Quantitative Psychological Theory and Musings

Friday, February 26, 2010


"Prozac and Celexa Exhibit Anti-Inflammatory Effects" is the headline in a Science Daily article today. 

This is conclusion is well within my paradigm. My paradigm says that risk aversion increases as mood decreases.  Anxiety, being an expected loss, lowers mood, which is the net rate of intake of reinforcement.  This serves the purpose of minimizing further losses of resource intake necessary for biological functioning.  The subjective value of losses increases, including those involving physical injury, as all gains and losses are translated into mood.

Given evidence, such that anxiety can worsen muscle spasms,which is well-known, and that spasms serve to protect inflamed areas of the body, to protect against further injury and/or facilitate repair, this isn't surprising.  Of course, we also know that stress can lower pain thresholds, conrolling for adrenaline spikes.

This is an example, not only of poor reporting, but of what seems to be the problem in the fields of the study of brain and behavior.  Most researchers don't seem to have an over-arching paradigm, such as the economics of behavior to guide them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Definition of Insanity? No.

I often hear the quote, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result."  It is attributed to Einstein everywhere I look, but I wouldn't be surprised if Einstein weren't serious when the statement was uttered.  On the other hand, he did reject the uncertainty principle.

The definition, it is wrong in two ways.  First, insanity is neurological.  Second, even when people seem to be doing the same thing over and over, there are understandable reasons why they are.  They reflect the challenges all normal brains routinely face.

What are these challenges?  I submit that the tasks brains are engaged are often much more complex than seems commonly perceived.  All stimuli, or everything our senses can detect, become predictors for goal attainment, but usually not immediately.  A process of generalization is needed, even across seemingly unrelated contexts such as different rooms in a house, or even different states of mind.  For example, school children who test in the room they learn the material in perform better on average than those who are tested in a different  room. 

But, what if the predictive context is large and varied?  Apply the counting rules in probability, and the complexity of even a "simple" task is revealed.   For example, consider a mother who needs help from three kids raking the yard, and one to vaccum the house, simultaneously.  Apply the permutation rule, and there are 24 different ways to assign the children to these tasks.  That is, (4)(3)(2)(1) = 24.  Of course, some permutations are more helpful than others, and an educated guess might mean mom can narrow down the relevant possibilities.  Still, choosing the optimal permutation(s) can be very difficult, if not nearly impossible given practical limitations.

Of course, the number of permutations, which I sometimes call the permutation space, because I think it sounds cool, can be much, much greater(See other examples in the link above).  Numbers can even easily get into the trillions and much higher still.  Thsi is especially true when permuation spaces are dynamic, such as in the stock market, or in social relationships.  Perhaps this is a fundamental reason, along with the status quo bias and some other factors, investors often lose money seemingly employing the same strategies each time, or wives stay with abusive husbands, in many cases, trying many ways to stay with the abuser while trying to keep him calm.  The actual, "blind" dynamic permutation space can be terribly, and indeed, incalculably vast, but the situation is sometimes even worse when the perceived permutation space is smaller than the actual one.

So, here is another reason people have trouble escaping from behavioral ruts.  It is due to a phenomenon known as blocking in behavioral psychology,  functional fixedness(here too) in cognitive psychology, and another term in AI I don't presently recall.  This is the case in which a previously learned association prevents the learning of new ones.  These can occur due to explicit learning, such as failing to learn how to hit a curve ball, because you're so used to hitting other types of pitches, or due to implicit learning, even by forming associations from information already in one's head.  Such implicit processes are symmetric and transitive

Symmetry is a statement of equivalence, involving the recognition that two different elements are in fact at least functionally substitutable, in certain ways or in certain contexts.  For example, cars and trucks are different in certain ways, but each are equivalent in the sense that they both provide transportation.  Believing symmetries exist where they do not, or failing to recognize them when they do can obviously create problems in finding optimal paths to certain goals.

Transitivity can be summed up symbolically with:  If a = b, and b = c, then a also = c.  This may seem tivial, but it just takes symmetry a step further.  The recognition that a previously recognized two element equivalence is in fact a three element equivalance.  Of course, such perceptions can always be wrong.  Incidentally, brains can make such associations without need of conscious effort, and these tendencies are features of the nature of neural networks.  This is the stuff of imagination.

So, to summarize, vast permuations spaces can mean that a decision maker can be lost trying what they perceive to be new ways of obtaining the same goal.  As if this weren't problematic enough, they may also be limiting their choices within a range of permutations that not only may fial to  yield optimal results, but that may continually yield very bad ones.  They may fail to see similarities between similar situations either due to blocking, or simply as a matter of time and energy constraints.  They may likewise see situations as similar, when they are not.  Is it any wonder people get trapped in certain modes of behavior?

Emotions Defined

Well, behavioral economically, anyway.

What are emotions?  Emotions are reactions to changes, both past, present, and future, with the ultimate implicit goals of enhancing inclusive fitness, or at least defend adaptive homeostasis.  The latter refers to preventing a worsening of the situation for an organism capable of emotional responses, with respect to resource intake.

How many emotions are there?  Well, I personally identify eight, including anger, joy, laughter, sadness, fear/anxiety, guilt, shame, and disgust.  I'll break each of these down one at a time.

Anger involves a violation of expectations coupled with a loss.  Since expectations determine behavioral investment, any violation thereof necessarily entails a loss.  Also, obviously, it means that relevant expectations were unrealistic.  I will write more on expectations, which involves learning theory in a later post.  The exemplar experimental reference interpreted as resulting in this model can be found here.

So, the severity of an anger response is in some proportion to the subjective value of the unrewarded behavioral investment, with subjective value outlined here and here.   As well-established concept demands, anger can be "pent up", as can any reinforcing behavior in which expression is restricted.

The purpose of anger is to motivate the punishment of social wrongs, to prevent their reoccurance.  Displays of angry violence toward inanimate targets represents an evolutionary overhang, or a behavior adaptive in prehistoric environments, but not modern ones.  More specifically, there were far fewer opportunities for the inanimate to violate expectations for most of our prehistory.  The angrier one is, the more implicit memory is dominates over the explicit, at the expense of target discrimination.  Hence, violent attacks on soda machines, for example.

Another example of target indiscriminance is the typical, often externally unheard, verbal assaults on inconsiderate drivers.  This is obviously a wasteful activity even when heard by the offending driver, as in urban environments, strangers are unlikely to be encountered twice.  The benefit of adaptive punishment is lost. 

This social sensitivity with respect to strangers is due to the way we lived for most of our 200,000 or so years as a species.  There was presumably less mobility, sans modern travel techology, so strangers were probably far less frequently encountered and those met were likely to be dealt with for many years.  Punishment made sense.

To move on, joy is the flipside of anger.  It involves an unexpected gain.  Hence, the socially rewarding expression is displayed with an energy in some proportion to the newly realized "surplus" in overall intake of reward(lifted mood).  This serves the purpose of reinforcing the behavior of others that enhance inclusive fitness.  For evidence of increased motivation after unexpected reward, look here.

Now with laughter, there is merely a violation of expectations.  There is no net gain or loss associated, although the magnitude of the novelty factor can mean that a laughter response is merely the dominate among those of competing emotions. 

The presumed benefit is in the social signal that there was no gain or loss associated with violated expectations.  To illustrate in everyday terms, laughter sends an important social signal when it comes from the listener of a joke that could be taken offensively.  There is also the case in the situation in which a cared loved one unexpectedly falls down.  There is laughter in absence of perceived injury, to the inverse degree of preceived severity. There is otherwise concern, which is a signal of social value.  Similarly, when unexpected falls occur during a comedic performance, laughter ensues given the unlikelihood of injury.  Finally, cruel laughter sends the signal that the suffering of another isn't valued. 

This conception of laughter was original to me, but not within the field of behavioral research(1).  The concept may have originated with the philosopher Kant.

Now, sadness is elicited when there is a past(currently experienced), current, or future unavoidable loss.  This represents a "shortage" with respect to required intake of resources.  The expression of sadness, including crying, elicits sympathy and help from social allies to get needs met that may otherwise go unmet. 

I offer that the relative reluctance of men to cry could have to do with mate competition, but also social alliance against physical threats, and toward gainful physical cooperation.  In short, crying can be a sign of social weakness in men.  Women, on the other hand, are more likely to form mutually supportive networks with less physical competition and obviously more cooperation.  Children cty more than adults, due to the relative inability to meet their own needs, when not used as a manipulative ploy.

Fear and anxiety involve expected losses that are perceived possibly avoidable.  Possible losses often took the form of physical threats from both animal preditors and conspecifics(other people) in our extensive prehistory.  One implication is that the  fear of predation underlies sleep difficulties for the anxious, including lighter sleep and of shorter duration.  The presumed advantage is in the ability to rapidly ramp up physical arousal against night preditors.  Thus, those with sleep panic attacks often leap out of bed and land on their feed with fists clenched before they even realize what has happened.  Anxious insomniacs are often frequently occupied thinking of various ways of avoiding potential losses.

In the modern context, the levels of fear and anxiety experienced, as well as the nature of the triggers, are often inappropriate.  One can take the example of the fear of loss of face when getting anxious around srangers, in absence of any long term social consequences in most cases.

Guilt as I conceive it is simply an opportunity cost, with respect to actions taken or forgone.  It is felt when a loss to oneself, or to others that are perceived to enhance adaptive fitness is realized.  Regret is very much related.

Shame occurs in proportion to a social loss of face.  It sends the social signal that the disapproval of one's actions matters to the offending person.  It can also signal an understanding of the nature of the offense.  Shame is very much like embarrassment, but the latter does not involve a perceived loss of face, at least intitially.  It is pre-consequential evaluation.

Quickly, disgust is a response stimuli(anything that our sensse can detect) associated with either harmful germs and/or toxic substances.  The gag reflex is one of the allied reflexes that serves the purpose of ejecting harmful material in the process of consumption.  Associated differentiated facial expressions send social warning signals on the points above.  Naturally, disgust motivates the avoidance of noxious material.

Now, as a general note, as alluded to in the paragraphs on laughter, emotions can compete for simultaneous expression.  The screaming demons model very much applies here, which is general feature of competing behaviors, including thoughts.  This means that essentially, two or more emotions can be triggered at more or less the same time, with the experience and expression there of a difference between that of the greatest magnitude and that of the next greatest.  Competing emotional responses can decay at differential rates, largely depending on the frequency of repeated , but varying triggers as a result of continued evaluation and influx of new information. 

Hence, there can be net laughter, or net anger.  It is commonly observed that laughter can often follow anger.
This can happen when the associated loss fades, perhaps due to compensatory gains.  In that case, the importance of the mere novelty of the outcome becomes dominant, leading to net laughter.

Likewise, anxiety can be increasingly replaced with fear as an unexpected loss is perceived as increasingly unavoidable.  Joy can become anger, as when what one thinks is a good deal on a car intially, later is found to be relatively expensive. 

I should also mention satiation, which seems to have its own emotional experience and expressions attached, though I wouldn't personally refer to it as an emotion.  When satiated, regardless of prior expectations, there tends to be a shift toward lower physiological arousal, as evidenced in a sigh, which presumably brings breathing to a slower rhythm.

As reasoned in my posts on mood linked to in the second paragraph above, mood modulates the magnitude of emotional responses.  Lower moods augment negative emotion, and the reverse is true for positive ones.

I hope this post isn't too long, disorganized, or jargon-filled to be enjoyable.  I will perhaps offer a simpler post on this subject in the very near future.  I will also add more references to this post when time allows.

Update:  I've added some references in links above for laughter, as well as the following citation:

1. Nerhardt, G. Humor and inclinations of humor: Emotional reactions to stimuli ofdifferent divergence from a range of expectancy. Scandinavian Journal ofPsychology. 1970, 11, 185-195.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mood, this Time with Feeling (Simpler)

I've decided to delay my first post about emotions to address continued feedback about the complexity of my original post on mood.  I acknowledge it was bad taste on my part to begin with such an entry first off.  I hope to correct that here earlier than planned..

So to jump right in, what is mood?  Mood is the net rate of intake of reinforcement, past, current, and future, discounted for time.  To break this sentence down, "reinforcment" in this case refers to anything that is pleasurable and is needed or wanted, minus the costs of obtaining it, which can include energy or effort expended, or any punishment that must be suffered in the process.   It is the pleasure that one experiences in a given moment minus any displeasure.  The displeasure can be any energy, effort, punishment or other costs for obtaining the pleasure  There is a time dimension to this, as more distant expected pleasurable experiences are valued less than those that will occur more immediately.

To dig deeper, there is a minimum amount of certain resources the body needs to function, such as energy, nutrients, water, and even social interactions and there is the amount of each available to you.
In psychological terms, the resources we need are things we don't have to learn to like, which are referred to as unconditioned reinforcers(URs).  These include the items mentioned above, along with things such as sugar or sex.  There are also conditioned reinforcers(CRs), which are simply things you can detect that predict the eventual receipt of unconditioned reinforcers.  For example, you aren't born appreciating dollar bills, but learn to like them due to the things you can purchase with them.  I just introduce these terms to readers less familiar with psychology, as they may appear in later posts.  By the way, psychologists refer to anything we can detect as "stimuli" or a "stimulus" in the singular.

As a brief note, notice that in the definition given above, I even include past intake.  This is the recognition that not only can past pleasureable or displeasurable events be remembered, but it is actually a longer term average of mood levels that, along with present and expected future intake of peasure or pain, bias current reactions to events that temporarily change mood.  For example, someone with long term depression can occasionally smile, but their longer term average mood state llimits the amount of pleasure they can experience now, while making displeasurable experiences more severe. 

Neurobiologically(skip this, unless interested), this is facilitated by the death of cells in the hippocampus in the brain, which are required to lower levels of stress hormones in the body after displeasurable events.  With higher average mood levels over enough time, these cells regenerate.  This just gives an idea of the kind of motivational inertia low average moods demand, and is very much related to depression.

Mood shapes how we value things.  The relative amount of value we place on pleasurable experiences are less when mood is lower compared to the value placed on displeasurable ones. In the absolute sense however, lower mood leads to greater values of both pleasure and displeasure, but the latter to a greater degree(change at a greater rate, with mood decreases).  Similary, higher moods lead to the opposite case. 

The basic concept is very simple.  The more of something you have, generally the less of that something you want or need.  And of course, the reverse is true.  To use a familiar example, if you are eating potato chips, the hungrier you are, the less likely you are to share chips.  But no matter how hungry you are, if you have enough chips, you will be willing to share them.  The same is true with money, of course, as first outlined by Daniel Bernoulli quite some time ago.

I will now briefly present a curve, which has the same shape as the one in the Bernoulli link above, to clarify the way mood affects how we value units of pleasure and displeasure(gains and losses):

Ignore the equation in this graph, unless interested, in which case you can learn more here and here.

You notice above the now familar term "reinforcement",a nd then and "reponse rate."  Perhaps not surprisingly, net reinforcement(again, pleasure - displeasure), should determine how much of our resources, such as time, energy, etc., we invest in a given behavior.  Hence, you see the relationship between a response rate and reinforcement rate, the former of which can also be considered simply as energy expenditure.

This sort of curve would also fit the relationship between the subjective values placed on gains and losses(pleasure and displeasure) and those on objective gains and losses, the latter if not for the influence of mood.  Replace "reinforcement rate" on the horizontal axis with "objective gains and loss values" and "response rate" with "subjective gains and loss values" on the vertical.  Now consider any point on this curve to correspond to a specific mood level. 

Whether you think about it or not, every behavior you engage in involves a prior calculation of expected gain - expected loss, in the objective sense.  A gain will move mood up on the curve and a loss, down on the curve.  So, the subjective difference between an expected gain and loss changes depending on the mood level.  Moving up on the curve means that both gains and losses are valued less, and the difference is greater in favor of net gains, compared to objective gains and losses.  Similarly, moving down on the curve means that both subjective gains and losses grow in value, but those of losses more quickly.  .

So, mood is like a general currency in which all pleasure and displeasure is converted. You can refer to the net units of mood, or pleasure - displeasure, .as units of reinforcement, or use the terms economists use, such as utils or even units of demand. You can even just use "units of pleasure". It's not really imporant, unless trying to discuss these concepts with people in related fields.

To sum up, this is very similar to the income effect, in which the higher the monetary income, the less you value each additional dollar earned, all else being equal.  For example, see the curve below:

Utility is the same as net pleasure for our purposes, or you can say "net motivation." 

This final illustration makes it easy to consider some effects of changes in mood.  When mood decreases, there is a shift in preference toward more "profitable" behaviors.  These include the things that bring us the most pleasure, quickest.  Good examples are sex, recreational drugs, and high calorie foods containing fat and sugar.  It is perhaps anecdotally clear that when we feel down, we are more susceptible to sexual seduction, drinking alcohol, or eating comfort foods.  This is just as a company that becomes less profitable begins to shift resources to more profitable operations, cutting or eliminating less profitable ones.  There is generally a need for more income, or a higher rate of intake of resources.  You may also realize that this explains why people who are depressed also have more trouble delaying gratification with implications for procrastination, among other difficulties.  Perhaps it is also clear why negative emotional responses are more severe when mood is low.
Speaking of depression, the above now gives us a good model.  Depression is a motivational trap in which as mood decreases, again, the subjective values of gains and losses both increase, but those of losses more quickly.  Hence, the seeming confusion resulting when there is a greater desire or need to engage in certain behaviors, but less motivation to do so.  This is seen particularly in many depressed patients, especially women, who may not seek sex as much when depressed, but may be more likely to engage in it when offered with relatively less effort required.  On the other hand, some become more aggressive when seeking sex, if the costs of doing so are sufficiently low.  From a prescriptive point of view, this supports the need for psychotropic drugs to help pull patients out of this often self-feeding motivational trap.  This should increase the ability of patients to then invest their time and other resources (including attention) in counseling for greater benefit.

Finally, why do we have mood and why does it work this way?  Well, these mood-related effects help motivate us to conserve more of our resources the lower the availability of them becomes.  Though it may seem maladaptive for the brain to work this way, and it is in the modern environment, in an environment of relative scarcity it makes a lot of sense.  Such environments are those we inhabited within the stereotypical hunter-gatherer groups for our 200,000 year prehistory. 

I hope I avoided getting too technical here, while offering enough information to explain this conception of mood.  I will appreciate any feedback on my success in his sense.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Early Blog Feedback

Some of the early feedback on this blog mentions the need to present my perspectives in simpler terms, so that the less-familiar will be able to easily follow.  I am aware of this problem and will soon move to a phase with much simpler posts.  I am not trying to be a jargon head!

I am just trying to initially lay the foundations for the ideas and issues that will be discussed here over time.  Hence, I have to balance relative simplicity with relative completeness, and the latter unfortunately must currently dominate.  But, this is only for a short time.

Future posts will include simpler presentations of these foundations with applications in addressing subjects such as perspectives on related news, depression, self-esteem, anhedonia, personality, suicide, abnormal psychology, learning, and evolutionary context, to offer a quick list.  I hope early readers will be patient with me a bit longer while I finish these denser posts.

The Role of Neurotransmitters in Mood and Motivation

Here I will describe the basic relationships between mood, motivation, and neurotransmitters as an extension of the model of mood and motivation offered in my first post to this blog.  I will not offer many links to research on well-established phenomena, such as the role of 5-HT serontonin in mood.

5-HT serotonin is the proxy for mood in my models.  It is the neurotransmitter reponsible for the negatively- accelerated curve that represents mood-related net motivation and feelings of positive affect.  This involves the relationship between objective and subjective weights on gains and losses in the risk-averse(80% of people) genotypes.  Incidentally, risk neutral curves are linear and risk-seeking positively hyperbolicly accelerating. 

As previously mentioned, the subjective values of both gains and losses increase as serotonin decreases, and this effect is reflected in the changes that occur in dopaminergic activity.  More specifically, there is an inverse relationship between serotonergic and dopaminergic activity.  As dopamine is well-established as the facilitating neuromodulator of arousal, the Yerkes-Dodson law demonstrates the relationship between dopamine functioning and net motivation(task performance) with some precision. Hence, the relationship between serotonin and dopamine as it relates to motivation is also well-established. 

It should also be noted that this relationship also underlies increased severity of negative emotional responses when dopamine is increased without antecedant increases in serotonin.  This is witnessed in those who consume stimulants such as cocaine, but can be attenuated at times by the increases in serotonin, in a reverse of the typical cause/effect relationship.  When negative affect is triggered in this case, emotional responses such as anger will sometimes lead to violent expression.  The effect of relative dopamine levels or genotypic sensitivity can be modeled by the addition of a multiplier to the equation for net motivation(call it "d").

To move onto the roles of other neurotransmitters, opiods are proxies for gains, with decreased arousal; decreased GABA for losses for fear/anxiety(expected risks/losses), with concomitant increased arousal(dopamine).

It is by now clear what the roles of the above neurotransmitters are and how they interact to determine mood and motivation.  Effects on specific emotional responses will be addressed in a later post.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

About This Blog

I don't know much about blogging. As the gap in time between my first and this post illustrates, I haven't previously had much interest. I now hope to use this forum to share what I suspect are some unique perspectives on human behavior, from a behavioral economic point of view.

The topics addressed here will at times touch upon nearly every aspect of the human experience and posit answers to long pondered mysteries. Topics will include learning, the nature of mood and emotions, motivation, and the many implications. My goal will be to try to avoid making my posts overly complex, but sufficiently detailed to properly convey ideas as precisely and completely as relevant. I ask that any readers let me know how successful I am in this regard.

Many readers will find that my approach involves a very different way of thinking about why we behave as we do. Hence, it is important to approach this blog with an open mind if you're to appreciate the ideas expressed here.

Update: I will be improving the number and quality of references, as needed.  On the later, I will replace single references merely consistent with my models, with examplar papers, reviews, and meta-analyses.  This is a time consuming process and I want to get most posts before returning to these matters.