jump to navigation

Hot Coffee: The New Love Drug July 20, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Science.
Tags: ,
add a comment

Research by Lawrence Williams and John A. Bargh suggests that positive attitudes towards a stranger are induced by holding a warm cup of coffee, in contrast to a chillier reception when holding a cup of ice coffee. They also discovered that holding a warm pad in hand made it more likely that experimental subjects would chose a gift for a friend rather than for themselves.

Apparently, our physical environment influences our preferences, unbeknownst to us.

I wonder what other subtle, seemingly inconsequential, environmental factors influence preferences.

Here is an earlier post detailing more studies of apparently determined behavior.

Experiments such as this do not prove that free will is an illusion. They point to general tendencies, not causally necessary outcomes, and nothing in these experiments suggest that when we become aware of these influences we can’t resist them.

But, nevertheless, if such experiments are scratching only the surface of a panoply of environmental effects that we are typically unaware of, the range of human freedom seems remarkably condensed.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com


People Are Strange June 30, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
Tags: ,
1 comment so far

Research reported in the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrates that when a customer is perceived to share a characteristic with a salesperson, even something as trivial as a birthdate, this perception increases the probability that the customer will purchase something.

If that sounds irrational consider this (via Ars Technica):

It has been well established that people are not coldly rational when money is at stake. They will make financial sacrifices in order to punish behavior deemed to be unfair.

One person is given a stack of cash, and told to divide it between themselves and a second party. That second party is then given the chance to accept or reject the offer; if it’s rejected, neither of them get any money. Clearly, any of this free money should be better than nothing, so under assumptions of strictly rational behavior, you might expect all offers to be accepted.

They’re not. Things in the neighborhood of a 50/50 split are accepted, but as the proportions shift to where the person issuing the ultimatum tries to keep seventy percent of the total, rejections increase. By the time they hit an 80/20 split, nearly 70 percent of the offers are rejected, even though that 20 percent of the total cash would leave the recipient better off than where they started.

New research shows that people will reject unfair transactions even when they punish only themselves. In this new research:

…the person making the offer gets their share of the cash regardless of whether the offer is accepted or not. In this game, the only consequence is the potential for guilt caused by the knowledge that an offer was rejected. Rejection rates do drop, but they remain substantial—offers of an 80/20 split got rejected over 40 percent of the time (down from around 70 percent) despite the lack of real economic consequences.

To really nail things down, the authors conducted tests of a Private Impunity Game, in which the person who made the offer wasn’t even informed of whether it was rejected or not—they simply walked away with their share of the cash. Here, even the nebulous hope that the person making the offer would feel pangs of guilt from its rejection was removed. Rejection rates were essentially unchanged. People keep rejecting offers they perceived as unfair, even if, like the proverbial tree in the forest, no one will hear their rejection.

Even when participants were forced to think through the logic of their behavior through a series of if/then statements, their behavior was unchanged.

What is the explanation for this strange behavior?

The lack of objective analysis is also demonstrated by a number of results that indicate that changes in the levels of hormones and neurotransmitters—testosterone, serotonin, and oxytocin, for example—can all skew the statistics by changing the average response to unfair offers.

Given the fact there’s essentially no way to provide a rational actor gloss to these results, the authors attempt to explain it through an emotional response that sounds much like a gorilla’s chest beating. Our emotions commit us to these sorts of displays despite their irrational nature, and force us to follow through on them often enough to make sure everyone knows it’s not an idle threat. Nine times out of 10, the chest beating may just be a display, but is anyone willing to risk the chance that a given instance will turn out to be the exception?

The problem with this explanation is that it adds a layer of complexity—a mechanism that ensures a degree of commitment to an emotional response—on top of what’s essentially a simple situation: people act without thinking. Earlier this year, I attended a discussion entitled “Evolution and the Ethical Brain” in which researchers argued that our ethical decision making (such as how to respond to unfair financial offers) is performed by a system that operates in much the same way as those that respond to sensory input: they make snap judgments that allow us to respond quickly and get on with things. The more elaborate ethical debates that we engage in are largely attempts at post-hoc rationalizations of our earlier decisions.

Within this perspective, the snap judgment is that an offer is unfair. Sometimes, we can engage the post-hoc rationalization, in this case involving the economics of the situation, and override our ethical calculations. But, in a substantial fraction of the cases, we never get the chance, as we act on our snap decisions before that process can occur.

Yet my students keep insisting we have free will!

Determinism Again, Again March 26, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
Tags: , , , , , ,

This started out as a comment to Dwight’s piece on Determinism Is Not Fatalism!, but it grew and grew, so I thought I might as well add it as a separate post. I read Baumeister’s piece, and for one thing, I find it frightening if a scientist doesn’t believe in mechanistic determinism—are we then back to old rags spontaneously generating mice and fleas? I suspect he assumes that “determinism” equals hard determinism. Precision is always a good thing. But hard determinism doesn’t say that everything has been laid out from Day One, in a locked pattern (which would be fatalism, if we assume that the pattern is predetermined by an intelligent power). The “butterfly effect” can also be advanced as an argument within hard determinism: the world is too complex for us to predict, but guess what? Everything is caused, even so, including your decisions. Micro-causes (like Dwight’s restaurant example) can alter the direction of events, in the external as well as the internal world, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t predictable effects, in principle. So hard determinism is a theory about de jure predictability and causality, not about predetermination.


Another disturbing aspect is Baumeister’s advocacy of indeterminacy. As Dwight points out, this leads to utter unpredictability, and the illusion of control will be shattered more effectively than under hard determinism. The indeterminist will find that, had the theory been true, we could no more count on our decision to order that chicken at the restaurant to result in us actually ordering it, or our decision to eat it actually resulting in putting a piece of chicken in our mouth—if causality is not a factor, internally or externally, then we’re lost in a world of random effects. No, the real problem with hard determinism isn’t that it can’t be proved, as Baumeister assumes; the problem is that it isn’t falsifiable. According to hard determinism, if I behave predictably (due to my heredity or environment), then it’s because of antecedent causes. If I behave unpredictably, it is also because of antecedent causes–even subconscious causes. As the determinist often argues, we do make choices, but the choices aren’t “free,” they are determined by events in our background. They only seem free to us. But if every decision is “caused,” and thus nullifying our free will, even by some far-fetched, forgotten past event or neural quirk, then the theory is getting so broad that it is fundamentally useless.


However, “Caused” is not the same as “unfree” or involuntary. That’s, essentially, what we call compatibilism. It is not, as Baumeister assumes, a watered-down version of determinism. It is making choices based on an array of possible consequences, recognizing that we decide, rationally and emotionally, from a limited spectrum of personal, social and physical possibilities, all providing causes/reasons for our choices (and determinists tend to confuse causes with reasons). And that is what we call having a free will, not an uncaused will. So what if there are causal factors behind every decision we make–I should hope so! I want to make my free choices based on evidence and good reasoning, not on some ridiculous notion of randomness. I’d like to see results! Because if the decision is uncaused, so, too, will be the effects of the decision: random.   


And, to top it off: People who truly can’t help what they’re doing are usually not held accountable. We recognize, and have always recognized, truly un-free/involuntary actions: due to mental illness, overwhelming emotional turmoil, some physical constraint or imminent threat (which Sartre would of course say is no excuse at all). We clearly and intuitively recognize a fundamental difference between free and unfree decisions (and Aristotle said it first: involuntary decisions are due to ignorance and compulsion). Sometimes we mistake one for the other, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know the difference. So what do we do with a theory that says we are mistaken, that all actions are fundamentally involuntary (if indeed that’s what hard determinism says)? We ask (with the good old polar concept argument, or “fallacy of the suppressed correlative”), then what is “involuntary,” if there is no “voluntary”? “Involuntary” is now devoid of meaning. Now ask the determinist, what about actions that seem “freer” than others? Being kidnapped and missing the midterm would generally be considered within the realm of involuntary acts. Choosing from a menu at a restaurant you’ve selected is usually considered a lot less involuntary. If the determinist is willing to concede that ordinary human intuition can’t be completely disregarded on this issue, we can proceed: What is implied by “less involuntary” is what the compatibilists among us call free will.  So if we can imagine an act, done with informed consent,  by a reasonably sane adult, with only the slightest level of constraint and hereditary impulses, then we have just reinvented the concept of “free will.”


But in a practical sense of course hard determinism doesn’t matter.  What matters in this Lebenswelt of ours, existentially, ethically, and certainly also legally (the Twinkies defense and Minority Report notwithstanding), is our human experience  of free (not uncaused) choices within the limits of our horizon, choices with consequences–consequences we can and will be held accountable for.


Determinism Is Not Fatalism! March 24, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
Tags: , , , , ,

One of my pet peeves is that people, who should know better, describe determinism as if it were fatalism. Here is Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State describing determinism:

To the determinist, the march of causality will make one outcome inevitable, and so it is wrong to believe that anything else was possible. The chooser does not yet know which option he or she is going to choose, hence the subjective experience of choice. Thus, the subjective choosing is simply a matter of one’s own ignorance – ignorance that those other outcomes are not really possibilities at all.

To illustrate: When you sit in the restaurant looking at the menu, it may seem that there are many things that you might order: the fish, the chicken, the steak, the onion soup. Eventually you will make a selection and eat it. To a determinist, causal processes dictated that what you ordered was inevitable. When you entered the restaurant you may not have known, yet, that you would end up ordering the chicken, but that simply reflects your ignorance of what was happening in your unconscious mind. To a determinist, there was never any chance at all that you could have ordered the fish. Maybe you saw it on the menu and were tempted to get it, and maybe you even started to order it and then changed your mind. No matter. It was never remotely possible. The causal processes that ended up making you order the chicken were in motion. Your belief that you could have ordered the chicken was mistaken.

Professor Baumeister is describing fatalism, not determinism. Fatalism is the view that the future is fixed, pre-ordained, so my deliberation about what to do in a situation doesn’t matter. If I walk into a restaurant and I am already fated to choose chicken from the menu, well then I will choose chicken regardless of my deliberation. Baumeister says “To a determinist, there was never any chance at all that you could have ordered the fish.”

But this is simply a misunderstanding of determinism. Determinism asserts that my actions are caused by my psychological state and other causal influences operating when I make a decision. But that psychological state will include a deliberative process that is continually being shaped and reshaped by new information. When I walk into a restaurant, given my preferences, I may be more likely to choose some items from the menu rather than others. But what I end up choosing will depend on odors wafting from the kitchen, the conversation at the table, the recommendations of the waiter, the descriptions of dishes on the menu, and other countless details about my surroundings that influence me. And I have to deliberate to find out, in light of those influences, what my preferences are. To the extent I am open to new information and have psychological states that are responsive to my surroundings, my actions are not fated.

It is of course true that all of these influences will determine what I choose. But when I walk into the restaurant most of the options on the menu (except for those that are distasteful) are genuine options and my ultimate choice will depend on my deliberation, which in turn is dependent on complex causal influences. So there is nothing illusory about choice—it is as real as the causal processes that determine my action and is in fact part of those processes.

So when Baumeister says —

“Choice is fundamental in human life. Every day people face choices, defined by multiple possibilities. To claim that all that is illusion and mistake is to force psychological phenomena into an unrealistic strait jacket.” —

He is inventing a straw man; a position no determinist holds.

He goes on to argue:

Also, psychological causality as revealed in our labs is arguably never deterministic. Our studies show a change in the odds of one response over another. But changes in the odds entail that more than one response was possible. Our entire statistical enterprise is built on the idea of multiple possibilities. Determinism denies the reality of this. Statistics are just ways of coping with our ignorance, to a determinist – statistics do not reflect how reality actually works.

Again, simple nonsense. Changes in odds reflect changes in causal conditions. There are multiple possibilities because there are multiple causal factors and the correlations don’t reveal which causal factors are at work.

He concludes:

To believe in determinism is thus to go far beyond the observed and known facts. It could be true, I suppose. But it requires a huge leap of faith, as well as a tortuous effort to deny that what we constantly observe and experience is real.

If determinism is false, then human actions must be uncaused—mysterious events that pop into existence and are somehow under our control yet outside the causal structure of reality.

Who is making a leap of faith?

A course in philosophy should be required for all scientists before they have a license to publish.

Technorati Tags: