Monday, May 20, 2019

Are rich people really less generous than poor people?

Here is a ‘fact’ (that rich people are less generous than poor people) that I had locked into mind that turns out to be wrong. They are not less generous, contra the findings of an often cited 2015 landmark study. From Schmukle et al.:

Significance
Are the rich less generous than the poor? Results of studies on this topic have been inconsistent. Recent research that has received widespread academic and media attention has provided evidence that higher income individuals are less generous than poorer individuals only if they reside in a US state with comparatively large economic inequality. However, in large representative datasets from the United States (study 1), Germany (study 2), and 30 countries (study 3), we did not find any evidence for such an effect. Instead, our results suggest that the rich are not less generous than the poor, even when economic inequality is large. This result has implications for contemporary debates on what increasing inequality in resource distributions means for modern societies.
Abstract
A landmark study published in PNAS [Côté S, House J, Willer R (2015) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 112:15838–15843] showed that higher income individuals are less generous than poorer individuals only if they reside in a US state with comparatively large economic inequality. This finding might serve to reconcile inconsistent findings on the effect of social class on generosity by highlighting the moderating role of economic inequality. On the basis of the importance of replicating a major finding before readily accepting it as evidence, we analyzed the effect of the interaction between income and inequality on generosity in three large representative datasets. We analyzed the donating behavior of 27,714 US households (study 1), the generosity of 1,334 German individuals in an economic game (study 2), and volunteering to participate in charitable activities in 30,985 participants from 30 countries (study 3). We found no evidence for the postulated moderation effect in any study. This result is especially remarkable because (i) our samples were very large, leading to high power to detect effects that exist, and (ii) the cross-country analysis employed in study 3 led to much greater variability in economic inequality. These findings indicate that the moderation effect might be rather specific and cannot be easily generalized. Consequently, economic inequality might not be a plausible explanation for the heterogeneous results on the effect of social class on prosociality.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Like the emperor’s new clothes, DNA kits are a tailored illusion

I recommend reading this article by George Estreich. Here are a few clips:
Most people remember the emperor: a vain ruler, swindled into paying for a nonexistent magical garment, parades in public, only to be embarrassed by a little boy. To me, the story is really about the swindling tailors. Audacious, imaginative, their true product is a persuasive illusion, one keyed to the vulnerabilities of their target audience. In contemporary terms, the story is about marketing; and as such, the tale is tailor-made for an examination of genetic ancestry tests, because these too are sold with expert persuasion, with promises woven from our hopes, our fears, and the golden thread of DNA.
With these new tests, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-century tale, a gap yawns between the promise and the reality – and now and then, as in the story, someone says so in the public square. For example, when Phil Rogers, a reporter in Chicago, tried out home DNA test kits from competing companies last year, he discovered contradictory results. So did the Canadian reporter Charlsie Agro and her twin sister Carly, who mailed spit samples to 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage and LivingDNA. As with Rogers, the companies gave different histories – Balkan ancestry, for example, ranged from 14 to 61 per cent – but 23andMe actually reported different scores for each twin. (According to the company, Charlsie has French and German ancestors, while Carly does not.)
The tests are sold with variations on a single pitch: find your story. The companies don’t mention that the story might shade into fiction, or that stories can conflict. The evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas at University College London has dismissed ancestry testing as ‘genetic astrology’, but it could be as useful to think of it as genetic gossip: a rumoured past that, like most rumours, is at least partly true.
Chasing his dreams of status and power, the emperor misses the swindle: the ‘weavers’ make off with tangible wealth, while the emperor receives nothing. The entire performance is a masterful misdirection, a distraction from the truth of the exchange. In the same way, the promises of discovering identity and the genealogical past are a misdirection: the real exchange takes place offstage, with drug companies and others paying for access to the data that customers actually pay to give. Once it’s given, customers are vulnerable to future data breaches (and you can’t, at this date at least, change your genome), and they aren’t guaranteed compensation for any profits the data might lead to.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Father's physical activity directly enhances offspring's brain physiology and cognition.

Experiments on mice suggest that human kids of athletic fathers might have more smarts than kids of couch potatoes. From McGreevy et al.:

Significance
Physical exercise is well known for its positive effects on general health (specifically, on brain function and health), and some mediating mechanisms are also known. A few reports have addressed intergenerational inheritance of some of these positive effects from exercised mothers or fathers to the progeny, but with scarce results in cognition. We report here the inheritance of moderate exercise-induced paternal traits in offspring’s cognition, neurogenesis, and enhanced mitochondrial activity. These changes were accompanied by specific gene expression changes, including gene sets regulated by microRNAs, as potential mediating mechanisms. We have also demonstrated a direct transmission of the exercise-induced effects through the fathers’ sperm, thus showing that paternal physical activity is a direct factor driving offspring’s brain physiology and cognitive behavior.
Abstract
Physical exercise has positive effects on cognition, but very little is known about the inheritance of these effects to sedentary offspring and the mechanisms involved. Here, we use a patrilineal design in mice to test the transmission of effects from the same father (before or after training) and from different fathers to compare sedentary- and runner-father progenies. Behavioral, stereological, and whole-genome sequence analyses reveal that paternal cognition improvement is inherited by the offspring, along with increased adult neurogenesis, greater mitochondrial citrate synthase activity, and modulation of the adult hippocampal gene expression profile. These results demonstrate the inheritance of exercise-induced cognition enhancement through the germline, pointing to paternal physical activity as a direct factor driving offspring’s brain physiology and cognitive behavior.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Ready to pounce - Cat smarts get some attention

I live in a symbiotic relationship with my two Abyssinian cats, and so was gratified, given that canine social cognition is the subject of dozens of scientific papers, to see that feline cognition is beginning to get more attention. One simple reason for the difference is that dogs want to please humans and cooperate with experimenters, while cats could generally care less, and after a few trials will walk away from earnest efforts to engage their responses. When a human points at something, a chimp will not react, but a dog, like a human toddler, knows to look at the same thing. Turns out that cats do the same thing, they will trot over to a bowl that a human points to. It is turning out that cats match dogs in many tests of social smarts. Alas, I'm going to show you a cat video... not of some adorable feline faux pas, but of behavioral work being done with cats:



And, since I'm showing cat pictures, I can't resist introducing you to Abyssinians Marvin and Melvin, shown napping while I'm driving between Madison WI and Austin TX.


Friday, May 10, 2019

Want to escape your liberal bubble? Try this.....

I have a recommendation for MindBlog readers like myself who are concerned about their immersion in the liberal bubble of the New York Times, Washington Post and the numerous sarcastic evening show commentators (Colbert, Maher, Maddow, Noah, etc.). The media (alas, like scientific reality in general!) does indeed have a liberal bias. I'm now finding a crystallized antithesis to my bubble in the American Greatness website, whose daily email screeds I have subscribed to after reading an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times by its publisher and editor Chris Buskirk. To note only three of the twelve pieces in last Thursday's email: Democrats’ Collapse Could Happen Quickly , Yes,Christians Can Support Trump Without Risk to Their Witness , and  Why the Left Mocks the Bible . A clip from the last of these, a telling piece:
...on virtually every important value in life, the left and the Bible are diametrically opposed...
The biblical view is that people are not basically good. Evil, therefore, comes from within human nature. For the left, human nature is not the source of evil. Capitalism, patriarchy, poverty, religion, nationalism or some other external cause is the source of evil.
The biblical view is that nature was created for man. The left-wing view is that man is just another part of nature.
The biblical view is that man is created in the image of God and, therefore, formed with a transcendent, immaterial soul. The left-wing view—indeed, the view of all secular ideologies—is that man is purely material, another assemblage of stellar dust.
Relevant to humans being 'born in sin' I hope to do a post soon on a book I just finished, Nicholas Christakis' Magnum Opus “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society”. This book, like Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" , the subject of previous MindBlog posts, paints a more benign picture of desirable human traits that have evolved to make society possible.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

MindBlog Changes

I want to explain to readers who check MindBlog daily why the drumbeat of a post each weekday (4,700 posts over the past 13 years) has stopped. My 78th year starts next week, and performative professor Deric has decided to spend more time doing other things, to try a few new tricks. I will continue to occasionally post on interesting material I encounter.

Monday, May 06, 2019

The Case for Doing Nothing

An article by Olga Mecking fits so well with my increasing allergic reaction to making myself busy all the time that I have to pass on a few edited and rearranged clips:
Perhaps it’s time to stop all this busyness. Being busy...is rarely the status indicator we’ve come to believe it is...There’s a way out...and it’s not more mindfulness, exercise or a healthy diet... What we’re talking about is … doing nothing. Or, as the Dutch call it, niksen...being like a car whose engine is running but isn’t going anywhere...coming to a moment with no plan other than just to be.
...the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless...permission granted to spend the afternoon just hanging out...daydreaming and idleness let the mind search for its own stimulation...counterintuitively, idleness can be a great productivity tool..it takes you out of your mind, and then you see things clearly after a while...it makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas......For that to happen, though, total idleness is required.
...don’t get discouraged if you don’t catch on immediately to the benefits of idleness...like beginning a new workout routine: At first, you might get sore, but after a while, you’ll find yourself in this moment of "Oh, this feels fantastic.” Keep your devices out of reach so that they’ll be more difficult to access, and turn your home into a niksen-friendly area. Add a soft couch, a comfy armchair, a few cushions or just a blanket. Orient furniture around a window or fireplace rather than a TV.

Friday, May 03, 2019

Same-sex marriage legalization reduced implicit and explicit antigay bias

Interesting work from Ofosu et al. shows how government legislation can inform individuals’ attitudes, even when these attitudes may be deeply entrenched and socially and politically volatile.:
The current research tested whether the passing of government legislation, signaling the prevailing attitudes of the local majority, was associated with changes in citizens’ attitudes. Specifically, with ∼1 million responses over a 12-y window, we tested whether state-by-state same-sex marriage legislation was associated with decreases in antigay implicit and explicit bias. Results across five operationalizations consistently provide support for this possibility. Both implicit and explicit bias were decreasing before same-sex marriage legalization, but decreased at a sharper rate following legalization. Moderating this effect was whether states passed legislation locally. Although states passing legislation experienced a greater decrease in bias following legislation, states that never passed legislation demonstrated increased antigay bias following federal legalization. Our work highlights how government legislation can inform individuals’ attitudes, even when these attitudes may be deeply entrenched and socially and politically volatile.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Why are some people more anxious than others? Brain correlates of trait anxiety.

Why does trait anxiety (the stable tendency to attend to, experience, and report negative emotions such as fears, worries, and anxiety across many situations) vary between individuals? Berry et al. have measured self-reported trait anxiety in healthy adults, examining its relationships with brain dopamine function (Most anxiolytic drugs target serotonergic and GABAergic neurotransmitter systems) and also examining functional connectivity within circuits implicated in anxiety regulation. This enabled them to probe the neural substrates of individual differences.

  Significance Statement
It is common wisdom that individuals vary in their baseline levels of anxiety. We all have a friend or colleague we know to be more “tightly wound” than others, or, perhaps, we are the ones marveling at others' ability to “just go with the flow.” Although such observations about individual differences within nonclinical populations are commonplace, the neural mechanisms underlying normal variation in trait anxiety have not been established. Using multimodal brain imaging in humans, this study takes initial steps in linking intrinsic measures of neuromodulator release and functional connectivity within regions implicated in anxiety disorders. Our findings suggest that in healthy adults, higher levels of trait anxiety may arise, at least in part, from reduced dopamine neurotransmission.
Abstract
Trait anxiety has been associated with altered activity within corticolimbic pathways connecting the amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), which receive rich dopaminergic input. Though the popular culture uses the term “chemical imbalance” to describe the pathophysiology of psychiatric conditions such as anxiety disorders, we know little about how individual differences in human dopamine neurochemistry are related to variation in anxiety and activity within corticolimbic circuits. We addressed this issue by examining interindividual variability in dopamine release at rest using [11C]raclopride positron emission tomography (PET), functional connectivity between amygdala and rACC using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and trait anxiety measures in healthy adult male and female humans. To measure endogenous dopamine release, we collected two [11C]raclopride PET scans per participant. We contrasted baseline [11C]raclopride D2/3 receptor binding and D2/3 receptor binding following oral methylphenidate administration. Methylphenidate blocks the dopamine transporter, which increases extracellular dopamine and leads to reduced [11C]raclopride D2/3 receptor binding via competitive displacement. We found that individuals with higher dopamine release in the amygdala and rACC self-reported lower trait anxiety. Lower trait anxiety was also associated with reduced rACC–amygdala functional connectivity at baseline. Further, functional connectivity showed a modest negative relationship with dopamine release such that reduced rACC–amygdala functional connectivity was accompanied by higher levels of dopamine release in these regions. Together, these findings contribute to hypodopaminergic models of anxiety and support the utility of combining fMRI and PET measures of neurochemical function to advance our understanding of basic affective processes in humans.

[11C]

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Is Superintelligence Impossible?

Andy Clarke does an interesting and concise commentary on a discussion between Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers. I pass on the final two paragraphs of Clark's comments and suggest you read the whole piece.
I think we can divide the space of possible AI minds into two reasonably distinct categories. One category comprises the “passive AI minds” that seemed to be the main focus of the Chalmers-Dennett exchange. These are driven by large data sets and optimize their performance relative to some externally imposed choice of “objective function” that specifies what we want them to do—win at GO, or improve paperclip manufacture. And Dennett and Chalmers are right—we do indeed need to be very careful about what we ask them to do, and about how much power they have to implement their own solutions to these pre-set puzzles.
The other category comprises active AIs with broad brush-strokes imperatives. These include Karl Friston’s Active Inference machines. AI’s like these spawn their own goals and sub-goals by environmental immersion and selective action. Such artificial agents will pursue epistemic agendas and have an Umwelt of their own. These are the only kind of AIs that may, I believe, end up being conscious of themselves and their worlds—at least in any way remotely recognizable as such to us humans. They are the AIs who could be our friends, or who could (if that blunt general imperative was played out within certain kinds of environment) become genuine enemies. It is these radicalized embodied AIs I would worry about most. At the same time (and for the same reasons) I’d greatly like to see powerful AIs from that second category emerge. For they would be real explorations within the vast space of possible minds.