5 min read

Learning Goes Wrong

Learning Goes Wrong
I never mentioned robots or AI, Bing.

In this week's Socos Academy we'll look at how honest learning can mislead us.

Mad Science Solves...

Why can’t we learn from our past mistakes? It’s a reasonable question, but sometimes it is the learning itself that leads us astray. In this week’s research roundup I explore different contexts—social media, investing, and interpersonal relationships—in which we rely truths to tell ourselves lies. Sometimes these false learnings result from unrecognized cognitive biases; other times it is willful ignorance.

In my own work I’ve been slowly developing a project to examine how differing media exposure—movies, television, books…and now streaming videos—in childhood influences who we become as adults. How do the dominant stories and role models early in our lives expand or constrain the possibilities of our future.

In the extreme, imagine your favorite shows and movies from childhood. Now imagine them gender reversed, with all of the action heroes, family heads, and doctors as women. Growing up in a world saturated with stories of women’s agency, saving men in distress, would have a rather profound impact on your view of the possibilities in the world. The result would likely be a world much more the the Khasi of India or the Mosuo of China, where property is inherited along maternal lines and the little girls are bigger risk-takers than the little boys.

Of course, the point is that both sets of cultural norms affect the life choices of the children exposed to them, ultimately limiting the sets of choices those boys and girls will make in the future.

In our project (soon to transfer into The Human Trust), we are building an AI-driven game in which “players” tell us about their childhood and their current lives, and the game “guesses” what media they watched as kids. The point isn’t to make magical predictions, but to train our model to capture the relationship between early media exposure and life outcomes. While surely no one believes that The Real Housewives of Love Island’s Bachelor is setting anyone up for a better future, understanding which stories and character embodiments drive future human capital development can help us craft stories for lift rather than for distraction.

The ultimate goal is a free tool for media creators that can identify damaging tropes within their media that can be changed without harming engagement and revenue. That’s right, I’m not looking to blow up Hollywood's business model (well…much) but if some targeted changes to a screenplay could lift a kid’s horizons without hurting the bottom line, why the hell not?

Stage & Screen

Vivienne recently delivered the closing keynote for Aberdeen's TechFest in Scotland and had a very successful week of speaking in London and Birmingham, UK. She will be returning in 2024 so please continue to reach out with any opportunities in the region.

Next Up!

New York City, the town so nice I'm visiting twice! (November 30 - December 7): I'm back in NYC on my endless quest to find the fabled best slice.

  • I'm talking "AI, Ethics, and Investments" for RFK Human Rights on the 30th.
  • I'll be doing a two remote keynotes from NYC:
  • It is AI, Design, and Ethnography on the the 4th.
  • I'll be cogitating over the future of healthcare with the new ARPA-H on the 5th.
  • And I'll be at the RFK Ripple of Hope Gala on the 6th!

I still have open times in NYC. I would love to give a talk just for your organization on any topic: AI, neurotech, education, the Future of Creativity, the Neuroscience of Trust, The Tax on Being Different ...why I'm such a charming weirdo. If you have events, opportunities, or would be interested in hosting a dinner or other event, please reach out to my team below.

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

Research Roundup

You popularize me...you really popularize me!

On some level, we all want to be liked, and those social rewards can shape who we become, sometimes in terrible ways. But what happens when popularity becomes disconnected from likability.

Let’s start with a recent paper arguing that popularity, “being generally liked by others”, is distinct from “being uniquely liked by specific interaction partners”. In an analysis of one-on-one conversations between adults, people who had a balance of dominant and boastful traits (agentic behaviors) and warmth and politeness (communal behaviors) were the most popular. But unique liking only emerged when individuals upped their communal behaviors beyond their norm. So, boasting and confidence helped with popularity, but only exceptional friendliness drove friendship. 

Online, however, “likes” flow with popularity, not friendliness, and that social reward shapes user’s behavior. For example, when occasional posters receive social rewards, they immediately increase their engagement with the platform, and even heavy posters adjusted their posting behavior in response to algorithmic changes on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

This hunger for popularity without likeability has had its most inevitable and destructive impact on politicians on twitter. An analysis of “1.3 million tweets made by members of Congress since 2009” reveals a 23% increase in incivility over the time since. (If you don’t want to call them “tweets” any more, perhaps we can call them “XXXs” or just “porns” for short.)

More importantly, politicians learned to increase their incivility from the social signals as “uncivil tweets tended to receive more approval and attention”, and “the greater this feedback for uncivil tweets, the more uncivil [their] tweets were thereafter”. In other words, mendacious Zeligs + politics-as-entertainment = now.

How to mislead without even lying

We all know the “secret” recipe for entrepreneurial success: a genius Harvard dropout with a plan to change the world. We know the story so well, heard it so many times, that given the choice to bet on them versus other founders, participants in a recent experiment were “55 percentage points more likely to bet on a dropout-founded company than people who were shown graduate founders.” The problem is that dropouts aren’t more successful.  But “despite acknowledging biases in the examples [they were shown], participants”...”reported medium to high confidence in their bets, and many wrote causal explanations justifying their decision.”

All of this is to say, we are dumb…and that’s OK. We tell ourselves stories to explain “truths” we chance upon—Gates and Zuckerburg dropped out of Harvard or Spielberg was a film major—and turn them into the lies we tell ourselves about how the world works.

On the issue of film (and other) university majors, students appear to “greatly exaggerating the likelihood that [majors] lead to their most distinctive jobs”, such as the Hollywood royalty or the Supreme Court. These stereotypes boost “demand for ‘risky’ majors: ones with rare stereotypical careers and low-paying alternative jobs”. And these biases are further exaggerated by personal experience—they inflate “the frequency of career-major combinations held by people they are personally close to”. Those stereotyped careers can and do (rarely) happen, but we use those truths to tell ourselves lies about the world.

Maybe dumb is the wrong way to put it. What if our “inaccurate stereotypes…result from locally adaptive exploration”. In this experiment, Tom Griffiths and colleagues found that “an initial arbitrary interaction, if rewarding enough, may discourage people from investigating alternatives that would be equal or better.” The result is that “the mere act of choosing among groups with the goal of maximizing the long-term benefit of interactions is enough to produce inaccurate assessments of different groups”.

Founder, majors, and neighbors—we build lies out of truths.

Follow more of my work at
Socos Labs The Human Trust
Dionysus Health Optoceutics
RFK Human Rights GenderCool
Crisis Venture Studios Inclusion Impact Index
Neurotech Collider Hub at UC Berkeley