One Among Many

The self in social context

Fine Cantiere

Gathering after the hunt

fine cantiere

Strizza Cervelli Tedescolese!

~ Parmagiana coffee merchant's interpretation of who I am

The sign fine cantiere has puzzled me for weeks. I think it refers to the end of a construction zone. The placement of these signs suggests as much. Seeing signs reading inzio cantiere where road repair begins supports this interpretation.

Part of the University of Bergamo is housed in the old convent of Sant’Agostino on the Venetian walls. To get through the gate and to the classroom, I press a button that reads chiostro (cloister). In some of the classrooms, saints look on through the remnants of medieval frescoes. In this environment, I derive pleasure from telling my students about the work of Fra Luca dal Borgo (a.k.a. Paccioli) who published what was known about mathematics and decision making in 1495. This is probably not what the students expected, and so we move onto to contemporary research.

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Sant'Agostino
The students are motivated and diligent. They are willing to read articles that are somewhat technical and attend lectures delivered in somewhat accented English and under acoustically challenging conditions (the architecture of the convent encourages chanting). Like students elsewhere, they worry about exams. To lessen their worry, I told them they will have to do no writing beyond filling in blanks. The topic of the course is Psychology in Business and Economics, which is more a reflection of what I want to teach than what the students want to learn. Many say they are there mainly for the anglophone experience. When the topic of neuro-economics came up, several students spontaneously brought up mirror neurons, which makes me think an ethnocentric bias is at play. Mirror neurons were discovered at the University of Parma by Dr. Rizzolatti and colleagues. Nonetheless, I welcomed the contribution. My understanding of what the university is trying to accomplish with offering a few English-language courses remains spotty. Their latest move was to announce a 50% cut of each course for next year (mezzo prezzo). It will be interesting to see how the university will recruit lecturers.

Working for the U of Bergamo requires openness to new experiences. My schedule of classes and the time of the exam had been changed before I arrived and I was told that I would hold office hours after the exam. I further learned that students missing more than 2 of 10 sessions cannot take the exam. Meanwhile, I am learning that other professors have moved their exams to overlap with three of my sessions, which puts 4 students into jeopardy. Circumnavigating these shoals is not easy and I feel bad for the students. In Freedom and Power, I argued that making one’s behavior unpredictable is a power-claiming tactic. By this account, the UB and some of its agents are powerful.

via Pignolo 1
Back to architecture. For me, Bergamo is the second location after Warsaw where I taught in a building that was at one time used by the Gestapo. Via Pignolo 1, which is now a modern university space, housed Nazi police from 1943 to 1945 (see commemorative plaque). The Warsaw experience was darker still because there, the Department of Psychology is situated in a building that was originally a Hebrew school and then a Gestapo headquarters, and which sits across the street from the infamous Umschlagplatz, where Jews were put on trucks to be shipped to extermination camps. I don’t suppose there is a trend here, but it is spooky.

Pisa times 2
Flipped classroom. I made use of several TED talks and two of Dan Ariely’s lectures from his massively open online course (MOOC). The experience was mixed. On the one hand, I enjoyed being able to expose my students to some of the trendsetters and game changers in the field. On the other hand, I found some of the presentations self-serving, shallow, or incompetent (I commented in Frutti di Bosco). Dan Ariely does a great job, playing the roles of a story-telling rebbe, a curious kid, and a savvy experimentalist. But even he has to dumb it down in the interest of making enrolment even more massive. Consider an example. Dan studies irrationality in judgment and decision-making, and he has done important and creative work to demonstrate both familiar and novel irrationalities. He, like Kahneman and Tversky before him, makes the rhetorical argument that decision errors are like optical illusions. To illustrate the latter, he shows two identical pictures of the leaning tower of Pisa. In the picture on the right, the tower seems to be leaning more. When the two pictures are switched, the audience appreciates the illusion (in reality of course, the tower is not leaning at all; it’s the earth’s curvature that gives the impression).

Like every psychologist who makes a living off the metaphorical equivalence of optical and decision illusions, Ariely never proves that equivalence. He would have to explain how decision illusions reveal that the mental decision-making system works quite well under most realistic circumstances, for this is what optical illusions do for the visual system. Optical illusions trickily exploit the very features of the visual system that let it succeed most of the time (see here for a good explanation of the Pisa illusion). Of course, the master narrative of the irrationalist school of human judgment and decision-making has other plans. It seeks to show that most people are predictably irrational most of the time and that’s the end of that story.

Ariely presents one clever decision illusion that comes close to rivaling optical illusions in its sheer primitive power. When talking about the opportunity costs that come with every purchase (i.e., now that the money is gone, you can’t spend it on anything else), he notes that people prefer a $700 stereo that comes with $300 worth of DVDs to a $700 stereo that was discounted from $1,000. This is irrational because it defeats self-interest. One could spend the saved $300 on a lot of things other than DVDs, and many of those things could have greater personal value. Ariely does not, however, help the audience think through the implications. If people irrationally underestimate opportunity costs, should they not abstain from all purchases that are not dictated by clear and present need? Yet, if they kept all the money and ended up consuming nothing, would that not be most irrational?

We do not yet understand all the consequences of Youtube lectures by famous scientists. These lectures generate rational revenue for the scientists (one hopes), their universities, and advertisers. They may also raise public awareness of and interest in a field of study. A potential downside is that the dominance of these lectures reduces the diversity of academic opinion. Even someone like Danny Kahneman cannot claim to speak for the entire field of judgment and decision-making. Another downside is the resurgence of story-telling, so vividly demonstrated by Dan Ariely. The more compelling the story is, the less the audience will realize that it can only be the first step on the road to understanding. Now, why is it that the tower Pisa shown on the right seems to lean more when? What does it tell us about the visual system? Why is it that a stereo with bonus DVDs seems like a better deal than a discounted stereo? What does it tell us about the decision-making system?

Vishnu dreaming
Poor neuroscience. My psychoanalysis of neuroscience is that it has an inferiority complex to which it has responded with overcompensation. One of its warriors (a woman; I forget who) announced in a psychology colloquium that only if you see what the brain does, do you really understand what’s going on. I suspect that the sentiment is common. And it is a self-destructive one. Neuroscience cannot amount to much without psychology. There is no way to avoid anchoring its findings in experience and behavior. Sure, you can conduct studies to see how activity in one brain area is related to activity in another. And then what? Suppose you had a brain that worked in complicated ways without producing either experience or behavior. That would be a gigantic waste, or at least a deep mystery. When the brain is deprived of stimulation, it creates experience spontaneously. The brain must create something and that something is experience and behavior. Experience and behavior are how the brain self-actualizes. If you are theistically inclined, you may contemplate the mind (brain) of god from this perspective. What would the mind of god be had it not created the world? It had no choice but to create something. The dream of Vishnu? Same idea.

Buffet
Buffet. My course had class today, a day on which most courses took an exam. The announcement screen therefore stated that my course would have a recupero lezione. We had a good time recuperating. When I walked into the chiostro Sant’Agostino, one student advised me to check out the professors-only buffet. Indeed, one room was set up with pasta, cheese, salami, wine, and coffee for professors to enjoy while their students were sweating out their exams. I have to say, this has a certain appeal, and I put up little resistance.

Ultima parola. After having had fun with Fuori Servizio, Corto Circùito, Senza Piombo, Passo Carrabile, Frutti di Bosco, and Fine Cantiere, I moved on with Divano Letto, Dami Cinque, Brutto Tempo, Tutto a Posto,and Meta Prezzo

 

Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.

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