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Posts Tagged ‘experiments’

Animals, self-interest, rewards, and fairness

Posted by c. wagner on November 12, 2009

Interesting research about how animals seem to have a sense of fair play.

We would offer a pebble to one of the pair and then hold out a hand so that the monkey could give it back in exchange for a cucumber slice. Alternating between them, both monkeys would happily barter 25 times in a row. The atmosphere turned sour, however, as soon as we introduced inequity. One monkey would still receive cucumber, while its partner now enjoyed grapes, a favourite food with monkeys. While that monkey had no problem, the one still working for cucumber would lose interest. Worse, seeing its partner with juicy grapes, this monkey would get agitated, hurl the pebbles out of the test chamber, sometimes even those measly cucumber slices. A food normally devoured with gusto had become distasteful.

Discarding perfectly fine food simply because someone else is getting something better resembles the way we reject an unfair share of money or grumble about an agreed-upon rate of pay. Where do these reactions come from? They probably evolved in the service of cooperation. Caring about what others get may seem petty and irrational, but in the long run it keeps one from being taken advantage of.

And if the system of rewards gets far enough out of balance, the animals getting the poorer rewards may make life tough for the critter with the better rewards. While acting in self-interest is the default, the tendency can be overridden in cases where there might be repercussions from greed. In other words, spreading the wealth, at least a little bit, might be advantageous and part of the make-up of social animals. The concept is at least interesting enough for further research.

Read the article from New Scientist.

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Is hope overrated?

Posted by c. wagner on November 3, 2009

“Hope is an important part of happiness,” said Peter A. Ubel, M.D., director of the U-M[ichigan] Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine and one of the authors of the happily hopeless study, “but there’s a dark side of hope. Sometimes, if hope makes people put off getting on with their life, it can get in the way of happiness.”

The researchers told divided people with the same medical condition into two groups. The first they told that their condition was permanent. The second was told that the condition was reversible. On follow up, the folks in the “permanent” group were happier overall than those who were expecting a change.

It seems like accepting things the way they are may make you happier than waiting for the day that things are better. Lemons and lemonade, to sink to the level of cliches.

Read the summary from the University of Michigan.

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Concerned with security much?

Posted by c. wagner on October 29, 2009

Skeptical folks investigating supposed “psychics” are generally very concerned with controlling experiments in order to prevent cheating. A team at Edinburgh University took experimental security to the greatest extent I’ve ever seen. They were mailing a deck of 25 ESP cards to a psychic (okay, a group that claimed they were in contact with “psychic entities”) in the United States.

Here’s a summary of the security precautions:

  1. The cards were put back in the case.
  2. The case was wrapped with brown packing tape.
  3. The wrapped case was put inside a plastic security envelope. The envelope was designed to be completely opaque as well as unopenable without taking damage.
  4. The envelope was put inside a clear, waterproof plastic bag.
  5. The clear plastic bag was sealed with plastic tape.
  6. The sealed plastic bag was embedded in a block of industrial resin. The mold for the block had odd, random shapes included, so the shape of the block would be incredibly difficult to reproduce.
  7. Dots of dye were put within the resin and their locations mapped. This was also to make it difficult to reproduce the block.
  8. The documented block of resin was sealed in a plastic security envelope like the one in step 3.
  9. The seal of the envelope was signed by one of the investigators.

The girlfriend said it sounded like the supposed psychics were sent a loud and clear “fuck you” in the shape of an enveloped-swaddled, oddly-shaped, spotted block of resin. I just thought it was hilarious.

By the way, the “psychic entities” failed the test, getting fewer right than chance. Maybe the resin threw them off.

The experiment is desribed in Deception and Self-Deception by Richard Wiseman.

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