About confirmation bias

It’s been a long time since I don’t write here. The year has started with my new job and the many many paper deadlines. It has kept me busy enough not to follow the news a lot, which is generally a good thing, because seeing what is happening in the world is usually a source of depression and disappointment for me.

Nevertheless I am Brazilian, and the latest protests in the country could not have passed by unnoticed. Specially because my parents, the most apolitical people I know, participated on it.

But this will not be yet another text on the political situation in Brazil, no no. We have plenty of that. What is most interesting, for me at least, is to observe people and their reaction. Since the elections in November I realised how irrational this opinion business can get. People immersed in the situation do not seem to realize it, but they do get really closed-minded and irrational when they decide on an opinion, no matter how rational they think their opinion might be. Everybody thinks “I cannot believe they can’t see it clearly like I do!”. But there is the paradox right there: *everybody* thinks that, no matter how different their “clear” thoughts are. And since a discussion between irrationals is a lot of work, they group together with people of the same opinion. They refuse to see (or listen, or try to understand) the “others”, and suddenly everyone around them agree, which makes them think they are even “more right”. That is the pitfall…

This phenomenon is crystal clear on social networks. There are extremist posts pro-government, with many likes and supportive comments. There are also extremist posts against government, with many likes and supportive comments. Why don’t these people talk? I am sure they are all intelligent and reasonable, and they can both find the strong and weak points of each side (or a third and better side). But they just don’t. On a failed attempt to make two opposing party relatives talk during the elections last year, I ended up as being the one bringing adversity, trying to turn them against each other. I honestly just wanted to see the beliefs questioned and put to test. (Something at which political debates failed horribly).

Confirmation bias is a real thing, but it’s a shame to see it preventing a discussion which could be otherwise very fruitful and informative.

About happiness

This has been a recurring theme in the past few weeks on my random walk on the internet (maybe not so random). It started with an article on the BBC Travel about the cities to visit in the happiest countries in the world, which led me to this report: http://unsdsn.org/files/2013/09/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf

It is a nice report, and I wish I had time to read it all, but the first chapter alone gives a nice overview of the document. It you’re curious, here are the top 10:

1. Denmark
2. Norway
3. Switzerland
4. Netherlands
5. Sweden
6. Canada
7. Finland
8. Austria o/
9. Iceland
10. Australia

This is interesting, because whenever I say I come from Brazil, people imagine that I come from a place where everybody is going to the beach and dancing and smiling all the time. And we are advertised as very happy people… And you’d think that countries that have the sun and wonderful beaches would have the happiest people, right? But it’s just the opposite. Nine out of the top 10 countries do not have wonderful beaches, on the contrary. Lots of them have a harsh winter and are sometimes labelled as places with high suicide rates because of the winter depression. So how did this happen??

After reading and watching videos on the subject here and there, I found out that we tend to overrate how happy we will be because of something (or how sad as well). So you might think that winning the lottery will make you the happiest person on Earth when, in fact, studies suggest that it doesn’t. Or you might think that becoming paraplegic will make you miserable for the rest of your life, but studies also suggest the contrary. This happens because we have a tendency to adapt to whatever situation life brings us, it is called hedonic treadmill. There is a very interesting TEDTalk on that. Actually, the experiment the guy mentions towards the end of the talk, reminded me of another very interesting TEDTalk about how we are actually less happy when we can choose over lots of options. This is a curious effect, that haunted me as I was a kid. Turns out I was really bad at choosing stuff, really simple stuff, like new shoes. I would rummage over and over again which shoes would be better for me, or what I liked the most, without ever being able to decide. I remember even feeling a bit nauseous in a few situations. And after deciding on something, I would sometimes regret it. I guess the message of the second video is exactly this: if you have too many choices, the choosing process is so stressful that you cannot really enjoy the thing you chose. And there will always be that mean little voice in the back of your head: “what if I exchange?”. This is what happens when there’s too much space for freedom. When you make a choice and you’re supposed to keep it, our adaptation thing kicks in, and you feel happy with what you got. This reminds me of the Indian arranged weddings… At the time, I could not really wrap my head around the whole concept. How is it that you can have a good life with someone your parents chose for you?? What if you don’t like this person (divorce is not really an option)? Well, they learn to like each other. They adapt, and they are just as happy as someone who dated 20 people before settling down (maybe happier!).

So what does this have to do with the countries there?? I am not sure actually… If we tend to adapt to all situations, what is it about the happiest countries in the world? I can think of two things: (1) quality of life and (2) the need to cooperate to survive.

If you look at the full happiness ranking of the countries, you will notice some relation between quality of life and happiness (not all of the time, of course). In the top ten countries, people don’t have to worry about mobility, health issues, education, security, and this makes an enormous difference on one’s life. I can tell by personal experience. You don’t see poor people begging for money, mothers with sick kids in every block or families living in shacks that are about to fall down. I think this affects us. So I would guess it’s one of the reasons why people in wealthier countries are happier. Not because of the money, but because of social security.

The second thing is more subtle. When winter comes, there’s no such thing as someone living on the streets. They will die if nobody gives them shelter, for sure. So there is a social responsibility of taking care of others, just because, if they don’t, the consequences are too tragic. And as this TEDTalk* suggests, we are happier when we are helping others than we are when helping ourselves.

A third thing just came to my mind. In these countries the seasons of the year are really noticeable. There’s a huge change in temperature the whole year, and as one season comes and the other goes away, we are remembered what is good about each one, and we can enjoy each season’s particularity. I came from a tropical country, but I was never so happy to see the sun as I am in summer here in Austria. After three months of cold, you really appreciate the first rays of warm light again. In Brazil, the sun is shinning the whole year, so you don’t really pay attention to that… It becomes normal and it is no more a source of happiness.

I think the bottom line to all these things is that happiness comes from our actions, and not our stuff. We learn to enjoy everything we choose, so don’t worry too much about choosing. Just be nice to people, smile and they will smile back. And meditate, one of the sources of happiness đŸ™‚

* In the end of this TEDTalk, the guy advertises one of the most interesting charity campaigns I have ever seen. You should check it out too: http://www.donorschoose.org/

About researchers and politicians

These days I’ve been thinking a lot about politics… I realized this is a problem around the world, and politicians are usually seen by non-politicians as bad people. Non-politicians usually think that politicians are greedy, selfish, lazy and that, in the end, they are not interested in helping society whatsoever. Of course most non-politicians have their exceptions, that one or two politicians that they really believe in, and if they are not doing enough, it’s because the system does not let him. I started thinking if it was possible that so many people in politics really did not care about doing some good for society. I mean, this should be their main motivation for getting a job there in the first place, no? So what happens??

There is an interesting experiment in psychology called the Milgram experiment, where some people, test subjects, are told to give electric shocks on another person if they do not memorize some words correctly. Although the learning person is already screaming in pain, most participants do not stop giving the shocks, since they were told so. At a first analysis, the results of this experiment seem quite disturbing… How can people be so mean? It was just a stupid experiment, they could have stopped once they realized the other person was in pain, right? Well… not really. I mean, yes, they could have stopped, but a deeper (and less sad) analysis of the whole thing takes into account the environment in which this test subject was. And you have to keep in mind that you might just as well be one of the people that continues to give shocks.
Yes, yes… but what does this have to do with the politicians?

The point is that, it’s very easy to judge from the outside. “He should have done this, he shouldn’t have voted for that, he shouldn’t have accepted that money, how can he be so unethical??” But we don’t really know the point of view of somebody who is on the inside. It is actually easier to follow the rules as they are posed then to try to fight them… Even if you think that they are wrong.

As I thought about this, I realized that it happens to me, and most researchers and PhD students I know. We are all very aware of the way universities decide which people to hire: they check our publication list. Of course they don’t read all of them, and I doubt if they actually read the titles carefully… They check how many there are and in which conferences/journals they were published. There is a huge discussion on whether this is the right thing to do, and most researchers I know, young or old, agree that this is not a very good system, and the relevance of the publications should be taken into account, no matter where they are published. But as we go into this academia field, we are pulled by the current and we believe the only way to survive is publishing… So we become one of those people that try to publish no matter what. We behave as if we accept the system, even though we disagree with it. And we think: “but what can *I* do? I am just a PhD student…” Everyone knows that it’s up to us to end this journal industry and to change how we are evaluated, but who’s brave enough to start this? If this person is alone (or only a few), she’ll certainly perish… It’s a high risk to take. So no one takes it, and we are swallowed by the system, just like the politicians we so much condemn. 

The Wall and the message

Last weekend I went to Roger Waters’ concert “The Wall”. For those that don’t know (and I explain this because an American colleague didn’t know Roger Waters and “have heard somewhere” about Pink Floyd), Roger Waters was part of a very cool rock band called Pink Floyd. “The Wall” is the title of one of their albums, from 1979. It includes the very famous song “We don’t need no education… Hey, teacher, leave the kids alone!”. Anyway, the whole album is pretty good, although I don’t have the habit of listening to this kind of music. It is so good that, 30 years after its release, this guy decides to do a world tour on it and the concerts were almost sold out everywhere.

I read that at the time it was an album that told the story of a character, called Pink, and his psychological problems, relationship difficulties and isolation. There is even a (quite disturbing) movie about it. But this more recent tour focuses mostly on other issues, such as war and capitalism. And it really makes an impression. It was interesting the stream of feelings I had during the show, how overwhelming it was. I don’t think I had ever felt this before during a concert. So here’s me trying to explain to myself why it was so exciting and disturbing at the same time.

First of all I should note what happened before the concert. One of my friends from Brazil was visiting Vienna for a few days and we met to catch up. It was very nice. I was very happy to see how well he’s doing. At some point he mentioned how I was in Brazil in April and hadn’t told anyone, which is true… I don’t know for sure why I did this. In any case, it was wrong. This made me a bit sad and disappointed at myself.
I was also reasonably stressed because after the concert I had to help my sister with a test and pack my bags to leave to Istanbul for a conference the next day. But I was willing to go to the concert and have a good time.

From the first 30 seconds we knew it was going to be amazing, with fireworks, props and visual effects (just take a look at the opening). It was super cool.

At some point, the huge round screen in the middle of the stage started showing faces of people followed by their information. They were all people that had died in wars and conflicts around the world. I started noticing that the deaths were all more or less recent, all in the years 2000 and something. This touched me. You see, I think I am a pacifist, and every time I see these conflicts on TV (Syria, Libya, Egypt, Palestine/Israel, etc.), I think: “Why are these people fighting? Don’t they realize that there are people dying?”. For me, the suffering of losing loved ones and destroying your home should be stronger that any political fight. So seeing those pictures made me very sad. My eyes even watered.

One of the people showed, and for whom Roger Waters made a special tribute, was a brazilian called Jean Charles. This guy died in 2005 in one of London’s underground stations, shot by police officers. I remember the news at the time, but I never fully understood what had happened. At the concert, Waters mentioned how he was cowardly killed, shot in the head even after the cops had caught him and put him on the ground. I didn’t know about this, and if you think about it, it was complete non-sense. This made me… angry? Disappointed? Frustrated? I cannot find a word actually…

Then there was intermission and I calmed down.

On the second part there was strong criticism to capitalism and this whole culture of profit and exploitation. At this point I started thinking how things could have turned out like this. How can people seem so heartless? How can they not see the damage of their decisions? And I thought about this and I saw images of soldiers reuniting with their kids and injured people in the concert and this made me cry. I think it’s very disturbing to realize how people can cause so much damage without noticing it. And I am afraid of being/becoming such people. And every time I think about this, I just want to do something that would change the world and make a big difference. But I am more and more convinced that a big difference requires lots of people doing the right thing. So I’ll do my part and do the right thing (as I gradually find out what the right things are… people that know should make a list).
Let’s just hope I don’t become comfortably numb.

I think in the end it was confusing because it was a concert. And I should watch it, sing the songs and feel good, like it was in Paul McCartney’s. Except it was not like this. I watched it, thought about life, got sad and disappointed in the world and wanted to change it. Well, I guess if half of the people there had the same feeling and are willing to do something about this, it was the most successful concert of all times.

A plea for information

Socrates said once that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. At the present moment I say that the unexamined opinion is not worth giving. I will explain why.

A few weeks ago something interesting happened in Brazil. Something unexpected and that I never thought I would see: people protesting. They were protesting initially against raises in transportation costs, then against the world cup costs, then against corruption, then against the low quality of life, then against… well, against everything you could protest. Initially I thought that this was good. Finally people were noticing the absurdity in Brazil’s politics, how much is left undone for stupid reasons, how many problems could have been solved so far and how corruption and private interests get in the way of social development. I thought people had noticed that things could be much much better, so they went to the streets to protest, and as a way of relieving all the frustration. So far so good. I think this is ok, it is a legitimate way of showing the government that we are not happy with the way things are, for a long time now.

But (there’s always a but)…
People in general like very much to “go with the flow”, and with social networks now this is easier than ever. I have four examples.

A few posts ago I mentioned a problem that happened in Brazil with the financial assistance for the poor. A rumor was spread that this assistance would be over and in one weekend thousands of people went desperate to the bank in hope to get their last payment. As soon as a person gets such information, they don’t even think it can be fake, they don’t suspect it and don’t search a reliable source. Instead, they share with all their friends… who do the same. And before you know there are thousands of people desperate for a fake reason. This is very very serious.

For a long time I have been puzzled why public education is so bad in Brazil. I decided to send an e-mail to a few people I know that are teachers in public schools. I thought they were the best people to tell me what was indeed the problem. Well… only one of them replied, and she told me what I did not expect. She said that infra-structure is not really a problem. That the city hall had enough money for materials and such. Teachers just needed to present a project stating that they needed these or those books, games, etc. and the city hall would provide it to them. She didn’t even mention the teachers’ salary. But she could not pin point the problem for me. So in April I went to Brazil and I spent a day in a public school. My conclusion was the the problem was *not* infra-structure, or the teachers’ salary, but it was much harder and serious. (Maybe I’ll write a post explaining my point of view in the future…). The point is: there are many many people that think the problem of public education is lack of investment, either for paying personal or for buying material for the kids. Why do they think that? Because that’s what everybody thinks! And everybody cannot be wrong, right? Wrong.

In the midst of frustration and protests, there are many people worried that a law project, called PEC37, will be approved. They say it’s the “impunity PEC”, that it is very bad for us and we should also protest against its approval. I have even received e-mails asking for my signature against this thing, so I decided to find out what the hell it is. I read a quick explanation on a news paper (it seemed unbiased), then I read the article that would be changed on the constitution and I read the proposal, that states how this article is changed and why. Honestly? I don’t think I understood 20% of it. And I am wondering now how many people can be such experts that they really understand and strongly oppose this change. How did this come to be?? Well, somebody decided they were against it, maybe this person actually know about it and this is their opinion. And then they shared, it came to the media, and more people shared, and now everybody is fighting against this that they don’t really understand.

Remember those e-mail chains you got saying that you’d get a penny for each reply or that somebody was missing? Have you ever wondered how many of those were true?? I looked for more information on some of them, and I never got a single one that was real.

My brother in law argues that the same is happening with the protests. If you go in Facebook now, it is almost annoying the amount of messages of people giving their opinions on PEC37, on the health system, on the protests, on the police… etc. But are these really their opinion? Or are they sharing things because all their friends say the same? I think it’s time to stop sharing and start thinking. We are people with lives and jobs and families, it is not likely that within a few hours we can decide what we think on such difficult subjects. Opinions require information, a lot of information, and time.

I leave my plea for people in Brazil to reflect and find out why they are so unhappy. Then, use this energy to study and propose solutions. Then you protest for this, and not against everything else.

About social networks

It’s been a long time since I have this inherent annoyance and restraints against social networking. The mere though of thousands or millions of people checking around on other peoples’ lives on the internet makes me nervous. Nevertheless, I am also part of this world. Although I did not want to, originally, moving countries and having people that I am only able to contact via Facebook kind of made me do it. More or less the same reason why my grandma now can call me on Skype. I realized this some time ago, and sent her an actual written letter. After all, why is she the one having to adapt to my means of communication when I can very well use hers? Turned out to be a very nice experience, writing a letter and all, and I will do it more often.

But back to the Facebook thing… After some thinking, I guess I can finally point out some reasons why I dislike so much this kind of interaction. And maybe this will shed a light on how I should use this in a way that makes me happy, and not angry.

The first thing is what I read on some news today (what actually made me finally write this… I’ve been meaning to do it for a while): “Endless sharing and clicks on “like” are, after all, far easier than taking the time to work out what we actually feel.” (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130104-pay-attention/1). I must be honest that the few times I clicked on “like” was because I did not want everybody to see my comment on the subject, although the person that posted was expecting a reaction from me. It’s ugly and I am embarrassed, but I would really rather that things directed to me are sent to me only, and not posted on some wall for everyone else, expecting a public reaction from me. Anyway, I agree with the guy that said this… liking and sharing is much easier than figuring out how you really feel about something, but it’s very shallow and lazy.

Another thing that annoys me is the amount of unwanted information you get from people. So somebody got married… graduated… had babies. Facebook tells you this. What are you going to do? “Like”?? It was not even the person that told you this. I never know if people really expect some reaction from a mere Facebook status change (“What do you mean you didn’t know?? It was on my Facebook!!”) or if they never stopped to think on what’s being published or not (“Ah… thanks… but how did you know it? Facebook? Ah… yes…”). Unfortunately not all people have the patience to go through the endless privacy configurations and filter who gets to see what. My policy: if you want me to know something, tell me. I am rarely on Facebook, and even if I am, don’t expect me to go to your profile to find out if there’s something new.

Speaking of the privacy thing, I will not even begin to argue how dangerous this can be (just check http://pleaserobme.com/). We all know that (I hope!), but what I am most concerned recently is what people are sharing about other people, without their consent. You post a picture of you and your friends at some place, suddenly you reveal some information about all the people on the picture, ever thought of that? Maybe some of the people in the picture don’t even know this, or maybe they don’t like to publish photos online. But out of politeness, they won’t tell you this, and just avoid taking pictures with you the next time. There’s an option to remove the tag from the picture, nevertheless, all the people that know you and see the picture, know it’s you. I think it’s just rude, and I have warned my mother about it (the only person I was brave enough to do so). If you want to put pictures online, please ask first the people on the picture. It’s polite to take into account others’ opinions. In fact, not only pictures, but any personal information. If it’s not yours, it’s not yours to share.

I guess the last thing (which usually makes me more sad than angry, and then angry for going into Facebook and becoming sad) is what other peoples’ lives look like. I know everybody has problems, I know life is not perfect, but when you only see the people online, it seems everybody is so so happy! They have wonderful pictures of vacations, outing with friends, the staff smiling at work, important events happening… I could go into the race, and post pictures of happiness of my own, but I don’t want to. We shouldn’t need to have to show a happy life to actually be happy. And this accounts for showing everywhere, on and off-line.

After figuring out all this, the only thing I could do was to go over the long long privacy settings on Facebook to block most of the information (and delete, when possible). I am working on removing the picture, but I am afraid this would cause some comments I don’t want to deal with (such as “Why did you remove the picture? It was great!”). For some time I thought of using it only for professional purposes, but this would annoy 99% of the people there. Using it as my blog is certainly not and option… I don’t want to broadcast these posts. What to do then? Oh well… back to work.

PS: The sentence of the day (I saw it twice already) seems to be “your attention has a limited capacity”, so use it wisely!

PS2: A more professional view on the subject: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120703-tackling-technology-overload