Friday, June 24, 2011

Does adding men to a group make the group dumber?

Does adding men to a group make the group dumber?

New preliminary finding reported at the Harvard Business Review:

 Adding more women to a group may make the group smarter.

Previous related finding:

 Collective intelligence of groups is roughly independent of intelligence of individual members

Previous assumption:

 A more diverse group is better than a less diverse group.

Surprising new possible implication:

 Gender could potentially be more important than diversity in collective intelligence of a group, with women adding to group intelligence and men detracting from it.


 This is a preliminary finding not yet a robust one. It has been reported in two studies by the same team under a limited range of conditions.

 Collective intelligence is not the only thing of importance in group problem solving.

 The effect of gender may be through process factors that potentially could be achieved in other ways as well if isolated.

 The effect has not been tested very far yet at the extremes.

 Measured of collective intelligence are not as standardized as measures of individual intelligence, which are themselves of mixed value in actual problem solving.

Additional thoughts:

This is a preliminary finding but it seems plausible to me and if it is borne out robustly then combined with the previous finding that collective intelligence is roughly independent of individual intelligence of group members, this seems to mean that (1) group process is more important to collective intelligence than individual insights, and (2) that group process depends strongly on gender.

The first still amazes me but I think it may be true, and if so, the second one seems even more plausible. My impression is that there is a lot less constructive interaction between men than between women in group processes in general.

My own speculation is that while both experience a mixture of task and relationship tension in groups, women leverage the relationship tension more constructively, whereas men tend to align more quickly when they agree and to stonewall more strongly when they disagree. Men usually seem to be more likely to drift toward a goal of satisficing (coming to the first satisfactory solution) and then disengaging, whereas women seem to interact in a more prolonged way. I'm guessing that this contributes to collective intelligence as it is being measured here in some way.


Article on MindHacks:

Interview at HBR:

Chart (The Female Factor):

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Book Review: The Alternate Day Diet

Review of ...

The Alternate-Day Diet, by James B, Johnson
Putnam Adult, 2008.

The Alternate Day Diet explains some of the relevant science behind calorie restriction as both a health-conducive regimen and a weight control strategy and offers valuable experience-based practical advice. There is a lot of evidence in favor of strategic intermittent calorie restriction for making us healthier but there are also some pervasive arguments that have been made against it. Johnson directly addresses each of the arguments and concludes, partly from research he cites and partly from his own experience with patients, that alternate day calorie restriction is practical, effective, and healthy for a wide range of people.

Intermittent calorie restriction is a welcome and refreshing strategy in the diet world because it has the distinct potential to help explain some of the benefits of the other approaches and resolve some of their competing claims. Johnson's conclusion, and the evidence he cites in favor of intermittent fasting, is consistent with the evidence of health benefits for other approaches such as "low carb," and "paleo," because of the significant overlap between those strategies and general calorie restriction. For example, calorie restriction, low carb, and paleo approaches all involve minimizing high glycemic intake, although they use different rationales to explain the outcomes.

This book is also welcome because it offers a perspective that seems to me to help dissapate some of the supposed tension over whether "calories in vs. calories out" is more important than "metabolism" in weight control. If strategic fasting is healthy and effective in weight control, then overall calories may very well matter, but so does metabolism. Fasting appears to hit both targets at once, through the effect of calorie restriction on genetic mechanisms of metabolic regulation.

The key idea behind intermittent fasting as presented by Johnson is that even severe calorie restriction for only 24 hours at a time is not only tolerable, but sustainable over time, and in fact does not cause us to hoard body fat by shutting down our metabolism. The alternate day fast, according to Johnson, seems appropriate to nearly anyone without such serious contraindications as insulin dependent diabetes. He also finds no evidence that intermittent fasting further encourages restriction in people predisposed to anorexia (although I would add that it may help them rationalize their pathological restriction).

I'll add that I've been using Johnson's alternate day fasting approach for several weeks (and prior to that had used the recommendations in Brad Pilon's "Eat Stop Eat" intermittent fasting program for several months) and have so far found everything he says to be true from my own experience. It is not at all difficult to get used to eating very little on alternate days, especially if you combine this approach with some knowledge of satiety (see Barbara Rolls books such as Volumetrics), it does not seem to encourage me to eat more on the non-fasting days, it does seem to have a steady body fat reduction effect, and it seems to have positive effects on how I feel both physically and emotionally. So far I have not found alternate day fasting to have any negative impact on my activities, and I think it has had a small positive effect on my energy levels.

I can't say that the approach would work for an elite athlete or bodybuilder who lives on a much larger scale of intake and output, but it seems like this approach has a lot to recommend it for most of us. Being successful with alternate day fasting will take some new habits, and probably a shift in attitude toward meals, but I think it is a viable weapon against obesity for those who can do it (and it seems to me that those who can't succeed with this approach will probably will have problems eventually with any approach) and a valuable tool for better health.

I bought this book on Kindle, and it is well served by that format. I highly recommend it for its reassuring scientific evidence and its practical advice. I would enhance this approach by learning as much as you can about satiety (such as from Barbara Rolls books on Volumetrics) so that you have even more strategies for feeling comfortable with calorie restriction while still getting healthy nutrition from the reduced intake. The alternate day fasting approach does not tell you what to do on your non-fasting days (other than to avoid either fasting or gorging), so it's still up to you to learn how to eat healthy on those days. The author doesn't abandon you on the "up" days, he does offer some standard suggestions for healthy eating, but these are a small part of the book.

Book Review: "The Hypnotist" by Jake Shannon

"The Hypnotist: Healer, Head-Hacker, & Headliner"

by Jake Shannon

Jake Shannon is a fascinating multi-talented man with a rich and partly enviable life experience. He has also lived through extraordinary pain and illness which were a big part of his initial inspiration for his deep study of hypnosis. As in the life story Dan Ariely, whose life with severe burns helped shape his fascination with psychology, Jake turned to the study of the mind for healing and pain relief. Hypnosis served Jake, as it has served many, as a way to alter the way they experience pain and discomfort.

If "hypnosis" simply referred to a straightforward technique for altering our perception, and that were the end of the story, then Jake's book would have been much more narrow in scope. The intentional structure of the human mind as we understand it pretty much ensures that any any discussion of perception also overlaps with a discussion of beliefs, behavior, communication, and social interaction. This network of concepts has far reaching implications in areas that fascinate all reflective people.

Topics as deep and diverse as the nature of "free will" and responsibility, the sources of extraordinary (and ordinary) human abilities, the role of social compliance in human life, and the malleability of perception all have some meaningful dependence on the ideas that underlie contemporary theories of hypnosis in terms of things like suggestion and expectancy. That interaction, and those dependences, are where the story gets really interesting, and Jake stands out to me in the broad way he has captured them.

Jake surveys the key concepts from a wide range of hypnosis theories, but he does not stop there. He also explores their use in daily life and their implications for social and political issues. When we extend our scientific theories to less directly empirical questions like the implications for social and political issues, of course we tend to incorporate our own distinctive leanings along the way.

Jake's distinctive leanings are strongly libertarian, and libertarian philosophy does not map neatly onto the usual political spectrum but has its own distinct principles. In his book "Justice," Michael Sandel argues that libertarian philosophy revolves crucially on the idea of self-ownership, and I think this is borne out in Jake's perspective on hypnosis. Jake is starting with the central notion that we own the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our role in it, and that we can and should take responsibility for guiding our own self-talk and for filtering the inevitable influences that impinge on it.

For Jake, the crux of hypnosis is entering into and redirecting the conversation we all have with ourselves in our own thoughts, thus shaping the inner stories we tell ourselves. This emphasis on the language aspects of hypnosis are particularly complementary with the communications theories of hypnosis, such as the ideas derived from the studies of Milton Erickson's hypnotherapeutic methods. Jake wants to tie the concept of hypnosis together with a host of other phenomena of importance to self-ownership, particularly social compliance phenomena, so the emphasis on communications and language seems to be strategic.

Hypnotic phenomena are all about changes in our perception as a result of "suggestion," and it is notoriously difficult to distinguish changes in perception from their related mutual influences on belief, behavior, attitude, and emotional associations. So Jake is working from very fertile ground in adopting the broad view of hypnosis as a class of psychological phenomena with interesting social implications. The question that arises about the role of "hypnosis" (in the broad sense Jake uses the term) in human life is whether the sorts of focused suggestions we associate with hypnotism really have a lasting and systematic effect. This is where the topic has historically gone astry in the public mind, with many people attributing much greater and more mysterious power to hypnosis than it deserves, and others attempting to debunk it out of existence as a distinctive class of phenomena of any importance.

Jake would seemingly focus on hypnotic suggestion as a situation where the someone's existing inner conversation is entered into and guided or redirected by the voice of the hypnotist. In the communications view, the explanation for what is going on in the situation (our self-talk about the situation) seems to be a driver for what will follow. We explain the situation to ourself in a particular way, and as a result we act in the situation as if that explanation were true. I think this primacy of the role of explanation in behavior in Jake's thesis is tied tightly to his committment to libertarian self-ownership. It provides a focus point where we can more clearly see how we can influence our own behavior, and how we influence each other. In psychological terms, it centers around *compliance* rather than the _experience_ we have from hypnosis.

Jake's summary illustrates this focus on compliance very clearly: "The hypnotist accesses the subject’s self-conversation through specific rhetorical techniques and subject similar-body language while leveraging the effects of expectation and authority in the subject’s mind in order to achieve compliance."

Explanation is just one albeit critical aspect of human mind, but it clearly isn't the primary driver of behavior in a wide range of situations. Jake refers to the work of John Bargh and others who have demonstrated this experimentally. Jake seems to give the non-language aspects of hypnotic phenomena a secondary role as influencers on our inner dialog. Importantly, he sees hypnosis as "leveraging the effects ..." of expectancy rather than expectancy being the central distinction of effective suggestion.

A less communications-oriented view might see the same situation as if our expectations were altered first, through various language and non-language means, and then our experience and behavior followed our expectations, followed at last by some explanation. In the expectancy view promoted by Irving Kirsch (for example), the explanation for why we responded to a suggestion is an artifact, not a driver of the behavior. We follow a suggestion, and then explain why we followed it. Experiments have sometimes deliberately imposed a conflict between an explicit suggestion and an implicit expectancy, and Kirsch interprets those as demonstrating that the expectancy (rather than the language per se) is what drives the resulting behavior. Jake sees automaticity as "the ability to do habitual tasks with little active thought." Kirsch, in his writings on automaticity, has gone much farther and described it as the default state for daily life, where active thought arises only under limited conditions. The non-communications views tend to focus more on the _experience_ of hypnosis and especially why **our experience of control** differs from situation to situation.

This is to some extent a chicken and egg problem, since we can find circumstances where behavior is more clearly driven by the (potentially) self-owned stories we tell ourselves, and also circumstances where our explanations for our own behavior are completely at odds with a more compelling cause. The stronger-self-ownership view of the mind will of course tend to emphasize the role that we play in guiding it. The stronger-automaticity view emphasizes the small, critical windows where active guidance actually takes place. These are not mutually exclusive ideas, something that I think Jake does manage to get across in his book. Again, though, there is that important difference in emphasis, and the different role of language in the human mind that this difference in emphasis represents.

It seems plausible that we can reconcile these different views by seeing the mind as having multiple different parallel systems, perhaps one speciallized for explanations, and others speciallized for motivating and guiding behavior as such. This is part of the role that Jake seems to attribute to bicameral theories of mind. As good promoters of natural science, we want to somehow try to map the features of the mind onto the brain, and bicameral theories take a big swing at that. I think the process of mapping mind onto brain is, while laudable, problematic in practice for various reasons perhaps better identified by philosophers than scientists. Also I don't personally step onto the train of thought that views the anatomical division of many of the brain's "higher" structures as also being a fundamental infrastructure of psychology, nor do I think it plays a particularly fundamental role in explanations of hypnosis, but I do think it is likely that it plays at least some secondary role. My difference with Jake here seems to be mostly one of emphasis.

I don't criticize Jake for taking on the language-focused view of hypnosis here, and I understand how compellingly it fits into the bigger picture of ownership for our own thinking and behavior. In various notable attempts to naturallize consciousness, various reflective thinkers such as Daniel C. Dennett have also described the meaning-making function of the mind largely in terms of stories we tell ourselves, and this does seem to imply a huge role for language as well.

The remaining question is the relationship between language and experience, and in the case of Jake's thesis in this book, especially the experience of *control* and its relationship to compliance. Understanding the phenomena of hypnosis (broadly defined), Jake empahsizes, can help us gain better control of our own mind, and better understand the influences that others are having. I would say that compliance and self-ownership of our mind is a larger topic than is hypnosis, but that Jake is right on target in pointing out the crucial importance of understanding how our mind is shaped and influenced, and how much we can learn about this from the phenomena of hypnosis.

I would actually go farther and say that I think the phenomena of hypnosis have potentially much more to tell us about the nature of the mind than just about the issues pertaining to compliance and influence. I wouldn't entirely define hypnosis in terms of compliance or language, I would define it more primarily in terms of expectancies, and in revisioning the workings of the mind in terms of expectancies I would expand Jake's thesis to include even broader implications of our shifting sense of control for law, medicine, philosophy, economics, and so on. Still, this is a great start and a very worthwhile research effort with both a depth and breadth of ideas you won't easily find elsewhere and which most people will find surprising, fascinating, often troubling, and most importantly, useful in understanding ourselves. I urge you to learn from Jake's experiences and reflections.