Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

People Hearing Without Listening

August 21, 2013

I’ve seen several links and discussions today to this paper about judging classical music competitions.

The experimenter had people observe clips of musicians in competitions, then guess how well the musicians placed. Subjects guessed better when given video-only clips as compared to audio clips or audio+video clips. Conclusion: people care about looks far more than they think or admit they do.

But I think we can’t jump to such a conclusion based on this paper for a few reasons.

First, the clips were taken from the top three places at prestigious international competitions. These people are already the very best; there was probably very little variation between them. If we rate the auditory quality of the music they played out of 100, maybe they’re at 94, 95, and 96, or something. It’s not surprising that experts didn’t accurately judge who would win based on sound.

The failure of audio clips to predict competition placement is similar to how SAT scores aren’t very good predictors of the performance of Caltech students. If you took randomly-selected students from everyone applying to college and admitted them to Caltech, SAT score would be an excellent predictor of their success. But Caltech only admits people with very high SAT scores to begin with, so there’s not that much variation available to do the predicting.

Meanwhile, the variation in how the musicians move and express themselves physically could potentially be large – 50, 70, 90, for example. So even if judges base their scores mostly on the quality of playing, the visual aspect can still dominate the final rankings. The data don’t support the author’s claim “the findings demonstrate that people actually depend primarily on visual information when making judgments about music performance.” To show that, you’d need to show that visual information still trumps auditory information even when the players are not at about the same level. And it’s not like people with visual information did very well – they got to roughly 50% accurate. If you go from a distribution of 1/3 -1/3-1/3 to 1/2-1/4-1/4 you’ve reduced your entropy by about five percent.

Additionally, the clips used in this paper were six seconds long. So what we’ve shown is that you get a better quick, gut-instinct impression with visual than with auditory, but this doesn’t say a whole lot about the judges who were watching and listening to the entire performance.  (Edit: as a commenter pointed out, the paper contains a vague description of the results holding with clips of up to one minute.)

Perhaps visual aspects of the performance are correlated with auditory aspects. Further, maybe six seconds is enough time to get a good feel for the visual aspects, but not the audio aspects (six seconds might not even be one entire phrase of the music). In that case, expert judgments during competitions could be based almost entirely on the audio aspect, but people would still predict those judgments better from videos.

It’s interesting that people were bad at predicting which choice (audio, visual, audio+visual) would give them the best results, but people have very little experience with this contrived task, so it’s not especially surprising. Further, I think the conclusions of the paper are probably true – visual impressions matter a lot in music performance, but I hold that belief based on my general model of how people work. The evidence in this paper is somewhat lacking, and it’s disappointing that a news source like NPR fails to state the important fact that the clips were not complete recordings, but very short, six-second impressions.

Elsewhere:

NPR

John Baez

Robin Hanson

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New Tricks?

January 3, 2010

Do dogs have a “this is my name” slot in their memory, or do they respond to a name in essentially the same way they respond to several hundred other sounds they encounter regularly?

I’m at my parents’ house, and the only sound right now is an old dog snoring. Mom and Dad took off for a ten-day cruise, leaving me to watch over the domicile. What I want to know is whether this is enough time to teach a 14-year old dog that I’m changing its name to Mr. Splashy Pants. Or Poincaré (my dad hates speaking French). Or Shiteater. Or Quetzalcoatl.

I’m thinking this may not even involve teaching the dog anything new. No one uses her name (which is “Zypher”, and pronounced the same as “Zephyr”) anyway. In fact, when you call her name these days she runs away, because the only time anyone tries to call her name is when she’s gotten out and needs to be brought back in, or is going to the vet. If we’re doing something nice, like feeding her, she figures it out on her own. All I really have to do is change the tags. Of course, the defeats the point of the prank.

When Zypher was a puppy, I did experiments to figure out how well she knew her own name. She eventually learned to respond to “Zeph”, but would she respond to any two-syllable word I said as long as I directed it at her? Anything with a “z” sound? The result was that it was surprisingly difficult to trick her. “Heifer” (which rhymes) never got her attention. Neither did “Zealot”. At things like “Zephin” and “Slither” (if you said it right), she would look up and pay attention, but wouldn’t come directly.

I tried these again just now, years later. At “Zephin” and “Slither” she kept snoring, but when I said “Zypher” she woke up immediately, lifted her head, and looked straight at me. (She has arthritis in her hips and is much less likely to jump up and run over than she used to be.) So dogs apparently have the same sort of name-response conditioning that people do. She must subconsciously process everything I say to her while she sleeps, but consciously respond only to “Zypher”. This seems, to me, to be evidence for a “name slot”.

But since dogs don’t use speech, why would she have this ability? Why would they need to be able to have a name, since they don’t use one in the wild? I’d expect her to be able to respond to a specific sort of dog-sound, or the specific types of sounds dogs would encounter in the woods (which is always where I imagine wild dogs living, never on plains or steppe or marshes), but aren’t these sounds less complicated than a multisyllable name from a human language? Maybe not, and maybe paying attention when her name is called is not very different from paying attention at the sound of dog food being poured in her dish.

Can a dog have two names? If I teach her her new name is “Danita” (which is already my mom’s name, and I doubt she’d like sharing), will she (the dog) respond to that and her old one both? If dogs have a specific “this is my name” slot, maybe learning a new name will make her forget the old one. I hope so, but I don’t know about this, either, because although people definitely have a “this is my name” slot in their brains, many people learn to respond to several different names.

Let’s Read the Internet! Week 3

October 26, 2008

Self Control and the Prefrontal Cortex John Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex

Summarizes some research that indicates people only have a certain amount of willpower to ration out over the day. My first reaction to reading this article was to think, “yeah, but that’s only for weak people, not me.” My next reaction was to resist the temptation to check my email too frequently. My third reaction was to slaughter eight cats in a murderous frenzy, then to sit forlornly surveying the carnage I had wrought and wonder if this cycle would ever end.

Scott Belcastro’s Lonely Searching from Erratic Phenomena

I’ll admit I don’t know much about art, but I can tell when something looks cool. I saw how similar the paintings were, and felt surprised at first that people don’t get bored doing the same sort of thing over and over. But then I realized it must be because they’re refining, focusing down, and trying to work out subtleties and understand their subject more fully. Not that I see all the subtleties, exactly, but maybe if you read the text they actually talk about that stuff.

The Gallery of Fluid Motion
Videos of fluids being fluidy. Don’t get too excited, though. Despite what it sounds like, this is not a potty cam.

Amazing Super Powers

The Incredible Beauty of Hummingbirds in Flight RJ Evans at Webphemera

Small things can be pretty. They aren’t always pretty, which is sad news for your penis.

Is This The Oldest Eye On Earth? Tom Simonite on New Scientist

“It could be the oldest eye, or even human body part, still functioning or to have ever been in use for so long.” There’s a story for the grandkids.

The Laplace-Runge-Lenz Vector Blake Stacey at Science After the Sunclipse

A clever way to prove that orbits in a r^{-2} potential are conic sections, without solving a complicated differential equation. I’m surprised we didn’t do this in ph1a, although I’m kind of glad we didn’t, because it makes me appreciate it much more now.

Let’s Read The Internet! Week 1

October 12, 2008

Earth From Above

Sensory overload.  Thirty photographs of socially-relevant scenes from around the world, each of which could easily launch me on a few hours of reading and comparing.  Taken together, they present an overwhelming mosaic of a vibrant, living, interconnected, diverse, and changing planet.

But, damn, I just noticed that the story has gone from displaying 30 photographs to just ten, and the impact is nowhere near as great.  It seems hypocritical that the coordinator of the exhibit (not the artist) should ask the website to take photographs down, when the whole point of the exhibit, as expressed by the artist, is that it be completely free and displayed out on the streets in cities across the world to reach as broad and diverse an audience as possible.

Not the end of evolution again!

  John Wilkins at “Evolving Thoughts”

You might have heard about some guy telling the media that human evolution is over because we now care for our sick.  Wilkins presents a brief, irate counterargument.

I’ve done some reading on evolution from time to time.  What I’ve learned is that’s it’s deceptively difficult to understand.  Although the basic idea that heritable variation and selection pressure combined lead to evolution is straightforward, there are an awful lot of intricacies you find when you begin to look more closely.

There are some things you can do – such as study genomes to see how closely-related two species are, or study fossil records to document the evolutionary history of a species.  But there are a lot of things you can’t do, such as say, “Dinosaurs evolved to be really big because they were in an arms race.  Prey got bigger, so predators were forced to get bigger, and then prey got bigger again and off they went.”  That is not a falsifiable hypothesis, because you can’t go back and test it.

You can study evolution mathematically, and you can make falsifiable predictions, and then compare those predictions to observation.  But statements like, “human evolution is over because we care for our sick” are basically pseudoscience.

Extremely simplistic thinking about evolution leads to paradoxes.  For example, now that we first-world men don’t have to worry much about dying in our mothers’ arms during infancy, getting killed in battle at age 16, or starving to death when the buffalo find a new migration route at age 27, shouldn’t the biggest factor left in our reproductive success be how good we are at attracting women?  And therefore, shouldn’t every man spend all his effort spreading his seed far and wide?  Shouldn’t guys just be thinking about sex all the time…  Oh, never mind.

How We Evolve

Benjamin Phelan at Seed Magazine

A lengthy article about the sort of thing I referenced above – collecting data from genomes to study evolution.  Here, the scientists took genomes from humans of varying ethnic background and looked for characteristic differences in their DNA as evidence of evolution.  Bottom line: Yes, people are still evolving.  For example, as a white man, I am a highly-evolved lactase-producing being, unlike the those primitve, dairy-bloated Asians.

In Defense of Difference

Maywa Montenegro and Terry Glavin at Seed Magazine

In a companion article to the one above, the authors discuss why we might want to save the rainforest, anyway (because we like rain?).  Not just because we like toucans or want to display a World Wildlife Fund bumper sticker on our Prius.  Because it has economic, social, medical, and scientific value to humans.

The idea is that biology is a huge information-gathering system.  From a protein to an organism to an ecosystem, evolution allows biology to record information about how to live in the world, and also provides a ready-made task force 10^30 cells strong that will do its best to find out how to live in a changing world.  The more stuff we destroy, the more Earth loses the ability to adapt to hard times.  Clear the rainforest to raise crops, and disease or natural disaster or pollution find it much easier to brutally rape the new, homogenized biosphere.

The argument is then extended to such things as preserving human languages, which record the results of thousands of experiments in creating human culture.  So nature is basically a billion billion whatever tiny lab books full of experiments, and instead of reading them, we’re throwing them out.

Nobel Sur-prize

Peter Coles at “In The Dark”

Particles are everywhere.  While you read this, particles are in your home, in your infant child’s crib.  In her anus.

I don’t understand them.  But here’s a fairly simple explanation of the work that won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics.  Basically, the uproar is that this guy Cabibbo had a big idea about physics that helped explain a mystery about particles.  Later, Kobayashi and Maskawa solved a mathematical problem that expanded on Cabibbo’s idea.  Both were important – the original idea and the difficult mathematical extension to it – but only one was awarded the prize.

Also check out a more basic article from Mark Chu-Carroll at “Good Math, Bad Math”

What positive psychology can help you become

Martin Seligman on TED

A talk interesting enough that I watched it twice.  The second time while smiling. Seligman decided to break happiness, or life satisfaction, into three categories.  (To me this is rather arbitrary.  It’s not like the categories of happiness are just sitting out there, waiting to be discovered.  But it’s a persistent plague among people who study such things to break them down into categories they believe are fundamental. i.e. “four personality types”, “two political ideologies” (left/right), or even “four kingdoms of life” (some people now say up to 13.  others 2))

The categories are: surface pleasures like active social life, good love life, and sensual pleasure; “flow”, or the state of intense focus and concentration associated with, say, rock climbing or physics sets; and “meaning”, or finding something greater than yourself to dedicate your life to.

Seligman describes the beginnings of a movement to apply a scientific approach to the study of happiness, as opposed to the traditional psychological model of simply curing mental illness and depression.  He claims that it is possible for people to increase the fulfillment they feel in life by a concentrated effort in the right direction.  It’s a summary of the beginning of a quest to understand people in a new way, and apply that understanding to make life better.

Worldmapper

A site you may have seen before.  They use maps of the world to visualize data.  For example, compare a map where each country’s size represents the number of personal computers in that country, to a map showing how many people died of “often preventable deaths”.

There are a lot of technically-interesting things about this project.  How did they get the countries to fit together, when their land area needs to be fixed at some arbitrary size?  What sort of properties of the standard world map’s topology were they trying to preserve?

But more interesting are the social, economic, and political insight you can get.  Compare this project to the Gapminder.

Small samples, and the margin of error

Terry Tao at “What’s New”

Terry Tao tones it down a notch to present something even I can understand.  He discusses how a random sampling of just 1000 people can give an accurate picture of the opinions of a nation of 200,000,000 voters.  He also gives a short proof of the accuracy of the sample, without resorting to the binomial distribution.