5 min read


Welcome to the weekly Socos Academy newsletter, a tour through the latest research, mad science projects, upcoming events, and my latest book chapters.
What the hell are you "thinking", Bing?

Welcome to the weekly Socos Academy newsletter with updates on our mad science projects, a listing of my upcoming events, a tour through the latest research, and samples from my new book chapters.

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Mad Science Solves…

This week is a bit more "mad politics" than "mad science", but if it is about human capacity, I'm interested.

RFK & Cuban: The New York Times covered RFK Human Rights role in uncovering the Cuban government's role in the deaths of two dissents. “Government officials tried to blame their deaths on a car accident, but the Payá family knew better,” said Kerry Kennedy, the president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the group that took the case to the human rights commission, in a video posted on Twitter." Vivienne is a proud board member of RFK Human Rights.

Celebrate Dignity: Over at ABC and Hulu you can watch "Our America: Who I'm Meant To Be" produce with the amazing staff and kids at GenderCool, where Vivienne is also on the board of directors. Don't just guess at the power of being yourself (or listen only to the fears of vote-staved politicians), watch some amazing young people share real stories.

Upcoming: over the next few weeks, we will talk epigenetics, interbrain synchronization, and data trusts!

Stage & Screen

Summer is here and Socos Labs will be CLOSED July 3 - 7th!

Vivienne will be speaking about the future of AI for an tech gathering in Indianapolis, IN this August.

Looking towards the Fall, Vivienne will be back on the move making stops so far in Berlin, New Orleans, and Singapore. She'll also be visiting the Philippines for the first time to give a conference keynote in Manila!

<<If you are interested in pursuing an opportunity with Vivienne in or around these locations, please reach out ASAP!>>

Vivienne will also continue her tour of educational conferences and school events later in the Summer and Fall, sharing profound insights and lessons from How to Robot-Proof Your Kids with faculty and parents!

Book her for this talk today.

Research Roundup

There's right, there's wrong, and there's whatever I choose to do

While working on one of my books, Small Sacrifices, I began wondering about the difference between having a commitment to a purpose vs to a set of moral rules. The following research suggests the difference is (literally) one of degrees: "Social norms and dishonesty across societies".

Purpose-driven individuals judge their actions in terms of outcomes, while “individuals who hold very strict norms" judge their actions surely in terms of norm following. For them "a small lie [is] as socially unacceptable as a large lie".

This difference leads to a major difference: though strict norm adherents are less likely to lie overall, they "are more likely to lie to the maximal extent possible".

And it's not just lying, strict norm adherents are more likely to engage in “tax evasion, cheating on government benefits, and fare dodging on public transportation”.

“Countries with a larger fraction of people with very strict attitudes toward civic norms have a higher society-level prevalence of rule violations.”

This final finding ticks a point that's a always fascinated me: the seeming relationship between strict norm following culture and the presence of kleptocracies.

Another recent paper, " Selling Violent Extremism", analyzed white nationalist groups in America (presumably a strict norm culture) with respect to their incentives and found that "political violence can be motivated by non-ideological entrepreneurs maximizing profits under current legal institutions”.

For example, the “Oath Keepers do not organize as a club. Rather, its behavior is better explained as a firm that adjusts the price of membership over time to maximize profit.”

Are they true believers, fools, or soul-less exploiters? I have no doubt that a large portion of extremist leaders are purely or largely self-interested exploiters, but perhaps this research erases some of the borders between belief and exploitation.

Or maybe assholes are just good at telling themselves stories.

No More Baby Sitters

Disparities in college graduation rates between high- and low-income communities "were reduced the more months that low-income children spent in early care and education (ECE)”, but wage disparities were only reduced by "sustained high-quality ECE.”

This is a common finding in the research literature: early life interventions provide transient and limited benefits unless they are high-quality, sustained experiences.

But is universal "high-quality" care economically sustainable? Heckman and colleagues find they return $7 for every dollar invested. If kids were bonds they’d be the backbone of the world economy.


Here is an expert from Vivienne's upcoming book Professional Mad Scientist from the chapter "Mendacity".

The most obvious place to start this story is where I started mine: the Cognitive Science Department at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). CogSci is a relatively new field. The very first university department was founded right there at UCSD during my freshman year in 1989. CogSci’s interdisciplinary approach to understanding people draws together neuroscience, psychology, machine learning, statistics, philosophy, and more. One lab might be studying the psycholinguistics of metaphor while another down the hall is building brain-computer interfaces. It was a rather amazing introduction to the power of breaking silos and mashing up ideas[1].

While CogSci at UCSD flourished, I did not. It didn’t take long before I’d effectively flunked out and it took a whole decade for me to return and try again. That’s a story for another time, but suffice to say that the 1990s were not a happy time for me[2]. And yet that last decade of the millennium[3] did leave me with one true gift: a purpose. I went back to UCSD in 1999 intent on making better people.

When I returned, I had a passion to understand people and a purpose to improve their lives. I expected to become a traditional “wet” neuroscientist, doing anything from recording the electrical activity of cells to tracing neural pathways with retroviruses. That quarter I took my first (and in fact only) programming course and everything changed. The professor was a hardcore stoner named John Batali. He rolled into class every day with bloodshot eyes, wearing the same pizza-stained t-shirt. I ended up taking three classes with him, including introduction to AI, which he taught as a self-defense class.

John was absolutely one of my favorite professors. At the end of that first quarter he brought me into his office and told me that I’d earned a perfect score in the class. John asked me to be a teaching assistant for the class the following year[4]. But more importantly, he let me know he’d recommended me to be a research assistant for the Machine Perception Lab (MPL). Everything about my professional life today started with that unsolicited recommendation twenty years ago.

[1] Not everyone is so enamored. I overheard one student read the title of our epinonimous “Cognitive Science Building” and mutter under his breath, “Pshhhh…that’s not a science.”

[2] In the same way the 1930’s were not a happy time for Oklahoma farmers.

[3] To anyone who wants to debate whether the millennium ended with 1999 or 2000, first please go fuck yourself.

[4] I ended up taking seven courses a quarter at UCSD with the insane goal of completing my BS in a single year. The plan worked, but the teaching was decidedly subpar.

Subscribers can read the entire chapter here.