Choice, Obesity & the Irrational Ape (Homo insensatus)

What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.

……………………………………………………………………………………. – Albert Einstein

Another irrational ape (imitating Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’)

Jonah Lehrer has written another great piece about our irrationality in decision making, and our emotional responses to avoiding loss. He writes:

From the perspective of economics, there is no good reason to weight gains and losses so differently. Opportunity costs (foregone gains) should be treated just like “out-of-pocket costs” (losses). But they aren’t – losses carry a particular emotional sting.”

Others have noted the importance of emotion involved in decision making, and how it affects our ability to intuit how our choices will make us feel. When someone suffers damage to the prefrontal cortex of their brain, both their emotions and decision-making abilities are impaired (Bechara et al 1997). What this suggests is that emotions and reason are linked, rather than oppositional. They inform each other. This all fits in with Dan Ariely’s view of humans as “predictably irrational.”

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JFK on Nature and Nurture

My university, UMass Boston,  sits on a beautiful spot.  Fortunately for us, we get to share a peninsula in Dorchester with the Massachusetts Archives and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Taking advantage of our school’s location, I’ve made a few trips over to the JFK Library, a very attractive building designed by I.M. Pei.


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The Sin of Certainty

Screen capture from wikileaks video, Iraq

Lane Wallace wrote a recent article in The Atlantic about bias in journalism, and how it influences the questions that one asks. As journalists are human beings, I think we can reasonably assume that they, like everyone else, have biases. What resonated with me was Wallace’s use of the phrase ‘the sin of certainty,’ coined by the science writer Jonah Lehrer. I think this phrase has great utility and should humble us when we consider how much we don’t know. As an example, chemists have just observed for the first time a new yet-to-be-named element (#117). It took until the late 1990s for physicists to recognize that perhaps up to 95% of the universe is actually comprised of dark matter and dark energy. These are far from trivial matters, yet they have eluded us until now.


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