Tag Archives: psychology

Exaggerating vs hiding emotions

In some cultures, it was a matter of honour not to show emotions. Native American warriors famously had stony visages. Victorian aristocracy prided themselves in a stiff upper lip and unflappable manner. Winston Churchill describes in his memoirs how the boarding school culture, enforced by physical violence, was to show no fear. In other cultures, emotions are exaggerated. Teenagers in North America from 1990 to the present are usually portrayed as drama queens, as are arts people. Everything is either fabulous or horrible to them, no so-so experiences. I have witnessed the correctness of this portrayal in the case of teenagers. Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” depicts Victorian teenagers as exaggerating their emotions similarly to their modern-day counterparts.

In the attention economy, exaggerating emotions is profitable to get and keep viewers. Traditional and social media portray situations as more extreme than these really are in order to attract eyeballs and clicks. Teenagers may have a similar motivation – to get noticed by their peers. Providing drama is an effective way. The notice of others may help attract sex partners or a circle of followers. People notice the strong emotions of others for evolutionary reasons, because radical action has a higher probability of following than after neutral communication. Radical action by others requires a quick accurate response to keep one’s health and wealth or take advantage of the radical actor.

A child with an injury or illness may pretend to suffer more than actually to get more care and resources from parents, especially compared to siblings. This is similar to the begging competition among bird chicks.

Exaggerating both praise and emotional punishment motivates others to do one’s bidding. Incentives are created by the difference in the consequences of different actions, so exaggerating this difference strengthens incentives, unless others see through the pretending. Teenagers may exaggerate their outward happiness and anger at what the parents do, in order to force the parents to comply with the teenager’s wishes.

On the other hand, in a zero-sum game, providing information to the other player cannot increase one’s own payoff and usually reduces it. Emotions are information about the preferences and plans of the one who shows these. In an antagonistic situation, such as negotiations or war between competing tribes, a poker face is an information security measure.

In short, creating drama is an emotional blackmail method targeting those with aligned interests. An emotionless front hides both weaknesses and strengths from those with opposed interests, so they cannot target the weakness or prepare for the precise strength.

Whether teenagers display or hide emotion is thus informative about whether they believe the surrounding people to be friends or enemies. A testable prediction is that bullied children suppress emotion and pretend not to care about anything, especially compared to a brain scan showing they actually care and especially when they are primed to recall the bullies. Another testable prediction is that popular or spoiled children exaggerate their emotions, especially around familiar people and when they believe a reward or punishment is imminent.

Signalling the precision of one’s information with emphatic claims

Chats both online and in person seem to consist of confident claims which are either extreme absolute statements (“vaccines don’t work at all”, “you will never catch a cold if you take this supplement”, “artificial sweeteners cause cancer”) or profess no knowledge (“damned if I know”, “we will never know the truth”), sometimes blaming the lack of knowledge on external forces (“of course they don’t tell us the real reason”, “the security services are keeping those studies secret, of course”, “big business is hiding the truth”). Moderate statements that something may or may not be true, especially off the center of all-possibilities-equal, and expressions of personal uncertainty (“I have not studied this enough to form an opinion”, “I have not thought this through”) are almost absent. Other than in research and official reports, I seldom encounter statements of the form “these are the arguments in this direction and those are the arguments in that direction. This direction is somewhat stronger.” or “the balance of the evidence suggests x” or “x seems more likely than not-x”. In opinion pieces in various forms of media, the author may give arguments for both sides, but in that case, concludes something like “we cannot rule out this and we cannot rule out that”, “prediction is difficult, especially now in a rapidly changing world”, “anything may happen”. The conclusion of the opinion piece does not recommend a moderate course of action supported by the balance of moderate-quality evidence.

The same person confidently claims knowledge of an extreme statement on one topic and professes certainty of no knowledge at all on another. What could be the goal of making both extreme and no-knowledge statements confidently? If the person wanted to pretend to be well-informed, then confidence helps with that, but claiming no knowledge would be counterproductive. Blaming the lack of knowledge on external forces and claiming that the truth is unknowable or will never be discovered helps excuse one’s lack of knowledge. The person can then pretend to be informed to the best extent possible (a constrained maximum of knowledge) or at least know more than others (a relative maximum).

Extreme statements suggest to an approximately Bayesian audience that the claimer has received many precise signals in the direction of the extreme statement and as a result has updated the belief far from the average prior belief in society. Confident statements also suggest many precise signals to Bayesians. The audience does not need to be Bayesian to form these interpretations – updating in some way towards the signal is sufficient, as is behavioural believing that confidence or extreme claims demonstrate the quality of the claimer’s information. A precisely estimated zero, such as confidently saying both x and not-x are equally likely, also signals good information. Similarly, being confident that the truth is unknowable.

Being perceived as having precise information helps influence others. If people believe that the claimer is well-informed and has interests more aligned than opposed to theirs, then it is rational to follow the claimer’s recommendation. Having influence is generally profitable. This explains the lack of moderate-confidence statements and claims of personal but not collective uncertainty.

A question that remains is why confident moderate statements are almost absent. Why not claim with certainty that 60% of the time, the drug works and 40% of the time, it doesn’t? Or confidently state that a third of the wage gap/racial bias/country development is explained by discrimination, a third by statistical discrimination or measurement error and a third by unknown factors that need further research? Confidence should still suggest precise information no matter what the statement is about.

Of course, if fools are confident and researchers honestly state their uncertainty, then the certainty of a statement shows the foolishness of the speaker. If confidence makes the audience believe the speaker is well-informed, then either the audience is irrational in a particular way or believes that the speaker’s confidence is correlated with the precision of the information in the particular dimension being talked about. If the audience has a long history of communication with the speaker, then they may have experience that the speaker is generally truthful, acts similarly across situations and expresses the correct level of confidence on unemotional topics. The audience may fail to notice when the speaker becomes a spreader of conspiracies or becomes emotionally involved in a topic and therefore is trying to persuade, not inform. If the audience is still relatively confident in the speaker’s honesty, then the speaker sways them more by confidence and extreme positions than by admitting uncertainty or a moderate viewpoint.

The communication described above may be modelled as the claimer conveying three-dimensional information with two two-dimensional signals. One dimension of the information is the extent to which the statement is true. For example, how beneficial is a drug or how harmful an additive. A second dimension is how uncertain the truth value of the statement is – whether the drug helps exactly 55% of patients or may help anywhere between 20 and 90%, between which all percentages are equally likely. A third dimension is the minimal attainable level of uncertainty – how much the truth is knowable in this question. This is related to whether some agency is actively hiding the truth or researchers have determined it and are trying to educate the population about it. The second and third dimensions are correlated. The lower is the lowest possible uncertainty, the more certain the truth value of the statement can be. It cannot be more certain than the laws of physics allow.

The two dimensions of one signal (the message of the claimer) are the extent to which the statement is true and how certain the claimer is of the truth value. Confidence emphasises that the claimer is certain about the truth value, regardless of whether this value is true or false. The claim itself is the first dimension of the signal. The reason the third dimension of the information is not part of the first signal is that the claim that the truth is unknowable is itself a second claim about the world, i.e. a second two-dimensional signal saying how much some agency is hiding or publicising the truth and how certain the speaker is of the direction and extent of the agency’s activity.

Opinion expressers in (social) media usually choose an extreme value for both dimensions of both signals. They claim some statement about the world is either the ultimate truth or completely false or unknowable and exactly in the middle, not a moderate distance to one side. In the second dimension of both signals, the opinionated people express complete certainty. If the first signal says the statement is true or false, then the second signal is not sent and is not needed, because if there is complete certainty of the truth value of the statement, then the statement must be perfectly knowable. If the first signal says the statement is fifty-fifty (the speaker does not know whether true or false), then in the second signal, the speaker claims that the truth is absolutely not knowable. This excuses the speaker’s claimed lack of knowledge as due to an objective impossibility, instead of the speaker’s limited data and understanding.

Animal experiments on whether pose and expression control mood

Amy Cuddy promoted power poses which she claimed boosted confidence and success. Replication of her results failed (the effects were not found in other psychology studies), then succeeded again, so the debate continues. Similarly, adopting a smiling expression makes people happier. Measuring the psychological effects of posture and expression is complicated in humans. For example, due to experimenter demand effects. Animals are simpler and cheaper to experiment with, but I did not find any animal experiments on power poses on Google Scholar on 28.03.2021.

The idea of the experiment is to move the animal into a confident or scared pose and measure the resulting behaviour, stress hormones, dominance hormones, maybe scan the brain. Potentially mood-affecting poses differ between animals, but are well-known for common pets. Lifting a dog’s tail up its back is a confident pose. Moving the tail side to side or putting the chest close to the ground and butt up in a “play-with-me bow” is happy, excited. Putting the dog’s tail between the legs is scared. Moving the dog’s gums back to bare its teeth is angry. Arching a cat’s back is angry. Curling the cat up and half-closing its eyes is contented.

The main problem is that the animal may resist being moved into these poses or get stressed by the unfamiliar treatment. A period of habituation training is needed, but if the pose has an effect, then part of this effect realises during the habituation. In this case, the measured effect size is attenuated, i.e. the pre- and post-treatment mood and behaviour look similar.

A similar experiment in people is to have a person or a robot move the limbs of the participants of the experiment into power poses instead of asking them to assume the pose. The excuse or distraction from the true purpose of the experiment may be light physical exercise, physical therapy or massage. This includes a facial massage, which may stretch the face into a smile or compress into a frown. The usual questionnaires and measurements may be administered after moving the body or face into these poses or expressions.

Reduce temptation by blocking images

Web shops try to tempt customers into unnecessary and even harmful purchases, including grocery and food ordering sites which promote unhealthy meals. The temptation can be reduced by blocking images on shopping websites. I find it useful when ordering food. Similarly, Facebook and news sites try to tempt viewers with clickbait and ads. To reduce my time-wasting, I make the clickbait less attractive by blocking images. The pictures in most news stories do not contribute any information – a story about a firm has a photo of the main building or logo of the firm or the face of its CEO, a “world leaders react to x” story has pictures of said leaders.

The blocking may require a browser extension (“block images”) and each browser and version has a little different steps for this.

In Chromium on 20 Jan 2021, no extension is needed:

1) click the three vertical dots at the top right,

2) click Settings to go to chrome://settings/,

3) scroll down to Site settings, click it,

4) scroll down to Images, click it.

5) Click the Add button to the right of the Block heading. A dialog pops up to enter a web address.

6) Copy the url of the site on which you want to block pictures, for example https://webshop.com into the Site field.

If seeing the images is necessary for some reason, then re-enable images on the website: follow steps 1-4 above, then click the three vertical dots under the Add button under the Block heading. A menu of three options pops up. Click the Allow option.

Alternatively, you may block all images on all websites and then allow only specific sites to show images. For this, follow steps 1-4 above, then click the blue button to the right of the Allow all (recommended) heading. Then click the Add button next to Allow. A dialog pops up to enter a web address. Copy the url of the site on which you want to block pictures, for example https://webshop.com into the Site field.

Partial cleaning may make surfaces look dirtier

The reason why incomplete cleaning may increase the visual perception of dirt is by increasing the contrast between the patches of thicker grime and the normal colour by removing a uniform covering of thinner dirt. If something is uniformly grimy, then the colour of the covering dirt may be perceived as the thing’s normal hue. Cleaning may remove approximately the same thickness of dirt from all points on the surface. If some patches initially have a thicker layer, then these remain the colour of the dirt after the cleaning, but other areas may be fully cleaned and revert to the original look of the surface. The human visual system mostly perceives contrast, not the absolute wavelength of the reflected light, as various optical illusions demonstrate. Higher contrast between the thicker patches of grime and the rest of the surface then enhances the perception of dirtiness.

Tradeoff between flashiness and competitive advantage in sports

Sports equipment is often brightly coloured, with eye-catching shape, such as for bicycle frames. Sometimes flashiness is beneficial, for example improving the visibility of a bike or a runner on the road, or a boat on the water. However, in sports where competitors act directly against each other (ballgames, racquet sports, fencing), eye-catching equipment makes it easier for opponents to track one’s movements, which is a disadvantage. For a similar reason, practical military equipment is camouflaged and dull-coloured, unlike dress uniforms.

Athletes would probably gain a small advantage by using either dull grey clothing, perhaps with camouflage spots, or equipment that matches the colour of the sports arena, e.g. green grass-patterned shoes and socks for a football field, blue or red for a tennis court. Eye-deceiving colouring would be especially useful in competitions based on rapid accurate movement and feints, such as fencing or badminton.

Another option for interfering with an opponent’s tracking of one’s movements is to use reflective clothing (mirror surfaces, safety orange or neon yellow) to blind the rival. This would work especially well for outdoor sports in the sunshine or in stadiums lit by floodlights.

One downside of dull clothing may be that it does not inspire fans or sponsors, so wearing it may reduce the athlete’s income from merchandise and advertising. A similar tradeoff occurs in real vs movie fighting. Blindingly bright equipment does not have this disadvantage.

Another downside of camouflage may occur if it replaces red clothing, which has been found to give football teams a small advantage. The reason is psychological: red makes the wearers more aggressive and the opponents less.

Adapting to a low-salt diet is quick

Overconsumption of salt is a significant public health problem. People are reluctant to reduce the saltiness of their food, because it would taste bland. Eventually, preferences adjust so that a diet without added salt tastes normal and salted foods are perceived as too salty. The only question is how quickly tastes adapt.

My experience of stopping adding any salt to my food was that the bland taste lasted less than 3 days, after which I had fully adjusted to the new reduced level of saltiness. An easier way to adapt may be to gradually reduce the amount of added salt, as opposed to suddenly cutting off all of it, as I did. In that case, there may be no perceived taste difference, especially if the reduced salt is accompanied with increased amounts of other seasoning, like pepper. Given the smallness of the adjustment cost and the health benefit of cutting salt consumption, doing it is a clear and easy win.

Claims that tickets are running out

Both for paid and free events, the organisers often advertise that only a few tickets or places remain. The ad sometimes explicitly tells the viewer to register or buy now. Such advertising is costly, so there should be a benefit to the organiser. If the tickets have already sold out, then the benefit is zero, or at least smaller than if the event is not fully booked. The positive benefit from advertising a sold-out event is to build reputation for the future as an organiser of popular events, similarly to real estate agents putting a „Sold” sign in front of a house on which they closed the deal.

Given that the benefit of costly advertising is smaller when no tickets remain, some sellers should decide to advertise if and only if the event has not sold out. More generally, the probability of advertising should increase in the number of tickets remaining. In this case, rational buyers should treat advertisements saying that limited spaces remain as signals of the opposite – frequent ads show a desperate seller facing low demand. If most buyers think this way, then such advertising is counterproductive, because buyers want to delay their purchases when the probability of being able to buy in the future is large enough. The option value of waiting comes from the possibility that the buyer’s preferences change – a better event may become available, or some emergency may prevent the buyer from attending. Getting a refund for a ticket already bought is at least a hassle and may even be impossible.

The widespread claims of limited space remaining suggest that these ads boost purchases. One reason may be buyer attention – ads make them notice the opportunity to buy, which some of them wish to take advantage of. However, any ads draw attention to the event, so raising awareness cannot be the reason for the specific claim that tickets are running out.

For most events, buyers do not want to coordinate with the largest possible crowd, only with their friends, so do not prefer a fully booked event to a half-full one. Thus claims that the event is almost sold out are difficult to explain by the seller trying to coordinate buyer actions.

Some irrationality of buyers or the seller seems necessary to explain messages that demand is low. Either the buyers take the claim literally instead of using Bayes’ rule to infer the opposite, or the seller advertises despite ads decreasing demand.

It is an empirical question whether the target audience of ads saying that space is running out interprets these as signalling high or low demand, and whether these messages make people delay their purchase or speed it up.

Fund management fee paid explicitly to nudge consumers to choose better funds

Mutual funds with lower management fees have higher future before-fee returns (Gil-Bazo and Ruiz-Verdu 2009). Nonetheless, the high-fee funds have not gone out of business, so there must exist a sizable number of silly customers who accept low returns without switching to competitors. When asked explicitly, all fund investors prefer more money to less. Their hourly wage is not large enough to explain their non-switching with the time and hassle costs of comparing fund returns and choosing a new one. Similarly, many Estonians keep their retirement savings in badly performing high-fee pension funds despite the availability of dominating options (Tuleva and LHV index tracking funds). This is costing the customers over one percent of their retirement wealth per year.

By contrast, people with chronic or expensive diseases in the US often pick the health insurance plan that maximises their wealth (coverage minus premiums). This dynamic optimisation involves switching to a different plan when their illness changes. People without costly medical conditions tend not to switch their insurance even when cheaper plans with higher coverage are available.

Both the pension and the insurance plan decisions are complex, but matter greatly for wealth. Why do people pay attention to the financial consequences of their insurance choice when sick, but ignore better options among pension funds (and when healthy, also among insurance plans)? One possibility is that insurance is more salient to the sick, and the greater attention leads to better decisions. Specifically, the premiums and out of pocket payments for medical procedures frequently remind patients of the financial consequences of their insurance, but the missing returns on one’s retirement assets are not observed without explicit comparison to the stock market or competing funds. Most people do not compare their pension plan to the market, so even in retirement may not know what their (counterfactual) wealth would have been had they chosen a better fund .

If it is lack of attention that causes the bad choice of mutual and pension funds, then one solution (proposed by my friend Hongyu Zhang) is to make the management fees more salient by requiring their explicit payment. For example, every month the customer has to transfer the amount of the management fee from their bank account to the fund. Financially, this is equivalent to the fee being deducted from the retirement assets like now (assuming these assets are eventually taxed the same as income, otherwise the transferred fee can be adjusted to make it financially equivalent to the deduction). The attention required is however greater for an explicit payment than for doing nothing following a lack of capital gains. Similarly, requiring customers to pay the difference between the return of their fund and the market return into the fund every two weeks would nudge them towards greater attention to their retirement account.

In practice, such a nudge is unfortunately politically infeasible. Not only would the fund industry lobby against it, but voters would irrationally perceive the required explicit payments as increased taxes. This would make the transition to transferring fees to funds from customers’ bank accounts very unpopular. If people understood the equivalence between low returns on their assets and explicit payments required of them, then they would be financially literate enough to choose low-fee, high-return index funds in the first place. Thus the problem of low-performing pension funds would be absent. To sum up, the fool and his money are soon separated, and it is difficult to protect people from their own bad decisions.