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Conned By The Force

Con artist.

Con artist.

(Warning: spoilers ahead.)

I finally got around to seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens the other day. It was pretty much what I expected – lots of action, lots of explosions, and a shocking shortage of suggestive double entendres. It’s a very earnest movie.

Here’s what I didn’t expect: I didn’t expect to be conned. But, boy, was I ever. And I fell for it like … well, like a death star falling into a black hole.

As always, it’s a story of good and evil, of course. The vile, evil bad guy is Kylo Ren who dresses like a fashionable Darth Vader. Though we can’t see his face, we know he’s young — the script tells us so several times. Since he’s young, we assume he’s impressionable and, perhaps, redeemable.

And redmption is exactly what we expect when an aging Han Solo confronts him, man-to-man and mano-a-mano. We’re just sure that the wise and wizened Han can save Kylo’s young soul and bring him back to the bright side. (Cue Monty Python: always look on the bright side of life).

And it works! Kylo drops his mask. His eyes fill with tears. His lips tremble. With evident emotion, he hands Han his most terrible weapon, the lightsaber. Han reaches for the weapon and we’re convinced that Kylo is about to be redeemed. Han grasps the saber and we know that angelic music will soon swell to celebrate Kylo’s conversion.

But, no. It doesn’t work out that way. I was conned. More to the point – and with much more devastating effect – Han was conned.

As I look back on the scene, I think: I should have seen that coming from a parsec away. But I didn’t. I wanted to believe. I got conned.

Why was I conned? According to Maria Konnikova, it’s because I wanted to be conned. In her new book, The Confidence Game, Konnikova writes that the con game is “…the oldest story ever told.” Simply put, we’re wired to believe. We want to believe. If we’re unsure about the future, we want someone to tell us a story to reassure us. It doesn’t have to be logical. It simply has to be believable. Since we want desperately to believe, the bar is set pretty low.

The Kylo Ren con also worked on me because I already knew the story. It’s the prodigal son. I’ve always loved the story of the prodigal son, perhaps because I was one. So I was primed. I knew how it’s supposed to end. I half-expected Han to kill a fatted calf and say, My son was lost but now he is found. That’s the way it always happens, doesn’t it? That’s what I want to believe.

Konnikova writes that we ultimately are the enablers of con artists:

“In some ways, confidence artists … have it easy. We’ve done most of the work for them; we want to believe in what they’re telling us. Their genius lies in figuring out what, precisely, it is we want and how they can present themselves as the perfect vehicle for delivering on that desire.”

So how can we protect ourselves against con artists? More on that in future articles. In the meantime, you might consider some traditional Minnesota wisdom: You’re not so special.

The Biology of Bad Behavior

Rock climbing, biking, or violent crime?

Rock climbing, biking, or violent crime?

My resting heart rate is 56 beats per minute. I’ve always interpreted that as a sign of good health. It may also mean that I’m a natural born killer.

That’s one of the conclusions that Adrian Raine might like you to draw from his new book, The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime. Raine’s work is essentially a continuation of E.O. Wilson’s research on sociobiology. Wilson linked evolutionary and genetic influences to human behavior and, especially, to our reproductive habits, urges, and processes.

Raine takes sociobiology a step farther. If our genes can influence our reproductive behaviors, could they not also influence violent and criminal behavior? Are criminals different than non-criminals in some biological way? If so, can we use biology to predict who will commit crimes? Then what?

Let’s take low heart rate, for example. Raine reports evidence that a significant number (much higher than chance) of antisocial criminals have lower than average resting heart rates. Further, the condition points toward violent crime and not to other forms of behavior. It’s not only a predictor; it’s also a specific predictor.

Why would low heart rate point to violent crime? Raine offers three theories. First, there’s the fearlessness theory — “A low heart rate is thought to reflect a lack of fear.” Second is the low empathy theory – “Children with low heart rates are less empathic than children with high heart rates.” Third is the stimulation-seeking theory – low heart rate is associated with low arousal and “…those who display antisocial behavior seek stimulation to increase their arousal levels…”

I’m going with stimulation-seeking theory. Perhaps that’s why I took up rock climbing at the tender age of 18. I just needed some stimulation.

So, what might we have predicted about my behavior when I was, say, 15? It might have been this: “Travis has a low heart rate. Therefore, we can safely predict that he will either become a rock climber or a psychopathic serial killer.” Hmm… now what?

Let’s say I do commit a crime. Does my low heart rate absolve me of responsibility? Should a jury put me in jail or simply require that I take stimulants to boost my heart rate? Or should the government require me to take such stimulants before I commit a crime, just to be on the safe side?

It’s a debate we need to have and Raine begins to frame it up. Unfortunately, he’s rather sloppy. For instance, he seems to make a fundamental error in explaining correlation and variability.

Raine, with fellow researcher Laura Baker, studied whether violent behavior can be inherited. They used “sophisticated statistical techniques” (multivariate analysis) to estimate the heritability of such behavior. Raine writes that he and Baker found, “Heritabilities that ranged from .40 to .50. That means that 40 to 50 percent of the variability among us in antisocial behavior is explained by genetics.”

Multivariate analysis, however, sorts out correlations, not variability. The degree of variability is not the correlation itself but rather the square of the correlation. With a correlation of .40, for instance, the square is .16. If X and Y have a correlation of .40, then 16% of the variability in Y is explained by X. Thus, Raine and Baker can explain between 16% and 25% of the variability in antisocial behavior through inheritance. That’s an important finding but not nearly as strong as Raine claims. It’s a fundamental mistake and weakens the argument considerably.

Elsewhere, Raine writes that Ted Bundy killed approximately 35 women. A few pages later, Bundy’s victims total more than 100. Raine informs us that his wife, sister, and cousin are all nurses. Therefore, he picks a nurse, “Jolly” Jane Topppan, to illustrate the “breakdown in the moral brain”.  I don’t understand why Jolly Jane illustrates such a breakdown better than, say, Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber (who, by the way, has a resting heart beat of 54).

I find this irksome because I generally agree with Raine’s claims. Biology does influence our behavior. Through poor editing and sloppy statistics, however, he undermines his own argument. Raine’s book is a good start but I hope a stronger, more tightly reasoned book comes along soon. In the meantime, I need some stimulation. I think I’ll take up nude skydiving.

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