The observable examined

Archive for June 2012

Smelly armpits and singles

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Call it Goofy. Call it Sexy. Call it Genius. [I am paying homage to the Food Network show “Sweet Genius’]. Smelly armpits are back in vogue. Pheromone parties are the in thing these days, at least in some dating circles. Apparently, armpits hold the key to finding your amour. As expected LA and NY are leading the charge [someone on the net referred to LA as the armpit of Southern California]. Read all about it here –

Pheromone Parties A New Trend Among Singles In Los Angeles & New York

Written by asterix98

June 25, 2012 at 4:16 am

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The animal-industrial complex

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My friend, Namit Arora, recently published an excellent article – Eating Animals – in 3quarksdaily.com. I also recommend his blog – Shunya.net . It has great content and excellent photos from his many travels to different corners of the world.

Inspired by his article, I wrote a comment . I am reproducing it here.


As I write this, I am watching a KQED program called Orangutang Diary. The lengths to which the baby sitters and veterinarians go, to rescue an individual animal, is truly amazing. This is indeed testimony to the remarkable heights of compassion humans can achieve, for their fellow beings.

Stark is the contrast between this idyllic scenario and the dark realities of the animal-industrial complex Namit has painted for us. Even more interesting is the psychology of the individuals involved in either of these enterprises. In the Orangutan case, the employees are fully invested emotionally, while in the slaughterhouse the workers are fully divested.

I will venture that in either group, a significant portion of the individuals are meat eaters. Namit wonders why one can be both an animal lover and a meat eater, which cognitively smacks of engaging in double standards. That the brain is pretty adept at suppressing cognitive dissonance by responding with rationalizations and compartmentalization is fairly well documented in the psychological literature. Pertinent to the topic, I found this interesting article (http://www.onegreenplanet.org/lifestyle/carnism-why-eating-animals-is-a-social-justice-issue/) by a social psychologist Melanie Joy. In fact, she has written a book called Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (I have not read it so cannot attest to its contents).

She writes “….Widespread ambivalent, illogical attitudes toward a group of others are almost always a hallmark of an oppressive ideology. Oppressive ideologies require rational, humane people to participate in irrational, inhumane practices and to remain unaware of such contradictions. And they frame the choices of those who refuse to participate in the ideology as “personal preferences” rather than conscientious objections.”

In the same article, she says “….Yet most of us have no idea that when we eat animals we are in fact making a choice. When we are growing up, forming our identity and values, nobody asks us whether we want to eat animals, how we feel about eating animals, whether we believe in eating animals. We are never asked to reflect upon this daily practice that has such profound ethical dimensions and personal implications. Eating animals is just a given; it’s just the way things are. Because carnism operates outside of our awareness, it robs us of our ability to make our choices freely—because without awareness, there is no free choice….”

The general consensus on the comment thread is we all more or less agree with Namit’s position and sense of outrage. But how do we effect change in the general population? The few converts, from meat eating to vegetarianism, have engaged in critical thinking (which by the way requires cognitive effort) to shift their perspective. What about the others (there are some example comments here)? I want to share a personal experience. I grew up in a vegetarian household (thankfully!) but briefly experimented with meat eating in my 20s . Funnily, meat never felt like a meal and cognitively I seemed to be asking where is the real food? I quit. Contrast this with a Hungarian lab mate I had, who was incredulous that I was vegetarian and perhaps wondered how I had even made it. My point is : we may have to catch them young, so it becomes part of your DNA. Of course, this means the parents have to be on board. Here Jonathan Safran Foer -author of Eating Animals offers some help (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/magazine/11foer-t.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1).

Lastly, Namit talks about us having lost touch with animals. If anybody doubts that animals have a lot more in common with humans, I suggest you point your browser to this article (a perspective on animals by a cardiologist who has worked with veterinarians)http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/opinion/sunday/our-animal-natures.html?pagewanted=all .

As I pondered the article, I thought it highlighted another important bias – one of size. I was thinking of live lobsters and crawfish, that get thrown to their deaths in boiling water.

In essence, we are trying to motivate a change in a fundamental human behavior, what biologists would refer to as one of the four Fs (Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting and Sex).

Thanks Namit, for a thought provoking article.


Written by asterix98

June 20, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Are we all cheaters?

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We are all cheaters and liars: to a degree. At least, that is what Ariely would have us believe. The relevant article appeared a little over a week ago in the WSJ and is pompously titled – Why we lie? Ironically, the title itself is a bit of lie because Ariely makes no attempt to really settle the issue, as the title would lead us to believe. But the hook surely served the editor’s or Ariely’s purpose of attracting eyeballs.

That there is cheating among the populace is not entirely news. It runs the whole gamut from “very minor” to Wall Street style mega embezzlement. Collectively, corporations lose Millions (I think it is more like Billions) when employees help themselves to office supplies for personal use. There are others who misuse customer service provisions, such as the 30-day return policy, when the requirements for a particular item are short term. Such egregious behavior among the lay folk is rampant and the list of situations is pretty long.  This behavior cuts across socioeconomic and educational boundaries.

What is novel in Ariely’s research is that he and his collaborators have systematically catalogued how and to what extent people cheat. While the research is fascinating, the explanations provided for the underlying causes are, in my opinion, superficial or weak. For example, in the studies cited in the article, the basic task assigned to the subjects is to complete as many Math matrices as possible in a finite time. Reporting of number of matrices completed is based on an honor system. The amount of money offered is 50 cents per completed matrix. In this case, subjects cheat by over-reporting number of matrices completed. When the stakes are raised to $10 per matrix, cheating is reduced. The explanation offered is that the participant sense of integrity balances out his/her instinct to cheat. Alternatively, we could argue that a smaller prize may have been suggesting that the task is easy and so fewer solved matrices must imply poor cognitive ability – a blow to self esteem, higher monies must mean a difficult task and solving fewer means self-esteem intact. Tversky and Kahneman (fantastic research on judgment and decision making), I suspect, would have preferred to explain this as at least in part, a framing bias: the setup of the problem and instructions biases the subjects. I wonder what the behavior would be if subjects are paid a fixed amount no matter how many matrices they complete.

The answer to why we lie is unlikely to be a simple one. It must surely involve our sense of morality (already we are on a slippery slope here), sense of entitlement, situational demands (such as hiding uncomfortable truths from the dying), sense of fairness, cultural sensibilities, to name a few. I am pretty sure, the morality line for every individual, lies just to the right of her (meaning it moves with his/her own actions).  But ultimately the explanation must come from the underlying biology and evolutionary pressures and adaptations.  Paul Zak has written about the “moral molecule” –oxytocin and its central importance in building trusting relationships. A second book by Christopher Boehm tackles morality from a anthropologist’s viewpoint. An excellent review of both books can be found here – Kin and kindness. Both of these books are a step in that direction.

Update [07/09/12] – There is a very interesting review of Jay Magill’s book Sincerity in today’s WSJ. For those interested, I think this will complement the discussion here. The review also mentions Dan Ariely’s new book – The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

Written by asterix98

June 11, 2012 at 4:10 am

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