Future Selves, Other Selves

There’s a fascinating series of articles at the New York Times Magazine this week about charitable giving. While many of the articles tend to cover the same ground (e.g. the move towards measuring the effectiveness of donations) there are some real gems there:

Consider Mr. Improvident, who is just like us except that he is not wired to care about his future. (There’s one in every family.) Mr. Improvident gets no neural kick from saving for tomorrow. Yet we can see that he has an objective reason to do so. He is, after all, a person extended in time, not a series of disconnected selves.

We ought to be able to see a similarly objective reason for altruism, one rooted, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel observed, in “the conception of oneself as merely a person among others equally real.” My reason for taking steps to relieve the suffering of others is, in this way of thinking, as valid as my reason for taking steps to avert my own future suffering. Both reasons arise from our understanding of what sort of beings we are, not from the vagaries of natural selection.

This was from an article about the nature of altruism, the discussion of which tends to concentrate on genetic reasons like kin selection and reciprocity. The suggestion that there is an objective reason for altruism – or at least, as objective and valid as saving for ourselves in the future – is interesting. There is of course an argument that we are more likely to save for ourselves, because we are going to be ourselves in the future – but the problem with this is the existence of Mr. Improvident. If the corollary or Mr. Provident exists, then why can’t a Mr. Altruist? Anyway…

Another great article is What Makes People Give? To me, the article is misnamed, since it’s more about ‘how can we use psychology to make people donate more?’ – which is the reason why I recommended it to the Let’s Change the Game winning team. There are some fascinating discoveries listed in the article, and while they can’t be used for all fundraising projects, I’m sure some will prove very useful, e.g.:

A matching gift effectively reduces the cost of making a donation. Without a match, you would have to spend $400 to make your favorite charity $400 richer. With a three-to-one match in place, it would cost you only $100 to add $400 to the charity’s coffers.

… But the size of the match in the experiment didn’t have any effect on giving. Donors who received the offer of a one-to-one match gave just as often, and just as much, as those responding to the three-to-one offer. That was surprising, because a larger match is effectively a deeper discount on a person’s gift. Yet in this case, the deeper discount didn’t make an impact. It was as if Starbucks had cut the price of a latte to $2 and sales didn’t increase.


List set out to see whether donors cared about so-called seed money. Fund-raisers generally like to have raised a large portion of their ultimate goal, sometimes as much as 50 percent, before officially announcing a new campaign. This makes the goal, as well as the cause, seem legitimate.

To see whether the strategy made sense, List and Reiley wrote letters to potential donors saying that the university wanted to buy computers for a new environmental-research center. They varied the amount of money that supposedly had already been raised. In some letters, they put the amount in hand at $2,000, out of the $3,000 they needed for a given computer; in others, they said they had raised only $300 and still needed $2,700. The results were overwhelming. The more upfront money Central Florida claimed to have on hand, the more additional money it raised. When paired with the matching-gift research, the study suggests that seed money is a better investment for charities than generous matches.

Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck

Spotted this wonderful, and very accurate, ‘equation’ by Daniel Kahneman:

The Secret of Regression to Mediocrity

Success = Some Talent + Luck
Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck

The term ‘regression to mediocrity’ (also known as ‘regression to the mean’) was first coined by Francis Galton in 1886. Galton showed that, on average, the children of tall parents tended to be shorter than their parents, and that the children of short parents tended to be taller than their parents.

Say what?

The point is that height is partly determined by your genes, and partly by the environment you grow up in (e.g. food, healthcare, etc). A confluence of good genes and a good environment might produce a very tall person. If that tall person has a child with another tall person, sure, the child will have good genes – but they certainly aren’t guaranteed to have a good environment. In fact, they’re probably just going to have an average environment. That means that the child, on average, just isn’t going to be as tall as their parents.

This applies for all sorts of different things wherever luck, or random chance, is involved. Take gambling. Imagine I win the World Series of Poker this year. Now, if this happened, you would agree that I must be a pretty excellent poker player; perhaps even the best poker player in the entire world. Would you expect me to win next year? Even 50% odds? Probably not. But why? Continue reading “Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck”

Alive and well

Some utter fool has written an article in the Times (part one, part two) on the failure of psychology. My views are reflected quite accurately in this Metafilter thread which I contributed to.

Psychology is alive and well, and if you want to attack the strawman of psychoanalysis and outdated views of early 20th century psychology, fine. Just don’t pretend that you’re referring to psychology as it has been any time in the last few decades.

Saying ‘Everywhere you turn, you find growing links between biology, or physics, and behaviour; more and more appears to be explained by physiology, biochemistry, genetics or neurology � and less and less by psychology,’ completely misses the point. Psychology is ‘the scientific study of the behaviour of humans and animals.’ It can use any number of methods, such as brain imaging, genetic studies, molecular and cellular biology and of course good old behavioural studies.

They just can’t help it

They just can’t help it – an article about the differences between the male and female brain by my old university psychology supervisor, Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen. Interesting and controversial stuff; I saw a lecture that he gave about this topic a few months ago (not via Metafilter – I read it in the Guardian myself this time).

Third Wave

The Third Wave – in 1968, a schoolteacher conducted an experiment to find out how easily ‘normal American students’ could fall into patterns of behaviour as seen in Nazi Germany. The results were quite astonishing and unexpected, and well worth reading (via Metafilter).


One of the advantages of being a university student is that there are ample opportunities to be a psychology experiment test subject. If you’re ever bored and could do with a bit of cash, it’s well worth checking out if there are any psychology researchers looking for test subjects. Usually you’ll end up sitting in front of a computer for about an hour pressing buttons in response to stimuli, and you’ll get something from £5 to £10 in return for your troubles.

I find it particularly interesting because the researchers will often try to explain the rationale behind the experiment to you, and you’ll invariably find out some interesting cutting-edge insights. The researchers are always very grateful to have test subjects (despite the fact that they’re paying you) and the warm glow of just having contributed towards the progress of science and our understanding of the universe tends to mitigate any feelings of guilt that you might have about dozing off during the experiment (not that I would ever have done such a thing, of course).


Once again, it’s the wonderful time of year when the BBC’s Reith Lectures are being presented. I’ve followed the Reith Lectures on my weblog for quite a few years now, so when I discovered that this year’s lecturer is none other than my old San Diego research supervisor, Prof. Vilanyanur Ramachandran, I was pretty damn surprised. The theme of his lectures is ‘The Emerging Mind’.

I actually first heard that Ramachandran was over in the UK when I was at an interview at Oxford University; I’d just been asked a question about multimodal sensory integration and the binding problem, and I responded by using synaesthesia as an example and mentioning my time in San Diego. One of the interviewers then said that Ramachandran would be over at Oxford next week to speak. “Really?” I said thoughtfully.

Anyway, on Tuesday I went to a Cambridge Science Society lecture on ‘The Phenomenal Brain’ by a visual neuroscientist called Richard Gregory. After the talk I had a brief chat with him, asking if he was familiar with the blind spot theory of qualia espoused by Ramachandran. He was – he collaborated with Rama on the original experiment! “I hear that Rama will be speaking at Trinity on Friday,” he told me. “Really?” I said thoughtfully.

The reason I didn’t know about this is because the organisers of the Trinity talk, Trinity College Medical Society, had seen it fit not to publicise the talk in any way other than an email to the University’s Medical mailing list. Thus, poor saps like myself, a mere scientist, didn’t hear wind of it unless they began investigating with the Trinity porters and figuring out which rooms had been booked up for Friday (that, and asking my medic friends about it).

So the upshot of all of this is that I went to a packed talk given by Rama yesterday evening. Rama was in top form, exuding a real energy and enthusiasm about his subject while gesticulating madly and delighting the audience. I fear that his ideas about synaesthesia and the development of language and metaphor may have been a bit too novel for some Cambridge students, but it seemed like most people really enjoyed the talk. I wasn’t sure whether he’d recognise me, but when I put my hand up to ask a question he remembered immediately. “Hello, how are you!” he boomed. “Uh, fine, thanks…” I said, taken a bit aback. “This guy worked in my lab last summer,” he explained to the audience.

It was all very cool and I had another chat with him afterwards about my future plans, and him suggesting that I should apply to UC San Diego one of these days. And then I went to a curry for dinner and watched an episode of 24 downloaded from the net, rounding off an ideal evening.


It’s amazing how suggestible the human mind is. Well, not quite amazing, but still impressive. I’ve just been over at a friend’s who’s a fan of psychological magic tricks, and he managed to successfully predict two different cards chosen by myself and another person. When I say ‘predict’, of course what really happened was that he placed the suggestion in our minds to choose the cards that he’d already decided on beforehand.

It’s not overly difficult to do this; you just have to pay attention to body language signals and also use subtle hand movements and phrasing. However, to see it done successfully is very impressive and provides an interesting counterpoint to my thoughts about free will.

Freedom Evolves

Just finished reading Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett. It took me only four days to accomplish this, which is a great improvement from previous philosophy books that took me several weeks to finish (or I never ended up finishing them). This presents several possibilites, which I’ve listed in increasing order of likelihood:

1) My IQ has risen by several dozen points in the last few months.
2) This book happens to be really easy to read.
3) I’m finally getting the hang of philosophy jargon and concepts.

It’s probably the last two in combination.

I’ll post my thoughts on the book in a while, after I’d had a chance to digest the ideas. In the meantime, here are two choice quotations:

“Some philosophers can’t bear to say simple things, like “Suppose a dog bites a man.” They feel obliged instead to say, “Suppose a dog d bites a man m at time t,” thereby demonstrating their unshakable commitment to logical rigor, even though they don’t go on to manipulate any formulae involving d, m and t.”

and also, seen on a car bumper sticker: “Jesus is coming. Look busy.”

Front Page

I was feeling a little depressed and annoyed today when I was told that my entry for the college Science Essay Prize hadn’t won. So, to cheer myself up, I submitted it to the Kuro5hin community website and to my delight, my essay about synaesthesia has met with their approval and been posted on the front page.