Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Role of Reward and Punishment in Society

In our society these days it is considered wrong to hit a child. Parents, teachers and educators are taught not to use physical force against children. Why is that?

As we grow up we constantly learn. We learn new skills, we learn proper behavior, and we learn to adopt the right perspective and attitude towards events in our lives. This extensive learning process, which is more important to children than to adults must be goaded. This means that children will not fully exploit their learning potential on their own; we must guide them through the process and sometimes do something to prod them back on the right course. Whatever action we take, we do so for the benefit of the children and insofar as the child is unhappy and disapproving of our action, it is their shortsightedness that leads them to believe that we are acting against their interests. When they grow up, they will realize that our actions during their childhood turned out to have been constructive. If they never come to that realization, then our actions turn out not to have had the proper effect because if the child never comes to consider our action beneficial to them then it is not beneficial to them.

For example: A gold-rusher in 1847 is leaving his relatively secure city life behind and is embarking on the Oregon trail with little provisions. He endures all the hardships of the journey west with the hopes of finding gold and getting rich quickly. If he finds gold and gets rich, then the hardship was all worthwhile; if he doesn't find gold and he doesn't get rich, then the journey was not worthwhile regardless of how we as historians or observers view it. Even if we now say that his journey has turned out to be a benefit to society in general, it is abundantly clear that it was no benefit to the person undergoing the hardships back then unless he found gold and if he could "reverse" his westward journey he would. Likewise, a child must himself come to realize when he grows up that his early "hardships" in the form of punishments and goading have turned out to be beneficial. Otherwise, those action are not beneficial to him regardless of what we think (from an ideal point of view).

Some examples where punishment is clearly wrong according to these criteria.

* The child is not smart enough to learn the desired behavior. Since he won't change anyway, the action turns out to have been in vain. If a person does not recognize the value of gold then you cannot convince him to make the journey westward and the journey cannot possibly be beneficial to him.

* The child could learn the very same behavior through more benign means. Why endure a painful westward journey to find gold if you can find gold in your backyard?

* The child remains resentful about his adverse circumstances for an extended period of time. The gold-rusher expects to get rich quickly. If he doesn't see the benefits soon enough, then it's not worth it even if the benefits materialize eventually (there's only so much that he's willing to sacrifice for the gold).

Remember, punishment is an artificial way of teaching. The natural way of teaching is simply to present the benefits associated with the desired behavior. There's nothing wrong with utilizing this artificial method of teaching as long as it meets the aforementioned criteria: the child is learning in the process, there is no easier way of doing it and the child does not consider it punishment for very long.

Monday, May 16, 2005


According to Jean Piaget, cognitive development occurs when our experiences throw our schemes into disequilibrium. We then use assimilation (absorption of new information into our current mindset) and accommodation (modification of our current mindset to be compatible with the new information) to bring our schemes back into equilibrium.

However, psychologists have noted that the "problem of the match" interferes with proper development. Events and learning material have to be stimulating enough to cast our minds into disequilibrium to some extent; otherwise they will be considered boring. On the other hand, if they are overstimulating then we are unable to properly make sense of them or even process those experiences altogether and learning can therefore not take place.

The implications of the matching principle are comprehensive and very applicable to many situations in life. Keep in mind two important rules of thumb: Rule 1: if you are a reasonably intelligent grown-up, you are looking forward to moderate simulations and they are therefore considered to be healthy. Rule 2: a major stimulation is not only unhealthy but it is often not even realistic to look forward to one. Take a simple example: You receive an email that you have won the Sweepstakes and all you have to do is print out the email message, come down to their headquarters and walk out with a cool 10 million dollars. The problem is that you don't remember ever entering any sweepstakes contest and the authentication process also seems too simplistic. Lastly, it just seems too good to be true; was I really randomly chosen out of the millions of contestants? It turns out that these kind of email messages are complete nonsense. They are simply trying to get your attention about some product and thereby enter you into the sweepstakes or they are trying to swindle you out of money or "phish" your information. If I receive such a message, I would usually delete it immediately; I wouldn't even bother reading the entire message unless I've got nothing else to do and I'm just curious to see what it's all about. Why would I not bother? Because it's an overstimulation. Overstimulating events occur extremely rarely in an intelligent person's life and in this particular case it seems to me that this event has never taken place altogether; it is pure fantasy.

Now let's contrast this with a notification I receive that I had won the drawing for the first-prize "bayliner" awarded to all poker players at the Borgata in the month of May 2005. I am totally not expecting to win but I nonetheless consider it a possibility in the back of my mind in accordance with my current "scheme" of the Borgata. Therefore, if I receive such notification, I will readily believe that I did win the bayliner, not just because I'd love to believe that I did but because I can reasonably expect this notification to be real. It is therefore ironic but true that the best fantasy for me to cherish is not the grandest but the most realistic. Since all fantasies have some basis in reality, I would rather think about something that I know could happen if I am extremely lucky than something I know could not possibly happen. I can foresee myself in ten years from now being graduated from college, holding a decent-paying job, having a family and having published a book. These are Utopian goals but they are within grasp. However, if I would think about the possibility of being millionaire, a senator, and a womanizer in ten years from now I would be deluding myself outright and that is counterproductive. Such events are overstimulation and they just won't come to pass no matter how hard I try.

Note that these rules of thumb hold true for the flip side of the coin as well. I can imagine myself in ten years from now having blown all my savings in gambling and having made no social, familial or sexual progress. This is a bleak outlook which is unlikely but possible. But the idea that I will be "starving" for food and that I will not be able to afford my rent in addition to the social problems is just too far-fetched for me to seriously consider it. Such events are "overstimulating" so-to-speak (it's really just the opposite); I am therefore not prepared for them and I see no need or utility to prepare for them.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Human Evolution

The course of human evolution is as follows:

macromolecules combine to form prokarytotic cells.
prokaryotes develop into eukaryotes
individual eukaryotic cells combine to form individual members of a population. Cells are no longer independent; they work in concert with other cells to promote the well-being of the individual through "division of labor". individual wellfare now supersedes the population wellfare. sun energy is utilized to fuel the processes required in order to sustain this highly-complex form of life.
organisms develop moblitiy organs. Mobility greatly increases chances of survival. for the first time, life is manifested in the form of animals as opposed to just plants. (plants are not mobile).
organisms utilize "ready-to-go" sources of energy instead of having to sythesize their energy from the sun; they consume lower, less powerful species of life. division of labor now includes a mouth to consume food and other sensory organs designed to facilitate detection of food. the brain allows the organsim to "process" sensory input and accordingly issue commands to other body organs to.
organisms emigrate from sea to land. No longer restricted to the sea, they can now look for food sources on land. Warm-blooded animals develop.
mammals are distinguished by their mammary glands designed to nourish their young while they experience a highly complex learning process required in order to reach full mammal capacity. The learning process is sort of a mini-evolution during which the child briefly experiences all primitive stages of the organism's evolution. Mammals require a longer developing period and so the young are highly dependent on their parents. They are able to climb trees and/or fly to reach food inaccessible to lower organisms and to avoid danger.

Australopithecus (a hominid species) walks upright. This frees the hands to utilize tools and to carry food for long distances.

Homo features an enlarged brain. Being able to process more complex sensory input quickly and to retain this info in long term memmory is a significant enhancement to survival. Humans have sacrificed other characteristics essential for success such as a strong sense of smell and wings to fly or swim in favor of the increased ability to process information and devise highly complex solutions accordingly, a feature commonly called "intelligence". Homo Sapiens is the most adaptive living species in our solar system and from our observation (that life evolves from the primitive to the more advanced) we can safely infer that we are the most advanced species ever to live in our solar system.

What is our next evolutionary stage and why is it important for us to try to predict it? Having an idead of what the next evolutionary stage will be allows us to prepare and facilitate its realization. The more prepared we are for it mentally the easier it is for us to accept it and move on to the next level of existence.

* enlargement of the brain. There are plenty of resources out there that we can use to enhance our survival but we must be able to figure out how to best utilize those resources and the brain allows us to do just that. Future humans will therefore have a bigger brain relative to the rest of their body.
* bigger body. Hominids have been growing in size ever since and is therefore assumed that this trend will continue.
* ability to walk and run quicker and possibly the adaptation of our hands for flight or other activities. It is remarkable that we are quite a slow-moving species. It seems that we have forgone the development of our legs in favor of brain development. Eventually leg development will catch up.
* ability to read, write and talk faster. There is no question that future humans will be able to perform all three of these vital human tasks more efficiently and that includes doing it faster while expending less energy.
* longevity. We have seen that human life expectancy has increased over the centuries and we therefore assume that this trend will continue.
* longer childhood and adolescence. a longer developmental period by definition means that once we complete the development process we are more adaptive to our environment and it is therefore directly correlated with an enhanced existence, expected in future humans.
* ability to stay awake longer and to eat less frequently. We see that current human infants lack of these abilities but acquire them later in life as they grow up. We therefore assume that we will increase these abilities on the species level as time rolls on.
* visual acuity and versatility. Vision, more than our other senses has recently emerged as a much more important sense relative to other senses. Imagine a person living in the industrial age when physical activity was most important. Given the right technology it is relatively easy to develop work procedures that allow a blind person to perform just as well on the job as the sighted person. Now, in the information age, it all depends on information and since 98% of the information we gather and store in our brain is based on eyesight, it is therefore crucial that we develop better eysight. Better eyesight includes the ability to see in the dark, the ability to see from far away and the ability to read for an extended period of time without tiring the eyes.
*better math skills. Unlike other scientific aptitudes, math is abstract and hypothetical and therefore more distinctly human than other disciplines. As humans we therefore expect to develop this ability further.