Monthly Archives: June 2008

Right afterwards, when the Buddha had retired for the night, Govinda turned to Siddhartha and spoke eagerly: “Siddhartha, it is not my place to scold you. We have both heard the exalted one, we have both perceived the teachings. Govinda has heard the teachings, he has taken refuge in it. But you, my honoured friend, don’t you also want to walk the path of salvation? Would you want to hesitate, do you want to wait any longer?” #

“Men nearly always follow the tracks made by others and proceed in their affairs by imitation.” — Machiavelli

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other. … A society which gives unlimited freedom to the individual, more often than not attains a disconcerting sameness.” — Eric Hoffer

Informational conformity
Sensation transference

Siddhartha awakened as if he had been asleep, when he heard Govinda’s words. For a long tome, he looked into Govinda’s face. Then he spoke quietly, in a voice without mockery: “Govinda, my friend, now you have taken this step, now you have chosen this path. Always, oh Govinda, you’ve been my friend, you’ve always walked one step behind me. Often I have thought: Won’t Govinda for once also take a step by himself,without me, out of his own soul? Behold, now you’ve turned into a man and are choosing your path for yourself. I wish that you would go it upto its end, oh my friend, that you shall find salvation!” #

#Siddhartha, Chapter 3

Taylor and Brown defend their position that

…self-aggrandizing self-perceptions, an illusion of control, and unrealistic optimism are widespread in normal human thought … … maintain that these “illusions” foster the criteria normally associated with mental health…

and conclude that

…work on illusions and mental health has gone beyond the simple questions of “Do illusions exist and are they associated with mental health?” The questions we should be asking now are, “When are positive illusions most in evidence?”, “Do they ever compromise mental health, and if so, when?”, “Are there conditions when they damp down or disappear altogether?”, and “Do such conditions address the paradox of how people can hold positive illusions about themselves, their world, and their future while still coping successfully with an environment that would seem to demand accurate appreciation of its feedback?” On these questions, recent research suggests that progress is being made.

Interesting questions all; I look forward to unearthing more findings.


[This is a follow up to an earlier post, where I said I was looking for a more comprehensive discussion regarding rationality. Conversation at that point focused on the relevance to “real life” of rationality research, as well as applicability, generality and conclusivity of research findings. This review addresses these subjects.]

Various arguments have been made disputing the accumulation of findings that show people systematically violating fundamental normative principles of reasoning, judgment, and decision. This review suggests that the violations cannot be dismissed as either random or trivial, nor can they be attributed to experimenters’ misinterpretation of answers that are actually appropriate to alternative, valid interpretations of the problems. The systematic and well-documented findings cannot be attributed to simple computational limitations, nor does it appear that inappropriate types of questions are being asked or inappropriate norms applied. The compelling nature of the rationality critique is having an ever greater impact on work in neighboring disciplines, most notably in the increasing popularity of behavioral economics (Rabin 1998, Sunstein 2000, Thaler 1992, 1993). It may eventually help alter the social sciences’ view of the human agent.


We live in a society that values and prioritises social bonding, while providing lip service to intellectualism (and often times deploring it).

Seemingly intellectual questions are asked and tackled in social settings. However, the main purpose of such transactions appears to be a collective indulgence in the emotions evoked by probing areas of the brain (mind) *, analogous to the communal eating of a chocolate cake. Favoured questions are of the kind “What is true (sic**) love?”, which offer maximum juice from squeezing the touchy-feely centres of a mind. The name of the game is to play with the cognitive tools that are at our disposal to engage in a joyful (not necessarily pleasurable) wallowing in the titillations*** provoked by the analysis, and there is no actual effort to get at an answer. For example, if a deviant offers a fundamental neuroscientific attempt to honestly answer the above question, he/she is cast as a killjoy (- which demonstrates the game-nature of the transaction.)

This norm leads to positive reinforcement of social bonding at the cost of intellectual integrity ****. People routinely* demonstrate tendencies to form social bonds. It doesn’t take much (little things like shared gossip, sense of humour, fashion-sense, common joke-targets, willingness to participate in fake discussions such as the above and so on) to establish and sustain a social bond. Intellectual support structures are a lot rarer to come by*****.

Intellectual integrity consists in sticking your neck out, saying something that you are honestly attempting to explore and understand to your best capability. It consists in saying things which are extremely likely to be misconstrued, and while knowing this factoid as well. It consists in saying things that reflect your best expression of your current understanding, which may be exposed as untrue upon further deliberation and fact-seeking (aka google-searching). It consists in saying unpopular things that you hold true, and in losing the popularity contest of social bonding.

Not saying something meaningful – for it cannot be backed up by a mountain of data, or maybe disproved later, or it takes away social brownie points, or it is (“only”) a (meaningful) generalization – is losing perspective of this.

* Generalizations are not evil. Generalizations are intended to convey information, and to encourage thinking along a direction. It is valueless to point out that generalizations have exceptions.
** “the real world”, “true happiness”, “true friendship” — these and scores of similar loosely used terms (very often, incorrectly*) assume i. the existence of their opposites, and ii. your compliance in accepting point i.
*** Use of written language is another example. Some writers get so lost in their wallowing in the ornamental possibilities that a language offers, that they pay a lot of attention to asking high-flying questions and setting up beautiful sounding phraseology and conundrums, and lose track of meanings that need to be conveyed. This is equivalent to getting charmed by the gift-wrapper, and never getting to the (presumably more valuable) present within.
**** Social bonding and intellectual integrity are not inherently at odds. It is the transactions we set up, and the attitudes we adopt that make it appear that way.
***** Intellectual support when offered is rarely recognized, is spurned, viewed as threatening, evangelical, hubristic, or offered for ulterior purposes such as status-building.

Notes on signaling theory


Signaling status through the display of time-wasting pastimes is an interesting example that was raised by Veblen. He noted that displaying leisure is an important signal of status, of membership in the class of those who need not toil endlessly at some income-producing enterprise. Yet an abundance of leisure cannot be directly observed, for not very many people will watch you do nothing, day after day, year after year. Veblen proposed that the time-consuming acquisition of impractical accomplishments was a way of displaying leisure, and he listed among such accomplishments the ability to speak a dead language, knowledge of proper spelling, the occult sciences, and fashion and the breeding of fancy dogs (Veblen 1899). Someone with less financial resources would need to use much of their time in gainful employment; only someone with the leisure that comes with wealth would be able to display such accomplishments.

People are ingenious, and for most signals, there will be ways that someone, somehow, will find a way to fake a seemingly unfakeable signal. Unlike tigers, we can always find a way to stand on a box to seem taller, to bleach our hair to be blonder, to borrow an impressive car.

A winter tan is a costly signal of wealth and leisure: it is a signal that one has bountiful time and money, enough to vacation somewhere warm, sunny and far away. For a while, it was a fairly reliable signal. Then tanning parlors came along, and people with far less time and money could sport a winter tan4. Humans are inventors, and inventing cheaper and easier ways to signal a desirable quality – often in the absence of that quality – is a driving force behind much creative design.

See also this related post by Wray Herbert.