Tuesday, June 18, 2013

More candy vs. the greater good: detachment in decision-making

I recently watched a great documentary called Ape Genius, and then saw this interesting article . Here are some thoughts on the intersection of the two.


In Ape Genius, they describe a test which measures impulse control in primates:
There are two apes, A & B. Ape A is shown a large pile of candy, and a small pile. It's up to A to decide who gets which pile. But the catch is, A has to select the pile that *B* gets, and A gets the remainder.
...Poor A always selects the big pile of candy, and always has to watch as it gets handed over to B. On the surface, we might conclude that the apes just aren't smart enough to figure out that if they select the small pile, they'll get rewarded with the big pile in the end...right?

Where it becomes fascinating is when the tangible objects are replaced with symbols: the piles of candy are replaced by numbered cards representing how many pieces of candy are at stake ("6" and "2", and the ape has previously learned about numbers)
Again, A has to choose one of the options; that chosen candy goes to B, and A gets the remainder.
Amazingly, A will now select the small reward for B and collect the large reward for themselves!

The takeaway from all this is that the Apes can reason-out "if I point to the small reward, I get the big reward." But they struggle with impulse control: they want the big reward so badly, it trumps their reasoning over & over again and they keep trying to take it directly. The use of symbols to represent the payoff provides a layer of detachment which lets their logical mind assert itself against the pull of their emotions.

Ha ha, stupid apes.  Right?


This article discusses research which found that humans are angered by the injustice of decision-makers who make a choice based on case-by-case influences when these contradict the data.
No surprises there - but here's the catch: yes we're angry about it when the deciders are far away (as in, spatially...) but we're suddenly more-okay with it when the decider is nearby!

I find this hilarious because it shows how easily our reasoning can get short-circuited into selfish & hypocritical behaviour:
- if X is happening close to me, it affects me more directly so I'm ready to believe that the emotional specifics of the situation can trump the evidence
- if X is happening far away from me, it affects me less directly so I want reason & facts to trump any bleeding-heart concessions to the emotion of the situation

Apes & Humans Agree: More Candy is Good! (As long as it's for me)

I see all this as humans failing the candy test too. Physical distance in human decision-making is like number-cards for the apes: a cooling layer of detachment which allows reason to assert itself against emotion. Take away the distance between us & the subject, and suddenly we're down on par with the apes...

Ha ha, stupid humans

Fascinating Tangents

  • Different primate species have evolved different levels of impulse control, apparently based on whether their food tends to run away or sit still for days.
  • Similar to the candy test in apes, the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment tested impulse control in preschoolers. Briefly, "how long can a kid avoid gobbling up a marshmallow, in order to receive two marshmallows later instead." The kids were then reviewed decades later, and it was found that the longer they had resisted the impulse to eat the marshmallow, the better they performed in basically every aspect of life throughout the years!
  • One way to short-circuit reason and get somebody's emotion to take over: preoccupy them. The idea behind Shiv's Cake experiment was to have people choose either chocolate cake or fruit salad as a snack. If you give someone an intellectual challenge (memorize a 7-digit number) at the same time as this choice, then all their reasoning about what's a better snack (calories, cholesterol, fat, sugar, etc.) gets short-circuited, and lusty emotion takes over instead (CAKE!!!) In other words, when carrying a lighter cognitive load, people have more brain power left to resist the lure of emotion.
    Breaking news II: Scientists confirm what poets have known for years! Our independent, free-thinking minds are so easily tempted away from logic to passion.