senza piombo

Self-regulation and alcohol.

Students of ethics and psychology – and just about everyone else – care about self-control. Most believe that self-control is good. A person who exercises self-control to regulate his behavior is a good person because he keeps his baser tendencies in check. A person who offends others in word or deed despite being unimpaired in his capacity to control himself, is judged most harshly.

Elsewhere, I have questioned the wisdom of a blanket call for more self-control. Granted, resisting the allure of Highland Scotch has personal advantages, and social sanctions can help bring these advantages about. They can help guard against overdrinking and thereby protect a person’s long-term health. However, while suppressing a belch when enjoying a Glenlovit also serves to avoid social censure, it does nothing that is good only for the belcher. The social sanctions and what they are designed to help protect against are the same thing. When society teaches morality, ask whose interests are being served. The students’ or the teachers’?

Many drink not as a result of failing self-control, but with the intention to disable self-control. Their goal is to disarm those processes of self-control that work on their own, without being intended. These individuals have desires they cannot express by force of will. Take a man who wants to court a woman or challenge a rival, but who is tethered by fears of rejection and retaliation. The desire to act and the fear of the consequences form a painful approach-avoidance conflict. Yet, both motives come from the same place according to the dualist theory of mind. One mental system, evocatively called “System 1,” houses all that is primitive, quick, and irrational. Another system, cleverly called “System 2,” comprises deliberative or executive thought. Its job is to intervene when System 1 makes a mistake. But what does System 2 do when System 1 is divided against itself with one force seeking action and another force struggling to block it? To use a Freudian metaphor, what is the Ego (System 2) to do if the Id (System 1 desire) and the Superego (System 1 self-control) are deadlocked?

Suppose our man finally tells the lady he fancies what she loves to hear or tells the man he loathes what he really thinks about him. Can we say that his ego made an executive decision to side with the id against the superego? It is not necessary to draw this conclusion. It is sufficient to assume that the id turned out to the stronger. If the ego is to play a distinctive role, it may only be an indirect one. It can regulate the context to either favor the id or the superego. Choosing to drink tilts the scales against the superego so the id can have its way. Freud famously quipped that the superego is soluble in alcohol. Drink does not make our imaginary man more courageous. Instead, it checks one of his irrationalities to let another irrationality express itself. If the actions did not go well, that is, if rejection or retaliation were the result, regret may come the next day, when the superego wakes up to reassert its own brand of irrationality. Cruelly (and irrationally), it will blame the ego for not having assumed the task of self-control.

How is an observer to judge this man? The observer has two options. One is to take the same perspective as the man’s superego and blame the man’s ego for not taking charge. If so, the observer’s moral demand is that the man feel guilt. The other option is to assume that the man’s actions revealed his true self. Here the moral stance is not concerned with the failure to suppress certain actions but with the desire to act that way in the first place. Judging from this perspective, the observer will demand that the man feel shame.

At the outset, I made the folk psychological claim that he who fails to control an undesirable impulse is judged most harshly. As shame is a more destructive emotion than guilt, this view may need to be revised. Shame cuts to the person’s core. Guilt is just concerned with, well, behavior.

Carlock – warlock. Most cars have remote controls with separate buttons for locking and unlocking. Not so my Mini Hyundai rental. The same button locks and unlocks to the same mildly annoying beep-honk. The only tip-off as to what you just did is the number of headlight blinks. There is one for locking and two for unlocking. Or was it the other way round?

ancient bread

Daily bread.

In a country inn in South Tyrol I discovered a shelf with slices of rock-hard bread. The genteel owner explained that the mountain farmers of old only baked twice a year. They shelved the slice-like breads with space between them. The dry mountain air hardened the bread and kept it from getting moldy. For consumption, a loaflet could be hacked or cut into bite-size pieces, which would quickly remoisten in the mouth or when dunked in soup. This mountain bread is surprisingly delicious, and more nutritious than the processed nonsense they offer at Stop and Shop.

Schankverlust. The German word of the day is Schankverlust. It refers to all the various spillages that occur in a public house and reduce its profitability. My great-grandfather, the Kirchenwirt in the village of Steinhagen (he ran the pub near the church) would still take the traditional 7 minutes to draft a pilsner. Topping the drink off slowly and gradually placed a brake on binge drinking, made room for conversation between host and guest, and minimized Schankverlust.

Dessert. What’s an attorney’s favorite dessert? Chocolate lawyer cake.

Note to self. Mountain roads a far curvier than they look on the map.

ultimatum game

Ultimatum game.

Behavioral economics is at its starkest and minimalist in this game. Player 1 makes a proposal about how to divide a purse (say $10) between herself and Player 2. If Player 2 accepts, the money is divided accordingly. If Player 2 refuses, neither gets anything. Standard rationality dictates that Player 1 should offer the smallest possible positive amount (1c), knowing that Player 2 is a rational self-interested being will prefer something over nothing. Yet, the standard empirical finding is that offers are close to 50% on average and that the most common offer is 50%. Offers below 1/4 tend to be rejected. Presumably, proposers have an idea about what is acceptable to the responders, and calibrate their offers accordingly. They can predict what is acceptable to the responder simply by asking themselves how large an offer would have to be so that they themselves would accept it.

Besides standard rationality, certain notions of wisdom also suggest that a responder should accept any amount greater than zero. The idea is that social comparisons are a source of unhappiness. They are invidious, that is, they stir up envy. To focus on how much more the other person has can overshadow the realization that the self would still gain from an accepted offer. To reject an offer of an 8:2 split, for example, is to respond to an unfavorable social comparison with spite.

Yet, the rejection of a low offer is not necessarily stupid or unwise. It sends a signal that equity is being valued and that its normative force is being asserted at a cost to the responder. At the same time, the responder is sending a personal message to the proposer that she is not to be trifled with.

When an unfavorable offer, say 8:2, is rejected, there remains some uncertainty about what exactly the responder objects to. Is it that she stands to receive less than 50% or is it that the proposer stands to receive more than 50%. Does she feel cheated out of a fair shake, or does she think the proposer is claiming an undeserved profit? In the game, these two aspects of inequality are perfectly confounded.

Suppose the game were slightly modified to make it look like an inequality arose either because only the responder must pay a special tax or because only the proposer is to receive a bonus. In the first case, the proposer offers a 5:5 split with the clause that if the deal is accepted, the responder must return $2 to the experimenter. In the second case, the proposer also offers a 5:5 split, but the stipulation is that if the deal is accepted, the experimenter will pay the proposer an extra $3.33. The two cases amount to the same inequity. The proposer stands to take 5/8 of the money. If, however, responders focus on how poorly they are doing having to bear the burden of the tax, they will find the first deal more objectionable than the second. Conversely, if they resent the proposers special bonus, they will object more to the second deal.

Consider another wrinkle. Responders may be particularly upset by losses of equity. If so, they would hate the second of the following two scenarios. In the first scenario, the proposer offers a 7:3 split. In the second scenario the first offer is 5:5, which is likely accepted, followed by a 7:3 offer. The responder may take an “I-thought-we-had-a-deal” view and walk away. If so, the critical motivation may not be the social comparison but the comparison between what the responder figured she deserved and what was offered. Alternatively, responders could be more likely to accept a bad deal if it followed an equitable one. This possibility is suggested by research on the bait-and-switch tactic in negotiation, where compliance is higher if people expressed a willingness to deal before, and then, under some pretext, conditions turn out to be less favorable than expected.

Maestro Matteo

Music and happiness.

On the via Pignolo in Bergamo, Matteo Pontiggia has his shop where he makes violins and other string instruments. He was trained in the Stradivari School in Cremona. A violin runs about 4,000 euros. He also restores instruments. Here he is seen working on an 80-year old violin. Matteo’s title is Maestro Liutaio, a master lute maker. He auditioned for a role in The Red Violin. Where’s the psychology here? It lies in appreciating the economic and emotional value of creating a piece of art, which in turns will be used to make people – players and listeners alike – happy. People working in certain service industries have to think harder to find an argument for how they contribute to happiness. It may be possible, but it is harder. 


I am more humble than the average person.

~ Anonymous

A paradox of self-enhancement. It is a stylized fact of social perception that most people self-enhance in the sense that they claim to be better than the average person. Of course, it is necessary to distinguish between those who claim to be better and are, and those who claim to be better and are not. Only the latter are true self-enhancers. Another stylized fact is that self-enhancement is more common in the domain of morality than in the domain of competence. It is easier to claim that one is a socially well-meaning person than it is to claim that one is a particularly smart person. The former claim is harder to falsify.

The paradox of comparative self-ratings in the domain of morality is that rating oneself as being better than others is itself an expression of one’s position on the morality scale and that it directly contradicts that which is being claimed. Consider the task of rating one’s own humility in comparison to the average person. A truly humble person would have to rate herself below average, and thus lie, which is immoral. Conversely, a humble person who rates herself as more humble than average commits an act of inhumility. Measurement will succeed only if the respondent is persuaded to mentally separate the act of making a judgment from what is being judged. It would appear to be difficult to ascertain whether she managed to do that.

Some revered moral exemplars (e.g., the Dalai Lama) assert that they are ordinary people. They neither claim any kind of superiority, nor do they debase themselves. Their critics might still charge that these individuals are being coy, but what are they to do instead? A radical solution is to make no self-referent statements at all.

Trust – Distrust. Psychologists tend to see trust and distrust as being located along a single dimension. People vary in their propensity to trust; some trust a lot, whereas others trust very little. Where they fall on the dimension of trust to distrust depends on their behavior, or their own report of it. If we allow their emotional responses to the trust dilemma to be part of the picture, the space of individual differences becomes more complex. Suppose people differ both in their need to trust and in their need to avoid betrayal. In the resulting two-dimensional landscape, individuals in whom both needs are strong are the most interesting and also the most conflicted. Since they cannot both trust and distrust at the same time, they may split the difference and end up with an intermediate level of trust. Alternatively, they make a choice, and are then quick to regret it. Individuals who are high in one need and low in the other, have an easdier time. Their motive to trust (which is a promotion motive) and their motive to avoid betrayal (which is a prevention motive) are aligned. Finally, individuals who are low in both motives are socially disengaged. They may trust or not, but they are not particularly invested in the outcome.

Trust the healer. I headed to the small Lombard town of Calusco d’Adda to deliver myself into the hands of a Japanese healer. She came highly recommended by Latvian and Mexican friends whom I had not known two days ago. The healer, who besides being fluent in Japanese and Italian also spoke some English and little German, asked me what ailed me and then proceeded to work on body parts whose locations were uncorrelated with those that I had pointed out as in need of attention. We got along famously. She probed and prodded my body manually and with the aid of low-current electrical devices that sent tingles from scalp to sole. Now this was actual energy at work. I felt progressively relaxed. Madame also started up an antique boom box to emit low-volume sounds that resembled neither the tunes of a Japanese tea ceremony nor the gurgling bamboo sounds that go with a Thai massage. An hour later, and after having had to apply the accu-electric pressure myself for some stretches, I felt restored in body and spirit, though an unsettling memory of Madame frequently uttering the word “problem” while probing me remained. As mind and body age, trust in healers comes more easily. The fact that trust was at stake impressed itself when Madame proceeded to beat the crap (scusi) out of my back with her bare hands. It was all for the good, or perhaps it was for nothing, but it was not bad.

From Diagoras to Dawes. Robyn Dawes taught that much of human decision-making gets messed up because people don’t realize how biased the samples of their experience are. Robyn liked to point out that clinicians are liable to overestimate the necessity of psychotherapy because people who get better on their own do not seek help. He called this failure to appreciate this asymmetry the structural availability bias. The term availability bias refers the general tendency to base frequency judgment on that which comes to mind, and specifically, that which comes to mind easily. The qualifier structural refers to the asymmetry in availability that resides in the environment. The mind is not responsible for generating a biased sample; it is only responsible for the failure to correct for biased input, which is of course hard to do.

The structural availability bias is pervasive. Wherever you look at testimonials praising this, that, or the other, caution is advised. This bias has been familiar to thoughtful observers for a long time. In his essay on prophesy, Montaigne (presumably relying on Cicero) relates the story of Diagoras of Melos, “whom they called the atheist.” When visiting Samothrake, Diagoras was shown the many offerings grateful shipwreck survivors had left for the gods. “This is because – he replied – the drowned, of whom there were many more, did not get to participate in the offerings” (my translation).

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