Don’t ask me, ask my brain.

BrainDid you know that sun can damage your skin?  How likely are you to increase your sunscreen use this week?  No, don’t tell me.  Chances are, you will be a less reliable indicator of your own behavior than a brain scan will.  It may sound crazy, but this is the conclusion of a study published June 23, 2010 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The research team, led by Matthew Lieberman, a psychology professor at UCLA, had subjects watch a public service announcement about the benefits of sunscreen while in an fMRI machine.  The researchers looked for an increase in activity of the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with values, preferences, and self-reflection.  Then, the researchers Continue reading “Don’t ask me, ask my brain.”

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The “Al Qaeda” Seven

A political firestorm erupted this past week over a commercial created by an incipient political group, led by Liz Cheney, called “Keeping America Safe.” In the video, we learn that there are lawyers working for the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) who formerly represented detainees (and alleged terrorists) being held captive in Guantanamo. The dark voice in the commercial then implores us to urge the DoJ to release the names of these lawyers because it is unclear just “whose values they share.” “Americans have a right to know,” we are told, “the identify of the Al Qaeda Seven.” Continue reading “The “Al Qaeda” Seven”

Peer pressure and a steady mind

Sociologist Dr Nicholas Christakis has a new book in which he argues that we are subject to a process of ‘social contagion.’ What we do is to a great extent determined by the company we keep. In some cases this is obvious: the clothes they wear, the music they like, and so on. But not just that. Christakis claims that things such as whether you know someone (who knows someone who knows someone) who is obese, influences whether you are likely to become obese. Ditto kinds of sexual activity, smoking, whether or not you vote, happiness, and other things.

The study that is supposed to support this claim is Continue reading “Peer pressure and a steady mind”

Why choose the tiramisu?

Tiramisu_Fanes
Attr. Markus Mitterauer

A highly influential experiment, conducted over 30 years ago, presented an array of indistinguishable stockings to subjects who were then asked to pick the one they found most appealing. Overwhelmingly, the subjects preferred the stockings on their right. When asked about the reasons for their choice, none of the subjects indicated the relative location of the item. Rather, they explained their choices by pointing out superior features of the chosen item. Of course, since the items were in fact indistinguishable in all relevant respects, no such superior features were present. The subjects were confabulating.

The results of this experiment, and others that followed, are quite surprising. They suggest that we are tremendously bad at introspecting on the reasons for our choices, and all too naturally come up with irrelevant explanations for them. We are often completely unconscious of the actual reasons for our choices. If this is the case, it puts our conception of ourselves as self-determining agents in jeopardy.

In this week’s Newsweek, Sharon Begley reports on a fascinating new study by Daniel Casasanto that reveals a pervasive spatial bias that depends on handedness. According to the study, subjects associate positive ideas with the region of space that corresponds to their ‘strong’ hand. For example, right-handed subjects judge stimuli presented on their right as more positive (e.g., good, intelligent, happy, attractive) than those presented on their left. This pattern is reversed in the case of left-handed subjects.

Continue reading “Why choose the tiramisu?”

A Case of Miscalculation?

Cell_phone_use_while_drivingU.S. Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, announced earlier this week that federal government will crack down on drivers’ cell phone use. The announcement comes a week after the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute issued a press release of a study that shows that texting and talking while driving dramatically increases the risk of collision. This is just one among many studies pointing to similar conclusions (including the infamous study that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration didn’t publicize for allegedly political reasons). The results are hardly surprising. As Secretary LaHood commented, “We all know texting and driving is dangerous.” So, then, if it is so dangerous and we know it, why do we do it?

Philosophers of action might be inclined to say that this is a textbook case of akrasia. Indeed, when you answer your cell phone behind the wheel you seem to behave like the dieter who, giving into temptation, accepts a second helping; or, the unhappy spouse who has a one-night fling. Some predominant desire of yours (e.g. to answer the phone right then) takes over, motivating you to act contrary to your better judgment.

Yet, is this right? When you answer the phone are you really acting against your better judgment? Don’t you, instead, act under the impression that, if you make the effort, you can do well both things, talking and driving? And isn’t this, rather, a textbook case of miscalculating one’s abilities.

However, if this is true about this case, then it also seems true about most alleged instances of akrasia. You know what you are doing is wrong. Yet you do it, because you over-estimate your capacity to compensate for it, or you under-estimate the impact that your decision will have. You say to yourself: “I can burn all these calories tomorrow,” “My spouse will never find out,” etc.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small Desire
By Tim Schroeder, Ohio State University
(Vol. 1, October 2006)
Philosophy Compass

£1.99 - small The Natural Philosophy of Agency
By Shaun Gallagher, University of Central Florida
(Vol. 2, Februrary 2007)
Philosophy Compass

How do we know when to stop brushing our teeth?

800px-Border_Station_Torkhemn_by_James_G_Pinsky_2006In the course of any given day, the number of snap decisions we are called upon to make is staggering. Simply getting to the office in the morning demands decisions about what to wear, when to leave the house, what route to take, where to park the car, and so on. Many of these involve considerable deliberation, especially when something sudden and unexpected happens that interferes with the decisions we would normally have made – the car not starting, high density traffic on our regular route, a meteor striking our office building, etc.

However, the vast majority of our decisions are made on the fly – they seemingly involve no deliberation at all. Should I use the big black coffee mug, or the smaller blue one? Having left the house, do I then go on the paved path, or simply cut through the lawn towards my car? Fiddle with the radio and only then drive, or the other way around? Even more subtle examples are ubiquitous. How should I pick up the coffee mug, left hand, right hand, by the handle, from above? How firmly should I press the toothbrush to my teeth, and when have I brushed sufficiently? How much pressure on the gas pedal would allow me to bypass that geriatric SUV safely? The list is endless.

Most of these decisions seem to involve no deliberation that we are aware of at all, and yet, it seems obvious that we are there, making them. In a sense, they are automatic, and yet, we’re the ones making them. At the very least, it seems to us that we could have done otherwise.

Continue reading “How do we know when to stop brushing our teeth?”

Don’t mention the war: or, doing what you didn’t want to do

In last week’s issue of Science Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard University, summarised his research into a peculiarly incompetent example of agency. There are various actions we perform. We fix on our goal and act in a way that will bring it about. But sometimes we go about trying to not do something. Ever make a mental note not to mention a sore point in conversation, only to bring it up? Wegner calls these phenomena “ironic effects” and proposes that they are the effects of a monitoring process the brain undergoes when we try to avoid thinking about or doing something. Unsurprisingly, he found that “effective strategies include accepting symptoms rather than attempting to control them.” I.e. the best way to not do something is, sometimes, to stop trying to not do it. In the same way one does not maximise one’s pleasure by trying to maximise one’s pleasure (the paradox of hedonism), successful exercises of agency do not always follow the simple model of directing one’s thought or will toward one’s goal.

For an interview with Daniel Wegner go here.

Related articles:

$1.99 - smallThe Phenomenology of Agency
By Tim Bayne, University of Oxford
(Vol. 3, January 2008)
Philosophy Compass

$1.99 - smallThe Natural Philosophy of Agency
By Shaun Gallagher, University of Central Florida
(Vol. 2, February 2007)
Philosophy Compass