Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Iago syndrome

I am probably the least qualified person to discuss Shakespeare, and my experience of 'live' Shakespeare is limited to one viewing of Othello (and that was the recent one with Lenny Henry playing in the title role FFS). But I was gripped by the psychological content of this play. That Iago -- a man who would probably nowadays be diagnosed with a narcissistic or some other cluter B personality disorder -- managed to manipulate Othello to kill his wife thus punishing Othello for (among other things) promoting Cassius to his leuitenant over him (Iago). Iago's reputation for honesty (he is frequently referred to as 'honest Iago') is essential to his goal. 

What I find interesting about this is not particularly the fact that one man can manipulate another in this way, but rather the psychological reality of this play to the everyday interior of the mind. Freud was undoutedly a well-read man (and a good writer). So it amazes me that Freud never wrote specifically about this particular play. Like many classical scholars he probably thought that the Greeks and also the Romans had nailed all of the important psychological conflicts. 

Psychiatrist have, however, identified a diagnostic category of mental illness that some call Othello syndrome, in which the sufferer displays pathalogical jealousy, frequently about a spouse or other romantic partner. (DSM-IV-TR, the diagnostic book used by many psychiatrists identifies a similar disorder called 'delusional disorder -- jealous type.)

An Othello syndrome, then, but not an Iago syndrome, why not? Because there cannot be an Othello without an Iago. We have probably all felt the excoriating blast of our own internal Iago  manipulating our personal Othello into a frenzy of paranoia. Why did that person hang up when I answered the phone? Who is he texting? Is that person spreading malicious rumours about me? Iago has the answers and they are seldom balanced. In this article the sociobiologist David Buss discusses the evolutionary function of jealousy which, he says, is designed to prevent our investments in our social and romantic relationships from becoming compromised by the actions of a third party. If our jealousy makes us want to act to become closer to our close friends, to make amends, perhaps for years of neglect, then this is for the good. But if we are gripped by Iago our jealousy -- even if it doesn't lead to physical violence or murder as for Othello -- can drive the relationship into the dirt: relationships seldom thrive in a climate of suspicion as Elvis Presley pointed out.



Thursday, March 05, 2009

Google, Twitter and the paradox of choice

The following is a true story. A friend of mine had booked a room in a Bed & Breakfast in order to attend some event or other. On arriving at the B&B the propriotor informed him that he had two rooms available and could choose the one he preferred. He then took my friend to view the rooms to better inform his decision. The first room was large and airy with nice decor and a good view of the garden. The second was considerably smaller and darker, the decor was somewhat careworn and the view was over the bins out the back. Assuming that the smaller room must be cheaper he asked the propriotor what the price difference was between the two rooms. He was told that both the rooms were the same price, £50 a night.

"But that's ridiculous" said my friend. "The first room is obviously much better than the second room, so what's wrong with it?"

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with the first room." Replied the owner. "Except that it has a wasp nest in the shower."

Americans to whom I have told this story take it as symptomatic of the kind of service offered in British hotels, but I want to make a different, more general, point. Simply having choice is largely unimportant, what matters in the quality of the items that you can choose between.

The British government is obsessed with choice and we constantly hear about providing parents and patients with increasingly large amounts of choice. Possibly because being given a choice makes people feel good, that there needs are somehow being considered. Possibly also because if it all goes belly up, you can blame the individual for choosing poorly. But there is a negative side to choice which transcends political conspiracy theories. Research shows that having more choice can decrease satisfaction with the item chosen (see, e.g. Barry Schwartz's book The Paradox of Choice published in 2004). Having a dizzying number of alternatives can also confuse a person to the extent that they fail to choose at all. This is particularly so if they have to decide among items that vary on more than one dimension. (This smart phone has 8 gigs of memory, but the battery life is poor and it doesn't sync with Outlook, this one syncs with outlook but has much less memory, this one has excellent battery life but has a poor screen and so on and so forth -- we've all been there.)

In this thought-provoking blog the author argues that Google's propensity to return several million hits when you type in a simple word such as "accountant" can likewise be deleterious. Surely, he argues, what we want are just a few hits but of high quality? I think so too, but how do you ensure quality? How do you remove irrelevant hits? Well you can do it yourself. Although 'accountant' returns in the order of 67 million hits, if I wanted an accountant I would presumably not want one in Azerbaijan (cos I live in West Yorkshire), typing "accountants leeds" (not in quotes) returns a smaller but still-large number of hits, 397,000. But this is irrelvant because there on the first page is a list of Leeds-based accountants, so I am unlikely to move on from there to view the remaining 396,990 items.

In fact I have tried more than once to replicate the 'choice is demotivating' effect for information choice (does choosing an article to read from a large initial set lead to people liking the article less than if it were a small choice set) and get null results all the time. Whether this is the way I'm doing it or whether it doesn't apply to information, I'm not sure.

There's one more wrinkle in the paradox of choice. Only some people find choice demotivating. Schwartz divides the world into two people maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers tend to want the best, satisficers (a term originally coined by the great H.A. Simon) are content to choose something that is 'good enough' to satisfy their goals. I hope you can immediately see how 'rational' satisficing is. Given a large enough set of items or a complex enough set of attributes a maximizer would quickly grind themselves into the ground weighing up the alternatives. If you take cognitive costs into account, maximizing is rather a foolish strategy. (I am reminded at this point Elliot, a patient studied by Antonio Damasio who following the removal of a tumour from near his frontal lobes would spend an afternoon at work deciding whether to classify his data by date or place, thinking through all the possible implication of both to decide on the optimal choice. This is clearly dysfunctional behaviour -- he soon lost his job -- so no one really maximizes all the time.)

The aforementioned blog also argues that Twitter could be a threat to Google. If people increasingly rely on Twitter for recommendations people might possibly be less likely to go and search for themselves on Google. Recommendations are a win-win situation in some regards. The recommendee saves time and effort by not conducting the search themselves which would seem to be a kind of free-riding strategy, were it not for the prestige and social status that can be achieved by a prolific recommender. And here comes another paradox. People tend to dramatically overrate the importance of single cases, especially if they are recounted by a trusted person. I had this recently when thinking about getting a new car. I wanted something reliable and looked at the various surveys to help to find something appropriate. I decided on an X (I'm not going to tell you what it was because it was a Volvo and apparently they're embarrasing) and told a friend about it. "Oh my dad had one of those and it was never out of the garage." So I crossed that off the list. But why? Why should one person's experience outweigh those of many thousands? I don't know, so it you have any ideas please let me know. (I will resist the temptation to give some kind of cod evolutionary explanation about us having evolved in groups without multivariate statistics, this might be the case but I would prefer to discount more interesting explanations).

So people might ultimately prefer Twitter and it might take away from Google (and particularly those horrible price comparison websites). But do people get better products and services (I wrote an earlier blog on the dangers of 'group think' that can arise in highly homophilous networks see also this paper)? How do you decide between the multiple conflicting opinions? And does any of this matter? Maybe we should pay the price of lower quality products for a less stressful and more collegiate  existence of mutual recommendation. 

By the way, my friend chose the smaller room.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Good question...

Quite frequently when I give a talk about my research, I usually get one of those questions. I think we probably all have them. The question that we dread not because it is particularly challenging, nor because it strikes at the heart of the research (although they can be the subject of night-before-cold-sweat-style-dreams). No the kind of question I really hate is the one that is so resoundingly stupid, so you-haven't-thought-about-this-for-more-than-a-second-have-you? that you wonder how to pitch your face. The one that I've been getting quite a lot recently when I talk about social network sites and the goes something like:

"But how is all this any different from having pen pals?"

Now I do kinda know what he (and it is always a he) means. Kinda.

He has probably been reading the usual deranged Daily-Mail style spoutings that social networking is shrinking our brains and that in the Future all teenagers will be born with massive, prehensile thumbs and a 3mm jack socket instead of a belly button, and seem me in the same mold. Shame because IF HE HAD ACTUALLY LISTENED instead of occupying his mind imagining what it must be like to suck a lemon and thus pulling the appropriate facial expression, he would have seen that I wasn't saying that at all. Quite the opposite.

However.

Is the use of social network sites like penpals? Yes, of course,  and an Ipod is like really the same as a ukelele (both are portable and play music). You can imagine that the first time the telephone was revealed to an admiring public demonstrating that people could now communicate at a distance immediately Mr Penpal's great grandfather would put up his weary hand, clear his throat and in a disparaging voice ask "but how is this any different from shouting?"

People can be divided into two categories: those who think that each new technology represents some kind of quantum leap in the way we do things (for good or for bad), and those who think that everything is just the same as everything else, really. Susan Greenfield's and Aric Sigman's recent pronouncements represent the negative side of the everything is going to change. Who represents the same-old-same-old view? Well there's Mr Penpal, of course, but the media won't speak to him because, as well as being as dull as a horned toad, he just isn't newsworthy.

Or is he?

About a year and a half ago I excited a degree of media interest which must have had the headline writers straining. Basically my message was "social networking not really all that different from what you do face to face." As a media friendly message it was not all that different from saying "dog bites man", or "bear shits in wood". But it must have been a slack news week and the headline writers must have had extra cocaine rations of something because they pulled it off. I even appeared on News 24. Nerve racking but exciting, me on telly! Better phone my parents! But it was an awful experience. I teetered on a barstool in the corner of an empty room in Leeds seeing my perspiring face on a large monitor while the folk in the studio in London joked and flirted and doubtless slapped each other with towels. Then I was on. I won't say any more as it is far too distressing to recount, but my earpiece kept slipping out and I think I felt that to save time I would economise by saying more than one word at once.

I thought it best not to tell my parents.

I did a few other things, but then it all faded away. I got the occasional call from Mumbia or Dhaka, presumably places where visible perspiration and continually playing with one's ear is seen as deserving of some kind of respect.

When Aric Sigman did his thing a couple of weeks ago I half expected to get a call from the media.

Producer: "Hey have you heard this? This chap Aric Sigman is saying that social network sites give you cancer. Who can we get on to challenge him?"

Researcher: "There's always Mr Sweaty."

Producer: "Mmmmmmmm"

They never called.

But they wouldn't call Mr Penpal either.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Fodor's guide to oblivion

As an academic psychologist I generally have a positive regard for philosophers, particularly those who can cut through the muddy thinking of some of my colleagues. That said, I do wonder about some of them. Take Jerry Fodor, for example. Jerry has been around for quite some time and I, like most psychologists, have cited his work sometime, I'm ashamed to say, without reading the originals. I did read Modularity of mind, however, a slim volume published in 1983 which was voted in 2000 as being the seventh most influential cognitive science book of the 20th Century.  (Actually now I look back at those awards the 'esteemed judges' they turn out to be a bunch of people I've never heard of and all at the University of Minnesota, isn't it always the case with these things?)

Although slim Modularity of mind proved, to my 25-year-old self, to be a challenging read. I struggled through its pages never quite feeling that I'd got to grips with Fodor's argument. My problem was, I now believe, was that I was looking for the utility in Fodor's ideas and it was that I couldn't find and thus chided myself for my lack of intelligence. What do I mean? Well, put it this way. Like many people I'm occasionally seduced by kitchen gadgets. You know the kind of thing, something that makes chopping garlic easier (microplane it, damn it); things for doing perfect julienned carrots, and 'easy' graters for parmesan cheese. All of these things turn out to be initially attractive but ultimately useless and languish in my drawer with all of the other crap I've bought over the years. Modularity of mind is like that. It sounded impressive (informational encapsulation, etc.) but I never really got what it did.

Some people who did apparently get what it did were Leda Cosmides and John Tooby of UCSB who married sociobiology to Fodorian modularity which gave birth to Evolutionary Psychology. Thus we had "mental modules, innately specified, shaped by the evolutionary pressures that our ancestors encountered in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation that corresponds to the Upper Pleistocene period" and other specious seductera. Fodor, who has even gone so far as to suggest that all concepts are innate, or at least I think he did because I haven't read that one either, hates what they did to his precious modularity. He HATES Evolutionary Psychology, and now it seems he has a problem with evolution in general. How do I know this? I know this because he has written a paper about it and is currently writing a book about What Darwin Got Wrong. The paper is amazing in its wrongheadedness (and I suppose the book will be too). Its not that Fodor fails to understand evolution by natural selection. He is a highly intelligent man who has thorougly researched the area. Or at least it not that he fails to understand in in the way that you or I would fail to understand something. No, he seems to have invented and entirely new way of failing to understand something. He has applied his massive intellect to the theory, become so intimate with it and understood it so well that he's kind of gone through the theory and out the other side (I imagine there must have been a small popping sound when this happened, but that could just be me). So there he is literally beyond understanding with a unique and, one has to say, bizarre perspective on Darwin. I imagine it must have been a bit like that experience that you have when you repeat a familar word over and over again and suddenly it becomes stripped of its meaning, it as if it is an entirely alien word (I recall discovering this as a child with the word 'constable' and the words 'saddle bag' -- strange but true). This phenmenon is technically known as jamais vu from the French meaning 'never seen'. This is not quite Fodor, because obviously he feels that he understands what he's saying. He seems to be producing a kind of vicarious jamais vu where we suffer from the consequences of his over familiarity.

I have a lot of respect for Jerry Fodor, I just wonder whether someone put him here to mess with my mind, modular or otherwise.