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Posts tagged ‘Paul Bloom’

Do Babies Know What’s Fair?

The blank slate, tabula rasa as the Greek termed it, is one of the worst ideas in science. For a long time scientists avoided asserting that anything about human behavior was innate. If they did, someone would point to a quirky tribe from Papua New Guinea to argue that all behavior comes via experience. This attitude has changed in the last couple of decades. Books ranging from Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate to David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us, give us a much more accurate picture of the nature-nurture debate. Now scientists know that the human brain is like a book: the first draft is written at birth and the rest is filled in during life. As NYU psychologist Gary Marcus explains, “Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises… ‘Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means ‘organized in advance of experience.’”

Understanding human behavior in these terms is vital for moral psychologists. For thousands of years philosophers debated if humans are inherently good or evil. But we now know that this is a false choice. As Marcus explains, everyone possess a moral sense from birth that permits altruism, fairness and justice; the interaction between genes and environment influences how these qualities are drawn out.

Some of the most important work in moral development comes from Paul Bloom, Karen Wynn and Kiley Hamlin. In one of their experiments they used a three-dimensional display and puppets to act out helping/hindering situations for six and ten-month-old infants. For example, a yellow square would help a circle up a hill; a red triangle would push it down. After the puppet show Bloom, Wynn and Kiley placed the helper and hinderer on a tray and brought them to the children. They found that they overwhelmingly preferred the helpful puppet to the hindering one. In an NYTimes article, Bloom concludes that, “babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest.”

This brings me to a brand new study by psychologists Stephanie Sloane, Renée Baillargeon and David Premack published in Psychological Science. There were two experiments and babies watched live scenarios in each. In the first, 19-month-olds watched two giraffe puppets dance as an experimenter cheerfully presented the long-necked puppets with two toys. Here was the ripple: the experimenter gave one toy to each giraffe or both to one of them. Sloane et al then timed how long the babies gazed at the scene until they lost interest. (Longer looking times indicated that the babies thought something was wrong). They found that three-quarters of the infants looked longer when one giraffe got both toys.

In the second experiment, two women played with a pile of small toys when an experimented said, “Wow! Look at all these toys. It’s time to clean them up!” In one scenario both women got a reward even though one put all the toys away while the other kept playing. In the other scenario both women got a reward and both put the toys away. Similar to the results of the first experiment, the researchers found that 21-month-old infants gazed longer when the worker and the slacker were rewarded equally.

Here’s Sloane on the implications of the research:

We think children are born with a skeleton of general expectations about fairness and these principles and concepts get shaped in different ways depending on the culture and the environment they’re brought up in… helping children behave more morally may not be as hard as it would be if they didn’t have that skeleton of expectations.

Sloane’s study and remarks complement other research. A study published last November by Kiley Hamlin (along with Karen Wynn) demonstrated that babies preferred puppets that mistreated bad characters from scenarios similar to the ones created by Paul Bloom et al. Hamlin concluded that babies, “prefer it when people who commit or condone antisocial acts are mistreated.” Moreover, last October a study by Marco Schmidt and Jessica Summerville found that, “the infants [expecting] an equal and fair distribution of food… were surprised to see one person given more crackers or milk than the other.”

This small but significant body of research is giving us a better understanding of morality from the developmental point of view. It also reminds us that behavior is not simply nature versus nurture; it is about the interaction of genes and their environments. A better understanding of where our moral sense comes from and how it develops will hopefully help us draw out what Abraham Lincoln called our Better Angels.

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The Creativity Post

I am pleased to announce that I will be a regular columnist at The Creativity Post, a website dedicated to “quality content on creativity, innovation and imagination.” It was founded by Milena Z. Fisher, Elliot Samuel Paul (Barnard) and Scott Barry Kaufman (NYU). All three have a Ph.D in either psychology or philosophy, so the content is pretty awesome. They seem like great people also.

I will still write and maintain Why We Reason regularly. But when I post there, I will put a link here. My first post at TCP went up yesterday. Frequent readers might recognize it. Here is the gist:

People care about origins. A lot. The difference between a baseball used to break a record and an ordinary baseball is millions, an authentic painting and a forgery tens of millions. And your original stuffed animal versus a replacement, well, that’s priceless.

This is why Todd McFarlane paid 3 million dollars for Mark McGwire’s home run ball, why Han van Meegeren’s forgery of Vermeer’s Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery hangs in a small gallery in Greenwich Connecticut and why two year-olds erupt into tantrums when mom tries convincing them that their new snuffed animal is same as their old one.

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Passions, Reason & Moral Hypocrisy

Most of us think we are morally sound. If we see an injustice, we’ll step in, if we are given the opportunity to cheat, we won’t. Or so we say. Psychological research demonstrates that in certain situations we tend to twist our reasoning to position ourselves as morally superior to others even when have acted otherwise.

In one experiment conducted by David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo participants were told that they would be performing one of two tasks; the first was short and fun while the second was long and hard. To induce a small yet significant (and later very revealing) moral dilemma, DeSteno and Valdesolo let half participants decide which task they would preform, knowing that the other task would be allocated to another participant. (They also had the option of letting a computer randomly choose how the tasks would be distributed.) After they finished assigning the task, participants were asked to rate how fair they were. Meanwhile, the group of participants who were at the receiving end of the task allocation were asked to rate how fair the allocating-participants were. It doesn’t take a lot of foresight to see where this is going.

The first thing DeSteno and Valdesolo found was in line with their previous research: only about 8 percent of participants acted altruistically – what an objective set of eyes would call “fair”. Not a great start, and it gets worse. The second thing they found was that, “moral hypocrisy emerged in the control conditions; the same fairness transgression was judged to be substantially more moral when enacted by the self than when enacted by another.” In other words, participants who were in charge of allocating the tasks usually believed that they decided fairly no matter what their decision was. In sharp contrast were the participants who had no say in the process. They believed that the delegating participants were not fair. The lesson here is that we are all “moral hypocrites;” we claim to be morally sound, and when we’re not, we rationalize to improve our moral stature to others and ourselves. Again, not a big surprise.

What DeSteno and Valdesolo were really after was a better understanding of the dual-model process of moral judgment, which understands our moral judgments as products of both our intuitive and deliberate capacities. When it comes to assessing moral situations we have a gut-reaction immediately followed by a more deliberate line of reasoning. For example, when someone asks us if killing an innocent person is wrong you know right away that the answer is yes, but it usually takes a few moments to think of reasons for why this is true. This is not to say that these two systems (system 1 and system 2 as they are referred to in the popular literature) are neurologically separate, but it is to suggest that they are not necessarily on the same page at all times. Understanding their relationship is key to understanding how humans think about moral judgments.

To tease out how these two systems handle moral judgments DeSteno and Valdesolo incorporated a twist. They replicated the experiment but the second time around half of the participants had to make fairness judgments under cognitive load. (They had to memorize a string of digits. The idea here is that their “rational” brains will be busy memorizing the digits thereby freeing up the “intuitive” brain.) They found that under cognitive load, which made reasoning very difficult, the ratings were identical rendering no signs of “moral hypocrisy.”

DeSteno and Valdesolo conclude:

The present study provides strong evidence that moral hypocrisy is governed by a dual-process model of moral judgment wherein a propotent negative reaction to the thought of a fairness transgression operates in tandem with higher order processes to mediate decision making. Hypocrisy readily emerged under normal processing conditions, but disappeared under conditions of cognitive constraint. Inhibiting control prevented a tamping down or override of the intuitive aversive response to the transgression. Of import, these findings rule out the possibility that hypocrisy derives from differences in automatic affective reactions towards one’s own and others’ transgressions. Rather, when contemplating one’s own transgression, motives of rationalization and justification temper the initial negative response and lead to more lenient judgments. Motivated reasoning processes are not engaged when judging others’ violations, rendering the prepotent negative response more causally powerful and leading to harsher judgments.

So Freud had it backwards. It is our intuition – not just our rationality – that seems to have a more objective reaction to moral situations. However, understanding the relationship between the passions and reason is certainly not over. If anything it has just begun, in the context of empirical research at the least. From the ancient Greek philosophers to philosophers of the 21st century moral debates have almost always taken place in the abstract. Now there is plenty of promising science to be excited about. Are our moral judgments simply post-hoc justifications, the rational tail of the emotional dog? Or can our conscious deliberations inform, perhaps control, our moral intuitions. We’ll see what the data says.

Does It Matter If a Painting is Fake? Why Origins Matter

People care about origins. A lot. The difference between a baseball used to break a record and an ordinary baseball is millions, an authentic painting and a forgery tens of millions. And your original stuffed animal versus a replacement, well, that’s priceless.

This is why Todd McFarlane paid 3 million dollars for Mark McGwire’s home run ball, why Han van Meegeren’s forgery of Vermeer’s Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery hangs in a small gallery in Greenwich Connecticut and why two year-olds erupt into tantrums when mom tries convincing them that their new snuffed animal is same as their old one.

It also helps us explain the power of labels. People prefer Perrier and expensive bottles of wine even though studies show that most people cannot to identify tap water from Perrier water or 10 dollar wine from 90 dollar wine in blind taste tests. One experiment even showed that kids prefer carrots from McDonald’s bags. How we taste greatly depends on what we think we’re tasting and where we think it came from.

We care about origins because we are essentialists. We pay special attention to the history of an object – who touched it, where it has been and what its purpose was, its essence. We subscribe to, as Paul Bloom explains, “the notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.”

Bloom tells the dark story of the art collector and Nazi Hermann Goering. Goering’s prized possession was Johannes Vermeer’s Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, which he acquired in exchange for 137 paintings worth about $10 million (in today’s dollars). Unfortunately, Goering discovered at the Nuremberg trails that his Vermeer was actually a forgery done by Dutch painter Han van Meegeren. Upon hearing the news Goering’s biographer said he looked, “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.”

This brings me to a new study out of Oxford University by Mengfei Huang, Holly Bridge, Martin Kemp and Andrew Parker. Their experiment was simple enough: 14 subjects were placed in an fMRI machine and given the following instructions:

In this experiment you will see a sequence of 50 Rembrandt paintings. Before each image appears, an audio prompt will announce whether the upcoming painting is ‘authentic’ or a ‘copy’ (Please see background for further information on copies). A blank screen will appear for a few seconds after each image to allow you to relax your gaze.

Here was the catch. Half of the participants were told that the authentic Rembrandts were actually forgeries and vice versa. The swap was designed to give scientists an opportunity to distinguish neural responses generated by the art itself and the attribution of the art.

I’ll leave it to Jonah Lehrer to explain the results.

The first thing the researchers discovered is that there was no detectable difference in the response of visual areas to Rembrandt and “school of Rembrandt” works of art… it’s not exactly surprising that such similar paintings would elicit virtually identical sensory responses. It takes years of training before critics can reliably discern real Rembrandt from copies. And even then there is often extensive disagreement, as the 1995 Metropolitan show demonstrates.

However, the scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”) Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.

We want to believe, as Lehrer concludes, that pleasure is simple but there is obviously much more to it than that. The brain is a myriad of neural connections, most of which are unconscious, and a full neurological description of how something like a Rembrandt gives us pleasure is a long way off.

Are We Inherently Good or Evil? What Babies Teach us About Morality

Are we inherently good or evil? This question, and questions like it, have been asked for millennia and almost always to no avail. Philosophers argued over what it means for someone to be good (they still do) and theologians wondered if evil was the product of free will or determinism. All along, empirical evidence was nowhere to be seen.

The last few decades in psychology changed that. Now, psychologists have some idea (though there are still many unknowns to be sure) of whether or not we are inherently good or bad. The first finding is it is misleading to ask this question in the first place. The more accurate picture is that we possess both good and bad tendencies that are present at birth, and the interaction between genes and environment influences how they will be drawn out. Gary Marcus describes this interaction best, “Nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired—flexible and subject to change—rather than hardwired, fixed, and immutable… Built-in does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience.” A helpful analogy is a control board where the genes are like volume knobs and switches with the environment acting on them.

This brings me to a brand new paper out of the University of British Columbia by Kiley Hamlin and a team of researchers from Yale University and Temple University. Here’s what they did:

Researchers presented four scenarios to 100 babies using animal hand puppets. After watching puppets act negatively or positively towards other characters, the babies were shown puppets either giving or taking toys from these “good” or “bad” puppets. When prompted to choose their favorite characters, babies preferred puppets that mistreated the bad characters from the original scene, compared to those that treated them nicely. (You can watch the videos here)

Hamlin’s study suggests that babies as young as eight months old, “prefer it when people who commit or condone antisocial acts are mistreated.” The study also provides “insights into the protective mechanisms humans use to choose social alliances, which she [Hamlin] says are rooted in self-preservation” and it demonstrates “early forms of the complex behaviors and emotions that get expressed later in life.”

Hamlin’s work complements a similar study published this October by Marco Schmidt and Jessica Summerville. In their study Schmidt and Summervile presented 15 month year old babies two videos: one in which an experimenter distributes an equal share of crackers to two recipients and another in which the experimenter distributes an unequal share of crackers (they also did the same procedure with milk). They measured how the babies looked at the crackers and milk while they were distributed. They found that babies spent more time looking when one recipient got more food than the other. This means, according to “violation of expectancy,” which describes how babies pay more attention to something when it surprises them, that “the infants [expecting] an equal and fair distribution of food… were surprised to see one person given more crackers or milk than the other.”

It also complements a study Hamlin completed with Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn while she was still at Yale. Bloom summarizes in the New York Times:

In one of our first studies of moral evaluation, we decided… to use… a three-dimensional display in which real geometrical objects, manipulated like puppets, acted out the helping/hindering situations: a yellow square would help the circle up the hill; a red triangle would push it down. After showing the babies the scene, the experimenter placed the helper and the hinderer on a tray and brought them to the child. In this instance, we opted to record… which character they reached for, on the theory that what a baby reaches for is a reliable indicator of what a baby wants. In the end, we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual.

Similar to Hamlin’s latest study, this research suggests that babies (3-months) prefer characters that help others over characters that do not.

What does this say about us being good or evil? It suggests that babies are born with certain moral capacities and the potential to have a strong moral sense. This does not confirm nor deny that we are inherently… well, anything. As I mentioned earlier, the interaction between genes and environment influences our behaviors and personalities; we are not blank slates, in other words. Importantly, what Hamlin’s work is showing is that we are also not moral blank slates.

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Is There Anything Wrong With Incest? Emotion, Reason and Altruism in Moral Psychology

Meet Julie and Mark, two siblings who are vacationing together in France. One night after dinner and a few bottles of wine, they decide to have sex. Julie is on the pill and Mark uses a condom so there is virtually no chance that Julie will become pregnant. They enjoy it very much but decide to never tell anyone or do it again. In the end, having sex brought them together and they are closer than ever.

Did Julie and Mark do anything wrong?

If incest isn’t your thing, your gut-reaction is probably yes – what Julie and Mark did is wrong. But the point of Julie and Mark’s story, which was created by University of Virginia professor of social psychology Jonathan Haidt, is to illustrate how easy it is to feel that something is wrong and how difficult it is to justify why something is wrong. This is what happens when Haidt tells the Julie and Mark story to his undergrads. Some say that incest causes birth defects, or that Julie and Mark will cause pain and awkwardness to friends and family, but birth control and secrecy ensured that none of these problems will occur. Students who press the issue eventually run out of reasons and fall back on the notion of it  “just being wrong.” Haidt’s point is that “the emotional brain generates the verdict. It determines what is right and what is wrong… The rational brain, on the other hand, explains the verdict. It provides reason, but those reasons all come after the fact.”

So the question is: when it comes to our moral sentiments and deliberations, what system is in charge, the rational one or the emotional one?

The reason-emotion debate runs throughout the field of moral psychology. On one hand, cognitive science clearly shows that emotion is essential to our rationality, on the other hand, psychologists argue if reason really is the “slave of the passions,” as David Hume suggested. Haidt tends to take on the later position (and this is what the incest debate illustrates), but psychologists such as Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker believe that reason can persuade our emotions; this is why we have moral progress they argue.

Neuroscience is weighing in too. It demonstrates that we use different parts of the brain when we think deliberately versus when we go with our guts. As one author explains, “subjects who choose [rationally] rely on the regions of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal cortex, which are known to be important for deliberative reasoning. On the other hand, people who decide [with their guts] rely more on regions of the limbic cortex, which are more closely tied to emotion.”

So which system sets the agenda, the intuitive one or the rational one? Should I go with my gut as Gladwell advertises? Or would that lead me into predictably irrational mistakes as Ariely warns? Should I listen to my unconscious as Gerd Gigerenzer and Timothy Wilson suggest? Or, as the Invisible Gorilla folks advise, should I take note of how intuitions deceive us? And finally, will we ever know if anything is objective wrong with incest?

Moral psychology is young, so are relevant neuroscience and evolutionary psychology studies, so I hesitant to draw any conclusions here. So what about more general moral feelings? Is it nature, nurture, or somewhere in between? Thanks to several recent studies we now have some answers.

One experiment, which I briefly mentioned a couple of months ago, comes from Paul Bloom, Kiley Hamlin and Karen Wynn. Bloom summarizes in the following article:

In one of our first studies of moral evaluation, we decided… to use… a three-dimensional display in which real geometrical objects, manipulated like puppets, acted out the helping/hindering situations: a yellow square would help the circle up the hill; a red triangle would push it down. After showing the babies the scene, the experimenter placed the helper and the hinderer on a tray and brought them to the child. In this instance, we opted to record… which character they reached for, on the theory that what a baby reaches for is a reliable indicator of what a baby wants. In the end, we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual.

Does this mean that we are born with a moral code? No, but it does suggest that we have a sense of compassion and favor those who are altruistic from very early on.

Another experiment comes from Marco Schmidt and Jessica Sommerville. Schmidt and Sommerville showed 15 months year old babies two videos, one in which an experimenter distributes an equal share of crackers to two recipients and another in which the experimenter distributes an unequal share of crackers (she also did the same procedure with milk). Then, they measured how the babies looked at the crackers and milk while they were distributed. According to “violation of expectancy,” babies pay more attention to something when it surprises them. This is exactly what they found; babies spent more time looking when one recipient got more food than the other.

What does this suggest? According to the researchers, “the infants expected an equal and fair distribution of food, and they were surprised to see one person given more crackers or milk than the other.” This doesn’t mean that the babies felt something was morally wrong, but it does mean that they noticed something wasn’t equal or fair.

Schmidt and Sommerville followed up the experiment with another. In the second, they offered the babies two toys, a LEGO block and a LEGO doll. They labeled whichever toy the babies chose as their preferred toy. Then an experimenter asked the baby if he could have the preferred toy. They found that about one-third of the babies gave away their preferred toy, another third gave away the toy that wasn’t preferred, and the last third didn’t share at all. They also found that 92 percent of the babies who shared their preferred toy spent considerably more time looking when the food was unequally distributed; 86 percent of babies who shared their less-preferred toy were more surprised when there was an equal distribution of food. In other words, the altruistic sharers (those who gave the preferred dolls away) noticed more when the crackers and milk weren’t distributed equally while the selfish sharers (those who gave the less-perferred dolls away) showed the opposite.

Taken together, Bloom’s and Schmidt and Sommerville’s work encourages the fact that our moral instincts form early on. But these two studies are just a tiny sampling. It is still difficult to say with certainty if we are born with a moral instinct or not. It is also difficult to say what this moral instinct entails.

Back to incest.

To be sure, evolutionary psychology easily explains why we morally reject incest  – obviously, reproducing with our siblings would be counter productive – but there are many other topics such as why we act altruistically, why we show compassion towards strangers and why we give to charity that remain fairly mysterious. Fortunately, moral psychology is making great progress. It is an exciting new field and I look forward to more findings like the ones outlined here. In addition, I hope that one day in the near future psychologists will come to a consensus regarding the emotion-reason debate.

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The Psychology of Pleasure: Interview With Paul Bloom

In 1986, CEO of Perrier North America Bruce Nevins found himself in a difficult spot. On KABC radio in Los Angeles the host challenged him to a blind taste test. The rules were simple: correctly identify a Perrier from seven drinks – six club sodas and one Perrier. Long story short, Nevins failed miserably; it took him not one or two, but five tries before he picked out the Perrier.

I stole this example from Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works to reinforce a point I made a few posts ago: how you taste something strongly depends on what you believe you are tasting (this is the example I used: people enjoy wine more when it comes from a $90 bottle than a $10 bottle even when the wine is the same).

I want to extend this idea beyond wine.

Consider a study done by Bloom and his Yale colleagues Gil Diesendruck and George Newman. Participants were divided up into three groups and asked how much they would pay for an object (e.g., a sweater) that was owned by a living celebrity they admired (George Clooney or Barack Obama, for example). Here was the catch: one group was informed that it had been thoroughly sterilized; another group was informed that they weren’t allowed to resell it or tell anyone that they owned it; the final group was told that the celebrity received it as a gift but never wore it. Bloom, Diesendruck and Newman found that in all three cases people were willing to pay less than their original value. Like the Perrier and wine examples, the history of the object mattered.

Why do we care so much about origins? To borrow some examples from Bloom; why was a tape measure owned by John F. Kennedy sold for $48,875? Why did Todd McFarlane pay $3 million dollars for Mark McGwire’s seventieth home run? Why do people save their first pair of shoes or favorite teddy bear?

Bloom’s idea is that we are all essentialists. That is, we pay special attention to the history of an object – where it has been, what it has touched, and who has touched it. As Bloom explains, we subscribe to “the notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.” And, moreover, “the pleasure we get from many things and activities is based in part on what we see as their essences.”

Here’s the question that keeps me up at night: why are we essentialists?

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Professor Bloom last month and ask him this question. Below is an abridged transcript from our conversation.

McNerney: Is there an evolutionary advantage of being an essentialist?

Bloom: I think the case is most obviously made about other people. If I want to safely interact with you, I must be cautious of your history. For example, it is advantageous for me to know how you’ve treated me in the past, who your friends are, who you know and what you know. There is a long list of things that are invisible but are part of you, and they could be important for, say, my survival.

McNerney: So you could say that when we assess others we look at them physically, but we also examine their “resumes,” if you will.

Bloom: Exactly, that’s right. And the same is true with animals. You want to know more than just the physical – the history is important too. For example, is it dangerous? Does it tend to move quickly? Likewise for food, you want to know its history and what it has touched before you eat it.

McNerney: So evolution did not favor people who weren’t able to think as essentialists?

Bloom: Yes, think about what a disadvantage it would be if you only assess things as they are. Here’s the interesting part, you could argue that humans have taken it too far. We are so caught up in history that we collect irrelevant things. We care about the difference between an original and a forgery.

This part of our conversation made a lot of sense to me. Bringing in the evolutionary explanation is always helpful and interesting. Specially, I like the idea that our “essentialistic” tendencies have spilled over into other domains; this helps explain why the history of a product (food, wine, or whatever) influences us.

Finally, though I didn’t say it, I couldn’t help but think that essentialism greatly (and I can’t emphasize this enough) influenced philosophy, especially Platonic and Cartesian philosophy. It seems like the theory of the Forms and Cartesian skepticism arose from a general belief that there is something more than just the object/person.

  • I thank professor Bloom for his time. Find his book, How Pleasure Works on Amazon. Also, check out his lectures on pleasure
  • found four articles online that tell the Nevins story. Three of them said club soda and one said tap water. I went with club soda in the opening paragraph.

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Guest Post @ Scientific American: Morality and Chimpanzees

My latest at the Scientific American guest blog.

Chimpanzee research is a hot topic this summer; it has been discussed on the big screen, in the New York Times, and in the science blogosphere. The debate is complicated; there are government funding issues, several ethical dilemmas to consider, and potential benefits to human health at stake. However, all of the discourse boils down to a simple question: what are the moral parameters of chimpanzee research?

It is a riveting debate, no doubt, and I think that addressing moral questions head-on is necessary. But as a philosophy major, I also know that pondering and arguing the moral qualifications and conditions of an action can be endless, tiring, and dry. That is why I am interested in a much deeper, and much more fascinating question: Why are human beings so moral?

I interviewed Yale psychologist Paul Bloom for the article. He had some interesting things to say. Check out Bloom’s Tedtalk here, and latest book here.

Why You’ll Pay for Silence: John Cage’s 4:33

I was on iTunes yesterday checking out Kanye and Jay-Z’s latest when I came across something that caught my eye. It was the famous – or perhaps infamous – John Cage piece Four Minutes and Thirty Three Seconds, one of the must unique and provocative pieces in the history of contemporary music.

4:33 was debuted on August 29th, 1952, by David Tudor at Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York. Tudor was an established pianist well versed in the experimental music scene. That night however, he was faced with one of the most unmatched pieces of his career. He slowly walked on stage, took his place at the piano, and opened the score. But then he did something he had never done before – nothing.

For the next four minutes and thirty-three seconds Tudor sat there, in silence, and nearly motionless. Then, without striking a single piano key, he got up and walked off stage.

No, he didn’t freeze or choke. He actually performed the piece flawlessly. You see, Cage’s 4:33, a three-piece movement, is a composition completely void of notes. It is nothing. It sounds like a half-baked idea, and maybe it is, but Cage believed that 4:33 was music just as any traditional composition was. For him, 4:33 qualified as music because it wasn’t actually silent; its music was in the environment – it was the traffic noise in the background, the sneezes, the coughs, the shuffling of papers, and the thoughts that went through people’s heads as they sat there watching Tudor do nothing.

Cage replaced the expected with the unexpected; instead of piano sounds, he gave the audience different sounds – but he still gave them music.

I first heard about 4:33 from my college music professor, who actually paid money for the sheet music and had us perform it in his intro to music theory class. I remember it well, the entire class sat there in silence for 4:33 and “played” Cage’s piece. I was dumbfounded. What the fuck, I thought; why the hell did my professor pay money for the sheet music that didn’t have any notes.

I had forgotten about 4:33 until I saw it on iTunes yesterday. What caught my eye was that it was being sold. That’s right, for 99 cents, you can have four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Sounds ridiculous, but people are actually buying it!

Obviously, this makes absolutely no sense from an economic stand point. First off all, these people are paying for nothing. Literally. Second of all, they already own it, that is, they can perform the piece by just shutting up for 4:33. They can even go be silent in front of a piano if it makes them feel better. In fact, if they are paying for 4:33 they might as well go outside, take out a one dollar bill, light it on fire, and stand in silence and watch it quietly burn.

Why would they pay for this? What is it that they are getting?

After thinking about it for a while, it dawned on me that they aren’t buying silence, they are buying an idea. They are buying the point that Cage has made about silence and music; they are buying a chance to ponder what it means for something to be considered music; they are buying a few moments to think about what makes good art; they are buying the ability to tell people that they bought it; and they are buying the pleasure they get from 4:33 – whatever that pleasure may be.

Maybe. But you can’t just redirect the value of something to some intangible to maintain that the buyer was rational, it’s like assigning a value to snobbery or laziness to explain why a season pass holder skipped the opera. I wasn’t satisfied and found myself still trying to find an answer.

Luckily, I got an idea after watching a TedTalk by Paul Bloom. Bloom is a Yale psychology professor who specializes in the “science of why we like what we like,” as the subtitle to his latest book so eloquently says. Specifically, he is interested in pleasure; the pleasure we get from sports, other people, and art. He tells an intriguing and humorous story at the beginning of his talk (also in the first chapter of his book) about a Nazi named Hermann Goering who was an obsessive art collector. One of Hermann’s prized possessions was Johannes Vermeer’s Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, which he traded for with 137 paintings worth about $10 million in today’s money. Unknown to Hermann was the fact that his Vermeer was actually a forgery done by Dutch painter Han van Meegeren.

Hermann heard the news at the Nuremberg trails while he was waiting to be executed for the crimes he committed throughout World War Two. According to his biographer, upon hearing that his Vermeer was a fake, Hermann looked “as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world.” No, it wasn’t the six-some million deaths that he was partially responsible for, it was that his Vermeer, which turned out to be a van Meegeren, was a fake.

Bloom’s point, which is obvious only upon retrospect, is that we place a high value on essences. In other words, it wasn’t just the painting Hermann liked, it was its history. Consider the examples that Bloom provides to illustrate this:

The point is, we don’t value things in a vacuum; their histories, their essences, are just as important.

With this in mind, let’s return to 4:33. Why do people pay for it on iTunes? Why did my professor buy the sheet music? They were buying the history, the essence, and the authenticity. Sitting in a corner for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, without having bought the mp3 or sheet music, would be a fake in the same way that van Meegeren’s painting was a fake. Sure, replicas look and feel identical, but they aren’t, they don’t have the same history as the originals.

When I think about all of the memorabilia that I have saved over the years I begin to understand why people spend money on 4:33. It seems to me that just like I wouldn’t trade my first pair of shoes, my favorite stuffed animal that I slept with as a kid, and my 3rd grade art project for replicas, Cage followers wouldn’t go stand in a corner for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. I suppose that I can’t criticize them too much given that we both value the histories more than the things themselves.

But part of me still wonders… would you really pay 99 cents for “nothing?”

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