Friday, June 24, 2016

The Psychology of Brexit

The people of Britain are just like people everywhere else.  They are proud, hard-working people, who long for a brighter future.  It is also a country with a large working class.  Working class people are the people who tend to actually do things, like screw screws and plumb plumbing. Like everyone, they often feel their circumstances should be better.  However, their situation is especially poignant, because in countries with high inequality, like the UK and the USA, a working class person can simply drive down the street to see how much the bankers get paid for doing things like screwing the working class.
People who are unhappy and angry often don't attend to the long-term consequences of their actions.  Crimes of passion by definition lack the premeditated thinking-it-through that tends to keep people out of trouble. Still, crimes and emotionally-driven actions are often the outcome of a history of emotional dissatisfaction.  People don't just get angry one day and stab their partner.  They get angry, and then they get angry again, and then they stomp their feet for a while, and then one day they get really angry and they happen to be cutting onions. 
Working class people in places with high inequality have been angry for a long time, perhaps since the dawn of work. The referendum on Brexit in the UK just handed the working class a knife and placed a blow-up-doll of the EU nearby.
A lot of people may be inclined to see the Leave vote as irrational.  It's quite a bit more complicated than that. Cameron sat at the EU negotiating table and he aimed to make a certain kind of deal. That deal was unsatisfying for the UK, despite Cameron's claims that it should have been otherwise. So he asked the people for a vote.   This gave the voting population the chance to negotiate with the EU on Cameron's behalf.  Voting either way would send a very important signal that everyone in Europe would hear.
A strong vote to Remain says to the EU decision makers, plainly, "You shouldn't take the British government's whining about the growing EU government seriously, because the British seem happy enough with the way things are."  A vote to Leave sends an equally plain message: "We Brits are walking away from this negotiation, consequences be damned." It is a shame that the best political minds of Europe couldn't have turned this either-or checkbox in the voting booth into a slider.
Emotions were high on both sides, in part because the experts (people who are trained to understand the factors involved in good decision making) were still on life-support from the last time their predictions blew up in their face.  The economists haven't recovered from the last financial crisis. The recent publicity of the crisis of confidence in science hasn't helped much either.  Science has always been the highest forum for skepticism. The whole industry is riddled like blue cheese with the mold of skepticism, and perhaps it should remain so.  A crisis of confidence is practically the definition of a good scientist. If Einstein didn't question Newton, you don't get e equals mc squared. If Charles Lyell didn't question the catastrophic theories of geology, you don't get plate tectonics or probably Darwinian evolution. But still. A lot of people in the world have had their fill of people knowing stuff. It is much easier to say something as intelligent as, in the words of Michael Gove, "People in this country have had enough of experts." Then you can believe whatever you want.
Emotionally charged claims were being served up by both sides. 
Many have characterized the emotional divide as a split between the Angry and the Scared. The Angry wanted to throw the negotiating table at the EU, and they made claims that often ended with an implicit WTF.  The Scared were worried about the consequences of leaving and provided evidence of a similar but different style. These often showed lines going up and down and through the top or bottom of charts.  Everyone knows that lines should never rapidly approach the edge of a chart.  You can make jabs at people here if you want--like "If people can't read a chart, they shouldn't be allowed to vote," and "Your chart is telling me what happens to the average person, but if the guy down the street gets richer, then the average income goes up while I get to go @*£!$ myself. So you can take your chart and shove it up your *@$£!" I don't recommend these lines of argument.  Frankly, they are not persuasive.  Very few people are stupid in any meaningful sense and the British aren’t either. 
Hindsight has the benefit of allowing us to tell stories that predict the outcome of Brexit in advance.  But frankly, no one knew the outcome. Especially not David Cameron who gave the people the vote. Nor the bookies who bet on Remain.  Nor does anyone know the future, except to say that it is uncertain.  In the present case, the people have chosen more uncertain over less uncertainty. They have chosen to abandon the known to explore beyond the edge of the map. There be dragons, some say. But such exploration is often required for growth.  
Of course, sometimes you just get eaten.
In a future post I hope to jot down what I think are some of the historical mythologies driving the current emotional landscape.
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Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Psychology of Walter White

Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, said that his goal with Walter White was to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.  Take a regular person, like you—assume you’re regular for a second—and then make you nice and evil, like a witch in a gingerbread house.  Is that really even possible?  Could you become another Walter White?  
I’m inclined to believe that most of us still think some people are good and some people are bad, and never the twain shall meet.  Despite the lessons we learned from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we still think that good and evil belong in different people. Walter clearly shows that it doesn’t. And he demonstrates this with so many good psychological reasons—reasons that experimental psychologists observe in ‘normal’ people on a daily basis.  
What are these reasons and do they apply to you? See for yourself.
Reason 1: Anyone can become a killer
David Buss wrote a book a few years ago called “The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind is Designed to Kill.”  One of the central points of this book is that, not only do the majority of us consider killing other people in our lives (more than 80% of both sexes), but—if the external conditions are right—many of us actually do. We do it out of jealousy, rage, self-defense, greed, and revenge
Moreover, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to observe that wars kill people, nor are they necessarily the domain of the insane. When moral boundaries are drawn differently, a lot of people comply by engaging in behavior they otherwise wouldn’t.  Including murder. From draftees to presidents.  Consider that Obama probably never thought taking someone’s life would become part of his political career, but indeed, it has. And as difficult a decision as it was to make, I imagine many of us would have done the same.  So consider this step one on your way to becoming Walter White.
Reason 2: Believing you're a victim makes you more likely to commit a crime
Many studies have shown that social inequality drives up crime rates. When the poor and the rich live near one another, laws get broken. Social comparison is usually blamed—and it’s a nasty thing.  Studies find that kids will take less to avoid others having more.  Offer a child the choice between having three candies if his sister can have four, versus having two candies if his sister gets one and see what happens.  Moreover, people are often unhappier if promotions don't seem to follow easy to understand rules, even when they’re promoted more rapidly as a result. The trouble is that in almost any situation, there is almost always someone who is better off than you.  So if you think you're a victim of unfair treatment because other people have it better than you, consider this step two on your way to becoming a bad guy.
But there's more to it than that. A lot of people blame Walter's bad behavior on his sad situation: his cancer, his humiliating job(s), his family life, and his regrettable relationships with past co-workers.  Whether this is worse than what other non-criminals have to deal with is beside the point, the question is about what Walter believes.  And he does believe he is a victim, at least in the beginning.  The problem with believing you have no control over your life (that you’re a victim) is that it increases your chances of being a jerk. Several recent studies have shown that being led to disbelieve in your ability to control your own fate (i.e., your free will) directly increases the chances that you will be aggressive(link is external)cheat(link is external), and fail to help others.
Reason 3: Thinking you have nothing left to lose is not good for your health
The problem with thinking you have nothing left to lose is that you start to take risks you otherwise wouldn’t.  This is sometimes called risk sensitivity, which basically says that it makes sense to take risks when you're likely to lose if you don’t.  This explains the end of countless football and hockey games.  Moreover, it's built fairly deeply into our DNA.  Animals will often choose risky food schedules with rare large gains when on a diet otherwise insufficient to sustain life, whereas animals with enough food prefer certain small gains to uncertain large gains. Yes, even animals appear to understand the logic of the hail mary pass.
The same general logic has been used to explain suicide bombers. Studies on the statistics of suicide bombers find that most suicide bombers are male, unmarried, and are often from larger than average families.  Mix that with life in a polygynous environment where employment is low and reproductive prospects (i.e., marriage) are dependent on money (and not having to share it with your brothers). Now compare the alternatives between being an evolutionary black hole and an eternity with virgins and reported monetary rewards for your family.  Though I don't recommend it, maybe turning yourself into a religious martyr doesn't sound so bad after all.
Reason 4: Pretending to be bad is a gateway drug to the real thing
Can pretending to be a ruthless drug dealer make you a ruthless drug dealer? There are many forms of evidence to suggest the answer is yes.  Obviously, it's hard to collect data on pretend drug dealers, but there is a considerable history of collecting data on people pretending to do things. Following on a study by Laird (1974), many people have investigated the effects of 'fake' smiles, which appear to make us happier, more likely to perceive humor in things, and even lead to heart benefits.
But similar effects can be found on the darker side. Zimbardo's prison experiment(link is external) found that asking people to pretend to be prison guards led them to become rather unpleasant individuals--especially if you were a prisoner.  But we have even better data now.  One of the biggest sources of this data is on people playing violent video games (Jesse even shows us how it works).  Here, the evidence is enough to explain even the daily shootings in the good old USA.  As far back as 1995, when the enemy in video games was represented by no more than a few pixels, children became more aggressive to real people and real objects following violent video game play.  Since then, meta-analyses of hundreds of data sets show a small but consistent positive effect of violent video games on aggression.  Multiply this by the number of people actually playing these games, and it becomes clear that even if violent video games led to real violence in less than one in a million game players, you'd still hear about it several times a day in the news.
Reason 5: Costly mistakes can make us do stupid things
Shouldn't failure have taught Walter White a lesson? Hardly. Failure is not so predictable.  Moreover, costly mistakes can be some of the hardest to learn from, because they are the ones we feel most obligated to rationalize.  One of the best-researched  decision making fallacies we know of is the sunk cost fallacy.  Sometimes it’s called arguments from waste.  "We can't stop now, that would be a huge waste!" Governments commit this fallacy when they continue with losing wars, often arguing that we cannot let soldiers to have died in vain.  Basketball coaches do it(link is external) when they continue to give greater playing time to higher draft picks even when they have sub-par performance.  Indeed, studies show that companies do it routinely, by investing in failing product lines.  Regular folks like you and me often do it to save face, because obviously we aren't stupid—we just need to give our bad decisions a little more support to help them mature into the good decisions we know they truly are. 
One could argue that after Walter's initial decision to cook meth, the sunk cost fallacy does a lot of the work of bringing his professional meth career to its peak performance. He's constantly cleaning up after himself. Indeed, Walter frequently makes arguments from waste.  How could so much cost have led to so little gain?  Clearly the only solution is to cook more meth, kill the 'last' person standing in the way, etc.  Walter is making this argument every time we hear him say something like "this is the last time," which he seems to say about once every other episode.
Beware, sunk costs are probably involved in all kinds of unfortunate things, from unhappy marriages to sticking with ailing vehicles to that unfortunate temptation to kill innocent witnesses.  If you're going to be a criminal, it would be better if you just tried harder to avoid being seen in the first place.
Reason 6: Crime has all the makings of an addiction
The statistics on crime suggest that, in at least some ways, it's just like eating chips.  You can't stop with just one. In a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics(link is external)  (BJS) on convicted criminals, the average number of crimes initially committed by these individuals was 13 per convicted criminal. Though I'm sure a lot of Gus Frings bring the average up for the rest of us.
Nonetheless, crime looks in many respects like an incurable disease with occasional flare-ups.  The BJS report shows that following release from prison, approximately 67% of the criminals in the study were rearrested for a new crime within 3 years. The rearrest rate is highest for perpetrators of property crimes--with about a 70% reincarceration rate.  Among those convicted of homicide, the reincarceration rate was lower, at about 40%—I guess that's a bright side.  Unfortunately, these individuals are convicted of homicide again at a rate about 53 times higher than the rest of the adult population.  That’s not exactly the same as eating a whole bag of chips, but it certainly puts you in the right risk group.
A Brief Respite
You'll be happy to know that terminal illness doesn't appear to turn people into the criminally ill.  I looked long and hard for evidence that it could, but found basically nothing.  You can imagine this is hard data to collect. People with terminal illness have lots of reasons for not going out and committing crimes, including the simple fact that they probably don't feel well.  So the data here is hardly compelling and is notable mainly for its absence.  
Nonetheless, the other reasons above hopefully point out plenty of great ways to turn your life into a shambles without even thinking about it.  You don't have to be born bad to turn bad.  You just have to apply yourself.
Thomas Hills on Twitter(link is external)

Retirement, Wisdom, and the Aging Mind

The U.S. Census Bureau(link is external) puts the world population in 2050 at around 9 billion, with around 1.5 billion older than 65.  That’s more than one in ten retirees compared to the roughly one in fifteen now.  It seems safe to say that our mature population plans to stick around.  If we choose to allow (or force) older citizens to retire is this a good decision or a massive waste of intellectual capital? 
One observation is fairly worrying: Retirement appears to lead to cognitive decline.  Several studies have investigated this relationship using large data sets.  One study by Bonsang and colleagues (link is external)sums things up.  They looked at cognitive decline across European countries with different retirement ages, using the large SHARE data set covering more than 30,000 people born in or before 1954.  Countries that have earlier ages of retirement (i.e., have higher financial disincentives to continue working, like France and Greece) also have faster rates of age-related cognitive decline. 
But supposing no one retired?  Would our elder workforce jeopardize our productivity? This question is usually answered by referring to one of two competing mythologies surrounding aging  One represents the classic Disney view of old age, where our elders are the keepers of the wisdom—they are patient and slow, and almost always wiser than the young.  The other is a more dystopian view, where older individuals are a bumbling citizenry of people whose minds shutdown often and at random.
Research has found support for both views, with important distinctions.  I point out the biggest distinction here by listing a few studies where the research has been done many times by many groups of people in many different ways.  Put simply, in comparison with younger adults, older adults are better at regulating their emotions, they’re better at understanding social conflict, their vocabularies are larger, and they generally have more accumulated knowledge about the world (i.e., factual knowledge).  On the flipside, older adults reason and process information more slowly, they have more trouble inhibiting habitual behavior, and they tend to remember less new information. 
This is the difference between crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence.  Crystallized intelligence is your knowledge base, what you know and know well.  Fluid intelligence is your capacity to learn and manipulate new information.  One can think of this as a trade-off between wisdom and learning: older people appear to pay for their wisdom with a reduced ability to learn more.
Now given this trade-off, we want to know where our elders will stack up when they keep coming in to work. A recent study by Ye Li and colleagues(link is external) addressed this.  Their research studied two age populations (about 200 people in each)—one between 18 and 29 and the other between 60 and 82.  Over a period of months, these two groups took a series of cognitive and decision making tasks.  The cognitive measures were split across three groups, designed to measure 1) crystallized intelligence 2) fluid-intelligence, and 3) inhibitory control measures such as the Stroop task, which involves naming the font color of words that spell out the names of different colors (e.g., 'red' spells red, but the font color is black).
The decision making tasks were common to economic decision making.  These measured things like temporal discounting (would you rather have some money now or more money in the future?), anchoring effects (not letting arbitrary numbers influence numerical estimates), and framing effects (would you choose to save 200 out of 600 people or kill 400 out of 600?).
First, the older people were better at all of the decision making tasks. They were more patient when they needed to be, less influenced by arbitrary numbers, and didn't get hung up on framing effects.
Second, the cognitive tasks showed the same pattern I highlighted above: Older individuals had higher levels of crystallized intelligence, but performed more poorly on measures of fluid intelligence and inhibitory control. 
Most importantly, decision performance was predicted by all the cognitive measures.  Which is to say, what the older people lacked in fluid abilities, they made up for in general knowledge.  And where the youth lacked wisdom, they compensated with a little cognitive elbow grease.  
In sum, if we define wisdom as knowledge combined with its judicious use, then older people seem to have it, well into retirement.  Moreover, this wisdom may more than compensate for what they lack in other areas.  So next time age seems to be getting the best of you, just sit back and be wise for a minute.  You've earned it. But then maybe get back up again.
Thomas Hills on Twitter(link is external) 

The Upside and Downside of Middle-Age Risk Taking

As a teenager I remember asking my parents if it was possible to have a midlife crisis before you left high school. This was followed by hearty chuckles. Nonetheless, it forces one to ask the question: What exactly is a midlife crisis and how would you know if you were having one? More specifically, is there evidence that such a thing even exists? If so, what are the symptoms? Does midlife put you at risk of divorce, dying in a motorcycle accident, or failing to open your parachute?
There are many ways to answer these questions. In an effort to be fair to our imaginations, I've aimed to cover some of the dominant possibilities. In addition, I've tried to wrangle up past evidence as well as taking my own look at data from the Centers for Disease Control (link is external) in the U.S., recorded between 1999 and 2010. Hopefully this will give some indication of the relative risks and provide a look at both upside and downside risks.
The Upside
Divorce: Divorce does not increase in middle age The National Center for Family and Marriage Research(link is external) at Bowling Green State University finds a steady decline in divorce rates across the adult lifespan. This is a typical pattern in other data sets as well. Peak divorce rates occur around twenty years of age with between 30 and 45 divorces per 1000 married couples per year. By the late forties and early fifties this is down to about 15 divorces per 1000 married couples, and it continues to decline from there. One of the biggest risk factors for divorce is having already had one—so avoid that, where possible.
Behind the wheel: People in midlife might be more likely to buy expensive and fast cars, but then again these people make more money than they did when they were younger—and they have places to go. So perhaps a better indicator would be whether or not we see a rise in fatal car accidents. The answer appears to be no. Numerous studies and the CDC data show that crash rates and fatal car accidents are at their lowest among people in their 40s and 50s. Accident rates rise again when people are in their 70s, but the majority of these accidents happen between 1 and 20 miles per hour. By then, it’s a different kind of joy ride.
Homicide: Does middle age increase the chances that people will become homicidal killers? Alas, no. Starting from a peak homicide rate around the 20s, people grow increasingly meek as they get older. This is best known from the research of Wilson and Daly who studied homicide rates in Detroit, among other places. The principle results were that young, unmarried males were the primary offenders. The middle-aged, on the other hand, seemed to have their inner demons fairly well under control.
The Downside
Depression: Midlife can indeed be truly depressing. A number of studies on happiness have consistently found that happiness across the lifespan is a U-shaped function. People are saddest when they're about middle-aged, and they tend to be happier when they are younger or older. It appears this has nothing to do with being human. New research led by Alexander Weiss(link is external) at the University of Edinburgh even finds this U-shaped pattern in great apes.  

Ernest Hemingway at 55.
Ernest Hemingway, midlife thrill-seeker.
Suicide: You might be more likely to kill yourself in middle age. Studies on suicide across the lifespan indicate a small but possible rise in suicide rates as people age, though I couldn't find anyone claiming a special rise in midlife. However, the CDC data tells a different story, with two clear peaks: one in the 80s and another nearly as high in the late 40s and early 50s, with about 17 suicides per 100,000 people. That's about 10 more suicides per 100,000 people than occur in the late teens. Also, though suicide rates are pretty much always higher for males, both males and females show this mid-life peak.
Taking chances: There has been some suspicion lately that middle-aged men may take more risks, highlighted by a recent article in the Times(link is external) reporting an increase in deaths on Britian's coastline. With that in mind, I looked at data from the CDC on drowning and motorcycle accident rates. Not counting accidents in individuals over 70 or under 5, there are two telling peaks across the male adult lifespan: one in the late-teens and early twenties and a second smaller peak in the mid-forties. This second peak represents an additional death toll of about 10 people per million in the age class. It's certainly nothing near the size of the midlife suicide peak. On the not unlikely chance that suicide victims and adventure-seekers are two sides of a complicated coin, one is forced to wonder if the thrills might be worth the risk.
In sum, there does appear to be a midlife signal among the noise, though it doesn't stand out as a hotbed of risk taking It might leave some people a little more down than up. These people should feel some solace in knowing that things do indeed get better. For middle-aged men feeling the call of youth, my recommendation is to wear a helmet and a life-vest at all times.