John Nash has left the building

CC Licensed photo from Wikipedia. Click for source.So goodbye John Nash, brilliant mathematician and beautiful mind, who has sadly just passed away after being involved in a taxi crash with his wife.

Nash was famous for many things, but was probably most well-known for being the subject of the biopic A Beautiful Mind – an Oscar-winning production that sugar-coated the details although mainly stayed true to spirit of Nash’s remarkable story.

Outside of the mainstream media Nash is best known for his work on partial differential equations and game theory – and it is this latter development which has had the biggest impact on society.

Nash won the Nobel prize for developing the Nash equilibrium which is the point in an ongoing interaction (the ‘game’ in ‘game theory’) where everyone has nothing to gain by changing their current strategy.

In Adam Curtis’s documentary series The Trap, Curtis famously argues that Nash’s ideas on game theory were taken up by the radical Sixties psychiatrist R.D. Laing who modelled the family as a self-interested struggle in game theory terms.

It’s a neat idea – Laing’s conflict-ridden model of the family was driven by the paranoid ideas of a man who became psychotic – but there’s not much weight behind it.

Laing certainly did describe the family as conflict-ridden and used game theoretic ideas to describe these interactions, in his book Sanity, Madness and the Family, but Curtis seems to have been wrong about the influence of Nash.

Laing drew on Gregory Bateson’s idea of a ‘double bind’ where two conflicting forms of communicated demand are placed on a family member which, according to Bateson, could lead to psychosis as people are forced to come up with an ‘alternative reality’ that satisfies the incompatible requests.

We now know this is wrong but it was influential at the time and set the scene for wider investigations into family life and how it affects people with psychosis which proved genuinely useful.

But reading these theories, what is most surprising is how Nash’s work isn’t mentioned.

Bateson was in regular contact with game theory pioneers like Norbert Weiner and
John von Neumann who would have clearly known about Nash’s discoveries, but Nash is not referenced in either Bateson’s or R.D. Laing’s key works.

I find it unlikely that neither knew about John Nash, not least because he had published papers in very well known journals.

It is possible, however, that neither knew about Nash’s mental health, as Nash had begun to become unwell in 1959 and Sanity, Madness and the Family was published five years later, so perhaps the news about Nash’s psychosis had not filtered through.

But it is also possible that they were aware of what had happened to Nash, and opted to avoid his ideas precisely because he was thought to have become unwell.

Either way, it was a missed opportunity, because the idea of a Nash equilibrium makes perfect sense in terms of arriving at an unhelpful stalemate where no individual can seem to make a positive change – exactly what Laing was describing in families.

Fast forward 50 years, and Nash’s ideas finally have begun to have an impact on the science of psychopathology. After A Beautiful Mind was released, based on Sylvia Nasar’s earlier biography, studies emerged applying game theory and the Nash equilibrium to understanding the psychology and neuroscience of schizophrenia.

After revolutionising economics, social science and mathematics, Nash’s ideas are starting to have an influence on the science of psychosis. A form of intellectual closure, perhaps, that Nash appreciated more than most.
 

Link to excellent obituary in The New York Times.

Spike activity 12-05-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

No, there is no evidence for a link between video games and Alzheimer’s disease, reports HeadQuarters after recent media bungles. We’re still waiting to hear on SimCity and Parkinson’s disease though.

The American Psychiatric Association has a new corporate video that looks like a Viagra advert.

BPS Research Digest reports on a fascinating study that gives a preliminary taxonomy of the voices inside your head.

What does fMRI measure? Essential piece from the Brain Box blog that gives an excellent guide to fMRI.

New Republic has an excellent piece on the proliferation of ‘trigger warnings’ and puts them in context of the history of PTSD, war and society.

Someone freeze-framed the movie Ex Machina and ran the code displayed on one of the monitors. Here’s what it does.

Atlas Obscura has a series of photos originally taken by pioneering neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing to document the early days of brain surgery.

What Can “Lived Experience” Teach Neuroscientists? asks Neuroskeptic. On why so many of these debates assume scientists are not people with mental health problems.

Reuters reports that a clinical psychologist has been put in charge of one of American’s largest prisons. “When a third of your population is mentally ill, you sure as heck better have someone who understands that at the top”.

Brain implants in the parietal lobe let paralyzed man move robotic arm reports Science News

Irregularities in Science

Olympus_CH2_microscope_1A paper in the high-profile journal Science has been alleged to be based on fraudulent data, with the PI calling for it to be retracted. The original paper purported to use survey data to show that people being asked about gay marriage changed their attitudes if they were asked the survey questions by someone who was gay themselves. That may still be true, but the work of a team that set out to replicate the original study seems to show that the data reported in that paper was never collected in the way reported, and at least partly fabricated.

The document containing these accusations is interesting for a number of reasons. It contains a detailed timeline showing how the authors were originally impressed with study and set out to replicate it, gradually uncovering more and more elements that concerned them and let them to investigate how the original data was generated. The document also reports the exemplary way in which they shared their concerns with the authors of the original paper, and the way the senior author responded. The speed of all this is notable – the investigators only started work on this paper in January, and did most of the analysis substantiating their concerns this month.

As we examined the study’s data in planning our own studies, two features surprised us: voters’ survey responses exhibit much higher test-retest reliabilities than we have observed in any other panel survey data, and the response and reinterview rates of the panel survey were significantly higher than we expected. We set aside our doubts about the study and awaited the launch of our pilot extension to see if we could manage the same parameters. LaCour and Green were both responsive to requests for advice about design details when queried.

So on the one hand this is a triumph for open science, and self-correction in scholarship. The irony being that any dishonesty that led to publication in a high-impact journal, also attracted people with the desire and smarts to check if what was reported holds up. But the tragedy is the circumstances that led the junior author of the original study, himself a graduate student at the time, to do what he did. No statement from him is available at this point, as far as I’m aware.

The original: When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality

The accusations and retraction request: Irregularities in LaCour (2014)

In the mind of a drone

CC Licensed Image from Wikimedia Commons. Click for source.Longreads has an excellent article on the psychology of drone warfare that looks at this particularly modern form of air-to-ground combat from many, thought-provoking angles.

These include the effect of humanless warfare, how suicide bombers are being dronified, how reducing the risk to soldiers might make civilians a more inviting target, whether remote-drone-pilot PTSD is convenient myth, and most interesting, the reliance of ‘Pattern-of-Life Analysis’ on which to base strikes.

Apart from these “personal strikes,” there are also “signature strikes,” here meaning strikes authorized on the basis of traces, indications, or defining characteristics. Such strikes target individuals whose identity remains unknown but whose behavior suggests, signals, or signs membership in a “terrorist organization.”

In such cases, the strike is made “without knowing the precise identity of the individuals targeted.” It depends solely on their behavior, which, seen from the sky, appears to “correspond to a ‘signature’ of pre-identified behavior that the United States links to militant activity.” Today, strikes of this type, against unknown suspects, appear to constitute the majority of cases…

An analysis of the pattern of a person’s life may be defined more precisely as “the fusion of link analysis and a geospatial analysis.” For some idea of what is involved here, imagine a superimposition, on a single map, of Facebook, Google Maps, and an Outlook calendar. This would be a fusion of social, spatial, and temporal particulars, a mixed mapping of the socius, locus, and tempus spheres—in other words, a combination of the three dimensions that, not only in their regularities but also in their discordances, constitute a human life.

This anonymous death by heuristics is also the type of problem that yields well to statistical approaches and, with enough data, machine learning algorithms such as deep learning.

It’s the sort of problem that cloud-based on-tap-AI systems like IBM’s Watson are designed to help with and you can bet your bottom dollar that there’s research going on to use machine learning to identify terrorists from their Pattern-of-Life. The Skynet of fiction will probably become the Skyapp of reality.

The article is remarkably wide-ranging and genuinely thought-provoking for a subject where much has already been written. Recommended.
 

Link to ‘Theorizing the Drone’.

Spike activity 15-05-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

What does fMRI measure? Excellent fMRI primer on the Brain Box blog.

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent profile of neuroscientist Sophie Scott and her research understanding laughter.

Time has a piece on how rappers are de-stigmatising mental illness.

A brilliant review of neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s book ‘Do No Harm’ from The New Yorker also works as a wonderful stand-alone article.

APA Monitor has a great interview with cognitive psychology pioneer Jerome Bruner as he approaches his 100th birthday.

The Brighter Side of Rabies. The New Yorker on how one of the world’s most deadly pathogens is revolutionising brain science.

The Verge has a piece on the ‘engineers of addiction’. Slot machine designers perfected compulsive play now tech wants their tricks.

The first scientific studies have attempted to understand the blue and black / white and gold dress phenomenon and are covered in The New York Times.

The New Yorker has a great non-hagiographic review of Oliver Sacks’ new biography.

Oddly, I’ve been quoted in a trailer for Ex Machina although my name has been spelt wrong which proves that machines aren’t invincible and humans will triumph in the coming robot war.

A less hysterical reaction

CC Licensed photo by Flickr user Les Black. Click for source.There’s a fascinating article in The Guardian about one of the least understood aspects of human nature: experiences like blindness, paralysis and seizures that seem to mimic gross damage to the nervous system but aren’t explained by it. People can experience profound blindness, for example, but have no detectable damage to their visual system.

These difficulties have various names: conversion disorder, hysteria, dissociative disorder, medically unexplained symptoms, functional neurological symptoms, somatoform disorder, or are denoted by adding the word ‘functional’ or ‘psychogenic’ to the disability.

The original concept, usually falsely attributed to Freud but actually first suggested by French psychologist Pierre Janet, was that emotional disturbance was being expressed as a physical problem, potentially as a form of psychological defence mechanism.

This is the origin of one of the modern names – ‘conversion disorder’ – but it’s not clear that ’emotion being converted into a physical symptom’ is a good explanation. We do know, however, that these experiences are more likely in people with a history of trauma, stress or emotional difficulties.

Crucially, people affected by these conditions feel no voluntary control over their symptoms – they’re not faking – but if you understand the nervous system you can often see how the symptoms aren’t consistent with the disabilities they appear to mimic.

For example, in the article, the neurologist tests a patient’s blindness like so:

He took from his bag a small rotating drum painted in black and white stripes. He held it in front of Yvonne and spun it quickly. Her eyes flickered from side to side in response to it, involuntarily drawn to the spinning stripes.

If the patient was blind due to damage to the eye, retina or optic nerve, visual material wouldn’t cause an involuntary eye tracking response, because the visual information would never make it to the brain.

So strikingly, the visual information is clearly being perceived at one level but is not accessible to the conscious mind – and it is this dramatic dissociation between the conscious and unconscious which is at the core of the problem, and is so poorly understood.

Unfortunately, these problems have also been traditionally stigmatised within medicine with people affected by them sometimes treated as fakers or time-wasters.

Similarly, to patients, the problems often feel as if “something has gone wrong with their bodies” meaning it can be difficult to hear that the origin may be psychological – partly of course, due to the common misconception that ‘psychological’ means ‘under your control’.

So this is why The Guardian article is so interesting because it is a little discussed area that needs a wider understanding both clinically and scientifically.

It describes several people with exactly these difficulties and how they are experienced.

Apparently, it’s taken from a new book by the same neurologist which is entirely about ‘functional neurological symptoms’ which could be equally as interesting.
 

Link to ‘You think I’m mad?’ – the truth about psychosomatic illness.

The most unaccountable of machinery

The latest edition of intriguing podcast Love and Radio is on a lesbian who passed as a man to report on masculinity, writing a amphetamine-fuelled stream-of-consciousness biography of Virginia Woolf, and finding hope in suicide.

It’s an interview with writer Norah Vincent and it makes for compelling listening.

Love and Radio is an interesting project that attempts to capture diverse people’s take on relationships. It veers between the rambling and the sublime, but this is definitely towards the sublime end of the spectrum.
 

Link to episode ‘Eternity Through Skirts and Waistcoats’.

Philip Zimbardo has a theory

“Boys risk becoming addicted to porn, video games and Ritalin” says psychologist Philip Zimbardo, which simply isn’t true, because some weekends I read.

Yes, Zimbardo has a theory which says that masculinity is being damaged by computer games, the internet, and pornography without an adequate plot line. A key solution: dancing. He’s done a cracking interview in The Guardian which I thoroughly recommend if you are still waiting for your Ritalin to kick in.

“Boys have never been self-reflective. Boys are focused on doing and acting, girls are more focused on being and feeling. The new video-game world encourages doing and acting and not really thinking. Video games are not so attractive to girls.”

Not really thinking? There’s a man who’s never played Bubble Bobble. And finally some sense in the video game debate. Hang up your coat Anita Sarkeesian.

And pornography? “The relative proportions are hard to come by. But for girls, it’s just boring. In general, sex has always been linked with romance for girls – much more than for boys. For boys it’s always been much more visual and physical…”

“With the old pornography there were typically stories. There was a movie, like Deep Throat, and in the course of some interesting theme people were having sex. Now it’s only about physical sexual contact.”

Oh my God! The washing machine has broken in the cheerleaders’ apartment. Now they’ll never get to the game. [Ding Dong] Wait, who could this be?

“It’s always been difficult for boys to talk to girls because you are never sure what they want or what their agenda is. And now without trying or practice it becomes more and more difficult. So it’s a reason to retreat into this virtual world.”

Phil, I know their agenda. They want quality plumbing without having to pay in cash.

“In online porn, the men are incredibly well-endowed – they are paid precisely because they have those attributes. In addition, some of the men take penile injections so they can perform for half an hour non-stop. When you’re a 10 or 15-year-old kid, you say to yourself, ‘I will never, ever look like that or perform like that’.”

I never thought that when I was 15. It’s been adult life that has made the 30 minute mark seem like an impossible dream.

Indeed, he argues that schools are increasingly ill-suited to boys’ needs – another reason for their retreat into cyberspace. In the US, he says, 90% of elementary school teachers are women, while in the UK one in five teachers is a man. “Female teachers can be wonderful but they model skills that girls are good at – fine motor tuning rather than big physical activity. They don’t like boys running around. And, with funding shortages, they’re eliminating gym classes so boys don’t have the time to do physical activity.” He cites schoolchildren being assigned to write diaries as a compositional task. “Boys don’t write diaries! The worst thing I can imagine giving a boy as a present is a diary.”

Fair point, just look at what happened to Adrian Mole.

What can be done to reconnect boys with the real world? Zimbardo has lots of suggestions: more male teachers, more incentives for men to establish boys’ and men’s groups so that the former can get the masculine mentoring they otherwise lack, welfare reform to encourage fathers to remain in the family loop, crowdsourcing initiatives to fund video games that are less violent and require more co-operation, parents to talk to their sons about sex and relationships so they don’t take porn to represent real life.

All genuinely helpful suggestions and then..

My favourite suggestion is that boys learn to dance. “It’s the easiest thing in the world,”

We’re British Phil. WE ARE BRITISH MALES. We look like two legged donkeys drunk on alcopops when we dance. And that’s *after* the dance lessons.

If you actually want to see someone take on Zimbardo’s claims with evidence, I could do no better than Andrew Przybylski from the The Oxford Internet Institute debating him on the BBC.
 

And amazingly, the full Guardian interview is full of even more clangers. Can’t wait for the book.
 

Link to Guardian interview with Philip Zimbardo.

Spike activity 08-05-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

An autonomous truck has been cleared to drive on US roads for the first time according to New Scientist. Robot mudflap girl still being designed.

Backchannel covers the recent Facebook filter bubble study. Rare helpful write-up.

Surge in US ‘brain-reading‘ patents reports BBC News. Most of which are junk, concludes article.

Science magazine has an article by NIMH head saying ‘mental disorders’ are really ‘brain disorders’ and fails to understand that different levels of explanation are not mutually exclusive.

A Better Way to Build Brain-Inspired Chips. MIT Tech Review on the memrister.

The Lab Lunch has a piece arguing against the computational view of mind and brain function.

An audio interview with a researcher who spent four years with the internet’s worst trolls is up on Motherboard. Lots of preamble but interview starts eventually.

Science News reports on a fascinating study about the genetics of emotional vividness.

Human trials for bionic eye with ‘wireless brain chip’ to start next year, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. I’ll have two.

The Economist has an extended article on excessive AI fear and the state of the technology.

The ‘immature teen brain’ defense and the Boston Bomber trial. The Washington Post tackles the neuroscience behind the courtroom claims.

BBC Radio 4 had a streaming only documentary on the language of pain.

Sampling error’s more dangerous friend

CROSSAs the UK election results roll in, one of the big shocks is the discrepancy between the pre-election polls and the results. All the pollsters agreed that it would be incredibly close, and they were all wrong. What gives?

Some essential psych 101 concepts come in useful here. Polls rely on sampling – the basic idea being that you don’t have to ask everyone to get a rough idea of how things are going to go. How rough that idea is depends on how many you ask. This is the issue of sampling error. We understand sampling error – you can estimate it, so as well as reducing this error by taking larger samples there are also principled ways of working out when you’ve asked enough people to get a reliable estimate (which is why polls of a country with a population of 70 million can still be accurate with samples in the thousands).

But, as Tim Harford points out in in this excellent article on sampling problems big data, with every sample there are two sources of unreliability. Sampling error, as I’ve mentioned, but also sampling bias.

sampling error has a far more dangerous friend: sampling bias. Sampling error is when a randomly chosen sample doesn’t reflect the underlying population purely by chance; sampling bias is when the sample isn’t randomly chosen at all.

The problem with sample bias is that, when you don’t know the ground truth, there is no principled way of knowing if your sample is biased. If your sample has some systematic bias in it, you can make a reliable estimate (minimising sample error), but you are still left with the sample bias – a bias you don’t know how big it is until you find out the truth. That’s my guess at what happened with the UK election. The polls converged, minimising the error, but the bias remained – a ‘shy tory‘ effect where many voters were not admitting (or not aware) that they would end up voting for the Conservative party.

The exit polls predicted the real result with surprising accuracy not because they minimised sampling error, but because they avoided the sample bias. By asking the people who actually turned up to vote how they actually voted, their sample lacked the bias of the pre-election polls.

A brief and unlikely scenario

The Independent have been running a series called ‘If I were Prime Minister’ where they’ve asked a diverse range of people what they would do if they were PM. I written a brief piece for them where I talk about why we need to make hospital care for people with psychosis much less distressing.

It’s worth saying that I’d make a rubbish Prime Minister (“Exchange rate, yep, are there any snacks in here?”) but before I’d get the Queen to let me off the hook, I’d certainly make transition to psychiatric hospital care a much more positive experience,

Being treated in hospital under section is one of the most serious psychiatric interventions but you may be surprised to hear that it is one of the most poorly researched. We have so little evidence about what works and how to help people in a way that is safest for both their physical and their mental health. So if I were prime minister, I would ensure that the transition to inpatient care, for the most seriously unwell, was also a priority for research, funding and improvement.

It’s not fashionable to talk about gentleness in healthcare but it is exactly what is needed for people in crisis. Through neglect and under-funding, we have created a system that makes the time, consistency and environment needed for gentleness almost impossible to achieve – both for the staff who want to provide it and for the people who need it most. We are using our sanctuaries as warehouses and they need reclaiming.

Link to piece on crisis care in mental health.

Five minutes with Carolyn Mair

CMairI’ve often seen people on the web who advertise themselves as ‘fashion psychologists’ who say they can ‘match clothes to your personality’. I’ve always rolled my eyes and moved on.

So I was fascinated to meet Carolyn Mair, a cognitive scientist who did her PhD in perceptual cognition, who now leads a psychology programme at the world-renowned London College of Fashion.

They are doing rigorous psychology as it applies to fashion, clothes and the beauty industry and I asked her to speak to Mind Hacks about herself and her work.

Can you say a little about your background?
My first job was as a ‘commercial artist’ (now graphic designer). Alongside this I made a reasonable income from painting portraits and murals. I then moved to Australia for two years where I worked in a cake shop/bakery where I was able to decorate cakes for special occasions. On returning to the UK, I became a mother and continued painting portraits and murals and also began to design and sell children’s clothes as well as cakes.

During this time, I studied on the BSc Applied Psychology and Computing at Bournemouth University in 1992 and then the MSc Research Methods Psychology at Portsmouth University in 1995. I was asked to do a PhD in Computational Neuroscience, a very young discipline in 1999, investigating the ‘binding problem’; specifically short-term visual memory. During this period I spent three months at the centre of Cognitive Neuroscience at SISSA in Trieste which dramatically changed the direction of my thesis from computational to cognitive neuroscience. I completed my postdoc in the Department for Information Science, Computing and Maths at Brunel University and then took up a Senior Lectureship at Southampton Solent University. I left there in 2012 to join London College of Fashion as Subject Director Psychology.

How did you get into the psychology of fashion?
I love fashion! I started making clothes for myself when I was 13 years old and for others during my teens and again when I had children. Following a chance meeting at a conference in 2011, I was asked to give a paper on psychology and fashion at London College of Fashion. I was then invited back to discuss how psychology could be introduced at Masters level. A role was created, I applied and was successful. I have since developed the world’s first Masters programmes, an MA and MSc, to apply psychology to or, in the context of, fashion.

Why does fashion need psychology?
Fashion is about perception, attention, memory, creativity and communication; it involves reasoning, decision-making, problem-solving and social interaction. Fashion is psychology! Although it has been interpreted anecdotally in psychological terms for centuries, applying psychology to fashion as a scientific endeavour is very new.

Psychology matters beyond what our clothes say about us. People are involved in every aspect of fashion from design, though production, manufacture, advertising and marketing, visual merchandising, retail, consumption and disposal. Taking a scientific approach enables us to derive a more meaningful understanding of behaviour related to fashion and therefore to predict and ultimately change behaviour for the better. We know that within one second of seeing another person, we decide how attractive they are, whether we like them and what sort of characteristics they possess. In addition, what we wear can affect our mood and confidence, and interestingly, what we believe about what we are wearing influences our cognitive performance.

However, the ultimate impact and value of applying psychology to fashion goes beyond what we wear. The fashion industry is an important global industry which employs millions of people worldwide and ultimately involves us all. Since the 60s, the fashion industry has promoted a very narrow stereotype of ‘beauty’ which has now become the ‘norm’ through the ubiquity of web and mobile technology. With the increase in exposure to such images, comes an increase in body dissatisfaction across the lifespan. This brings multiple behavioural issues which can be addressed by psychologists.

In addition, psychologists can challenge the status quo and promote a more inclusive and diverse representation of what is ‘beautiful’ by demonstrating the benefits such an approach would bring. The narrow stereotype of beauty is reinforced through the multibillion pound cosmetic industry. The repercussions of this can be seen in the increase in demand for cosmetic surgery and other interventions many of which are conducted by unqualified practitioners on vulnerable individuals. The impact of such practice is yet to be fully realised, but psychologists are concerned at the lack of regulations that currently exist.

The fashion industry has a poor reputation in terms of the environment and sustainability. In fact, sustainable fashion can be considered an oxymoron. However, it is possible to have a sustainable fashion industry which considers the environment and consumers who care more about what they buy and in doing so buy less. Working alongside fashion professionals, the role of psychology in addressing these issues is education.

When I started applying psychology to fashion, I was determined not be a ‘wardrobe therapist’ or a ‘fashion psychologist’. I am often asked to write about what a particular garment or accessory says about the wearer, for example do glasses suggest intelligence or what does a politician’s fashion style say about him or her? My typical response is that deriving deep meaning from a single ‘snapshot’ is unrealistic as it’s more complex than that! I have been surprised about the demand for this sort of information and think the time is right for developing this new sub-discipline of psychology that has the potential to do good at individual, societal and community levels.

Fashion is a multibillion global industry which employs millions of people worldwide. As a result it affects, and is affected by the intricacies, fallibilities and fragility of human behaviour. In addition to those impacted by fashion as employer; fashion influences its consumers at all levels. Even if we consider ourselves not interested in fashion per se, we all wear clothes! Until recently, the scientific study of psychology applied in the context of fashion has been neglected. This important area, which affects billions worldwide, is in obvious need of investigation.

Name three under-rated things
Looking healthy as opposed to looking young
Getting older
Chilling out

The CIA’s inner circle of white elephant specialists

CC Licensed Image from Flickr by The U.S. Army.  Click for source.The New York Times recently covered a report by long-term critics of psychologists’ involvement in the CIA torture programme.

It includes a series of leaked emails which suggests something beyond what is widely noted – that the US security agencies have been handing out key contracts to high profile psychologists on the basis of shared political sympathies rather than sound scientific evidence. The result has been a series of largely ineffective white elephant security projects that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

To back up a bit, this new report claims, on the basis of the leaked emails, that there was collusion between the American Psychological Association and the CIA to make psychologists’ participation in brutal interrogations possible through engineering the written code of ethics.

The allegations are not new but as part of the coverage The New York Times includes the full text of the report which includes the full text of key emails.

The APA have commissioned an independent investigation and have released a statement, quite reasonably actually, saying they’re not going to comment until it’s concluded.

But looking at the emails, you can see that the CIA was buddies with a select group of high profile psychologists who later get big money contracts from the US Government. You may recognise the names.

One email from Kirk Hubbard, Senior Behavioral Scientist for the CIA, notes that “I have been in contact with Ekman and he is eager to do work for us”, seemingly with regard to a forum on the science of deception. This is Paul Ekman famous for his work on facial emotions and micro-expression.

Hubbard notes that Martin Seligman, famous for his work on learned helplessness and later positive psychology, “helped out alot over the past four years”. Seligman hosted a now well-documented meeting in December 2001 for “a small group of professors and law enforcement and intelligence officers” who “gathered outside Philadelphia at the home of a prominent psychologist, Martin E. P. Seligman, to brainstorm about Muslim extremism”.

This meeting included James Mitchell, of the now notorious Mitchell Jessen and Associates, who developed the CIA’s brutal interrogation / torture programme.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Ekman and Seligman were directly involved in CIA interrogations or torture. Seligman has gone as far as directly denying it on record.

But there is something else interesting which links Ekman, Seligman and Mitchell: lucrative multi-million dollar US Government contracts for security programmes based on little evidence that turned out to be next to useless.

Ekman was awarded a contract to train ‘behavior detection officers’ at US airports using a technique called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques) based on detecting facial expressions – part of a $900 million programme. It was widely criticised as lacking a scientific foundation, there has been not one verified case of a successful terrorist detection, and evaluations by the Department of Homeland Security, the Government Accountability Office and the Rand Corporation were scathing.

Seligman was reportedly awarded a $31 million US Army no-bid contract to develop ‘resilience training’ for soldiers to prevent mental health problems. This was surprising to many as he had no particular experience in developing clinical interventions. It was deployed as the $237 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme, the results of which have only been reported in some oddly incompetent technical reports and are markedly under-whelming. Nicholas Brown’s analysis of the first three evaluative technical reports is particularly good where he notes the tiny effects sizes and shoddy design. A fourth report has since been published (pdf) which also notes “small effect sizes” and doesn’t control for things like combat exposure.

And famously, Mitchell and Jessen won an $81 million contract to develop the interrogation programme, now officially labelled as torture, and which the Senate Intelligence Committee suggested was actually counter-productive in gathering intelligence.

Applying psychology to improve airport security screening, soldiers’ well-being and interrogation are all reasonable aims. But rather than reviewing the evidence to see what’s possible and contracting relevant specialists to develop and evaluate programmes where possible, they seem to have contracted supporters of the ‘war on terror’ for work that lacked an applied evidence base.

The outcome has been expensive and ineffectual.
 

Link to full text of critical report, full text of emails in Appendix.

Spike activity 01-05-2015

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

IT News reports on a serious proposal to have Australian kids exams marked by artificial intelligence.

First results from psychology’s largest reproducibility project according to Nature. Maybe bad news, maybe not-so-bad news – read the full piece for the devil and the detail.

The New York Times covers on a new report by ethical psychology campaigners that says that the American Psychological Association collaborated with the CIA on the justification for torture.

Can social unrest be predicted with social media? asks Science Insider

The Lancet Psychiatry on the history of cutting the body to cure the mind.

Why we laugh. Wonderful TED talk from neuroscientist Sophie Scott.

The Lay Scientist has an interesting network analysis of porn data: visualising fetish space. SFW. Unless your boss is offended by graph theory.

Ants Swarm Like Brains Think: A neuroscientist studies ant colonies to understand feedback in the brain in Nautilus.

When society isn’t judging, women’s sex drive rivals men’s

Men just want sex more than women. I’m sure you’ve heard that one. Stephen Fry even went as far as suggesting in 2010 that straight women only went to bed with men because sex was “the price they are willing to pay for a relationship”.

Or perhaps you’ve even heard some of the evidence. In 1978 two psychologists, Russell Clark and Elaine Hatfield, did what became a famous experiment on the topic – not least because it demonstrated how much fun you can have as a social psychologist. Using volunteers, Clark and Hatfield had students at Florida State University approach people on campus and deliver a pick-up line.

The volunteers always began the same “I’ve noticed you around campus. I find you to be very attractive”, they said. They varied what they said next according to one of three randomly chosen options. Either “would you go out tonight?”, or “will you come over to my apartment?”, or “would you go to bed with me?” (if these phrases sound familiar, it may be because they form the chorus of Touch and Go’s 1990s Jazz-pop hit “Would You Go To Bed With Me” – probably the only pop song whose lyrics are lifted entirely from the methods section of a research paper).

In Clark and Hatfield’s research, both men and women were approached (always by volunteers of the opposite sex). The crucial measure was whether they said yes or no. And you can probably guess the results: although men and women were equally likely to accept the offer of a date (about half said yes and half said no), the two sexes differed dramatically in how they responded to the offer of casual sex. None of the women approached took up the offer of sex with a complete stranger. Three-quarters of the men did (yes, more than were willing to just go on a date with a complete stranger).

A matter of interpretation

But since this experiment, controversy has raged about how it should be interpreted. One school of thought is that men and women make different choices because of different sex drives, sex drives which are different for deeply seated biological reasons to do with the logic of evolution. Because, this logic goes, there is a hard limit on how many children a women can have she should be focused on quality in her sexual partners – she wants them to invest in parenting, or at the very least make a high-grade genetic contribution. If she has a child with the wrong partner, she uses up one of a very limited number of opportunities to reproduce. So she should be choosy.

A man on the other hand, shouldn’t be so concerned about quality. There’s no real limit on the number of children he can have, if he has them with different women, so he should grab every sexual opportunity he can, regardless of the partner. The costs are low, there are only benefits.

This evolutionary logic, relentlessly focused as it is on reproduction and survival, does provide a consistent explanation for the differences Clark and Hatfield observed, but it isn’t the only explanation.

The problem is that the participants in this experiment aren’t abstract representatives of all human men and women. They are particular men and women from a particular place and time, who exist in a particular social context – university students in American society at the end of the 20th century. And our society treats men and women very differently. So how about this alternate take: maybe men and women’s sex drives are pretty similar, but the experiment just measures behaviour which is as shaped by society as much as biology.

Taking out the social factor

This month, new research published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, gives a vital handle on the question of whether women really don’t want sex as much as men do.

Two German researchers, Andreas Baranowski and Heiko Hecht, replicated the original Clark and Hatfield study, but with some vital changes. First they showed that the original result still held, even among German university students in the 21st century – and they showed that it still held if you asked people in a nightclub rather than on campus. But the pair reasoned that one factor in how women respond to invitations to sex may be fear – fear of reputational damage in a culture which judges women’s sexual activity differently from men’s, and fear of physical harm from an encounter with a male stranger. They cite one study which found that 45% of US women have experienced sexual violence of some kind.

So, in order to find out if women in these experiments were held back by fear, they designed an elaborate cover scenario designed to make the participants believe they could accept offers of sex without fear of anyone finding out, or of physical danger. Participants were invited into a lab under the ruse that they would be helping a dating company evaluate their compatibility rating algorithm. They were presented with ten pictures of members of the opposite sex and led to believe that all ten had already agreed to meet up with them (either for a date, or for sex). With these, and a few other convincing details, the experimenters hoped that participants would reveal their true attitudes to dating, or hooking up for sex with, total strangers, unimpeded by fear of what might happen to them if they said yes.

The results were dramatic. Now there was no difference between the dating and the casual sex scenarios, large proportions of both men and women leap at the chance to meet up with a stranger with the potential for sex – 100% of the men and 97% of the women in the study chose to meet up for a date or sex with at least one partner. The women who thought they had the chance to meet up with men for sex, chose an average of slightly less than three men who they would like to have an encounter with. The men chose an average of slightly more than three women who they would like to have an encounter with.

Men are from Earth – and so are women

The study strongly suggests that the image of women as sexually choosy and conservative needs some dramatic qualification. In the right experimental circumstances, women’s drive for casual sex looks similar to men’s. Previous experiments had leapt to a conclusion about biology, when they’d actually done experiments on behaviour which is part-determined by society. It’s an important general lesson for anyone who wants to draw conclusions about gender differences, in whatever area of behaviour.

There was still a gender difference in this new experiment – men chose more partners out of ten to meet up with, but still we can’t say that the effect of our culture was washed out. All the people in the experiment were brought up to expect different attitudes to their sexual behaviour based on their gender and to expect different risks of saying yes to sexual encounters (or of saying yes and then changing their minds).

Even with something as biological as sex, when studying human nature it isn’t easy to separate out the effect of society on how we think, feel and act. This new study gives an important update to an old research story which too many have interpreted as saying something about unalterable differences between men and women. The real moral may be about the importance of completely alterable differences in the way society treats men and women.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Vice on mental health

Somewhat unexpectedly, Vice magazine has just launched a series of articles, videos and interviews on mental health, and it’s really very good.

The VICE Guide to Mental Health covers the science of mental illness, what it’s like being sectioned, recovering from suicide or being severely anxious, and the social issues in getting mental health care, to name just a few of the many articles.

It also covers sex and drugs (it is Vice magazine after all) but even those are pretty good.

The series has been done in collaboration with the mighty mental health charity Mind and is well worth your time.
 

Link to The VICE Guide to Mental Health.

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