In July, Edge invited a group of social scientists to participate in an experimental project, a dry run for a possible annual Edge event focusing on the state of the art of what the social sciences have to tell us about human nature. For want of something more serious, I called it "The Head Conference" or "HeadCon". This is not a subject that's new to me ...
Out-take from the trailer I made for the 1968 movie "Head" (Columbia Pictures; Directed by Bob Rafelson; Written by Jack Nicholson)
I asked the participants the following:
"What's new in your field of social science in the last year or two, and why should I care? Why do I want or need to know about it? How does it change my view of human nature?"
I asked them to focus broadly and address the major developments in their field (including but not limited to their own research agenda). My goal was to get new, fresh, and original up-to-date field reports on different areas of social science.
The speakers are Sendhil Mullainathan: "What Big Data Means For Social Science"; June Gruber: "The Scientific Study of Positive Emotion"; Fiery Cushman: "The Paradox of Automatic Planning"; Rob Kurzban: "P-Hacking and the Replication Crisis"; Nicholas Christakis: "The Science of Social Connections"; Joshua Greene: "The Role of Brain Imaging In Social Science"; Laurie Santos: "What Makes Humans Unique"; Joshua Knobe: "Experimental Philosophy and the Notion of the Self"; David Pizarro: "The Failure of Social and Moral Intuitions"; Daniel C. Dennett: "The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change. Also participating: Jennifer Jacquet, Daniel Kahneman, Anne Treisman.
HeadCon '13, is the beginning of an experiment in online video designed to capture the dynamic of an Edge event, focusing on the interaction of ideas, and of people. We recruited Film Director Jason Wishnow, Director of Film and Video at TED from 2006- 20012 (co-creator of TED Talks) to help us develop this new iteration of EdgeVideo. Wishnow filmed the ten sessions in split-screen with five cameras, presenting each speaker and the surrounding participants from multiple simultaneous camera perspectives.
We are rolling out the project, consisting of nearly six hours of EdgeVideo and a 58,000-word transcript, one talk at a time through early March.
The great biologist Ernst Mayr (the "Darwin of the 20th Century") once said to me: "Edge is a conversation." And like any conversation, it is evolving. And what a conversation it is!
I'm going to talk to you today about a project that I've started in the last year or two. This type of thinking, this type of work, is going to be one of the challenges social science faces in the coming three, four, five, ten years. It's work exclusively with Jon Kleinberg. For those of you who don't know him, Jon is a computer scientist, one of the preeminent computer scientists. He's probably the smart one of the two of us, but I'm the pretty one so it's better that I'm being taped.
This is work that starts with the following observation that lots of people have had, so it will be trite to start with but we just have to live with that. The observation is that data sets are getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger in a fundamental way. As the size of data grows, what does this imply for social science? For how we conduct the business of science?
We've known big data has had big impacts in business, and in lots of prediction tasks. I want to understand, what does big data mean for what we do for science? Specifically, I want to think about the following context: You have a scientist who has a hypothesis that they would like to test, and I want to think about how the testing of that hypothesis might change as data gets bigger and bigger. So that's going to be the rule of the game. Scientists start with a hypothesis and they want to test it; what's going to happen?
What I'm really interested in is the science of human emotion. In particular, what's captivated my field and my interest the most is trying to understand positive emotions. Not only the ways in which perhaps we think they're beneficial for us or confer some sort of adaptive value, but actually the ways in which they may signal dysfunction and may not actually, in all circumstances and in all intensities, be good for us.
I thought I'd first start briefly with a tale of positive emotion. It's a really interesting state because in many ways it's one of the most powerful things that evolution has built for us. If we look at early writings of Charles Darwin, he prominently features these feelings of love, admiration, laughter. So early on we see observations of them, and have some sense that they're really critical for our survival, but when you look at the subsequent scientific study of emotion, it lagged far behind. Indeed, most of the research in human emotion really began with studying negative emotions, trying to build taxonomies, understand cognitive appraisals, physiological signatures, and things like anger, and fear, and disgust. For good reason, we wanted to understand human suffering and hopefully try to ameliorate it.
June Gruber is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Director, Positive Emotion & Psychopatology Lab, Yale University.
I want to tell you about a problem that I have because it highlights a deep problem for the field of psychology. The problem is that every time I sit down to try to write a manuscript I end up eating Ben and Jerry's instead. I sit down and then a voice comes into my head and it says, "How about Ben and Jerry's? You deserve it. You've been working hard for almost ten minutes now." Before I know it, I'm on the way out the door.
This is a problem for psychology not, regrettably, because I was writing anything terribly important, but rather because it highlights a deep tension in a dual process theory of the mind. From one perspective my desire for Ben and Jerry's is the product of automatic or intuitive responses—literally gut feelings in this case—and then it's a controlled, effortful, deliberative process that tries to focus on the paper and put thoughts of Ben and Jerry's out of mind. On the other hand, it would truly be bizarre to say that when I went to Ben and Jerry's it was an automatic response. I mean, I have to go through a process of goal-oriented planning. I've got to get my shoes on, I've got to get out the door. There's a mismatch between the willpower perspective and the goal orientation perspective.
Fiery Cushman is Assistant Professor, Cognitive, Linguistic, Social Science, Brown University.
The first three talks this morning I think have been optimistic. We've heard about the promise of big data, we've heard about advances in emotions, and we've just heard from Fiery, who very cleverly managed to find a way to leave before I gave my remarks about how we're understanding something deep about human nature. I think there's a risk that my remarks are going to be understood as pessimistic but they're really not. My optimism is embodied in the notion that what we're doing here is important and we can do it better.
I really wanted to take this opportunity to have a chance to speak to the people here about what's been going on in some corners of psychology, mostly in areas like social psychology and decision-making. In fact, Danny Kahneman has chimed in on this discussion, which is really what some people thought about as a crisis in certain parts of psychology, which is that insofar as replication is a hallmark of what science is about, there's not a lot of it and what there is shows that things we thought were true maybe aren't; that's really bad. I think this is a great setting in which to talk about these things, and I want to talk about it in part from my experience in this because I started to come into contact with this in a way that I'll describe right now.
Rob Kurzban is an Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania specializing in evolutionary psychology: Author, Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite.
The part of human nature that I'd like to talk about today is that part of our human nature that is relevant to our interactions with others. There's been a phenomenal amount of work taking place in the last ten years certainly and even in the last year or two that seeks to understand how we interact with each other and how we assemble ourselves into social networks.
If you think about it, humans are extremely unusual as a species in that we form long-term, non-reproductive unions to other members of our species, namely, we have friends. Why do we do this? Why do we have friends? It's not hard to construct an argument as to why we would have sex with other people but it's rather more difficult to construct an argument as to why we would befriend other people. Yet we and very few other species do this thing. So I'd like to problematize that, I'd like to problematize friendship first.
Nicholas Christakis is a Physician and Social Scientist; Director, The Human Nature Lab, Yale University; Coauthor, Connected: The Surprising Power Of Our Social Networks And How They Shape Our Lives.
We're here in early September 2013 and the topic that's on everybody's minds, (not just here but everywhere) is Syria. Will the U.S. bomb Syria? Should the U.S. bomb Syria? Why do some people think that the U.S. should? Why do other people think that the U.S. shouldn't? These are the kinds of questions that occupy us every day. This is a big national and global issue, sometimes it's personal issues, and these are the kinds of questions that social science tries to answer.
What I want to talk about today is the role of neuroscience, specifically brain imaging, in social science. So far, neuroimaging has told us something between very little and nothing about these kinds of big questions. What I want to talk about is, why is that? What has neuroimaging accomplished in the last 15 years or so? What has it failed to accomplish and why? And what's the hope for the future?
Joshua Greene is John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and the director of the Moral Cognition Laboratory in the Department of Psychology, Harvard University. Author, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, And The Gap Between Us And Them.
I'm going to talk about some new findings in my field, comparative cognition. I'm interested in what makes humans unique. There are findings that I think are fantastically cool, in that they might be redefining how we think about human nature, but first they're going to pose for us some really interesting new problems.
I'm doing this, in part, because I think already having redefined human nature in the last couple of years is sort of a tall order, and that scared me, but also because I think that open questions about human nature can actually be more fun and I couldn't help but use this audience to kind of get some feedback on this stuff.
The findings in comparative cognition I'm going to talk about are often different than the ones you hear comparative cognitive researchers typically talking about. Usually when somebody up here is talking about how animals are redefining human nature, it's cases where we're seeing animals being really similar to humans—elephants who do mirror self-recognition; rodents who have empathy; capuchin monkeys who obey prospect theory—all these cases where we see animals doing something really similar.
Laurie Santos is Associate Professor, Department of Psychology; Director, Comparative Cognition Laboratory, Yale University.
I'm going to be talking today about some recent work in the field of experimental philosophy. But before I talk about what this actual recent work has discovered I want to say something briefly about what this field is.
What is the field of experimental philosophy? Experimental philosophy is a relatively new field—one that just cropped up around the past ten years or so, and it's an interdisciplinary field, uniting ideas from philosophy and psychology. In particular, what experimental philosophers tend to do is to go after questions that are traditionally associated with philosophy but to go after them using the methods that have been traditionally associated with psychology.
Joshua Knobe is an Experimental Philosopher; Associate Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, Yale University.
Today I want to talk a little about our social and moral intuitions and I want to present a case that they're rapidly failing, more so than ever. Let me start with an example. Recently, I collaborated with economist Rob Frank, roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, and social psychologist David DeSteno. The experiment that we did was interested in looking at how we detect trustworthiness in others.
We had people interact—strangers interact in the lab—and we filmed them, and we got the cues that seemed to indicate that somebody's going to be either more cooperative or less cooperative. But the fun part of this study was that for the second part we got those cues and we programmed a robot—Nexi the robot, from the lab of Cynthia Breazeal at MIT—to emulate, in one condition, those non-verbal gestures. So what I'm talking about today is not about the results of that study, but rather what was interesting about looking at people interacting with the robot.
David Pizarro is Associate Professor of Psychology, Cornell University, specializing in moral judgement.
DANIEL C DENNETT
Think for a moment about a termite colony or an ant colony—amazingly competent in many ways, we can do all sorts of things, treat the whole entity as a sort of cognitive agent and it accomplishes all sorts of quite impressive behavior. But if I ask you, "What is it like to be a termite colony?" most people would say, "It's not like anything." Well, now let's look at a brain, let's look at a human brain—100 billion neurons, roughly speaking, and each one of them is dumber than a termite and they're all sort of semi-independent. If you stop and think about it, they're all direct descendants of free-swimming unicellular organisms that fended for themselves for a billion years on their own. There's a lot of competence, a lot of can-do in their background, in their ancestry. Now they're trapped in the skull and they may well have agendas of their own; they have competences of their own, no two are alike. Now the question is, how is a brain inside a head any more integrated, any more capable of there being something that it's like to be that than a termite colony? What can we do with our brains that the termite colony couldn't do or maybe that many animals couldn't do?
It seems to me that we do actually know some of the answer, and it has to do with mainly what Fiery Cushman was talking about—it's the importance of the cultural niche and the cognitive niche, and in particular I would say you couldn't have the cognitive niche without the cultural niche because it depends on the cultural niche.
Daniel C. Dennett is a Philosopher; Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Intuition Pumps.
Daniel Kahneman is Recipient, Nobel Prize in Economics, 2002; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2013; Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Princeton University; Author, Thinking Fast And Slow. Anne Treisman is Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Princeton University; Recipient, National Medal of Science, 2013.
Jennifer Jacquet is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons.