Why your brain never runs out of problems to find

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David Levari (The Conversation)
It's a psychological quirk that when something becomes rarer, people may spot it in more places than ever. What is the 'concept creep' that lets context change how we categorize the world around us?

Why do many problems in life seem to stubbornly stick around, no matter how hard people work to fix them? It turns out that a quirk in the way human brains process information means that when something becomes rare, we sometimes see it in more places than ever.

Think of a “neighborhood watch” made up of volunteers who call the police when they see anything suspicious. Imagine a new volunteer who joins the watch to help lower crime in the area. When they first start volunteering, they raise the alarm when they see signs of serious crimes, like assault or burglary.

Let’s assume these efforts help and, over time, assaults and burglaries become rarer in the neighborhood. What would the volunteer do next? One possibility is that they would relax and stop calling the police. After all, the serious crimes they used to worry about are a thing of the past.

But you may share the intuition my research group had – that many volunteers in this situation wouldn’t relax just because crime went down. Instead, they’d start calling things “suspicious” that they would never have cared about back when crime was high, like jaywalking or loitering at night.

You can probably think of many similar situations in which problems never seem to go away, because people keep changing how they define them. This is sometimes called “concept creep,” or “moving the goalposts,” and it can be a frustrating experience. How can you know if you’re making progress solving a problem, when you keep redefining what it means to solve it? My colleagues and I wanted to understand when this kind of behavior happens, why, and if it can be prevented.

After violent crime starts going down, loiterers and jaywalkers may start to seem more threatening. Marc Bruxelle/Shutterstock.com

Looking for trouble

To study how concepts change when they become less common, we brought volunteers into our laboratory and gave them a simple task – to look at a series of computer-generated faces and decide which ones seem “threatening.” The faces had been carefully designed by researchers to range from very intimidating to very harmless.

As we showed people fewer and fewer threatening faces over time, we found that they expanded their definition of “threatening” to include a wider range of faces. In other words, when they ran out of threatening faces to find, they started calling faces threatening that they used to call harmless. Rather than being a consistent category, what people considered “threats” depended on how many threats they had seen lately.

This kind of inconsistency isn’t limited to judgments about threat. In another experiment, we asked people to make an even simpler decision: whether colored dots on a screen were blue or purple.

As the context changes, so do the boundaries of your categories. David Levari, CC BY-ND

As blue dots became rare, people started calling slightly purple dots blue. They even did this when we told them blue dots were going to become rare, or offered them cash prizes to stay consistent over time. These results suggest that this behavior isn’t entirely under conscious control – otherwise, people would have been able to be consistent to earn a cash prize.

Expanding what counts as immoral

After looking at the results of our experiments on facial threat and color judgments, our research group wondered if maybe this was just a funny property of the visual system. Would this kind of concept change also happen with non-visual judgments?

To test this, we ran a final experiment in which we asked volunteers to read about different scientific studies, and decide which were ethical and which were unethical. We were skeptical that we would find the same inconsistencies in these kind of judgments that we did with colors and threat.

Why? Because moral judgments, we suspected, would be more consistent across time than other kinds of judgments. After all, if you think violence is wrong today, you should still think it is wrong tomorrow, regardless of how much or how little violence you see that day.

But surprisingly, we found the same pattern. As we showed people fewer and fewer unethical studies over time, they started calling a wider range of studies unethical. In other words, just because they were reading about fewer unethical studies, they became harsher judges of what counted as ethical.

The brain likes to make comparisons

Why can’t people help but expand what they call threatening when threats become rare? Research from cognitive psychology and neuroscience suggests that this kind of behavior is a consequence of the basic way that our brains process information – we are constantly comparing what is front of us to its recent context.

Instead of carefully deciding how threatening a face is compared to all other faces, the brain can just store how threatening it is compared to other faces it has seen recently, or compare it to some average of recently seen faces, or the most and least threatening faces it has seen. This kind of comparison could lead directly to the pattern my research group saw in our experiments, because when threatening faces are rare, new faces would be judged relative to mostly harmless faces. In a sea of mild faces, even slightly threatening faces might seem scary.

It turns out that for your brain, relative comparisons often use less energy than absolute measurements. To get a sense for why this is, just think about how it’s easier to remember which of your cousins is the tallest than exactly how tall each cousin is. Human brains have likely evolved to use relative comparisons in many situations, because these comparisons often provide enough information to safely navigate our environments and make decisions, all while expending as little effort as possible.

Being consistent when it counts

Sometimes, relative judgments work just fine. If you are looking for a fancy restaurant, what you count as “fancy” in Paris, Texas, should be different than in Paris, France.

What once seemed banal can be recategorized as a threat in a new context. louis amal on Unsplash, CC BY

But a neighborhood watcher who makes relative judgments will keep expanding their concept of “crime” to include milder and milder transgressions, long after serious crimes have become rare. As a result, they may never fully appreciate their success in helping to reduce the problem they are worried about. From medical diagnoses to financial investments, modern humans have to make many complicated judgments where being consistent matters.

How can people make more consistent decisions when necessary? My research group is currently doing follow-up research in the lab to develop more effective interventions to help counter the strange consequences of relative judgment.

One potential strategy: When you’re making decisions where consistency is important, define your categories as clearly as you can. So if you do join a neighborhood watch, think about writing down a list of what kinds of transgressions to worry about when you start. Otherwise, before you know it, you may find yourself calling the cops on dogs being walked without leashes.

Pen testing

This is not a blog post about pentesting, or any other kind of software-engineering inspired testing of pens. Nor is it a blog post about the kind of fascination some people have with pens and ink. Instead, this is a blog post about history and psychology.

Recently, JTA asked me what I do when I want to test a pen, and he was surprised with the answer. Before I tell you how I answered, I’ll tell you about what I learned from the conversation. And before that, I’ll tell you about the history of pen testing. And then, finally, I’ll tell you why I think it’s important from a psychological perspective.

Fragment of the Hebban Olla Uogala document, the oldest surviving Probatio Pennae.
The oldest surviving Probatio Pennae, or “pen test”, is of the Old Dutch words “hebban olla uogala”, and is stored in the Bodleian Library.

Historically, the “breaking in” of a new pen was called a probatio pennae, literally “pen test”, and would typically be a few lines of text or a short proverb: something that demonstrated the pen’s ability to write. For the entire mediaeval period, plus several centuries besides, the principle instrument for writing would be the quill pen: the primary wing feathers of a large bird such as a goose, often hardened in hot ashes, stripped of barbs, and cut down to size with an blade whose purpose lends its name to what we now call a “pen knife”. With such a tool, a scribe would want to be sure that the pen could hold an adequate nibful of ink without splashing or spraying, and – despite the high value of paper – it was clearly essential to write a whole sentence or two to be sure.

De Klerk, by Philip van Djik.
De Klerk, by Philip van Djik, contemporaneously shows a scribe cutting the nib of his quill pen.

A modern ballpoint pen has no such issues, but instead introduces some of its own: a plastic-lined inkwell can be gradually penetrated by the air, causing the ink to dry up; the ball can become stuck and will not turn freely; air bubble can develop within the tube (especially if the pen is stored, or worse-still used, the wrong way up); and, of course, the pen can run out of ink. This typically precipitates its disposal: your biro isn’t built to be re-used for anything except perhaps to perform an emergency tracheotomy, and it’s cheap enough that you don’t want to waste your time repairing it. As a result, our pen tests have become fast, designed to determine within a few seconds whether the pen we’ve got is working or, in the case of a stuck ball, can be made to start working with a sufficiency of scribbling. Our culture of disposal can’t spare the time for any more than a cursory test before we give up and grab the next one.

Comic: A customer stands confused, holding a toaster, outside Melvin's Throw-It-Away-And-Buy-A-New-One-Shop (formerly Melvin's Fix-It Shop)
Why keep a pen? Why keep a toaster? Why keep a computer?

So what do we write? What is the probatio pennae of our times? It’s been widely-reported (although I can’t find any decent citations) that, upon being offered a new pen to try out, 97% of people will write their own name. Now that statistic smells fishy to me (no good citations anywhere, and 97% of people use 97% as their “virtually all” number, for made-up statistics), but I’ve been testing the hypothesis among friends these last few days, and I’ve gathered enough evidence to convince me that it’s probably the case that many or most people will write their own name to test a pen.

Signing a cheque.
That’s not so surprising: in this computerised age, most times we’re given a pen it’s to sign our name. About 97% of the time, anyway. ;-)

Somebody had presumably asked JTA what he wrote, earlier in the day, because he took the time to tell me that when he tests a new pen, he typically writes the word “hello”.

Now I find that pretty weird. Maybe it’s the software engineer in me, but to me the mark of a good test is that it covers all of the possible cases, in the minimal possible effort. Writing your name is easy because it’s managed by what is popularly-called “muscle memory”: a second-season episode of Castle (correctly) used this as a plot point, when a man suffering from retrograde amnesia was unable to remember his name, but was still able to sign his name because the act of signing it had been rendered, by years of practice, into his procedural memory, which was unaffected by his condition. But writing a word, like “hello”… requires a comprehension of language. Unless he’s tested enough pens to have built a procedural memory of writing “hello” to test pens, JTA’s test has a greater number of neural dependencies, which – with apologies to those of you who aren’t interested in automated software testing – produces what we’d call an unnecessarily “brittle” test.

Animation of a hand using a pen to write a name, "hello", and a scribble.
A demonstration of a handful of ways in which people test pens, in Animated GIF format.

Me? I just scribble, which my quick survey (and several comparable ones online) show to be probably the second-most popular action to test a pen. Scribbling, to me, simply seems like the minimal test path: the single simplest thing that can be done with a pen that will demonstrate that it’s fit for purpose. I don’t need to test that a new pen can write words, because – to me – writing words in particular is not a function of the pen, but a function of my brain! To me, the pen’s function is simply one of transferring ink to the paper, and any semantic meaning coming from the ink is a product of my intellect, not of the writing implement.

So why is this important? Well: I have a half-baked hypothesis that the choice of what to write with a new pen might be linked to other aspects of our psychology. When I’m developing a new template for a website, for example, I use lorem ipsum text and dummy placeholder images as filler (just occasionally, I’ll use kittens, because kittens are adorable). That’s because the absence of meaning to the words that appear (I don’t read Latin, and even if I did, lorem ipsum is frequently mangled) has no bearing on my comprehension of the design: and, in fact, it can sometimes be a benefit to be deprived of the distraction of legible content.

A kitten by a mirror.
At last, a legitimate use in an otherwise un-kitten-related blog post to use a PlaceKitten.com image!

But I’d hypothesise that people who write words as a probatio pennae would be less-comfortable with illegible placeholder-text in a design than those who drew scribbles or signed their name. I have a notion, from my own experience, that the same parts of the brain that is responsible for judging the quality of a writing implement are used in the judgement of a piece of design work. Hey: maybe if that’s true, graphic designers should have their clients test pens out, in their presence, before they decide whether to use believable filler or lorem ipsum text in the designs they’d like approved.

Or maybe I’m way off base. What do you write when you test a pen?

Edinburgh 2012 – Day Five

After our attempt at a relaxing day off, which resulted in us getting pretty-much soaked and exhausted, we returned on day five of our holiday to the comedy scene for more fun and laughter.

Ruth, JTA, Matt and Hannah-Mae outside the Canons' Gait.
Ruth, JTA, Matt and Hannah-Mae outside the Canons’ Gait. Do I win a prize for being the first Abnibber to publish a photo of Matt’s new girlfriend?

After failing to get into Richard Wiseman‘s Psychobabble, which attracted a huge queue long before we got to the venue, Ruth, JTA and I instead went to RomComCon: a two-woman show telling the story of how they road-tested all of the top romantic comedy “boy meets girl” cliché situations, to see if they actually worked in real life. It was sweet, even where it wasn’t funny, and it was confidently-performed, even where it wasn’t perfectly-scripted. The mixture of media (slides, video, audience participation, and good old-fashioned storytelling) was refreshing enough to help me overlook the sometimes-stilted jumps in dialogue. I’ll admit: I cried a little, but then I sometimes do that during actual RomComs, too. Although I did have to say “Well d’uh!” when the conclusion of the presentation was that to get into a great relationship, you have to be open and honest and willing to experiment and not to give up hope that you’ll find one. You know: the kinds of things I’ve been saying for years.

Ruth & JTA in the Voodoo Rooms, waiting for Owen Niblock's "Codemaker" to start.
Ruth & JTA in the Voodoo Rooms, waiting for Owen Niblock’s “Codemaker” to start.

We met up with Matt and his new girlfriend, Hannah-Mae, who turns out to be a lovely, friendly, and dryly-sarcastic young woman who makes a wonderful match for our Matt. Then, after a drink together, parted ways to see different shows; promising to meet up again later in the day.

"Codemaker" Owen Niblock presents Google Image Search pictures that come up when the search engine is presented with a picture of his wife.
“Codemaker” Owen Niblock presents Google Image Search pictures that come up when the search engine is presented with a picture of his wife. The audience member who’s half-standing didn’t laugh throughout the entire performance: this might not have been the right show for him.

We watched Owen Niblock‘s Codemaker, and were pleased to discover that it was everything that Computer Programmer Extraordinaire (which we saw on day two) failed to be. Codemaker was genuinely geeky (Owen would put up code segments and then explain why they were interesting), funny (everything from the five-months-a-year beard story to his relationship Service Level Agreement with his wife was fabulously-crafted), and moving. In some ways I’m sad that he isn’t attracting a larger audience – we three represented about a quarter to a fifth of those in attendance, at the end – but on the other hand, his computer-centric humour (full of graphs and pictures of old computers) is rather niche and perhaps wouldn’t appeal to the mainstream. Highly recommended to the geeks among you, though!

Ruth discovers a police box and is inordinately excited.
Ruth discovers a police box on the way back to the flat and is inordinately excited. Apparently she’d somehow managed to never see one before.

Back at the flat, we drank gin and played Ca$h ‘n’ Gun$ with Matt and Hannah-Mae. JTA won three consecutive games, the jammy sod, despite the efforts of the rest of us (Matt or I with a hand grenade, Ruth or I as The Kid, or even Hannah-Mae once she had a gun in each hand), and all the way along every single time insisted that he was losing. Sneaky bugger.

Hannah-Mae, Matt, JTA and I with Richard Wiseman.
Hannah-Mae, Matt, JTA and I with Richard Wiseman. JTA was aware that a photo was going to be taken at some point, but was distracted by talking to another comedian, off-camera.

We all reconvened at the afternoon repeat of Richard Wiseman’s show, where he demonstrated (in a very fun and engaging way) a series of psychological, mathematical, and slight-of-hand tricks behind the “mind-reading” and illusion effects used by various professional entertainers. I’ve clearly studied this stuff far too much, because I didn’t end up learning anything new, but I did enjoy his patter and the way he makes his material interesting, and it’s well-worth a look. Later, Ruth and I would try to develop a mathematical formula for the smallest possible sum totals possible for integer magic squares of a given order (Wiseman’s final trick involved the high-speed construction of a perfect magic square to a sum total provided by a member of the audience: a simple problem: if anybody wants me to demonstrate how it’s done, it’s quite fun).

Thom Tuck wants to be where the people are. He wants to see... wants to see them, dancing.
Thom Tuck wants to be where the people are. He wants to see… wants to see them, dancing. Walking around on those… what’s what word again? Seriously: what’s that word again?

Finally, we all went to see Thom Tuck again. Matt, JTA and I had seen him earlier in the week, but we’d insisted that Hannah-Mae and Ruth get the chance to see his fantastic show, too (as well as giving ourselves an excuse to see it again ourselves, of course). He wasn’t quite so impressive the second time around, but it was great to see that his knowledge of straight-to-DVD Disney movies really is just-about as encyclopaedic as he claims, when we gave us new material we hadn’t heard on his previous show (and omitted some that we had), as well as adapting to suggestions of films shouted out by the audience. Straight-To-DVD remains for me a chilling and hilarious show and perhaps the most-enjoyable thing I’ve ever seen on the Fringe.

Ageism, Nightline, and Counselling

As a trainee counsellor, I’ve had plenty of opportunity of late for self-analysis and reflection. Sometimes revelations come at unexpected times, as I discovered recently.

A counselling session in progress.
A counselling session in progress.

I was playing the part of a client in a role-play scenario for another student on my course when I was struck by a realisation that I didn’t feel that my “counsellor” was able to provide an effective and empathetic response to the particular situations I was describing. It didn’t take me long to spot that the reason I felt this way was her age. Probably the youngest in our class – of whose span of ages I probably sit firmly in the middle – her technical skill is perfectly good, and she’s clearly an intelligent and emotionally-smart young woman… but somehow, I didn’t feel like she would be able to effectively support me.

And this turned out to be somewhat true: the session ended somewhat-satisfactorily, but there were clear moments during which I didn’t feel that a rapport had been established. Afterwards, I found myself wondering: how much of this result was caused by her approach to listening to me… and how much was caused by my perception of how she would approach listening to me? Of the barriers that lay between us, which had I erected?

Since then, I’ve spent a little time trying to get to the bottom of this observation about myself, asking: from where does my assumption stem that age can always be associated with an empathic response? A few obvious answers stand out: for a start, there’s the fact that there probably is such a trend, in general (although it’s still unfair to make the outright assumption that it will apply in any particular case, especially with somebody whose training should counteract that trend). Furthermore, there’s the assumption that one’s own experience is representative: I know very well that at 18 years old, my personal empathic response was very weak, and so there’s the risk that I project that onto other young adults.

However, the most-interesting source for this prejudice, that I’ve found, has been Nightline training.

The Nightline Association
The Nightline Association, umbrella body representing student Nightlines around the UK and overseas

Many years ago, I was a volunteer at Aberystwyth Nightline. I worked there for quite a while, and even after I’d graduated and moved on, I would periodically go back to help out with training sessions, imparting some of what I’d learned to a new generation of student listeners.

As I did this, a strange phenomenon began to occur: every time I went back, the trainees got younger and younger. Now of course this isn’t true – it’s just that I was older each time – but it was a convincing illusion. A second thing happened, too: every time I went back, the natural aptitude of the trainees, for the work, seemed to be less fine-tuned than it had the time before. Again, this was just a convincing illusion: through my ongoing personal development and my work with Samaritans, Oxford Friend, and others, I was always learning new skills to apply to helping relationships, but each new batch of trainees was just getting off to a fresh start.

This combination of illusions is partly responsible for the idea, in my mind, that “younger = less good a listener”: for many years, I’ve kept seeing people who are younger and younger (actually just younger than me, by more) and who have had less and less listening experience (actually just less experience relative to me, increasingly). It’s completely false, but it’s the kind of illusion that nibbles at the corners of your brain, if you’ll let it.

Practicing good self-awareness helps counsellors to find the sources of their own prejudices and challenge them. But it’s not always easy, and sometimes the realisations come when you least expect them.

The Course, Of Course

I mentioned back in October that I’ve returned to education and am now studying counselling, part-time. I thought I’d share with you an update on how that’s going.

The classroom at Aylesbury College where the practical parts (and some of the theory) of my course are taught.

The short answer: it’s going well.

I’m finding myself challenged in fun and new ways, despite my volunteering experience, which has included no small amount of work on emotional support helplines of one kind of another. For example, we’ve on two occasions now done role-play sessions in which the “helper” (the person acting in the role of a counsellor) has been required to not ask any questions to the “helpee” (their client). Depending on your theoretical orientation and your background, that’s either a moderately challenging or a very challenging thing – sort of like the opposite of a game of Questions, but with the added challenge that you’re trying to pay attention to what the other participant is actually saying, rather than thinking “Don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question; don’t ask a question…” the whole damn time.

It’s an enjoyable exercise, and works really well to help focus on sometimes-underused skills like paraphrasing and summarising, as well as of course giving you plenty of opportunity to simply listen, attend to the helpee, and practice your empathic response. The first time I did it I was noticed (by my observer) to be visibly uncomfortable, almost “itching to ask something”, but by the second occasion, I’d cracked it. It’s like climbing with one arm tied behind your back! But as you’d expect of such an exercise, it leaves you with far more care, and control… and one enormous muscular arm!

Amidst all of the “fluffy” assessment, I was pleased this semester to be able to cut my teeth on some theoretical stuff, as a break. The practical side is good, but I do enjoy the chance to get deep into some theory once in a while, and my reading list has spiraled out of control as each thing I read leads me to find two other titles that I’d probably enjoy getting into next. I’ve recently been reading Living with ‘The Gloria Films’: A Daughter’s Memory, by Pamela J Burry, whose existence in itself takes a little explanation:

Gloria with Carl Rogers, from the film "Three Approaches to Psychotherapy"

In 1964, three psychotherapists walked into a bar. They were Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls. They had a few drinks, and then they had an argument about whose approach to psychotherapy was the best.

“I respect you both deeply,” began Perls, “But surely it is clear to see that your rejection of Gestalt therapy is rooted in your attempts to pretend to be accepting of it. It is clearly the superior approach.”

“You don’t need to get emotional over this,” said Ellis, “Let’s just go back and find the event that first inspired your prejudice against my rational emotive therapy, and re-examine it: there should be no doubt that it is the best way to treat disorders.”

“It feels like you’re being quite cold to one another,” said Rogers, father of the humanistic approach, after a moment’s pause. “I wonder what we could do to explore this disagreement that we’re having… and perhaps come to an answer that feels right to us all?”

And so the three agreed to a test: they would find a subject who was willing to undergo a single therapy session from all three of them, and then it’d be clear who was the winner. They’d film the whole thing, to make sure that there could be no denying the relative successes of each approach. And the losers would each pay for all of the winner’s drinks the next time they went out to the Rat And Bang, their local pub.

Albert Ellis wraps up at the end of his section of "Three Approaches to Psychotherapy".

Now that story is complete bullshit, but it’s far more-amusing than any true explanation as to why these three leading counsellors were filmed, each in turn, talking to a client by the name of Gloria – a 30-year-old divorced mother of three concerned with being a good parent and how she presents herself to men. I’ll leave you to find and watch the films for yourself if you want: they’re all available on video sharing sites around the web, and I’d particularly recommend Carl Rogers’ videos if you’re looking for something that almost everybody will find quite watchable.

Gloria died fifteen years later, but her daughter “Pammy” (whose question about sex, when she was nine years old, gave so much material to Gloria’s session with Carl Rogers) wrote a biography of their lives together, which was published in 2008. The focus of “The Gloria Films” was on the therapeutic methodologies of the practitioners, of course. But Gloria herself was intelligent and compelling, and I was genuinely interested to get “the rest of the story” after she left that film studio (made up to look like a psychotherapist’s office) and got on with her life.

Hence the book.

And so hence, my example of how I keep reading (or in this case watching) things, which  lead me to find more things to read, which in turn give me yet more things to read.

And now you’re up-to-date.

Toggling

The other morning, I did a strange thing. I got up as normal and had my breakfast. I made myself a packed lunch, just like always. I went outside to begin my cycle to work, but when I got to my bike, in the back garden of New Earth: instead of unlocking it and riding to work, I locked it up.

Then, I had to unlock it again so that I could ride it.

Why did this happen? It happened because my brain has clearly made the association that my daily routine includes “toggling my bike lock” as part of it’s actions, rather than “unlocking my bike lock”. It’s become ingrained that I have to “change the state” of my bike lock (from locked to unlocked, or vice-versa) before I can go to work… so when I forgot to lock my bike up the previous night, it threw off my morning as I began the day by locking it up, rather than unlocking it.

A Kryptonite New York lock, like the one I use. It weighs about a ton but it's pretty-much bombproof.

Back when I had my concussion last May, I did a similar thing, swapping the contents of two cupboards that we’d already swapped. I couldn’t remember why they were being exchanged, just that they were, so I swapped them over.

It’d be nice to think that I only engage in this kind of “toggling” behaviour when I’m sleepy, perhaps, or when I’ve suffered a head injury. But sadly, that turns out not to be the case:

Over the River Thames near Friar’s Wharf, there’s a footbridge that forms a part of the National Cycle Network. It’s part of my usual ride to work. A few months ago, I spent my workday running training sessions in an office on the other side of the river, and so I didn’t need to cross it to get home. But when I was cycling home, along the towpath, and reached the bridge, I started to cross it! I got half-way over before I realised that I was now heading exactly the wrong way and turned back. Again: my brain clearly has a short-circuit there, in that when I come to that bridge during a journey, I feel that I need to cross it. What’s the deal, brain?

This phenomenon seems to be related to muscle memory and the so-called “driving trance”: the same thing that traps you when you plan to run an errand on your way somewhere and somehow reach the other end of your journey having completely forgotten to run the errand. “I walked right past the post box with the letter in my hand! Why would I do that?”

I wonder how others experience “toggling”. Do you “toggle” things when you’re on autopilot?

Ask for What You Want

Something I’ve been thinking about, recently; presented in three parts, for clarity:

Part One – Polyamory and Negotiations

There’s a widely-understood guideline in nonmonogamous relationships that you should always be willing to ask for what you want, not what you think you can get away with. To me, it feels to be a particularly valuable maxim. Like the majority of suggestions touted by the polyamorous community, it’s a tip that holds value for both monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships… but is naturally of more importance to those which are nonmonogamous because these have a tendency to depend more-heavily on honest and open negotiation.

I’m sure I don’t have to spell out to you why asking for what you want (rather than what you think you can get away with) is important. But just in case I do, here’s the three top reasons, as far as I see it:

  1. When you ask for what you want, there’s a chance that you’ll get it. When you ask for anything else, getting what you want is a lucky coincidence. Don’t you want the chance of getting what you want?
  2. Being honest about what you want and how important it is to you – and listening to what’s your partners want and how important those things are to them – you’re in the best possible position to come to the fairest possible compromise, if the things that you want are not completely compatible. Don’t you want the best for you, your partner(s), and your relationship(s)?
  3. Being open about what you’re looking for is an important part of being honest. Don’t you want to be honest with your lover?
Polyamory networks can grow quite large, and the management of this requires honest, open communication even more than a monogamous relationship does.

There are times that it’s okay not to ask for what you want, too, though. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure what you want; and it’s fine to say you need time to think about it. Sometimes we change our minds (shocking, I know!), and it’s more-admirable to be honest than consistent. Sometimes there are more important things to deal with. There’s no rush.
But it works. The more specific you can be – even to the point of “too much information” – the better this kind of communication can work, because the better your partner understands you, the better you both can negotiate. As ‘dirty surface’ writes“I’d like to get my butt caned by a professional Dom while you watch once every six months or so” represents a very different commitment of time, money and emotional energy than what someone might picture when you say “Let’s hire and share a sex worker regularly.”

Part Two – The Anchoring Effect

There’s a known psychological phenomenon called the anchoring effect. In order to demonstrate it, I’m going to plagiarise an example used in this article – if you want to see the effect in action; don’t click that link yet! Just follow the instructions below:

Venezuela
  • Now: without checking – do you think that Venezuela has a higher or a lower population than that country?
  • Finally, in millions, what do you estimate that the population of Venezuela is?

You’ll get the answer a little further down the page. But first, it’s time to come clean about something: when you clicked that link to WolframAlpha, you’ll have gone to one of two different pages. There’s a 50% chance that you’ll have found yourself looking at the population data of the United Kingdom (about 62 million), and a 50% chance that you’ll have found yourself looking at the population data of Switzerland (about 7½ million).

If you originally saw the United Kingdom and you guessed lower, or you originally saw Switzerland and guessed higher, you were right: the population of Venezuela is somewhere between the two. But if we took all of the guesses by all of the people who correctly guessed lower than the United Kingdom, and all the people who correctly guessed higher than Switzerland, then – statistically speaking – we’d probably see that the people who looked at the United Kingdom first would make higher guesses as to the population of Venezuela than those people who looked at Switzerland first.

The population of Venezuela’s about 29 million people. What did you guess? And what country were you shown first, when you clicked the link? Leave me a comment and let me know…

The anchoring effect is explored in detail by Ariely, Loewenstein, and Prelec 2004, in which studies are performed on groups of people who are told a (randomly-determined) price for some goods, and then asked to state how much they’d be willing to pay for them: those people who are given higher random values will consistently offer more money for the goods than those who were told a lower value.

It’s not a new idea. For hundreds of years, at least, salespeople have practiced the not-dissimilar door-in-the-face technique (sort-of the opposite of the more well-known foot-in-the-door technique), in which an unsatisfactory offer is made first in order to make the second offer – which is actually what the salesperson wants to sell – seem more desirable than it actually is.

Part Three – Hey, But That Means…

Taking the two previous parts of this article at face value can quickly lead to an unwelcome conclusion: we’re more likely to get what we want when we ask for more than what we want – and then back down to a false compromise position. A greedy but carefully-deployed “salesman” approach has been shown to work wonders when you’re negotiating for a pay rise, selling a product, motivating volunteers, or getting people to under- or over-estimate the value of goods and services. Surely it’d work when negotiating in a relationship, too?

“Hey, honey: it’d really mean a lot to me if I could could have a threesome with you and your mother…”

“What? No way! That’s disgusting.”

“Okay, okay, then… I suppose I could make do with having sex with your sister.”

Despite the extremity of the example above, the answer is that for the individual, this strategy can work: I’ve known people who’ve fallen victim to exactly this kind of con. Worse yet, I suspect that there are perpetrators of this kind of strategy who don’t even realise that they’re doing it: they’re just responding in the Pavlovian style to the “rewards” that they’re getting by continuing to act in what it – let’s face it – an unscrupulous and unethical manner.

Does it work, then? Yes, more’s the pity. But everything it gets for you is something that it’s taking away from your partner, or from your relationship. And maybe that’s the kind of strain that the relationship can take, but there are always limits.

Me? I’ll stick to what I believe in: so far as I can, putting my hand on the table and saying, “Here’s what I’m playing with: what’ve you got?” It’s a trusting and diplomatic strategy, but it’s the best solution to finding the best middle-ground for everyone. There are those who find that it makes them feel too vulnerable – at too much risk of their openness being used against them – to try to say what they want so openly. And to them, I say: if you don’t trust your lover with the way that you feel, then working on that trust that should be your first priority.

Now get on with loving one another, y’all!

Economnomnomics

Here’s an idea: what if bills came with a sweet treat, like a lollipop or something. Or perhaps if the bill itself was printed on editle paper, like ricepaper, using a food dye-based ink. Aside from the improved biodegradability of the paper, it’d also make you look forward to opening your bills and nibbling at them. Better yet, it’d encourage you to pay them, because then you wouldn’t need the paper copy any more and could eat them.

It’d certainly make large bills easier to swallow, anyway.

Psychologically speaking, it’d play upon the Reciprocity Norm, an observed phenomenon in which people who are given something are more likely to give something in return: when charities give you a free pen in the envelope they send you, or when Hari Krishnas give you a flower at an airport “as a gift” and then ask for a donation, they’re playing upon this principle. Would sucking on candy delivered to you as a “gift” from your electricity company make you feel guilty for putting off paying the bill for a few days longer than you should?

Talking About Suicide – A Revelation

“Asking about suicidal feelings cannot ‘put the idea into a caller’s head.'” If you’ve ever worked in a listening organisation that will openly talk about suicidal feelings, like a branch of Samaritans or a university Nightline, you’re likely to have heard this said. In virtually every training group to which talking about suicide is first mentioned, a trainee will ask “But if they’re not actively suicidal, might mentioning it give them it as an idea?” And the answer is no.

This is an important part of the work of these – and similar – organisations. While their manifesto may already state that they are there to talk about whatever feelings are on the mind of their caller, it’s still seen as necessary, sometimes, to remind the caller that yes, it’s really okay to talk about anything at all… even about ending their own life. Showing that it’s okay can open the door to really exploring the caller’s feelings and can make all the difference to somebody in a state of suicidal despair.

What I’d like to share with you is the evolution of a certain subset thoughts about suicide.

Talking About Suicide – A Revelation
(or How I Proved Myself Wrong Twice But Still Got The Right Answer)

Up to as recently as five or six years ago I was of the opinion that certain anti-suicide measures were pointless. I’m talking about building anti-suicide fences on bridges (like the Memorial Bridge in Maine), the installation of platform-edge doors on London’s Jubilee Line (mentioned in this article and shown in this video), and the restriction of the number of analgesics like paracetamol and aspirin that can be bought in one transaction, since 1998. I could not understand that this could possibly work. Suicide is almost invariably a pre-meditated act, and so access is removed to one means of doing away with oneself, you’ll simply use another – and there’s no shortage of ways to take your life.

Then, one day, I discovered that it doesn’t necessarily work like that.

Anti-suicide fences can be statistically proven to reduce not only the frequency of suicides at the site at which they are installed, but throughout the region – if suicide were, as I had believed, unaffected by availability of any one particular means of committing the act – then I would anticipate that a comparable, perhaps only slightly fewer, number of suicides would take place. Switching coal gas to natural gas in Britain in the 1960s was linked to a reduction in suicides on the whole (Kreitman, 1976), and only a smaller increase in suicide rates by other means. Similar studies in the US have shown that reducing the availability of firearms reduces suicide rates more than would be expected if the “saved” would simply switch to a different method.

So it turned out I was wrong. Reducing the availability of means of suicide really can have an impact on suicide rates, as if suicide really were a spontaneous thing (“I’m feeling so low… I could just – hey, look, a rope just hanging there; that’s convenient – well, go on then…”). But those who commit suicide often seem to have planned the act for some time before. Some have been known to have repeatedly visited what would eventually become the site of their death for months or even years before eventually taking their lives. Those who throw themselves under trains sometimes keep visiting their station of choice – unnoticed by staff as they mingle in with the commuter crowd – in order to determine where trains travel the fastest and which trains don’t stop at all. This fact has since been used to provide training to station staff in spotting these people in advance – another suicide prevention strategy.

What does this mean for talking to callers about suicide? When I learnt about these kinds of studies, I started to question what I “knew.” After all, if it’s true that passing a particularly high bridge can be sufficient to push a suicidally depressed person over the edge, so to speak, how could I possibly argue that it wasn’t the case that encouraging that same person to talk about their suicidal feelings would have the same effect. After all, aren’t both the same thing: making suicide seem like an acceptable option by making it more approachable – physically, in the case of the bridge, and more mentally paletable in the case of a caring ear who does not disapprove of your right to terminate your own life. This caused me a significant amount of cognitive dissonance (thanks, Changing Minds!) and I had to put a hold on my volunteer work in this area while I resolved it. As I put it at the time, I had “lost my faith” in the process I promoted.

And that could have been the end of the story. But I’m not a fan of unanswered questions in my mind, and I put a great deal of thought into suicide prevention and into talking about suicide.

Eventually I was able to resolve it. For a while, this resolution was simply based on “what felt right”: I came to the conclusion that seeing a bridge and talking about suicidal thoughts and feeling are actually quite distinct: the former is about the means to perform the action, whereas the latter is about the space to express the feeling. This was enough to put me back on track and, ultimately, make me far more comfortable. Later, I came across psychological studies that backed up that belief, like those referenced by the impressively-titled Scientific Foundations of Cognitive Theory and Therapy of Depression, by David A. Clak, Aaron Beck, and Brad A. Alford.

But for a while there, I wondered.

Further Reading

If I haven’t made you do so already, take a look at chapter 4 of Influence: Science and Practice, by Robert B. Cialdini, which I reviewed some time ago. I’m currently reading The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell. Both of these books go into great deal about social proof and contagion and how what happens around us can have a huge effect on how we behave as a society, even leading to streaks of suicide or violent crime. For serious psychology in an easy-to-read and enjoyable format, I thoroughly recommend the Changing Minds website. And if you’re still interested, follow some of my links, above – many of them, combined with a little Google-fu or Wikipedia-surfing, are great starting points for further research.

Avatar Diary

Maths in the morning. How is it that the first lesson in a new module always makes so much more sense than any other one? Went home for lunch in my three-hour break, returning for Psychology. Watched a video on “Eyewitness Testimony”. We’ve seen the same one three times now. Alecia took the second half of the lesson to preach to us – usally the kind of activity for Monday’s Psychology lessons – and persuaded Richard and me to come with her to church on Sunday. Promised I’d go, and I think I’ve persuaded Rik too, as well (even though he let her down on the Carol Service). “You can’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it,” I told him, with my usual democratic tact.
Couldn’t sleep again tonight – same as last night – watched TV until about 4:30am…