Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Are Myths And Stories A National Security Issue?

This may seem farfetched, but there are some links below on this. Recently I had a post called Being Able To Tell Stories May Help The Economy.

I came across this issue because neuroeconomist Paul Zak said he was going to a workshop on The Neurobiology of Narratives put on by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Those are the folks who brought us the internet. Here is a description of the workshop:

"The impact of narratives on human psychology ranges widely from what events we remember most easily to our choices about important foundational behaviors to include our degree of trust in others. Since the brain is the proximate cause of our actions, narratives have a direct impact on the neurobiological processes of both the senders and receivers of them. Understanding how narratives inform neurobiological processes is critical if we are to ascertain what effect narratives have on the psychology and neurobiology of human choices and behaviors, and can assist in everything ranging from exploring how Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is influenced by event repetition to better understanding the thoughts and feelings of others.

To stimulate discussion and research on these issues, the Defense Sciences Office (DSO) of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is hosting a workshop, Narrative Networks (N2): The Neurobiology of Narratives. The workshop is intended as a sequel to one held February 28, 2011, which explored the nature of narratives, their role in security contexts, and methods for analyzing them quantitatively. This workshop will establish fertile ground for connecting our understanding of the neurobiology of narratives with models, simulations and sensors salient to security concerns. Accordingly, it focuses on surveying the neurobiological processes related to narratives, bridging the cognitive neurosciences and the story stimulus.

This workshop has five mutually reinforcing and overlapping goals:

To assay narrative effects on our basic neurochemistry

To understand narrative impact on the neurobiology of memory, learning and identity

To assess narrative influence on the neurobiology of emotions

To examine how narratives influence moral neurobiology

To survey how narratives modulate other brain mechanisms related to social cognition"

There is more at Your Brain on Stories. Here is an excerpt:

"We’ve only begun to understand what happens in the brain when we watch a movie or consume a story in any format. There’s much more to learn, and the implications are huge, if not controversial. Consider what William Casebeer says:

Casebeer notes that a compelling narrative can seal the resolve of a suicide bomber, and suggests that developing “counter-narrative strategies” could help deter such attackers. “It might be that understanding the neurobiology of a story can give us new insights into how we prevent radicalisation and how we prevent people from becoming entrenched in the grip of a narrative that makes it more likely that they would want to intentionally cause harm to others,”

Casebeer is the Air Force colonel who was in charge of the workshop. He has a Ph. D. in philosophy and cognitive science.

There is even more at Hooked on Stories. Here is an excerpt:

"Stories can also manipulate how you feel, as anyone who has watched a horror movie or read a Charles Dickens novel will confirm. But what makes us empathise so strongly with fictional characters? Paul Zak from Claremont Graduate University, California, thinks the key is oxytocin, a hormone produced during feel-good encounters such as breastfeeding and sex.

Taking this idea a step further, Read Montague of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg and William Casebeer of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia, have started using fMRI to see what happens in the brain’s reward centres when people listen to a story. These are the areas that normally respond to pleasurable experiences such as sex, food and drugs. They are also associated with addiction. “I would be shocked if narrative didn’t engage the same kind of circuitry,” says Montague. That would certainly help explain why stories can be so compelling. “If I were a betting man or woman, I would say that certain types of stories might be addictive and, neurobiologically speaking, not that different from taking a tiny hit of cocaine,” says Casebeer."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book Review On Business Fiction

See Workplace Fiction That’s True to Life from this past Sunday's New York Times by BRYAN BURROUGH. It is a review of the following book:

Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford.

Here is an excerpt from the review:

"I’VE often wondered why there aren’t more strong works of fiction dealing with the business world. Offhand, with the possible exception of Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” Richard Ford’s real estate dramas, or Michael Crichton’s forgettable “Disclosure,” I can’t think of many novels of recent years that grapple with the kinds of issues most business people encounter.

Invariably, what we get instead is the corporate thriller. You know, young Ned lands a job in the mailroom at Faceless Colossus Inc., climbs the ladder to middle management, then finds his boss in a pool of blood and balance sheets in the conference room, then uncovers a giant global conspiracy to subvert humanity in the boardroom, then goes on the run, where he is pursued by stern men in Joseph Abboud suits as he and the inevitable girlfriend scramble to save their lives, the world and, I don’t know, their 401(k)s. The villain is always the C.E.O.

The paucity of thoughtful business fiction, I surmise, has to do with the novelist’s preference for matters of life and death, or at least love. Writers yearn to put their characters in jeopardy, whether actual or emotional, and at first glance the main thing at stake in most corporate dramas, real or otherwise, is money. If the crucial issue is whether Faceless Colossus makes its earnings estimate for the quarter, or whether young Ned gets that bonus, well, not many novelists want to go there.

Which is kind of a shame. Television, after all, has set all kinds of excellent tales in the business world. “Mad Men” jumps to mind; it actually finds drama in the gritty realities of account management. “L.A. Law.” Heck, even “Ally McBeal” had its moments.

These shows also illuminate the lives that people lead in the workplace — another part of experience that is not especially well represented in fiction. Sloan Wilson (“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” published in 1955), Joshua Ferris (“Then We Came to the End,” from 2007) and Mr. Ford are among the few who have found fictional inspiration inside the office."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mythology, Ideology and Politics

That is the title of a paper I Presented at the annual meetings of The Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics in July 1994, in Paris, France. I found many parallels between ideology and mythology. Click here to read it. It is an MS Word file, so you might get a dialog box asking you if you want to open it. It is about 20 pages long.

I got started thinking about these parallels after seeing what Joseph Campbell said about the functions of myth and what economist Robert Higgs said about the functions of ideology. I saw some similaritiess.

The four functions of mythology according to Campbell are:

1. Mystical-Realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are and experiencing awe before the mystery. Myth opens the world to the dimension of mystery, to the realization of the mystery that underlies all forms.
2. Cosmological dimensions-This is the dimension with which science is concerned-showing you what the shape of the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery comes through.
3. Sociological-This supports and validates a certain social order. These myths vary from place to place.
4. Pedagogical-How to live a human life under any circumstances.

Although not identical to, these are similar to the aspects of ideology mentioned by Higgs. The sociological function is akin to Higgs's solidary aspect while the pedagogical function is akin to Higgs's programmatic aspect. The cosmological aspect can be seen as similar to the cognitive aspect in that they both aim at explaining why the world is as it is. The pedagogical function can also be seen as similar to the affective aspect of ideology in that it can communicate morals.

Given that the world is full of uncertainty, everyone has an ideology or lives by a mythology. One can never scientifically "prove" that their ideology is the correct one. Furthermore, how does one choose and then adhere to an ideology? There must be some emotional, irrational attachment to it. As mentioned earlier, people are swayed by the emotional and symbolic rhetoric of issue entrepreneurs. They often do this with poetry (as Higgs mentions) or stories. Every ideology has within it a myth or mythology. This provides it with the necessary emotional foundation, without which no political movement would be successful.

The following is a summary of how ideology works in politics according to Higgs:

1. There are few ideologies. This is because ideology has to be coherent and comprehensive.
2. They are produced by opinion leaders and the public or masses consume them. Most people get their ideas from reading or hearing politicians speak and we agree or disagree.
3. Ideologies constrain and propel change (political action)
4. Ideology becomes prominent during social crises.
5. Leaders cause consumers to act through rhetoric.

For Higgs, an ideology is successful because of its rhetoric.

"Ideological expression aims to persuade, but not in the cool dispassionate manner celebrated by the rational ideal of science and philosophy. Of course it may be rational, at least in part, and it may appeal to indisputable facts. But the persuasive power of ideological expression arises for the most part from neither logic nor facts. It arises mainly from the unabashedly polemical character of the rhetoric employed."

Here is more from Higgs on ideology:

Ideology has four aspects:

The first is the cognitive aspect, which determines our understanding and perception of the world.

The second is the affective aspect, which tells us what is good or bad in a moral sense.

The third and fourth aspects are the programmatic and solidary. These propel a person to "act in accordance with his cognitions and evaluations as a committed member of a political group in pursuit of definite social objectives." Higgs uses the last aspect, the solidary aspect, to justify the introduction of ideology into the standard utility function used by economists. These usually contain the commodities that people consume because of the selfish wants and desires that individuals are said to have according to neoclassical economic theory. But ideology is added because of two additional desires human beings have: the desire to belong to a group and to have a self image or identity that arises from group membership.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mythology Meets Game Theory

Game theory is used quite often in economics. The "prisoner's dilemma" is used to analyze many phenomena like collusion between oligopolists and trade negotiations.

What appears below is an excerpt from the 1991 book titled Prisoner's Dilemma by William Poundstone. When he refers to "Axelrod's findings" he means what Robert Axelrod found from staging a prisoner's dilemma tournament.

It turns out that the best strategy is called "tit-for-tat," meaning a player should cooperate or try to help the other player in the beginning. If the other player "defects" or tries to take advantage of you, then you punish him by defecting. If they start cooperating again, so do you. Without getting into too much detail, this is the best strategy in a multi-player tournament.

The passage below relates to international conflicts and the part about myth-making is in red. It refers to "chauvinist mythmaking" and how these local or national myths make it hard for the tit-for-tat strategy to work in international relations. I can't help recalling Joseph Campbell and his call for a world myth that everyone can believe in.


Many have expressed hope that Axelrod's findings might be applied
to human conflicts. One would like to think that statesmen and mili-
tary leaders would take a course in "practical TIT FOR TAT" and
suddenly much of the world's problems would be solved.

Axelrod himself downplays the idea. When I asked him if he
thought his findings could be translated into advice for statesmen, he
insisted that wasn't the goal. "I think the goal is to help people see
things more clearly, which is different. The value of any formal model,
including game theory, is that you can see some of the principles that
are operating more clearly than you could without the model. But it's
only some of the principles. You have to leave off a lot of things, some
of which are bound to be important."

Part of the problem with advising anyone to start using TIT FOR
TAT in foreign relations is that, in a sense, most reasonable people
already do it without knowing it. Responsible leaders don't start trou-
ble, and are provocable. The practical difficulty is not so much in
knowing when to cooperate or defect but to decide what is going on. In
the real world, it is not always obvious whether someone has acted
cooperatively or defected. Actions can fall somewhere between the two
extremes, and it is frequently unclear what one's adversary has done.
When one cannot tell what the other player has done, it is impossible
to use any conditional strategy.

Since the 1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union have used
a "tit-for-tat" policy-often called by that name, which predates Axel-
rod's studies-in granting travel permits to citizens of one nation resi-
dent in the other. This appears to be a genuine case of a TIT FOR TAT
strategy evolving spontaneously. In 1990, after a American diplomat
in Leningrad was denied permission to travel to Lithuania, the U.S.
State Department revoked a permit for Gennady Zolotov, Soviet dep-
uty consul general in San Francisco, to travel to give an unrelated and
uncontroversial speech at a small college in Nevada. State Depart-
ment spokesman Chuck Steiner explained, "It wasn't retaliation. It
was just an in-kind response. They denied our request, so we denied
theirs. It's been a long-held rule between the two countries."

In an uncertain world, TIT FOR TAT-like strategies may be as
much a part of the problem as the solution. It is an all too familiar
phenomenon of real conflicts that both sides claim the other started it
and that they were just giving a tit for a tat. Conflicts escalate mutu-
ally. A war of words leads to a war of gunfire and then of air raids.
Each side can truthfully cast the other as the side to cross the thresh-
old of war provided it gets to decide where that threshold lies. Ber-
trand Russell claimed that there was only one war in the history ofthe
world for which people knew the cause: the Trojan War. That was over
a beautiful woman; the wars since have lacked rational explanation
and have produced nothing, Russell said. In Axelrod's abstract game,
there is never any question about who was first to defect, and in this
sense it is unrealistic.

Writing in World Politics (October 1985) Stephen Van Evera consid-
ered whether TIT FOR TAT or a similar strategy might have pre-
vented World War 1. He concluded it could not. He said:

Tit-for-Tat strategies require that both sides believe essen- tially the same history; otherwise the players may be locked into an endless echo of retaliations as each side punishes the other's latest "unprovoked" transgression. Because states seldom believe the same history, however, the utility of Tit-for-Tat strategies is severely limited in international affairs. Strategies to promote in- ternational cooperation through reciprocity may therefore require parallel action to control the chauvinist mythmaking that often distorts a nation's view of its past .... In sum, because conditions required for successful application of a Tit-for-Tat strategy were missing in 1914, Europe was an infertile ground for Tit-for-Tat strategies. These conditions are often absent in international affairs; the syndromes of 1914 were merely pronounced varieties of common national maladies. It fol- lows that we will fail to foster cooperation, and may create greater conflict, if we rely on Tit-for- Tat strategies without first establish- ing the conditions required for their success.
How much is game theory presently used in diplomacy? The answer
appears to be very little. Axelrod speculated that "I think you can say
that [Thomas] Schelling's work is well known and was probably help-
ful in establishing some of the ideas we have on arms control. But at
the very top, you probably cannot find a secretary of state who can tell
you what a prisoner's dilemma is."

Axelrod finds game theory's influence more diffuse: "Some of the
ideas of game theory are in the public domain very much now, so that
somebody can be influenced by them. I think everybody really does
know what a non-zero-sum game is. You can use that term in News-
and not even explain it anymore. Just that is a major intellectual
advance because we're so prone to think in zero-sum terms."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Mind's Theatrical Show

See The Magical Mystery Show of Consciousness by Matt Ridely of the Wall Street Journal. It is a review of the book Soul Dust by Nick Humphrey.

The passage that really caught my eye was: "Mr. Humphrey's intriguing conclusion is that your mind does indeed stage "a theatrical show in order to influence the judgment of another part of your brain.""

Here are other excerpts:

"The genius of "Soul Dust" is to attempt an explanation of both how this is done and why it evolved. Mr. Humphrey's suggestion is that animals first acquired an ability to sense the world and to respond to sensations: When they felt pain (or pleasure), they withdrew (or extended) the affected body part. They then acquired the neural capability to monitor their own responses and, gradually, to produce a virtual internal representation of that response. Now there was an event in the brain called "paining," parallel to the real sensation of pain, or "redding," experienced when looking at a red tomato

So consciousness, Mr. Humphrey believes, comes from our way of mentally re-enacting what happens at our body's surface. Based on rhythmic patterns of activity in our neurons, he even tries to explain what the physical manifestation of this phenomenon might resemble in the brain."

"But why this show? What is the point of being conscious? Mr. Humphrey made his name many years ago with a famous essay on the evolutionary function of intelligence, arguing that it emerged through natural selection not to solve physical puzzles, as many assume, but to solve social ones—to read minds. Here he attempts a similar explanation for why the impartial spectator of consciousness is watching a magical mystery show. His answer sounds startlingly unscientific, even spiritual: to impress the soul.

What he means is that being enchanted by the magic of experience provides a reason to live. Rather than being an aid to survival, consciousness provides an essential incentive to survive. Enchantment is itself "the biological advantage of being awestruck.""

This last part reminds me of Joseph Campbell and "following your bliss," doing what you love because it electrifies you. Campbell also talked about seeing a work of art and being in a state of "aesthetic arrest." This sounds like being awestruck. The article also mentions Adam Smith (economist) and his theory of empathy. So being able to empathize might be tied to our ability to tell stories, which was forged by evolution.