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Another one for the memory-is-really-unreliable file. Some researchers at UC Irvine (one of them is Elizabeth Loftus, whose name I've seen attached to other fake-memory studies) asked about 5000 subjects about their recollection of four political events. One of the political events never actually happened. About half the subjects said they remembered the fake event. Subjects were more likely to pseudo-remember events congruent with their political preferences (e.g., Bush or Obama doing something embarrassing).
Link to papers.ssrn.com (paper is freely downloadable).
The subjects were recruited from the readership of Slate, which unsurprisingly means they aren't a very representative sample of the US population (never mind the rest of the world). In particular, about 5% identified as conservative and about 60% as progressive.
Each real event was remembered by 90-98% of subjects. Self-identified conservatives remembered the real events a little less well. Self-identified progressives were much more likely to "remember" a fake event in which G W Bush took a vacation in Texas while Hurricane Katrina was devastating New Orleans. Self-identified conservatives were somewhat more likely to "remember" a fake event in which Barack Obama shook the hand of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
About half of the subjects who "remembered" fake events were unable to identify the fake event correctly when they were told that one of the events in the study was fake.
- Consumers with higher scores on a cognitive reflection test are more inclined to buy products when told more about them; for consumers with lower CRT scores it's the reverse.
- Consumers with higher CRT scores felt that they understood the products better after being told more; consumers with lower CRT scores felt that they understood them worse.
- If subjects are asked to give an explanation of how products work and then asked how well they understand and how willing they'd be to pay, high-CR subjects don't change much in either but low-CR subjects report feeling that they understand worse and that they're willing to pay less.
- Conclusion: it looks as if when you give low-CR subjects more information about a product, they feel they understand it less, don't like that feeling, and become less willing to pay.
If this is right (which seems plausible enough) then it presumably applies more broadly: e.g., to what tactics are most effective in political debate. Though it's hardly news in that area that making people feel stupid isn't the best way to persuade them of things.
Abstract of the paper:
People differ in their threshold for satisfactory causal understanding and therefore in the type of explanation that will engender understanding and maximize the appeal of a novel product. Explanation fiends are dissatisfied with surface understanding and desire detailed mechanistic explanations of how products work. In contrast, explanation foes derive less understanding from detailed than coarse explanations and downgrade products that are explained in detail. Consumers’ attitude toward explanation is predicted by their tendency to deliberate, as measured by the cognitive reflection test. Cognitive reflection also predicts susceptibility to the illusion of explanatory depth, the unjustified belief that one understands how things work. When explanation foes attempt to explain, it exposes the illusion, which leads to a decrease in willingness to pay. In contrast, explanation fiends are willing to pay more after generating explanations. We hypothesize that those low in cognitive reflection are explanation foes because explanatory detail shatters their illusion of understanding.
This was linked to twice recently, once in a Rationality Quotes thread and once in the article about mindfulness meditation, and I thought it deserved its own article.
It's a transcript of a talk by Persi Diaconis, called "The problem of thinking too much". The general theme is more or less what you'd expect from the title: often our explicit models of things are wrong enough that trying to think them through rationally gives worse results than (e.g.) just guessing. There are some nice examples in it.
We've already had a lengthy (and still active) thread attempting to address the question "What are the best textbooks, and why are they better than their rivals?". That's excellent, but no one is going to post there unless they're prepared to claim: Textbook X is the best on its subject. But surely many of us have read many texts for which we couldn't say that but could say "I've read X and Y, and here's how they differ". A good supply of such comparisons would be extremely useful.
I propose this thread for that purpose. Rules:
- Each top-level reply should concern two or more texts on a single subject, and provide enough information about how they compare to one another that an interested would-be reader should be able to tell which is likely to be better for his or her purposes.
- Replies to these offering or soliciting further comparisons in the same domain are encouraged.
- At least one book in each comparison should either
- be a very good one, or at least
- look like a very good one even though it isn't.
- be a very good one, or at least
If this gets enough responses that simply looking through them becomes tiresome, I'll update the article with (something like) a list of textbooks, arranged by subject and then by author, with links for the comments in which they're compared to other books and a brief summary of what's said about them. (I might include links to comments in Luke's thread too, since anything that deserves its place there would also be acceptable here.)
[Update: and now there's a fifth discussion thread, which you should probably use in preference to this one. Later update: and a sixth -- in the discussion section, which is where these threads are living for now on. Also: tag for HP threads in the main section, and tag for HP threads in the discussion section.]
The third discussion thread is above 500 comments now, just like the others, so it's time for a new one. Predecessors: one, two, three. For anyone who's been on Mars and doesn't know what this is about: it's Eliezer's remarkable Harry Potter fanfic.
Spoiler warning and helpful suggestion (copied from those in the earlier threads):
Spoiler Warning: this thread contains unrot13'd spoilers for Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality up to the current chapter and for the original Harry Potter series. Please continue to use rot13 for spoilers to other works of fiction, or if you have insider knowledge of future chapters of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.
A suggestion: mention at the top of your comment which chapter you're commenting on, or what chapter you're up to, so that people can understand the context of your comment even after more chapters have been posted. This can also help people avoid reading spoilers for a new chapter before they realize that there is a new chapter.
When an LW contributor is in need of an example of something that (1) is plainly, uncontroversially (here on LW, at least) very wrong but (2) an otherwise reasonable person might get lured into believing by dint of inadequate epistemic hygiene, there seems to be only one example that everyone reaches for: belief in God. (Of course there are different sorts of god-belief, but I don't think that makes it count as more than one example.) Eliezer is particularly fond of this trope, but he's not alone.
How odd that there should be exactly one example. How convenient that there is one at all! How strange that there isn't more than one!
In the population at large (even the smarter parts of it) god-belief is sufficiently widespread that using it as a canonical example of irrationality would run the risk of annoying enough of your audience to be counterproductive. Not here, apparently. Perhaps we-here-on-LW are just better reasoners than everyone else ... but then, again, isn't it strange that there aren't a bunch of other popular beliefs that we've all seen through? In the realm of politics or economics, for instance, surely there ought to be some.
Also: it doesn't seem to me that I'm that a much better thinker than I was a few years ago when (alas) I was a theist; nor does it seem to me that everyone on LW is substantially better at thinking than I am; which makes it hard for me to believe that there's a certain level of rationality that almost everyone here has attained, and that makes theism vanishingly rare.
I offer the following uncomfortable conjecture: We all want to find (and advertise) things that our superior rationality has freed us from, or kept us free from. (Because the idea that Rationality Just Isn't That Great is disagreeable when one has invested time and/or effort and/or identity in rationality, and because we want to look impressive.) We observe our own atheism, and that everyone else here seems to be an atheist too, and not unnaturally we conclude that we've found such a thing. But in fact (I conjecture) LW is so full of atheists not only because atheism is more rational than theism (note for the avoidance of doubt: yes, I agree that atheism is more rational than theism, at least for people in our epistemic situation) but also because
Not all that surprisingly, there's quite a lot of discussion on LW about questions like
- just what should get voted up or down?
- what conclusions can one reasonably draw from getting downvoted?
- should downvotes (or even upvotes) be accompanied by explanations?
- should the way karma and voting work be changed?
This generally happens in dribs and drabs, typically in response to more specific questions of the form
- Waaaa, how come my supremely insightful comment above is currently sitting at -69?
and therefore tends to clutter up discussions that are meant to be about something else. So maybe it's worth seeing if we can arrive at some sort of consensus about the general issues, at which point maybe we can write that up and refer newcomers to it.
(The outcome may be that we find that there's no consensus to be had. That would be useful information too.)
I'll kick things off with a few unfocused thoughts.
Here is our monthly place to discuss Less Wrong topics that have not appeared in recent posts.
(Carl's open thread for March was only a week ago or thereabouts, but if we're having these monthly then I think it's better for them to appear near -- ideally at -- the start of each month, to make it that little bit easier to find something when you can remember roughly when it was posted. The fact that that open thread has had 69 comments in that time seems like good evidence that "almost anyone can post articles" is sufficient reason for not bothering with open threads.)
[EDIT, 2009-04-04: oops, I meant "is NOT sufficient reason" in that last sentence. D'oh.]