Posts tagged "psychology"


At present, I write here infrequently. You can find my current, regular blogging over at The Deliberate Owl.

paper robots hung on windows saying 'am I alive?'

Alive and not alive

At the core of this project is the idea that new technologies are not alive in the same way as people, plants, and animals -- but nor are they inanimate like tables, rocks, and toasters. We attribute perception, intelligence, emotion, volition, even moral standing to social robots, computers, tutoring agents, tangible media, any media that takes -- or seems to take -- a life of its own.

Sometimes, we relate to technology not as a thing or an inanimate object, but as an other, a quasi-human. We talk to our technology rather than about the technology, moving from the impersonal third-person to the personal second-person, moving into social relation with the technology.

So, given that we perceive and interact with these technologies as if they are alive... are they? At what point do they become alive?

What does it mean for a technology to be alive?

How much does whether they are “actually” alive matter, and how much is our categorization of them dependent on how they appear to us?

Maybe they will not fit into our existing ontological categories at all.

Not things.

Not living.

Something in between.

paper robot on a window saying 'I'm not a person but I'm not a rock'


sketch of robot holding a flower

I explored the question of how to encounter the "aliveness" of new technologies through a set of life-size sequential art pieces.

The story followed several robots in the human world. Life-size frames filled entire windows. The robots ask about their own aliveness, self-aware and struggling with their own identity. They try to fit in, but don't. A wheeled robot looks sadly up at a staircase. A shorter wheeled robot sits in an elevator, unable to reach the elevator buttons. A stained-glass robot draws our attention to the personal connections we have with our technology.

Social robots. Virtual humans. Tutoring agents.

They are here. They are probably not taking over the world. They are game-changers and they make us think.

Perhaps they cannot replace people or make people obsolete. Perhaps they are fundamentally different. Perhaps they will be a positive force in our world, if done right. If viewed right. If understood as what they are. As something in between.

How will we deal with them? How will we interact? How will we understand them?

two blue paper robots on the floor


The story was created as a life-story story that the reader could walk through, so reading would felt more like walking down the hall having a conversation with the character than like reading.

I read Scott McCloud's great book, Understanding Comics, around the same time as doing this project. (Perhaps you can see the influence. Perhaps.) Comic-style, sequential art to promote a dialogue. An abstract character, because if you had an actual robot tell the story, something would be lost. Outlining the robot character in less detail, as more abstract, drew more attention to the ideas being conveyed, and let viewers project more of themselves onto the art.

colorful stained glass style robot in a window

The low-tech nature was partially inspired by ancient Chinese cut paper methods, as well as by some comics styles. The interaction between the flat, non-technological medium through which the story is told and the content of the story -- questions about technology -- calls attention to the contrast between living and thing. What is the role of technology in our lives?


Select frames from Am I Alive? were installed at the MIT Media Lab during The Other Festival.


I made a short video showing the concept, making of the pieces for the installation, and photos of the installation. Watch it here!

Relevant research

If you're curious about the topic of how robots are perceived, here are a couple research papers you might find interesting:

  • Coeckelbergh, M. (2011). Talking to robots: On the linguistic construction of personal human-robot relations. Human-robot personal relationships (pp. 126-129) Springer.

  • Kahn Jr, P. H., Kanda, T., Ishiguro, H., Freier, N. G., Severson, R. L., Gill, B. T., Ruckert, J. H., Shen, S. (2012). “Robovie, you'll have to go into the closet now”: Children's social and moral relationships with a humanoid robot. Developmental Psychology, 48(2), 303.

  • Severson, R. L., & Carlson, S. M. (2010). Behaving as or behaving as if? Children’s conceptions of personified robots and the emergence of a new ontological category. Neural Networks, 23(8), 1099- 1103.


One identity?

I ran across the following quote from Mark Zuckerberg the other day -- not for the first time -- but this time my initial response, instead of being some disgruntled mumbling about Facebook's privacy settings, was how Western.

_shadow of a girl on the ground, tan bark below red plank walkway below green weeds_

"You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity." --Mark Zuckerberg

Why Western?

Richard Nisbett on Geography, ecology, philosophy

Last semester, I read a book called The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why by Richard Nisbett. As you may infer from the book's title, Nisbett talks about all kinds of differences in Western versus East Asian cultures and why those differences exist -- and I mean all kinds. It's a broad book. I'm going to give you the flavor:

Nisbett starts by outlining differences in philosophy. Greek philosophy took as a fundamental principle that matter divides into discrete objects. The Greeks drew a line between the internal and external, essentially inventing nature. Perhaps this was a result of their culture of debate, which relies on the notion that two minds can have different representations of the world and that the world has its own nature independent from both minds. Western cultures grew out of Greek philosophy. Since boundaries between any object and its surroundings were built in, people were discrete. Westerners emphasize individualism. The focus on objects and individuals may have led to many of dualisms we have encountered this semester.

Ancient Chinese philosophy, on the other hand, bespoke a constantly changing world, full of contradictions and moving in endless cycles. Harmony and holism were emphasized: there was a mutual influence of everything on everything else. Chinese has no abstractness, either; no “whiteness” without a thing that is white – the white of a swam, the white of the snow. People defined themselves in relation to others, interdependent rather than independent; the goal was The Way rather than truth or knowledge.

_man sitting on one of a series of folding chairs that are half-buried in the grass_

Some of these differences may have arisen in part from the ecology in which the cultures developed. Greece was a maritime location where people of many customs and beliefs were encountered, a city-state where rational argument was king, and curiosity and knowledge were valued for their own sake. Occupations favored the autonomous individual – herding, hunting, trading, fishing. Intellectual rebels could move cities to retain the ability for free inquiry, and the clashing of so many customs may have led to the development of formal logic to help deal with the frequent contradiction of opinion. In contrast, the Chinese population by and large belongs to the same ethnic group. Rarely were people with different beliefs and customs encountered, and because many people were farmers who depended on joint irrigation, agreed-upon norms and harmony with one's neighbors were the goal. From Nisbett's discussion, one might infer that it is the ecology that led to the development of these features of culture in the first place.

Assumptions about individualism - and language's role

Nisbett also talks about assumptions. Westerners, he says, consider people to be individuals, assuming that everyone is in control of his/her own behavior, oriented toward goals, striving to be different from everyone else, and preferring justice to be blind. This is Zuckerberg's assumption, in his above quote.

But not everyone thinks that way. Nisbett notes that East Asians tend to be more concerned with coordinated action and group goals, fitting in, and negotiating a “middle way” that will satisfy particular disagreeing parties. In Confucian philosophies, man cannot exist alone. This has interesting implications for how people understand themselves and how a self-concept is developed! East Asians tend to think that people are defined by their relationships to other people. This is reflected in their languages: Chinese has no word for “individualism” and Japanese has many “I” words, using different words to refer to the self in relation to parents, friends, or professors. East Asians, when describing themselves, refer to their social roles and find it difficult to not specify situations and contexts. Westerners explain personality traits, role categories, and activities – none of which are solely dependent on context.

_spray from a waterfall, red layered rocks above in the sunlight and green bushy trees in the shadows below_

What I wondered, while reading, was this: How does cultural emphasis on individualism versus collectivism change a person's concept of self? Fivush & Nelson (PDF) (2004) suggested that autobiographical memory and a concept of self are partially developed through an awareness of self versus other. Wang & Ross (2007) proposed that language is very important to autobiographical memory, and Ratcliffe (2007) suggested that a person might learn to distinguish the self as an individual through interactions with others – but Ratcliffe is a Westerner! Do Westerners build up a concept of self in a different way than East Asians? Does the fact that people who speak certain East Asian languages have few if any explicit ways to refer to individualism or to an “I” without reference to other people influence them to conceive of themselves in a more relational, collectivist way? This points to a deeper question: How much do people's languages impact their thoughts, conceptions, beliefs, and perceptions? Nisbett presented examples of how language might change how we think about the world around us. E.g., Westerners tend to learn nouns faster – nouns are objects, inert, and tend to be emphasized more in parent-child conversations. Verbs, which are reactive and about relationships, are more salient in East Asian languages. The properties of the language and how the language is used help drive the object versus relation and individual versus collective dichotomies we see across cultures. Again, I see the same paradoxical question: which came first, the language, or the concepts? How and why did these language differences originally evolve?

An interesting question here, with regards to the role of language priming for certain ways of thought, and differences in memory and recall, is this: Do people focus on things (such as objects, situations, and contexts) because they regard them as causally important, or do they regard them as casually important because they focus on them? Regardless of which statement is more true – and perhaps neither is – this statement highlights the role of interpretation. Nisbett discussed a study in which American students were primed to think either interdependently or independently. Students primed for independence rated individualist values as higher and collectivist values as lower; if primed for interdependence, the opposite was true. In an unprimed condition, American students rated individualist values higher while Hong Kong students rated collectivist values higher – but if primed for either case, all the students showed the aforementioned trend. This is interesting because Westerners, in their everyday lives, are constantly being primed as individuals, while East Asians are being primed with interdependence cues. Nisbett offers anecdotes of people who switched locations in the world and subsequently started behaving more independently or interdependently. Context matters!

Harmony vs agency

_sun beams through an array of puffy clouds over a grey-blue ocean_

Nisbett also explains the ideas of erabi and awase. Erabi is active, agentic: the idea that people can freely manipulate their environments to suit their own purposes. Awase is harmonious, fitting in: the idea that people adjust themselves to their environments rather than trying to change them. The Western versus East Asian dichotomy is clear here. Are Westerners resistant to context-based models of the world, to theories such as Pentland's (2007) that language may not do as much as we think, and to the general idea that individuals are subject to external forces and influences because of their erabi style? Perhaps this is also why the illusion of conscious will is so appealing – do Westerners have more of an obsession with free will than do East Asians? Nisbett notes later than East Asians report feeling less in control of their lives than do Westerners, but that they have less of an issue with this – instead of trying to control situations, they try to adjust them. East Asians also tend to be less susceptible to illusions of control than Westerners.

I am reminded of a quote from Nikos Kazantzakis: “Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes that see reality.” It puts me in mind of expectations. Peoples' experiences set up their expectations about significance and meaning of future experiences – their culture influences what experiences they have. The same events don't mean the same thing to everyone. In the context of this person's experiences so far, different events may have been encountered more frequently, different behaviors may have been encouraged or discouraged, and different values emphasized. Nisbett (2003) discusses several studies that suggested East Asians are not as surprised by unexpected outcomes as are Westerners. This could be because they are more accepting of change to begin with – their world view anticipates that no situation will stay constant. Westerners, on the other hand, presume linearity of trends – the fact that they predict a trend to continue in its same direction could lead to their greater surprise when that prediction turns out to be false.

In sum: Agent, environment

In summary: Culture constantly surrounds us. It shapes how the people we interact with react to and interpret their environments, which in turn shape how they interact with us and what they emphasize in those interactions. It shapes and is shaped by language; language shapes and is shaped by our expectations and experiences. We have to keep in mind, however, that cultural differences are averages. Nisbett is careful to note this. Any individual person may not conform to the cultural norms. Although culture is a remarkably important context for a human, the development of a person in a culture is not quite so set as a cell being cultured in a petri dish. It is still the dynamic interactions between genes and an environment that develop a phenotype -- an agent plus an environment. The environment, for a person, includes that person's culture. A person's past experiences with aspects of their culture – e.g., parent speaking styles, emphasis on objects versus relations, language – will influence that person's present behavior. Oyama (2000a, 2000b) said we cannot attribute development solely to genes. Neither can development be attributed solely to culture, nor to the wider environment. It is through the interaction of all these contexts that we get functioning organisms.


Fivush, R. & Nelson, K. (2004) Culture and Language in the Emergence of Autobiographical Memory. Psychological Science, 15 (9), 573 – 577. [PDF]

Nisbett, R. (2003). The Geography of Thought. New York, NY: Free Press.

Oyama, S. (2000a). Evolution's Eye: A Systems View of the Biology-Culture Divide. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Oyama, S. (2000b). The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Pentland, A. (2007). On the collective nature of human intelligence. Adaptive Behavior, 15 (2), 189-198. [PDF]

Ratcliffe, M. (2007). Rethinking Commonsense Psychology. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillian.

Wang. Q., & Ross, M. (2007). Culture and Memory. In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen, (Eds.), Handbook of Cultural Psychology (pp. 645-667). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.


_several large rocks modified to look like faces_

Rock on

Are you familiar with perceptual control theory? If you aren't, the basic idea is this: People are not rocks. As Philip Runkel puts it,

"Living creatures behave very differently from lifeless things. Unlike a rock, a human does not just sit until something bumps it."

-- Philip Runkel, “Casting Nets and Testing Specimens,” pg 75

The idea is, organisms and agents and people get a bunch of different sensory inputs. They have some internal standards for what they want that set of sensory inputs to be like -- some desired state of the world. The difference between how they want the world to be and what the world is actually like drives what they do -- what we see as behavior. The reason this is appealing to me? Perceptual control theory (PCT) says we're not just input-output machines. Behavior is goal-directed and purposeful. It's a useful theory if you want to figure out why people are doing what they do and how to avoid or mediate conflict. Everyone has internal standards that they're trying to control. As Runkel says,

"[M]ost of us very often act as if we expect other people to behave like rocks. And when we act toward other people as if they were rocks or blankets or typewriters or teacups, we make unending trouble for ourselves. It is true that people do have some features in common with rocks and typewriters. There are, however, important differences between living and nonliving things that most of us overlook time and time again, and to our sorrow." -- Philip Runkel, "People as Living Things; The Psychology of Perceptual Control," pg 14

If you want to learn more, I've found you a nice list of articles, an informative Less Wrong post a friend linked me to, a comprehensive website, and Google. And yes, talking about PCT really just was my excuse to share those lovely quotes from Runkel.


Genes: predictor of academic ability?

I found an article today about British researchers who are analyzing the DNA of 4000+ schoolchildren with the goal of finding a relation between the kids' genes and their academic abilities.

_dna strand (credit: ynse on flickr)_

The reason I bring this up is not because the researchers found a gene to explain why you failed your math test, but because the article falls heavily into the "nature vs. nurture" trap. For those of you unfamiliar, nature vs. nurture is the debate over the relative importance of innate qualities built-in from the chromosomes ("nature"), versus personal experiences, environment, and upbringing ("nurture") in determining individual physical and behavioral differences. Really, it shouldn't be a debate: organisms' traits are a result of the interaction of what they start with and where they grow up: nature and nurture. The context in which any organism develops is remarkably important in determining which genes are expressed and how they interact to produce behavior.

Back to the article. There's one paragraph in particular that gets me:

"Research into height, for example, has picked out 300 genes that affect how tall people will grow, but even these genes can only explain 15% of the total variations in human height. It implies that hundreds more genes must also play a part."

No, that's a false choice. What's implied is that there could be other genes involved, but - and here's a novel thought - maybe the environment (e.g., nutrition) plays a role? A little bitsy part? Maybe?

A little googling:

In hopes that it was just the reporters who were being deterministic, not the researchers themselves, I set out to find more information.

Robert Plomin of King's College, London, is the behavioral geneticist cited in the article. He's currently performing a huge study of British twins. I've found several articles stating that he's a "pioneer in bringing nature and nurture together," and instead of calling it a "nature vs. nurture" debate, he's said to have call it (much more appropriately) "nature and nurture." That's reassuring. I'd have to read a few of his papers to be certain, but my interim conclusion is that it's just the reporters.

If you're interested, I also recently came across a popular article on the gender myth and genetic differences in men and women. It happens to cite Robert Plomin, too.


Emotional intensity and the individual

Let's say you're at home. Maybe you're lounging indolently on the couch, feet up on the brown wood coffee table, television whining at you from across the room. Maybe you're cooking tonight's dinner, chopping vegetables with careful strokes, sliding the ever growing pile of peppers and onions and tomatoes into a hissing frying pan. Maybe not. Maybe you're in another room when the fire alarm sounds, bleep bleep bleep, blaring its cacophonous melody into your generally peaceful home.

How do you react?

_red fire alarm pull handle_

Do you scream? Do you calmly turn off the stove, flap a towel at the cloudy air around the smoke detector, and wait patiently for it to detect that there's not actually a fire? Do you leap up from the couch, tripping over the coffee table in your panic, terrified of burning to death in your own living room?

The strength of your emotional response to this (or any) emotional stimulus is known as emotional intensity. Emotional intensity can be measured with psychological scales, such as the aptly-named Emotional Intensity Scale (EIS) developed by Bachorowski & Braaten (1994) [PDF]. The underlying if obvious assumptions of these scales are that some individuals experience all of their emotions more intensely than other individuals, and all individuals may respond with different strengths to the same stimuli.

Your personality influences your experience of emotions

You may already be familiar with the Big 5 personality factors: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (sometimes called Emotional Stability). (If not, look them up.) Robert McFatter, in his 1998 paper Emotional Intensity: Some components and their relations to extraversion and neuroticism [PDF], investigated the relation between temperament and the intensity of positive and negative emotions. (Positive emotions included happiness and pleasure; negative emotions included worry, guilt, anger, and sadness.) McFatter described and tested several models, all of which had slightly different predictions about how neuroticism, extraversion, and positive and negative emotional intensity are correlated.

  1. Larsen & Ketelaar model: The measures used to examine emotional intensity in this model tapped frequency of experienced emotions more than the intensity of single (and possibly infrequent) reactions. The model predicts that Extraversion is positively related to positive intensity and unrelated to negative intensity, and that Neuroticism is unrelated to positive intensity and positively related to negative intensity.

  2. Larsen & Diener model: This model draws on the theory that the intensity of experienced emotions is used to regulate arousal levels. Arousal level can be tied to Extraversion, so this model predicts that Extraversion is positively related to both positive and negative intensity. Larsen & Diener also predict that Neuroticism is similarly positively correlated with positive and negative intensity.

  3. Wallace, Bachorowski, & Newman (WBN) model: Extraversion is suggested to reflect a behavioral approach system and a behavioral inhibition system. Neuroticism is suggested to reflect the reactivity of an arousal system responding to the behavioral approach/inhibition systems that serves to prepare the individual to respond. This model accordingly predicts that Extraversion is positively related to positive intensity and negative related to negative intensity (and thus that Extraversion is overall uncorrelated with overall emotional intensity), and that Neuroticism is positively related to both positive and negative intensity.

  4. Gray's model: This model predicts that the behavioral approach/inhibition systems form dimensions that are rotated roughly thirty degrees from the Extroversion and Neuroticism dimensions, so they don't line up. The model predicts that Extraversion is positively related to positive intensity but only weakly negatively related to negative intensity. Similarly, Neuroticism is predicted to be weakly positively related to positive intensity, and positively related to negative intensity. Gray's model, furthermore, suggests that the negative emotions can be subdivided into anger/panic and anxiety/fear categories. These subcategories may have different relations to Extraversion.

_Extravert, Introvert, Stable, Neurotic_

Methods, Correlations, Analyses, Results

To test these models, McFatter gave a series of questionnaires to 1553 college students taking introductory psychology classes (596 male). Participants completed the 30-item EIS to examine positive and negative emotional intensity (14 items and 16 items, respectively), the Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI) for measuring Extraversion and Neuroticism (in addition to subscales for impulsivity and sociability), and a third unrelated questionnaire.

Based on an initial factor analysis of the EIS, negative intensity was separated into two groups: anger/frustration (hereafter referred to as "anger intensity") and non-anger, such as worry, guilt, and sadness (referred to as "non-anger intensity"). This result supports Gray's theory that two separate negative emotion systems exist.

Consistent with both Gray's model and the WBN model, Extraversion was shown to be positively related to positive emotional intensity (r=0.19, P<0.0001), negatively related to non-anger emotional intensity (r=0.18, p<0.0001), and unrelated to anger intensity (r=0.02). In plainer terms, individuals with high Extroversion scores tended to experience more intense positive emotions and less intense negative emotions. Neuroticism, on the other hand, was shown to be positively related to all three kinds of emotional intensity, though less strongly to positive intensity (r=0.18, p<0.0001) than to non-anger or anger intensity (r=0.56,p<0.0001 and r=0.45,p<0.0001, respectively). That is to say, individuals with high Neuroticism scores tended to report experiencing more intense emotions overall. This is consistent with Gray's model. A couple other interesting results: Females reported significantly higher emotional intensity than males overall, with the largest difference seen in negative intensity (0.411, p<0.0001). The positive relation between Extraversion and emotional intensity was stronger among people with a high Neuroticism score.

Neuroticism and emotional intensity

It's hard to tell without reading a pile of psychology papers, but the fact that Neuroticism was positively related to positive emotional intensity was surprising. Previous results found a negative relation, though several of these had measured emotional intensity with a different scale--one that seemed to confound frequency and intensity of the experienced emotions. The WBN model, relatedly, claimed that Neuroticism reflected general emotional reactivity. (Recall the personality factor's other name: Emotional Stability.) So McFatter investigated.

He found that when looking at the difference of the positive intensity and negative intensity scores, the relative emotional intensity was negatively related to Neuroticism, as in those previous studies. However, when examined on their own with the other variables controlled, the relations of both positive and negative intensity to Neuroticism were positive. The WBN model only explained a portion of the story.

McFatter's results, overall, support Gray's model and the WBN model, suggesting that the variations in positive and negative emotional intensity may be the result of separate emotion systems, but that they do have some common variation that may best be explained by their relations to Neuroticism.


McFatter, R. (1998). Emotional Intensity: Some components and their relations to extraversion and neuroticism. Person. individ. Diff., 24(6): 747-758. [PDF]