Friday, December 28, 2018

In monkeys & apes the maximax heuristic (risk is ignored for potential gains, however low they may be) is observed while playing lotteries, as can happen in human managerial & financial decision-making

Broihanne, M.-H., Romain, A., Call, J., Thierry, B., Wascher, C. A. F., De Marco, A., . . . Dufour, V. (2018). Monkeys (Sapajus apella and Macaca tonkeana) and great apes (Gorilla gorilla, Pongo abelii, Pan paniscus, and Pan troglodytes) play for the highest bid. Journal of Comparative Psychology,

Abstract: Many studies investigate the decisions made by animals by focusing on their attitudes toward risk, that is, risk-seeking, risk neutrality, or risk aversion. However, little attention has been paid to the extent to which individuals understand the different odds of outcomes. In a previous gambling task involving 18 different lotteries (Pelé, Broihanne, Thierry, Call, & Dufour, 2014), nonhuman primates used probabilities of gains and losses to make their decision. Although the use of complex mathematical calculation for decision-making seemed unlikely, we applied a gradual decrease in the chances to win throughout the experiment. This probably facilitated the extraction of information about odds. Here, we investigated whether individuals would still make efficient decisions if this facilitating factor was removed. To do so, we randomized the order of presentation of the 18 lotteries. Individuals from 4 ape and 2 monkey species were tested. Only capuchin monkeys differed from others, gambling even when there was nothing to win. Randomizing the lottery presentation order leads all species to predominantly use a maximax heuristic. Individuals gamble as soon as there is at least one chance to win more than they already possess, whatever the risk. Most species also gambled more as the frequency of larger rewards increased. These results suggest optimistic behavior. The maximax heuristic is sometimes observed in human managerial and financial decision-making, where risk is ignored for potential gains, however low they may be. This suggests a shared and strong propensity in primates to rely on heuristics whenever complexity in evaluation of outcome odds arises.

New Studies Show Russian Social-Media Involvement in US Politics, far from being a sophisticated propaganda campaign, was small, amateurish, & mostly unrelated to the 2016 election

New Studies Show Pundits Are Wrong About Russian Social-Media Involvement in US Politics. Aaron Maté. The Nation, Dec 28 2018,
Far from being a sophisticated propaganda campaign, it was small, amateurish, and mostly unrelated to the 2016 election.

Excerpts with no links:

The release of two Senate-commissioned reports has sparked a new round of panic about Russia manipulating a vulnerable American public on social media. Headlines warn that Russian trolls have tried to suppress the African-American vote, promote Green Party candidate Jill Stein, recruit “assets,” and “sow discord” or “hack the 2016 election” via sex-toy ads and Pokémon Go. “The studies,” writes David Ignatius of The Washington Post, “describe a sophisticated, multilevel Russian effort to use every available tool of our open society to create resentment, mistrust and social disorder,” demonstrating that the Russians, “thanks to the Internet…seem to be perfecting these dark arts.” According to Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times, “it looks increasingly as though” Russian disinformation “changed the direction of American history” in the narrowly decided 2016 election, when “Russian trolling easily could have made the difference.”

The reports, from the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Research Project and the firm New Knowledge, do provide the most thorough look at Russian social-media activity to date. With an abundance of data, charts, graphs, and tables, coupled with extensive qualitative analysis, the authors scrutinize the output of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) the Russian clickbait firm indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in February 2018. On every significant metric, it is difficult to square the data with the dramatic conclusions that have been drawn.

• 2016 Election Content: The most glaring data point is how minimally Russian social-media activity pertained to the 2016 campaign. The New Knowledge report acknowledges that evaluating IRA content “purely based on whether it definitively swung the election is too narrow a focus,” as the “explicitly political content was a small percentage.” To be exact, just “11% of the total content” attributed to the IRA and 33 percent of user engagement with it “was related to the election.” The IRA’s posts “were minimally about the candidates,” with “roughly 6% of tweets, 18% of Instagram posts, and 7% of Facebook posts” having “mentioned Trump or Clinton by name.”

• Scale: The researchers claim that “the scale of [the Russian] operation was unprecedented,” but they base that conclusion on dubious figures. They repeat the widespread claim that Russian posts “reached 126 million people on Facebook,” which is in fact a spin on Facebook’s own guess. “Our best estimate,” Facebook’s Colin Stretch testified to Congress in October 2017, “is that approximately 126 million people may have been served one of these [IRA] stories at some time during the two year period” between 2015 and 2017. According to Stretch, posts generated by suspected Russian accounts showing up in Facebook’s News Feed amounted to “approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content.”

• Spending: Also hurting the case that the Russians reached a large number of Americans is that they spent such a microscopic amount of money to do it. Oxford puts the IRA’s Facebook spending between 2015 and 2017 at just $73,711. As was previously known, about $46,000 was spent on Russian-linked Facebook ads before the 2016 election. That amounts to about 0.05 percent of the $81 million spent on Facebook ads by the Clinton and Trump campaigns combined. A recent disclosure by Google that Russian-linked accounts spent $4,700 on platforms in 2016 only underscores how miniscule that spending was. The researchers also claim that the IRA’s “manipulation of American political discourse had a budget that exceeded $25 million USD.” But that number is based on a widely repeated error that mistakes the IRA’s spending on US-related activities for its parent project’s overall global budget, including domestic social-media activity in Russia.

• Sophistication: Another reason to question the operation’s sophistication can be found by simply looking at its offerings. The IRA’s most shared pre-election Facebook post was a cartoon of a gun-wielding Yosemite Sam. Over on Instagram, the best-received image urged users to give it a “Like” if they believe in Jesus. The top IRA post on Facebook before the election to mention Hillary Clinton was a conspiratorial screed about voter fraud. It’s telling that those who are so certain Russian social-media posts affected the 2016 election never cite the posts that they think actually helped achieve that end. The actual content of those posts might explain why.

• Covert or Clickbait Operation? Far from exposing a sophisticated propaganda campaign, the reports provide more evidence that the Russians were actually engaging in clickbait capitalism: targeting unique demographics like African Americans or evangelicals in a bid to attract large audiences for commercial purposes. Reporters who have profiled the IRA have commonly described it as “a social media marketing campaign.” Mueller’s indictment of the IRA disclosed that it sold “promotions and advertisements” on its pages that generally sold in the $25-$50 range. “This strategy,” Oxford observes, “is not an invention for politics and foreign intrigue, it is consistent with techniques used in digital marketing.” New Knowledge notes that the IRA even sold merchandise that “perhaps provided the IRA with a source of revenue,” hawking goods such as T-shirts, “LGBT-positive sex toys and many variants of triptych and 5-panel artwork featuring traditionally conservative, patriotic themes.”

• “Asset Development”: Lest one wonder how promoting sex toys might factor into a sophisticated influence campaign, the New Knowledge report claims that exploiting “sexual behavior” was a key component of the IRA’s “expansive” “human asset recruitment strategy” in the United States. “Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability,” the report explains, “is a timeless espionage practice.” The first example of this timeless espionage practice is of an ad featuring Jesus consoling a dejected young man by telling him: “Struggling with the addiction to masturbation? Reach out to me and we will beat it together.” It is unknown if this particular tactic brought any assets into the fold. But New Knowledge reports that there was “some success with several of these human-activation attempts.” That is correct: The IRA’s online trolls apparently succeeded in sparking protests in 2016, like several in Florida where “it’s unclear if anyone attended”; “no people showed up to at least one,” and “ragtag groups” showed up at others, including one where video footage captured a crowd of eight people. The most successful effort appears to have been in Houston, where Russian trolls allegedly organized dueling rallies pitting a dozen white supremacists against several dozen counter-protesters outside an Islamic center.   

Based on all of this data, we can draw this picture of Russian social-media activity: It was mostly unrelated to the 2016 election; microscopic in reach, engagement, and spending; and juvenile or absurd in its content. This leads to the inescapable conclusion, as the New Knowledge study acknowledges, that “the operation’s focus on elections was merely a small subset” of its activity. They qualify that “accurate” narrative by saying it “misses nuance and deserves more contextualization.” Alternatively, perhaps it deserves some minimal reflection that a juvenile social-media operation with such a small focus on elections is being widely portrayed as a seismic threat that may well have decided the 2016 contest.

Doing so leads us to conclusions that have nothing to do with Russian social-media activity, nor with the voters supposedly influenced by it. Take the widespread speculation that Russian social-media posts may have suppressed the black vote. That a Russian troll farm sought to deceive black audiences and other targeted demographics on social media is certainly contemptible. But in criticizing that effort there’s no reason to assume it was successful—and yet that’s exactly what the pundits did. “When you consider the narrow margins by which [Donald Trump] won [Michigan and Wisconsin], and poor minority turnout there, these Russian voter suppression efforts may have been decisive,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod commented. “Black voter turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election,” The New York Times conspicuously notes, “but it is impossible to determine whether that was the result of the Russian campaign.”

That it is even considered possible that the Russian campaign impacted the black vote displays a rather stunning paternalism and condescension. Would Axelrod, Times reporters, or any of the others floating a similar scenario accept a suggestion that their own votes might be susceptible to silly social-media posts mostly unrelated to the election? If not, what does that tell us about their attitudes toward the people that they presume could be so vulnerable?

Entertaining the possibility that Russian social-media posts impacted the election outcome requires more than just a contemptuous view of average voters. It also requires the abandonment of elementary standards of logic, probability, and arithmetic. We now have corroboration of this judgment from an unlikely source. Just days after the New Knowledge report was released, The New York Times reported that the company had carried out “a secret experiment” in the 2017 Alabama Senate race. According to an internal document, New Knowledge used “many of the [Russian] tactics now understood to have influenced the 2016 elections,” going so far as to stage an “elaborate ‘false flag’ operation” that promoted the idea that the Republican candidate, Roy Moore, was backed by Russian bots. The fallout from the operation has led Facebook to suspend the accounts of five people, including New Knowledge CEO Jonathon Morgan.

The Times discloses that the project had a budget of $100,000, but adds that it “was likely too small to have a significant effect on the race.” A Democratic operative concurs, telling the Times that “it was impossible that a $100,000 operation had an impact.”

The Alabama Senate race cost $51 million. If it was impossible for a $100,000 New Knowledge operation to affect a 2017 state election, then how could a comparable—perhaps even less expensive—Russian operation possibly impact a $2.4 billion US presidential election in 2016?

On top of straining credulity, fixating on barely detectable and trivial social-media content also downplays myriad serious issues. As the journalist Ari Berman has tirelessly pointed out, the 2016 election was “the first presidential contest in 50 years without the full protections of the [Voting Rights Act],” one that was conducted amid “the greatest rollback of voting rights since the act was passed” in 1965. Rather than ruminating over whether they were duped by Russian clickbait, reporters who have actually spoken to black Midwest voters have found that political disillusionment amid stagnant wages, high inequality, and pervasive police brutality led many to stay home.

And that leads us to perhaps a key reason why elites in particular are so fixated on the purported threat of Russian meddling: It deflects attention from their own failures, and the failings of the system that grants them status as elites. During the campaign, corporate media outlets handed Donald Trump billions of dollars worth of air time because, in the words of the now ousted CBS exec Les Moonves: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…. The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” Not wanting to interrupt the fun, these outlets have every incentive to breathlessly cover Russiagate and amplify comparisons of stolen Democratic Party e-mails and Russian social-media posts to Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Kristallnacht, and “cruise missiles.”

Having lost the presidential election to a reality TV host, the Democratic Party leadership is arguably the most incentivized to capitalize on the Russia panic. They continue to oblige. Like clockwork, former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook seized on the new Senate studies to warn that “Russian operatives will try to divide Democrats again in the 2020 primary, making activists unwitting accomplices.” By “unwitting accomplices,” Mook is presumably referring to the progressive Democrats who have protested the DNC leadership’s collusion with the Clinton campaign and bias against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. Mook is following a now familiar Democratic playbook: blaming Russia for the consequences of the party elite’s own actions. When an uproar arose over Trump campaign data firm Cambridge Analytica in early 2018, Hillary Clinton was quoted posing what she dubbed the “real question”: “How did the Russians know how to target their messages so precisely to undecided voters in Wisconsin, or Michigan, or Pennsylvania?”

In fact, the Russians spent a grand total of $3,102 in these three states, with the majority of that paltry sum not even during the general election but during the primaries, and the majority of the ads were not even about candidates but about social issues. The total number of times ads were targeted at Wisconsin (54), Michigan (36), Pennsylvania (25) combined is less than the 152 times that ads were targeted at the blue state of New York. Wisconsin and Michigan also happen to be two states that Clinton infamously, and perilously, avoided visiting in the campaign’s final months.

The utility of Russia-baiting goes far beyond absolving elites of responsibility for their own failures. Hacked documents have recently revealed that a UK-government charity has waged a global propaganda operation in the name of “countering Russian disinformation.” The project, known as the Integrity Initiative, is run by military intelligence officials with funding from the British Foreign Office and other government sources, including the US State Department and NATO. It works closely with “clusters” of sympathetic journalists and academics across the West, and has already been outed for waging a social-media campaign against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The group’s Twitter account promoted articles that painted Corbyn as a “useful idiot” in support of “the Kremlin cause”; criticized his communications director, Seumas Milne, for his alleged “work with the Kremlin agenda”; and said, “It’s time for the Corbyn left to confront its Putin problem.”

The Corbyn camp is far from the only progressive force to be targeted with this smear tactic. That it is revealed to be part of a Western government–backed operation is yet another reason to consider the fixation with Russian social-media activity in a new light. There is no indication that the disinformation spread by employees of a St. Petersburg troll farm has had a discernible impact on the US electorate. The barrage of claims to the contrary is but one element of an infinitely larger chorus from failed political elites, sketchy private firms, shadowy intelligence officials, and credulous media outlets that inculcates the Western public with fears of a Kremlin “sowing discord.” Given how divorced the prevailing alarm is from the actual facts—and the influence of those fueling it—we might ask ourselves whose disinformation is most worthy of concern.

Aaron Maté is a host/producer for The Real News.

Clear judgments based on unclear evidence: Person evaluation is strongly influenced by untrustworthy gossip, even if already marked as dubious

Baum, J., Rabovsky, M., Rose, S. B., & Abdel Rahman, R. (2018). Clear judgments based on unclear evidence: Person evaluation is strongly influenced by untrustworthy gossip. Emotion,

Abstract: Affective information about other people’s social behavior may prejudice social interactions and bias person judgments. The trustworthiness of person-related information, however, can vary considerably, as in the case of gossip, rumors, lies, or “fake news.” Here, we investigated how spontaneous person likability and explicit person judgments are influenced by trustworthiness, employing event-related potentials as indices of emotional brain responses. Social–emotional information about the (im)moral behavior of previously unknown persons was verbally presented as trustworthy fact (e.g., “He bullied his apprentice”) or marked as untrustworthy gossip (by adding, e.g., allegedly), using verbal qualifiers that are frequently used in conversations, news, and social media to indicate the questionable trustworthiness of the information and as a precaution against wrong accusations. In Experiment 1, spontaneous likability, deliberate person judgments, and electrophysiological measures of emotional person evaluation were strongly influenced by negative information yet remarkably unaffected by the trustworthiness of the information. Experiment 2 replicated these findings and extended them to positive information. Our findings demonstrate a tendency for strong emotional evaluations and person judgments even when they are knowingly based on unclear evidence.

Men pursuing a relatively slow life history strategy produced higher quality ejaculates, reflecting resource allocation decisions for greater parenting effort, as opposed to greater mating effort

Barbaro, N., Shackelford, T. K., Holub, A. M., Jeffery, A. J., Lopes, G. S., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2018). Life history correlates of human (Homo sapiens) ejaculate quality. Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Abstract: Life history strategies reflect resource allocation decisions, which manifest as physiological, psychological, and behavioral traits. We investigated whether human ejaculate quality is associated with indicators of relatively fast (greater resource allocation to mating effort) or slow (greater resource allocation to parenting effort) life history strategies in a test of two competing hypotheses: (a) The phenotype-linked fertility hypothesis, which predicts that men pursuing a relatively fast life history strategy will produce higher quality ejaculates, and (b) the cuckoldry-risk hypothesis, which predicts that men pursuing a relatively slow life history strategy will produce higher quality ejaculates. Men (n = 41) completed a self-report measure assessing life history strategy and provided two masturbatory ejaculate samples. Results provide preliminary support for the cuckoldry-risk hypothesis: Men pursuing a relatively slow life history strategy produced higher quality ejaculates. Ejaculate quality may therefore reflect resource allocation decisions for greater parenting effort, as opposed to greater mating effort. The findings contribute informative data on correlations between physiological and phenotypic indicators of human life history strategies.

Loud and unclear: Intense real-life vocalizations during affective situations are perceptually ambiguous and contextually malleable

Atias, D., Todorov, A., Liraz, S., Eidinger, A., Dror, I., Maymon, Y., & Aviezer, H. (2018). Loud and unclear: Intense real-life vocalizations during affective situations are perceptually ambiguous and contextually malleable. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Abstract: A basic premise of emotion theories is that experienced feelings (whether specific emotions or broad valence) are expressed via vocalizations in a veridical and clear manner. By contrast, functional–contextual frameworks, rooted in animal communication research, view vocalizations as contextually flexible tools for social influence, not as expressions of emotion. Testing these theories has proved difficult because past research relied heavily on posed sounds which may lack ecological validity. Here, we test these theories by examining the perception of human affective vocalizations evoked during highly intense, real-life emotional situations. In Experiment 1a, we show that highly intense vocalizations of opposite valence (e.g., joyous reunions, fearful encounters) are perceptually confusable and their ambiguity increases with higher intensity. In Experiment 1b, we use authentic lottery winning reactions and show that increased hedonic intensity leads to lower, not higher valence. In Experiment 2, we demonstrate that visual context operates as a powerful mechanism for disambiguating real-life vocalizations, shifting perceived valence categorically. These results suggest affective vocalizations may be inherently ambiguous, demonstrate the role of intensity in driving affective ambiguity, and suggest a critical role for context in vocalization perception. Together, these findings challenge both basic emotion and dimensional theories of emotion expression and are better in line with a functional–contextual account which is externalist and by definition, context dependent.

Great apes possess intuitive statistical capacities on a par with those of our infants, which suggests that our' statistical abilities are founded on an evolutionary ancient capacity shared with living relatives

Some apes possess a sensitivity towards probabilistic information & are able to reason about never before experienced single-events and to draw intuitive inferences from population to randomly drawn samples:

The evolutionary roots of intuitive statistics. Johanna Eckert. PhD Dissertation, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, 2018,


Intuitive statistical reasoning is the capacity to draw intuitive probabilistic inferences based on an understanding of the relations between populations, sampling processes and resulting samples. This capacity is fundamental to our daily lives and one of the hallmarks of human thinking. We constantly use sample observations to draw general conclusions about the world, use these generalizations to predict what will happen next and to make rational decisions under uncertainty. Historically, statistical reaso ning was thought to develop late in ontogeny, to be biased by general-purpose heuristics throughout adulthood, and to be restricted to certain situations and specific types of information. In the last decade, however, evidence has accumulated from developmental research showing that even pre-verbal infants can reason from populations of items to randomly drawn samples and vice versa. Moreover, infants can flexibly integrate knowledge from different cognitive domains (such as physical or psychological knowle dge) into their statistical inferences. This indicates that neither language nor mathematical education are prerequisites for intuitive statistical abilities. Beyond that, recent comparative research suggests that basic forms of such capacities are not uni quely human: Rakoczy et al. (2014) presented nonhuman great apes with two populations with different proportions of preferred to non-preferred food items. Apes were able to infer which population was more likely to lead to a preferred food item as randomly drawn sample. Hence, just like human infants, great apes can reason from population to sample, giving a first hint that human statistical abilities may be based on an evolutionary ancient capacity.

The aim of the present dissertation is to explore the evolutionary roots of intuitive statistics more systematically and comprehensively by expanding on the initial findings of Rakoczy et al. (2014). I examined three questions regarding the i) generality and flexibility of nonhuman great apes' statistical capacities, ii) their cognitive structures and limits, as well as iii) their interaction with knowledge from other cognitive domains. To address these questions, I conducted three studies applying variants of the paradigm established by Rakoczy et al. (2014) .

In the first study, zoo-living great apes ( Pan troglodytes, Pan paniscus, Pongo abelii, Gorilla gorilla) were required to infer from samples to populations of food items: Apes were pres ented with two covered populations and witnessed representative multi-item samples being drawn from these populations. Subsequently, subjects could choose which population they wanted to receive as a reward. I found that apes ́ statistical abilities in this direction were more restricted than vice versa. However, these limitations were potentially due to accessory task demands rather than limitations in statistical reasoning. The second study was designed to gain deeper insights into the cognitive structure of intuitive statistics in chimpanzees and humans. More specifically, I tested sanctuary-living chimpanzees and human adults in a task requiring inferences from population to sample and I systematically varied the magnitude of difference between the populations' ratios (the ratio of ratios, ROR). I discovered that the statistical abilities of both chimpanzees and human adults varied as a function of the ROR and thus followed Weber's law. This suggests that intuitive statistics are based on the analogue magnitude system, an evolutionary ancient cognitive mechanism common to many aspects of quantitative cognition. The third study investigated whether chimpanzees consider knowledge about others' mental states when drawing statistical inferences. I tested sanctuary-living chimpanzees in a task that required subjects to infer which of two populations was more likely to lead to a desired outcome for the subject. I manipulated whether the experimenters had preferences to draw certain food types or acted neutrally and whether they had visual access to the populations while sampling or drew blindly. Chimpanzees chose based on proportional information alone when they had no information about experimenters’ preferences and (to a lesser extent) when experimenters had preferences for certain food types but drew blindly. By contrast, when biased experimenters had visual access, subjects ignored statistical information and instead chose based on experimenters’ preferences. Consistent with recent findings on pre-verbal infants, apes seem to have a random sampling assumption that can be overridden under the appropriate circumstances and they are able to use information about others ' mental states to judge whether this is necessary.

Taken together, the findings of the present dissertation indicate that nonhuman great apes possess intuitive statistical capacities on a par with those of human infants. Therefore, intuitive statistics antedate language and mathematical thinking not only ontogenetically, but also phylogenetically. This suggests that humans' statistical abilities are founded on an evolutionary ancient capacity shared with our closest living relatives.

Surnames with initials farther from the beginning of the alphabet were associated with less distinction & satisfaction in high school, lower educational attainment, more military service & less attractive first jobs

Cauley, Alexander and Zax, Jeffrey S., Alphabetism: The Effects of Surname Initial and the Cost of Being Otherwise Undistinguished (October 24, 2018).

Abstract: A small literature demonstrates that names are economically relevant. However, this is the first paper to examine the relationship between surname initial rank and male life outcomes, including human capital investments and labor market experiences. Surnames with initials farther from the beginning of the alphabet were associated with less distinction and satisfaction in high school, lower educational attainment, more military service and less attractive first jobs. These effects were concentrated among men who were undistinguished by cognitive ability or appearance, and, for them, may have persisted into middle age. They suggest that ordering is important and that over-reliance on alphabetical orderings can be harmful.

Keywords: alphabetism, surname initial, rank effects, ordered search, anthroponomastics, socio-onomastics
JEL Classification: D63, I31, J19, J71