This post on irony is really wonderful

Tom Marcinko @ 03-11-2008

Christopher Moore said somewhere that irony isn’t just a literary device, but a basic property of the universe. [citation needed] If so, that might explain why some psychologists think human beings are hardwired with a sense of irony. Psychologist Penny M. Pexman of the University of Calgary in Alberta…

…trained kids to associate niceness with a smiling yellow duck and meanness with a snarling gray shark. Then they watched puppet shows, in which the puppets made both sarcastic and literal remarks. Rather than asking the kids to interpret the remarks, she tracked their eye gaze, to see whether they shifted their attention ever so slightly toward the shark or the duck after a particular remark….

If kids were indeed processing every sentence as literally true to begin with, then their eyes would reveal that. That is, they would look automatically at the duck on hearing “Well, that’s just great.” But they did not. When that sentence was used ironically, their eyes went immediately to the mean shark. The irony required no laborious cognitive crunching. They processed the insincerity as rapidly as they processed the basic meaning of the words.

[Image: carbonNYC]

Science and storytelling

Tom Marcinko @ 19-09-2008

story-corpsWhy do people love stories, anyway? Scientific American reviews recent research and speculation, rounding up ideas — stories, really — from psychology, neurology, anthropology, and evolutionary theory. A taste:

In support for the idea that stories act as practice for real life are imaging studies that reveal similar brain ac­tivity during viewings of real people and animated cha­racters. In 2007 [Raymond A. Mar, assistant professor of psychology at York University in Toronto] conducted a study using Waking Life, a 2001 film in which live footage of actors was traced so that the characters appear to be animated drawings. Mar used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan volunteers’ brains as they watched matching footage of the real actors and the corresponding animated characters. During the real footage, brain activity spiked strongly in the superior temporal sulcus and the temporoparietal junction, areas associated with processing biological motion. The same areas lit up to a lesser extent for the animated footage. “This difference in brain activation could be how we distinguish between fantasy and reality,” Mar says.

[Story Corps van: photo by Omar Omar]

Very superstitious: why we believe

Tom James @ 11-09-2008

four_leaved_cloverI’ve always been curious as to why human beings are superstitious, now evolutionary biologists believe it is the result of natural selection. Prof Kevin Foster of Harvard University defines superstition as the tendency to falsely link cause and effect:

…a prehistoric human might associate rustling grass with the approach of a predator and hide. Most of the time, the wind will have caused the sound, but “if a group of lions is coming there’s a huge benefit to not being around,”

So far so plausible:

Foster and Kokko worked with mathematical language and a simple definition for superstition that includes animals and even bacteria.

The pair modelled the situations in which superstition is adaptive. As long as the cost of believing a superstition is less than the cost of missing a real association, superstitious beliefs will be favoured.

I’ve always felt that, even though I agree with a lot of what A C Grayling, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins say vis a vis belief and superstition they need to give more thought to the possibility that superstitious beliefs are part of the human condition.

[story via Slashdot][image from Greencolander on flickr]

Fun science fact: We are all somewhat insane

Tom Marcinko @ 26-08-2008

wingnutA bold claim (or maybe not), but evolutionary biologist Randolph Nesse thinks he can back it up.

[He] compares the human brain with race horses: Just as horse breeding has selected for long thin legs that increase speed but are prone to fracture, cognitive advances also increase fitness — to a point….

People with aggressive and narcissistic personalities are the easiest to understand evolutionarily; they look out for number one. But even if 16 million men today can trace their genes to Genghis Khan…very few potential despots achieve such heights. Perhaps to check selfish urges, in favor of more probable means to biological success, social lubricants such as empathy, guilt and mild anxiety arose….

But too much emotional acuity — when individuals overanalyze every grimace — can cause a motivational nervousness about one’s social value to morph into a relentless handicapping anxiety.

[Wingnut by Gibna Kebira]

The next revolution in social policy

Tom James @ 18-07-2008

The reliably interesting Daniel Finkelstein has a good article on what he sees as a social psychology revolution developing via the collision of the two disciplines of evolutionary psychology and behavioural economics. From the article:

Yet the integration of the academic work on human behaviour into politics is still very much in its infancy. It is roughly now where economic understanding was in about 1978, before the Thatcher revolution. It is possible, indeed usual, to have entire policy debates in which the science of human behaviour doesn’t figure at all.

For instance, in the past two weeks we have had discussion of obesity and of knife crime. Social norms have hardly figured. If everybody thinks that everybody else is getting fat, then more people will put on weight. The campaigns designed to reduce obesity may be spreading it. Similarly the very idea that every young person is carrying a knife increases knife crime. The obvious route of making such behaviour seem odd and isolated appears not to have occurred to any major politician.

This does tie in with studies that crop up every few weeks concerning how humans co-operate and compete, and how our perceptions of risk and reward work.

One recent study concerns how mathematical models that include diversity of connectedness in social networks can show why altruism appears in societies. It’s an interesting article, even if a little hard to understand.

redpill_bluepillApropos the free-market intellectual revolutions of the eighties and the use (or overuse) of mathematical models in the study of human behaviour, check out Adam Curtis’ brilliant The Trap series of documentaries – they can be found on YouTube here.

The idea that we are entering a new era in which policy is created by politicians who have an empirical understanding of human nature is a compelling one. Doubtless it is full of potential for science fictional speculation.

[story from Physorg, article from The Times Online][image from Night Star Romanus on flickr]