The Russian Fox and the Evolution of Intelligence

This is a guest post by Brian Potter of  Coarse Grained. It explores a different aspect of some of the ideas in my post, The Return of the Barbarian, and Paula Hay’s guest post, Cognitive Archeology of the West. If you are interested in guest-posting, email me.

Consider the following experiment (the Wason selection task):

You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a colored patch on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 3, 8, red and brown. Which card(s) should you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?

The correct answer is “8” and “brown”, but very few people get the correct answer – between 10-25% depending on the exact formulation of the problem. Even when its expressed in more familiar terms, such as “If a person goes to New York, then he takes the subway”, success rates remain extremely low.

However, consider the exact same problem, rephrased slightly:

You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and a statement on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 16, 25, ‘drinking beer’ and ‘drinking coke’. Which card(s) should you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if “If you are drinking alcohol, then you must be over 21”?

Phrased like this, success rates shoot up to around 75%. But what makes this form different than a question about riding the subway?

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Extroverts, Introverts, Aspies and Codies

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about extroversion (E) and introversion (I). As a fundamental spectrum of personality dispositions, E/I represents a timeless theme in psychology. But it manifests itself differently during different periods in history. Social psychology is the child of a historicist discipline (sociology) and an effectively ahistorical one (psychology).  The reason I’ve been thinking a lot about the E/I spectrum is that a lot of my recent ruminations have been about how the rapid changes in social psychology going on around us might be caused by the drastic changes in how E/I dispositions manifest themselves in the new (online+offline) sociological environment.  Here are just a few of the ideas I’ve been mulling:

  • As more relationships are catalyzed online than offline, a great sorting is taking place: mixed E/I groups are separating into purer groups dominated by one type
  • Each trait is getting exaggerated as a result
  • The emphasis on collaborative creativity, creative capital and teams is disturbing the balance between E-creativity and I-creativity
  • Lifestyle design works out very differently for E’s and I’s
  • The extreme mental conditions (dubiously) associated with each type in the popular imagination, such as Asperger’s syndrome or co-dependency, are exhibiting new social phenomenology

It was the last of these that triggered this train of thought, but I’ll get to that.

I am still working through the arguments for each of these conjectures, but whether or not they are true, I believe we are seeing something historically unprecedented: an intrinsic psychological variable is turning into a watershed sociological variable. Historically, extrinsic and non-psychological variables such as race, class, gender, socio-economic status and nationality have dominated the evolution of societies. Psychology has at best indirectly affected social evolution. For perhaps the first time in history, it is directly shaping society.

So since so many interesting questions hinge on the E/I distinction, I figured it was time to dig a little deeper into it.

Note: Apropos of nothing, I’ll be in Seattle tomorrow through Monday morning. If anyone is interested in meeting up, post on the ribbonfarm Facebook page, and we’ll see if we can work something out.

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How Geniuses Think

Guest post by Michael Michalko

How do geniuses come up with ideas? What is common to the thinking style that produced “Mona Lisa,” as well as the one that spawned the theory of relativity? What characterizes the thinking strategies of the Einsteins, Edisons, da Vincis, Darwins, Picassos, Michelangelos, Galileos, Freuds, and Mozarts of history? What can we learn from them?

For years, scholars and researchers have tried to study genius by giving its vital statistics, as if piles of data somehow illuminated genius. In his 1904 study of genius, Havelock Ellis noted that most geniuses are fathered by men older than 30; had mothers younger than 25 and were usually sickly as children. Other scholars reported that many were celibate (Descartes), others were fatherless (Dickens) or motherless (Darwin). In the end, the piles of data illuminated nothing.

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