June 30, 2014

The Evils of Social Media, or Confirmation Bias in the Modern Primate

One size fits all!

Looking at the news this week, the NY Times story about Facebook data being manipulated to study/alter the emotional states of subscribers caught my eye. A familiar feeling washed over me, alerting me that my own emotional state was being altered.
The good old neurotransmitter rush of confirmation bias. My brain gleefully grabbing a bit of data that fits neatly into a slot and celebrating. Feels great. But it also lets me know that this is probably something that needs a bit more critical eye.
Happy Brain! Really.
There are a number of good reasons why our primate brains are wired up to get a happy when something we have learned is confirmed. Biology, psychology, literature, advertising and politics have been gnawing on this fact for a quite a while and a lot of science has been done to try and quantify it.
That happy rush determines what bits of data from the daily flood I pluck out and peruse, how I interpret that data, and whether I choose to share it with others.

It also signals to me, as a critical thinker, that my confirmation bias is being tickled and I need to stop and really think about what this data actually means - does the data cited in the story actually mean what the story says it means, does it mean what my brain is celebrating? Or am I ignoring stuff that makes the happy go away? Having an emotional reaction to something should be a signal to STOP and really think about what is being read/heard/reported.

And that confirmation bias buzz works just as well (if not better) with things that do not make you necessarily happy. Schadenfreude, rage, indignation - all emotions that are being tweaked and should signal a need for some objective review.

So back to Facebook. I have no love for it, belong to an age that values our privacy and hates the idea that we are a product to be bought and sold. So a story that confirms my biases against the company and reinforces my attitudes about privacy is going to ring a lot of happy bells in my brain.
So a moment to look at what was actually done, what it really means, and what is different about this study than other similar studies.

First - the study was unusual in that the study subjects never gave informed consent, were not given the option of opting out of the study, and were not debriefed at the end of the study. The normal ethical standards of psychological studies were not followed. The reason was simple - they didn't have to follow them. Since Facebook is a private company (and had a very, very great interest in the study outcome) and users of Facebook have signed an agreement giving permission for their data to be used, the researchers determined that they were not required to abide by the usual standards. Those standards are generally enforced via the funding of the study itself, and Facebook was happy to fund it.

The study involved collecting data from individual timelines by the use of keywords that signaled an emotional state. Then those individual timelines were manipulated by determining the emotional states of stories coming into the timeline and attempting to influence the overall emotional state of the user by the data that they were being shown.

Manipulating news stories to create a particular emotional atmosphere is probably as old as primates gathering in groups around a fire. It has been refined into a science that is taught and practiced by corporations, institutions and politicians with great skill and subtlety.

Early Banner Ad

The difference here is simply that rather than the shotgun approach of determining what stories go on the local evening news, what is said at a press conference, what commercial is run at the Super Bowl...etc, this is targeted at YOU. Individually.
Status update.
Nobody likes the idea that they are being personally manipulated, and that their friends and acquaintances are being used to do it. We like to think that we have a greater or lesser amount of free will, and being manipulated individually violates our personal integrity.
I am a special goddam snowflake!

The study itself is pretty unimpressive as far as adding anything new to the overall understanding of human beings or emotions. It pretty much is just a proof of concept for what is going on in social media already. The biggest puzzle is why Facebook took the risk of having something that would be so distasteful and controversial be done for publication rather than just doing it quietly in-house.
So objectively, what we are seeing is advertising targeting and emotional manipulation (especially of those confirmation biases!) simply becoming more precise. Which means that we need to be aware that this sort of individual emotional "shaping" is going on and really question the overall goals of any story that triggers our happy bias juice!

Nerd Rage, antique edition

June 25, 2014

FINALLY approved for disability pay


 Yep, it is going to be bon-bons, welfare babies and suckling at the public teat for me!

After 3 years of denials, appeals, and countless hoops jumped through I have been approved for social security disability benefits. Great news!
And a special UP YOURS to Lincoln Financial for refusing to pay out on the Long Term Disability policy that was supposed to prevent what I have lived through the past 3 years.
That is all.

June 23, 2014

Making Assumptions

I was awakened this afternoon after a particularly rough night by yet another phone call from a collection agency asking for money.
The woman sounded pretty young. I told her what I tell everyone who calls looking for money. There isn't any. I have been disabled for 3 years with no income, there is literally NOTHING to give anyone.
Her response? "Then how are you still alive, if you have had no money for 3 years?"
Ooof. I fear I blew her off with a brusque "other people have supported me". She grumbled and the call ended.
As I lay there thinking about it, I nearly called her back. Because that REALLY is the question, isn't it?
It is certainly what a lot of people are thinking, even if they don't have the balls to say it. If you truly have no money how are you still alive? Or even "WHY are you still alive?"
The answer is because people who love me didn't leave me to die. And people who care about people gave me free medical care. And food banks are awesome places that need more support. And you find out how little you need to live on when you have to do so. And not having to go to work every day means you can wear that underwear and those clothes until they are rags and nobody knows.

But this question came at the same time that friends have been debating the use of the word privilege to convey a concept, as well as its offensive use in online debates and discussions.

Which brings me to my current cogitation. It really is less about privilege and more about the base assumptions that we are working under that determine how we interact with the world and others in it - and how we react and form our opinions about things.

If your base assumption is that your own personal experiences are representative of the experiences of others, then that will certainly have a huge influence on your world view.
Assuming that everyone else who works hard, goes to school, is law abiding and polite will have the same experiences that I do is working from this assumption.
 Assuming that anyone out there could potentially become disabled and struggle as I have comes from the exact same assumption.
And truthfully, both have a little truth and lot of generalization. But they are what we use to form both opinions and ultimately public policy. Public policies are derived from sets of assumptions:

Assumptions ultimately form the basis for decisions about what we as a society decide people "deserve". Whether we "earn" our safety net or or whether the safety net is provided to us as a right. And those same assumptions also color very much our attitudes about how that safety net is used. Who decides? Does the person who gets the check get to decide how it is used or the person who writes it? What are the implications for either? Can I get lace panties with my check or only cotton briefs? Can I get fast food or only eat healthy things?
Other assumptions:
Assuming that the current public safety net is adequate and anyone who falls through obviously either does not qualify or is an exception.
Assuming that if people are struggling is it due to poor decisions they made.
Assuming that if someone wasn't left to die in the street then obviously they have some money to pay their debts.
Assuming that those who ARE in the streets are rich con artists/alcoholics/junkies/lazy.
Assuming that people have the intellectual wherewithal, access to records/fax machines/computers, and most importantly that people have the TIME to spend three years filing, refiling, meeting deadlines, endless doctor appointments, and eventually hiring the lawyer who is required to get disability benefits.

How do you live for three years with no money?
You abandon your possessions, your credit rating, your pride, and often your dignity.
And ultimately you live because people who love you don't let you die.

June 17, 2014

Washington insider exposes all!!

Hah. Well, any other title I came up with including the word economics did not seemed destined to inspire so I resorted to base and vile click-baiting. My Bad.

Anyhoo...I was fascinated by a Washington Post op-ed piece the was linked from Boing Boing.

 How America Became uncompetitive and unequal

Now this essay is very appealing to me. Pointing out errors of administrations that I have no love for, and offering a very simple solution to seemingly very complex problems. WIN!! 

Except that I can see some pretty major glossing over of some complicated issues, superficial understanding of things like the issues around medical costs (an area I know something about), and an apparently poor grasp of history.
They cite the Gilded Age abuses as the impetus for economic reform leading to prosperity. But the Gilded Age (about 1870 -1900) was followed by WWI, Black Friday, the Depression, and WWII.
The Robber Barons certainly had a large hand in the bubble that led up to the Depression, but WWII had a lot to do with the economic recovery from the depression by loss of population, innovation, and military contracts.
Today's economy is very different. But since my knowledge of economics is lacking, I sent out a plea via Twitter to my favorite Washington economist to weigh in on what she thinks of the essay above.

Competition policy and economic inequality

It is a very informative read! While our politics differ greatly, I have utmost respect for her knowledge and expertise.

I know this stuff looks pretty dry, but honestly this is talking about our daily lives and is VERY well written and understandable by those of us who ran screaming from economics and statistics!