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Two very interesting and well researched talks (1 and 2) that may or may not make you happy, by Dan Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, a book that I am inclined to read, having viewed the mentioned talks.

With that I announce a temporary abeyance from blogging for a month. My alibi (unlike previous disappearances which were due to a combination of procrastination and lack of valuable wisdom to share or impart) is a much anticipated trip home to Mumbai and beyond. Since this will be my last post this year, happy holidays and a happy new year. I’ll be back with my travelogues.

I am glad I did not pay to read this book. I found it to be a rather amateurish coverage of evolutionary psychology with a cheesy title (I was bait), and repetitious perhaps because of it’s question and answer structure. Allow me to elaborate.

Evolutionary psychology(EP) attempts to explain how our psychological behavior have evolved, much in the same vein as evolutionary biology explaining physical evolution and adaptations. In crude and simple terms, EP contends that more than 10,000 years ago, our human ancestors were mainly concerned about survival and reproduction, and use that as a basis for explaining human behavior and actions. EP does come up with interesting and believable explanations for some of our behaviors. For e.g. consider our craving for fats and sugar even though they are unhealthy and limit our chances of survival . EP contends that back then food and fruits were rare and essential for survival, and so those that craved for sugar and fats took on more risks, and did far better (at passing on their genes) than those that did not have such a craving. While in modern society, we find sources of fats and sugars aplenty without having to raise a bow, our mind-set is still stuck in the hunter-gatherer past, and so we continue to crave for these not-so-rare-anymore items. That was survival. On to the second interesting motivation: reproduction.

Men and women have a common motive when in comes to reproduction – to pass on their genes, and have those passed on in turn. According to EP, men in those ages relied more on physical appearance of their mates that are indicative of youth (given the relatively lower reproductive time frames for women relative to men), while women were more concerned about men being able to support them and their kids, and were prone to look for cues of wealth in choosing mates. This meant that both men and women had to live up to each other’s expectations.

That was EP as I understand it in 2 paragraphs. My grunt with the book is that it poses a question (e.g. Why are almost all criminals always men?), that has a simple one-line explanation (to eliminate competition, among others). Now imagine having to read through a couple of pages for this essence. Next, imagine having to do so question after question for almost every question in the book. And that’s not all.

Near the end of the book, I encounter the following question: “Why are most suicide bombers Muslim”. For one the question really stood out because it targeted one religion. Moreover, the answer was rather lame and did little more than playing to stereotypes. The authors cite references that contends that a) the wealthy in muslim societies are polygynous, and b) suicide bombers are typically single men of low wealth that do so for the promise of the many virgins that await them in heaven. Interestingly, towards the end of the book, the the authors response to the question: “Why do soldiers die for their countries?” is:

To the best of our knowledge, there is no satisfactory explanation for this phenomenon from an evolutionary psychological perspective.

One would think that suicide bombers and soldiers both die for their respective causes, and therein lies a common element that may perhaps have little to do with religion. This question and more egregiously it’s response is, in my opinion, the book’s single biggest undoing.

Those that are new to EP may find interesting takeaways from this book. I’d alternately recommend Introducing Evolutionary Psychology by Dylan Evans, which does not have a catchy title, but is high on content.

Related Post: Dispensable Men.

I realize this is a lame way to keep the posts coming – here are two articles that may be of interest:

The Moral Instinct, by Steven Pinker in the New York Times – a dissection of the moral sense.  

Numbers Guy by Jim Holt in the New Yorker, on whether we have an innate sense for numbers.

Very informative articles, both.

Any man who reads the newspapers will encounter the phrase “even women and children” a couple times a month, usually about being killed. The literal meaning of this phrase is that men’s lives have less value than other people’s lives. The idea is usually “It’s bad if people are killed, but it’s especially bad if women and children are killed.

Excerpt from the transcript of the invited address titled Is there Anything Good about Men? by Prof. R. Baumeister at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association this year. He goes on to explain.

If a group loses half its men, the next generation can still be full-sized. But if it loses half its women, the size of the next generation will be severely curtailed. Hence most cultures keep their women out of harm’s way while using men for risky jobs.

An interesting text that focuses on the present role of men in society and its evolutionary origins. A few of the key points made are:

  • Men lie at extremes of a distribution – for e.g. there are more men than women in positions of leadership as also in prisons.
  • Differences between genders have more to do with motivation than ability.
  • Most of us have descended from fewer men than women. This means that in our evolutionary past, women could play it safe since there was a higher likelihood of them producing an offspring, while men had to be aggressive and ambitious, and had to take bigger risks for a bigger pay-off (read having an offspring).
  • Women favor small networks of close relationships, while men favor large networks of shallow relationships, where individuals are dispensable much like a modern day corporation.

It is interesting how one or more aspects of human behavior is traced back to our evolutionary origins, especially the hunter-gatherer theory that was more recently used as an explanation for why women favor pink.

On average, about 15 percent of a doctor’s diagnoses are inaccurate. Groopman directs a well-aimed arrow at a system of medical training that more often than not fails to investigate why these diagnoses are missed. Doctors are rarely taught to ask how an error could have taken place, let alone how it could be avoided in the future.

NYRB has a fine review of the book How Doctor’s Think by Jerome Groopman. Given our near blind-faith in doctors’ diagnoses, this cloud of doubt on the accuracy of such diagnoses is quite unsettling. The review highlights some of the cognitive biases that may lead to mis-diagnoses on the part of doctors, and provides a quick cheat-sheet like enlightenment based on parts of the book to the doctor and reader alike.

What I found particularly interesting, was the list of cognitive biases that may lead to incorrect diagnosis.

Patients might be stigmatized if they are thought to have a mental health problem, or caricatured if they are judged to have engaged in self-harming behavior, such as alcoholism. This kind of mistake is called “attribution error.” “Availability error” occurs when a doctor makes a decision based on an experience that is at the forefront of his mind but which bears little or no relation to the patient before him. “Search satisfying error” takes place when a doctor stops looking for an answer to the patient’s problem as soon as he discovers a finding that satisfies him, albeit incorrectly. “Confirmation bias” intrudes when the doctor selects only some parts of the information available to him in order to confirm his initial judgment of what is wrong. “Diagnostic momentum” takes over when the doctor is unable to change his mind about a diagnosis, even though there might remain considerable uncertainty about the nature of a patient’s condition. And “commission bias” obstructs good clinical thinking when the doctor prefers to do something rather than nothing, irrespective of clinical clues suggesting that he should sit on his hands.

When one thinks about it, these biases may as easily affect the way we reach an opinion in the course of our day-to-day interactions.Knowing and avoiding such and other biases may help us reach a clearer explanation for what we observe.

A list of cognitive biases can be found here.

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