Friday, March 23, 2018

Psychology for Writers: Your Happiness Set-Point

A few years ago, a former colleague was chatting with someone about the work she did with Veterans who had experienced a spinal cord injury. The person she was chatting with talked about how miserable she would be if that happened to her, even implying that she'd rather be dead than have a spinal cord injury. Many of us who have worked with people experiencing trauma probably have had similar conversations. People believe they would never be able to happy again if they experienced a life-changing event like a traumatic injury.

On the other hand, we've also heard people talk about how unbelievably happy they would be if they won the lottery or came into a great deal of money in some way.

But you might be surprised to know that researchers have been able to collect data from people both before and after these types of events - simply because they've recruited a large number of people for a study and some people in the sample happened to experience one of these life-changing events. And you might be even more surprised to know that people were generally wrong about how they would feel after these events. People who had experienced a traumatic injury had a dip in happiness but returned to approximately the same place they were before. And people who won the lottery had a brief lift in happiness followed also by a return to baseline.

These findings offer support for what is known as the set-point theory of happiness. According to this theory, people have a happiness baseline and while events may move them up or down in terms of happiness, they'll eventually return to baseline. Situationally influenced emotions are, for the most part, temporary. You might be sad about that injury, or breakup, or financial problem, or you might be elated about that promotion, or lottery win, or new relationship for a little while, but eventually, you revert to your usual level of happiness. Everyone has their own level. Some people are happier on average than others.

This theory also explains why people who are prone to depression need to seek some kind of treatment, often in the form of therapy and medication - interventions to increase your baseline level of happiness. Money or love or new opportunities may help in the short run, but what needs to be targeted is your baseline itself. Obviously events can target your baseline - a person may have an experience that changes their way of looking at the world, for better or worse. But events that only affect your mood and don't affect your thought process or reaction are unlikely to have any lasting effects.

This is important to keep in mind when writing your characters. Situations and events can obviously push their current mood around. But for a change to be permanent, it has to do more than simply make the person happy or sad - it has to change their mindset. A divorce might make a person sad. A divorce that changes how secure a person feels in relationships or leads them to distrust others might result in a permanent change. A lottery win might make a person happy. A lottery win that helps them become financially independent, get out of a bad situation, and completely change their way of life might result in a permanent change.

Think about how your character is changing and why, to make sure it's a believable permanent change and not just a temporary happiness shift. And if it's just temporary, know that it's completely believable for your character to work back to baseline on his or her own.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Science Fiction Meets Science Fact Meets Legal Standards

Any fan of science fiction is probably familiar with the Three Laws of Robotics developed by prolific science fiction author, Isaac Asimov:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
It's an interesting thought experiment on how we would handle artificial intelligence that could potentially hurt people. But now, with increased capability and use of AI, it's no longer a thought experiment - it's something we need to consider seriously:
Here’s a curious question: Imagine it is the year 2023 and self-driving cars are finally navigating our city streets. For the first time one of them has hit and killed a pedestrian, with huge media coverage. A high-profile lawsuit is likely, but what laws should apply?

At the heart of this debate is whether an AI system could be held criminally liable for its actions.

[Gabriel] Hallevy [at Ono Academic College in Israel] explores three scenarios that could apply to AI systems.

The first, known as perpetrator via another, applies when an offense has been committed by a mentally deficient person or animal, who is therefore deemed to be innocent. But anybody who has instructed the mentally deficient person or animal can be held criminally liable. For example, a dog owner who instructed the animal to attack another individual.

The second scenario, known as natural probable consequence, occurs when the ordinary actions of an AI system might be used inappropriately to perform a criminal act. The key question here is whether the programmer of the machine knew that this outcome was a probable consequence of its use.

The third scenario is direct liability, and this requires both an action and an intent. An action is straightforward to prove if the AI system takes an action that results in a criminal act or fails to take an action when there is a duty to act.

Then there is the issue of defense. If an AI system can be criminally liable, what defense might it use? Could a program that is malfunctioning claim a defense similar to the human defense of insanity? Could an AI infected by an electronic virus claim defenses similar to coercion or intoxication?

Finally, there is the issue of punishment. Who or what would be punished for an offense for which an AI system was directly liable, and what form would this punishment take? For the moment, there are no answers to these questions.

But criminal liability may not apply, in which case the matter would have to be settled with civil law. Then a crucial question will be whether an AI system is a service or a product. If it is a product, then product design legislation would apply based on a warranty, for example. If it is a service, then the tort of negligence applies.
Here's the problem with those 3 laws: in order to follow them, the AI must recognize someone as human and be able to differentiate between human and not human. In the article, they discuss a case in which a robot killed a man in a factory, because he was in the way. As far as the AI was concerned, something was in the way and kept it from doing its job. It removed that barrier. It didn't know that barrier was human, because it wasn't programmed to do that. So it isn't as easy as putting a three-laws strait jacket on our AI.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Statistical Sins: The Myth of Widespread Division

Recently, many people, including myself, have commented on how divided things have become, especially for any topic that is even tangentially political. In fact, I briefly deactivated my Facebook account, and have been spending much less time on Facebook, because of the conflicts I was witnessing among friends and acquaintances. But a recent study of community interactions on Reddit suggests that only a small number of people are responsible for conflicts and attacks:
User-defined communities are an essential component of many web platforms, where users express their ideas, opinions, and share information. However, despite their positive benefits, online communities also have the potential to be breeding grounds for conflict and anti-social behavior.

Here we used 40 months of Reddit comments and posts (from January 2014 to April 2017) to examine cases of intercommunity conflict ('wars' or 'raids'), where members of one Reddit community, called "subreddit", collectively mobilize to participate in or attack another community.

We discovered these conflict events by searching for cases where one community posted a hyperlink to another community, focusing on cases where these hyperlinks were associated with negative sentiment (e.g., "come look at all the idiots in community X") and led to increased antisocial activity in the target community. We analyzed a total of 137,113 cross-links between 36,000 communities.

A small number of communities initiate most conflicts, with 1% of communities initiating 74% of all conflicts. The image above shows a 2-dimensional map of the various Reddit communities. The red nodes/communities in this map initiate a large amount of conflict, and we can see that these conflict intiating nodes are rare and clustered together in certain social regions. These communities attack other communities that are similar in topic but different in point of view.

Conflicts are initiated by active community members but are carried out by less active users. It is usually highly active users that post hyperlinks to target communities, but it is more peripheral users who actually follow these links and particpate in conflicts.

Conflicts are marked by the formation of "echo-chambers", where users in the discussion thread primarily interact with other members of their own community (i.e., "attackers" interact with "attackers" and "defenders" with "defenders").
So even though the conflict may appear to be a widespread problem, it really isn't, at least not on Reddit. Instead, it's only a handful of users (trolls) and communities. Here's the map they reference in their summary:

The researchers will be presenting their results at a conference next month. And they also make all of their code and data available.

Monday, March 19, 2018

A Very Timely Hamildrop

Just a few days ago, children across the country walked out of their schools to protest gun violence. On March 24, the March for Our Lives will take place in Washington D.C. and other communities, for a similar purpose. And today, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt released the newest Hamildrop, Found Tonight, the proceeds of which will go to benefit March for Our Lives:

It's amazing how many issues currently being debated in this country can be found in Hamilton: immigration and the contribution of immigrants, and now gun violence and the death of our children. While the situation in which Alexander Hamilton lost his son Philip is different from what is happening in our country now, a parallel can still be made. Perhaps that is why Hamilton has resonated with so many people.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Statistics Sunday: Blogging A-to-Z Theme Reveal

Tomorrow is the official day participants in the 2018 Blogging A-to-Z Challenge have been asked to announce their theme, but since my theme is statistically oriented and it's only one day, I'm doing it today! This year's theme will be...

I'll be blogging the way through my favorite statistical language/software package. Here's a preview of some of the topics I'll be covering:
  • D is for Data Frames - how to create and work with one (April 4)
  • I is for the ITEMAN package - an R library for classical item analysis (April 10)
  • M is for R Markdown Files - how to create PDFs and webpages (HTML) containing your R code and output plus narrative writeup using R Markdown tools in R Studio (April 14)
  • S is for the semPlot package - one of my favorite R packages and winner of the "where have you been all my statistical life?" award (April 21)
For each post, I'll let you know what tools (packages, resources) you'll need. You'll definitely want to install R and R Studio. And this post will help you get started if you're completely new to R. To help keep my blog nice and organized, and aid in finding previous posts, I've also added some new post tags:
  • R statistical package - posts about R or that reference the R language/package
  • R code - posts that contain R code and/or explain how to code something in R; obviously, every post containing R code will also be tagged as R statistical package, but the reverse is not true
  • Psychometrics - posts about psychometrics; many of my posts from this month will deal with using R for psychometric analysis
New tags will likely be added throughout the month, but these are tags I've frankly needed for a while.

One quick note (or disclaimer rather) that I probably should have posted long ago, but I think it's important this month as I begin recommending software, websites, and books on the topic: I write for and maintain this blog as a hobby. I don't make any money from my posts, nor do I receive any benefits for recommending something. So if I recommend a book, a piece of software, etc., it's because I genuinely think that thing is worthy of recommendation, not because it benefits me financially or otherwise. If at any point in the future that changes, I'll be sure to make that especially clear. I also don't currently and have no plans to show ads on the blog. I know others bloggers do to make a bit of money, but ads annoy me and I imagine they annoy you too! (I'm using Blogger as free hosting, though, so it's possible they may begin showing ads. If they do, I imagine I'll finally pony up and pay for hosting somewhere.)

Good news - Statistics Sunday posts will continue, on topics related to my Blogging A-to-Z posts, since the alphabet schedule generally doesn't include Sundays. This year, because of the way the calendar falls, one BATZ post will be on a Sunday, but other years, they usually give us all Sundays off. Because of that schedule, there will be one day with two statistical posts: the first day of the challenge. Statistical Sins will be on hold for the month.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Psychology for Writers: Knowledge and Perceived Competence

Every once in a while, a psychology theory comes along that is so good, I share it with pretty much everyone, not just fellow psychologists or the psychology-oriented friends. And a great example is the Dunning Kruger effect, which I've blogged about so many times. I share it again today, as a psychology for writers post because I think it is such a good descriptor of human behavior that it could easily influence how you write characters.

The Dunning Kruger effect describes the relationship between actual knowledge and perceived competence (how much knowledge you think you have or how well you know a topic). But to even begin to make accurate ratings on your own competence, you need to know enough about that topic, and, most importantly you need to know just how much you don't know.

If that description doesn't make sense, don't worry - I'm about to break things down. People who know very little about a topic and people who know a lot about a topic often rate their perceived competence very similarly. Why? People who know very little about a topic simply don't know enough to know how much there is to know on a topic. So they may underestimate how much work it takes to become an expert. In essence, they ask "How hard can it be?"

But people who have moderate levels of knowledge on a topic rate their competence much lower - lower than people with high levels of knowledge, yes, but also lower than people with low levels of knowledge. They now have enough knowledge on a topic to be aware of how much more work it would take to become an expert.

If you, like me, prefer to see things plotted out to make sense of them, I offer this graph from a Story.Fund post about the Dunning Kruger effect:

And if you'd like a real life example of the Dunning Kruger effect, I know of no better example than our President, who constantly speaks about topics he knows little about as though he were an expert.

What does this mean for your characters? It explains why complete beginners will often charge into something they know little about - and end up in over their heads. This happens a lot in fiction. But it also means that someone with a moderate amount of competence on something will be extremely cautious and not confident in their abilities. It could explain why someone chooses not to help that brash character that rushes in blindly - they don't have to be uncaring or even have poor self esteem to feel that way. They are simply more aware of their shortcomings and gaps in knowledge.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Bend and Snap

This is quite possibly the cutest thing ever:

That's right - reporter Lucy Jayne Ford wrote a dissertation on Legally Blonde and was able to give star Reese Witherspoon a copy of it:
Lucy Jayne Ford, a reporter for Bauer Media in London, was at a press junket to interview Witherspoon and her Wrinkle in Time co-stars Oprah Winfrey and Mindy Kaling, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to show her admiration for Witherspoon.

“I want to start by saying I’m obviously a gigantic fan of all of you; Reese, I actually wrote 15,000 words on you once,” Ford said before handing Reese a copy of her lengthy dissertation and explaining that she had watched the film 800 times to write it.

While Ford conducted her interview after giving Witherspoon the dissertation, Witherspoon made sure to ask her one burning question that Elle Woods most definitely would have approved of before their time ended.

“I have just one question,” Witherspoon said. “Is it scented?”

“I actually put perfume on it before this,” Ford confided.