Wanted: political diversity in social psychology

A fascinating article on why social psychology needs more political diversity is due to be published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Sadly the full article is locked behind a paywall but the abstract gives an excellent summary of the article and the wider problem itself.

Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science.

Duarte JL, Crawford JT, Stern C, Haidt J, Jussim L, Tetlock PE.
Behav Brain Sci. 2014 Jul 18:1-54. [Epub ahead of print]

Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity-particularly diversity of viewpoints-for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in academic psychology in general and social psychology in particular: political diversity. This article reviews the available evidence and finds support for four claims:

1) Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years;

2) This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike;

3) Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking; and

4) The underrepresentation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination.

We close with recommendations for increasing political diversity in social psychology.

As the article notes there is considerable evidence that social diversity is beneficial on many levels for numerous types of social groups.

This is widely believed in social science and community work except when it comes to political opinion where many believe that non-liberal views are incompatible with this type of work, when clearly they are not. This affects the field to the point where people are seemingly prepared to actively discriminate against non-liberals.

The defence of diversity matters most when you are defending the inclusion of people with whom you disagree or who make you uncomfortable. And we will all be better off as a result.
 

Link to PubMed entry for article.

Spike activity 12-06-2015

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

The New York Times has a fascinating piece about the three waves of ancient peoples who arrived in Europe to found the modern population.

I am shocked, shocked I tell you, that the UK Government are deliberately side-lining their own scientific advisors to implement an unworkable ban on psychoactive substances. Reported by BBC News.

Narratively has a gallery from a photographer covering an innovative treatment program for violent offenders to reintegrate into society.

Injectable electronics holds promise for basic neuroscience, treatment of neuro-degenerative diseases. Coverage from PhysOrg.

Motherboard have had an excellent week of special articles on neuroscience.

The British police are deploying face recognition technology to scan festival crowds for matches to their mugshot database, according to the hacks at The Register.

Head quarters covers the dodgy popularity of online quizes to test if you’re a psychopath.

A short history of medicalising stress. Good piece in The FT.

Nature reports on The Pentagon’s focus on brain implants, bionic limbs and combat exoskeletons. Sounds sinister but they’re just tooling up humans for when the robot war comes. To the bunkers fellow cyborgs!

A new big budget fantasy video game has a hero who experiences psychosis. Motherboard has a piece on what could be a groundbreaking moment for mental health, or could be a soulbreaking moment for mental health stigma.

Aeon has an interesting piece on the work of a ‘metaphor designer‘ to use in PR campaigns.

Context Is the New Black

The New Yorker has one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the Stanford prison experiment – the notorious and mythologised study that probably doesn’t tell us that we ‘all have the potential to be monsters’.

It’s a study that’s often taught as one of the cornerstones of psychology and like many foundational stories, it has come to serve a purpose beyond what we can confidently conclude from it.

Was the study about our individual fallibility, or about broken institutions? Were its findings about prisons, specifically, or about life in general? What did the Stanford Prison Experiment really show?

The appeal of the experiment has a lot to do with its apparently simple setup: prisoners, guards, a fake jail, and some ground rules. But, in reality, the Stanford County Prison was a heavily manipulated environment, and the guards and prisoners acted in ways that were largely predetermined by how their roles were presented. To understand the meaning of the experiment, you have to understand that it wasn’t a blank slate; from the start, its goal was to evoke the experience of working and living in a brutal jail.

It’s a great piece that I can probably do little to add to here, so you’re best off reading it in full.
 

Link to The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Hallucinating children

CC Licensed Photo by Flickr user Tali Le Bamba. Click for source.I’ve got an article in The Observer about childhood hallucinations which are much more common than we previously imagined.

You tend to get one of two reactions when you discuss children hallucination: that’s obvious – children live in a fantasy world, or that’s horrendous – there must be something very wrong with them.

The answer is that neither response is particularly accurate. Children’s fantasies are not the same as hallucinations but neither are they normally a sign of something ‘going wrong’ – although certain forms of hallucinations can suggest a more serious problem.

Hallucinations often reflect a bizarre, blurry version of our realities and because play is an everyday reality for children, the content can seem similar. Both can contain quirky characters, strange scenarios and inspire curious behaviour. One child described how he saw a wolf in the house, another that he had “Yahoos” living inside him that ate all his medicine. On the surface, these could just as easily be a child’s whimsy, but genuine hallucinations have a very different flavour. “In play and make-believe, children are imagining,” says Elena Garralda, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Imperial College London. “They do not have the actual perceptual experience of seeing and hearing.” Another key difference, notes Garralda, is that “hallucinations feel imposed and children cannot exercise a direct control over them”.

There’s more on these fascinating experiences in the full article linked below.
 

Link to ‘Childhood hallucinations are surprisingly common – but why?’

Spike activity 05-06-2015

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

Fusion has an oddly fascinating piece on the AI of dick pic detection which turns out to be a surprisingly hard problem (matron).

Uber poaches 40 people from Carnegie Mellon’s robotics researcher community wanting to boost their autonomous car technology according to the Market Watch.

Brain Metrics has an excellent primer on a key neuroscience technique: What does MEG measure?

There’s an excellent in-depth article in The New York Times on pregnancy and depression by writer Andrew Solomon.

MIT Tech Review covers AI’s first cheating scandal. Apparently, some of the puny humans it was trying to wipe out were already critically ill to start with.

Interesting piece in The Guardian. “My son has autism. That’s why I won’t be finishing Norman Doidge’s book.” My condolences for starting.

BBC Future has a fascinating piece on highly multilingual people.

There’s a good profile of behavioural economist Richard Thaler in Bloomberg.

Discover has a fascinating short piece on ‘phantom eye syndrome’ – like a phantom limb limb after eye removal: “symptoms included pain, visual sensations, or the impression of actually seeing with the missing eye”.

This looks excellent: trailer for an upcoming six-part documentary series on neuroscience called The Brain. Hosted by neuroscientist David Eagleman.

Essential Forbes piece on the almost approved ‘female Viagra’ flibanserin: 0.7 extra sexually satisfying events per month, no effect on sexual desire, “very significant side effects” and promoted by an astroturfed ‘equality’ campaign. Progress people!

The thin white line of future drug control

CC Licensed Image from Wikipedia. Click for source.The UK Government have announced they want to change the drugs law and ban “[any] substance which is capable of producing a psychoactive effect”. It’s a fairly clumsy attempt to tackle the wave of ‘legal highs’ but there’s a little psychopharmacological gem, hidden away, in the Home Secretary’s letter that accompanies the proposed changes.

There’s been plenty of news coverage of the proposed blanket ban, both for and against, and you can read the official documents on the Home Office Psychoactive Substances Bill webpage.

From the government’s point of view, it’s pretty much all they can do. The list of banned drugs has got so large that they’ve decided it is easier to say what isn’t prohibited. So apart from the specifically mentioned exceptions (the respectable dangerous drugs: booze, nicotine, meds) they’ve decided to ban

“[any] substance [that] produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”

It’s a vague and unhelpful definition that could include half the products in your cleaning cupboard. But it leaves a more interesting question which the Home Secretary is clearly aware of. That is – how do you know a substance is psychoactive at all?

In other words, imagine the police find a suspicious looking white powder but the drug isn’t in their database. New drugs are appearing at about one a week, so it’s a very likely scenario. Working out whether it is psychoactive or not is key for legal purposes.

This issue has clearly already troubled the Home Secretary. In her letter to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the Home Secretary says “I would welcome the Council’s views on how best we can establish a comprehensive scientific approach for determining psychoactivity for evidential purposes.”

But what science tells us is that the only way of confidently working out whether something is psychoactive or not, is to take it.

This is because you can’t confidently predict what a drug will do to the mind from its chemical structure.

We can say some general structures are more likely to be psychoactive than others, but it’s never guaranteed. For example lots of tryptamines are psychoactive but even here structurally very similar drugs may have very different effects.

Some tryptamines – like DMT and psilocybin are powerfully hallucinogenic – other very similar tryptamines – like the drugs used to treat migraines, are not.

As drugs are essentially keys to the ‘locks’ of the brain’s synaptic receptors – even a tiny change might suddenly mean it won’t fit in the keyhole and has no psychoactive effect.

Interestingly, this means both the manufacturers of new psychoactive compounds and the UK government will have the same problem. Because you can’t do a chemical test on a new drug and say for sure it’s psychoactive, and animal tests won’t give you a definite answer, someone has to take it to find out.

Grey market labs in China and Eastern Europe solve this problem by, well, getting someone to take the drugs. Christ knows what the Government are going to do.

Cheeky line of as-yet-untested phenethylamine derivative Home Secretary?

Another angle on the Human Brain Project

An important interview with the neuroscience laboratory manager from the Human Brain Project revealing some previously unknown details about the running of this important scientific endeavour.

via @jpeelle

Spike activity 29-05-2015

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

The Psychologist has a great piece by leading neurosurgeon Henry Marsh on mistakes, mystery and the mind.

When Does Consciousness Begin and End? Interesting piece from PBS.

The Lancet Psychiatry has a great piece on a unique suicide crisis resolution house in London.

Who Are You Now? Brilliant site from Headway East London on life stories of brain injury survivors.

The Dana Foundation discusses research on how ‘cognitive peaks‘ happen at different ages for different abilities.

Cavemen didn’t live in caves. Why we see early humans through modern humans’ eyes. Good article in Nautilus.

BBC Radio 4 has the first part of a two-part documentary on psychology and the origins of the Satanic ritual abuse panic.

Hacking the nervous system through the vagus nerve. Excellent piece in Mosaic Science.

An alternative history of the human mind

Nautilus has an excellent article on a theory of consciousness that is very likely wrong but so startlingly original it is widely admired: Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind.

Based on the fact that there is virtually no description of mental states in the Ancient Greek classic The Iliad, where the protagonists are largely spoken to by Gods, Jaynes speculates that consciousness as we know it didn’t exist at this point in time and people experienced their thoughts as instructions from external voices which they interpreted as gods.

His book is a 1976 is a tour de force of interdisciplinary scholarship and although the idea that humans became conscious only 3,000 years ago is extremely unlikely, the book has been hugely influential even among people who think Jaynes was wrong, largely because he is a massively creative thinker.

Consciousness, Jaynes tells readers, in a passage that can be seen as a challenge to future students of philosophy and cognitive science, “is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.” His illustration of his point is quite wonderful. “It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

The Nautilus article is a brilliant retrospective on both Jaynes as a person and the theory, talking to some leading cognitive scientists who are admirers.

A wonderful piece on a delightful chapter in the history of psychology.
 

Link to Nautilus article on Julian Jaynes.

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’.

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