The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving

What’s most interesting about João’s story, though, is that his new outlook resulted not from a spiritual awakening but from brain damage caused by a stroke. Among other symptoms, he became a chronic insomniac and lost his sex drive; he started forgetting things and had trouble focusing; his movements slowed. And, his neurologist says, he became “pathologically generous”—compulsively driven to give. His carefree attitude toward money led to confrontations with his family, especially his brother-in-law, who co-owned the french-fry cart. But even when his family berated him, and the cart went out of business, and he was reduced to living on his mother’s pension, João refused to stop. Giving simply made him too happy. (João died of kidney failure in 1999. His doctor provided only his first name, to protect the family’s privacy.)

The history of neuroscience is littered with patients whose behavior changed in bizarre ways after they suffered brain damage. Some people could no longer recognize animals, or couldn’t speak but could still sing. For neuroscientists, these cases offer opportunities: by studying how people’s behaviors change after brain injuries, they gain insight into what role the injured areas play in everyday tasks. And so it was with João—researchers hoped that his compulsive giving could shed light on normal generosity, helping them understand why human beings give and why, biologically, giving feels good.

This work does raise uncomfortable questions, though. We normally think of generosity as pure and noble—evidence of the soul, not evidence of brain damage. But what if giving is largely a reflex or an instinct or even, sometimes, a sign of mental derangement? We also think of generosity as uniquely human. If other species evolved to be generous too, does that devalue the trait?

These aren’t idle questions. João’s case shows that generosity isn’t part of some ethereal “human spirit”—it’s hardwired into our brains. And while acts of generosity do engage our “higher” brain regions—the areas responsible for rational thought—they cause equally strong activity in the animalistic pleasure centers, circuits normally associated with food, sex, and drugs like cocaine.

Read “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving” at The Atlantic

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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in cognitive science


Contemporary Fundamentalist Attitudes Towards Sexuality Are Surprisingly Modern

I’m not saying that the Middle Ages was a great period of freedom (sexual or otherwise), but the sexual culture of 12th-century France, Iraq, Jerusalem, or Minsk did not involve the degree of self-loathing brought about by modern approaches to sexuality. Modern sexual purity has become a marker of faith, which it wasn’t in the Middle Ages. (For instance, the Bishop of Winchester ran the brothels in South London—for real, it was a primary and publicly acknowledged source of his revenue—and one particularly powerful Bishop of Winchester was both the product of adultery and the father of a bastard, which didn’t stop him from being a cardinal and papal legate.) And faith, especially in modern radical religion, is a marker of social identity in a way it rarely was in the Middle Ages.

Read more at The Stranger

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Posted by on April 23, 2015 in religion


SBL Pacific Coast Region Conference 2015: Dennis MacDonald

Originally posted on Κέλσος:

Earlier this month I attended the SBL Pacific Coast Region conference at Azusa Pacific University. For those who have been following the Bible blog sphere, this conference was particularly prominent, since Richard Carrier defended his new book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ during the meeting, which is the first academically published book defending the Christ Myth Theory. I do not agree with the mythicist position, as I have discussed in a previous article, but I do think that Carrier’s new books is the best defense of the theory published yet. Unfortunately, I actually had to miss Carrier’s defense due to a scheduling conflict, but Simon Joseph has posted a (fairly critical) review of Carrier’s presentation, and Carrier himself has also written a post responding to Kenneth Waters Sr., who critiqued Carrier’s thesis during the conference. Each post provides a good summary of the arguments on either side.

MacDonaldIn this post, however, I…

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Posted by on March 26, 2015 in religion


Unfalsifiable Beliefs Are More Attractive When We’re Threatened

Phalanx from 300


When people hear the phrase “unfalsifiable” it’s usually in a scientific context. It was one of Karl Popper’s definitions of science, which he crafted in opposition to Freud’s method of psychoanalysis. In this case, religious people aren’t really concerned that their beliefs are unfalsifiable; religion is not science.

But the appeal to the unfalsifiable isn’t restricted to religious belief. It seems to apply and appeal to people in a general moral domain, and the largest sample of unfalsifiable beliefs outside of religion are found in the realm of politics.

From Friesen, et al. (2014):


We propose that people may gain certain “offensive” and “defensive” advantages for their cherished belief systems (e.g., religious and political views) by including aspects of unfalsifiability in those belief systems, such that some aspects of the beliefs cannot be tested empirically and conclusively refuted. This may seem peculiar, irrational, or at least undesirable to many people because it is assumed that the primary purpose of a belief is to know objective truth. However, past research suggests that accuracy is only one psychological motivation among many, and falsifiability or testability may be less important when the purpose of a belief serves other psychological motives (e.g., to maintain one’s worldviews, serve an identity). In Experiments 1 and 2 we demonstrate the “offensive” function of unfalsifiability: that it allows religious adherents to hold their beliefs with more conviction and political partisans to polarize and criticize their opponents more extremely. Next we demonstrate unfalsifiability’s “defensive” function: When facts threaten their worldviews, religious participants frame specific reasons for their beliefs in more unfalsifiable terms (Experiment 3) and political partisans construe political issues as more unfalsifiable (“moral opinion”) instead of falsifiable (“a matter of facts”; Experiment 4). We conclude by discussing how in a world where beliefs and ideas are becoming more easily testable by data, unfalsifiability might be an attractive aspect to include in one’s belief systems, and how unfalsifiability may contribute to polarization, intractability, and the marginalization of science in public discourse.

As an sort of aside, just because a belief is unfalsifiable doesn’t mean that it’s false. A belief can be unfalsifiable but yet still be true. Falsifiability is a problem for epistemology, not ontology. For example, there’s no possible observation I can make where I’m not alive. So from my point of view, being alive is unfalsifiable.

Anyway, retreating to unfalsifiable beliefs once you feel you’re under attack seems like it’s a pretty good example of a Mott and Bailey tactic. If you recall, Mott and Baliey behavior, as Scott describes, is when:

I feel like every single term in social justice terminology has a totally unobjectionable and obviously important meaning – and then is actually used a completely different way.

The closest analogy I can think of is those religious people who say “God is just another word for the order and beauty in the Universe” – and then later pray to God to smite their enemies. And if you criticize them for doing the latter, they say “But God just means there is order and beauty in the universe, surely you’re not objecting to that?”

The result is that people can accuse people of “privilege” or “mansplaining” no matter what they do, and then when people criticize the concept of “privilege” they retreat back to “but ‘privilege’ just means you’re interrupting women in a women-only safe space. Surely no one can object to criticizing people who do that?”

So someone presents evidence that the type of god that the average religious person believes in doesn’t exist and a sophisticate rejoins with a completely unfalsifiable version of that god, saying that “of course” no one believes in the first type of god. But you can bet that once the sophisticate feels like they are no longer under attack, they will go back to believing in the “falsifiable” version of that god again.

So what we have here seems to be basic human psychology. When we feel threatened, we retreat to our Mott: The unfalsifiable version of our cherished belief(s). Maybe in the future we’ll read psychology articles about the Mott & Bailey Effect that describes people’s tendency to retreat to the unfalsifiable version of their beliefs when they feel like they’re under attack.

Related, if you want to try persuading someone, try to make sure they don’t feel like you’re attacking them.

(h/t Epiphenom)

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Posted by on February 8, 2015 in cognitive science, religion


What Gambling Monkeys Teach Us About Human Rationality

From the website Mind Hacks:

When we gamble, something odd and seemingly irrational happens.

It’s called the ‘hot hand’ fallacy – a belief that your luck comes in streaks – and it can lose you a lot of money. Win on roulette and your chances of winning again aren’t more or less – they stay exactly the same. But something in human psychology resists this fact, and people often place money on the premise that streaks of luck will continue – the so called ‘hot hand’.

The opposite superstition is to bet that a streak has to end, in the false belief that independent events of chance must somehow even out. This is known as the gambler’s fallacy, and achieved notoriety at the Casino de Monte-Carlo on 18 August 1913. The ball fell on black 26 times in a row, and as the streak lengthened gamblers lost millions betting on red, believing that the chances changed with the length of the run of blacks.


An experiment reported by Tommy Blanchard of the University of Rochester in New York State, and colleagues, shows that monkeys playing a gambling game are swayed by the same hot hand bias as humans. Their experiments involved three monkeys controlling a computer display with their eye-movements – indicating their choices by shifting their gaze left or right. In the experiment they were given two options, only one of which delivered a reward. When the correct option was random – the same 50:50 chance as a coin flip – the monkeys still had a tendency to select the previously winning option, as if luck should continue, clumping together in streaks.

The reason the result is so interesting is that monkeys aren’t taught probability theory as school. They never learn theories of randomness, or pick up complex ideas about chance events. The monkey’s choices must be based on some more primitive instincts about how the world works – they can’t be displaying irrational beliefs about probability, because they cannot have false beliefs, in the way humans can, about how luck works. Yet they show the same bias.

As the writer says, people being bad at probability might have some sort of primitive cause. A module or something that evolved in our brain before homo sapiens were sapient. If seeing consistency where there is none came about due to our evolutionary heritage, then things like believing in conspiracy theories or the supernatural were sort of bred into us by evolutionary processes. Combine this premise with our highly social brain and we might have another reason why belief in god is so prevalent, which is usually the go-to example of failing at using probability correctly.

Another commenter on the site provides some additional common irrationalities between us and other animals:

Humans also succumb to another fallacy that is strikingly irrational from an economic standpoint: They often give greater value to objects of good quality than to the same objects together with objects of lesser quality. This so-called “less is more effect” can be demonstrated when humans are asked to estimate the value of two alternatives, one of which is objectively of greater value than the other. For example, in one study subjects bid at an auction on 10 baseball cards in mint condition and at a different time on the same 10 cards with an additional 3 cards that were judged to be in poorer condition. Although the 3 cards in poorer condition were not worth as much as the cards in mint condition, they were each worth something. Nevertheless, the bid for the 10-card set was on average 59% higher than it was for the 13-card set.

Interestingly, animals, too, appear to experience this kind of sub-optimal judgment. For instance, monkeys willingly ate a piece of sliced vegetable or a grape but when offered a choice between them, showed a clear preference for the grape over the vegetable slice. However, surprisingly, when they were offered a choice between a single grape and a grape plus a slice of vegetable, they reliably preferred the single grape. This is hard to understand, as one would think that the struggle for existence teaches animals “every calorie counts”.

To test the generality of this effect, Zentall conducted a similar experiment with dogs. The dogs showed a preference for a small piece of cheese over a small piece of carrot but would willingly eat the piece of carrot when offered by itself . When, on critical test trials, the researcher offered the dogs a piece of cheese together with a piece of carrot versus a piece of cheese alone, all of the dogs except one preferred the piece of cheese alone.

We should keep stuff like this in mind when we get upset that people are behaving in irrational ways… like not vaccinating their children. Which is definitely another example of failing at applying probability correctly (probability is logic of science). We’re still animals. Social animals, but animals nonetheless.

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Posted by on February 4, 2015 in cognitive science


Mechanical Thinking Inhibits Empathic Thinking, And Vice Versa


More strangeness from the realm of cognitive science:


Two lines of evidence indicate that there exists a reciprocal inhibitory relationship between opposed brain networks. First, most attention-demanding cognitive tasks activate a stereotypical set of brain areas, known as the task-positive network and simultaneously deactivate a different set of brain regions, commonly referred to as the task negative or default mode network. Second, functional connectivity analyses show that these same opposed networks are anti-correlated in the resting state… tasks requiring social cognition, i.e., reasoning about the mental states of other persons, and tasks requiring physical cognition, i.e., reasoning about the causal/mechanical properties of inanimate objects. Social and mechanical reasoning tasks were presented to neurologically normal participants during fMRI. Each task type was presented using both text and video clips. Regardless of presentation modality, we observed clear evidence of reciprocal suppression: social tasks deactivated regions associated with mechanical reasoning and mechanical tasks deactivated regions associated with social reasoning.

So it seems that when we’re thinking of things in terms of objects, we (or rather, our brains) shuts of the empathy circuitry. And then when we’re thinking in terms of people, our brains turns off the sort of “machinery” circuitry.

This is an odd coincidence with the evidence that testosterone injections dampen oxytocin. Oxytocin, of course, is the social/trust/empathy hormone. It would be especially weird if figuring out mechanical properties of inanimate objects subtly increased testosterone, or if thinking about social reasoning increased oxytocin.

This is also oddly a pretty strong reification of the two different thinking styles of System 1 and System 2; what I analogize as the thief and the wizard and further as the intuitionists and the rationalists.

(H/t PsyBlog)

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Posted by on January 6, 2015 in cognitive science


Reading Fiction, As Opposed To Non-Fiction, Temporarily Changes Personality

woman sitting on a sofa reading a book

Here’s a third article I’ve found that demonstrates this effect. My other two posts describe people adopting the morality and temperament of the people they read in fiction. This new one has an added twist, where the control is a version of the story with the same same facts but not written as a narrative:

In one experiment, published in 2009 in the Creativity Research Journal, we and the psychologists Sara Zoeterman and Jordan B. Peterson randomly assigned participants to one of two groups: one whose members read “The Lady With the Dog,” an Anton Chekhov short story centered on marital infidelity, and another whose members read a “nonfictionalized” version of the story, written in the form of a report from a divorce court.

The nonfiction text was the same length and offered the same ease of reading as Chekhov’s story. It contained the same information, including some of the same dialogue. (Notably, though readers of this text deemed it less artistic than readers of “The Lady With the Dog” deemed their text, they found it just as interesting.)

Before they started reading, each participant took a standard test of the so-called big five personality traits: extroversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. The participants also rated how they were feeling, on a scale of 0 to 10, for 10 different emotions. Then, after reading the text they were assigned, the participants were again given the personality test and asked to rate their emotions.The personality scores of those who read the nonfiction text remained much the same. But the personality scores of those who read the Chekhov story fluctuated. The changes were not large but they were statistically significant, and they were correlated with the intensity of emotions people experienced as they read the story. Chekhov’s story seemed to get people to start thinking about their personalities — about themselves — in new ways

Dark Arts and/or persuasion alert: If you want to convince someone, to actually temporarily change their personality or moral stance on some issue, don’t just give them the facts. Give them a story they can read, follow, and empathize with; a story where they can place themselves in the character’s (your character’s) shoes.

(h/t Robin Hanson)

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Posted by on January 1, 2015 in cognitive science

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