Sunday, April 13, 2008

Psychology: Hurting oneself to hurt others not a useful social strategy ... duh!

Anna Dreber, David G Rand, Drew Fudenberg, and Martin A Nowak of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Department of Economics, Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden, have published a study in Nature that shows that "Winners don't punish." They studied "costly punishment" - hurting oneself to also hurt someone else. (For example, suppose you and I are friends, reader, and we get a twofer bargain on theatre tickets. I'm mad at you, so I decide to fix you by losing the tickets, with the result that neither of us can see the play.)

The researchers found that while costly punishment increased cooperation in a group, the total payoff for the group was less. (In my example, you will pay attention thereafter when I imply that I am mad about something. But we will both lead a duller, more resentful life.)

They conclude, "This suggests that costly punishment behaviour is maladaptive in cooperation games and might have evolved for other reasons."

But how do we know that costly punishment "evolved" at all? The key weakness of evolutionary models of human behaviour is that they assume that no human being actually thinks independently in the present day. That is, the evolutionist is looking for genes or brain circuits that compel people to behave in certain ways, inherited from Pleistocene ancestors. Presumably, none of us forms judgements - wisely or unwisely - from observing our own situation.

The next step for the evolutionary psychologist is typically an unfalsifiable just-so story about how costly punishment helped our cave-dwelling ancestors - even though it has been, from time immemorial, a reliable way of losing friends and alienating people. (If I pulled the stunt described above, I bet you wouldn't agree to share the cost of theatre tickets with me again, whether or not it was a bargain.)

Anyway, here's the abstract and citation: Nature. 2008 Mar 20;452 (7185):348-51 18354481
A key aspect of human behaviour is cooperation. We tend to help others even if costs are involved. We are more likely to help when the costs are small and the benefits for the other person significant. Cooperation leads to a tension between what is best for the individual and what is best for the group. A group does better if everyone cooperates, but each individual is tempted to defect. Recently there has been much interest in exploring the effect of costly punishment on human cooperation. Costly punishment means paying a cost for another individual to incur a cost. It has been suggested that costly punishment promotes cooperation even in non-repeated games and without any possibility of reputation effects. But most of our interactions are repeated and reputation is always at stake. Thus, if costly punishment is important in promoting cooperation, it must do so in a repeated setting. We have performed experiments in which, in each round of a repeated game, people choose between cooperation, defection and costly punishment. In control experiments, people could only cooperate or defect. Here we show that the option of costly punishment increases the amount of cooperation but not the average payoff of the group. Furthermore, there is a strong negative correlation between total payoff and use of costly punishment. Those people who gain the highest total payoff tend not to use costly punishment: winners don't punish. This suggests that costly punishment behaviour is maladaptive in cooperation games and might have evolved for other reasons.

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Books: Decline of secularism leads to panic among "new atheists"?

John Gray, author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, has some interesting thoughts on the sudden spate of "new atheist" books in the last half decade. He thinks it is a panicky response to the decline in secularism:
It is true that religion has declined sharply in a number of countries (Ireland is a recent example) and has not shaped everyday life for most people in Britain for many years. Much of Europe is clearly post-Christian. However, there is nothing that suggests the move away from religion is irreversible, or that it is potentially universal. The US is no more secular today than it was 150 years ago, when De Tocqueville was amazed and baffled by its all-pervading religiosity. The secular era was in any case partly illusory. The mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion, and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed. The current hostility to religion is a reaction against this turnabout. Secularisation is in retreat, and the result is the appearance of an evangelical type of atheism not seen since Victorian times.

The trouble with secularism is that it isn't about anything. After City Hall has put a stop to Christmas, Succoth, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali, and all that, what will we celebrate? City Hall? That's what destroyed the twentieth century materialist regimes (fascism, communism, etc.) People want to reach beyond themselves, and certainly far, far beyond City Hall.

The attempt to eradicate religion, however, only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms. A credulous belief in world revolution, universal democracy or the occult powers of mobile phones is more offensive to reason than the mysteries of religion, and less likely to survive in years to come. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote of believers being left bereft as the tide of faith ebbs away. Today secular faith is ebbing, and it is the apostles of unbelief who are left stranded on the beach.

One for my reading list, and maybe yours.

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The Spiritual Brain: Great Review in Canada's Medical Post

In April 1, 2008, issue, The Medical Post, reviewer Don Ranney, professor emeritus in anatomy at the Uiversity of Waterloo, confesses
Dr. Beauregard's conclusions about the soul will surprise you; I will not deprive you of the excitement and enjoyment of reading this book by revealing them here. When asked to prepare a book review I intended just to skim the pages, but I found I had to read every line and could not put it down.

Well, you know, Mario and I and several editors slaved over every line, so I am glad someone appreciated it!

Note: You need a pass to view the Medical Post site linked here. The link above takes you to Dr. Ranney's site. Also have a look at Dr. Ranney's page on that, er, sensitive subject, pain. Lots to learn about the true causes of pain.

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Philosopher: Large questions require the language of myth, not shopping bills

Here's British philosopher Mary Midgley's take on Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, in which she makes a valuable point about why most people, including scientists, must use figurative language:
It seems not to have struck Dawkins that academic science is only a small, specialised, dependent part of what anybody knows. Most of human knowledge is tacit knowledge—habitual assumptions, constantly updated and checked by experience, but far too general and informal ever to be fully tested. We assume, for instance, that nature will go on being regular, that other people are conscious and that their testimony can generally be trusted. Without such assumptions neither science nor any other study could ever get off the ground, nor could everyday life. And when we build on these tacit foundations we necessarily use imaginative structures called myths—not lies, but graphic thought-patterns that shape and guide our thinking. This is not irrational; it is a necessary preparation for reasoning. The Selfish Gene is a powerful myth, so is the Science-and-Religion war, so is Gaia, so is the Social Contract and Natural Selection and Progress and the Hidden Hand of the Market. And, when we get to the largest and most puzzling questions, we have to proceed in mythical language which cannot be cashed in detail at all, but which still serves (as Einstein’s did) to indicate in what sort of spiritual universe we perceive ourselves to be living. This is the province of religion. Adding God is not, as Dawkins thinks, adding an illicit extra item to the cosmos. It is perceiving the whole thing differently.

Glad someone said that.

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Spotted: Mario's colleague Jeff Schwartz in Expelled film supertrailer

The Expelled film is set to open on 1000 screens across the United States April 18, and non-materialist neuroscientist Jeff Schwartz, one of Mario Beauregard's colleagues and friends, makes a brief appearance in the supertrailer, commenting on the National Academy of Sciences (he's the guy in a taxi in a blue shirt, near the end). Jeff is best known as the lead author of The Mind and the Brain, a predecessor book to our The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen of Brains on Purpose.