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Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Taming the Herd Mentality

Question: Why do some human societies seem more conformist than others?

Iain Couzin: Well, I'm not an expert on human society and I would defer to, you know, anthropologists and social scientists on this. But, you know, it is certainly clear from some classic work in psychology that, you know, that we have a great capacity of influencing each other and not perhaps being fully aware, you know, the fact that we are influenced.

I'll give you a sort of a toy example, there was a classic study by a guy called Stanley Milgram here in New York City in the '60's, and he was interested in how people sort of copy each other within crowds. And, for example, they'll copy the gaze of other individuals, so he had some students looking up at a window and it was just a silhouette of a couple in the window, nothing much to look at. And what he was interested in was, you know, as he walked past, will you look up also. And of course, the more people are looking up, the more people will stop and look up. And so here we have what we call positive feedback. You know, the fact that you will tend to copy the behavior of other individuals, because, you know, you want to check something out. You use that social information within a variety of contexts.

But there are other examples, you know, such as the Mona Lisa, which is an incredibly famous painting, why is it so famous? Well, it's probably not because it's the best painting in the world, it's probably because of a series of historical events that, you know, that led to its fame and then the more famous it is, the more famous it becomes and so on. And people like Duncan Watts and Matt **** at Princeton have described this as the Justin Timberlake effect--no offense, Justin, but there can be, you know, even sort of an average song can actually believed to be better than it is and that can lead to sort of this positive feedback and people are buying lots of albums. And so there is this very interesting feedback effect that tends to occur. And what they discovered, which is quite fascinating, is that, you know, when you're choosing music, the very worst songs, and the very best songs, it doesn't really matter about this feedback. You know, the very best songs, you would've chosen them anyway, the very worst songs, well, even with feedback, you know it's wrong. But for this large spectrum in the middle, people are very strongly influenced by what they believe others think about that music and will actually change their own preferences based upon what they think others think, even if that information is incorrect.

Question: Does blind conformity threaten human survival?

Iain Couzin: Well, just like in animal groups, blind conformity is almost never a good thing. You know, animals have actually tuned their behavior to have adaptive conformity in a way that they will tend to conform when it pays for them to conform. And in actual fact, having a diversity of responses turns out to be very important. So I was just reading a paper recently about innovation, about how animals can solve problems and even in small birds, like high sparrows, having a larger group allows them to have a sort of a better sweet of different types of personalities and behaviors within the group, which enables the group as a whole to sort of solve problems more readily. And of course, in human society, this is, you know, incredibly important and, you know, the types of specialization and generalization of skills are really interesting within societies. And of course, we can start building structure, you know, high **** or multi-level structure within our societies as well, so in addition to having this kind of self-organized behavior that's kind of distributed intelligence, we can also, you know, harness other aspects. And so we're not as prone to these kind of errors as we could be, but of course, there are multiple examples in history of societies really going quite heavily down a distorted path. And so, perhaps, you know, the animals who have evolved to behave within these large societies are less susceptible to such behaviors.

Question: What insights does your research offer into financial bubbles and panics?

Iain Couzin: Yeah, I think that in general, the understanding of sort of complex adaptive systems is becoming increasingly influential in terms of understanding markets and in understanding banking and in understanding how people within these organizations behave, because again, there is a social, a type of social feedback and to sort of emphasize that, you know, we haven't evolved to deal with information coming at these very high rates. And typically, you know, when you're having to make very fast decisions, those decisions tend to be less accurate, on average, and this can lead to sort of a mass sort of deciding factor in the wrong direction sometimes. And so perhaps it’s no surprise that in this sort of modern society when everything is fast, fast, fast, that sometimes you get these cascades of error and very large mistakes being made.

And so I think in general, understanding how communications work and how feedbacks work and how sort of network structure and topologies work in understanding how our own society is a complex system, can indeed shed great light on how these things function.

Recorded on December 15, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Why do some societies seem more conformist than others? And how can all societies avoid the kind of foolish conformity that leads to financial bubbles and panics?

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A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

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Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.