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How to influence people and get approval from your Granny by Uri Hertz



Continue reading How to influence people and get approval from your Granny by Uri Hertz

The cartoon by Uri Hertz was sparked by a paper by Bayarri and DeGroot (1989) entitled “Optimal Reporting of Predictions”. Uri is part of Bahador Barami’s group on Crowd Cognition at UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. The last time I visited the ICN I asked Bahador if he or his colleagues might like to contribute to Socialminds. To my delight, he agreed, and he suggested that Uri draw a cartoon relating to a topic we were just discussing:  The importance of metacognition for social communication. How certain are you about what you want to communicate? What risk is there to your reputation if you get it wrong? There was a paper about this, Bahador said and the point the paper makes is that the advice depends on your current influence on the person you advise.

What does this mean? The cartoon makes it very clear. You and a number of other advisors report your belief in some variable (say the probability of a phone being a good buy, a stock going up). The advisee knows each of the advisors and she does not trust them all equally. This can be rephrased as follows: she has assigned a prior weight that represents the amount of influence each advisor has on her. These weights are updated when information about the variable comes to light (the phone is shown to break down easily; the stock did actually go up). The updating process takes into account not only whether the advisor was correct, but also how vigorously he reported his belief. If you stated high belief in some previously ignored stock going up, and it actually does go up, your influence will show an increase. It will get the highest increase if the other advisors expressed only weak belief about the stock going up (e.g. they overlooked or discarded the possibility). However, if you are wrong, and if you stated your belief very strongly, as opposed to the other advisors, then your influence will suffer a dramatic fall.

Bayarri and DeGroot show in their paper that in order to increase their influence (posterior weight) over time, advisors should adapt their belief reporting strategy, rather than faithfully stating their beliefs. If you happen to be an advisor, your optimal strategy depends on your current influence (or weight). When your influence is low, you should exaggerate your beliefs (vigorously give a definite yes or a definite no).

This is what the left side of the figure illustrates. It shows how you can take advantage of situations in which other advisers report low belief, and the outcome agrees with your belief. Optimal strategiesHowever, if you are a person who has high influence to begin with, the optimal strategy is to be conservative, understating your belief, as shown on the right side of the figure. This strategy keeps your influence rating from collapsing when your advice turns out to be wrong.

The cartoon highlights the real life implications. Optimal strategies really depend on your current influence! Any mistake that Max makes will cost him dear. But Moritz does not have to worry about such cost. His influence can hardly go down any further.

Is this a rare case? Far from it. The process of giving advice, and any transmission of privately held information, is the basis of communication and cooperation. It includes a first step of establishing the private beliefs, either from perception or experience, and a second step of communicating these beliefs. In the first stage you have identified a stimulus and assessed the probability of a reward – but it also involves metacognitive abilities. Bayarri and DeGroot’s study shows that your beliefs are transformed according to the social context even before they are communicated. So giving advice is not just a case of identifying a stimulus, and communicating it to another person. You have to assess not only how confident you are in your judgement but have to factor in the other person’s likely opinion about you. This is how deeply our social nature affects our judgment as well as our presentation. It makes sense: if we are highly trusted already we can easily fall from grace with injudiciously worded advice. Likewise, if we were previously ignored, we can suddenly gain status if we hit the bull’s eye. If we were wrong, no matter, – you can’t sink even further. As the hedge fund managers say “always remember the value of your investments can go down as well as up”.

So yes, metacognition is critical for social communication.

A Danish Breakfast with Andreas Roepstorff


Breakfast with Andreas

We are very fond of the light, bright, functional Scandinavian style of our apartment in Nobelparken, Aarhus University. It has been our home during our many stays, short and long, over the last ten years. The reason that we are coming here to the Interacting Minds Centre, and keep coming back, is Andreas Roepstorff. One of our special treats is if he comes to breakfast and brings with him freshly baked bread. Today he has also brought a chokoladestang, a classic Danish pastry, extra special. Actually, Danish pastry is called ‘wienerbrød’. All the ingredients of a ‘hyggelig’ breakfast are here. Also candles, thin chocolate slices, honey, jam, cheese, rullepølser, and plenty of coffee. Perhaps there are some other essential Scandinavian style ingredients, an open plan flat and some open plan minds.  Continue reading A Danish Breakfast with Andreas Roepstorff

In this context anything can be discussed. There is no need to be afraid of the big and awkward questions. We started talking about overall goals, long held beliefs, what we would really like to accomplish. Andreas suggested straight away that we need to think of hierarchies of goals, referring to Etienne Koechlin. Koechlin has mapped out hierarchies of goals in the Prefrontal Cortex. Long held beliefs will be kept in the background and other more short term beliefs will be nested within.

It’s all about upholding alternative views of the future, Andreas says. Then Chris throws in “Mental time travel”. I say “Episodic foresight” – as in a pleasant game of ping-pong.

AR: There is the open future – there are several possibilities in front of you.

UF: Ah – so like you to say this. The Viking spirit and your trademark – the Blue Ocean.

CDF: This is where other people give these alternative views.

UF: Where culture = other people.

AR: Okay. Think of the Blue Ocean – we can navigate in the future. We explore.

CDF: Not only finding out what world is like, but creating a world as we’d like it to be.

AR: Creating the world in your image. God-like.

UF: ??

AR: Religion is an extension of the social image. It’s a hierarchical story. You create the top of the hierarchy.

UF: Go on.

AR: The world is unpredictable. But we believe there is a real world – this constrains us.

UF: ??

AR: The other problem is: other people have different perspectives. We have the Ukraine example.

UF: If everyone had the same idea, what then?

AR: Maybe it’d be like China in the old days.

— We pause to help ourselves to more bread, butter and stuff to put on top.


AR: Here is a long held belief: the openness of the human cognitive system.  But there are constraints. Low level behaviour is constrained totally by immediate environment.

CDF: The higher up in hierarchy, the less constrained.

AR: The ability to share possible futures, to co-create, undoes the straight jacket that is there otherwise.

CDF: Humans are good at creating new niches.

AR: Yeah, and at changing the world to fit them. Imagining the future.

Aarhus sybilsUF: I have always been struck by the deep human interest in forecasts. You can see it in ancient archaeological sites, like Stonehenge, or the oracle of Delphi. There are the lovely medieval pictures of the Sybils in Aarhus cathedral. People have been obsessed by predicting the future. They have lots of devices for doing so. Why?

AR: You need external help, devices to forecast. Astronomy is way beyond human time scale. How long do you need to know that something is cyclical?

CDF: The Babylonians knew about the 18 years moon cycle.  They had to have instruments to monitor their observations over such a time scale. And once you start monitoring…there comes control.

UF: Are there some practical suggestions here? I would like to predict our own future.

AR: I have devised this exercise for postdocs: This is what I ask them when they first come:  Imagine yourself in five years time. Everything has gone as well as possible. It is 2019. You are invited to give keynote speech at a big conference. In Hawaii, no less. How did you get there? What would you want to tell people? Who is in the audience? Whom would you like to impress, living or dead?

UF: Nice.

AR: Some students know on the spot. They can then write a grant application.

UF: There is the curse of the here and now. An eternally extending tree of possibilities. The more you think about it the more choices you have.

AR: Exactly. You cannot see the path from here that will lead to a future endpoint. There are just too many branches. But you can, if it’s the other way round: Start from the endpoint and go back to the present.

postdicting the future

CDF: This is analogous to Daniel Wolpert’s solution to the motor problem by minimising endpoint variability.

UF: We have a theory now.

CDF: When you make an action there are an infinite number of ways to proceed. You first choose the endpoint and then you can minimise end-point error.

AR: Cultural experience allows a blueprint for the future. People do have expectations of their future. Ideal scenarios have an internal logic. You get all this from your culture and can frontload it in a ‘cognitive app’.

UF: So the blue ocean has some pre-defined spots to aim for?

AR: The critical thing is to place a buoy out there. Then you have to do something to get there.

CDF: Your exercise for postdocs is all very well. But what it doesn’t allow for is taking advantage of unforeseen opportunities that happen to occur. You should take this up and then you could go into a completely different direction.

AR: Reconfiguring is always fine. It is easier to follow a tangential line when you have a larger perspective. If your goals are too short term then this doesn’t work, and you can go off course.

UF: The proper Long Term perspective is from death.

AR: From beyond death. You have to see yourself from other people’s point of view in the far future. Think of your legacy.

CDF: What my mother used to call “the backdrop of eternity”.

— More helpings of coffee and chocoladestang are now necessary. Chris offers to make more coffee.


AR: Going back to the Blue Ocean and the exercise for postdocs. It’s necessary to anchor the imagination in a specific place. Hawaii. And there need to be specific people who the post-doc would like to be in the audience, and he would like to impress.

UF: I like this idea that specific constraints like these concrete anchor points actually get the imagination going.

AR: If you don’t have these far flung anchor points, then you can get into cognitive apathy; the more you think about it, the more choices open up, and it becomes even more complicated. I have been there….

CDF: In the Tower of London game where you have to plan future moves, there is this interesting observation: if there are two equally good moves, then you slow down. You would have thought you could speed up, since it doesn’t matter which one you choose! Now here’s an experiment: Would performance be improved if you asked people to think about planning their moves backwards rather than forwards?

UF: Good – we always need to finish on a suggestion for a new experiment!

image credit: groenling at flickr (1989): Sybils in Aarhus cathedral

Wunderkammer of the mind

Photo by Gerhard Lang

I met Gerhard Lang in the course of a Wellcome SciArt project that aims to get scientists and artists to work together on a project. Our project was an exhibit for the Head-On exhibition at the Science Museum in London in 2002.

I was very excited when I heard of Gerhard’s plan to construct an exhibit he wanted to call Imago cerebri, because it would include a purpose made display cabinet full of objects. I had been intrigued by the idea of a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, for a long time. As far as I had understood, the Wunderkammer is a collection of anything and everything interesting, and it can serve different purposes: education, reflection, knowledge expansion, possession, memory and fantasy.

Continue reading Wunderkammer of the mind

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="604"] Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities (1655) from Smithsonian Institution Libraries[/caption]

Some of the objects in Gerhard’s cabinet were selected by him from our own house, and it was thrilling to see them nestling together with objects he had obtained on loan from different London museums.

To me the Wunderkammer is one of the best metaphors for psychology, that is, the study of the mind.  It highlights wonder and surprise.  It suggests paradoxes, in mysterious of juxtapositions, and effortlessly evokes emotions through the images and their juxtapositions.

What is the mind? Of course it is not just a collection of memory images and things. The mind is also a machine that enables us to fit into our ecological niche and moreover constantly create slightly different niches. The mind is created by the brain, but we have no idea at what level the equivalence of mind and brain will eventually be established. At this stage we are talking about a very global level: mental components and extensive brain regions; mental operations and connections and networks between brain regions. At this global level it is probably okay to use the words brain and mind to stand for each other.

Photo by Gerhard Lang

What are social minds? Two heads are better than one and this blog is curated jointly by Chris Frith and Uta Frith.

Much of our brain is dedicated to our complex social lives. Getting old and older with the 70th Birthday milestone already in the distant past, Chris and I are becoming only more intrigued with our social abilities and disabilities. We have both studied conditions, which are marked by deep social failure.  I have studied autism over a lifetime and Chris has studied schizophrenia for just as long. We have gained insights that has given us cause to has given us the impetus to look for a biological basis of social interactions, which we first wrote about in 1999.

There were some more papers since then, which we will summarise and reflect on in later posts.

We hope we are now ready to go a step further and write a book on this topic. This blog is a way of telling the backstory of this book – as yet unwritten.