# Sic Gloria in Transit on Monday

Has it really been so long since there was a post here on the Mule? It would appear so and my only excuse is that I have been busy (isn’t everyone?). Even now, I have not pulled together a post myself but am once again leaning on the contributions of regular author, James Glover.

From pictures of the transit of Mercury you might think that Mercury is really close to the Sun and that is why it is so hot that lead is molten! In actual fact Mercury is about 0.4 Astronomical Units (AUs) from the Sun (Earth is about 1AU) and only receives about a 7 fold increase in sunlight intensity. So it is hot but not that hot. Mercury is about 40 solar diameters from the Sun. If the Sun were a golf ball then Mercury would be about 6 feet away and the Earth about 15 feet away. On Mercury the Sun subtends an arc of 1.4 degrees compared to 0.6 degrees on Earth.

Pictures of the Moon in front of the Earth seem to have the same effect, to me at least, of making it look much closer than it is, whereas in reality the Moon is about 30 Earth diameters away. Roughly the same “size of larger body to distance of smaller one” ratio as Mercury is from the Sun.

This optical effect (modesty prevents me from giving it a name) seems to occur when photographing one astronomical body over another. It can’t be that we are using the relative sizes as a proxy for distance since Mercury/Sun is very small and Moon/Earth is relatively large. Lacking other visual clues, that a terrestrial photograph might provide, my guess is that we use the diameter of the larger body as a proxy for the distance from the smaller one. Mentally substituting  “distance across” for “distance from”. Or maybe it’s just me?

One possible explanation is that there is insufficient information in a 2D photo like this to determine the distance between the objects. But if asked “how far do you think the one in front is from the one behind?” rather than say “I can’t tell”, you choose one of the two pieces of metric information available, or some function of them, such as the average. Perhaps the brain is hardwired to always find an answer, even a wrong one, rather than admit “I don’t know”, “I have no answer” or “I have insufficient information to answer that question, Captain”. That would explain a lot of religion and politics.

# Cognitive dissonance

Let’s say you think of yourself as a good person (bear with me for a moment if you don’t). Now you do something nasty to somebody. This leaves you with two contradictory thoughts in your mind: “I am good” and “I am nasty”. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, “doublethink” is quite routine, but in practice conflicting thoughts are a source of discomfort. This discomfort is known as “cognitive dissonance”.

Even if you don’t think you are a good person, you are not immune from cognitive dissonance. It can arise in all kinds of situations: perhaps you hear a reasonable argument against one of your firmly-held beliefs, perhaps a decision you take turns out badly, perhaps someone you consider a friend lets you down or someone you dislike does something to help you.

Whatever the cause, our brains tend to work hard to “resolve” the dissonance and explain away the contradiction (that person really deserved the nasty thing you did). This tendency is the source of a wide range of irrational behaviour, many of which are explored in the book I am reading at the moment: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The title itself gives just one example, the fact that we tend to explain away our mistakes: there were, of course, mitigating circumstances and were really all the fault of others.

One interesting theory in the book relates to prejudice. Stereotypes, particularly racial or religious ones, are often considered a contributing cause of prejudice. The authors suggest that the causality in fact runs the other way. People have a strong tendency to form groups and then feel not only a bond with others in the group but an antipathy to those outside the group. Obvious examples are nation, race, religion or football team, but group identification can be made in all kinds of ways. The book relates an experiment in which subjects were asked to estimate the number of dots shown on a flash card. After a preliminary round, each person was told whether they were an “under-estimator” or an “over-estimator”. As further tests were conducted, the results were announced to the group and in no time at all, under-estimators were cheering the successes of other under-estimators and boo-ing the successes of over-estimators, and vice versa. While under and over-estimators would never go to war, it is sobering to see how rapidly people can divide themselves into the in-crowd and the out-crowd. With this in mind, Tavris and Aronson argue that prejudice comes first, the result of disliking those outside your own group, and the stereotype comes later to explain this dislike:

By understanding prejudice as our self-justifying servant, we can better see why some prejudices are so hard to eradicate: They allow people to justify and defend their most important social identities‚ their race, their religion, their sexuality‚ while reducing the dissonance between, “I am a good person”‚ and “I really don’t like those people”.

So perhaps prejudice causes stereotyping not the other way around.

Like so many cognitive biases, the tendency to resolve cognitive dissonance is something you can take advantage of. Although Benjamin Franklin was around well before cognitive dissonance was given a name, he clearly understood the phenomenon. He relates the following story in his autobiography:

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he who you yourself have obliged.”

I am keen to try this trick myself, so if you don’t like me and want to keep it that way, think twice about doing me any favours.

Cognitive dissonance is a fascinating phenomenon, but simply studying does not make you immune from its grasp. Still, Tavris and Aronson suggest that there are ways to try to inoculate yourself:

We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off. This is especially important for people in positions of power.

That is advice I try to heed here on this blog. Whether I am arguing about property prices, government debt and deficits, climate change or any other topic, I welcome comments that argue against my position. I do not want to live in a bubble.

# Language is a virus

Language is a virus and we are its host. Some strains of language are virulent and spread rapidly. Others are weaker, struggling to infect their hosts and easily supplanted by stronger challengers.

The natural habitat of the language virus is the social group. Some of the more obvious forms are schoolyard slang (what was unreal in my day was sick in later years, but could now be random) or the jargon of specialists. Sometimes the ponds the virus infects can be large ones. By 2008, everyone in Australia knew that “GFC” stood for “Global Financial Crisis”, but I repeatedly saw visitors from the US or UK mystified by this initialisation.

The corporate world is a rich source of (often meaningless) jargon, as decried by Paul Keating’s speech writer Don Watson in Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language. But what has fascinated me of late in the corporate world is not the language of mission statements, paradigms, closure or value-add, but simpler more innocuous words or phrases that flourish within organisations. After a number of years away, I have been back less than two months at a firm I worked for before and I was immediately struck by the near universal use of a few expressions that I am sure were not being used there four years earlier, and were certainly not used at the company where I worked during the intervening years.

I have now realised that it is impossible to attend an internal meeting without someone suggesting an alternative lens with which to view a problem rather than, say, an alternative perspective. Even more prevalent is “calling out”, as in “I’ll just call out one or two points on this slide” or “Last time we met I called that out as the primary challenge”.

The point is not to criticise these terms themselves, which are quite reasonable means of expression, unlike so much of the corporate-speak that Don Watson ridicules. You could even make the case that “lens” is a better term as it suggests a point of view which can be quickly and simply changed, whereas “perspective” often has connotations of being more permanent. What fascinates me is the way these words have established such a firm hold on the organisation. It makes the social dimension of shared language very clear: if I start using the same terms as you, it makes me seem more a part of the group, which in turn reinforces your use of the terms. All of this can happen subconsciously, so that the hosts can be quite unaware of the infection. Some may notice, but to a newcomer like myself, the infestation is startlingly clear.

It probably will not be long until I find myself calling out the merits of putting on a different lens, but for now I am trying to be strong.

# The Art of Conversation

Have you ever heard the question “Would you like a tea or a coffee” answered with a simple “Yes”? If so, the respondent almost certainly considers their response to be extremely witty. The questioner is unlikely to agree. There is also a high probability that the joker is someone’s Dad…or perhaps a mathematician.

I have to admit to having indulged in this “joke” in my time (more than once), but until recently it had not occurred to me that it in fact reflects a violation of a general principle of conversation. Enlightenment came when I read the seminal 1975 paper “Logic and Conversation” [1] by the philosopher H.P.Grice.

The humour (or lack thereof) of the coffee/tea gag lies in the conflict between the logical truth of the statement and its inappropriateness in conversation. While the statement “A or B” is logically true as long as at least one of A and B is true , in the context of conversation, logical truth is not enough. If you knew A was true and B was false, you would not bother saying “A or B”, you would just say “A”. Moreover, that is what others would expect of you. If I ask you to pass me a hammer, I don’t expect you to pass me a hammer and a spanner. In the same way, if you know you are going to Spain for your holidays, I don’t expect you to say “I’m either going to Spain or Canada”, despite the fact that, strictly speaking, it is a true statement. It is this distinction between simple logical truth and appropriateness in conversation that is the subject of Grice’s paper.

Grice bases his ideas on the notion of the “Cooperative Principle”, which he summarises as the requirement to

Make your conversation such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

People have conversations of many types for many reasons: to do business, to gossip, to seduce, to educate, to inform or simply for the pleasure of conversation itself. In every case, conversation involves (at least) two participants and the conversations that work best are the ones that take the needs of all of the participants into account. So it makes sense that a bit of cooperation is the foundation of a good conversation.

Based on the cooperative principle, Grice goes on to postulate a number of “maxims of conversation”. Here are the maxims as he describes them:

Quantity

1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).

Quality

1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Relation

1. Be relevant.

Manner

1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
2. Avoid ambiguity.
3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
4. Be orderly.

The term “maxim” is carefully chosen as Grice notes that one need not follow all of the maxims at all times, while still being cooperative. The main reason that a maxim could be violated is if it is in conflict with another maxim. An example would be providing less information than required (violating Quantity 1) because you are not confident you have the facts right (and you don’t want to violate Quality 2).

Viewed in terms of Grice’s maxims, the coffee/tea joke is a clear violation of the first maxim of quantity.

As I have already admitted to this particular breach, the obvious question is: have I violated any other maxims? Some who know me well would take the view that, while I may take pains to avoid a violation of either of the maxims of quality, I regularly and flagrantly violate Quantity 2 and Manner 3 and probably Relation 1. I need to learn to stick to the point or risk being branded an uncooperative conversationalist! Or perhaps it’s too late.

[1] Available in the collection “Studies in the Way of Words” by H.P.Grice.

# I have a love/hate relationship with psychometric testing

A while ago, I had a bit of a rant in the post I Hate Personality Tests. Responding in this guest post, Maria Skarveli (who knows far more about psychology than I do) ponders personality testing phobia.

As a psychology student belonging to the faculty of health and behavioural sciences which also harbours biology, medical science and physiology, I was constantly hassled by my friends that were studying law, commerce and engineering and forever asking me “Can you read my mind?” or worse “Are you trying to analyse me?” as if I was Professor Xavier and I could distinguish mutants from humans. Of course I had to keep a straight face and stop myself from saying, “You’re an idiot, there you have it analysis complete” I just rolled my eyes and went with the flow. But deep down I was insulted. It was bad enough psychology had been branded as a “soft science”, which is apparently less intellectually stimulating than the “hard sciences” such as biology, physics and chemistry. But now the general view from all faculties was that psychology is akin to the paranormal, dare I say astrology!

# Couch Potatoes

A colleague has lent me a copy of Oliver James’ book “Affluenza” and, while I am not far through it yet, it is scathing in its damnation of the effects of capitalism on individuals in society. At a time when capitalism is rapidly losing it shine on a global scale, with the financial sector collapsing around us, this individual perspective is an interesting small scale counterpoint to the large scale picture we are seeing on the news each day.

The thesis of the book is that an “affluenza virus” has spread thoughout English-speaking countries. This virus leads us to be obsessively focused on shallow material pursuits. At the same time, it leaves us anxious and prone to low self-esteem, addictions and depression as there is always someone with a faster car or a bigger cigar (to quote The Beautiful South).

# Last Word on Personality Tests

While my recent post on personality testing attracted some unexpected attention (from an organiser of the course), it did also generate some interesting discussion. Some I have spoken to have found more value in personality tests like Myers-Briggs and HBDI than I have, while others shared my irritation.

The reason I am posting again on this subject is because an old friend of mine, who is a practising psychiatrist had emailed me with his thoughts on the topic, but preferred to remain anonymous and not post on the forum himself. He was, however, happy for me to share them, so here they are: