Battlepanda: Stupid humans


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Stupid humans

(Via LGM)

Are we doomed to repeating the same cycles of increasingly deadly tit-for-tat by our psychology?
In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.

Perhaps just as disturbingly, as soon as both sides convinced themselves that the other side started things, the next step is escalation, even when our parties are acting "in good faith".
The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on. The two volunteers took turns applying equal amounts of pressure to each other’s fingers while the researchers measured the actual amount of pressure they applied.

The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.

I guess human beings are the same everywhere, either in a lab or in hell's handbasket.

I am a strong believer in the human capacity to use knowledge to modify our behavior in beneficial ways. So, it can only be hoped that these experiments will add to our store of self-knowledge and thus improve our decision-making process. However, this might be unduly optimistic of me. After all, the basic cognitive biases are all well-researched and (to some extent) understood, yet we have hardly banished them from human behavior.