On near and far skill transfer

Note: I wrote this as a response to a comment on one of my articles about how brain games don’t have enough evidence to really back up their claims that they improve general cognition, and it ended up getting weighty enough that I thought it merited its own (slightly edited) blog post.

Most of the confirmed effects of video games on cognition that I know of are near-transfer, mostly on a physically measurable scale. Strengthening hand-eye-coordination is a little more concrete and closer to being near transfer than far transfer, since the skill you’re training by reacting to an enemy on screen (quick response to visual stimuli) is very similar to skills you would need in other quick-response settings.

The problem with cognitive effects of games and other mental activities is that not only are they harder to measure by default, but they’re almost all examples of far transfer, or skill transfer between dissimilar domains. The existence of near transfer tasks, like playing video games and getting better at other video games, seems pretty intuitive, but extending that intuition to far transfer gets pretty hazy. It’s totally possible that playing chess does strengthen a certain part of our brain and leads to something neurologically measurable, but whether that then translates to improved performance at something like math or stock trading is difficult to figure out at best, and most studies so far haven’t found much evidence for it.

For example, here’s a recent meta-analysis on chess and music: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5724589/

So it’s really not just brain training games where the skills are non-transferable, it’s pretty much any cognitive activity. Playing one instrument will probably help you play other instruments better, but maybe it won’t be as helpful for learning Chinese. The issue with brain-training games isn’t that they’re useless, it’s more that they rely on the idea that far transfer works, and the only skill they really build is peoples’ ability to get good at their games. If the skill you want to train is puzzle-solving, you’re good to go; it’ll give you puzzle training + a few other cognitive perk-ups.

General brain activity is pretty scientifically proven to be a good thing (lots of studies have found correlations between high levels of brain activity leading to lower levels of dementia, for example), so brain training games are probably a fine way to keep your brain ticking. If you’re doing brain training hoping it’ll boost your general intelligence and help you pass an exam or something in the future, though, you’re better off just studying that thing. As far as we know, one type of cognitive activity is as good as another, so you might as well just directly target the skill you want.

Actual exercise might actually be a better option for improving overall brain function and memory, though! There’s a big literature coming out these days on how especially cardiovascular activity is strongly linked to better cognition, which points again to a lot of these more general factors being mostly physical, and perhaps marginally affected by cognitive input.

Can moral psychology explain why libertarians are (maybe) bad dancers? (Part 1/2)

 

Part 1/2

Here’s a wacky proposition: where you fit on the political spectrum might be a rough indicator of how you feel about dancing.

Anecdotal evidence comes to mind for every political stereotype, but my flash of inspiration came about one group in particular: libertarians. Aside from James Weeks, that one guy who so well exemplified the time-honored tradition of protest through strip-dancing onstage at the 2014 Libertarian Convention, I’d argue that moral and political psychology has a few things to say about why these strange political animals might not enjoy dancing.

Disclaimer: I am not drawing my premise that libertarians are unwilling dancers from any study or previous research; my evidence thus far is mostly personal experience, but I’d be very interested to see any actual data pertaining to it.

Personally, I’m not much of a mover and shaker on the dance floor, particularly regarding solo, club-style, improvisational body movement. Aside from the fact that I’m just not very good at it, I don’t really get the appeal. Rhythmic body movement is popular and often artistic, but I don’t find it entertaining, unless the music is good enough to be independently interesting. Given that I’m a (small-l, non-dogmatic) libertarian, reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind and subsequently encountering an unwelcome dancing situation was a combination that struck a chord somewhere between my political mind and my socially awkward one.

I’ll make my argument in two parts: the first will summarize some important main points, mostly derived from Jonathan Haidt; the second will apply these ideas to political groups (libertarians in particular).

Politics = Genetics

Haidt, as part of his overall argument for increasing political understanding between groups, makes the case that our political beliefs may be at least partially a product of genetics. It’s fairly well-proven that our brains have some level of hardwiring, and that they can respond differently to the same inputs or seek out different things to light up their reward centers.

If you have a lower native fear response, for example, you’ll tend to be more rewarded by more adventurous activities. If you have a higher fear response, you’ll find more comfort in the known and the stable. Twin studies and other pieces of evidence seem to support the idea that our politics may not be as rationally constructed as we’d like to think in many other areas as well.

Let’s break down the broad claim into two more specific and relevant ideas.

Politics(Morals(genetics))
Politics is a function of morals, which are a function of genetics

Let’s apply this genetic wiring idea to the (highly theoretical) moral and political psychology of dance: Liberals typically score higher on measures of openness and lower on levels of fear–traits that just might push you towards enjoying a night packed in with any number of dubious strangers at the club. Conservatives score high on almost every value Haidt includes in his main six foundations (care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, liberty/oppression. These traits might push you less towards a club and maybe a little more towards a square dance or some other form of less confusing and invasive group bonding. When you value many things, you will tend to have a more tightly constructed view of the world (not necessarily bad; Yin and Yang need each other).

Politics(Morals(brain chemistry(genetics)))
Politics is a function of morals which are a function of brain chemistry which is a function of genetics. 

Also worth mentioning is Haidt’s frequent referral to the brain hormone oxytocin, which is not “the universal cuddle hormone” as it’s been commonly called, but one which plays a critical role in forming in-group attachments and out-group suspicion. Essentially, you generate it by bonding with your group, and it does make you feel more connected–but not to everyone. Working off of my very general knowledge of neuroscience/psychology, I’d theorize that oxytocin has different mechanisms (triggers, production levels, etc) for each individual brain, probably varying to at least some degree with the above-mentioned genetics.

These three things, genetics, their related psychological/moral measures, and oxytocin relate directly to the psychology of group formation and stability, which requires bonding among members. Haidt points out that almost every culture has independently developed rituals of physical bonding in order to strengthen group identity and generally increase a sense of belonging and cooperation. That’s oxytocin and a few other psychological/chemical levers being pulled–most universally, Haidt points out, in the form of dance, which tends to hold similar ceremonial significance across continents, cultures, and times.

These tidbits pulled from The Righteous Mind can now be held up against yet another of Haidt’s projects–this one a paper coauthored with Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, and Peter Ditto: “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Declared Libertarians.”

The paper is worth reading, as libertarians don’t get quite as much academic attention as the mainstream left and right parties. To briefly summarize their three main findings:

  1. Libertarians mostly care about individual liberty. Not so much about Haidt’s other five foundations.
  2. They veer “cerebral” rather than “emotional” in their cognitive styles.
  3. They’re less interdependent and social.

Analyzing responses from a few thousand libertarians, the authors confirmed what we all already suspected: the above three things are pretty accurate when it comes to describing libertarians, or at the very least, how they see themselves (self-reported survey data is at least mostly accurate for that).

In the next post I’ll speculate about how these might work together and be applied speculatively to willingness to dance.

Tl;dr: Jonathan Haidt wrote a book called The Righteous Mind. In part of it, he argues that political beliefs are a function of morals, and that morals can be a function of brain chemistry and structure, which can be a function of genetics.  He also argues that humans are very group-focused, and mentions that dancing is an excellent way of strengthening psychological group bonds through some of the aforementioned avenues.  Some time later, with several coauthors, Haidt produced a paper that specifically applied these insights and survey data to find that libertarians are liberty-focused, cerebral, and less interdependent.  Can we combine these insights to predict how libertarians might feel about dancing? Probably.