February 4, 2014

Thought (Memetic) Soup: Gonzo Cognition edition

This content is cross-posted to Tumbld Thoughts. This edition of thought (memetic) soup is about "Gonzo Cognition". This includes a proposition of something I am calling resistance behaviors (I), a critical review of the bubble concept in economics (II), and selection of most banal ideologies (III).

I. Resistance behaviors everywhere, but not enough to make sense

Denialism, Fundamentalism, Contrarianism! Why? It seems like a standard enough question, given the current parameters of the culture war. I have proposed something called cultural behavior, which is the individual contributors to a meta-cognitive response to cultural change and alien social phenomena. Here is an example of that focuses on simple resistance to an idea or a trend. For resistance, there are three scales of response (mental, behavioral mechanisms):

* Cognitive Taxis: underlying biases that orient the resistance to some set of ideas. This is similar to the "taxis" (chemotaxis, phototaxis) that can influence so-called lower-level perception. This usually favors in-group cohesion in some way.

* Resistance Behaviors: a decision-making heuristic that is contingent upon cognitive taxis. Resistance is based on cognitive taxis in the absence of agreeable information, then construct a post hoc rationale for doing so. This is particularly useful in cases of high uncertainty.

* Resistance Structures: social structures that are co-opted or coupled based on collective resistance behaviors (e.g. religion and politics, co-option of the economic system). Entire political strategies (e.g. government shutdowns) can be based on grafting of resistance behaviors onto existing social structures, thus creating resistance structures. This also allows for naive theories [1] of events and the world to be formed using abductive reasoning and the "facts" derived from resistive behaviors.

This theoretical framework might also be able to synthesize recent events in the world and scientific findings. Some examples:

* recursive culture wars. The recent Westboro Baptist Church protest of the show "Duck Dynasty" (or, more generally, the rightward trend within the GOP) is but one example. While the Duck Dynasty people are conservative and religious, they are still guilty of not being radically conservative enough, hence the protest. Extreme (and increasingly horrific) denialism such as that associated with Sandy Hook also falls into this category.

* using short-term weather trends as evidence for global climate change. A recent paper [2] suggests that people often use exceeding warm days as evidence for climate change (and vice versa), even though climate change is a longer-term phenomenon. This may be due to recency priming, or to people's inability to synthesize information from delayed outcomes [3].

* political orientation (liberal, conservative) might be shaped by cognitive taxis. Another recent paper [4] suggests that liberal and conservative outlooks are shaped by a tendency to embrace uniqueness and consensus, respectively. Resistance behaviors and structures follow from this, as basic orientations need to be made consistent from the bottom up.

II.  Bubbles are everywhere and nowhere, simultaneously

Bubbles, bubbles, everywhere. Bubbles are the most overused term in modern economic discourse. David Kesterbaum [5] offers interviews with Schiller and Fama (the most recent Economics Nobel winners) on their views. On the one hand, Fama thinks that you cannot predict the onset of bubbles, nor their duration. Thus, bubbles cannot be explained nor predicted. By contrast, Schiller thinks that all bubbles are behavioral phenomena, and as such we can know them when we see them.

Unfortunately, this does not give us much of a working definition. In [6], a working definition is offered as "gains that will come to a precipitous end, price of an asset has risen well above its fundamental or intrinsic value".

Furthermore, the Schiller view is considered to be merely a diagnosis, not a definition, as the mechanisms of rapid price increases are not self-explanatory. The idea of intrinsic or fundamental value comes up a lot in this discussion. The current consensus seems to be that bubbles can be defined as a deviation from fundamental value. Fundamental value itself can be discovered from a collection of variables, and bubbles may result from a misforecast of asset values [7].

But is this an issue of collective behavior in context, or something more context independent? For example, Shiller thinks that social contagion and similar factor drives bubbles outside of the financial domain (such as so-called gluts in labor markets) [6]. But perhaps "bubble" is the wrong concept to use. Then again, perhaps that is exactly what define the "fundamentals" of value.

III. Survival of the most Superficial 

Here is a set of critiques about the "dumbing down" of our culture. Well, not really dumbing down, but sort of a regression to the mean. I'll be the first to admit that this article [8] has the typical rhetorical flaws, but points out why the biggest and smartest ideas are often overlooked in favor of less sophisticated (and less thoughtful) ones.

But is this simply the dominance of anti-intellectualism, or something else? In [9], it is suggested that TED talks represent this tendency even more -- advances in thinking are so often encouraged as 15-minute problem-solving exercises that make us feel good in the end [10]. An emotionally-driven meta-intellectualism if you will. So enjoy, and remember, just because it's "simple" or "common" doesn't make it better.


[1] Larkin, J., McDermott, J., Simon, D.P., and Simon, H.A.   Expert and Novice Performance in Solving Physics Problems. Science, 208, 1335-1342 (1980).

[2] Zaval, L., Keenan, E.A., Johnson, E.J., and Weber, E.U.   How warm days increase belief in global warming. Nature Climate Change, DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2093 (2013).

[3] Spence, A., Poortinga, W., Butler, C., and Pidgeon, N.F.  Perceptions of climate change and willingness to save energy related to flood experience. Nature Climate Change, DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1059 (2011). Bottom image is Figure 1 from this reference.

[4] Stern, C., West, T.V., and Schmitt, P.G.   The Liberal Illusion of Uniqueness. Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797613500796 (2013).

[5] Kesterbaum, D.   What’s a Bubble? Planet Money, NPR, November 15 (2013).

[6] Fox, J.   What's that you're calling a bubble? HBR Blog Network, January 8 (2014).

[7] Garber, P.   Famous first bubbles. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 4(2), 35-54 (1990).

[8] Simic, C.   Age of Ignorance. NY Review of Books blog, March 20 (2012).

[9] Bratton, B.   We need to talk about TED. Guardian, December 30 (2013).

[10] there seem to be strong parallels with the emotional satisfaction factor of religious belief (discussed in [2]) and the "cult of happiness".

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