A world without numbers

I have a favorite thought experiment that, for some reason, I think about a lot when I’m driving (to clarify, I’m not driving at the moment). It’s inspired by the claim that the Pirahã language, spoken by a group of people in Brazil, lacks number terms (the original paper is here). The claim is based on Pirahã speakers’ performance in two tasks. In the first, they were shown one battery and asked: how many? The researchers continued to present one at a time, continuing to ask how many there were. The responses were as expected based on previous research: the speakers all used the same term for “one,” a different term for “two,” and combinations of the “two” term and one that signifies “many” for larger quantities.

In experiment 2, the batteries were presented in the reverse order, so the participants first saw 10 batteries, and they were taken away one at a time. This time, the participants used the “one” term when there were as many as 6 batteries left, and they all used it when there were 3. The researchers took this as evidence that the terms that researchers believed to indicate “one” and “two” are not precise, but instead seem to be relative quantifiers. The claim is controversial, but the possibility that a language might not have any definite terms for numbers is intriguing.

Returning to my thought experiment, I often try to imagine living in a society with no ways to quantify things. If we had terms for “one,” “two,” and “many,” we could still see the difference between five apples and six, but the only way we could talk about that difference would be invoking our terms for “one” and “many.” In addition to having no words for definite quantities, we wouldn’t have numerals either. I recognize that a society without number terms would be vastly different from the modern-day American society that I know, but I like to imagine some consequences that would arise if our society suddenly lost all numbers:

We’d all have far less money. We’d have the currency that we could stash away, but no more invisible money in abstract sources like stocks and bonds. Debt would probably be a lot more manageable too.

It would be nearly impossible to be punctual. It seems natural to measure time of day by the sun, but that’s still so subjective. The pattern of the sun shifts a tiny bit every day, and we’re probably not pretty good at perceiving the sun’s exact angle in order to use it to tell time.

Life would be less competitive. In school, we wouldn’t be able to split hairs over percentage points. Many sports, like swimming or long jump, would be pointless without a precise measure of time or distance. We would have no way of knowing how many people liked our facebook posts, how many grams of fat were in the cake we just ate, or how few hours we slept last night (thank God – time for that competitive habit to die anyway).

Losing our number system would dramatically catapult our society into a much more primitive culture, and we’d lose progress in every domain of life. But at the same time, I wonder if we might see the number of people being diagnosed with ulcers and high blood pressure plummet… even without the technology to diagnose them.

P.S. An interesting post that uses the comic above as a jumping off point: Is “one, two, many” a myth

Quitting the 9 to 5 before starting it

I recently stumbled upon a blog post at raptitude titled “The frightening thing you learn when you quit the 9 to 5.” I’m not sure why I was so drawn to it, since I’ve never actually worked a traditional 9 to 5 job. Maybe I was trying to mentally prepare for the day I quit a job I will most likely never have. Regardless, I was curious.

David Cain, the author, is 32 years old and recently left an unfulfilling 9-5 job to pursue writing. Although bizarre curiosity might have led me to click the link in the first place, I was soon captivated by the parallels between his situation and the one I’ve found myself in after beginning work on my PhD, and especially this summer, a time when much of the structure I was used to has temporarily died down.

Cain writes, “before I quit my job at 32, I had never really experienced a self-directed period of my life in which I was actually trying to accomplish something.” Oddly enough, this is probably true for most of us. We might have side projects that are self-directed and goal-oriented, but how rare is it for your everyday life to be this way? It sounds a little fantastical, the sort of thing we might wish for: no boss, doing work we love, when and how we want to do it. Cain’s reflections suggest that it’s not the walk in the park it might seem to be at first. It’s great in a lot of ways, but it’s far from intuitive. Although the post has nothing to do with academia, I recognize that thriving in this situation is what needs to be done to earn a PhD.

 

A few other quotes that really hit the nail on the head for me:

“If I chose not to work, it was my loss and only mine. When you’re self-employed, every day is Wednesday.”

“Each day is a blank page with no outline indicating where the crayons go. I have to decide what to draw, how ambitious or humble it’s going to be, and what it’s all going to add up to over time.”

Is The Office what 9 to 5 jobs are like?!

Is The Office what 9 to 5 jobs are like?!

Cain came face-to-face with the sudden need to be his own boss and define his own career path at age 32, after an average of 10 post-college years characterized by the having-a-boss experience. I wonder if it’s more jarring at that point in life than at 22 when you’re inexperienced and naive, but haven’t had the 9-5 routine grounded into you yet? In some ways, college seems like an intermediate step between school years when children are micromanaged and this self-directed state that Cain writes about. It seems like the traditional 9-5 path is a step in the opposite direction, though, so maybe the freedom is less dumbfounding for me than it might be if I had become accustomed to a more traditional work scenario.

The goal of Cain’s post is to urge all people, from those currently employed in a 9-5 job to children still in school, to think about their escape from the resignation to trudge through 5/7 of your life to earn a paycheck. “Much better than resignation is to make a long-term plan to find work that is valuable enough to you that your typical day is a fulfilling one, and valuable enough to others that people will pay you for doing it.” It’s a pretty romantic prospect, but a pretty cool one to aim for nonetheless.

Speed reading might not be all it’s chalked up to be

Just read a great blog post by UCSD Cog Sci professor Ben Bergen for Psychology Today. There’s been a lot of hype lately about apps that allow you to read text more quickly than you normally do, and this post discusses why you should not buy into the hype. The way the apps work is by rapidly presenting readers with one word at a time, forcing you to read faster than your natural rate. However, as with many things, quantity does not replace quality. Bergen points out that even world champion speed readers only comprehend about half of what they read. He’s not alone in voicing concerns for our comprehension using these apps either.

The reasons that Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) is not a good technique mainly relate to the fact that reading is an active process. We don’t sit idly consuming words at an even rate, but instead move faster over words that adhere to our predictions, slow down when we encounter new or surprising words, and often backtrack to re-read words, though much of this is probably not even conscious. RSVP doesn’t allow a reader to do any of these crucial things, and therefore hinders comprehension.

I was also really glad to see that Bergen points out that RSVP assumes that a reader’s goal is first and foremost to consume as many words as possible and just get the gist of them. That is not why I read at all, and I suspect it’s not why most people read most of what they do. I read because I enjoy it, because it encourages me to think, and in order to truly learn. After trying a quick demo of RSVP, I can’t imagine that anyone engages in it because it’s a pleasurable activity. I couldn’t help but hear the words in a sort of robotic voice as the screen flashed one at a time, and although it was amusing for a moment, it must keep readers from truly perceiving the author’s unique tone. In so few cases is reading pleasurable because the gist of the piece is interesting. Gist is certainly one piece of what makes reading great, but the details of the words, the ability to interact with the text, and certainly the ability to remember what we read should not be overlooked.

The consequences of being powerful

An Atlantic article, Being Powerful Distorts Time Perception recently caught my attention. The article discusses a few studies that induced feelings of power in a lab setting in order to observe different time-related cognitive consequences.

The first suggested that the more power people have, the more available time they perceive they have. The authors attributed the finding to an overall increased sense of control that powerful people feel, including control over time.

The next study concluded that powerful people tend to underestimate how much time something will take. This seems pretty consistent with the conclusion that people with power perceive themselves to have more time as a result of having control over time. In general, the first two studies discussed seem to suggest that perceiving yourself as powerful distorts your sense of time in a negative way. While it might be less stressful to believe that you have more time in the future, if it leads you to underestimate how long things actually take, it seems like the stress-reducing benefit could be easily reversed. In a real world situation, if an authority figure underestimates the time needed to do things, it seems likely that stressed will be increased for subordinates as well.

I think this image is so awesome. It's by Javier Jaén, from an interesting NYT article on time poverty

I think this image is so awesome. It’s by Javier Jaén, from an interesting NYT article on time poverty

But the third study discussed in the article suggests that people who perceive themselves as more powerful make better future-oriented financial decisions. In a lab setting, people who are primed to feel powerful are less likely than others to take an immediate reward if they’re told they can have a greater sum of money in the future. In other words, they’re less likely to discount future rewards in favor of those in the present. Outside the lab, the researchers found that a person’s perceived power at work actually predicts the amount he or she has in savings. The perception of power is undeniably helpful, according to these results.

So how to reconcile the findings that shine light on the detrimental effects of perceived power with those that suggest that it’s beneficial? The authors of the third study on temporal discounting suggest that people who feel powerful discount the future less because they feel an increased sense of continuity between their present and future selves. Could that same sense of continuity underlie the perception that you have more time or that future tasks will require less time? The connection is unclear to me, but as someone who’s deeply interested in our perception of time and the factors that affect it, I’d like to try to figure it out.

How can language reveal insecurity?

I just read an interesting Slate post by Katy Waldman on the linguistic nuances that can reveal insecurity. It was an enjoyable read, but also induced some eyebrow raising. The article is based on studies that use sentiment analysis, a natural language processing technique that aims to extract subjective information about a writer from a piece of text. Sentiment analysis is based on extensive correlations and machine learning. For example, an algorithm might be derived by analyzing hundreds of thousands of texts written by men and hundreds of thousands written by women in order to identify systematic differences between the two groups of texts. This approach reveals that elements of a text like use of specific pronouns can determine much about an author or a text as a whole.

The study highlighted by the post pointed to linguistic overcompensation as an indicator of insecurity. One study (not yet published but discussed here) focused on insecurity at the level of an entire university. The rationale was that since it’s more prestigious to be a university (defined as an institution conferring at least one graduate degree) than a college, universities that are on the outer edge of the university group (i.e., ones that don’t offer Ph.Ds) might feel more insecure about their university standing.

The researchers collected a sample of websites for top universities and top Master’s programs. The dependent variable was how often the institution mentioned its own name or used the word “university.” They found that Master’s universities were much more likely to emphasize the word “university” (using it in 60% of self-references) than Ph.D.-granting institutions (which used it in less than half of self-references).

Next, they looked at a similar phenomenon in a different domain: airports. They assumed that those offering international flights were higher status than those only offering domestic ones, so they compared use of the word “international” in big airports and smaller airports (that are still international). They predicted that the smaller ones would feel more of a need to emphasize their international status and would consequently use the word more, and this is exactly what they found.

Returning to academia, experiment 3 examined a similar effect in students at different universities. Specifically, they were interested in students at Harvard (a university that everyone knows very well is a part of the Ivy League) and students at Penn, often overlooked as an Ivy League institution. They asked the students to enumerate “things you think of” when you think about your school or describe it to people. They found that students at Penn were significantly more likely to use the phrase “Ivy League,” consistent with the previous two experiments.

The idea that members on the border of a prestigious group emphasize their membership more is an interesting possibility, and I don’t doubt that it’s true in many cases. However, it doesn’t seem to be the only explanation for the findings. It seems extremely likely, for example, that small international airports emphasize that they service international flights because many people might actually be unsure, whereas LAX might not need to highlight this feature nearly as much. The same could be said for Master’s universities and students at Penn. The Slate author acknowledges this concern, but doesn’t do much to rule it out (I’m not convinced enough by her statement that “the researchers’ interpretation of their findings feels at least partially correct to me,” and her description of being an avid cheerer on her swim team because she was one of the worst swimmers). Projecting insecurity onto Master’s universities, small airports, and Penn students might not be a fair assumption. This type of research necessarily overlooks individual differences, which might be problematic for a topic as individualized as insecurity, and it will be cool to see more examples that either follow or refute this pattern.

What’s in a name of a hurricane?

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A few months ago, a study came out in PNAS that sparked a lot of media interest: Female hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes. The idea is not that the most severe hurricanes happen to have female names, but instead that more people die in hurricanes that have female names than in those with male names.

500px-Cyclone_Monica The study involved the analysis of death rates for over 60 years, which included 94 hurricanes. The archival data showed that for hurricanes that did little damage, the difference in the death tolls between masculine and feminine hurricanes was marginal. For hurricanes that had greater damage, however, the number of fatalities was substantially higher for female-named storms than for male-named ones. Further, they classified names for how masculine or feminine they are (referred to as the Masculinity-Femininity Index, or MFI). For example, a highly feminine name would be “Eloise,” (with a score of 8.944) while the female name “Charley” was rated as much less feminine (MFI = 2.889). The researchers found that even within feminine-named hurricanes, the more feminine a name was (the greater the MFI score), the higher the number of fatalities. Specifically, their data suggest that if a severe hurricane’s name is Eloise, it will kill 3 times as many people as if it’s named Charley. The explanation for the correlation between might seem intuitive and surprising at the same time: we have gender-based expectations that females are less aggressive. This unconscious bias seems to invoke a lower perceived risk for female hurricanes, so people take fewer precautions like evacuating. In light of these findings, The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the group who names the storms, might want to reevaluate its naming practices to avoid names that might encourage dismissal of a hurricane’s danger. In case they’re looking for inspiration, I have a few suggestions. What NOT to name a female hurricane:

  • Any flower name: this includes Daisy, Petunia, Lilly, and sadly, Rose
  • Pooh Bear (imagine the reactions if meteorologists announced that Hurricane Pooh Bear was headed for the coast)
  • Any name that has repeated syllables: can we expect people to take Coco or Fifi seriously?
  • Any name that’s shared with a Barbie doll, like Skipper, Stacie, and certainly Barbie
"Hurricane Barbie is on her way!"

Hurricane Barbie is on her way!

And some names that people might take more seriously:

  • Names that invoke big, tough women you wouldn’t want to mess with: Bertha, Agnes, or Madea
  • Gender-neutral names, like Alex, Casey, or Jamie
  • Non-human names: names like PX-750 or The Hulk might do the job
If you heard "Hurricane Madea is heading for the coast," what would you do?

Don’t mess with Hurricane Madea.

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Synesthesia: The sky, the number 7, and sadness are all blue

Originally posted on NeuWrite San Diego:

If you were shown the shapes below and told that one is called a “kiki” and the other a “bouba,” which name would you attribute to which shape? Between 95 and 98% of people agree that the more rigid shape is “kiki,” and the curvy one is “bouba.” This is not because they learned these names in school (they’re made up), but because we’re predisposed to associate information from different modalities. As such, we pair the sharper “k” sound with the shape that has sharper points, and the rounder “b” sound with the rounder shape.

kiki_bouba

Although we all naturally integrate information from multiple senses to some extent, people with synesthesia do so to a much greater extent. Generally, when synesthetes perceive something through one modality, they have a simultaneous and involuntary perceptual experience in another. There are many different types of synesthesia, but one common form is grapheme-color synesthesia, in…

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