Tuesday 26 January 2016

Information is typically dense and continuous (A Purple Peril)

Optic flow is everywhere, all the time (same with other energy arrays, like the acoustic array). We depend on this fact deeply. When we are cast adrift from information, our behaviour quickly accumulates errors and strays in often disastrous ways. One example is the case of friction, which doesn't exist until two surfaces are in contact and therefore does not create information about itself that is available ahead of that contact. In another example, when cut off from landmarks, people walk in huge circles, getting seriously lost and confused; Souman, Frissen, Sreenivasa & Ernst, 2009). A simple version of this is the game of walking with your eyes closed; you quickly lose all confidence about where you are and what's happening and it's actually very difficult to make yourself walk at normal speed. 

The Perilous proposal is that behaviour emerges in real time, as a function of the current flow of information, and that this flow is typically dense and continuous, not intermittent. I will illustrate this with an example of two designed sets of instructions for navigating though a building, where the dense information set leads to better, more stable behaviour.

Thursday 21 January 2016

A Quick Review and Analysis of Perceptual Control Theory

Perceptual Control Theory (PCT; Powers, 1973) is a theory that proposes behaviour is about the control of perception. We act so as to keep some perceived part of the world at some state, and it's by doing this to sensible variables that we come to exhibit functional behaviour. People have noted the seeming overlap between PCT and the ecological approach, and it's advocates (mainly Richard Marken and Warren Mansell) all talk about it in revolutionary terms that should also feel a bit familiar.

I first encounted it in the context of an interview with Richard Marken on a now defunct blog (pdf of the archived pagelink to page and scroll down to "Interview with Richard Marken"). Marken and I got into it a bit in the comments, as you will see! I was not impressed. However, Mansell & Marken (2015) have just published what they pitch as a clear exposition of what PCT actually is and how it works. I took the opportunity to read this and evaluate PCT as a 'grand theory of behaviour'.

My basic opinion has not changed. PCT is not wrong in most of it's basic claims, but it has no theory of information or how that information comes to be made or relate to the dynamics of the world. It's an unconstrained model fitting exercise, and it's central ideas simply don't serve as the kind of guide to discovery as a good theory should. Ecological psychology does a much more effective job of solving the relevant problems. 

Wednesday 6 January 2016

Tasks from the First Person Perspective (A Purple Peril)

The great snare of the psychologist is the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report. I shall hereafter call this the ‘psychologist’s fallacy’ par excellence.
William James, The Principles of Psychology
This is a video of a baby trying bacon for the first time. The baby gets really really excited, and everyone around him goes 'Ha! Babies love bacon as much as the rest of us, this is great!'. And everyone laughs and cheers.

Except here's the thing. I think what this baby really likes is making his loved ones laugh and cheer. The bacon is fine, but I don't think it's the magical experience his parents assume. They are making the psychologist's fallacy: mistaking what you think is going on for what the person is actually experiencing. (It's our fallacy because our subject matter makes us uniquely susceptible.)

When people come into our labs to take part in experiments, we present them with a situation that we have designed to elicit a specific behaviour from them, and that we manipulate in various ways in order to probe the makeup of that behaviour. We therefore think we know what the person is doing: they are doing the thing we asked them to do. However, this isn't necessarily true, and in order to figure out what our participants did and why, we need to consider how they experienced the experiment. In effect, doing our science right means taking the first person perspective of our participants when we formulate our explanations. 

I take this idea primarily from Louise Barrett's excellent book, Beyond the Brain: How Body & Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds (which I reviewed here). The first couple of chapters spend a lot of time talking about anthropomorphism, and why it's a problem. To be honest, when I read the book I didn't quite know why Louise started with this. But over time, I've realised what an extraordinarily powerful point it is and we now talk about all the time. 

Peril Proposal: The psychologist's fallacy is real, but the ecological approach to understanding task dynamics and the information they create offers a useful framework for avoiding it while we science.