Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Working memory and morality

Sorry I've been away for so long! Lots of things going on, but I figured I'd get in a post today since it's been some two weeks.

I want to share the results of a study that hopefully connects another puzzle piece: People with higher working memory make more balanced moral decisions.

Working memory is the kind of memory you use when solving a math problem in your head: it's like a blackboard, where you temporarily keep facts and figures that you'll need to reason through or solve immediate problems. It's also strongly correlated with well-accepted measures of fluid intelligence -- the ability to learn new things. So why should that relate to making moral decisions?

Well, as the authors point out:

Previous studies have suggested that moral dilemmas can evoke strong emotions in people and tend to override thoughtful deliberation and reasoning.

However, a new neuroimaging research has shown that sometimes people are capable of voluntarily suppressing these emotional reactions, allowing for decisions based on reasoning and careful deliberation of the consequences of one’s actions.

This latter skill (voluntary control of emotion) is precisely the kind of training that one develops in certain kinds of meditation -- some of which have also been implicated in improving working memory itself. We'll delve into that another time, but it's an interesting point to ponder for those who may not have made the connection before.

In their conclusions, the authors note:

“This suggests that emotional reactions to moral issues can drive our judgments and motivate action but can also blind us to the consequences of our decisions in some cases.”

This sounds like an extremely relevant piece in the Sotomayor controversy: I would bet that the definition the Republican party uses when questioning the utility of "empathy" on the judicial bench reflects the supposition that empathy must involve emotional expressions which can lead to ill-founded biases. When properly executed, however, the effects should be something more akin to those described in the article:

Researchers found that in such emotion laden scenarios, people with high working memory capacity were not only more consistent in their judgments but their answers indicated that they were considering the consequences of their choices in a way that the other participants were not.

Leaving aside the definition of empathy, the above sounds like a skill we can all agree is valuable.

As an added bonus in this post, I'd like to make a quick offshoot to cognitive psychology: how can one train working memory, seeing as it's at the core of both intelligence and empathy?

Well, there was a big brouhaha last year about a task called the "dual n-back" task. The science is solid (there have even been good neuroscience followups on its effects), and the best implementation I've found so far is here:

It's hard, but the evidence suggests it's well worth the effort. Both for your raw intelligence and for the well-being of those around you :)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Where's my jet pack?

Again I have the good fortune of a piece that lays the groundwork for me. I came across it the other day, and the title ("Where's my jetpack?" -- at least that was the name of the link from the homepage) immediately gave me hope that it might be relevant.

Why? Well, here in Silicon Valley, the Twitters and Zazzles and Floobles (I made that last one up... I think) are a dime a dozen. You can almost drown in the tech Kool-Aid here, so overpowering is the reek of desperation for shiny gadgets to fix all of our problems.

The other day, I came across the abstract of a talk purporting that Thorium reactors were the answer to all of our energy problems. I don't know much about Thorium reactors, but if human history is any indication of its future -- and it is -- then it's probably not a solution in the sense one might hope. Yes, it might help us rid ourselves of fossil fuel dependency and the environmental pillaging that goes with it, but you can be sure we're going to find new and clever ways of depleting it as fast as we can.

So anyway, back to the article. I quickly scanned and pulled out two key quotes. First:
"Scientists are OK at predicting what technology is going to happen in the future," Wilson says. "They're really bad at predicting how it's going to affect us."
It's a relatively recent finding that humans are incredibly inept at estimating how well they'll feel after a particular event or in some circumstance. This topic ("affective forecasting") is much more than another intellectual curiosity. Its relevance should be immediately obvious: how are we supposed to decide what to do with our lives if we can't even predict how the outcomes will feel to us?

As it is, it's hard enough to predict both how long you'll feel happy and how happy you'll be after experiencing something as simple and common as your favorite football team winning a game. How much sense, then, does it make to believe you know how much you'll improve the life of someone across the world when your website that (pick something... anything) launches? Hint: none.

The second quote basically summarizes the point of the article and this post:
"At some point, you can't expect a miracle to come in the form of technology to save us," Verheiden says. "At some point, the miracle has to come from a change in attitude and a new outlook."
It seems like a much more viable solution to start from the ground up. First find out what it is that makes people's lives subjectively better. There's already plenty of research out there (which we'll explore), and the amount of data is constantly growing. Don't assume you already know the answer, because our intuition for these things is incredibly faulty.

Then, if technology turns out to be the right answer, go for it! But I suspect it'll be some time before an improvement in Internet bandwidth is actually the lowest hanging fruit for improving lives.

Because it's a form of intelligence

The title of this post is one obvious answer to the question "why empathy?"

It's been a little while (okay, a week) since I last posted, and the topic is one I've already covered at length, so I'll keep it short before moving onto some stuff I consider even more interesting.

I just stumbled upon this piece on CNN about a woman who was convinced her husband was a Rockefeller. Well, it turns out a more accurate term than "Rockefeller" is porbably "psychopath." In her own words:
"The defendant (note: her ex-husband) was often very unpleasant -- lack of empathy, anger, control issues, absolutely. I'm not a psychologist, but he was hard to live with ... I saw behavior that made me think that he wasn't at all well, yes,"
There's quite a bit of literature on the topic of deceitful marriages that sound incredibly similar to her own story. One point that needs to be driven home is that it doesn't just happen to morons. Even smart people get taken in:
[His defense attorney] asked how a successful businesswoman who was educated at Stanford and Harvard universities could fall for an impostor who called himself Clark Rockefeller.

"There's a big difference between intellectual intelligence and emotional intelligence," Boss explained. "I'm not saying I made a very good choice of a husband. It's obvious I had a pretty big blind spot."
I've often asked myself the same question: how is it even remotely possible that an intelligent person could be unable to detect something so striking as an incapability for empathy in a potential spouse? It reminds me of those common articles titled something like "10 Things You And Your Spouse Should Discuss Before Marriage." They're often filled with questions about finances and where you want to live, and miss the big one: what is he really like? What's going on in that noggin'?

Besides the common use of empathy in helping other people, it's a pretty critical piece in helping oneself. There are simply fewer surprises when you have a mental model of what drives other people.