Category Archives: Human condition

“Cover at last your nudiness, and do as SINA says”

Those words were part of “The Ode to Decency,” the theme song of The Society for the Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), and were addressed at animals. For a good laugh, listen to this presentation of the organisation by its president. Alan Abel must (deservedly) be well-known to many, but for me he was a new acquaintance. He was brought to my attention by Priceonomics.

The Official Organ of SINA. Source:

The hedonic treadmill exists even for basic necessities

Does people’s life satisfaction adapt to material improvements? In a recent paper (gated), Galiani, Gertler and Undurraga find that it does, even in a case of very poor people receiving a really basic service (housing). In a large-scale experiment, some poor households in El Salvador, Mexico and Uruguay were randomly selected to receive a ready-made small house. Receiving such housing increased the share of households reporting to be “satsfied” or “very satisfied” with the quality of their life by around around 40 %, from 0.53 to 0.73, thus confirming that it was something these households really needed. What about the effect in the long term? Eight months later, more than half of the gain had disappeared, highly consistent with the hedonic treadmill hypothesis.

The surprising origin of civilization according to Freud

Kjetil Simonsen made me aware of Sigmund Freud’s highly original view of the origin of (human) civilization, from Civilization and its Discontents (1930). Freud starts off conventionally enough:

If we go back for enough, we find that the first acts of civilization were the use of tools, the gaining of control over fire and the construction of dwellings. Among these, the control over fire stands out as a quite extraordinary and unexampled achievement, 1 […] (p. 37)

However, the real meat is in the accompanying footnote:

1 Psycho-analytic material, incomplete as it is and not susceptible to clear interpretation, nevertheless admits of a conjecture—a fantastic-sounding one— about the origin of this human feat. It is as though primal man had the habit, when he came in contact with fire, of satisfying an infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of his urine. The legends that we possess leave no doubt about’ the originally phallic view taken of tongues of flame as they shoot, upwards. Putting out fire by micturating — a theme to which modern giants, Gulliver in Lilliput and Rabelais’ Gargantua, still hark back – was therefore a kind of sexual act with a male, an enjoyment of sexual potency in a homosexual competition. The first person to renounce this desire and spare the fire was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire. This great cultural conquest was thus the reward for his renunciation of instinct. Further, it is as though woman had been appointed guardian of the fire which was held captive on the domestic hearth, because her anatomy made it impossible for her to yield to the temptation of this desire. It is remarkable, too, how regularly analytic experience testifies to the connection between ambition, fire and urethral erotism. (p. 37)

When man stopped (homo-erotically) peeing on fire, civilization rose.

Childhood predictors of adult outcomes

Two papers in The Economic Journal November 2014 deal with how childhood information may predict adult outcomes.

Frijters, Johnston and Shields consider the question Does Childhood Predict Adult Life Satisfaction? Using repeated surveys of people born in the UK in 1958, they are able to explain only 7 % of people’s adult life satisfaction with a very wide range of family and childhood variables. Interestingly, exploiting the panel dimension, they estimate that around 40 % of adult life satisfaction is a trait (i.e. fixed), so it is surprising that their first number is so low. It is as if type of childhood almost does not matter. Education and wages are predicted much better.

I do not know if information on time preferences would have helped, but Golsteyn, Grönqvist and Lindahl at least claim that Adolescent Time Preferences Predict Lifetime Outcomes in their article in the same issue. They find that Swedes who were future-oriented (had low discount rates) as children went on to obtain more education, better grades, higher incomes, and better health (obesity and mortality) as adults than their more impatient peers. The authors are admirably clear that they are not estimating causal effects.

Review: Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction

Since I am doing some work using intelligence test data, I wanted to read something introductory material on that topic. Enter Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction (2001) by Ian J. Deary. I found this a useful introduction to how psychologists/psychometricians have thought about these things. What I was really after was the foundational stuff in chapter 1, and that is what I will focus on here. (Though chapter 6 on the Flynn effect is also solid, and taught me that American SAT scores have been declining in the same period as IQ scores have been rising.)

Deary takes the test collection called Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale III as a starting point. WAIS-III consists of 13 different tests, and strikingly,

“every single one of those 13 tests in the WAIS-III  has a positive correlation with every other one. People who are better at any one test tend to be better at all of the others. There are 78 correlations when we look at all the pairings among the 13 tests. Every single correlation is positive – a good score on one of the tests tends to bring with it a good score on the others. There are no tests unrelated to any other one, i.e. there are noe near-to-zero correlations. There are no tests that are negatively related with other ones. Even the lowest correlation between any two tests is still a modest 0.3 (between picture completion and digit span). […]

The first substantial fact, then, is that all of these different tests show positive associations – people good at one tend to be good at all of the others. […]

The second important fact is that some sub-groups of tests in the WAIS-III collection associate higher among themselves than with others. For example, the tests of vocabulary, information, similarities, and comprehension all have especially high associations with each other. So, although they relate quite strongly to every test in the WAIS-III collection, they form a little pool of tests that are especially highly related among themselves. The same thing occurs with digit span, arithmetic, and letter-number sequencing. They relate positively with all of the other tests in the collection, but they relate especially highly with each other (pp. 7-8).”

In the WAIS-II tests, there are four groups of tests that correlate particularly strongly (called “group factors”), labelled: Verbal comprehension, Perceptual organization, Working memory, and Processing speed, ref. the figure below (p. 3). Inline image 2

Positive correlations between the four group factors are high. This has often been taken to imply that the skills required to do well on each have some common source, which has traditionally been called g (“general factor”). Strictly speaking, the fact that the different test scores are positively correlated does not imply that they have something in common or that “g” corresponds to anything real. Deary is at one point fairly clear about this, writing: “The rectangles in Figure 1 are actual mental tests – the 13 sub-tests – that make up the Wechsler collection. The four circles that represent the ‘group factors’ and the circle that contains g are optimal ways of representing the statistical associations among the tests contained in the rectangles. The things in the circles, the specific/group factor abilities and ‘g’, do not equate to things in the human mind – they are not bits of the brain (p. 11).”

Though he muddles it somewhat when continuing with “The names we pencil into the circles are our common-sense guesses about what seems to be common to the sub-groups of tests that associate closely. The circles themselves emerged from the statistical procedures and the data, not from intuition about the tests’ similarities, but the labels we give the circles have to be decided by common sense (p.11),” and later much more by going on to treat ‘g’ as a valid stand-alone explanatory concept, and writing e.g. “We already know from Chapter 1 that there is general ability and there are […] specific types of mental ability (p. 85).”

Nevertheless, the book seems to be a good exposition of intelligence testing and how psychologists have viewed and continue to view the results of these tests.



“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Anatole France, 1894.

Tyler Cowen refers to the great great quote by Anatole France in a discussion of “anti-homeless spikes” in the UK. It is highly relevant also in Norway, as the government recently struck a deal in parliament to ban begging, and also here we are trying the “raise the cost of being homeless” approach to homelessness.

“[…] by pushing his jam always forward into the future, [the “purposive” man] strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality”

John M. Keynes thus criticized an excessive preoccupation with the future in his essay Economic possibilities for our grandchildren (1930). I was a bit puzzled by this, and the full quote does not really help:

The “purposive” man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom. For him jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam to-morrow and never jam to-day. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.

Helpfully, there is a Wikipedia page on the “jam tomorrow“.  It turns out that the jam reference comes from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), in which the White Queen offers Alice to work in exchange for jam that she (Alice) will always receive tomorrow, i.e. never. Back to Keynes: Such forward-looking behavior is helping to solve the economic problem, but as soon as that is done (it will take at least 100 years), we can stop pushing the jam into the future.

(And presumably start eating it, though Alice says she does not care for jam, but perhaps that is another story.)

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