Why you want to wash your hands when you feel guilty — Ideas.TED.com

SCIENCE – Robert Sapolsky –  May 10, 2017


Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky shows us the surprising ways that our brains get mixed up between the physical and metaphorical — and how this can pit us against each other.

When humans put pigment to wall in Lascaux Cave more than 17,000 years ago, the point was to minimize the distance between object and representation, to be as close as possible to possessing the real horse. To gain its power, as imbued in a symbol.

The clearest human mastery of symbolism comes with our use of language. Suppose you are being menaced by something and thus scream your head off. Someone listening can’t tell if it’s in response to a suicide bomber or Komodo dragon. Most animal communication is about such present-tense emotionality.

Symbolic language brought huge evolutionary advantages. This can be seen even in the starts of symbolism of other species. When vervet monkeys, for instance, spot a predator, they don’t generically scream. They use distinct vocalizations, different “protowords,” where one means “Predator on the ground, run up the tree!” and another means “Predator in the air, run down the tree!” Evolving the cognitive capacity to make that distinction is useful, as it prompts you to run away from danger. Language pries apart a message from its meaning, and as our ancestors improved at this separation, their advantages accrued.

Our brains are winging it and improvising on the fly when dealing with metaphor.

The height of the symbolic features of language is our use of metaphor. Metaphors are everywhere in language — we may literally and physically be “in” a room, but we are only metaphorically inside something when we are “in” a good mood, “in” cahoots with someone or “in” love. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when ordering all of them on deck, and that June doesn’t really bust out all over. These capacities evolved so recently that our brains are, if you will, winging it and improvising on the fly when dealing with metaphor. As a result, we are pretty lousy at distinguishing between the metaphorical and literal, at remembering that “it’s only a figure of speech” — with enormous consequences for our best and worst behaviors.

If humans (or any other mammal) bite into rancid food, the insular cortex lights up and processes gustatory disgust, causing us to spit it out, gag, feel nauseated, make a revolted facial expression. Ditto for revolting smells. We wrinkle our nose, raise our upper lip, narrow our eyes. All of this behavior is intended to protect us from toxins and infectious pathogens.

As humans we do some fancier things. When we think about rancid food, the insula activates; when we look at faces showing disgust, the same occurs. Most important, if you think about a truly reprehensible act, the same occurs. The insula mediates visceral responses to norm violations; the more activation, the more condemnation. This is visceral, not just metaphorically visceral. When I heard about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, “feeling sick to my stomach” wasn’t a mere figure of speech. When I imagined the reality of the murder of 20 first-graders and the six adults protecting them, I felt nauseous. The insula not only prompts the stomach to purge itself of toxic food, it also prompts the stomach to purge the reality of a nightmarish event. The distance between the symbolic message and the meaning disappears.

Hearing about virtuous moral acts makes drinks taste better.

This linking of visceral and moral disgust is bi-directional. As shown in a number of studies, contemplating a morally disgusting act leaves more than a metaphorical bad taste in your mouth — people eat less immediately afterward, and a neutral-tasting beverage drunk afterward is rated as having a more negative taste (conversely, hearing about virtuous moral acts made the drink taste better).

The physiological core of gustatory disgust is to protect yourself against pathogens. The core of the intermixing of visceral and moral disgust is a sense of threat as well. A socially conservative stance about, say, gay marriage is not just that it is simply wrong in an abstract sense, but that it constitutes a threat — to the sanctity of marriage and family values.

This element of threat is shown in a great study in which subjects either did or didn’t read an article about the health risks of airborne bacteria. All then read a history article that used imagery of America as a living organism, with statements like “Following the Civil War, the United States underwent a growth spurt.” Those who read about scary bacteria before thinking about the US as an organism were then more likely to express negative views about immigration (without changing attitudes about an economic issue).

First you’re disgusted by how Others smell, a gateway to then being disgusted by how Others think.

My guess is that people with a stereotypically conservative exclusionary stance about immigration rarely have the sense that they feel disgusted that people elsewhere in the world would want to come to the United States for better lives. Instead, there is threat by the rabble, the unwashed masses, to the American way of life. How cerebral is this intertwining of visceral and moral disgust? Does the insula get involved in moral disgust only if it’s of a particularly gruesome nature — blood and guts, body parts?

It is clear that the intertwining of visceral and moral disgust is, at the least, greatest when the latter taps into core disgust. To repeat a neat quote from psychology professor Paul Rozin, “Disgust serves as an ethnic or out-group marker.” First you’re disgusted by how Others smell, a gateway to then being disgusted by how Others think.

Literal cleanliness and orderliness can release us from abstract cognitive and affective distress — just consider how, during moments where life seems to be spiraling out of control, it can be calming to organize your clothes, clean the living room, get the car washed. The ability of literal cleanliness to alter cognition was shown in one study. Subjects examined an array of music CDs, picked 10 that they liked, and ranked them in order of liking. They were then offered a free copy of one of their midrange choices (number five or six). Subjects were then distracted with some other task and then asked to re-rank the ten CDs. They showed a common psychological phenomenon, which was to now overvalue the CD they’d been given, ranking it higher on the list than before. Unless they had just washed their hands (ostensibly to try a new brand of soap), in which case no re-ranking occurred. Clean hands, clean slate.

We intertwine physical and moral purity when it comes to our own actions. In one of my all-time favorite psychology studiesChen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist of Northwestern University demonstrated that the brain has trouble distinguishing between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. Subjects were asked to recount either a moral or an immoral act in their past. Afterward, as a token of appreciation, the researchers offered the volunteers a choice between the gift of a pencil and a package of antiseptic wipes. The folks who had just wallowed in their ethical failures were more likely to go for the wipes. Another study, showing the same effect when people were instructed to lie, demonstrated that the more adversely consequential the lie was presented as being, the more washing subjects did. Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate weren’t the only ones to at least try to absolve their sins by washing their hands, and this phenomenon of embodied cognition is referred to as the “Macbeth effect.”

In one study, liars were more likely to pick complimentary cleansing products than subjects who were truthful.

This effect is remarkably concrete. In another study, subjects were instructed to lie about something — with either their mouths (i.e., to tell a lie) or their hands (i.e., to write down a lie). Afterward, remarkably, liars were more likely to pick complimentary cleansing products than control subjects who communicated something truthful: the immoral mouthers were more likely to pick a mouthwash sample; the immoral scribes, hand soap. Furthermore, as shown with neuroimaging, when contemplating mouthwash versus soap, those who’d just spoken a lie activated parts of the sensorimotor cortex related to the mouth (i.e., the subjects were more aware of their mouths at the time); those who had written the lie activated the cortical regions mapping onto their hand.

Another fascinating study showed the influence of culture in the Macbeth effect. The studies previously cited were carried out with European or American subjects. When the same is done with East Asian subjects, the urge afterward is to wash the face, rather than the hands. If you are going to save face, it should be a clean one.

Finally, this intermixing of moral and physical hygiene affects the way we actually behave. That original study on contemplating one’s moral failings and the subsequent desire to wash hands included a second experiment. As before, subjects were told to recall an immoral act of theirs. Afterward subjects either did or didn’t have the opportunity to clean their hands. Those who were able to wash were less likely to respond to a subsequent (experimentally staged) request for help. In another study, merely watching someone else wash their hands in this situation (versus watching them type) also decreased helpfulness afterward (although to a lesser extent than the subject washing). Many of our moments of prosociality, of altruism and Good Samaritanism, are acts of restitution, attempts to counter our antisocial moments. What these studies show is that if those metaphorically dirtied hands have been unmetaphorically washed in the interim, they’re less likely to reach out to try to balance the scales.

Our brains’ confusion of the metaphorical with the literal literally matters. We know that there is an array of mechanisms used by various species for recognizing kin and degree of relatedness — e.g., genetically shaped pheromonal signatures and imprinting on the female whose birdsong you heard a lot while you were still inside an egg. And we’ve seen among other primates there are cognitive components as well. For instance, male baboons’ degree of paternalism can be predicted by their likelihood of being the father.

By the time we get to humans, the process is mostly cognitive. We can think our way to deciding who is a relative, who is an Us. And thus, we can be manipulated into thinking that some individuals are more related to us, and others less so, than they actually are — there are numerous ways to get someone to think that an Other is so different they barely count as human. But as propagandists and ideologues have long known, if you want to get someone to feel that an Other hardly counts as human, there is only one way to do it: engage the insula. And the surest way to do that is with metaphor.

Excerpted from the new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. © 2017 Robert Sapolsky.


​Mental Model: Hanlon’s Razor |farnamstreetblog.com | April 24, 2017

If you ever feel that the world is against you, you are not alone. We all have a tendency to assume that when anything goes wrong, the fault lies within some great conspiracy against us. A co-worker fails to give you a report in time? They must be trying to derail your career and beat you to a promotion. Your child drops and breaks an expensive plate? They must be trying to annoy you and waste your time. WiFi in a coffee shop not working? The staff must be lying about having it to lure you in and sample their crappy espresso.
But the simple fact is that these explanations which we tend to jump to are rarely true. Maybe your co-worker thought today was Tuesday, not Wednesday. Maybe your child had sticky hands from playing with play-doh. Maybe the WiFi router was just broken. This is where Hanlon’s Razor comes in.

Hanlon’s Razor is a useful mental model best summarized as “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.”. Like Occam’s Razor, this heuristic is a useful tool for rapid decision-making and intelligent cognition. Applying Hanlon’s Razor in our day-to-day lives, allows us to better develop relationships, become less judgmental, and improves rationality. Hanlon’s razor allows us to give people the benefit of the doubt and have more empathy. In this way, the value of Hanlon’s razor is pronounced in relationships and business matters.

It’s a simple fact that most of us spend a large part of our day communicating with others and making choices based on that. We all lead complex lives wherein (as Murphy’s Law states) things are constantly going wrong. When this occurs, a common response is to blame the nearest person and assume they have malicious intent. People are quick to accuse corporations, politicians, their bosses, employees, coffee shop workers and even family of trying to derail them. When someone messes up around us, we forget how many times we too have done the same. We forget how many times we have elbowed someone in the street, knocked over a drink at a relative’s house or forgotten to meet a friend at the right time. Instead, the perpetrator becomes a source of intense irritation. To assume intent in such a situation is likely to worsen the problem. None of us can ever know what someone else wanted to happen. The smartest people make a lot of mistakes. Inability or neglect is far more likely to be the cause than malice. When a situation causes us to become angry or frustrated, it can be valuable to consider if those emotions are justified. Often, the best way to react to other people causing us problems is by seeking to educate them, not to disdain them. In this way, we can avoid repeats of the same situation.

The phrase ‘Hanlon’s Razor’ was coined by Robert J. Hanlon, but it has been voiced by many people throughout history, as far back as 1774. Napoleon Bonaparte famously declared, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” 

Goethe wrote similarly in The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774:

Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.

German General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord used Hanlon’s Razor to assess his men, saying: 

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent – their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy – they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent – he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

Hanlon’s Razor works best when combined and contrasted with other mental models in our latticework of knowledge. Here are some examples of it’s useful interactions:

  • The availability heuristic. This mental model states we misjudge the frequency of recent events. In particular, this occurs if they are vivid and memorable. Many people have a tendency to keep an internal scorecard of other people’s mistakes. For example, imagine that a taxi driver takes a wrong turn and makes a journey more expensive. A month later, the same thing occurs with a different driver. We are likely to recall the previous event and react by seeing all taxi drivers as malicious. Instead of accepting both as simple mistakes, the availability of the memory makes us imagine malicious intent. By combining these two mental models, we can understand why certain situations provoke such strong emotions. When a memory is vivid and easy to recall, we may ignore Hanlon’s Razor.
  • Confirmation bias. We all have a tendency to look for information which confirms preexisting beliefs. When cognitive dissonance arises, we aim to realign our worldviews. Overcoming confirmation bias is a huge step towards making better choices motivated by logic, not emotions. Hanlon’s Razor assists with this. If we expect malicious intent, we are likely to attribute it wherever possible. For example, if someone sees a certain politician as corrupt, they will look for information which confirms that. They become unable to identify when mistakes are the result of incompetence or accident.
  • Bias from disliking/hating. Hanlon’s Razor can provide insights when we deal with people, institutions, or entities which we dislike. The more we dislike someone or something, the more likely we are to attribute their actions to malice. When someone we dislike makes a mistake, reacting with empathy and understanding tends to be the last response. Acting in an emotional way is natural, yet immature. It can only worsen the situation. The smartest solution is, no matter how much we dislike someone, to assume neglect or incompetence. 
  • We also like to attribute our own flaws and failures to someone else, which is a cheap psychological protective mechanism called projection. This allows us to maintain a positive self-image and view friction as someone else’s fault rather than our own. It’s best to run a reality check before blaming others.

Modern media treats outrage as a profitable commodity. This often takes the form of articles which attribute malice to that which could be explained by incompetence or ignorance. We see examples of this play out in the media multiple times a day. People rush to take offense at anything which contradicts their worldview or which they imagine to do so. Media outlets are becoming increasingly skilled at generating assumptions of malicious intent. When looking at newspapers, websites, and social media, it can be beneficial to apply Hanlon’s Razor to what we see.
For example, when Apple’s Siri voice search launched, people noticed that it could not search for abortion clinics. This was immediately taken up as proof of misogyny within the company when in fact, a programming error caused the problem. A similar issue has occurred a number of times with YouTube content policies. When videos discussing LGBTQ matters were filtered on the restrictive viewing mode, many people took extreme offense at this. The reality is that again, this was an algorithm error and not a case of homophobia on the part of their programmers. Countless videos which do not discuss anything related to LGBTQ issues have also been filtered. This shows it to be a case of confirmation bias, wherein people see the malice they expect to see.

One of the most valuable uses of Hanlon’s Razor is in relationships and communication. It is common for people to damage relationships by believing other people are intentionally trying to cause problems for them, or behaving in a way intended to be annoying. In most cases, these situations are the result of inability or accidental mistakes.

Douglas Hubbard expands upon this idea in Failure of Risk Management: Why it’s Broken and How to Fix it:  

I would add a clumsier but more accurate corollary to this: ‘Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions.’ People behaving with no central coordination and acting in their own best interest can still create results that appear to some to be clear proof of conspiracy or a plague of ignorance.

A further example can be seen when semantic barriers interfere with communication. We have all encountered people struggling to speak our native language, perhaps because they are a tourist or have recently moved to the county. You have probably seen someone gets frustrated at them or even been the one getting annoyed. Or if you have ever traveled to or lived in a country where you are not fluent in the language, you might have been the one people got annoyed at. Realistically, the person asking you for directions or struggling to order their coffee is not mixing up their nouns and speaking in a strong accent on purpose.

Hanlon’s Razor tells us they are merely inarticulate and are not trying to waste anyone’s time. The same issues occur when a person uses language which is considered too complex or too basic. This may form a semantic barrier, as other people assume they are trying to confuse them or are being blunt.

A short-cut to regulating what can be strong reactions to inadvertent events is to conscientiously reframe the perpetrator as a toddler knocking over a vase. Their actions are rendered unintentional and clumsy, highlighting their need for help, maturation or supervision, allowing you to rapidly regain composure and not take it personally.

Like any mental model, Hanlon’s Razor has its limitations and its validity has been contested. Some critics consider Hanlon’s Razor to be an overly naive idea which can blind people to true malice. While people have malicious intent far less often than we think, it is still something which must be taken into account. Sometimes actions which could be attributed to incompetence are in fact consciously or unconsciously malicious.

An instance of Hanlon’s Razor being proven wrong is the Mafia. Prior to the 1960s, the existence of the Mafia was considered to be a conspiracy theory. Only when a member contacted law enforcement, did police realize that the malice being perpetrated was carefully orchestrated.

To make the best use of Hanlon’s Razor , we must be sure to put it in context, taking into account logic, experience, and empirical evidence. Make it a part of your latticework of mental models, but do not be blind to behavior which is intended to be harmful.

Happy 😄 Birthday 🎂 Isaac Asimov🔬

Isaac Asimov, born January 2, 1920, was a Russian-born, American author and master of science fiction whose most famous work is the Foundation Series, about the downfall and rebirth of a vast Galactic Empire. Asimov, a professor of biochemistry, was also known for his popular science books. He wrote or edited more than 500 books and is considered one of history’s most prolific writers. Asimov, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, was considered one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers of his time.

Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.   Isaac Asimov