Sunday, July 21, 2013

NVC Niff Clotes: Chapter Eight: The Power of Empathy

This chapter about empathy seems especially difficult to me, though still valuable. I have grabbed a few ideas from it, but you might be better off skimming the chapter rather than reading this post if your goal is to review. Rosenberg tells some interesting stories that I can't summarize.
We have more difficulty empathizing with those above us in a hierarchy. We may tend to hear all communications from that sort of person as commands or evaluations, and face the temptation to react with the usual automatic reactions.
We need not tolerate dull conversation, but rather can choose instead to interrupt and try to re-establish empathy. If this move succeeds, the speaker will feel grateful.
"As listeners, we don't need insights into psychological dynamics or training in psychotherapy. What is essential is our ability to be present to what's really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment."
I will risk redundancy to gripe again about Rosenberg's metaphor of "presence". I can see what this is not, it is not me thinking about how to argue against what is being said, or analyzing it, or daydreaming. But how do I actually achieve presence? Not much help. Can I know what the other is thinking and feeling without being present? I think Rosenberg would say yes. I wish he would give more hints about this missing ingredient. Somehow I must recognize when the other feels that I really have heard her, or not. So there are at least three elements to it, the content of the communication (including an important emotional component), my focus of attention, and the exchange of meta-information which includes "did you hear me?" Yikes. Perhaps it also has to do with staying focused and not allowing my automatic responses learned since childhood to grab me and take me off down a path of conclusion jumping and near-instinctive reactions.
"The more we connect with the feelings and needs behind their words, the less frightening it is to open up to other people."
"Our ability to offer empathy can allow us to stay vulnerable, defuse potential violence, hear the word no without taking it as a rejection, revive a lifeless conversation, and even hear the feelings and needs expressed through silence. Time and again, people transcend the paralyzing effects of psychological pain when they have sufficient contact with someone who can hear them empathically."

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Spanking Survey Idea

Spanking is an important issue. I want to make sure that everyone I know knows my opinion on it and has an opportunity to learn about it, and I want to ask their opinions. I need a way to ask them, a way to show them evidence, a way to register their answer, and a way to encourage them to ask their friends. I'd like it to go viral without becoming spam, so it should be difficult to ask the same person twice, even if the askers are different. People should be able to see their own answers and the answers of their friends. Maybe they should be able to follow a chain of opinion. But spammers should not be able to harvest email addresses or other personal information en masse.

Here are notes on an idea for a survey.

Identity = email address, but don't reveal the email address. Keep a salted hash?

For each email address, who asked them? Who did they ask? What was their opinion?

Make a big graphic showing how people connect and what their opinions are.

Yelling is next, after spanking.  

Why libertarians should not spank, why liberals should not spank, why conservatives should not spank, why Christians, Muslims, Jews should not spank. What is the alternative to spanking?

The basic system is not specific to the issue of spanking and could be reused for other issues.

I could do this all manually with email, but it would not scale. Email, Facebook, g+, http link.

How can I be sure that an answer claiming an email actually owns that email? Verify like email list subscription.

How to prevent hackers from using bogus email to add idiotic arguments in favor of the opinion they oppose?

How can I limit damage from an email impersonating personal details of another person? What if answers the survey as Barack Obama? BO should be able to make it obvious ate not him, or remove the bogosity, but how? Xyzzy's fake answer will not have e right email address associated with it, but it will not display the actual address,, nor will I actually know it. Maybe I should just show when there are duplicate identifiers. Only allow search by email, not by name. One possible opinion is "refused to answer".
Rough plan: talk it over with knowledgeable people, set up generic survey system. Find links that discuss the issues. Get alpha in place. Think about Facebook and g+. Allow people to add arguments for and against, links and rate existing arguments.

Give a list of email addresses, it makes a page of mailto links. Addresses that answered already are grayed out.

Use a variant of listserv, is that scalable enough?

Web page sends email asking for opinion, reply gives opinion. How prevent multiple queries but allow them to change their opinions?
Email address Is all and only id, no names or other. If someone queries a broken email, treat it as new.

People don't want their email address to leak. Do they want their opinion public?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Psychology of Political Authority

Why do people defend the legitimacy of political authority? Those who do so would probably claim that they do so because of the rock-solid status of this idea. And there are a lot of them. Michael Huemer has written a book, "The Problem of Political Authority", and he claims they are wrong. His book deserves a review in this blog, but this entry will focus on the psychology that supports beliefs about authority, a topic he examines in chapter 6. That is where Huemer makes his most original contribution. Basically, he used the first five chapters to refute the various philosophical theories that philosophers have developed to support the idea of legitimate authority. So in chapter 6 he faces the question, if there really is no philosophical foundation for the idea of government authority, why do so many people accept that authority as legitimate? "If there is no political authority, it is natural to ask, then how have so many people come to have such a firm belief in it?" Because Huemer's discussion surprised me, I want to summarize and discuss it here. He creates a sort of descriptive epistemology, that shows not how we ought to arrive at beliefs, but how do we?
First Huemer admits that the problem of popular rejection for an idea is a serious criticism, but not a slam dunk. That is, while popular opinion has been wrong on many occasions, it is safer to bet on it than against it. He sets out to show that in the case of political authority, popular opinion is wrong.
Huemer describes the Milgram experiment, a famous experiment that tested the willingness of ordinary persons to obey the commands of an authority figure. Subjects in the experiment were fooled into thinking that they were giving dangerous electric shocks to other experimental subjects as a punishment for failing a memory challenge. The experiment produced two shocking results: "65 percent of subjects complied fully, eventually administering the 450-volt shock three times to a silent and apparently lifeless victim", and for the most part, participants in the experiment who obeyed fully rationalized their behavior as excusable. This is odd because when people hear about the experiment, almost no one thinks that obedience is justified, yet something about being in the situation undermines this attitude and compels subjects to obey. Huemer concludes, "most people's disposition to obey authorities is far stronger than one would have thought at first glance - and far stronger than one could possibly think justified."
Huemer combines the insight from the Milgram experiment and historical experience from the My Lai massacre and the Nuremburg trials to infer that "even if [all governments were illegitimate], it is quite likely that we would still by and large feel bound to obey our governments. [...] even people who are subjected to the clearest examples of illegitimate power still typically feel bound to obey." He suggests that such persons give in to the urge to obey, and then use motivated reasoning to devise excuses for their behavior. (Haidt describes a detailed psychological model for such motivated reasoning in his book, The Righteous Mind.) In other words, systematic bias warps our understanding of our own impulses to obey authority, and our intuitions about authority are not to be trusted.
Huemer adds the concept of cognitive dissonance to the mix. Cognitive dissonance motivates us to change either our behavior or our beliefs when they conflict. It is much easier to change our beliefs about authority than to escape the psychological impulse to obey authority. Hence, any theory supporting the legitimacy of authority and therefore the conscientiousness of obedience has a motivated audience. "But whether or not our behavior is motivated by compassion and a sense of duty, it is likely that we would generally wish to believe that it is. To believe this, we must accept a basic doctrine of political obligation, and we must accept the legitimacy of our government."
Two further factors appear in Huemer's equation, social proof (difficulty of disagreeing with the group consensus) and status quo bias (tendency to adapt to current practice and accept it as good). If you accept the reality of these two phenomena, then "whether or not any governments were legitimate, most of us would have a strong tendency to believe that some governments are legitimate, especially our own and others like it." Perhaps this sounds too strong, as if makes it impossible for anyone ever to break out of this illusion and oppose authority. But these are biases, tendencies, not empirical absolutes.
Next Huemer describes the power of symbols, rituals, and legalistic jargon to support the appearance of legitimacy of authorities. I'd have liked to get a better understanding of how this is supposed to work, or a more rigorous examination to prove that they actually have the intended effects. But the pervasiveness of these manipulative tools seems to indicate someone thinks they are worth perpetuating.
Finally, Huemer examines attitudes toward authority in light of the idea of Stockholm Syndrome (a psychological bond between kidnappers and their victims that can arise under certain circumstances). I've heard this twist in use before, but usually in a semi-joking way. Huemer is quite serious. I found this fascinating and mind-blowing. I am not quite sure it isn't my confirmation bias carrying me off. "Due to the Stockholm dynamic, power has a self-legitimizing tendency: once it becomes sufficiently entrenched, power is perceived as authority."
If you're too cheap to buy this book, find it in a bookstore and just read chapter six. If you are too lazy to read the whole chapter, just read the conclusion, section 6.8. That puts it all together. Moral illusions "are cases in which we have a systematic tendency to see something as right (or wrong) when in fact it is not. Throughout history, our forebears have been subject to widespread moral illusions - for instance, that women were inferior to men or that dark-skinned people were inferior to light-skinned ones. The suggestion that we are still subject to some moral illusions today should therefore surprise no one. We need to reflect on what moral illusions we might be subject to, keeping in mind that, by the nature of the case, they will not seem, on casual consideration, to be illusions." "Human beings come equipped with strong and pervasive pro-authority biases." "Theories of authority devised by political philosophers can plausibly be viewed as attempts to rationalize common intuitions about the need for obedience, where these intuitions are the product of systematic biases." In other words, question authority.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Elevator Pitch on Philosophy, Psychology, and Society

As a failed social scientist, I find questions about society more interesting than any others. 
Those questions depend heavily on philosophical answers that in turn depend on principles of psychology. Here are the elevator pitch versions of my ideas about each. 
  • Social questions depend on values and reality. 
  • Both moral philosophy (theory of values, what is good and what is bad) and epistemology (what do I know about reality, how do I know it, how certain can I be) depend on psychology. 
  • Human psychology makes us vulnerable to bias, to a degree that makes total certainty unattainable. Instead, I seek a sort of pseudo-Bayesian perspective where I adopt a working hypothesis that guides my actual actions in the world, but I attempt to remain aware of and open to the other possible hypotheses that are available and update them on the basis of new evidence. 
  • Psychology indicates that moral reasoning is usually rationalization after the choice has been made. Instead of thinking and then choosing, we tend to choose and then make excuses.
  • Were the US founding fathers correct in thinking that it is possible to limit the power of the state?
  • If they were correct, how do we discover the technique they sought, since clearly they themselves failed?
  • If they were not correct, does that mean we are doomed at best to choose the lesser of evils, or is there a way to replace the state with something (or somethings) less flawed?
  • Given where we are and where I'd like for us to be, what next step will take us in the right direction?