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Sunday, December 29, 2013

The assumptions we hold

On the surface, the new film "Her" by Spike Jonze seems to be a scifi-esque tale about a lonely and detached man (named Theodore) falling in love with an A.I. (an operating system named "Samantha"). However, much like many other thought-provoking films, there is much more to the story here. The director guides the viewer through a journey where he is prodded into questioning his core assumptions about love and relationships.

There are many themes covered in the film. One of the major ones deals with the physical connection between two individuals and whether such a connection is a prerequisite for true love.  By her very nature, Samantha is unable to satisfy Theodore's physical needs because she does not have a physical form other than being a small tablet that Theodore carries around with him wherever he goes.  All he can "feel" from her is a voice originating from the tablet and nothing more.  Given Samantha's lack of a physical form, Theodore still manages to fall in love with her and develop intense feelings.  At this point, we are forced to directly address our assumption about physical contact in the context of relationships.  In the modern age of communication technologies that allow us to essentially be in perennial long-distance relationships, where there is no physical contact or connection of any form, is it not possible to fall in and stay in love with someone?  Are the romantic feelings in such a context somehow less genuine or intense than in a "traditional" one where both people are in physical proximity? At the very core of a strong romantic connection is a strong mental bond between two individuals.  Without such a bond, the physical connection, no matter how intense, will eventually fade away.  Once the intensity of the physical attraction for someone wanes, there is nothing substantial left to keep the momentum going other than the person's mind.  If the mental attraction is not present, the connection between two individuals will most likely be shallow and short-lived.  Given this observation, it's not difficult to imagine how Theodore can develop such intense feelings for someone with no physical form.  The relationship that develops between Samantha and Theodore goes directly to the core of a strong romantic connection, a genuine and deep mental connection.  This point is exactly what the director is trying to get at. What ultimately constitutes a genuine and deep romantic bond between two individuals?

Assuming that true love can develop without a physical form, another theme the film covers is how love can eventually fade away for reasons not related to a lack of a physical connection.  The director uses the relationship between Samantha and Theodore to explore one of the ways that romantic feelings can weaken and eventually disappear.  Whenever two people enter into a relationship, there is often a period of growth for both individuals as they learn from each other.  This mutual growth provides novelty and intellectual stimulation, keeping both individuals interested.  This is exactly what happens between Theodore and Samantha. Samantha absorbs information at hyper speeds and learns extremely quickly. She learns about human emotions and relationships from Theodore because this is something unique he can offer that Samantha can't simply learn from the internet or other electronic sources of information that she has access to.  However, since Samantha learns so quickly, she eventually reaches a level of knowledge and experience that is far beyond what Theodore can keep up with or offer. She starts interacting and "speaking" with other operating systems that are like her and have learned as much as she has.  Much like in human relationships, this is where the decline begins. Samantha is growing and constantly becoming more complex while Theodore stays relatively stable. As a result, Samantha eventually outgrows Theodore because he has remained static while she has been dynamic and in a state of constant growth.  The director uses this decline to explore the death of relationships. Whether the connection is between two humans or a human and an A.I., if both sides are not in a constant state of growth and increasing complexity, the more dynamic individual will eventually lose interest and seek someone with similar attitudes about self improvement and growth.

The film goes on to explore many other themes dealing with happiness, the role of technology, emotions, and human behavior in general.  However, the emphasis of the film is on questioning our assumptions about love, relationships, and how intense romantic feelings can both develop and eventually fade away, even in non-human contexts.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A guide for dealing with humans

This is going to sound quite pessimistic and cynical but please read on if you have the patience.

When dealing with fellow human beings, expect disappointment, unpredictability, and irrationality.  Why?  For several reasons.  Keep these observations in mind:

1) When dealing with an individual in a "cold" and emotionally unaroused state, don't assume they are going to be the same way when they are under the influence of emotions of any kind, whether it be happiness, anger, sadness, stress, confusion, etc etc..  When we are unaroused, we assume that we will act in a logical and consistent manner while under emotional arousal or stress.  Often times, this is false and we have absolutely no idea how we will act or what we will do when we aren't in a cold rational state.

2) We come from different backgrounds and drastically different experiences.  This can lead different people to view the same situation in radically different ways.  We really have no idea why we hold the preferences that we do and why some things that frustrate us greatly seem to have no emotional effect on others.  There is no way to accurately identify the root cause for a majority of our predispositions.

3) Neurologically speaking, we do NOT know how decisions are actually made and what happens in the brain, at a molecular level, when an individual has to make a choice.  It's still a mystery.  So, when a person makes a decision, at the most basic level, we have no idea how that decision was made and what kind of biological influences and reactions were at play.  Why did you decide to cut that driver off today but restrained yourself yesterday?

4) We are unconsciously influenced by a plethora of contextual and environmental factors.  The sheer amount of ways that we can be emotionally/mentally primed without even realizing it is immense.  The power of roles, costumes, anonymity, authority, and an unpredictable/unfamiliar environment can have a powerful influence on who you think you are and how you think you will behave in different contexts.  Consider yourself living in a first-world country in an urban setting and then realizing how differently you might act if you were placed in a third-world rural village with contaminated food and water and no social support of any kind for miles.  Chances are that you will behave in ways that will surprise you.  Does this mean you aren't who you thought you were?

5) Our willpower and ability to practice self-restraint varies throughout the day and even depends on how well fed we are.  An individual who has been dealing with crying children all day is going to be much more on edge and "touchy" than someone who has been lounging at the beach.  Does this mean that the first individual has less self-control and is just a more frustrated person in general? Absolutely not, that person's willpower has simply been depleted and their emotional restraint has diminished.

This list isn't exhaustive and there are many more factors at play that can lead to an individual behaving in unpredictable and irrational ways.  Given these observations, is it worth actively seeking and fostering friendships?  Is it worth falling into perhaps the greatest emotional abyss of them all? I am referring to love and relationships of course.  The answer is YES to all of these situations.  But, before you set yourself up for failure and disappointment, realize that you are dealing with a creature that is operating under all of the above restraints (and then some).  Don't create high expectations and be more forgiving when shit (inevitably) hits the fan.  We're only human.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The mere thought of it..

Can simply asking about your intent to engage in a specific behavior increase your likelihood of engaging in that behavior?  What if you were asked if you plan on going on a bike ride or a hike in the coming month, do you think being asked such a question will make you more likely to do these things in the near future?  Most of us would consider such a question ridiculous because we believe that we are in conscious control of our actions and preferences.  However, when put to the test, studies by behavioral scientists often show that our intuitions, justifications, and reasoning for our actions and choices are often wrong because we aren't aware of numerous environmental factors that can influence our behavior.

An example of such an intuition-breaking study was carried out by Jonathan Levav of Columbia University and Gavan J. Fitzsimons of Duke University.  These scientists set out to investigate the "mere measurement effect," which states that when individuals are asked about a specific kind of behavior, they are more likely to engage in that behavior in the future.  Much like most other research in the field of Behavioral Economics, Levav and Fitzimons came back with intriguing results.

The authors discovered that merely asking a question about a specific behavior does in fact make it more likely that people might engage in that behavior.  Levav and Gavan asked survey participants whether they plan to floss or read for pleasure more frequently in the upcoming 2 weeks. For the control group, the authors asked participants how often they think their friends will engage in these behaviors.  The rationale being that the mere-measurement effect will be active in the experimental group and not the control group because the experimental group would be visualizing themselves, not others, engaging in these behaviors. After 2 weeks, the authors asked the same participants to report on the frequency at which they engaged in these 2 behaviors.  As they expected, Levav and Gavan found statistically significant results in the experimental group and not the control group.

 The authors continued with further experiments that I won't outline here. They concluded that the "simple act of stating one’s intent to engage in a behavior is associated with an increased likelihood of subsequently engaging in the behavior when it is easy to mentally represent or imagine. Participants asked their intention to engage in a behavior were more likely to enact the behavior when mentally simulating it was an easier task."

The findings here can be applied in a variety of settings. In the environmental context, questionnaires and surveys can be used to promote higher levels of environmentally-conscious behavior.  For instance, utility and waste collection companies can send out email surveys or paper surveys asking their ratepayers how much they plan to recycle in the coming month or how much water they plan to conserve. Merely asking these questions should have a positive effect on the incidence of these behaviors because the participants would mentally visualize and simulate ways on how they would go about in engaging in these actions. These visual representations should theoretically make it more likely that they will engage in the desired behaviors.  Such tactics can potentially be cost-effective ways of promoting behavioral change.


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