Monthly Archives: January 2015

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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