Groucho Marx

Blog Archive – August 2006

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“ An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less. ”
Nicholas Butler

August 07 2006

Irrational behaviour take 2

Computers too, it seems, are prone to bouts of seemingly irrational behaviour. I wonder if that's been the subject of any systematic studies ...

I was on the phone to customer services trying to sort out a solution to my daughter's temperamental mobile phone. It was suggested I take it in for a software upgrade. Being as I'd mentioned the nearest store I knew of capable of doing this is 30 miles away, the helpful representative checked his system.

"I'm showing one much closer to you than Edinburgh." he says. Intrigued, I asked him where, fully expecting him to say something like Galashiels which, although in the Scottish Borders, is no nearer than Edinburgh. "Penzance!" he exclaimed triumphantly. "It's showing as only 12 miles from your location." I don't think he was quite prepared for the explosive hoot from my end. Made my day, it did. Penzance is only about 520 miles away from here and about as far away as you can get while still remaining in the British Isles.

August 07 2006 | | | Permalink

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Fragmented Mind, Mear One

Fragmented Mind by Mear One, Anchorage graffiti artist

“ If you do not rest upon the good foundation of nature, you will labour with little honour and less profit. Those who take for their standard any one but nature - the mistress of all masters - weary themselves in vain. ”
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

“ The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first,
nature is incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on,
there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine beings
more beautiful than words can tell.”
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

“ The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes. ”
Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

“ Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts. ”
Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918)

August 06 2006

Irrational behaviour

"People who make irrational decisions when faced with problems are at the mercy of their emotions, a study says." So says the BBC in its report on a study published in Science journal by a team from University College, London. The report goes on to describe the study:

"The researchers found some people kept a cool head and managed to keep their emotions in check, while others were led by their emotional response. In each trial, participants motivated by the promise of real money were first offered a starting amount of £50.

"They were then presented with one of two "sure option" choices, either to "keep £20", or to "lose £30", as well as the opportunity to take an all-or-nothing gamble.

"Although both sure options left players with the same amount of cash, £20, people were more likely to gamble when faced with the prospect of losing £30.

"Given the "keep £20" option, volunteers played it safe and gambled only 43% of the time.

"When asked if they wanted to "lose £30", they gambled on 62% of occasions.

"The decision to gamble was irrational, since in every case the amount of money they stood to gain was the same, while everything could be lost by gambling."

Yet, rather than the study participants' behaviour being irrational, it's the premises and the conclusions of the study itself that appear to be a complete no-brainer.

Firstly, why on earth do we need a "scientific" study to demonstrate that our behaviour is as much governed by our emotions as our rational intellect? Isn't it a fact of daily existence blazingly obvious to each and every one of us? No decision can be isolated from its context, and the survival of the species is best served by both feeling and rational responses to context. If our feelings are triggered, then there will be a feeling component in the decision which, depending on the strength of the trigger, may predominate. And if not, there won't. Sometimes the emotional and rational components in the decision will coincide. Sometimes they won't, in which case the decision, if swayed by the feeling component, is described as "irrational" (with the implication that it's also nonsensical) . But it's all entirely dependent on context and the propensity of any one individual to react in a predominantly feeling or rational way to it.

And any feeling-based reaction which appears at first glance to be nonsensical usually reveals its own logic in due course which, in turn, throws a spotlight on the largely false and arbitrary dichotomy between "emotion" and "rationality".

Secondly the study (or at least according to the report of it since the study itself isn't freely available) asked people to choose between an all-or-nothing gamble to potentially gain the full starting amount with the odds against winning equivalent to the guaranteed gain/loss split, or to be given a guaranteed, no-risks fraction of the initial sum. So what is being demonstrated, from whichever standpoint (the "gain" or the "loss"), is people's propensity to take a chance on a potentially greater gain. This isn't necessarily an irrational decision, so describing acceptance of the guaranteed sum as keeping "a cool head" and "emotions in check" perhaps reveals more about the pervasive (and irrational) delusion that emotions are in some way inferior to rationality (as opposed to a different, but no less essential, part of our being).

The study demonstrates a clear bias towards a willlingness to gamble from the standpoint of a reaction to a framework of "loss" as opposed to "gain". In other words, as a group the subjects were more likely to play safe if they thought they had something to lose (the "gain" tests) than if they thought they'd already lost most of what they had (the "loss" tests), despite the actual amount in both cases being the same. It highlights an instinctive component in risk tolerance – something that can be observed everywhere in nature (species will take greater risks when threatened with loss of the essentials for survival and will take fewer risks when their environment serves them well) as well as in human society. One would expect the results of offering increasing amounts to show that, in aggregate, the more that particpants stood to lose, the less they were inclined to gamble. After all, we can see that operating every week on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

The part of the brain which registered most activity during this study – the amygdala – is not concerned with emotion per se, but with emotional learning and memory conditioning, particularly in response to fear. With money being such a key element of survival in our society, people's attitudes towards it can be complex, deep and multilayered. Within that wider context, the range of responses in this study, as well as being entirely predictable, appear to make perfect sense. To attempt to separate them from this context – particularly since the amygdala's involvement is signalling involvement of long-term memory – and derive conclusions about a pervasive lack of rationality based solely on the parameters of the study seems to be what is somewhat lacking in rationallity here.

What seems even more irrational is that taxpayers are paying good money for studies like this ...

And once again fragmented, literal, linear thinking shows itself for what it is.

Study: Frames, Biases, and Rational Decision-Making in the Human Brain. Benedetto De Martino, Dharshan Kumaran, Ben Seymour, Raymond J Dolan. Science 4 August 2006: Vol. 313. no. 5787, pp. 684 - 687

August 06 2006 | | | Permalink

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smeddum.net – Blog: Confessions of a Serial Prover. Weblog on homeopathy, health and related subjects by homeopathic practitioner Wendy Howard