Notes from The Undoing Project

Michael Lewis’s recent book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed our Minds, has received a lot of positive reviews. Others have written (and podcasted) extensively about the contents and merit of Lewis’s book (I especially like the NYT’s focus on the author and Kate Vane’s focus on the interwoven features of the story). There are plenty of places to find a great synopsis or commentary on the book, so I’ll just share some reflections on a few of my favorite quotes from this chronicle of the lives and collaboration of two scientists who introduced to the world many fundamental ideas about how humans think.


Danny would tell his students: “When someone says something, don’t ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.” That was his intellectual instinct, his natural first step to the mental hoop: to take whatever someone had just said to him and try not to tear it down but to make sense of it.

This strikes me as excellent advice for so many of us. In particular researchers often set out to evaluate a hypothesis, design and carry out an experiment to test it, and end up with data that don’t really speak to the hypothesis. They’re messy, but there seems to be some signal in the noise… they tell you something, but not what you had intended. Maybe this is especially true when you study humans. Either way, this is the point to step back and ask what you can learn, even if it’s not what you wanted to learn. I’m still working on this.

Danny’s advice to ask what it might be true of also seems to be good advice for communicating science more broadly. When communicating to someone with different background experiences and beliefs, if they express a concern like scientists are still uncertain about global warming, communicators will probably be tempted to quickly react: That’s false! It’s not true on the whole, but you can find the truth in it by recalling that there is actually uncertainty about details of the consequences — when, where, and what kinds of catastrophes will strike. There is not uncertainty among scientists that global warming, if left inadequately addressed, will be catastrophic. It’s just the catastrophic details that are unclear. Acknowledging the specifics of uncertainty in this case seems likely to help communicate the falseness of the claim that scientists are uncertain about global warming without alienating an audience.

The only way to understand a mechanism such as the eye, [Danny] thought, was by studying the mistakes it made. Error wasn’t merely instructive; it was the key that might unlock the deep nature of the mechanism. “How do you understand memory?” he asked. “You don’t study memory. You study forgetting.”

Isn’t this how we all come to understand ourselves better? Introspecting about the unideal — Why did my heart rate and breathing speed up during that conversation? Why was I rude to that person on the phone? Why do I want to be somewhere other than where I am right now? — I have come to know myself much better than by dwelling on picture-perfect moments.

The point of bothering to discover this was unclear, even to Danny, except that there was a demand for such stuff in psychology journals, and he thought that the measuring was itself good training for him. “I was doing science,” he said. “And I was being very deliberate about what I was doing. I consciously viewed what I was doing as filling a gap in my education, something I needed to do to become a serious scientist.”

My dissertation in a nutshell: I’m not always sure why I’m investigating the things I am, but I am always confident that doing so is helping me become a better scientist and a better thinker.


Danny Kahneman in 2009, Image by Eirik Solheim. CC

“The idea that everyone is entitled to his/her opinion was a California thing—that’s not how we did things in Jerusalem.”


The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.

Good research can happen when you have time and space to think. Cramming your life full of meetings and obligations may feel productive, but is more likely to lead to incremental progress, not true impactful work. I am still working to internalize this advice.

“Because metaphors are vivid and memorable, and because they are not readily subjected to critical analysis, they can have considerable impact on human judgment even when they are inappropriate, useless, or misleading,” said Amos. “They replace genuine uncertainty about the world with semantic ambiguity. A metaphor is a coverup.”

Yes, yes, yes, but I’m unconvinced about the use of a coverup as a metaphor for a metaphor (meta, I know). Metaphor is a pervasive and unavoidable feature of human language and thought.

And with that comment, I have just engaged in confirmation bias and justified my own line of research. Back to research!

CogSci 2016 Day 2 Personal Highlights

Cool stuff is happening at CogSci 2016 (for some evidence, see yesterday’s highlights; for more evidence, keep reading). Here are some of the things I thought were especially awesome during the second day of the conference:

  • Temporal horizons and decision-making: A big-data approach (Robert Thorstad, Phillip Wolff): We all think about the future, but for some of us, that future tends to be a few hours or days from now, and for others it’s more like months or years. These are our temporal horizons, and someone with a farther temporal horizon thinks (and talks) more about distant future events than someone with a closer temporal horizon. These researchers used over 8 million tweets to find differences in people’s temporal horizons across different states. They found that people in some states tweet more about near future events than in others – that temporal horizons vary from state to state (shown below, right panel). They then asked, if you see farther into the future (metaphorically), do you engage in more future-oriented behaviors (like saving money – either at the individual or state level; or doing fewer risky things, like smoking or driving without a seatbelt)? Indeed, the the farther the temporal horizon revealed through people in a given a state’s tweets, the more future-oriented behavior the state demonstrated on the whole (below, left panel).
    Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 9.28.54 AM
    Then, recruited some participants for a lab experiment. The researchers then compared the temporal horizons expressed in people’s tweets with their behavior in a lab task, asking whether those who wrote about events farther in the future displayed a greater willingness to delay gratification – for example, waiting a period of time for a monetary quantity if the future quantity will be greater than taking the money today. They also compared the language in people’s tweets with their risk taking behavior in an online game. They found that the language people generated on Twitter predicted both their willingness to delay gratification (more references to the more distant future were associated with more patience for rewards) and their risk-taking behaviors in the lab (more references to the more distant future were associated with less risk taking). While the findings aren’t earth shattering – if you think and talk more about the future, you delay gratification more and take fewer risks – this big data approach using tweets, census information, and lab tasks opens up possibilities for findings that could not have arisen from any of these in isolation.
  • Extended metaphors are very persuasive (Paul Thibodeau, Peace Iyiewuare, Matias Berretta): Anecdotally, when I read an extended metaphor – especially one that an author carries throughout a paragraph, pointing out the various features that the literal concept and metaphorical idea have in common – persuades me. But this group quantitatively showed the added strength that an extended metaphor has over a reduced (or simple, one-time) or inconsistent metaphor. For example, a baseline metaphor that they used is crime is a beast (vs. crime is a virus). People are given two choices for dealing with the crime: they can increase punitive enforcement solutions (beast-consistent) or get to the root of the issue and heal the town (virus-consistent). In this baseline case, people tend to reason in metaphor consistent ways. When the metaphor is extended into the options, though (for example adding a metaphor-consistent verb like treat or enforce to the choices), the framing has an even stronger effect. When there are still metaphor-consistent responses but the verbs are now reversed – so that the virus-consistent verb (treat) is with the beast-consistent solution (be harsher on enforcement), the metaphor framing goes away. Really cool way to test the intuition that extended metaphors can be really powerful in a controlled lab setting.
  • And, I have to admit, I had a lot of fun sharing my own work and discussing it with people who stopped by my poster – Emotional implications of metaphor: Consequences of metaphor framing for mindsets about hardship [for an abridged, more visual version, with added content – see the poster]. When people face hardships like cancer or depression, we often talk about them in terms of a metaphorical battle – fighting the disease, staying strong. Particularly in the domain of cancer, there’s pushback against that dominant metaphor: does it imply that if someone doesn’t get better, they’re not a good enough fighter? Should they pursue life-prolonging treatments no matter the cost to quality of life? We found that people who read about someone’s cancer or depression in terms of a battle felt that he’d feel more guilty if he didn’t recover than those who read about it as a journey (other than the metaphor, they read the exact same information). Those who read about the journey, on the other hand, felt he’d have a better chance of making peace with his situation than those who read about the battle. When people had a chance to write more about the person’s experience, they tended to perpetuate the metaphor they had read: repeating the same words they had encountered but also expanding on them, using metaphor consistent words that hadn’t been present in the original passage. These findings show some examples of the way that metaphor can affect our emotional inferences and show us how that metaphorical language is perpetuated and expanded as people continue to communicate.
  • But the real treat of the conference was hearing Dedre Gentner’s Rumelhart Prize talk: Why we’re so smart: Analogical processing and relational representation. In the talk, Dedre offered snippets of work that she and her collaborators have been working on over the course of her productive career to better understand relational learning. Relational learning is anything involving relations – so something as simple as Mary gave Fido to John or more complex like how global warming works. Her overarching message was that relational learning and reasoning are central in higher-order cognition, but it’s not easy to acquire relational insights. In order to achieve relational learning, people must engage in a structure-mapping process, connecting like features of the two concepts. For example, when learning about electrical circuits, students might use an analogy to water flowing pipes, and would then map the similarities – the water is like the electricity, for example – to understand the relation. My favorite portion of the talk was about the relationship that language and structure-mapping have with each other: language (especially relational language) can support the structure-mapping process, which can in turn support language. The title of her talk promised we would learn about why humans are so smart, and she delivered on that promise with the claim that “Our exceptional cognitive powers stem from combining analogical ability with language.” Many studies of the human mind and behavior highlight the surprising ways that our brains fail, so it was fun to hear and think instead about the important ways that our brains don’t fail; instead, to hear about “why we’re so smart.”
  • And finally, the talk I wish I had seen because the paper is great: Reading shapes the mental timeline but not the mental number line (Benjamin Pitt, Daniel Casasanto). By having people read backwards (mirror-reading) and normally, they found that while the mental timeline was disrupted: people who read from right to left instead of the normal left to right showed an attenuated left-right mental timeline compared to those who read normally from left to right. This part replicates prior work, and they built on it by comparing the effects of these same reading conditions on people’s mental number lines. This time they found that backwards reading did not influence the mental number line in the way it had decreased people’s tendency to think of time as flowing from left to right, suggesting that while reading direction plays a role in our development of mental timelines that flow from left to right, it does not have the same influence on our mental number lines; these must instead arise from other sources.

One more day to absorb and share exciting research in cognitive science – more highlights to be posted soon!

Notables from Nautilus chapter: Perception

In a previous post, I wrote about my introduction to the multidisciplinary publication Nautilus, whose current issue’s topic is Time.

Here are some of my highlights from Chapter 2: Perception:

A quote from Making good use of bad timing, by Matthew Hutson:

Like photos in an album, the causal links between [the scenes of our lives] must be inferred. And we do that, in part, by considering their sequence and the minutes, days, or years that pass between them. Perceptions of time and causality each lean on the other, transforming reality into an unreliable swirl.

In this article, Hutson tackles the widely-asked question: Why does time fly when you’re having fun? There’s a generally accepted model of our perception of time as a pacemaker. The pacemaker emits “ticks,” which are general bursts of neural firing, and they’re collected by an accumulator. To perceive time, we compare the number of ticks acquired over a given time to some reference stored in memory. If we’re distracted from these ticks, however, as is likely to be the case when doing something fun or something that puts us in a state of flow, we’ll perceive fewer ticks and consequently perceive that less time has passed. On the contrary, when we’re doing a task that requires attention, we might be hyper-aware of the accumulation of ticks, and time might speed up. Intriguing as this model is, no one has discovered correlations in the brain for the proposed pacemaker or accumulator.

Screen shot 2014-01-25 at 1.55.55 PM

In Why we procrastinate, Alisa Opar writes that we see our future selves as distinct people from our current selves. She cites an fMRI study to show this. When people think about themselves, there is more blood flow in the medial prefrontal cortex and rostral anterior cingulate cortex than when they think about others. The researchers found that when people talked about their future selves, they had less blood flow in the brain areas associated with thinking about the self; in fact, their blood flow patterns looked similar to those exhibited when thinking about other people. Further, individuals who had the least activation in these brain areas when thinking or speaking about their future selves were also the ones who were least likely to favor long-term financial gains over short-term ones. In other words, they experienced their future selves as more distinct from their current selves than the people who were more likely to favor long-term gains. In short, she writes, “their future self ‘felt’ more like somebody else.'”

In another study, participants were told that the experiment was on disgust and involved drinking a mix of ketchup and soy sauce. The more they drank, they were told, the more they would further science. Some participants had to agree to an amount that they would drink that day, others to an amount they would drink next semester, and still others to an amount that their friend would drink today. The group that had to agree to an amount they would drink in the present pledged to drink significantly less than the participants who were agreeing for their future selves or their friends (and the pledge amounts for future selves and friends did not significantly differ from each other). Again, it appears that we think of ourselves in the future in the third person, in the way that we think of others. The solution to reducing procrastination or making better decisions in the present, it would seem, must involve strengthening our connection to our future selves.

This chapter even includes a short time-inspired fictional story, reminding me of how many different and interesting ways there are to approach the topic of time.