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Over the past couple of years, I’ve been reading a lot about genetics and its influence on personality. When I was in university, I took a class on Sociology. The basis of the class was that personality was heavily influenced by culture. Furthermore, one of the major paradigms of humanity is “the blank slate” – the idea that humans are (nearly) infinitely malleable. This was a reaction to the eugenics movement of the first half of the 20th century that stated that some people just had superior genes.

However, “the blank slate” is wrong. While culture and environment shape us, we are not infinitely malleable. We are are not even greatly malleable. It turns out that our genetics, just as it shapes our physical bodies, also shapes our personalities. We can do things to affect it and choose to behave in certain ways, but our brain structures and genes dictate greatly how we react internally, and then we choose to override it.

One of those personality traits is introversion. I’ve been introverted as far back as I can remember, with the possible exception of when I was less than 5 years old. But it turns out that introversion is probably genetic. Dr. Jerome Kagan has been studying the introversion/extroversion phenomenon and has tons of data.

I found this one excerpt:

For example, he believes, based on his data, that high reactivity is associated with physical traits such as blue eyes, allergies, and hay fever, and that high-reactive (introverted) men are more likely than others to have a thin body with a narrow face.

Um:

  • I have blue eyes
  • I have hay fever (although no other allergies – although I do get nosebleeds easily in dry weather)
  • I have a thin body
  • My face is narrow

In other words, the description 100% describes me!

I thought that was eerie. I used to think that I was in control of my own personality and that I could change it with enough work. That’s not really true; I can change it to some extent but I have much less free will than I thought.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to stop drinking coffee. I did this because I am having hip surgery in December and I will not be able to eat or drink that day. That means that I will probably be feeling lousy that day because of headaches from caffeine withdrawal and I don’t want to go into it feeling bad.

That means I need to detox from coffee.

But I don’t know how it takes me to detox. However long it takes me to stop feeling symptoms of no coffee, that’s how many days before my surgery I need to give up coffee. Thus, if I discover it takes me 7 days to stop feeling bad, then 7 days before hip surgery I need to give up coffee.

All I do is drink 1 cup per day in the morning.

So how long did it take before I was symptom free?

7 days. Sheesh, that’s a long time. The first few days, I got headaches. At first it was around 10 am, then it got pushed back to 3 pm, then 5 pm. I had to take some Ibuprofen to get rid of the discomfort in order to function at work.

I began to wonder “How long is this going to take?” Well, it took a week.

And all of this on a single cup in the morning. I don’t know how anymore who drinks 4-5 cups per day like one of my co-workers could ever give it up (he was fasting during Ramadan).

That must have been rough.

I thought I’d do a blog post about some common myths about how the brain works.

  1. People only use 5-10% of their brains

    This is a common myth I hear all the time, that people don’t use all of their brains. This implies that we have a lot of untapped potential and if we could unlock it, we would be super-geniuses!

    But it’s not true.

    The brain consumes 20-25% of our total calorie intake, that’s far too much energy to waste on an organ that is running at 1/10 of its potential capacity. The truth is that we use 100% of our brains, we just don’t use all parts of it at the same time. Various parts of the brain are dedicated to doing different functions, and we aren’t using those functions all the time at the same time.

  2. The left brain/right brain model

    One thing we frequently hear is the right brain/left brain model – left-brained people are more analytical and right-brained people are more creative.

    This isn’t true. Or rather, it’s hopelessly oversimplified.

    While it is true that different hemispheres of our brains control different parts of our bodies, the truth is that we all have parts of our brains that talk to other parts. The reason that some of us are more analytical than others, while some people are more creative than others, has more to do with genetics and environment.

    One hemisphere dominating and leading to a particular trait doesn’t adequately explain how our brains work with all of its parts to form a whole. While the term “right brain/left brain” is useful to describe what type a person is, it is not accurate about how it actually works biologically.

  3. The brain is a single unit, like a computer

    One of the ways we think of the brain is that it is like a computer – it has a central processing unit that takes in all the inputs, we make a decision, and then act on it. The brain weighs the evidence and then issues its verdict. All the possible inputs go to a central processing unit.

    But that’s not how it works.

    Instead, the brain is more like the Internet. There are a bunch of nodes that have highly specialized functions. Some of these nodes talk to each other, but others do not. When we receive information (sound, sight, touch or ideas), the various units process it but there’s not a central unit in charge. Some units are unaware of others, and this is very strategic.

    We don’t process information that efficiently.

Those are brain myths I thought I’d briefly correct.

Lately, the cat has been throwing up a lot. So far in August she has thrown up 9 times. The average for her is once or twice per month.

A little bit of Internet research says that she probably has a food allergy. Feeding her the same thing over and over (Royal Canin kibbles) is not good, and apparently the lack of diversity is resulting in her stomach not producing the required enzymes to digest food. While we do feed her tuna, apparently it’s not enough.

We have been on a quest to find something else she’ll actually eat, and so far have had no success. We’re currently up to five different foods she has sniffed and rejected. Five! We’ve tried raw chicken, freeze-dried food, new kibbles and new canned food.

“Nope,” says the cat. “This takes like garbage!” and then she walks away.

Ugh.

Ruby! You eat some new food! Got it?

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For the past two months, the wife’s parents have been living with us. They normally live in Taiwan but during the summer they return to Seattle and live in the same house as us.

The wife’s mother does all the cooking. And she cooks meat. Plenty of it:

  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Pork
  • Fish
  • Lobster

While they were away in Taiwan, I had reduced my meat consumption by at least 75% and in some 7-day periods by 100%. But now, I have it twice per day – once at dinner and then once at lunch the next day wherein I have leftovers from the previous day.

I find it too hard to execute any personal restraint to avoid eating meat when it’s right there in front of me. When I have to cook for myself, or take food along to go hiking, or buy lunch at work (which happens occasionally) I only get meat 1 out of every 5 times, at the most. So it’s easy to control my behavior when I get to choose.

But when it’s there in front of me I simply don’t have the willpower to resist it. I like the taste of it, so I eat it. But if it weren’t there, I wouldn’t go out of my way to consume it.

Eating meat has affected my weight a little bit. I’m up 3 lbs since they returned and it fluctuates, but this is the first time in a year where my year-over-year weight is greater than it was 365 days ago.

Derp.

It’s a mixed blessing. I like the taste of meat, and I like being cooked for. But on the other hand I understand that eating so much meat is environmentally unsustainable, and it’s probably less healthy than a pure plant-based diet.

Eventually things will change, though. I will have to cook for myself and there will be pluses and minuses to that, too.

Yet another mixed blessing.

Yesterday, I went into the dentist’s office for the second braces adjustment on my teeth.

My bottom teeth are the most crooked ones and the ones the dentist kept pointing out every time I went into an appointment. So, how do they look now compared to when I started?

Week 0

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Week 5

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Week 10

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Because the camera angles are not the same, sometimes it looks like there is greater or lesser progress than what there really is. My teeth are better but I have a long ways to go.

8 months ago, I wrote a blog post about how I am more concerned about being hacked by malicious spammers than I am about being spied upon by the NSA. In the year since Snowden, my views haven’t changed much. I understand that it’s a concern but I am more-or-less ambivalent about it [1].

I understand that there is a very vocal segment that protests this invasion of privacy vehemently, but I just can’t get worked up about it.

Why am I so different from this vocal segment? And why does this vocal segment care so much?

The Principle of Scarcity

To answer this, I recently read the book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini. In it, psychologist Robert Cialdini describes six outlining principles about how to persuade people – principles that have proven themselves over and over again. These are not self-help theories but instead theories that have been tested by science.

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One of the topics of the book is the Principle of Scarcity. People view potential losses as more impactful than potential gains. This is universally true, we are more concerned about losing something than we are about winning.

Here’s proof. What would you rather have:

  1. Option 1 – A 10% chance of winning $1 million, or
  2. Option 2 – A 100% chance of winning $90,000

?

If you’re like most people, you probably go with Option 2. However, if you do the math on the expected payout, you multiply the chance of winning by the amount you would win to get the expected winnings. Option 1 has an expected winning of $100,000 (10% x $1,000,000) while Option 2 is $90,000, less than Option 1.

But most of us want to go with the sure thing of Option 2 even though it is less because it is too psychologically painful for us to “lose” the sure thing of $90,000 compared to the mere possibility of $1 million, even if you know the probabilities.

Even if you personally, reading this right now, say to yourself “Well, I know the math. I would certainly go with Option 1” you still have to fight your natural instincts to do this because it feels wrong and you don’t like doing it. Thus, while you may understand the math in this case, be very sure you won’t understand the math in every case, nor in every real world circumstance with deals with the Principle of Scarcity.


The Increasing Value of Time

Another example is the phrase “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done.” This is our tendency to put things off until there is very little time left and then scrambling to complete it. This is known as “hyperbolic discounting.” What is happening is that we, as humans, are not good at anticipating the future but as a deadline becomes nearer and near – and time-to-complete becomes correspondingly more scarce – the value of the thing we are putting off becomes more urgent as the remaining time becomes much more valuable.

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Scarcity is increasing value of something.

As opportunities become more scarce, we desire more freedom, and we hate losing the freedoms we already had.

This goes one step further – it is not just a matter of scarcity that makes something that is more desirable, but instead a drop from abundance to scarcity that makes it much more powerful than constant scarcity.

For example, when governments ban books, it is then that people want to read them. And to add to the intensity, if the drop in abundance is because others want the scarce resource, this increases the desirability.

How it Works in Humans

Researchers have tested this – they had volunteers come in and answer some questions and then leave, but on the way out there was a plate of cookies. When there were plenty of cookies, people rated the cookies’ taste as fine. But when there was only a couple of cookies and plenty of crumbs (indicating that there had been a lot of them previously but others had depleted the stock), people rated them even more highly.

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This principle of scarcity is hard-wired into our brains.

So what does this have to do with NSA spying?

Here’s what I think – the scarce resource that we thought we had was privacy. Privacy is valuable and we believed that nobody was looking over our shoulder. Who wants the government spying on them? Nobody, that’s who.

However, when the NSA scandal broke, suddenly this resource/freedom we thought we had was virtually non-existent. And we hate losing freedoms we had before. The fact that it was previously abundant due to encryption, and is scarce now (due to government circumventing it) made it that much worse.

And making it even worse is that government wants our privacy! Thus, someone else is stealing something that was ours and that’s what makes it scarce!

And I think that’s why people are so upset – because of the Principle of Scarcity and how we’re hard wired to react to it.

The Roots of the Desire for Privacy

Okay, so maybe we’re hard-wired to react to scarcity. And maybe we’re a little upset because we lost our freedom of privacy.

But why should we even care about privacy at all?

I think it’s because we don’t like being watched. There’s a myth that says that public speaking is our number one fear. Studies are conflicted about this, but it is one of the things that people are afraid of and it ranks very highly, higher than things we should be more afraid of like disease, car accidents, or violence.

So why are we even afraid of public speaking to begin with?

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I think it’s hard wired into our brains because we don’t like to be watched. For you see, for hundreds of thousands of years, even millions of years, our ancestors wandered around on the African savannah, looking for game but also just trying to survive. Our ancestors had to work in groups and we would sometimes stalk our game for days or even weeks at a time.

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However, humans are not particularly good fighters against any other animal without our tools or the groups of people we hunt with (i.e., working together). While we would hunt other animals, other animals would hunt us. And when they hunted us, they would secretly stare at us first, sizing us up before pouncing.

Eventually, we developed biases in us to dislike being watched because it meant that if we were, we could soon become the prey and would fail to pass on our genetic material. Natural selection favored genes that selected for being aware of being watched and taking steps to correct for it.

We don’t like to be watched without our permission because we have genes that have selected for this personality trait.

Your Brain is not a Lawyer

We sometimes think of ourselves as rational creatures. We have a model of ourselves where our brains are basically like Prosecuting Attorneys and Judges. The prosecuting attorney presents the evidence, the judge weighs it, and then issues a decision. In this way, we are mostly logical creatures; sure, we sometimes make mistakes but for the most part we act in our own best interest.

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This was the view before the 1960’s and the rise of modern psychology, and the 1990’s before the rise of behavioral psychology. Not only do we now know that we make cognitive errors all the time but that we are predictably irrational.

Your brain is not an attorney/judge combination that weighs the evidence and makes a careful decision. That happens occasionally but it is not the norm. Instead, you have a limbic system which is the system that reacts and drives your emotions, and a neo-cortex which is the thinking and reasoning part of your brain. And these two are always working together, and sometimes they are conflicting.

We like to think that the logical side wins out over the “emotional” one (the limbic system is far more complex than what I described). What happens in reality is that most of the time, our limbic system has an emotional response to a stimulus (a physical feeling, or a sound, or an idea) and then our neo-cortex brain works to rationalize why we feel the way we feel.

If you ask a person why they took the $90,000 sure thing instead of the $100,000 expected payout (10% chance of $1 million), they may say something like “I can use the $90,000 today and the chances of getting $1 million aren’t worth the risk of losing it.” And that’s close to reality; our limbic brains tell us “Don’t lose the sure thing!” and then our neo-cortexes get on with the work of making up a reason why we are doing the irrational thing.

 

Putting it All Together

This is why I think (some) people hate the NSA spying scandal so much. We have justified it as they are over-collecting data and it could lead to abuse. While I think that’s possible, I think the disliking of it is because we don’t like being secretly watched by someone. Not being watched by someone is called “privacy” and we hate losing the freedoms we had (or thought we had), and that includes privacy. While we have reasons for disliking it, we come up with these after the fact; we don’t weigh the pros and cons and come to a decision. Instead, we come to a decision and then weigh the pros and cons.[3]

That’s why I think some people are so vocal about NSA spying.

So what about people who don’t seem to react so strongly? I will get to that in a future post.


[1] 10 weeks ago, I had braces put onto my teeth. I’ve never had them done before, that is, I didn’t have them as a kid [2]. Let me tell you, I experience way more angst up to and during that procedure than I ever had thinking about how the NSA might be spying on me.

[2] I’ve needed this procedure for at least a decade. I finally broke down and consented to wearing them for two years.

[3] Yes, this is oversimplified. As it turns out, there are good reasons for being against government over-collection of data just as there are good reasons for there to be a government that runs society.

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