to not be too long. As an interesting aside, game theorists can prove the best strategy for a game like this is to evaluate the potential mates you meet for 36.8% of your acceptable time period (1/e) and then mate with the next one that comes along that is better than the best option of the evaluation period. For example, if you wish to settle down between the ages of 18 and 32 then 37% of that window is 5 years, so you should settle for the first person you are presented with who is better than anyone you've met up to that point at the age of 18 + 5 = 23 years old.

What if a better option is presented to a man in the period shortly after he gets his woman pregnant? Would it not be in his interest to switch? Yes, but if this happened at a high frequency in a population then it would not be a good strategy on average. A woman needs to believe that her man will stick around and so men do not tend to 'decide' to be with their mate for rational reasons that could be trumped by a better woman round the corner, but they fall in love instead. Love acts a bit like the doomsday device explained in part 1; it says to a potential mate, “I am with you for irrational reasons, and so there is no reason why I will leave you.” The feeling, to be trustworthy to the mate, must be accompanied by difficult to fake physiological symptoms.

It is possible to take a blood test to see if you are in love. The telltale chemical/hormonal signature lasts approximately 30 months. This is, predictably, roughly the length of time between conception and the child exiting the high-risk early years.

When a man has sex he is less committed to caring for the woman and child, whereas if the woman gets pregnant, she is committed to becoming more vulnerable and expending a lot of resources to have a child. Therefore it makes sense that sex will lead to feelings of love more easily for women than men.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Emotions Part2

Why do some people not have them?
(please read part1 for context)
Emotions are evolutionarily valuable if the outward signs are difficult to mask; a fake smile is controlled by the cerebral cortex, and looks different to the natural smile created by the limbic system. However, if the proportion of players that can convincingly fake emotions is at a low frequency, then the majority do not change their life tactics and the rare ability to be a great deceiver gives enough evolutionary advantage to keep those genes in the population.

This explains why Antisocial Personality Disorder is to be expected at low frequency in any population – with the frequency affected by the type of society. I would guess that a society with low mobility and a high cost of being found out (dishonour=shunned forever) would have a lower incidence of sociopathy, but I am unaware of any research to bear this out either way.
Sociopaths may feel the limbic emotions, but not the ones generated in the neocortex (probably related to the smaller amygdala and reduced grey matter in the prefrontal cortex found in the brains of sociopaths). However, they are very capable of reading the emotions of others (in contrast to autistic spectrum traits, which also include lack of complex emotions such as empathy).

There is some evidence that children below the age of 5 or 6 do not have a fully developed neocortex and so are often seen to exhibit sociopathic traits that demonstrate lack of empathy, violence, and emotional manipulation. For example, young children will often look distraught and in tears but when given their toy back will immediately turn it off and appear happy again. In this case, is the child really experiencing the emotion, or are they just simulating it to manipulate their way to what they want?

Of course, as always, the truth is a mixture of many things – a genetic component is proved, and the preponderance towards males being sociopathic is some evidence of a link with autism. This sex divide may be due to genes on the Y chromosome, or possibly due to gene interaction with testosterone.
Nurture can play a role through someone being desensitised to emotions as a defence mechanism from an abusive upbringing. Nurture and environment could also play a role by activating genes.

All the above should be taken as opinion – there is some research material available on sociopaths, but it mostly deals with the incarcerated violent ones as test subjects and so presents a very skewed view of the phenomenon.

click here for Part3

Emotions Part1

Part 1 Why do we have them?

In 1952 McClean proposed a model of the brain as consisting of 3 parts; the stem, the limbic brain, and the neocortex. Brain physiology certainly shows distinct structures within the brain. He advocated the theory that as the brain evolved it did so, not by fluid wholescale changes, but, by adding on modules (which gradually became bigger and more complex). The original function of the stem brain did not change, but the extra functional capabilities of the limbic brain were added and then later the neocortex (where higher processing and consciousness occur) was added.

In 1980 Plutchik posited that basic emotions were rooted in the limbic brain – fear, disgust, anger – and that higher emotions springing from our social interactions were rooted in the neocortex – guilt, love, sympathy.

In 1990 Nesse furthered these models by using the language of game theory. He assigned emotions to the possible emotional states produced by the iterative prisoner's dilemma:
When both players cooperate they feel friendship, love, loyalty, obligation, pride.
When both players defect they feel hatred and rejection.
When one cooperates the cooperator feels anger and the defector feels guilt.
If someone looks happy and friendly you can predict that they are probably a cooperator. If they look angry/guilty then they are probably a defector and you should avoid cooperation in a social contract with them.

Another useful theory when considering emotions is that they may limit violence in squabbles. If there is a disagreement between obviously physically mismatched people then logically the weaker should simply concede. However, by displaying emotion like anger the weaker one signals that they may not act rationally and so the stronger should think twice about escalating a conflict. Fans of Dr Strangelove will recognise this as being analogous to the doomsday device; protection by Mutually Assured Destruction.

click here for part2

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Lack of Self-Insight Among the Incompetent

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”
Bertrand Russell [1951]

Surveys of the psychological literature suggest only a modest correlation between perceived skill level and actual performance. A meta study showed that poor predictions of skill level relative to others was due to poor assessment of their own skill level rather than an underestimation of the skill level of others.
At the high end, the highest performers showed a small tendency to underestimate their relative performance – perhaps because they find it hard to believe anyone could do as badly as some do.

This pattern is repeated in all walks of life, from complete idiots, to university professors (94% of whom thought their work above average).

As an example, consider someone estimating their performance on an English grammar test. To accurately assess whether a sentence you have written is grammatically correct, you must have a good knowledge of the rules of grammar. Someone who does not have a good knowledge of grammar will not only perform poorly on the test, but does not possess the level of skill necessary to assess their own performance.

Unfortunately life is full of incompetents who insist on commenting loudly and confidently on matters that they are not qualified. Those who advocate complimentary medicine, those who deny global warming, and those who think they are better at Tetris on the Gameboy than me, to name but a few, usually lack the skills necessary to critically and accurately evaluate their position.

Unfortunately, a lot of celebrities use their fame to advocate their own misjudged positions. As it is human nature for the masses to put more weight on an argument given by a perceived powerful (influential) person, democracy will always make bad decisions unless the elected politicians actually take advice from experts that is not popular with the masses. However, politicians will go for the vote-winning position over the right decision every time.

If I ruled the world...

Basic Quantum Physics

Here goes... I'll try to assume very little prior knowledge:

Atoms are made up of the nucleus, which contains the vast majority of the mass, and electrons which are in orbits around the nucleus.  The nucleus is tiny and the electrons are far far away from it in relative terms - the atom is mostly empty space, and if all the electrons could be stripped away and all the nuclei packed together, the nuclei of the entire human race would fit into a volume equal to a single sugar cube.

The crux of quantum physics is that tiny things like electrons cannot be thought of as simply being particles - the equations and experimental results often fit much better if you think of them as being waves.  One wavelength of a wave starts in the middle, goes up, goes down, then goes back up to where it started. If you add two waves and the peak of one coincides with the trough of the other then they cancel out.
These 'orbits' aren't exactly like a planetary orbit; you have probably heard of the phrase "a quantum leap" – this means is that if an electron is found at point A, it can be found later at point B even if there is a barrier between the two positions.  The electron has "leaped" from one point to the other without ever being in the space between.  It is used in common language to indicate a discrete jump in something - for example the horse-drawn cart was continuously improved by, for example, adding suspension and axles with lower friction, but the emergence of the motor car represented a quantum leap in personal transport.

These concepts were the difficult bit to grasp for physicists trying to explain certain experimental results, but once they were assumed many previously baffling things fell into place.
For example, starlight can be examined to determine what wavelengths are present (different wavelength = different energy = different colour), and for a long time there was no way of explaining why those particular light energies were seen.  Then came Niels Bohr's 2-page PhD thesis [1913], which one examiner thought was too long.  He was awarded a Nobel prize for his work in 1922

The simplest atom is also the most abundant; >98% of our sun is made of hydrogen, which is one proton with one electron.  The electron can be thought of as travelling in a circular orbit, i.e. the distance of one orbit is 2πr.  This distance must be equal to a whole number of wavelengths otherwise the electron's wavefuntion cancels itself out.  The first solution to this is for the distance to be equal to 1 wavelength and the second solution is for it to be two wavelengths. i.e. 2πr = λ and 2πr = 2λ (where λ is the electron's known wavelength, and the radius of the orbit, r, is the thing that is changing).
If you drop something from a height to the ground (fallen distance = r2 - r1), it loses energy and that lost energy is easily calculated if the distance it has fallen is known.  When an electron falls from the second orbit to the first one it also loses energy - it emits a little bit of light.  The amount of energy carried by this little bit of light can be calculated, and it corresponds exactly (very high accuracy) to the primary wavelength measured in the starlight.


A fair wage should be paid for a fair job. In most jobs this happens – with 'fairness' decided by market forces, as well as by someone's judgement.
I'm sure you would agree that people tip more if their food arrives in reasonable time, and they aren't kept waiting. This wait time is decided by the kitchen staff, not the waiting staff – so why should it affect the tip. If I order a £50 bottle of wine instead of a £10 bottle, why should the waiter get more money for pouring it into my glass?

Tipping is understandable when someone has gone out of their way, gone beyond the call of duty, to help you out. What I cannot stand is someone expecting a tip just for doing their job. “But”, I hear you say, “a waitress cannot survive on just her basic wage”. That may have been true before minimum wage laws came into force, it is a much weaker argument now – all that needs to be done is for governments to stop exempting service staff from minimum wage laws. Restaurants would raise prices but customers would pay the same on average, and a better career structure and self image for waiting staff would emerge.

If someone in a normal job performs better than their colleagues, then they get a raise, or perhaps a performance related bonus. This system seems reasonable; the prospect of a raise or bonus serves as an incentive to put in the effort.
If there were no tips, but the service industry raised prices enough to pay a fair wage, and gave raises/bonuses to the better ones, then this would benefit the employees and simplify the transaction for all involved.

To me the issue of tipping is confusing, often unfair, patronising, and bad for the service industry. Every time you tip a waiter, or taxi driver, or hair stylist you are contributing simply due of tradition or out of guilt that are being given a service by someone else. I do not view “because that's the way it has always been done” as a valid reason, and I don't feel guilt, so perhaps my view is not mainstream, but think about it.
And if you are worried about waiting staff being nasty to you in any way in the future if you don't tip, ask yourself if someone capable of petty retribution deserves a tip.

Monday, 20 December 2010


What is a soul?  Perhaps others would define it differently, but I am going to use a loose definition: 'the part of an individual that is not rooted in the physical world, and enables that individual to somehow have a consciousness after physical death'.

If you believe you have a soul, and you believe in evolution, and you don't believe that all life forms have a soul (e.g. a worm, a bacterium...), then you must come to the conclusion that at some point along the evolutionary trail an animal existed that didn't have a soul whereas its offspring did.  This seeming absurdity springs from evolution being a very finely gradiated change, whereas a soul would seem to be something that is either present or not – you can't have half a soul.
Another problem I have with the concept of souls is the whole afterlife thing.  If heaven exists, is it possible to do bad things there?  I don't want to hear any crap about how you won't want to do any bad things because you will be surrounded by god's love – if I didn't want to do something that was slightly morally dubious in heaven (even just to test whether i could) then i wouldn't be me.  If this soul doesn't look like me (physical attributes dead on earth) and doesn't have the same personality and critical faculties as me, then it isn't me and the question of whether this soul lives on after I die is one of complete irrelevance.

The Law

yes, it is 'Dubya' eating a live kitten, his favourite midnight snack
The direction of law in a civilised society should be, and is, towards making the law based on rational judgment rather than evolved, instinctive, responses.  Something should not be illegal based, for example, on disgust.  It should not be illegal to eat your pet when it dies (and nor is it to my knowledge).  How about eating a dead relative?  How about two gay brothers getting married and having a physical relationship?  How about bestiality?

We must take into account whether an act infringes on another person's human rights, or not, when we make laws.  If it does not, then it should be legal unless it is also destructive to society.  For example should heroin be legal?  If someone becomes a heroin addict, their contribution may go from being positive though tax payment, to being negative – losing their job, becoming a criminal, and using up police and court time.  The heroin addict isn't just harming themselves, they are harming society; it is for this reason that there is a strong argument for laws to be not purely based on whether the act infringes on someone else's human rights.  
But this exceptional case is only an interesting digression – the point is that as civilised societies mature, law should become more rational and gradually reverses laws such as homosexuality being illegal.  

What's next?  Don't misunderstand me – i think that laws should reflect the views of society to some extent; but i wish (and believe we are moving slowly in this direction) that society's views on law should be more rationally based than they are now.