Why all babies love peekaboo

Peekaboo is a game played over the world, crossing language and cultural barriers. Why is it so universal? Perhaps because it’s such a powerful learning tool.

One of us hides our eyes and then slowly reveals them. This causes peals of laughter from a baby, which causes us to laugh in turn. Then we do it again. And again.

Peekaboo never gets old. Not only does my own infant daughter seem happy to do it for hours, but when I was young I played it with my mum (“you chuckled a lot!” she confirms by text message) and so on back through the generations. We are all born with unique personalities, in unique situations and with unique genes. So why is it that babies across the world are constantly rediscovering peekaboo for themselves?

Babies don’t read books, and they don’t know that many people, so the surprising durability and cultural universality of peekaboo is perhaps a clue that it taps into something fundamental in their minds. No mere habit or fashion, the game can help show us the foundations on which adult human thought is built.

An early theory of why babies enjoy peekaboo is that they are surprised when things come back after being out of sight. This may not sound like a good basis for laughs to you or I, with our adult brains, but to appreciate the joke you have to realise that for a baby, nothing is given. They are born into a buzzing confusion, and gradually have to learn to make sense of what is happening around them. You know that when you hear my voice, I’m usually not far behind, or that when a ball rolls behind a sofa it still exists, but think for a moment how you came by this certainty.

The Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget called this principle ‘object permanence’ and suggested that babies spent the first two years of their lives working it out. And of course those two years are prime peekaboo time. Looked at this way, the game isn’t just a joke, but helps babies test and re-test a fundamental principle of existence: that things stick around even when you can’t see them.

Maybe evolution fixed it so that babies enjoy peekaboo for its own sake, since it proved useful in cognitive development, but I doubt it. Something deeper than mere education is going on.

Surprise element

Peekaboo uses the fundamental structure of all good jokes – surprise, balanced with expectation. Researchers Gerrod Parrott and Henry Gleitman showed this in tests involving a group of six-, seven- and eight-month-olds which sound like more fun than a psychology experiment should be. Most of the time the peekaboo game proceeded normally, however on occasion the adult hid and reappeared as a different adult, or hid and reappeared in a different location. Videos of the infants were rated by independent observers for how much the babies smiled and laughed.

On these “trick trials” the babies smiled and laughed less, even though the outcome was more surprising. What’s more, the difference between their enjoyment of normal peekaboo and trick-peekaboo increased with age (with the eight-month-olds enjoying the trick trials least). The researchers’ interpretation for this is that the game relies on being able to predict the outcome. As the babies get older their prediction gets stronger, so the discrepancy with what actually happens gets larger – they find it less and less funny.

The final secret to the enduring popularity of peekaboo is that it isn’t actually a single game. As the baby gets older their carer lets the game adapt to the babies’ new abilities, allowing both adult and infant to enjoy a similar game but done in different ways. The earliest version of peekaboo is simple looming, where the carer announces they are coming with their voice before bringing their face into close focus for the baby. As the baby gets older they can enjoy the adult hiding and reappearing, but after a year or so they can graduate to take control by hiding and reappearing themselves.

In this way peekaboo can keep giving, allowing a perfect balance of what a developing baby knows about the world, what they are able to control and what they are still surprised by. Thankfully we adults enjoy their laughter so much that the repetition does nothing to stop us enjoying endless rounds of the game ourselves.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here

A history of the mind in 25 parts

BBC Radio 4 has just kicked off a 25-part radio series called ‘In Search of Ourselves: A History of Psychology and the Mind’.

Because the BBC are not very good at the internet, there are no podcasts – streaming audio only, and each episode disappears after seven days. Good to see the BBC are still on the cutting edge of 20th Century media.

The series looks fantastic however and it aims to cover psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience and the diverse history of dealing with mental distress.

The first episode is already online so worth tuning in while you can.
 

Link to In Search of Ourselves: A History of Psychology and the Mind.

Detecting inner consciousness

CC Licensed photo by Flickr user hernán. Click for source.Mosaic has an excellent in-depth article on researchers who are trying to detect signs of consciousness in patients who have fallen into coma-like states.

The piece meshes the work of neuroscientists Adrian Owen, Nicholas Schiff and Steven Laureys who are independently looking at how to detect signs of consciousness in unresponsive brain-injured patients.

It’s an excellent piece and communicates the key difference between various states of poor response after brain injury that are crucial for making sense of the ‘consciousness in coma’ headlines.

One of the key concepts is the minimally conscious state which is where patients show signs of fleeting and impaired consciousness but which is nonetheless verifiably present.

However, MCS is still a very impaired state to be in and this is sometimes missed by news reports.

For example, lots of coverage of a recent Lancet study suggested that ‘one third of patients in persistent vegetative state (a state with no reliable signs of consciousness) may be conscious’ as if this meant they were fully conscious but trapped in their bodies, when actually they just reached criteria for minimally conscious state.

My only point of contention with the Mosaic article is that it’s a little too enthusiastic about sleeping pill zolpidem, which has been reported to lead to a ‘miraculous’ recovery in some case report but where results from early systematic studies still look bleak.

Nevertheless, an excellent piece that’s probably one of the best accounts of this important and innovative area of research you’re likely to read for a long-time.
 

Link to Mosaic article ‘The Mind Readers’.

Spike activity 18-04-2014

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

Wired has a fascinating interview with psychopath researcher Kent Kiehl. He of the mobile brain scanner.

Scanning brain energy could help predict who will wake from vegetative state. Interesting piece on preliminary research covered by The Conversation

Contrary to news stories, a recent study did not tell us that smoking weed damages your brain, reports The Daily Beast.

Gay genes? Yeah, but no, well kind of… but, so what? Excellent piece from Wiring the Brain. You guys all read Wiring the Brain right?

The Association for Psychological Science has an archive of interviews with legends of psychological science. Harlow’s wire monkey, the Bobo doll, Mischel’s uneaten marshmallow…

In Search of Ourselves: A History of Psychology and the Mind. An extensive 25-part radio series on the history of psychology kicks off on Monday 21st April on BBC Radio 4.

The United Nations release a report that has everything you ever wanted to know about your chance of being murdered. Pro-tip: don’t be male.

The evolutionary psychology of facial furniture. Scicurious on the behavioural science of beards.

Scientific American Mind reports on highlights from the recent Cognitive Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting.

Irrationality ninja Dan Ariely has a kickstarter to make a documentary on dishonesty. 20 days left, a few more backers and it could make it. Looks fascinating.

Bloomberg on the booming business in behavioral finance. Although why not apply it to bankers rather than consumers to stop them fucking the economy? You can put the economics Nobel in the post.

A fascinating piece on the social and biopolitical role of bleach in a Nicaraguan community from the ever excellent Somatosphere.

Indie reports on surprising structure of artists’ brains

Artists brains are ‘structurally different’ according to The Independent, who report on a small, thought-provoking but as yet quite preliminary study.

The image used to illustrate the article (the one on the right) is described as showing “more grey and white matter in artists’ brains connected to visual imagination and fine motor control”.

This could be a bit alarming, especially if you are an artist, because that’s actually a map of a mouse brain.

Whether artists have ‘different brains’ or not, in any meaningful sense, is perhaps slightly beside the point, but you can be rest assured that they’re not so different that they will give you a sudden desire to scamper around looking for cheese.

It’s your own time you’re wasting

CC Licensed photo by Flickr user alamosbasement. Click for source.British teachers have voted to receive training in neuroscience ‘to improve classroom practice’ according to a report in the Times Educational Supplement and the debate sounded like a full-on serial head-desker.

The idea of asking for neuroscience training at all sounds a little curious but the intro seemed like it could be quite reasonable:

Members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) at the union’s annual conference narrowly voted for a motion calling for training materials and policies on applying neuroscience to education and for further research on how technology can be used to develop better teaching.

Now, this could be just a request to be kept up-to-date with the latest educational neuroscience developments. Sounds fascinating but probably not that practically useful as neuroscience doesn’t really have much to offer your average classroom teacher.

Enter Julia Neal, a member of the council for the union’s leadership division and leading member of the head-desk working group:

“It is true that the emerging world of neuroscience presents opportunities as well as challenges for education, and it’s important that we bridge the gulf between educators, psychologists and neuroscientists.”

Neuroscience could also help teachers tailor their lessons for creative “right brain thinkers”, who tend to struggle with conventional lessons but often have more advanced entrepreneurial skills, Ms Neal said.

Entrepreneurial skills being a well known function of the ‘right brain’. It’s why Bill Gates always veers slightly to the left when he walks. So why this sudden interest in neuroscience in the classroom I wonder?

Earlier this year, the government-backed Education Endowment Foundation and the Wellcome Trust launched a £6 million scheme that will fund neuroscientific research into learning.

Kerching! But the best bit of the debate is where a neuropsychologist stands up and goes ‘well, I don’t think it’s as simple as you’re making out’:

However Joanne Fludder, a classroom teacher in Reading with a doctorate in neuropsychology, opposed the motion.

She told the conference that the field was “very complicated” and theories were “still in flux” as research was carried out.

Boo! Get her off!
 

Link to article in the Times Educational Supplement

The biases of pop psychology

I just found this great piece at Scientific American that makes a fascinating point about how pop psychology books that inform us about our biases tend not to inform us about our most important bias – the effect of making things into stories – despite the fact that they rely on it to get their message across

The piece starts by quoting economist Tyler Cowen:

“There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book… [they are] all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don’t these books tell us that? It’s because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you’re learning about some of your biases, but you’re making some of your other biases essentially worse. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias.”

The crux of the problem, as Cowen points out, is that it’s nearly impossible to understand irrationalities without taking advantage of them. And, paradoxically, we rely on stories to understand why they can be harmful.

‘Great story!’ you might say, instantly causing a cognitive bias loop from which you might never emerge.
 

Link to ‘The Paradox of Popular Psychology’ (via @JNNP_BMJ)

Spike activity 11-04-2014

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

Things I’ve learned since being sectioned. Good piece on the appropriately named Sectioned blog.

The New York Times covers the latest in rising fads in proposed psychiatric diagnoses: sluggish cognitive tempo.

Don’t Throw Out The Baby With The Dead Salmon. Neuroskeptic discusses critiques of fMRI.

Slate has a eulogy to a man with amnesia taught us how memories become personal through scientific studies where he was known as ‘KC’ – now known to be Kent Cochrane.

Suspect in the disturbingly weird ‘selling stolen human brains on eBay’ case faces new charges, reports The Courier Journal.

The Independent reports on the recent release of new 3D maps of genes expression and pathways in the… yes, yes, you can just check the pretty pictures.

Here’s How Neuroscientists in the 1800s Studied Blood Flow in the Brain. Clever, clever study covered by The Smithsonian Magazine.

Aeon Magazine has an excellent piece on soldiers, guilt and post-deployment trauma.

‘Brain cells linked to autism’ reports the Star Tribune who should fire their headline writer.

Gizmodo has an excellent new visual illusion.

Creativity and the Brain: What We Can Learn From Jazz Musicians? asks KQED. Practice, collaborate and stay off the smack?

Coma alarm dreams

Intensive Care Medicine has published a wonderfully written and vivid account from a teenager who spent time brain injured and hallucinating in an intensive care unit.

The writer describes how he was admitted to intensive care at the age of 15 after suffering a head injury and had intense and bizarre hallucinations which are, as we know now, surprisingly common in critical care patients.

My experience of the time under sedation can be split into two. There was what I could perceive of the real world around me, and then there was my dream world.

In the real world, the most constant feature was sound. I could hear the nurses talking, understanding everything they said. They always spoke their names. They were always kind, conscious I think that I might hear them. They helped me to relax. I could hear the noises of the ward, tones of voices and alarms. The alarms made me tense. I can remember Mum talking to me a lot and Dad reading me ‘The Hobbit’, although I still can’t remember the names of all the dwarves. Mum and Dad’s voices always came from the left.

My other senses were not wholly switched off either. Things were put in my mouth: tubes, sucky things, wet watery pads and a toothbrush. Someone moved my hair about. I felt furry and silky toys placed under my fingers. My brother and sisters had brought a knitted tortoise and a horse for me. My feet were moved about and stretched, which felt really good. I remember that the rolled-up bed sheets were uncomfortable.

Other sensations were less good. The constant, repetitive shining of a bright light in my remaining eye really annoyed me – I am sure I can remember every single time.

Then there was my dreaming. I lived in the dream world nearly all the time and it went on and on. The dreams were vivid, terrifying and very disturbing. There were some good ones but unfortunately for me a lot of really bad ones. I can still remember most of them even now, more than a year since.

At the sound of an alarm, a giant monster appeared with a meat cleaver and pursued me around the sports hall. I had to protect a girl and prevent an army from crossing a river. The whole river and hall were aflame. I was burning from the heat.

In another I had to stop an alarm-driven colossal centipede from crossing a bridge. I could see the shadow of monsters looming towards me behind a curtain. I knew the monsters were there and about to consume me, but I lay transfixed, unable to move, and I remember feeling myself sweating with excruciating fear. I was then on the bridge of a nuclear submarine with maniacs trying to blow up the world, there was a huge explosion. Then it ended.

I was aboard a flying craft. I was there to stop green-coated aliens from creating human missiles. The aliens were forcing people into missile tubes. They were going to drop the human bombs from the aircraft.

Then there was a shape-shifter leopard beast chasing me and my friends. We were working in a fast-food place on a ship. It cornered us, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken sign burst into red lightning.

But I knew when something really nasty was going to happen. I could always hear the same alarm going off. It was a signal for the monsters to appear, for the centipede to attack, for bombs to be dropped, I would be sacrificed…I was very afraid. Tension would build to some hideous climax. Looking back, I suspect the pressure in my brain was causing both the nightmares and the alarm to go off.

I have made a great recovery from my injuries due in large part to the excellent care that was taken of my brain in intensive care. I have been into see the team a few times but I never stay too long. Those alarms still make me feel nervous!

As I noted in a recent article, these sorts of hallucinations were thought to be a distressing but ultimately irrelevant part of recovery but more recent studies suggests that have longer-term psychological impact that can be problematic in its own right.
 

Link to locked article ‘Coma alarm dreams on paediatric intensive care’

Circumstances of the life and brain

Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh has written a philosophical, incisive and exasperated book about brain surgery called Do No Harm.

It’s a hugely entertaining read as Marsh takes us through the practical and emotional process of operating, or not operating, on patients with neurological disorders.

He does a lot of moaning – about hospital management, computerisation, administration – sometimes quite enjoyably it must be said, but in some ways he does reflect the stereotype of the bellowing “I’ve got lives to save!” surgeon that stalks hospital corridors.

Most strikingly though, Marsh is clearly aware of his faults and he is a tough critic of himself and his decisions, often to the point of guilt. But it is through the many battles won and lost where you can see the wisdom shine through.

It is a brilliant insight, more than anything, into the decision-making involved in neurosurgery and the emotional impact these professional choices have on patients and professionals alike.

It’s interesting to compare in tone to Katrina Firlik’s neurosurgical biography Another Day in the Frontal Lobe which is equally candid about the fog of surgery but relentlessly optimistic in conclusion.

In contrast, Marsh is a man trying his best in difficult circumstances. Some of those circumstances just happen to be several centimetres deep in the brain.

The book is also wonderfully written by the way. One not to miss.
 

Link to details of book Do No Harm.

This is how stigma works

Sussex Police issue a statement about ‘Concern for missing Chichester man’, ITN News report it as ‘Police warn public over missing mental health patient’.

Sussex police:

Police are appealing for information about missing 43-year old Jason Merriman, who left The Oaklands Centre for Acute Care in Chichester on unescorted leave at 12.45pm on Friday 11 April. He was due back the same afternoon but has so far failed to return.
There are concerns for Jason’s welfare as he has mental health problems, and police advise that he is not approached by members of the public.

ITN News:

A mental health patient who has been missing from a care unit in Chichester for more than a day should not be approached by the public, police have warned.

Amazing really – (via @Sectioned_)

Is there creative accounting in behavioural economics?

The Financial Times has an excellent article on the future of behavioural economics.

Despite the fact that it is an incisive piece on a form of applied psychology that won Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize and has revolutionised political thinking, the FT has entitled the article ‘Behavioural economics and public policy’, to ensure it doesn’t arouse any passions which could bias your understanding of the text.

Ignore the title though, and it’s a fascinating and astutely critical piece on how the promises of behavioural economics haven’t always delivered and where it needs to go next.

So popular is the field that behavioural economics is now often misapplied as a catch-all term to refer to almost anything that’s cool in popular social science, from the storycraft of Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point (2000), to the empirical investigations of Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics (2005).

Yet, as with any success story, the backlash has begun. Critics argue that the field is overhyped, trivial, unreliable, a smokescreen for bad policy, an intellectual dead-end – or possibly all of the above. Is behavioural economics doomed to reflect the limitations of its intellectual parents, psychology and economics? Or can it build on their strengths and offer a powerful set of tools for policy makers and academics alike?

It’s by economist Tim Harford who also does good things on the Twitter.
 

Link to FT article ‘Behavioural economics and public policy’.
Link to alternate copy on Tim Harford’s blog.

Does the unconscious know when you’re being lied to?

The headlines
BBC: Truth or lie – trust your instinct, says research

British Psychological Society: Our subconscious mind may detect liars

Daily Mail: Why you SHOULD go with your gut: Instinct is better at detecting lies than our conscious mind

The Story
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have shown that we have the ability to unconsciously detect lies, even when we’re not able to explicitly say who is lying and who is telling the truth.

What they actually did
The team, led by Leanne ten Brinke of the Haas School of Business, created a set of videos using a “mock high-stakes crime scenario”. This involved asking 12 volunteers to be filmed while being interrogated about whether they had taken US$100 dollars from the testing room. Half the volunteers had been asked to take the $100, and had been told they could keep it if they persuaded the experimenter that they hadn’t. In this way the researchers generated videos of both sincere denials and people who were trying hard to deceive.

They then showed these videos to experimental participants who had to judge if the people in the videos were lying or telling the truth. As well as this measure of conscious lie detection, the participants also completed a task designed to measure their automatic feelings towards the people in the videos.

In experiment one this was a so-called Implicit Association Test which works by comparing the ease with which the participants associated the faces of the people in the videos with the words TRUTH or LIE. Experiment two was a priming test, where the faces of the people in the videos changed the speed at which people then made judgements about words they were then given related to truth-telling and deception.

The results of the study showed that people were no better than chance in their explicit judgements of who was telling the truth and who was lying, but the measurements of their other behaviours showed significant differences. Specifically, for people who were actually lying, observers were slower to associate their faces with the word TRUTH or quicker to associate it with the word LIE. The second experiment showed that after seeing someone who was actually telling the truth people made faster judgements about words related to truth-telling and slower judgements about words related to deception (and vice versa after a video of someone who was actually lying).

How plausible is this?
The result that people aren’t good at detecting lies is very well established. Even professionals, such as police officers, perform poorly when formally tested on their ability to discriminate lying from truth telling.

It’s also very plausible that the way in which you measure someone’s judgement can reveal different things. For example, people are in general notoriously bad at reasoning about risk when they are asked to give estimates verbally, but measurements of behaviour show that we are able to make very accurate estimates of risk in the right circumstances.

It fits with other results in psychological research which show that over thinking certain judgements can reduce their accuracy

Tom’s take
The researchers are trying to have it both ways. The surprise of the result rests on the fact that people don’t score well when asked to make a simple truth vs lie judgement, but their behavioural measures suggest people would be able to make this judgement if asked differently. Claiming the unconscious mind knows what the conscious mind doesn’t is going too far – it could be that the simple truth vs lie judgement isn’t sensitive enough, or is subject to some bias (participants afraid of being wrong for example).

Alternatively, it could be that the researchers’ measures of the unconscious are only sensitive to one aspect of the unconscious – and it happens to be an aspect that can distinguish lies from an honest report. How much can we infer from the unconscious mind as a whole from the behavioural measures?

When reports of this study say “trust your instincts” they ignore the fact that the participants in this study did have the opportunity to trust their instincts – they made a judgement of whether individuals were lying or not, presumably following the combination of all the instincts they had, including those that produced the unconscious measures the researchers tested. Despite this, they couldn’t guess correctly if someone was lying or not.

If the unconscious is anything it will be made up of all the automatic processes that run under the surface of our conscious minds. For any particular judgement – in this case detecting truth telling – some process may be accurate at above chance levels, but that doesn’t mean the unconscious mind as a whole knows who is lying or not.

It doesn’t even mean there is such as thing as the unconscious mind, just that there are aspects to what we think that aren’t reported by people if you ask them directly. We can’t say that people “knew” who was lying, when the evidence shows that they didn’t or couldn’t use this information to make correct judgements.

Read more
The original paper: Some evidence for unconscious lie detection”

The data and stimuli for this experiment are freely available – a wonderful example of “open science.”

A short piece I wrote about how articulating your feelings can get in the way of realising them.

The Conversation

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

Spike activity 28-03-2014

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

Can charisma and leadership be taught? Matter looks at the history of ‘charm consultants’.

Mental health stigma: where’s my cheesecake? A piece on the Brain Flapping discusses how people react when you’re depressed.

Science News has an odd story about how 1 in 68 American 8-year-olds are diagnosed with autism and this shows how diagnosis is ‘working well’. No mention of diagnostic inflation.

The inimitable Ed Yong does a fantastic TED talk on mind-controlling parasites.

The New Yorker discusses how artificial intelligence is being applied to the board game Go.

You can’t dismiss brain imaging as just an academic gimmick. A sterling defence of fMRI in The Conversation.

The BBC has an excellent piece on the legacy of the treatment of ‘shell shock’ during the First World War on mental health.

What does it mean to say that your mind and brain are ‘at rest‘? Interesting piece in The Guardian.

Digital Trends discusses a tiny implanted brain chip for brain-computer interfaces.

Why Light Inspires Ritual. Interesting anthropological piece in Nautilus.

Bomb disposal for the brain

New Statesman has an excellent profile of the wise, funny and acerbic neurosurgeon Henry Marsh.

Marsh was the subject of the fantastic 2007 documentary The English Surgeon but he’s now one year away from retirement and has clearly decided that diplomatic responses are no longer a tactical necessity.

The piece also gives a vivid insight into the working life and daily challenges of a consultant neurosurgeon.

It’s also wonderfully written. This is pure joy:

When he finally went to medical school, at the Royal Free Hospital in London, he wasn’t sure about his choice. “I thought medicine was very boring,” he says bluntly. Henry is not a man to refrain from speaking his mind. “I didn’t like doctors. I didn’t like surgeons. It all seemed a bit dumb to me.” In Do No Harm he writes of his revulsion at what much surgery generally entails: “long bloody incisions and the handling of large and slippery body parts”.

But while working as a senior house officer, he observed a neurosurgeon use an operating microscope to clip off an aneurysm – a small, balloon-like blowout on the cerebral arteries that can cause catastrophic haemorrhages. It is intensely delicate work, using microscopic instruments to manipulate blood vessels just a few millimetres in diameter. It is also, as Henry says, like bomb disposal work, in that it can go very badly wrong – with the crucial difference that it is only the patient’s life at risk, not the surgeon’s. If this or any other kind of serious neurosurgery goes right, however, the doctor is a hero. “Neurosurgery,” he smiles, “appealed to my sense of glory and self-importance.”

Marsh has just written an autobiography called Do No Harm which I’ve just started reading. I’m only part way through but it’s already gripping and wonderfully indiscreet.
 

Link to New Statesman profile of Henry Marsh.

The genes are to blame game

The media love ‘your genes are to blame’ stories despite the fact that genetics is, in most cases, just one, often small, influence on a behaviour or trait.

Here’s a few lowlights:

Glass always half-empty? Your genes may be to blame
Lazy? Your Genes May Be to Blame
Have math anxiety? Your genes may be to blame
Couch potato? Your GENES could be to blame
Are You Forgetful? Your Genes Might Be To Blame
Are your genes to blame for not being rich?
Can’t do well in exams? Your genes are mostly to blame
Are Genetics to Blame for Poor Driving?
Genes to blame for boozy night

Spoiler: your genes are not to blame.

Firstly, it’s interesting that these stories are almost always framed around difficulties or negative characteristics. Rarely do you read stories along the lines of ‘Good looking? Compassionate? Healthy? Your genes may be to blame’.

In other words, they rely on people’s interest in discounting negative characteristics about themselves to attract readers / advertising targets at the expense of biasing the sorts of scientific results that get media attention.

So here would be a a more accurate if not slightly less catchy version of all these headlines: ‘Have this specific trait or behaviour? Your genes may typically contribute a small to moderate amount to the difference between people if you are similar to the population used in the study to estimate this effect – bearing in mind the caveats about the need to independently replicate the results to be confident in the reliability of the conclusions’

Yes, it doesn’t have quite the same impact as the ‘blame your genes’ headlines but you can still illustrate it with a stock photo of a blonde girl with an exaggerated expression of frustration on her face. Not all bad news, is it editors?

It’s worth saying that these sorts of stories are almost always about traits or behaviours where genetics contributes only a partial amount to the overall outcome but this is not a feature of genetics per se, it depends on what you’re looking at.

On one end of the spectrum are highly penetrant single gene disorders like Huntingdon’s disease where if you have the gene you’ll get the disorder. On the other end are much of human behaviours and traits where there are likely many genes that contribute a varying amount indirectly to the overall difference depending on the population being studied.

No-one has yet done a study on genetic contributions to differences in the likelihood of writing ‘your genes are to blame’ stories – probably due to a fear of opening a recursive media loop from which we may never emerge.

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