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The Wire versus Evolutionary Psychology

15 Post author: MrShaggy 25 May 2009 05:21AM

In their Evolutionary Psychology Primer, Cosmides and Tooby give an example of a hypothesized adaptation that allows us to detect cheaters in a certain type of logical task (Wason) that we generally fail at.  In the Wason selection task (both article and wiki give examples) you are presented a type of logic puzzle that people tend to do poorly at and even formal training in logic helps little, yet when the examples involve cheating (such as "If you are to eat those cookies, then you must first fix your bed" and the task would be to figure out if someone whose eating the cookies did indeed fix the bed) perform much better (25% right in the regular task, 65-80% in this version, according to the article).

In the show The Wire, in season one, episode eight, Wallace, a teen-age drug dealer is asked by a young child to help her with her math homework.  It's an addition and subtraction word problem about passengers on a bus (can't remember the numbers, but along the lines of, if the bus has 10 people on it and at the next stop 3 get on and 4 leave, etc.).  Wallace rephrases the word problem to be about drugs and the kid gets it right.  Wallace frustrated asks why and the kid replies along the lines of: "They beat you if you get the count wrong." (Edit:simpleton gives the quote as "Count be wrong, they fuck you up.")

C&T conclude that there are evolved "algorithms" in our brains that deal with social contract processing that explain why people do better on certain Wason selection tasks.  The Wire points out a simpler possible explanation that their experiments did not control for: people do better on tasks they care about, unless one would like to suppose there are special math circuits in the brain for certain "social contract" situations.

Of course, I am not saying a fictional anecdote disproves C&T's claim, but it does point to something they didn't test for, and something that I find rather plausible.

Possible tests: Look at emotionally-motivating things that vary across culture and develop Wason selection tasks to test for that; look at various types of emotionally-motivating things (which I do not presume all emotional responses will affect the test results), and obviously, test The Wire example itself.

Comments (18)

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 25 May 2009 09:43:10AM 10 points [-]

The lecturer in our Numerical cognition course told us of a result that went along the following lines. A schoolteacher was trying to teach his students to do basic arithmetic, and seeing them get the calculations wrong time after time. Then one day he decided to follow them out into town, where he saw that some of his students handled arithmetic just fine when they were doing grocery shopping, or working part-time selling things. Inspired, he returned to class and reworded his assignments to be about shopping, and guess what happened? The students failed just as miserably as they had before. The cognitive context was just too dissimiliar to the environment where they'd picked up the practice.

I got the impression that this wasn't just an isolated anecdote, but had also been replicated in more controlled studies. The reference he gave is to Jean Lave's Cognition in Practice - I have a copy of the book from the university library, but haven't had the time to read further yet. I'll see if I can skim it through this evening to find the part he was talking about.

Comment author: Apprentice 25 May 2009 02:43:59PM 11 points [-]

Back in high school I used to help my fellow students with chemistry problems. I noticed that many of them seemed to have a lot of trouble with what I thought were really easy problems. I noticed that many of the chemistry problems had obvious analogues in everyday tasks like baking cakes. I kept trying to reframe chemistry problems as baking problems, expecting that this would make everything easier. I thought my fellow students had some sort of aversion to chemistry but could handle baking easily enough.

This approach never got me anywhere even though I kept trying to make the problems more intuitive. In the end it hit me that the people having problems with the chemistry problems also couldn't solve problems like "let's say you want 50% more cupcakes, you have three more eggs and four more cups of wheat - can you do it?" The problem was never the chemistry, it was always that the basic math needed to solve the problems was genuinely hard for a lot of seemingly non-stupid people.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 25 May 2009 02:21:09PM 10 points [-]

we vastly VASTLY underestimate how much of what seems like cognition in those around us is actually pattern recognition and completion learned by rote.

a super intelligent AI would surely feel the same way about us so called gifted folk.

Comment author: MrShaggy 25 May 2009 06:19:16PM 1 point [-]

This example helps clarify something for me. I don't think it's that the "cognitive context was...too dissimilar" for the students, I would guess that it's that they don't care in class. When they're doing they're job or shopping, they do care. But the obvious reply is: why do I hypothesize that cheating-examples make people care in a fictional context? Maybe someone can help say it clearly for me, but it just makes sense to me that math requires a higher threshold of "caring" than something like "cheating." If I were reading a novel about a kid solving math problems in class, I'd probably wouldn't care about the math problems, but if I were reading a novel and cheating was possible, it probably would cause a reaction. This is what I was trying to get at with testing "various types of emotionally-motivating things," it just seems obvious that some things will evoke emotions in some contexts but not others, and some emotional responses will increase performance or some won't, but I can't put it better than that right now.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 25 May 2009 12:54:25PM 3 points [-]

you are presented a type of logic puzzle...

It was much easier to solve this one by mapping it to an existing social heuristic. Motivation didn't seem to be a significant factor in this case.

Motivation and using the native architecture where appropriate are both important factors in performance.

Also worth noting: performance does tend to increase with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases.

Comment author: MrShaggy 25 May 2009 07:35:27PM 2 points [-]

T&C report that mapping the Wason selection task to examples from everyday life doesn't improve performance, only when changed to detecting cheating does it change performance.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 25 May 2009 09:01:28PM 0 points [-]

I don't think T&C established that the "cheat detection" hardwired module was the only thing that could have an effect on the test.

They compared performance on versions of the test presented as a social contract problem with logically identical versions using non-hardwired stuff like traveling to Boston, but I don't think there was anything presented as mind-killer politics, sexual selection, status signaling, etc.

Maybe that wouldn't be a bad idea?

Comment author: AlanCrowe 25 May 2009 04:57:08PM 4 points [-]

This post is an example of the dangers both of fictional evidence and generational forgetting. Less than 100 years ago teachers did beat their pupils. Corporal punishment was an accepted part of educational practise. My parents are in their 80's and can remember this.

The script writers for The Wire are too young to have experienced this themselves, so they put a plausible line in their script: "They beat you if you get the count wrong." If they had been beaten themselves in their schools days they would know that it doesn't actually work. Worse they seem not to have realised that beating children to make them learn is only just dropping out of living memory. They could have asked around and realised just how ignorant the line is.

Being beaten into learning your sums is a perfectly plausible idea. Toddlers become competent at running about through a painful process of bumps and bruises administered by their environment. Perhaps an artificial environment with tawse administered by the dominie would work as well for sums?

Ofcourse it is no longer plausible once it has been tried and proved surprisingly useless. I'm disturbed to witness a dead educational idea coming back to life through a combination of fiction and forgetting.

(The point about toddlers may also be false. There is a rare genetic condition that results in pain receptors not working. The popular accounts I've read give the impression that sufferers run and play like normal children, with the exception that freed from the constraints of pain, they are more daring than normal children and do things such as breaking their legs by jumping off walls that are too high. So painful bumps and bruises may not be part of motor learning skills even when their presence is inevitable.)

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 25 May 2009 06:32:01PM 2 points [-]

You attribute too much coherence to the beliefs of the writers. I suspect that if you asked them directly, they'd have exactly your beliefs: school corporal punishment is illegal in MD, thus doesn't work. Like you, they're probably ignorant of its continuation in 22 American states. Education policy is fashion. Maybe it has "proved surprisingly useless"; but that has nothing to do with why it stopped being used.

Comment author: MrShaggy 25 May 2009 06:26:34PM 2 points [-]

I'm not positing that the beating helped the kid learn. See Kaj_Sotala's comment above for an example of how students perform math better when say, doing their job but they can't at school. I found the Wire anecdote plausible, but I didn't mean to suggest I accept the kid's understanding at face value: I generalized to the kid being motivated, which may've well been the case even if the kid hadn't been beaten but having been beaten, that's the explanation the kid looked to. Also, I think your historical evidence doesn't necessarily prove your point. My impression is that corporal punishment was often rather arbitrary and to enforce social norms more than teach math lessons (though that too), and I would guess that if kids are beaten for reasons they often can't understand (which is my impression from reading accounts), then being hurt for reasons they can understand (not memorizing their multiplication tables) has a diminished effect. I'm having trouble recalling any specifics, but I'm pretty sure I've read accounts from kids that suggest they saw the punishment as a motivating force for learning, whether it actually was or not. Just to be clear, even if corporal punishment were shown to be effective in certain ways if used in certain ways, I wouldn't be in favor of using it and would guess it would decrease self-motivated learning long term and there are hopefully more humane ideas to make learning motivating.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 28 May 2009 03:07:50PM 1 point [-]

The only argument I've ever heard for not beating children is the moral one. Has whether it works to encourage learning actually been studied?

BTW, for children born without a sense of pain, it is far worse than you describe. They typically end up with crippling arthritis in their teens or twenties, because they have no feedback to tell them when they're overstressing their joints. An adult with the condition can understand that they have to consciously compensate for what they can't feel, but you can hardly stop a small child from ever running around.

Comment author: AlanCrowe 28 May 2009 05:55:18PM 1 point [-]

The Behaviourists did lots of laboratory work on rats and pigeons. They had spectacular success at building up elaborate behaviours by using positive reinforcement to select fragments of the desired behaviour. The idea of training animals by beating them was killed off by experimental work.

I don't know the history of the decline of punishment in education. Perhaps there was real experimental work with children, perhaps not. I find it hard to care; given the animal work, the idea that beating works to encourage learning by children now lacks even minimal credibility.

Comment author: thomblake 26 May 2009 03:18:46PM *  0 points [-]

I think you're misreading 'beat'. In the context of a drug deal, being 'beat' is getting less than you paid for. I'm pretty sure the kid was saying that if he didn't do the math properly, he'd be cheated on the transaction - I don't think it was a comment about corporal punishment.

Though I haven't seen the show, so I could be wrong.

ETA: simpleton, below, has cleared it up.

Comment author: simpleton 26 May 2009 03:43:42PM 2 points [-]

The actual quote didn't contain the word "beat" at all. It was "Count be wrong, they fuck you up."

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 25 May 2009 05:39:16PM *  1 point [-]

"No One Knows What Science Doesn't Know" seems relevant here. I know that there has been a lot of followup literature on the Wason task (e.g. chapter four of David Buller's evopsych critique Adapting Minds devoted a lot of space to an alternative explanation of the Wason task, and Cosmides et al. have responded to critics (PDF), &c., &c.), but if any conclusion was definitively reached, I can't say what it was. Oh, what I would only give for a thousand years of library time---

Comment author: MrShaggy 25 May 2009 07:22:13PM 0 points [-]

Well the EvPsych Primer referenced uses it as their centerpiece for how EvPsych works. I can't say what the rest of the literature says.

Comment author: MichaelBishop 25 May 2009 04:38:45PM 1 point [-]

I'm sure motivation improves performance, but I don't think that is the only thing going on here.

I'm sure that our evolved psychology does make some problems harder/easier than others, despite having identical math behind them. But I'm also sure that our previous experience with problems matters. In your description, C&T don't distinguish between problems we've evolved to think about, and problems that we think about a lot for cultural or idiosyncratic reasons.

Comment author: MrShaggy 25 May 2009 07:25:32PM 0 points [-]

If I understand your last sentence correctly, that was my other main problem with their argument for evolved social contract algorithms or whatever: I didn't see sufficient evidence that the "cheating" stuff was part of our "native" architecture rather than a learned behavior. Hence the suggestion to create tests that vary on things we know to culturally vary.