The high cost of big words

Evidently, vowels that you form in the back of your mouth (like the o in “two”) make people think of big sizes; people associate vowels formed in the front of your mouth with small sizes. At least, they do in the US. Does this mean that each culture has specific linguistic hacks built into it? How much of this is biology, and how much culture? Man, it really makes economics seem deficient, huh? Here’s some basic vowelconomics research:

In one experiment, researchers told consumers the regular and sale prices of a product, asked them to repeat the sale price to themselves, and then, a few minutes later, told them to estimate the size of the discount in percentage terms. Products with “small-sounding” sale prices (like $2.33) seemed like better deals than products with “big-sounding” sales prices (like $2.22).

In another experiment, the researchers used a pair of sale prices — $7.88, which sounds “big” in English, and $7.01, which sounds “small” — but are the other way around in Chinese. Chinese and English speakers had opposite perceptions of the products’ relative value.

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Social Bonobos

Oh TED talks, will you ever stop being interesting. This talk is something I’ve posted on my gchat before, but it’s really, really cool so I hope you watch it.

One question that has been rumbling around in the back of my head concerns the uniqueness of the human mind. Science throughout history has continually displaced humanity from the center of the universe and told us that we are not special. Modern science (and neuroscience) continues to do that. Tool use? Pah! You can teach rodents to use a rake! Social coordination? Ants! Language? Maybe there we have something – although who knows? Birds sometimes seem like they might be able to do that. And the conceit that language is always auditory is almost certainly false – it is quite likely that other creatures use other methods of communication in ways equivalent to our languages. Maybe they are using chemicals?

Probably the largest difference is in our ability to socially communicate culture. Modern humans aren’t significantly more intelligent than man from hundreds of thousands of years ago – we just have culture. All those things that you would ask, “How could someone not know how to do that?” is the result of deep acculturation. I think this video of Bonobos should make that clear.

But I think that humanity is really exacerbating that advantage. Note pads allow us to extend our memory. Books enhance cultural transmission. The Internet can increase socialization (through Facebook, Twitter, etc.). And so on and so forth. I think may be something of a contentious issue in philosophy, though I haven’t actually read the article yet.

Also, apparently people film Bonobos having sex and make other humans watch it. Strange.