Our aversion to ambiguity isn’t something we can easily overcome through training or education, wh


We’d suggest this is the essence of felt-risk.  It’s not really risk-aversion but ambiguity-aversion that drives, unconsciously and in milliseconds, much financial decision making.

Facial Perceptions as Leadership Factors – from Voting Research –


(Ed – We think it worthwhile to look at research on political choice to tease out the dynamics of leadership selection and group behavior in selecting and putting some “one” in a position of hierarchy.)

“Voters are heavily influenced by:

  • Superficial
  • Nonverbal cues
  • Such as politicians’ appearance

Voters make judgments about politicians’ competence based on their facial appearance and these appearance-based competence judgments reliably predict both voting decisions and election outcomes.

Since voters need to navigate their way through the flood of information available about candidates in order to make fully informed choices, it is no surprise that they take mental shortcuts to get to their final decision.

A split-second glance at two candidates’ faces is often enough to determine which one will win an election, according to a Princeton University study.

Political scientists have spent 50 years documenting only modest effects of the media on voting behavior, but Todorov’s research suggests we may have been looking in the wrong place.  Most of these previous studies have relied on transcripts or printed records of what the media say, with much less attention to visual images.”

Technology Is Not Ruining Our Brains – NYT Steven Pinker


Great reality check op-ed. 

June 10, 2010

Mind Over Mass Media

Truro, Mass.

NEW forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber.

So too with electronic technologies. PowerPoint, we’re told, is reducing discourse to bullet points. Search engines lower our intelligence, encouraging us to skim on the surface of knowledge rather than dive to its depths. Twitter is shrinking our attention spans.

But such panics often fail basic reality checks. When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline.   The decades of television, transistor radios and rock videos were also decades in which I.Q. scores rose continuously.

For a reality check today, take the state of science, which demands high levels of brainwork and is measured by clear benchmarks of discovery.   These days scientists are never far from their e-mail, rarely touch paper and cannot lecture without PowerPoint.   If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting.   Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying.   Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing, as anyone who has lost a morning of work to the Web site Arts & Letters Daily can attest.

Critics of new media sometimes use science itself to press their case, citing research that shows how “experience can change the brain.”  But cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk.  Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas.   But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience.

  • Experience does not revamp the basic information-processing capacities of the brain.  Speed-reading programs have long claimed to do just that, but the verdict was rendered by Woody Allen after he read “War and Peace” in one sitting: “It was about Russia.”
  • Genuine multitasking, too, has been exposed as a myth, not just by laboratory studies but by the familiar sight of an S.U.V. undulating between lanes as the driver cuts deals on his cellphone.
  •  Moreover, as the psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons show in their new book “The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us,” the effects of experience are highly specific to the experiences themselves.   If you train people to do one thing (recognize shapes, solve math puzzles, find hidden words), they get better at doing that thing, but almost nothing else. 

Music doesn’t make you better at math, conjugating Latin doesn’t make you more logical, brain-training games don’t make you smarter. Accomplished people don’t bulk up their brains with intellectual calisthenics; they immerse themselves in their fields. Novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science.

The effects of consuming electronic media are also likely to be far more limited than the panic implies.   Media critics write as if the brain takes on the qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational equivalent of “you are what you eat.”   As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings.

Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

The new media have caught on for a reason.  

  • Knowledge is increasing exponentially;
  • Human brainpower and waking hours are not.

Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias.
Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.

Drinking Coffee Makes You More Anxious – Not More Alert


Your first cup of joe, at best, just gets you back to the normal alertness level of non-caffeine addicts. What does this study tells us about “the most commonly used drug in the world,” and its most devoted users?

Your morning cup of coffee merely reverses “the fatiguing effects of acute caffeine withdrawal,” rather than boosting your alertness above “normal” levels. Or, as Britain’s Daily Telegraph puts it, “the so-called ‘caffeine high’ is just a reaction to the body craving the drug.”

The heavy coffee drinkers in the placebo group not only felt sluggish, they also had increased headaches. Four had to drop out of the study because their headaches were so severe.

A cup of coffee, suggests a study, only counteracts the effects of caffeine withdrawal that has built up overnight.

Those participants who had a variant of a gene which has been linked to panic attacks, became particularly anxious after a dose of caffeine.

People in this group who were genetically predisposed to anxiety drank more coffee than the rest, suggesting mild feelings of tension might even contribute to their enjoyment of the caffeine buzz.

Contrary to popular models, sugar is not burned by self-control tasks — Science Blog


Contradicting a popular model of self-control, a study argues against the idea that glucose is the resource used to manage self control and that humans rely on this energy source for will power.”

  • The marginal difference in glucose consumption by the brain from five minutes of performing a “self-control” task is unlikely in the extreme to be of any significant size.
  • People who have recently exercised and burned glucose are better, not worse, on the sorts of tasks used in the self-control literature
  • “Even very different computational tasks result in very similar glucose consumption by the brain, which tends to metabolize glucose at similar rates independent of task.”

Furthermore, even if exerting self control did reduce levels of glucose, the cause of the reduction could be factors such as increased heart rate when people perform certain kinds of tasks, rather than consumption by the brain.

Glucose levels are probably influenced, Kurzban said, by a cascade of physical and psychological mechanisms that mediate glucose levels throughout the body.