February 22, 2009

Daniel Gilbert on TED

Harvard Social psychologist, Daniel Gilbert, recently had a talk posted on TED, though it looks like the talk was originally given in 2005.

It's good though. Gilbert is widely known for his research on happiness. What makes us happy? Can we predict future happiness? How do traumatic events effect our long-term happiness? And such.

Though related to his happiness research, this talk centered on general decision making (and specifically, erroneous economic decisions that we make). Basically, the gist of the talk is that people are notoriously bad in money matters because of two cognitive biases. The first causes us to make erroneous judgments in estimating the odds of a potential gain. The second causes us to make erroneous estimates in the positive value of the potential gain.

His reasoning for why we have these cognitive biases goes back to us being evolved creatures. Firstly, we evolved in environments that rarely changed. We lived in small groups, had short lives and had to make relatively few choices. Instead our ancestors focused on the here and now. In his words: "the highest priority was to eat and mate today."

Well, anyways, check out the video. It's good, and there's a Q&A section at the end.

Check it out:

February 21, 2009


This week’s readings were on the topic of “using the self.” Particularly, how do we evaluate ourselves, in what contexts, and the readings even examined self-fulfilling prophecies. When we make self-evaluations, do we search for accurate information? Or do we focus on what makes us feel better about ourselves?

Much of what I read pitted the self-enhancement perspective against the self-verification perspective. Self-enhancement is when a person focuses on positive central traits over negative ones. Self-verification, on the other hand, refers to preferring accurate information about the self, whether positive or negative. Essentially, it seems that people self-enhance more than they self-verify. For instance, we prefer accurate information about positive traits of ours over negative ones. We are also more likely to disconfirm negative traits that are central to our identity as opposed to those that are more peripheral. As well, we think our faces are more attractive than they actually are. And we would be quicker to pick out our face when morphed with an attractive face than when viewing our original face, or our face morphed with an unattractive face.

These self-enhancements that we make seem to be more related to implicit, unconscious processes (e.g., gut feelings) than more explicit, direct processes. As well, these self-enhancements are related to social comparison and self-perception processes. When people view us as more positive for a certain trait, we view ourselves as positive on the trait. And when we view others that are positive on a trait, we again self-enhance. Connecting themes, this idea goes back to the previous literature that we have read throughout the past couple weeks. Specifically, our self-concept is a story that our unconscious makes up about ourselves, and it may not be a true story. It’s hard to access accurate information about ourselves. Not much of our self can come from introspection and deliberation. Instead, it’s a story and we use that story to feel better about ourselves and to get along better with group members.

Here are some citations for further reading:

Epley, N., & Whitchurch, E. (2008). Mirror, mirror on the wall: Enhancement in self-recognition. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1159-1170.

Kwan, V. S. Y., John, O. P., Kenny, D. A., Bond, M. H., & Robins, R. W. (2004). Reconceptualizing individual differences in self-enhancement bias: An interpersonal approach. Psychological Review, 111, 94-111.

Sedikides, C. (1993). Assessment, enhancement, and verification determinants of the self-evaluation process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 317-338.

Swann, W. B., Jr. (1987). Identity negotiation: Where two roads meet. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 1038-1051.

Madon, S., Guyll, M., Buller, A. A., Scherr, Williard, J., & Spoth, R. (2008). The mediation of mothers' self-fulfilling effects on their children's alcohol use: Self-verification, informational conformity, and modeling processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 369-384.

February 16, 2009

Steven Pinker and the Personal Genome Project

As many of you might already know, Steven Pinker (famous Havard psychologist) had his genome sequenced and posted on the internet for the Personal Genome Project.

Pinker wrote an essay about it for the New York Times, but I originally found out about it through edge. It's a pretty good essay. He covers genetic determinism, evolutionary theories for personality differences, and twin research. Genes do play out a large part in our behavior:

"Behavioral genetics has repeatedly found that the 'shared environment' — everything that siblings growing up in the same home have in common, including their parents, their neighborhood, their home, their peer group and their school — has less of an influence on the way they turn out than their genes. In many studies, the shared environment has no measurable influence on the adult at all. Siblings reared together end up no more similar than siblings reared apart, and adoptive siblings reared in the same family end up not similar at all. A large chunk of the variation among people in intelligence and personality is not predictable from any obvious feature of the world of their childhood."
But that doesn't mean that genes decide everything. You can make predictions based off genes that are flat out wrong (for instance, Pinker appears to have a gene that gives him an 80% chance of baldness). Much of it is probability, not only do you have to account for genes and the enivironment (i.e., nature vs. nuture), but you also have to account for how your genes interact with each other. Pretty cool stuff though.

Pinker went on the Colbert Report to talk about his genome sequencing experience as well. It's pretty funny, as can be expected. Check it out:

February 15, 2009


This week’s “self” readings dealt with the idea of “self-concept.” Particularly, these readings covered the issues of how we discover/obtain our self-concept, and whether it is malleable to change. Before starting the readings, I was already suspicious of self-concept. This suspicion arose from the 2nd week readings on self-knowledge. As we learned last time, we aren’t very good at knowing ourselves (e.g., what motivates us, what predictions can we make about our future behavior, etc.). To me, before the readings, the idea of self-concept seemed to come from our self-knowledge. If we aren’t good at knowing ourselves, then how would we be good at discovering a stable self-concept? To tell the truth, I’m still not confident in the idea of self-concept after reading this week’s articles.

That’s not to say that self-concept is a bad thing though. Firstly, the mechanism behind self-concept seems to be a powerful encoding device. Our ability to recall information is greatly enhanced if that information is related to us (i.e., encoded through the self-concept). For instance, if I were presented with a list of words, I would likely remember those words that I felt described myself (e.g., Caucasian, music, happy, knowledge, etc.) than others (e.g., blonde, chair, suit, etc.). As mentioned last week, there is a lot of information out there in the “real world,” and much of it is processed by an adaptive unconscious. Perhaps this encoding ability of the self developed as a way for us to remember and act on important information.

Additionally, parts of the “self” are good at protecting us from the stresses of daily life. When we encounter stressful events, our self-concepts change, and this change has less to do with mood and more to do with the objective experience of the stress. We seem to describe ourselves with more negative attributes under stress than not. Yet components of the self help us cope with these events. Under stress, we rate our negative attributes as less important, we compartmentalize more so that we can focus on the positive, and we view ourselves as more complex. If we view ourselves as more complex, then we might have more positive attributes to focus on and activation of negative attributes won’t be needed.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the self-concept to me is what Goldstein and Cialdini call the “spy-glass self.” According to self-perception theory, we infer our self-attributes by observing the actions we carry out. Well, they go a step further. They posit, and found evidence, that when we identify with another person, we are likely to incorporate his/her attributes into our self-concept after observing this person’s behavior. So after participants are told that they have similar brain wave patterns as another person, and this other person is observed being helpful, then those participants will also be more helpful. I think this is particularly interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it goes back to the idea that self-knowledge is really just a story that we make up for ourselves, of the person that we think we are. But secondly, it reminds me of the Social Cognitive Interface view of self from Kurzban and Aktipis. According to this view, the self is a set of mechanisms that helps us negotiate the social world (e.g., helps us attain cooperation, acceptance, mates, etc.). It would then make sense that we would gain aspects of our self-knowledge by observing other people. It’s a widely known effect that we like things that are similar to us. If I incorporated attributes of another person into my self-concept, then perhaps I’ll increase my chances of acceptance, because I am now more similar to this person. I don’t know, it’s pretty cool though.


Goldstein, N. J., & Cialdini, R. B. (2007). The spyglass self: A model of vicarious self-perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 402-417.

Hur, Y-M., McGue, M., & Iacono, W. G. (1998). The structure of self-concept in female pre-adolescent twins: A behavioral genetic approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1069-1077.

Rogers, T. B., Kuipers, N. A., & Kirker, W. S. (1977). Self-reference and the encoding of personal information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 677-688.

Showers, C. J., Abramson, L. Y., & Hogan, M. E. (1998). The dynamic self: How the content and structure of the self-concept change with mood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 478-493.

Turner, R. H. (1976). The real self: From institution to impulse. American Journal of Sociology, 81, 989-1016.

February 12, 2009

Happy Darwin Day!

Happy Darwin Day to everyone! The big 200th! Happy birthday Charlie!

February 1, 2009

Self-Knowledge . . . ?

This past week’s readings on the self dealt with the topic of “self-knowledge.” Do we have self-knowledge? Are we aware of what motivates or influences us? More specifically, the papers were investigations into how well we can recognize, predict, and explain our own behaviors. And, apparently, the general conclusion is that we are not very good at it at all.

Firstly, we often overestimate our performances in most domains. In general, we think we are better than average, while everyone else is at or lower than average. As well, we overestimate how much group successes are due to our individual effort, whereas we underestimate how much we contribute to group failures. We even overestimate predictions of our own future behaviors, compared to our predictions of the future behavior of random people. For instance, we might think that we are more likely to vote in future elections than a random person that we haven’t met before. Such errors in estimation are often due to cognitive biases that make us rely on self-assessments, while ignoring population base rates. As per the voting example, perhaps we know that we’ve voted before, and through that self-assessment we think that we’ll be more likely to vote again compared to a random person. Yet we ignore the fact that there’s always a significant proportion of the population that doesn’t vote in a given election. So, in other words, we’re very ego-centric! We aren’t very good about thinking of ourselves in statistical terms. Yet, we seem to be more accurate in making judgments of others. Why is this? Is it because we are unconsciously self-enhancing? Are we trying to heighten our self-esteem?

Anthony Greenwald calls these biases, the “totalitarian ego.” The totalitarian ego is comprised of three major cognitive biases that serve to preserve order in “intrapsychic” organization. Beneffectance is the tendency to take credit for success while denying responsibility for failure. Cognitive conservatism is the tendency to preserve existing knowledge structures (e.g., memories, schemata, etc.). And egocentricity is the over-perception of the self as influencer of events beyond realistic control, as well as the over-perception of the self as the targets of other’s actions (e.g., paranoia). With these biases, we can rewrite memories to fit the existing cognitive structure. The totalitarian ego makes us unable to accurately report on stimuli that influences our behavior. We even fail to realize a change in our past attitudes to those of our present attitudes when a change does occur. Take the very simplistic example: Suppose that you used to hate chocolate. And then, I started making you eat chocolate, but only after you took a pill that activated some “pleasure center” of the brain. And perhaps I told you that this pill was just a placebo that would have no perceivable effect on your body. Well, you would probably start liking chocolate. Now if I asked you, “why do you like chocolate?,” you’d probably answer that it tasted good. You wouldn’t realize that you were influenced by the pill. So, then I blatantly tell you what the pill did as you ate chocolate. You would likely still fail to acknowledge that the pill had any effect on your chocolate preference. Even more interestingly, you may not even realize that you used to hate eating chocolate in the first place. Weird.

Part of this may be due to those cognitive biases of the totalitarian ego, and then there’s the concept called the “adaptive unconscious.” As Wilson and Dunn explain, much of the processing that goes on in our minds is unconscious and we are simply unable to access this information into conscious processing. So much goes on around us. There is an infinite amount of information out there, and it would be completely exhausting to take it all in and analyze it. So we perceive the stimuli around us through our adaptive unconscious, to help us get around and make quick split decisions. Yet, just because we perceive it, doesn’t mean we can remember it. Only things that enter conscious awareness can enter into our short-term, and eventually long-term, memory.

So that’s essentially the gist of our readings. We have self-knowledge, but only to the point that we might realize the behaviors we are currently doing. But when we’re asked why we are doing them, how good are we at doing them, if we did them before, and will we do them again, we seem to answer with a story that we make up for ourselves, unconsciously, to fit this idea of who we think we are. Fun stuff.

Here are citations of the articles we read, in case you’re interested:

Epley, N., & Dunning, D. (2006). The mixed blessings of self-knowledge in behavioral prediction: Enhanced discrimination but exacerbated bias. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 641-655.

Greenwald, A. G. (1980). The totalitarian ego: Fabrication and revision of personal history. American Psychologist, 35, 603-618.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121-1134.

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-259.

Wilson, T.D., & Dunn, E. (2004). Self-knowledge: Its limits, value, and potential for improvement. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 493-518.