Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Butt

No, not Salmon.

The last few days I’ve been thinking about mental blocks – why people have them, where they come from, and, most interestingly, why it is so hard for someone who recognizes that s/he has one to do anything about it. My head’s been resonating with Grace Slick’s call, dying to scream it out

Tear down the wa-hall, dah-dah-duhduh
Tear down the wa-hall.

And then last night I saw it happen again. Those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about (Hello, America!) need to pop over to my friend sudo phish’s to check out the vid. One moment there was a game on, another pregnant attack pricked by the astuteness of the Azzurri back five. The ball was sent upfield, and the camera wandered behind it. The next moment, it was a blur of confusion with an unidentified blue defender collapsed on the turf and the goalkeeper Buffon charging like a crazed Italian from the referee to the linesman and back.

A peripheral camera was called into action, and we all now know the sequence of events as it appeared. Zidane on the right wing, embraced maternally by Materazzi. Attack thwarted. Zidane and Materazzi trot back. Zidane’s wry look at yet another half-foul going unnoticed. Materazzi drops out of the frame, just at the crucial moment. Zidane abruptly stops, turns, and gores the matador to the ground.

Why did he do it? Driblets of gossip will doubtless ooze forth during the days to come. The French have already condemned the Italian, guilty until proven otherwise. The French team has a history of having to face racial taunts. Zizou has a history of irascibility. And although, in my analysis, the sending-off may not have made that much of a difference to the final outcome of the game, the question remains – why did such a man, such an experienced player, at such a critical time, not know better?

The psychologist John Bargh claims that over 99% of every person’s actions are “automatic”. (He also claims that that’s an understatement.) Bargh talks about “the four horsemen” of automaticity – automatic acts are involuntary, unintentional, uncontrolled, and effortless. Automatic reactions are adaptive, in the sense that they have been honed to the point where every person knows exactly what to do in response to practically each and every one of the millions of stimuli that impinge upon their senses every passing moment. If we started actually thinking about every step required to answer the phone, our voicemail would brim over very soon. Such procedural knowledge comes of learning – the first time we heard the phone ring, we hadn’t a clue what to do with it. Watching someone answer the thing, once, twice, multiple times, then mimicking their actions, eventually leads us to that ultimate joy gained of conversing with telemarketers (in Cantonese). Very similar sequences of operations take place for most learned activities; and as each one gets learned, it moves from being conscious and effortful, think about driving, to what we call automatic pilot.

Such processes of learning also happen when we try to unlearn existing responses, hoping to introduce new dominant responses in their place. The ‘thank you’ that springs to ones lips when addressing waiters in New York must be supplanted with a ‘merci’ in Paris, or else you get extra cheese on your croissant (or so I’ve been told). So we train ourselves to say the merci, steel ourselves for the crucial moment, and spring it self-consciously when the time comes. And congratulate ourselves on having done so, then hoover off to do it again, and again, and again, until the day we smoothly impress the friend who visits us a few months down the line.

Yet that is no guarantee that some day, in a hurry, or in the middle of a conversation, the pagan thank you will not slip from our merciless lips again.

Because the learned response is not always the dominant one, especially in times of stress.

Which is why I feel sorry for Zizou. He fought his demons, but couldn’t tear down the wall when it mattered.

Update: Buddy bandafbab presents the most magnificent alternative explanation.


Blogger km said...

Very astute analysis there, TR.

I am convinced that about 99.9999% of our thought-process, responses and behavior are on auto-pilot. (The remaining .0001% are the urges to eat, defecate and copulate, of course. Hopefully not all at the same time.)

I'm going to nominate this one to Desipundit. Y'got a problem wid dat?

7/10/2006 11:45 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

thanks, that would be very nice of you!

about the physical urges (sometimes called 'visceral factors'), lots of people say those are automatic as well. in fact, that was the point of my sole contribution to the blank noise project a few months back.

7/11/2006 12:34 AM  
Blogger Abi said...

Ninety-nine percent? Really?

Does it mean that phrases like 'plan of action', 'considered opinion', 'informed consent', and yes, 'free will' are all just jokes?

7/11/2006 11:56 AM  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

I have limited understanding of football (read that as "zero") but I know enough to tell that Zico was better than Ronaldinho {:-) remember that!). But, seriously, even with my limited understanding, I could tell that Zidane is one hell of a good player. I can't recall seeing anyone else who has similar control over the ball. And, his humble background made me appreciate him even more. But I find it extremely hard to overlook what he did on the field the other night. That joker Materazzi probably got what he deserved (a lip reader employed by a TV channel concluded that the stupid man had called Zidane's sister a prostitute twice) but Zidane should've known better...the theory about automatic response notwithstanding. That is what separates him from the lesser mortals (or, should have). I keep asking myself if a Tendulkar would've reacted in a similar fashion. B'cos he has been put under similar pressure, if not more.

I feel sorry for Zidane too but, really, I can't think of him a the same player anymore.

7/11/2006 12:10 PM  
Blogger sudo phish said...

kya scientific explanation dia! Shabash! Aren't those you tube video clips cool?

7/11/2006 9:46 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

personally, i believe that the "truth" is a lot more complex than can be measured in any way, that too by a percentage. a lot of it also goes back to how exactly we define "automatic" -- it can be argued that a lot of what we perceive as being deliberated and reasoned action can be shown to have been influenced by things we may not have been aware of, and hence less in our control than we might have thought. of course, none of this is settled in any way yet -- this is one of the biggest debates in social psychology today (a recent issue of the journal of consumer psychology had a very nice set of pieces with proponents of both sides arguing back and forth at each other).

maybe not the same player, but more human, perhaps? :-)

thanksyou -- will claim my chavanni when we meet next. those clips are cool indeed, but have you checked out the new online games?

incidentally, here's a comment from a close friend and collaborator of mine, who had john bargh on her phd committee long years ago:
"nice application of automaticity! i thought les bleus played fantastically and zidane had huge pressure on him. so his cognitive capacity was constrained and he couldn't help responding to taunts in the most primitive (automatic) way." i said stress but missed out the cognitive capacity angle. that would have had the same effect as well.

7/12/2006 2:05 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

theres an alternate video here -

and i also blogged about it here
Btw, do you know neuroscientific research has already proven we dont have free will?

7/12/2006 4:26 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

hi szerelem,
thanks for the links, and for stopping by!
from what i know of neuroscience (and neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, etc.) the field is still in its infancy, and very far from "proving" any such thing yet. the concept of free will hasn't even been defined with very much consensus yet, so the idea of measuring it, its existence, or its absence, is kind of controversial to say the least. (i'm also very suspicious of the word "prove" in a social-scientific context.) this is not to say that i'm opposed in some way to the idea or the methodology -- it's just that it's way too early for the data to be in.

7/12/2006 11:18 PM  
Blogger socket32 said...

great premise, i think you nailed it. he was in a foul mood anyway. overactive ribery missed a setup, henry missed a setup, zisou's header could've finished the game and didn't. then his diva call to be substituted, and not really followd through. i think he'd decided he'd had enough and this was going to penalty. italy had such a formidable defense and they were counting the minutes to kicks in any case. pity he had to revert to childhood alleyway tantrum mode. steven pinker would agree with you wouldn't he? he's all about 'instinct' and chemically ingrained behaviour.

7/13/2006 12:58 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

well, yes you are right about neuroscience being in its infancy. In fact most neuroscientists have a simultaneous training in philosophy..hehe...but there have been a lot of experiments done (ok, i worked on this a long time back so my arguments are going to be a bit vague)to measure brain activity and charges before an act that well kind of points towards the fact that our brain has decided our action before we are even aware of it.
I agree with you that in a social scientific context its really difficult to "prove" anything. But i think right now within the field thats the concensus...of course they may all be wrong =P
ok thats a long comment...
on a different note its funny how the French are now going around comparing Camus and Zizou. The 'coup de tete' is now the ultimate existential act - LOLS! - uve got to love them...

7/13/2006 10:38 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

well hello! heh heh heh.
you're right - all those factors definitely did contribute to the steam building up in the pressure cooker. i'd be happy indeed if pinker agreed with me - usually it's just me agreeing with him :-) (you'll note the nom de plume here, which was inspired by having a copy of his "the blank slate" on the bookshelf in front of me at the time.) i have to say though, based on what i've read of his books and interviews, pinker usually takes a far more nuanced position than he's given credit for.

no worries about the long comment - the more interesting it is, the better! i'm no expert on philosophy. i did once try to read up some of the latest work on free will, in relation to some of my own research, and found myself well in over my neck in the profusion of words (my brain needs data to understand things properly!) however, the one thing i did sort of take away was that there's no real agreement on what exactly we mean by "free will". put differently, different people may imply different things with that phrase, and the same person may mean different things when using it across contexts. so... if we can't identify the beast, we can't really measure it. now, the neuroscientific evidence that you talk about is helpful in this regard, since it indicates some kind of precedence and/or causality. but three critical questions remain. (1) so far, all that we can see are changing activation levels in different areas. based on these, we assume that since frontal lobe activation is considered thought and the amygdala is instinctive, activation in the one rather than the other is what is driving behavior. this may be a good guess, but it's only a guess based on indicative evidence. we don't know anything about how the activation relates to the content of the thought. (2) to what extent is all of this dependent on context? a bald footballer may have no "free will" and respond automatically when provoked by a thug, but may have plenty of free will when deciding which brand of sneaker to sponsor. and (3), most abstractly, does "our brain" deciding on an option not mean that "we" have decided? we don't really know where to draw the line between the making of the decision, and the awareness of that making. (last week, i was provoked during an argument. my first response, a split-second of silence later, was of wonder that i hadn't responded with a "f^*5 you".)

anyway, *this* is a long comment. thanks again for stopping by, and hope to see you again! (oh, and agree completely re: the existentialism bit.)

7/13/2006 3:13 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

That is a long post!..hehe...
well, you are right of course. How exactly do define free will has been an ongoing argument since well, socrates, plato and probably a few before them. So in general most experiments, paper etc always start with what the authors define free will and then therefore their research and findings are constricted to their definition.

Should mention here again that what I remember of this topic is really vague (and i would have dug out my research but i dont have my laptop with me rt now!!)...
The experiment i mentioned was a huge break through in the 70's - '80s by Benjamin Libet. From what i recall he asked his subjects to flick their wrist at any randomly chosen moment and then monitored the activity in their brains. What he found was that the brain activity occured about half a second before the conscious decision to flick the wrist began in terms of a build up of electrical charge. (Again this is a very vague argument on my part and im sure there would be the required technical details of what unconcious and concious brain thought means and the necessary parts of the brain associated with these).What Libet basically argued was that the belief in free will ocurred only in retrospect.
However while Lebit argues that we dont have 'free will' we do have some kind of 'veto' power such that our consciousness can play a part in suppressing certain acts instigated by the unconscious.

Ok i hope i havent frustrated you with my half baked argument here. I really wish i had the required material to make a more fleshed out argument and i should have ideally read up on this but am too lazy right now =P

Oh, by the way Daniel Dennet makes many arguments against the existence of free will but his are more of philosophical reasoning (combined with some random quantum physics argument) which caused me to have a nice big headache. If you like Pinket though you should read Dennet.

7/14/2006 4:18 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

hey szerelem,
thanks for the tips - i hadn't heard of the libet study. will be sure to check it out. there are actually several dual-process models floating around these days, all positing some variant of the "initial-instinctive-automatic" + "subsequent-reflective-controlled" setup. also, i'd like to clarify my position on this -- i'm not opposed to automaticity at all [just in case i gave you the impression i was arguing against you ;-)].

7/14/2006 10:39 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

oh i didnt think you were arguing against me! but you raised some valid questions so i just did my best to put down what i remembered...not that that was very conclusive but still...=P

7/14/2006 11:07 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

my limited experience of the blogosphere leads me to the suspicion that anything that appears conclusive is usually just an opinion. i learned something from your comments, and that's way above par as far as my expectations going in were concerned!

7/15/2006 12:09 AM  
Anonymous socket32 said...

interesting thoughts on the free will arguments here, nice meta thread. to me it's as old as mind-body, and like with any self-defined conundrum, revolving beyond one iterative circle would be tough.
the wrist flick experiment sounds like a good basis to posit for a free will = voiding the pattern idea. great perspective on the term.

but by using causality as materazzi=cause, therefore zizou=headbutt in a 5 second incident, aren't we automatically determining things? whether he failed to suppress a condition or whether he acted in free will doesn't matter because we all speculate what 'made him do it'. on the other hand, materazzi claimed zizou was acting like "a snob" who said you can have my shirt after the game if you like pulling it so much. ie, not to dwell on side issues, but the cause isn't as easily isolated as appears, therefore the lab isolation can never be clearly made? 'he made me do it' incidents are usually inconclusive.
not to sound like an existential moral relativist (and he is french-algerian), but we find it convenient to look at the more egregious act in isolation and ignore that this just another he-made-me-do-it so either we use free will or lack of it to explain both or not at all.

muddying the waters with sloppy thinking as always...

7/15/2006 1:11 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

"sloppy thinking" or not, two great points there. one on the self-definedness, or as the economists would put it, endogeneity. and two on the role of the context -- the old proximal vs. ultimate cause thing. i agree!

7/15/2006 10:03 AM  

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