Tag Archives: bias

Epistemology of evilness

Most everyone seems to think that a big reason for bad things happening in the world is that some people are bad. Yet I almost never see advice for telling whether you yourself are a bad person, or for what to do about it if you seem to be one. If there are so many bad people, isn’t there a very real risk that you are one of them?

Perhaps the model is one where you automatically know whether you are good or bad, and simply choose which to be. So the only people who are bad are those who want to be bad, and know that they are bad. But then if there is this big population of bad people out there who want to be bad, why is so little of the media devoted to their interests? There’s plenty on how to do all the good things that a good person would want to do, such as voting for the benefit of society, looking after your children, buying gifts, expressing gratitude to friends, holding a respectable dinner, pleasing your partner. Yet so little on scamming the elderly, effectively shaking off useless relatives, lying credibly, making money from investments that others are too squeamish to take, hiding bodies. Are the profit-driven corporate media missing out on a huge opportunity?

If there aren’t a whole lot of knowingly bad people out there who want to be bad, and could use some information and encouragement, then either there aren’t bad people at all, or bad people don’t know that they are bad or don’t want to be bad. The former seems unlikely, by most meanings of ‘bad’. If the latter is true, why are people so blase about the possibility that they themselves might be bad?


Prompted by the excellent book Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, in which there is much talk of avoiding becoming ‘dark’, in stark contrast to the world that I’m familiar with. If you enjoy talking about HPMOR, and live close to Pittsburgh, come to the next Pittsburgh Less Wrong Meetup.

Popular morality: spare those on the left

Jen Wright at Experimental Philosophy:

… I’m writing this post because I found something even more interesting…and puzzling. Leaving people’s actual looking behavior aside, I found a very powerful effect — consistent across all the vignettes — for which side of the screen the potential victim (the fat guy or the baby) was on. When the victims were on the right-side of the screen, people’s would and should judgements were significantly higher (i.e., they were more willing to, and thought more strongly that they should, kill the victim to save the others), than when they were on the left-side of the screen.

So, does anyone have any suggestions as to what might explain this finding?

My guess is that it’s related to the previous findings that people tend to place active people on the left of passive people in pictures (though it seems to vary across languages). The easiest interpretation is that it seems more moral to sacrifice passive people than active ones. That would also fit with the pattern I pointed out before in our moral intuitions, that moral concern is highly contingent on whether we can be rewarded or punished by the beneficiary of our ‘compassion’.

Experiences are friends

Products tend to be less satisfying than experiences. This is old news. Psyblog elaborates on six reasons from a set of (hard to access) recent experiments, which add up to this:

We compare products more than experiences, and since products are doomed to not be the best we could ever have got, we are sad. When we don’t compare, we are happy.

This requires one of two things:

  1. that when we can’t compare something, we assume it is better than average
  2. that we find knowing how something compares displeasing in itself unless the thing is the best.

Either of these seem like puzzling behaviour. Why would we do one of them?

The first one reminds me of the way people usually like the children they have more than the hypothetical children of any other combinations of genes they could have had. Similarly but to a lesser extent, people are uncomfortable comparing their friends and partners with others they might have had instead, and in the absence of comparison most people think those they love are pretty good. You rarely hear ‘there are likely about half a billion wives I would like more than you out there, but you are the one I’m arbitrarily in love with’.

This all makes evolutionary sense; blind loyalty is better than ongoing evaluation from an ally, at least towards you. So you evaluate people accurately for a bit, then commit to the good ones. Notice that here the motivation for not comparing appears to come from the benefits of committing to people without regret, rather than the difficulty of figuring out what a nice bottom is worth next to a good career.

I wonder if our not comparing experiences, and rating them well regardless is related. Experiences we buy are often parts of our relationships with other people, while objects usually aren’t. So to compare your experiences and evaluate them as accurately as you can comes dangerously close to comparing bits of your relationships and evaluating them accuracely.

For instance, if I see there was a cheaper airfare than one I took, to entertain the thought that it would have been better to travel a week later is to admit I would give up all the moments you and I spent together on that trip for some other set of experiences and fifty dollars, which feels uncomfortably like calculating and judging our time together as average and replacable.

If this explanation were true there would be less need for the other explanation for not comparing experiences, which is that comparing experiences is naturally more difficult than comparing products. This seems untrue anyway; the added information about products often actually makes it harder to compare, though if you used all your information you would get a better comparison.

For instance, accurately comparing phone plans often requires a large spreadsheet and unrealistic amounts of patience, and you end up ignoring factors like the details of the applications different phones allow. On the other hand with experiences you usually know an easy to calculate price for each, a lot of detail about the one you had, and few of the details of the one you didn’t have. So you can pretty much ignore the details, unless you have some reason to think the experience you had was above or below expectations (if being at the restaurant at that time caused your colleague to get shot, probably the other restaurant would have been better), and go by price.

This explanation predicts that if objects are closely associated with people we would treat them like we do experiences. Gifts are an obvious example, and we are unusually reluctant to compare or trade them, and tend to be especially fond of them.

Another example of objects linked to people is toys that children think of as people. I don’t have more than anecdotal evidence on this, but when I was young I hated plenty of toys that I didn’t own, until I was given one and immediately loved it, out of politeness.

This explanation also predicts that experiences we don’t share we might compare more readily, but I have no evidenec on that.

Dominant characters on the left

From Psyblog:

Research finds that people or objects moving from left to right are perceived as having greater power (Maass et al., 2007):

  • Soccer goals are rated as stronger, faster, even more beautiful when the movement of the scorer is from left to right, rather than right to left.
  • Film violence seems more aggressive, more painful and more shocking when the punch is delivered from left to right, compared with right to left.
  • Cars in an advert are rated as stronger and faster when they are moving from left to right, rather than right to left (take note advertising executives!).

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that athletes, cars and horses are all usually shown on TV reaching the finishing line from left to right.

According to other studies mentioned by Maass et al, in Western societies most people also tend to preferentially imagine events evolving from left to right, picture the situations in subject-verb-object sentences with the subject on the left of the object, look at new places rather than old ones more when stimuli show up in a left to right order, memorize the final positions of objects further along the implied path more when they are moving left to right, imagine number lines and time increasing from left to right, and scan their eyes over art in a left to right trajectory.

Why is this?

It seems likely that this left to right bias has its roots in language… people who speak languages written from right to left like Arabic or Urdu … display the same bias, but in the opposite direction.

So Maass and the others guessed that characters perceived as more active would also tend to be depicted on the left of more passive characters in pictures. Their research agreed:

We propose that spatial imagery is systematically linked to stereotypic beliefs, such that more agentic groups are envisaged to the left of less agentic groups. This spatial agency bias was tested in three studies. In Study 1, a content analysis of over 200 images of male–female pairs (including artwork, photographs, and cartoons) showed that males were over-proportionally presented to the left of females, but only for couples in which the male was perceived as more agentic. Study 2 (N = 40) showed that people tend to draw males to the left of females, but only if they hold stereotypic beliefs that associate males with greater agency. Study 3 (N = 61) investigated whether scanning habits due to writing direction are responsible for the spatial agency bias. We found a tendency for Italian-speakers to position agentic groups (men and young people) to the left of less agentic groups (females and old people), but a reversal in Arabic-speakers who tended to position the more agentic groups to the right. Together, our results suggest a subtle spatial bias in the representation of social groups that seems to be linked to culturally determined writing/reading habits.

Adam appeared on the left in 62% of paintings considered, far less than Gomez Addams is portrayed on the left of Mortissa (82%). (Picture: Peter Paul Rubens)

Adam appeared on the left in 62% of paintings considered, far less than Gomez Addams is portrayed on the left of Mortissa (82%). (Picture: Peter Paul Rubens)

Note that the first study only looked at four couples; Adam and Eve, Gomez and Mortissa Addams, Fred and Wilma Flinstone, and Marge and Homer Simpson. The last three were compared to surveyed opinions on the couple’s relative activeness, dominance and communion, and the Flinstone and Simpson couples were found to be about equal. An earlier study also found that Gabriel was portrayed to the left of Mary 97% of the time.

Most languages also mention the (active) subject before the object, which means the active entity is on the left when written in a left-to-right language. Grammar predates writing, so if this ordering of nouns is relevant, as the researchers suggest, it seems it combines with the direction of writing to cause the left to right bias. It would be interesting to see whether natives to the few languages who put the object before the subject have this bias  in the other direction. It would also be interesting to see whether the layout of sentences more commonly influences our perceptions of the content, or whether the effect is so weak as to only have influence over years of parsing the same patterns.