Wednesday Round Up #20

Laziness Does Not Exist

I’ve been a psychology professor since 2012. In the past six years, I’ve witnessed students of all ages procrastinate on papers, skip presentation days, miss assignments, and let due dates fly by. I’ve seen promising prospective grad students fail to get applications in on time; I’ve watched PhD candidates take months or years revising a single dissertation draft; I once had a student who enrolled in the same class of mine two semesters in a row, and never turned in anything either time.

I don’t think laziness was ever at fault.


In fact, I don’t believe that laziness exists.

The Eleventh Word
This is a lovely essay.

It was, perhaps, his eleventh word. He had dog and ball and duck and bubble and mama and (mysteriously in our lesbian household) dada and nana (for banana) and vroom vroom (for cars) and hah-hah (for hot) and (the root of so many of our evils) what’s dat? What’s dat? What’s dat?

And then, there it was: fish.

It should have been a tragic moment for me. I, of all people, should have sensed the danger in it. I had just spent the last ten years of my life working on a book called Why Fish Don’t Exist, arguing that the word “fish” is symptomatic of our human inability to see the world as expansively as it is. In short, scientists recently discovered that many of the creatures we typically think of as “fish” are in fact more closely related to us than to each other. And when you accept this fact you will see that the category of “fish” is a bum category—an act of gerrymandering we perform over nature to make it line up with our intuition. But it’s a lie, this category of “fish,” a mistake, a meaningless group that hides incredible nuance and complexity.

And “fish” is just one glaring example of this thing we do all the time—group things together that do not belong under one label in the name of maintaining our convenience, comfort, power. My book, in large part, is a plea to approach the world with more doubt—more doubt in our categories, more doubt in our words, more curiosity about the organisms pinned beneath our language. The reward, as I promise in the book, is a more expansive world, “a wilder place,” where nothing is what it seems, where “each and every dandelion is reverberating with possibility.”

And so, as the word “fish” rolled off my son’s tongue for the very first time, I should have felt that hot burst of fricative air as a puncturing of his innocence—sheeesh.


In 2014, Milkman published a study of a self-control strategy she calls “temptation bundling.” The idea is to link a want (in the study, listening to audio versions of page-turners such as the Hunger Games books) with a popular should (working out at the campus fitness center). If getting on a treadmill were the only way to hear the next chapter in the novel, would you be more likely to get off the couch and go to the gym?

The results were promising: Participants who had access to the audiobooks only at the gym made 51 percent more gym visits than those in the control group. (Another cohort that was encouraged, but not required, to restrict their listening to workout times had 29 percent more visits than the control group) …

When Milkman explained the temptation-bundling study and other research on the Freakonomics Radio podcast last year (listen to the show here), it struck a chord with listeners: Hundreds sent emails, sharing examples of their own “bundles.” While most involved household chores or exercise, some included more serious problems such as bouts with depression.

For more from Katherine Milkman, see her TedX talk Why we fail and how we stand up afterwards

Emily Oster’s Pandemic Parenting Guidance Is All About the Data

As for those questions piling up in her inbox in May, Oster couldn’t possibly respond to or decide what was best for each newsletter reader’s unique situation. But she could share the economic framework she uses when faced with uncertainty. So she got to typing:

Frame the question. (Clearly define two or three options, instead of trying to evaluate infinite or indistinct possibilities.)
Mitigate risk. (What’s the safest way to execute those options?)
Evaluate risk.
Evaluate benefits. (Don’t overlook these.)

The point of the exercise, Oster says, isn’t to feel sure, necessarily, that the decision you reach is the right one. That may be possible sometimes, but it’s very difficult now, as research into the virus yields new and changing information and much of the data we’d like to have is unavailable or incomplete. The goal is to feel good about the process you used to arrive at a decision, so you can move on to the next fire you need to put out.

Cognition all the way down
An interesting thought experiment that includes Daniel Dennett, but I really wish they knew the biology literature better. Or, Dennett and colleagues discover positionality as part of research and think this gives them access to the “native’s point of view” without really understanding how things work from the point of view of their assumed informants. It’s still a thought experiment, an armchair approach.

The molecular-biology details can’t enable a prediction because they address cell-level questions, and haven’t really touched the issue of how the collective decides what large shape to build and how it decides to stop when that specific shape is complete. The question of representing anatomical target shapes in tissue can be asked experimentally (and it has been) only when one takes seriously that the collective has an information-processing, not just mechanical, level of analysis. This is basically the position that neuroscience was in when David Marr proposed, in his landmark book Vision (1982), that progress would depend on investigating what he called the computational level, by which he meant the level at which one specifies cognitive tasks so that one can then search for the informational processes that could execute those tasks.

Thinking of parts of organisms as agents, detecting opportunities and trying to accomplish missions is risky, but the payoff in insight can be large. Suppose you interfere with a cell or cell assembly during development, moving it or cutting it off from its usual neighbours, to see if it can recover and perform its normal role. Does it know where it is? Does it try to find its neighbours, or perform its usual task wherever it has now landed, or does it find some other work to do? The more adaptive the agent is to your interference, the more competence it demonstrates. When it ‘makes a mistake’, what mistake does it make? Can you ‘trick’ it into acting too early or too late? Such experiments at the tissue and organ level are the counterparts of the thousands of experiments in cognitive science that induce bizarre illusions or distortions or local blindness by inducing pathology, which provide clues about how the ‘magic’ is accomplished, but only if you keep track of what the agents know and want.

Here’s another simple way to think about the problem. Once the individual early cells – stem cells, for instance – are born, they apparently take care of their own further development, shaping both themselves and their local environments without any further instruction from their parents. They become rather autonomous, unlike the mindless gears and pistons in an intelligently designed engine. They find their way. What could possibly explain this? Something like a trail of breadcrumbs? Yes, in some cases, but the cells have to be smart enough to detect and follow them. We might hope for some relatively simple physical explanation.

Sources of predictive information in dynamical neural networks
New nature paper which both shows that predictive information can come from the environment and that the specifics of internal processing can matter, and both can be relevant sources for adaptive behavior.

Behavior involves the ongoing interaction between an organism and its environment. One of the prevailing theories of adaptive behavior is that organisms are constantly making predictions about their future environmental stimuli. However, how they acquire that predictive information is still poorly understood.

Two complementary mechanisms have been proposed: predictions are generated from an agent’s internal model of the world or predictions are extracted directly from the environmental stimulus. In this work, we demonstrate that predictive information, measured using bivariate mutual information, cannot distinguish between these two kinds of systems.

Furthermore, we show that predictive information cannot distinguish between organisms that are adapted to their environments and random dynamical systems exposed to the same environment. To understand the role of predictive information in adaptive behavior, we need to be able to identify where it is generated.

New study reveals how dopamine and serotonin affect decision-making

Because patients have to be awake to ensure optimal placement of the DBS electrode, these measurements can be made while patients play a computer game that quantifies aspects of behaviour and thought. Patients consent to take part in the research and are free to stop at any time.

The computer game that patients played was developed by Dr Dan Bang and Dr Steve Fleming (Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging and Department of Experimental Psychology at UCL) and asked players to make simple perceptual decisions. On each round of the game, patients briefly viewed a cloud of moving dots and were then required to judge which direction they were moving relative to a reference point. The advantage of using this task is that it allows for precise control of the different factors that affect people’s decisions. For example, uncertainty about which direction the dots were moving – the sensory information underlying their decision – can be manipulated by introducing randomly moving dots into the display. The researchers found, in one part of the striatum (caudate nucleus), that serotonin levels rapidly increased when uncertainty was high. In another part of the striatum (putamen), both dopamine and serotonin were found to trigger the action that indicated a patient’s decision. In a delicate balancing act, dopamine levels rapidly increased prior to an action (akin to “pressing the accelerator”), whereas serotonin levels rapidly decreased (akin to “releasing the brake”).

Jason Furman’s Reviews > The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

The core point and the one that I found completely persuasive in the book is that psychology varies across cultures and that for years Western psychologists made the mistake of studying WEIRD university students and thinking their psychology was universal. Instead, Henrich argues that there are lots of psychologies but broadly speaking they can be grouped into two sets of characteristics. WEIRD people are individualistic, self-obsessed, analytical, and see ourselves as unique beings that try to stick to impartial rules that are enforced by an internal feeling of guilt. In contrast, in many other cultures people are more focused on the group (often a kinship group), do not focus on their self realization, and try to do right by the people around them—a feeling enforced by shame in front of others more than internal guilt. Many other traits vary across these two types including patience, timeliness, whether morality is judged by intentions or outcomes, and much more.

Henrich advances a wide range of evidence for this core point including laboratory experiments played across countries, within countries, and with different immigrant groups within countries, data on actual behavior like parking tickets and blood donations, observational studies, and more. Any given study by itself might not be completely persuasive but the large mass of them, many extremely careful, leaves relatively little doubt in my mind about this argument.

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