This is Your Brain on Ukraine: Can People Be 'Nudged' Away From Crazy Behavior in a Conflict?
Over the past few years, government has discovered that it can accomplish a lot when it sets aside the notion that human beings are rational. Rather than giving people good reasons they should pay their taxes on time, or take out microcredit loans, or get more exercise, agencies have leveraged social anxiety for the taxes, printed pamphlets with pretty pictures to spur the loans, and shrewdly situated reminders to get feet out of elevators and onto steps. And they're happy with the results. So tax collectors and public health mavens and development experts are now very keen on behavioral economics. But there is one part of public life in which these techniques, as far as I know, have not made a dent. A part of life where, to use the Cass Sunstein standard, "people make a lot of mistakes, and that those mistakes can prove extremely damaging." That is the realm of conflict based on identity—relations between races, ethnic groups, nations, religions and other categories for which people are willing to kill and die.
In fact, when a government addresses people's common cognitive errors in this realm, it is usually trying to make matters worse—to augment the fears, anger and anxiety that make unreasoning behavior more common. Indeed, a good working definition of political leadership is exploiting people's feelings about identity in order to make them do what you want—for good or for ill. We need to fight this war because Americans defend freedom. They are our slaves because they're inferior. If we don't attack, people just like your grandmother will be killed. Where are the tools that help people see errors and master themselves? If behavioral economics can do it for tax payments and weight loss, can't the discipline address the deadly errors that surround our national, religious, racial and ethnic identities?
You can see those errors in full flower in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Indeed, Vladmir Putin's strategy for keeping Ukraine under control depends for its success on these cognitive errors, which is why his regime is, by its actions, promoting them.
Error 1: One Identity Counts, 24/7. This is the bedrock on which the Russian invasion of Crimea was predicated, and the basis for Putin's claim that he can—nay, must!—intervene when there are threats to Russian who don't live in Russia. If you are Ukrainian, you can't be Russian. If you are Russian, you can't be Ukrainian.
No sensible person believes this on a normal, peaceful day, when she cycles from one identity to the next (mother at school drop-off, accountant at work, woman on a bus full of men, middle-aged person walking by a gaggle of adolescents). It's not a sequence of costume-changes—as our conservative friends like to remind us, you don't lose your identity as a Christian when you're exercising your identity as a voter. But in the course of a day, one or another of your identities is "salient," as social psychologists say. In many parts of the world, this identity-shifting includes different ethnic identifications and languages. Such seems to be the case in Ukraine, where many people are bilingual, in both the western "Ukrainian" half of the country and in the Eastern "Russian" part.
This natural cycling may be the reason that experimenters over the years have had little trouble getting people to change their perceptions about which identities mattered. In this study, for example, an experiment in Lebanon with Muslim and Christian 11-year-olds at a summer camp had to be terminated early because of vicious conflict between two groups. No, not Christians and Muslims. The fighting was between the Blue Ghosts and Red Genies, two teams that had not existed before the experiment and which both included children of both religions.
When conflict comes, though, one identity comes to feel paramount—the one that is threatened. The shared experience of being parents, or neighbors on a street, is forgotten: Only the difference between our group and yours is allowed any weight. In that Lebanese experiment, even religious ties were set aside in the deadly-serious Ghosts-against-Genies struggle.
The association also works the other way: If you want conflict to come, you talk up the importance of one single identity, and suggest that it is under threat. This is what the Russian government is doing now in Ukraine. Though it is the least-demanding (and thus most tempting) way to think about the conflict, we onlookers should resist, as Timothy Garton Ash has explained:
Start by abandoning the labels "ethnic Ukrainians" and "ethnic Russians". They mean almost nothing. What you have here is a fluid, complex mix of national, linguistic, civic and political identities. There are people who think of themselves as Russians. There are those who live their lives mainly in Russian, but also identify as Ukrainians. There are innumerable families of mixed origins, with parents and grandparents who moved around the former Soviet Union. Most of them would rather not have to choose.
What happens in such traumatic moments is that identities switch and crystallise quite suddenly, like an unstable chemical compound to which you add one drop of reactant. Yesterday, you were a Yugoslav; today, a furious Serb or Croat.
So everything that is done in and for Ukraine over the next weeks and months must be calculated to keep that identity-compound from changing state.
Too bad we have so few resources, other than a general appeal to reason (uh-oh), to protect the identity compound from getting hard-edged and dangerous.
Meanwhile, the Russian strategy is precisely the opposite. So far, news reports suggest it hasn't worked too well in the cities of Eastern Ukraine, with the demonstrators and building occupiers being made up mostly of young men with bats and old people nostalgic for the Soviet past. But that's no reason to be complacent about the future. The transformation of an identity, from part of one's multi-card deck to all-encompassing, is often swift and surprising. No nation is doomed to the process, but no nation is immune, either. (In 1979, for example, two American scholars confidently noted that ethnic strife was a thing of the past in Yugoslavia. "Both states [Yugoslavia and the United States] firmly reject the notion that national and ethnic divergencies should be the source of discriminatory treatment for their respective citizens,’’ they wrote.)
Error 2. Groups are people. Speaking of groups as if they were individuals is built into our language, it seems. We say "China wants to play a role in Africa," or "the Republican party wants to win" or "Iran wants a nuclear bomb." It's a common synecdoche to treat the nation as a stand-in for every single member (as if all 1.3 billion Chinese people wanted to increase their influence in the Sudan, or as if every Iranian wanted to have a nuclear weapon). But this inclination runs deeper than metaphor. Research suggests people are inclined to see collections of creatures as single superorganisms. In a striking experiment years ago, Paul Bloom and Csaba Veres showed undergrads some films of very simple abstract colored dots moving about like schools of fish. Yet the undergraduates saw them as a single object—and they explained these objects' movements in terms of will, intention and emotion. For example: "The blue dots would not let the green rectangles pass. However the green rectangles did not seem to mind and didn’t try that hard."
This is a convenient mental shorthand, of course, and often serves us well. If you're being tormented by a motorcycle gang, for instance, you shouldn't waste time asking about the subtle differences between Ed, who is egging everyone on, and Jim, who is a go-along, get-along reluctant participant. In the moment of crisis, they're all the same. However, when we see a nation as a single being, we don't see the diversity of opinion within it. We imagine (and governments promote the illusion) that millions of people speak with one voice, favoring only one policy.
Error 3: The Zombie Theory of Identity It's easy to believe that someone's belonging to a nation, race or religion actually obligates that person to behave in a certain way—if they're unfamiliar. It's not something we'd ever believe about ourselves or the people we know well, because we know that individuals differ. But it is easy to believe about those other people. We Americans know that Americans are not all eager to kill Muslims and insult the prophet. Yet a surprising number of us believe that being a Muslim means one has to be a supporter of terrorism.
The zombie theory of identity is another attention-conserver. It lets you think that once you know the essential identity fact about someone you can then predict what he will do. And it justifies taking pre-emptive action. In Urkraine, the Putin government promotes the notion that Ukrainian speakers cannot respect or take into account the needs of Russian speakers. And that fosters the impression that certain kinds of behavior just happen, because of course no one involved has any choice. What is in reality a carefully engineered arrangement of events gets interpreted as inevitable.
All three of these errors pose a classic problem of the sort behavioral policy types love: How to persuade people to see the nature of their systematic and predictable errors, in order to help them avoid the consequences of making those errors. I can think of a few possibilities. To avoid error 1, people need to be reminded of their many overlapping identities and the ties that link them across boundaries. They need to understand that "Us or Them" situations arise because people think they have arisen. To avoid error 2, people need to remind themselves of the multiplicity of opinions and commitments within all the collective bodies of people that they are tempted to see as behemoths that act like a person. To avoid error 3, remind people that identity is not a thing you have, but a thing you do.
But these are stray thoughts. I invite my behavioral-oriented readers, especially those who have had experience designing policies to encourage recycling or higher rates of saving, to consider the perfidious and ongoing problem of errors about nations, ethnic groups and other identities. What sort of nudges might behavioralists use to help people avoid the terrible outcomes we see when these mistakes are allowed their full scope?
Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby
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Welcome to the world's newest motorsport: manned multicopter races that exceed speeds of 100 mph.
- Airspeeder is a company that aims to put on high-speed races featuring electric flying vehicles.
- The so-called Speeders are able to fly at speeds of up to 120 mph.
- The motorsport aims to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector, which could usher in the age of air taxis.
Credit: Airspeeder<p>To prevent crashes, Airspeeder is working with the companies Acronis and Teknov8 to develop "high-speed collision avoidance" systems for its Speeders.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"As they compete, Speeders will utilise cutting-edge LiDAR and Machine Vision technology to ensure close but safe racing, with defined and digitally governed no-fly areas surrounding spectators and officials," Airspeeder wrote in a <a href="https://airspeeder.com/news/2020/9/7/airspeeder-worlds-first-flying-electric-car-racing-series-partners-with-cyber-protection-leader-acronis-34g4k" target="_blank">blog post</a>.</p>
Credit: Airspeeder<p>Beyond motorsports, Airspeeder hopes to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector. This sector is where companies like <a href="https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/business-aviation/2020-01-07/hyundai-and-uber-announce-evtol-air-taxi-partnership" target="_blank">Uber, Hyundai</a>, and Airbus are working to develop air taxis, which could someday take the ridesharing industry into the skies. By 2040, the autonomous urban aircraft industry could be worth $1.5 trillion, according to a <a href="https://www.morganstanley.com/ideas/autonomous-aircraft" target="_blank">2019 report</a> from Morgan Stanley.</p><p>Still, many technical and regulatory hurdles remain. Matt Pearson, Airspeeder's founder and CEO, thinks the futuristic motorsport will help to not only speed up that process, but also pave the way for self-driving cars.</p>
Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.
Minimoons<p>Scientists have confirmed just two prior minimoons. One was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_RH120" target="_blank">2006 RH120</a>, which orbited us from September 2006 to June 2007. The other was <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_CD3" target="_blank">2020 CD3</a>, which got stuck in the 2015–2016 timeframe, and is believed to gotten away in May 2020.</p><p>2020 SO, the new kid on the block, is expected to arrive in October 2020 and pop out of orbit in May 2021.</p><div id="37962" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4c0fc8a2cba6536ea4cd960ebed3e6e"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1307729521869611008" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Asteroid 2020 SO may get captured by Earth from Oct 2020 - May 2021. Current nominal trajectory shows shows capture… https://t.co/F5utxRvN6Z</div> — Tony Dunn (@Tony Dunn)<a href="https://twitter.com/tony873004/statuses/1307729521869611008">1600621989.0</a></blockquote></div>
Identifying 2020 SO<p>The first clue 2020 SO isn't your ordinary asteroid is its exceptionally low velocity. It's traveling much more slowly that a typical asteroid — their <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank">average rate of travel</a> <a href="https://www.lpi.usra.edu/exploration/training/illustrations/craterMechanics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"></a>is 18 kilometers (58,000 feet) per second. Even <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_rock" target="_blank">moon rocks</a> sent careening into Earth orbit by impacts on the lunar surface outpace pokey 2020 SO.</p><p>For another thing, 2020 SO has an orbital path very similar to Earth's, lasting about one Earth year. It's also just slightly less circular than our own orbit, from which it's barely tilted off-axis.</p><p>So, what is it? <a href="https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/ca/" target="_blank">NASA estimates</a> that the object has dimensions very reminiscent of a discarded Centaur rocket stage from the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surveyor_2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Surveyor 2 mission</a> that landed an unmanned craft on the moon. Back in the day, rocket stages were jettisoned as craft were aimed toward their desired position. This stuff, if released high enough, remains in space. It appears that this Centaur rocket, launched in September 1966, is now making its way back homeward, at least for a little bit.</p><p>When 2020 SO arrives at its closest point in December, the rocket is expected to be about 50,000 kilometers from Earth. Its next closest approach is much further: 220,000 kilometers, in February 2010.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQzMDk3NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1MTQ1MX0.HGknDwqp0GmeuczKY_AS7vrPG7KMFUc_XO95tNoI2xo/img.jpg?width=980" id="e5cda" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="85eb1f790d8c3ee5b261f7ba13eaa5e1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Centaur rocket stage" />
Centaur rocket stage
What we may be able to learn<p>Earthly space programs being as young as they are, scientists would love to know what's happened to our rocket during a half century in space.</p><p>While 2020 SO won't get close enough to drop into our atmosphere, its slow progress has scientists hopeful that they'll still get some kind of a decent look at it.</p><p>Spectroscopy may be able to reveal what the rocket's surface is like now — has any of its paint survived, for example? Of course, being out in space, it's likely to have been hit by lots of dust and micrometeorites, so the current state of its surfaces is also of interest. Experts are curious to know how reflective the rocket is at this point, valuable information that can help planners of future long-term missions anticipate how well a craft out in space for extended periods will remain able to reflect sunlight.</p>
From cryonics to time travel, here are some of the (highly speculative) methods that might someday be used to bring people back to life.
- Alexey Turchin and Maxim Chernyakov, researchers belonging to the transhumanism movement, wrote a paper outlining the main ways technology might someday make resurrection possible.
- The methods are highly speculative, ranging from cryonics to digital reconstruction of individual personalities.
- Surveys suggest most people would not choose to live forever if given the option.
Immortality and identity<p>The paper defines life as a "continued stream of subjective experiences" and death as the permanent end of that stream. Immortality, to them, is a "life stream without end," and resurrection is the "continuation of that same stream of experiences after an arbitrarily long gap."</p><p>Another key clarification is the identity problem: How would you know that a downloaded copy of yourself really was going to be <em>you? </em>Couldn't it just be a convincing yet incomplete and fundamentally distinct representation of your brain?</p><p>If you believe that your copy is not <em>you</em>, that implies you believe there's something more to your identity than the (currently) quantifiable information contained within your brain and body, according to the researchers. In other words, your "informational identity" does not constitute your true identity.</p><p>In this scenario, there must exist what the researchers call a "non-informational identity carrier" (NIIC). This could be something like a "soul." It could be "qualia," which are the unmeasurable "subjective experiences which could be unique to every person." Or maybe it doesn't exist at all.</p><p>It's no matter: The researchers say resurrection, in some form, should be possible in either scenario.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If no 'soul' exist[s], resurrection is possible via information preservation; if soul[s] exist, resurrection is possible via returning of the "soul" into the new body. But some forms of NIIC are also very fragile and mortal, like continuity," the researchers noted.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The problem of the nature of human identity could be solved by future superintelligent AI, but for now it cannot be definitively solved. This means that we should try to preserve as much identity as possible and not refuse any approaches to life extension and resurrection even if they contradict our intuitions about identity, as our notions of identity could change later."</p>
Potential resurrection methods<p>Turchin and Chernyakov outline seven broad categories of potential resurrection methods, ranked from the most plausible to most speculative.<br></p><p>The first category includes methods practiced while the person is alive, like cryonics, plastination, and preserving brain tissue through processes like chemical fixation. The researchers noted that there have been "suggestions that the claustrum, hypothalamus, or even a single neuron is the neural correlate of consciousness," so it may be possible to preserve just that part of a person, and later implant it into another organism.</p><p>Other methods get far stranger. For example, one method includes super-intelligent AI that uses a <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyson_sphere#:~:text=A%20Dyson%20sphere%20is%20a,percentage%20of%20its%20power%20output." target="_blank">Dyson sphere</a> to harness the power of the sun to "power enormous calculation engines" that would "reconstruct" people who collected a sufficient amount of data on their identities.</p>
Turchin<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The main idea of a resurrection-simulation is that if one takes the DNA of a past person and subjects it to the same developmental condition, as well as correcting the development based on some known outcomes, it is possible to create a model of a past person which is very close to the original," the researchers wrote.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"DNA samples of most people who lived in past 1 to 2 centuries could be extracted via global archeology. After the moment of death, the simulated person is moved into some form of the afterlife, perhaps similar to his religious expectations, where he meets his relatives."</p><p>Delving further into sci-fi territory, another resurrection method would use time-travel technology.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If there will at some point be technology that allows travel to the past, then our future descendants will be able to directly save people dying in the past by collecting their brains at the moment of death and replacing them with replicas," the paper states.</p><p>How? Sending tiny robots back in time.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"A nanorobot could be sent several billion years before now, where it could secretly replicate and sow nanotech within all living being[s] without affecting the course of history. At the moment of death, such nanorobots could be activated to collect data about the brain and preserve it somewhere until its future resurrection; thus, there would be no need for forward time travel."</p>
Pixabay<p>The paper <a href="https://www.academia.edu/36998733/Classification_of_the_approaches_to_the_technological_resurrection" target="_blank">goes on to outline some more resurrection methods</a>, including ones that involve parallel worlds, aliens, and clones, along with a good, old-fashioned possibility: God exists and one day he resurrects us. </p><p>In short, it's all extremely speculative.</p><p>But the aim of the paper was to catalogue known potential ways humans might be able to cheat death. For Turchin, that's not some far-off project: In addition to studying global risks and transhumanism, the Russian researcher heads the <a href="http://immortality-roadmap.com/" target="_blank">Immortality Roadmap</a>, which, similar to the 2018 paper, outlines various ways in which we might someday achieve immortality.</p><p>Although it may take centuries before humans come close to "digital immortality," Turchin believes that life-extension technology could allow some modern people to survive long enough to see it happen. </p><p>Want a shot at being among them? Beyond the obvious, like staying healthy, the Immortality Roadmap suggests you start collecting extensive data on yourself: diaries, video recordings, DNA information, EEGs, complex creative objects — all of which could someday be used to digitally "reconstruct" your identity.</p>But odds are you're not interested. Although Turchin and other scientists are bent on finding ways to avoid death and extend life indefinitely, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/may/16/dying-still-taboo-subject-poll" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">surveys</a> <a href="https://quillette.com/2018/03/02/would-you-opt-for-immortality/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">repeatedly</a> <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutesvanity-fair-poll-the-afterlife/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">show</a> that most people would not opt to live forever if given the choice.