Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Private Knowledge

Harvard researchers have discovered a new psychological capacity for cooperation.

For decades, researchers have examined the psychology behind altruistic cooperation, when one person pays some cost to benefit another. However, another form of cooperation in which both people benefit has been little studied, but that is changing.

A study co-authored by graduate student Kyle Thomas and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker examines how people use “common knowledge” — the shared understanding in which two or more people know something, know that the other one knows, know the other one knows that they know, and so on — to coordinate their actions, and how people’s efforts to cooperate may fail without this infinite level of shared beliefs.

The study is described in a recently published paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study also included Peter DeScioli, now Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University, and Omar Haque, with Harvard Medical School.

“There has been a great deal of research that examines the psychological roots of altruism, and you can think of that as a kind of motivation problem,” explained Thomas, a Ph.D. candidate in the Psychology Department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the lead author. “However, when cooperation involves coordinating behavior, the problem people must solve is a knowledge problem rather than a motivation problem: What do partners need to know about each others’ beliefs to coordinate their behavior?”

While the notion of common knowledge has existed for decades and has been applied to fields as varied as philosophy and computer science, studies that focused on the actual psychology of common knowledge have been few and far between, Thomas said.

The chief reason, he said, is that “paying costs to benefit others poses obvious evolutionary puzzles that are not apparent when both people benefit. Because they do not present any evolutionary puzzles, the coordination problems of common knowledge are not nearly as obvious to researchers. The question is, how do we anticipate what our social partners will do, when what they do depends on what they expect us to do? This is a profound social cognition problem. How does one read the mind of a mind reader?”

To examine the psychological roots of coordination and how different levels of knowledge affect it, Thomas and his colleagues recruited participants to play an online game.

The participants were paired off, with each assuming the role of either butcher or baker working in a market. As the game began, each was offered a choice: Try to work together for mutual benefit — butchers making hot dogs and bakers making buns — or work on their own for a lesser, but certain profit.

To test how knowledge levels might affect whether participants would work together, researchers created four levels of knowledge for how participants could earn more by working together.

The first level, called private knowledge, involved telling one player that he could earn more by working with his partner, but leaving him in the dark about what his partner’s knows. At the second level, called secondary knowledge, one player knows conditions are good, and knows his partner knows that as well. In the third, one player knows, knows his partner knows, and knows his partner knows that he knows. To create common knowledge, this information was broadcast over a loudspeaker.

“Each player then makes a decision,” Thomas explained. “They can decide to work alone or work together, and we paid them accordingly.”

As predicted, these levels of knowledge dramatically affected how people played the game.

“What we found was that, for private knowledge, even if we varied the payouts, or the number of people involved, only about 15 percent of people cooperated,” Thomas said. “With shared knowledge, we saw about 50 percent, and with common knowledge, it was 85 percent. It was just a whopping effect. That indicated to us that we are very sensitive to this previously unappreciated mental state. Our minds evolved to understand this important kind of social structure, and how different kinds of knowledge can impact it.”

The effects of common knowledge, however, are hardly limited to the type of economic games described in the study.

“You can see evidence of these coordination problems everywhere,” Thomas said. “We’ve done work on euphemism and indirect speech, where everyone understands the subtext of what’s being said, though it isn’t explicit. You can also see aspects of it when people talk about taboos or political correctness. When something is taboo, that’s a common-knowledge issue because even though everyone may think it, you can’t say it. There’s even evidence that self-conscious emotions, like guilt or pride or shame, are sensitive to common knowledge, and that certain emotional signals like blushing or crying are built around the idea.”
- Peter Reuell, "Understanding Common Knowledge"


FreeThinke said...

Forget all that self-aggrandizing double-talk, and let's get down to the nitty gritty.

There's nothing mysterious or recondite about Good Will. It's as much a part of the Human Condition as its polar opposite. In fact I'd go so far as to say it is a PREDOMINANT FACTOR common to the majority.

Unfortunately, there are always a-few-too-many "rotten apples" in every "barrel" –– i.e. perverted minds that get their kicks and self-esteem from trying to dominate and exploit others through harassment, insult, demeaning condescension, both psychological and physical torture, blackmail, theft, rape and murder.

They, of course are "Lucifer," "The Serpent in the Garden" and "The Little Foxes" spoken of in the Bible, and "The Fly in the Ointment" of more earthy sentiment. In spite of "them," most love their children, exercise compassion toward the ill and weak, do their duty uncomplainingly, and want to live in peace with their neighbors.

It is the sneering, scoffing cynics, the supercilious know-it-alls, the envious and the arrogant prideful souls who presume to know what's best for everyone who create most of the misery in human interaction.

I dreamt up a term years ago that, I believe, defines the essence of most altruistic endeavor:


In other words it PLEASES most to act kindly, charitably, and lovingly toward others. It feeds, I believe, a healthy form of conceit, if you will.

Why should altruism always imply a need for self-denial, self-deprivation, and –– in extreme cases –– MARTYRDOM?

I would dare add: It doesn't need to be ANALYZED, it simply needs to be PRACTICED. Sincerity or hypocrisy are immaterial, because Virtue truly IS it's own Reward."

FreeThinke said...

________ To a Glad New Year ________

Toot the trumpets! Strike the strings and sing!
On your feet! Step lively in the dance!
Age and Youth alike are on the wing
Going forward: Time moves like a lance
Let loose by some celestial super strength
Amidst the muck and mire of our dozing
Driving us, reminding that life’s length
Never gives us room for much reposing.
Esurient? Appease the appetites
Wholesome and pure. The body, gross and vile,
Yields but sickly transient delights ~
Evoking ennui with a knowing smile.
Awake! A blessed New Year is at hand!
Resolve to love and give without demand!

~ FreeThinke

-FJ said...

The thing is, most who practice altruism prefer not to practice it in "anonymity". They prefer to trade it for "social capital".

-FJ said...

ps - Wonderful verse!

FreeThinke said...

Thanks for the compliment, FJ.

As for making a "show" of one's altruism, I freely admit it's not the best thing –– especially from the Christian Perspective, which encourages selfless, BUT no matter how you slice it doing "good," even for vain, shallow, self-serving reasons, is a lot better than doing evil. That's why I label altruistic practices as "MUTUALLY SELF-SERVING TRANSACTIONS." Should be okay as long as the underlying purposes is not to deceive for nefarious reasons.

I consider myself a Pragmatic Idealist. ;-) Now, put that in your ripe and smoke it.

And once again

May your New Year
Be filled with good cheer.

~ FT

Speedy G said...

I'm more of an Antigonean idealist, myself.

"Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket."

- Fyodor Dostoevsky, "The Brothers Karamazov"

Speedy G said...

Happy New Year, my good friend!

convergentsum said...

Forgiveness is the most powerful force in the universe.