Tag Archives: unconscious

Know thyself vs. know one another

People often aspire to the ideal of honesty, implicitly including both honesty to themselves and honesty with others. Those who care about it a lot often aim to be as honest as they can bring themselves to be, across circumstances. If the aim is to get correct information to yourself and other people however, I think this approach isn’t the greatest.

There is probably a trade off between being honest with yourself and honest to others, so trying hard to be honest to others only detriments being honest to yourself, which in turn also prevents correct information getting to others.

Why would there be a trade off? Imagine your friend said, ‘I promise that anything you tell me I will repeat to anyone who asks’. How honest would you be with that friend? If you say to yourself that you will report your thoughts to others, why wouldn’t the same effect apply?

Progress in forcing yourself to be honest to others must be somewhat an impediment to being honest to yourself. Being honest with yourself is presumably also a disincentive to your being honest with others later, but that is less of a cost, since if you are dishonest with yourself you are presumably deceiving them about those topics either way.

For example imagine you are wondering what you really think of your friend Errol’s art. If you are committed to truthfully admitting whatever the answer is to Errol or your other friends, it will be pretty tempting to sincerely interpret whatever experience you are having as ‘liking Errol’s art’. This way both you and the others come off deceived. If you were committed to lying in such circumstances, you would at least have the freedom to find out the truth yourself. This seems like the superior option for the truth-loving honesty enthusiast.

This argument relies on the assumptions that you can’t fully consciously control how deluded you are about the contents of your brain, and that the unconscious parts of your mind that control this respond to incentives. These things both seem true to me.

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’.

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.

Subconscious stalking?

Just seeing another person look at something can tend to make you like it a bit more than if you see them looking in another direction:

In this study, we found that objects that are looked at by other people are liked more than objects that do not receive the attention of other people (Experiment 1). This suggests that observing averted gaze can have an impact on the affective appraisals of objects in the environment. This liking effect was absent when an arrow was used to cue attention (Experiment 2). This underlines the importance of other people’s interactions with objects for generating our own impressions of such stimuli in the world.

The authors suggest this is because people really do tend to look at things more if they like them, and that another person likes something is information about its value. This makes sense, and even more if we assume that the ancestral environment contained fewer eye catching people paid to prominently give items their attention.

Is observing the eye movement of others an earlier version of facebook? (picture: xkcd.com)

Is observing the eye movement of others a precursor to facebook? (picture: xkcd.com)

Another possibility though is that people want to have coinciding tastes to those around them often, so we are not so much interested in clues to the item’s inherent value, but directly in the other person’s values. In that case if we evolved nicely we would react more to some people looking than to others.

Sure enough, this study found that such an effect seems to hold for attractive people, but not unattractive:

In a conditioning paradigm, novel objects were associated with either attractive or unattractive female faces, either displaying direct or averted gaze. An affective priming task showed more positive automatic evaluations of objects that were paired with attractive faces with direct gaze than attractive faces with averted gaze and unattractive faces, irrespective of gaze direction. Participants’ self-reported desire for the objects matched the affective priming data.

Added: These days we can discover (and adapt to) many people’s likes and dislikes prior to meeting them extensively, as long as they post them all over Facebook or the like. If the tendency to coordinate our values based on minor cues was good enough to evolve, does the possibility of doing so much more effectively via online stalking give a selective advantage to those who use it?