Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Children lying = high brain function

A reader sent this older New York Times article on the normal development of lying in children around two years old, including the fact that the vast majority of children lie routinely.

Among some of the findings about children lying, the children who start lying earlier than others are smarter and have better theory of mind (the ability to cognitively put yourself in another's shoes):

Other research has shown that the children who lie have better “executive functioning skills” (an array of faculties that enable us to control our impulses and remain focused on a task) as well as a heightened ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, a crucial indicator of cognitive development known as “theory of mind.” (Tellingly, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is characterized by weaker executive functioning, and those with spectrum disorders such as autism, which are characterized by deficits in theory of mind, have trouble with lying.) Young liars are even more socially adept and well adjusted, according to recent studies of preschoolers.
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Training children in executive functioning and theory of mind using a variety of interactive games and role-playing exercises can turn truth-tellers into liars within weeks, Professor Lee has found. And teaching kids to lie improves their scores on tests of executive functioning and theory of mind. Lying, in other words, is good for your brain.

Of course we all know that sociopaths are clinically bad at affective empathy (the ability to feel another's feelings) but tend to be quite good at cognitive empathy or theory of mind, so perhaps these results should not be surprising.

But what about the fact that lying children (or anybody) is a little creepy and problematic? Again, there are some definite parallels to sociopaths:

For parents, the findings present something of a paradox. We want our children to be clever enough to lie but morally disinclined to do so. And there are times when a child’s safety depends on getting at the truth, as in criminal cases involving maltreatment or abuse. How can we get our children to be honest?

In general, carrots work better than sticks. Harsh punishments like spanking do little to deter lying, research indicates, and if anything may be counterproductive. In one study, Professor Lee and the developmental psychologist Victoria Talwar compared the truth-telling behaviors of West African preschoolers from two schools, one that employed highly punitive measures such as corporal punishment to discipline students and another that favored more tempered methods like verbal reprimands and trips to the principal’s office. Students at the harsher school were not only more likely to lie but also far better at it.

Witnessing others being praised for honesty, meanwhile, and nonpunitive appeals for the truth — for example, “If you tell the truth, I will be really pleased with you” — promotes honest behavior, Professors Lee and Talwar have found.
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You can also simply pay kids to be honest. In research involving 5- and 6-year-olds, Professor Lee and his colleagues attached a financial incentive to telling the truth about a misdeed. Lying earned children $2, while confessing won them anywhere from nothing to $8. The research question was: How much does the truth cost? When honesty paid nothing, four out of five children lied. Curiously, that number barely budged when the payout was raised to $2.

But when honesty was compensated at 1.5 times the value of lying — $3 rather than $2 — the scales tipped in favor of the truth. Honesty can be bought, in other words, but at a premium. The absolute dollar amount is irrelevant, Professor Lee has found. What matters is the relative value — the honesty-to-dishonesty exchange rate, so to speak.

“Their decision to lie is very tactical,” Professor Lee said. “Children are thinking in terms of the ratio.” Smart kids, indeed.


Monday, January 29, 2018

Cairns and Port Douglas in three efficient days

I'm a scuba diver and wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef while it's still there, it's been a childhood dream of mine to hold koalas, and I had like 4-5 days to kill between weekend appointments with people, so I headed up to the northeast to Port Douglas. I stayed at the Port Douglas Motel which was kitschy, cheap, centrally located, and great.

First, heads up. I feel like this is really not well publicized, but although this is a tropical part of Australia, you cannot really safely go swimming in the ocean, or even 100% safely hang out on the beach near bush or near the water particularly at dusk or dawn because (1) there are saltwater crocodiles and (2) all of the summer is "stinger season" in which you can get stung by all sorts of animals.

What are marine stingers?
Stingers are potentially lethal jellyfish that typically inhabit the waters off northern Australia. The most feared is the box jellyfish or Chironex fleckeri. Distinguished by its large box-like bell and trailing tentacles, the box jellyfish is responsible for about 80 confirmed fatalities in Australia since records began in 1883. The jellyfish's bell grows up to 30cm in diameter and extrudes about 60 tentacles, each measuring up to three metres in length. The Irukandji jellyfish, by comparison, is a pint-sized predator with a transparent bell measuring just 12 to 20mm and four small tentacles. There are numerous Irukandji species and two recorded deaths.

I literally only found out about any of this as I was take a shuttle from the airport in Cairns up to Port Douglas. By the way, I really recommend staying in Port Douglas, which is a charming tourist town, rather than Cairns which feels a little like not a place for tourists at all. My shuttle driver was talking to some locals about the two most recent crocodile deaths from the past 6 months -- an older woman who took a wrong turn while on a walk around her retirement home and a German young woman who was know to like to skinny dip.  For the elderly woman, apparently the family of the deceased pleaded with authorities to not kill the animal. Let's not make this a tragedy of two deaths instead of one!

Day one I checked in with my dive company for the next day then rented a bike and went to the Wildlife Habitat, which is a little small and a little kitschy, but also sketchy in all of the right ways like holding koalas and other animals and feeding various animals in a little bit of a free for all. I biked back to the motel via Four Mile Beach (pictured above). The sand is so packed, you can just bike on the beach itself, and probably safer with the crocodiles. At the Port Douglas end of Four Mile Beach, there's a little hill you can climb up to an ok lookout.

Day 2 I did a three dive tour to the outer reef using the ABC Dive Company, which seemed the most reputable and the smallest groups? The trip was nice, there was a shark apparently that I didn't see. I did see a lot of great coral, rays, an eel, a ton of little jellyfish. Basically it really did look like Finding Nemo, which I didn't expect for some reason. I think I had forgotten that Finding Nemo takes place at the Great Barrier Reef, so of course all of the same fish would be there.

Day 3 was not good. I had heard that the other great thing to see is the rainforest. Now this is like my third or fourth (fifth?) time doing tours of the rainforest, including the heart of the Amazon as well as other places in central and south America. I've done a ton of jungle tours and safaris and this one not only sort of sucked, it felt like I was trapped, which made me super grumpy. Daintree Discovery Tours. It was so bad that I was all set to post a bad review of it online, but then I started reading other one star reviews with my same complaints (basically just driving around in a car all day doing nothing of interest or no value added from the tour), and the response from the company was mainly to address the complaint that people had that they could have done the trip much cheaper themselves. The company responded by saying it would actually be around as expensive to do it yourself. But really, I just sort of wish I hadn't done it at all. My general impression was that either Daintree is not that cool of a rainforest to see, or no tour company has been able to highlight its charms well. It's sad, because apparently it is the oldest rainforest in the world? There were interesting things to see, I guess, but like 1-3 hours worth of interesting. Also, same notes as my post on Sydney about the service industry being a little lackluster in Australia. It felt like there was a lot of phoning it in going on.

Day 4 I did this Kurunda package that was pretty good, something like this in which you're basically just shuttled around on a bus from attraction to attraction. There seems to be no difference in the tour operators, so just choose the cheapest one that includes the little destinations you want to see, e.g. yes or no on the butterfly sanctuary. Rainforestation is worth seeing, so is the train and the skyrail. I had this terrible customer service encounter with a skyrail person who was yelling at people. I almost lost it for a second, and it reminded me that I'm for whatever reason most likely to lose my temper while traveling.

I did learn something interesting on the rainforest tour. Mangrove trees (pictured above) can grow in salt, but salt is still poison to them. They adapted a special root system that keeps most of the salt out, but salt still gets in. To keep the rest of the tree alive, the three designates a "sacrificial leaf". It puts all of the toxic salt in that leaf until it is full and then the leaf drops off. The leaf turns yellow.

I thought about how James Fallon has argued that sociopaths exist in society to essentially take care of the "dirty work" that is necessary and unavoidable in our society, work that give normal people PTSD if they had to deal it themselves. Kevin Dutton has made a similar argument about sociopaths being great soldiers, surgeons, and spies, I believe. Anyway, thanks to all of you sacrificial leaves out there taking one for the team!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Tasmania in two days

A funny thing about planning for Australia trip was reading the TripAdvisor forums? People would say things like, how long should I spend in Tasmania, and the response would be like 4-6 weeks is necessary to see everything. Ok, I understand that Tasmanians have a lot of pride about their homeland. And Australians apparently love to be sarcastic? And they also like to have a laugh at others' expense? I have a hard time picking up on sarcasm, but these forums would also just be filled with what I imagined to just be pure misinformation. It made me wonder, who is writing this stuff? I have never visited a place whose TripAdvisor forums were so full of essentially trolls. What is up with that, Tasmanians.

The first couple days I spent at a private residence with my new friend A and her friends. Things I learned are that for some reason it's very easy to get sunburned in Tasmania. Also, we eat freshly slaughtered pigs. Also, eggs always go on toast and get eaten with a knife and fork. Also, the local legal system and local governments seem super corrupt?

There are legitimately road signs warning you to not run over Tasmanian devils, and apparently they are getting close to critically endangered because they're all dying of a contagious mouth cancer that they spread because they're always locking lips and exchanging saliva when they fight. The tumors get so big that the devil actually starves to death.

After hanging out with locals a couple days chatting and getting to know each other, I spent most of my time in Hobart staying in the Argyle Accommodation house, which is patterned after an old boarding house and itself is in a historic building. It's super cheap, nice, and I liked the boarding house vibe, especially since I was up to history on this leg of the trip. The first day in town I went to the Museum of Old and New Art, which is essentially carved three stories into the rock and features extensive collections related to sex and death and sex/death. I recommend taking the ferry, which is a lovely trip up the river.

I also really recommend the Pennicott tours of the Tasman Peninsula, especially if sea cliffs are your jam, like they are with me. You can add on a tour of the Port Arthur prison site. Maybe some of you are more familiar with Australian/UK history than I am, and you can correct any falsehoods I make in the comments or skip what I'm about to say. Australia was a prison colony, I think that's pretty common knowledge. The Industrial Revolution upended the British economy and people who were able to make a decent living in agriculture suddenly found themselves without a marketable skillset. The prisons started swelling and the British first started putting the overflow in beached old ships called "hulks", which apparently were fetid rotting masses of humanity piled on top of each other. But this is how society treats its undesirables. Think Les Miserables and hard labor for stealing food to feed your family. After a few scandals, the British needed somewhere else to send their unwashed masses, so they started forcibly "transporting" them to Australia. If you are familiar with the story of Sweeny Todd, you know that he was fortunate enough to escape and get back to England, although most people who were transported spent the rest of their life away from their homeland and friends and family. Men had it rough, ok, but women prisoners were like forcibly raped the whole time and blamed for being sluts and getting extended prison sentences because of it.

But where do you send the truly badees? They chose the island of Tasmania as a prison within a prison for the hard cases, specifically the isolated end of the Tasman Peninsula at Port Arthur. At its heyday, they guarded against escape by literally setting up a string of angry dogs about every five feet across the most narrow stretch of land connecting the Peninsula.

At various points in the history of the prison, prison conditions were ok and not so ok. The worst was when prison reformers decided that physical punishments only made criminals more hardened, so the key was to go after them psychologically. I'm not 100% sure how he is involved, but utilitarian wunderkind Jeremy Bentham is credited as the origins of these ideas (also invented the prison design the Panopticon.)

What they got up to, then, is the "separate system" or model prison in which all prisoners are kept in isolation of each other. When they go anywhere outside their cell, they wear masks. They exercise in little individual one person yards for a short period, all alone (see photo below). Everything they do is done alone. Even when they go to church, there are walls separating each little seat so they cannot see their fellow man. One thing I read suggested that this came in part from I believe Calvinist beliefs that when bad men associated with other bad men, they got worse, so the key to their rehabilitation was making sure that they were kept apart. The result was a huge spike in the number of insane convicts, such that they had to build an actual asylum right next to the separate prison.  You can see the separate prison and the asylum has been converted into a little cafe.

This was my second prison tour on my little travels (the first, Alcatraz, I'll come back around to that), but this one I took more personally. I was astounded by the hubris of the people handling the welfare of these people. I was a little disgusted with how callously society treated them. These men and women were allegedly wrongdoers, but what was done to them seemed in every case so much worse than what they did. In the prisons were little stories of the prisoners. One was Leonard Hand, sentenced to 15 years after attempted sodomy. He was later punished inside for using pages from a bible to communicate with another prisoner named James White in a way that was characterized as being "of an abominable and disgusting character". After he was sent to the separate prison, his mind deteriorated until he became "childish and silly". He died aged 24, socially undesirable.

There were many other prisoners whose seemed clear victims of circumstance. And then there were others whose personality traits I recognized as being sociopathic, even in the brief descriptions. For instance, Henry Laing, a skilled surveyer who caught the eye of the Governer's wife, Lady Jane Franklin. Lady Franklin described Laing as "a very handsome man . . . who has the disease of picking and stealing and seems to labour under (an) absolute ability to do otherwise". But as I was reading this and other descriptions of my sociopathic brothers and sisters I wondered, aren't they also victims of circumstances?

When you ask the question of who was this prison meant to serve, the answer if clear in its histories -- it was meant to isolate people whom society would rather ignore away from the normal people that did not want to have to deal with them in person or even think of them anymore. 
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